Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The King's Demons

Chapter The 48th, where we learn about Magna Carta (she didn't die in vain).

The Master has escaped from the most recent predicament he was left in by the Doctor, whoever  remembers what that was, I certainly can't. He's also managed along the way to snag a telepathic shapeshifting robot, Kamelion. Imagine the multitude nefarious schemes presenting themselves (he talks like this, trust me). So he does what any renegade Time Lord would do: hangs around in 13th century England disguised as a Frenchman, and gets his robot to impersonate King John so he can... make some money? Take over the country? Take over the world? No, that would be silly. He contents himself with bullying a minor nobleman in his castle, and waits for the Doctor to arrive, so he can unmask himself, and let the Doctor get on with defeating him.

The plan, such as it is, is to establish the bad old King John myth, by demanding extra monies from barons, kidnapping wives, and playing aggressive songs on the lute. This will mean that Magna Carta won't get created (erm...) and modern democracy as we know it will not exist (eh?). The Doctor does indeed defeat this, just by nicking the robot and leaving in the TARDIS - but the plan was such bollocks it would likely have imploded on its own anyway.

Watched on DVD, with a few days separating the episodes. This is becoming the norm, rather than devouring a multi-episode story in one go. Either we're getting busier, or it's proving to be the better way to view the show. I think it's the latter; like a fine wine - or, if such is your prejudice, a writhing beached flounder - Doctor Who needs to be allowed to breathe.

First-time round:
It was mid-March 1983, and I caught both episodes on their first BBC1 broadcast - the previous year, my cubs evening had coincided with one of Doctor Who's twice weekly slots, which was particularly hard on two-parters. I'd missed all the roller-coaster thrills (cricket! dancing!) of Black Orchid episode 1 in 1982, but didn't have that impediment with The King's Demons (feasting! a lute! more feasting!). I remember, once the season was over, bridging the gap until The Five Doctors later in the year by drawing my own comic strip adventures of the latest TARDIS team, and finding it hard to think of things for Kamelion to do; little did I know, the producers of Doctor Who were having a similar problem - he'd only be seen once more before being scrapped.

This was the story broadcast nearest to the twentieth anniversary celebration at Longleat House, Doctor Who's Woodstock. Only a couple of weeks after watching The King's Demons, I was with all my family (Dad of 47, Mum of 44, sister of 8) queueing in traffic to get into the venue, then queueing in the venue, then queueing to get out of the venue. Happy days! It still rankles that I missed opportunities to meet Patrick Troughton, to hear Tom Baker speak, or to see episodes of The War Games in a stuffy marquee, because my Mum and sister insisted we had to break off from the fan herd to spend hours schlepping round a stately home and looking at Victorian doll's houses. Bah!

Writer Terence Dudley's remit on Doctor Who at this time comprised two-part tourist trips into school text history. He'd done similar the previous year in Black Orchid: it's set in the 1920s, so there's flappers having a costume ball and drinking cocktails, followed by an Agatha Christie style murder mystery. What more do you want? This time, he gives us the medieval greatest hits: a jester, a feast with a practical roast chicken in scene 1, a joust, etc. etc. It's successfully depicted, and much better integrated than in Black Orchid, whose plot paused for five minutes so people could do the Charleston, but it's still not quite there. Someone else got the two-parter gig the following year, and came up with a new take on the English Civil War, but it might have been interesting to see if Dudley incrementally improved third time round.

So, if you want a high quality depiction of a castle, knights and so forth, you'll be fine if and only if you switch off the part of your brain that analyses plot. For The King's Demons has one of the most rubbish plots in Doctor Who history. The Cybermen have probably topped it in the stupid antagonist plan stakes (there was that one in the funfair, and that other one in the department store), but this is definitely the worst Master plan ever scripted, and the Master's had some doozies in his time. For this, Dudley should be commended for his ambition.

It's not just inconsistencies, but it has those: there's strong hints in the opening TARDIS scene that the Master has deliberately dragged the Doctor and crew to his location, but in the second episode it turns out not to be the case, and the Master's just making the best of a happy accident. Putting aside the lunacy of the script deliberately and unnecessarily creating coincidences, and making the villain's plan more haphazard rather than less, why is the Master in disguise if he's not expecting anyone? The Master's opportunistic ploy is to have his fake king welcome the TARDIS team as demons, bolstering the rumours put about by the monks that John is ungodly. But this means that the Doctor is instantly put in a position of power, by the deliberate action of his arch enemy, assisting him to stop the evil scheme. The script, and the Master, thereafter has to jump through hoops to discredit the Doctor and prove that he, the Master, is instead the demon to be trusted.  But before that the Master was already in place as the King's champion and able to give orders to all and sundry. If the fake King John had just thrown the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough straight into the dungeon as soon as they arrived, none of this would be necessary. The Master truly would get dizzy if he ever tried to walk in a straight line

