Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Daemons

Chapter The Sixteenth, where Sisyphus watches a diabolical story.

An excavation of a mysterious barrow near an English country village releases a powerful alien creature, a Daemon called Azal, who - from the many millennia of him and his kind experimenting with Earth and its people - has passed into race memory as the mythological devil. The Master uses the Daemon's scientific methods - what we think of as black magic - in an attempt to get Azal to bequeath him control of the Earth. Jo Grant flaps and whines a bit which makes the all-powerful creature explode, then everyone has a dance. Except the slightly more butch UNIT men, who have a pint instead.

Watched the DVD with the better half over a week, an episode a night; the kids didn't bite. The boys are currently only interested in Doctor Who if he's an inch and a half tall (they received Lego Dimensions with the Doctor Who Level Pack for Christmas and are still addicted to it).

First-time round:
This is the first story covered by the blog that I didn’t first experience by buying it or watching it on a broadcast; The Daemons was delivered unto me from a traded VHS. Through the 1980s and 1990s, nth generation copies of not yet commercially available stories were exchanged or lent out amongst fans. As a youth, I wasn’t a joiner of things – not for me the countrywide local fan groups that were affiliated with the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, where I might have gained access to a distribution network for this material (most of it taped from foreign stations who repeated Doctor Who repeatedly: Australia, New Zealand, US local PBS stations).

Then, one day in my first week at university in Durham, I was – with some of my peers – prowling unfamiliar college corridors of an evening looking for someone making toast they might share, and I heard the Doctor Who theme tune (Peter Howell arrangement). It must have emboldened me, as I would normally  have been too shy to do what I did, which was to barge into the room after the briefest of knocks, point and state “Logopolis episode 4”, which it was, and only after that to introduce myself.

This was how I started a still enduring friendship with my fellow enthusiast David. David had pretty much every episode that existed up to that point (with the exception of three episodes of The Mind of Evil which he’d sacrificed in as showy a way as possible, unravelling the tape all over the cathedral green as an initiation to join a college fraternity called the Bleach Boys). He lent me a number of tapes to take home for my first Christmas vacation, The Daemons amongst them.

If any BBC Worldwide lawyers are reading this, I would point out that no money changed hands, the episodes were in black and white, which was the only way to get them back then, and – only a few months later - I dutifully tuned in to the broadcast of the cleverly colour-recovered repeat on BBC2, and also purchased the BBC video (and eventually the DVD too). So the Corporation lost no revenue whatsoever!


The reputation of The Daemons is based on a lot of great moments joined together by lots of bits that are sketchy, rubbish or don’t make any sense; it’s like a necklace of fine pearls strung on frayed, grimy twine. The first episode is great: atmospheric and nicely structured, using the device of a fictional TV outside broadcast (by the then hypothetical BBC3, one of the rare correct predictions made by the show over the years). This makes things immediate, and brings them to a superb cliffhanger as the barrow is opened and all hell breaks loose. No one, mind, seems overly bothered about the live transmission of people dying; plus, the real BBC3 would never leave up a ‘Technical Fault’ caption card for that long before they cracked and stuck on an episode of Family Guy instead.

Of course, the reason it looks like a lot of moments strung together is that’s exactly what it is: it started out with producer Barry Letts wanting to extrapolate an audition scene he’d written earlier that year into a full five episode story, which he and his co-writer Robert Sloman did by chucking in every satanic image they could dream up. It clearly needs another few drafts to remove the sense that characters are just being moved about to get ready for the next set piece.  The Doctor suddenly gets a never-explained feeling that something’s wrong from hearing the name Devil’s End, and so he rushes off there. Jo Grant sleepwalks into the cavern secretly for no reason, except that it’s got to the point in the story when she’ll need rescuing.

Like a lot of imaginative fiction, and a lot of 20th century Doctor Who, there’s a strange attitude to village life which as a townie I’m not able to disprove: for example, I did not think white witch was actually a profession. Also, Azal goes to the trouble of creating a heat barrier around Devil’s End, but only the milkman and UNIT notice. All the locals never seem to leave the pub.

