Here's the situation: Spectrox is a drug that can increase twice the ordinary lifespan. Demand for the drug shoots up when Sharaz Jek, a robotics expert who is lusting for revenge against Morgus, the man who'd betrayed him, seized the spectrox mines with an army of androids. The military under Chellak and his subordinate Salateen have been fighting a losing battle against androids, gunrunners led by Stotz, and a carnivorous monster that looks like something out of a Godzilla movie. Public demand has put pressure on the Androzani president to possibly capitulate to Jek's demands and negotiate an armistice. Jek's terms? "I want the head of Morgus at my feet. I want the head of that perfidious treacherous degenerate congealed in its own evil blood."
Well-picked words by Jek, because Morgus is exactly that. A cold-hearted businessman on Androzani Major whose conglomerate controls the spectrox mines as well as other holdings offworld, and speaks in a cold, low, level, emotionless tone. His profitmaking goes as far as sabotaging his own mines when an increase in production leads to lower prices and even closing down plants, leaving many unemployed workers being shipped off to labour camps in the East. As the president tells him, "the irony is while you've been busy closing planets here in the West, you've been buiilding them in the East, so if the unemployed were sent to the Eastern labour camps, a great many of them will be working for you again, only this time, without payment." When Morgus responds with a deadpan "I hadn't thought of that" the president, clearly disgusted, replies bitterly, "Of course you haven't."
But there's also Stotz, played wonderfully by Maurice Roeves, the nasty and violent leader of machine gun-touting gunrunners supplying Jek with arms in exchange for spectrox. So who's Stotz's boss on Andro. Major?
The main objective of the Doctor is not to sort out the situation but to save both his life and Peri's. They are dying of spectrox toxaemia, which they got from accidentally touching raw spectrox, and the antivenin can be found in the oxygenless depths. Unfortunately, he gets caught up in this violent morass between Jek, the military, and Stotz, while his life and Peri's are slowly ebbing away.
The high casualty rate and violence in this story makes Resurrection Of The Daleks like a summer breeze, but with great dialogue, convincing characters, and great acting, this is one of the best Doctor Who stories. And this was Peter Davison's personal favourite of his oeuvre. Christopher Gable as the masked and insanely vengeance-minded Sharaz Jek opposite Nicola Bryant's Peri work as a Phantom and Christine minus the music and opera, especially Peri's shuddering revulsion at being touched by Jek. His infatuation with Peri turns to genuine concern when she's close to death, making him more than just one-dimensional and not exactly a clearcut villain. John Normington as Jek's nemesis Morgus, retains perfect vocal control playing a man whose voice rarely rises above a certain level even when he's mad.
Despite his mere three seasons as the Doctor, Peter Davison is at least noted for having one of the best farewell stories of the Doctors. But his nobility, his urgent and selfless devotion in trying to save Peri, even at the cost of his own life, makes his Doctor the vulnerable Sir Galahad type. Indeed, his own culpable admission that "curiosity always has been my downfall" shows his guilt at dragging Peri into this mess, yet serves as a testament to his moral courage to put things right.
It's the final story for Peter Davison, the 5th Doctor, and is notably gloomy and dark. Roger Limb's militaristic score, replete with a rattlesnake motif, and Graeme Harper's inspired direction -- full of cross-fades, matched dissolves, and Shakespearean soliloquies to the camera -- is light-years beyond the dull visual look for which so much "Who" is unfortunately remembered. The script is Robert Holmes at his darkest: a planet run by a mega-corporation is involved in a bitter war against a deformed mad scientist and his android army over supply of a life-preserving drug. Into this picture stumble the Doctor and Peri, who both contract fatal poisoning within minutes. The acting is superb, from John Normington's evil-CEO Morgus, who delivers chilling asides to the camera, to former dancer Christopher Gable as the mad Sharaz Jek, stalking the camera (and Peri) in skin-tight leather and a memorable black-and-white mask.
The features are a slight decline from those in the first set of DVD releases. The raw studio footage of Peter Davison's regeneration scene is tolerable only with Davison and Harper's voiceover commentary -- but the DVD doesn't inform that this track exists over the featurettes as well as over the story. Similarly, the extended scene (featuring just 20 seonds of new material) works best with this commentary. The photo gallery and TV trailer strike of tokenism.
Better is a featurette narrated by (the late) Gable, describing the creation of Sharaz Jek: possibly the best original featurette on a DW disc thus far. Also grand is a 1983 TV interview in which a female reporter tries to bully Davison into admitting that his casting as the Doctor was a mistake!
Harper and Davison's full-length commentary is an absolute riot -- celebrating the story, while poking vicious fun at its (few) plot-holes and visual goofs. Davison's description of the Part Two cliffhanger is roll-on-the-floor funny. Nicola Bryant says little, but her regret at Peri's performance in this story is a revelation (considering what awful roles Peri would be assigned when Colin Baker became the Doctor). Also fine are the pop-up production notes, which describe Holmes's original script in tantalizing detail. You might not choose to sit through 90 minutes of the music-only sound option, but I enjoyed watching key scenes (including the regeneration) in this fashion.
Overall, one of "Doctor Who"'s finest TV stories, with a couple of nifty DVD-only additions that make this 20 year-old story a 21st-century triumph.