The two companions have nothing much to do except follow the Doctor around - Turlough gives someone directions to the stables, Tegan moans about the cold. This allows the Doctor to be heroic and drive the action for a change; unfortunately, nothing he does makes much of a difference. He wins a swordfight but the vanquished party just escapes, he frees a knight only for him to be shot with an arrow seconds later. He ultimately saves the day only because he happens to walk past the right door, and finds the shapeshifting robot that's masquerading as the King: a massive helpful clue left unguarded in exactly the same way Kings aren't.

Even if the Doctor hadn't stopped it, would the plan have worked? The Master seems to want to make King John so unpopular that Magna Carta doesn't get signed. I don't know my history in detail, but didn't Magna Carta exist because the King was unpopular, not despite it. Even I, with my small amount of knowledge, know this is a difficult period that's been debated back and forth: was King John a villain, or was he a reformer who ruffled too many feathers with the establishment? Dudley may have been reflecting this to give depth to his narrative, but to go as far as to suggest that the King was in favour of Magna Carta seems to be pushing it. Had any historian ever argued that? It's a matter of record John asked the Pope for Magna Carta to be annulled after he'd signed it. Maybe there was some some time travel cleverness intended in the script: the King John in the Doctor Who universe was different to ours, and the impact of the Master's meddling changed history. But that's a stretch seeing as all the Master's plans were stopped before they got going, and seemed to have minimal impact anyway.

Would Magna Carta not existing really have impacted the creation of modern democracy? Its significance to those later developments was mostly symbolic, and democracy as we know it took root because it was an idea whose time had come. So, all the shenanigans don't amount to much. The script even acknowledges this, calling it 'small time villainy'.

They are both two-part stories where the Doctor wears plimsolls. Both also feature a character that once could regenerate but has used up all their goes (The Master, River Song).

Deeper Thoughts:
A Chaos Theory. It feels a bit like poking a puppy in the eye being so critical of The King's Demons; it's a quota quickie with jousting and swordplay, and aside from its ill-advised dabbling in historical complexity, it makes no claims to present big ideas. There's a line buried in there, though, that's intriguing. Towards the end, the Master explains his ultimate motivation is to "undermine the key civilisations of the universe", and goes on to state that "Chaos will reign, and I shall be its emperor". Now, as a raison d'etre for the Master, that's as good as or better than anything else that's been tried before or since.

Arch villain behaviours in genre fiction are always tricky to explain. It's easy to see why: no one's 100% a villain in real life, even the most divisive figure, the current POTUS say, is hero to some. Anyone could be the villain of one particular story, but it's tough to think of a solid and believable reason why someone would be the villain of every story. The usual criminal motivators of gain or vendetta don't really cut it in the larger-than-life world of comic book capers without some other factor. So, the options are reduced really to two, both of which are side-steps to avoid thinking of a rationale at all: the guy's mad, or he's born bad. Psycho or just evil.

The Master was mostly categorised as the latter in his early days. It was how he came to be created, not emerging organically from any single story, but created as a recurring bad guy - a 'Moriaty' to the Doctor's Holmes, as the production team styled it, even though Moriaty was not really like that. The Master coincidentally is more like Bad Prince John in the Robin Hood mythology - bad for the sake of it, wanting to thwart the hero, with no explanation offered, nor even felt necessary. Barry Letts, the producer who introduced the character, had earmarked his old mucker Roger Delgado for the role, and knew he could make him more three-dimensional than on the page. In the 21st century, the former path has been taken - the character's nuts, driven mad by the sound of drums in his/her head.

What if they'd taken things in the direction hinted at in The King's Demons? The character calmly deciding to spread chaos would have been a refreshing angle, and somewhat believable - this is a Time Lord, after all, who can see the full sweep of cosmic history. It makes sense for entropy to win in the log run, why not help it on its way? As it was, when the Master sees entropy in force, his first thought is to use it as a ham-fisted method of blackmailing the universe, and his attempt to be the Emperor of Chaos didn't get past doing an outrageous fake accent in a draughty castle. It was rapidly back to moustache twirling antics; just another of the many avenues not taken by Doctor Who over the years.

In Summary:
Cheap holiday in other people's history.

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