This is also the story where the Doctor is in a mood throughout; not a new observation, as I think it was picked up on by Gary Gillatt for his Doctor Who Magazine DVD review (Gary was a contemporary of mine and David’s at the same college in Durham, by the by). Pertwee is a sod in this story. He often is, I find, but in The Daemons he’s more so. The nadir of the whole era, and maybe Doctor Who altogether, is him tearing a strip off Jo for agreeing with what he’d said about the Brigadier moments before; then, as an encore, the non-conformist pacifist lectures her on respecting the military chain of command.  I bet a silver ceremonial dagger that Roger Delgado never asked the script editor to give him a weekly “moment of charm” as Pertwee reportedly did of Terrance Dicks. If you are naturally charming, you don’t need it to be scripted. What’s odd is that Pertwee was perfectly charming in person, and in character in many other programmes. Perhaps undue worries about this being his first serious lead after a lot of comedy parts made him overcompensate and play the role too straight.

In the pearls before twine column, meanwhile, is all the great stuff: “Chap with wings”, The Master having fun pretending to be a vicar, Miss Hawthorne, The Brig in his dress uniform, Yates and Benton in civvies (although I would have thought it was against protocol for them to be flying a military helicopter out of uniform), the final scene with its ‘end of term’ feel, and much, much more.

Atlantis! Azal mentions that the sinking of Atlantis was down to him, therefore taking ultimate responsibility for The Underwater Menace, the devil. Also, both stories deal with mythology, and conflict between science and superstition. The Daemons includes a section where they watch a slide show; The Underwater Menace DVD had two whole episodes that were slide shows. 

Deeper Thoughts:  
No such thing as science. The theme of this story is that there is no such thing as magic; what we know of as black magic is remnants of the Daemons’ advanced science to harness the energy of emotions.  It’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t stand up to any examination, because the Daemons don’t follow anything but the nuttiest version of a scientific method, and their experiments don’t appear to follow the physical laws of the world on which they are being performed. Which makes them indistinguishable from, you know, magic.

Unlike a responsible scientist, Azal only appears three times, disappearing off again each time. Why? When I was an unhappy A-level chemistry student, I did not go to classes very often, but I certainly managed it more than thrice. And when I turned up I didn’t freeze or burn anyone, or make any gargoyles come to life. He’s never going to get tenure or attract funding acting like that.

The wife and I both had more or less the same thing running through our mind when the Doctor says “What does any scientist do with an experiment that fails?”; we both thought: “Write it up and publish in a journal of record for peer review”. The correct answer according to the Doctor is “throw it away”. Now, it’s been a long time since chemistry but I seem to recall whether or not I got a titration right or wrong, I didn’t keep the liquid afterwards. All experiments get thrown away. Maybe Azal is conducting a social experiment. Maybe it’s like a Big Brother thing, where he traps a village in a heat bubble, scares the bejesus out of them, and sees if they’ll turn on each other. Now I see why BBC3 wanted to screen it.

This wouldn’t matter normally, as Doctor Who hardly ever does science fiction, it’s usually not even science fantasy, just a thinly veiled tale of good versus evil with a magic wizard as the titular character. So, it does jar when a script chooses to draw undue attention. It’s very like the moment in The Mind Robber where the Doctor makes the Karkus’s zap gun disappear because it’s scientifically implausible despite that he's always meeting other people who have them. Every. Single. Week.

Finally, spare a thought for Petronella’s Dad (we assume it is he), Sergeant Osgood. Despite much bullying from PMT Pertwee, he is completely right in his hypothesis. He tells the Doctor the Macguffin-o-tron Pert’s made him build will overload, and he’s proved 100% right. Does anyone thank him? Do they hell. 

In Summary:
Erm… I seem to be saying it’s like a pearl necklace.

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