Sunday, 11 February 2018


Chapter The 77th, an Arthurian adventure; well, isn't that wizard?!

A future version of the Doctor finds himself in another dimension and becomes Merlin to a King Arthur who is much closer to the legends written in our reality, but with added zap guns and grenades. The King and his sword Excalibur are sent by that Doctor to our universe in the 8th century in a spacecraft, which is hidden under a lake in England, with a secret concrete tunnel to allow his past self (as played by Sylvester McCoy) to enter 12 centuries later, plus booby traps to make it more challenging for his past self (as played by Sylvester McCoy) to enter 12 centuries later. He was clearly in two minds about his past self (as played by Sylvester McCoy), this once and future Doctor.

Anyway, the sword gives off a signal, which is picked up by the TARDIS, and the 7th Doctor and Ace arrive nearby in the Home Counties of the near-future (relative to Ace's timeline). The signal may also cause a UNIT nuclear missile convoy to break down nearby, or it may just be a coincidence. When the Doctor investigates, a new Brigadier, Winifred Bambera, radios in about this mysterious stranger, and the old Brigadier, Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, is called to the area to help out. So, two Doctors, two Brigadiers, and (probably) two King Arthurs - are we keeping up so far?

Somehow, wicked witch Morgaine travels through a gateway into our dimension; some of her knights (and one of Arthur's knights) also arrive, but they don't come through a gateway, they fly through space and land like rockets crashing into the Earth (possibly because they think it looks cool). Whether they have time travelled as well as crossed dimensions or whether they've just been waiting a long time is not clear (in fact, there's indications in dialogue and staging to point to both, so take your pick). Everyone has a big fight, Morgaine nearly sets off the nuke, but the Doctor talks her out of it, and everyone lives happily ever after. Ish. And I haven't even mentioned The Destroyer, or Doris, or Shou Yuing. It's got a lot of plot, this one, as you can probably tell.

Watched with the whole family over the course of a weekend from the DVD. There was some internal debate on my part about whether to view the original episodic version as broadcast, or the extended special edition feature-length version on the second disc. I went for the former. For the early episodes a couple of family members drifted in and out, but by the last two episodes, everyone - me, the Better Half, two boys, 11 and 8, and a girl, 5 - watched in enthralled silence. The eldest boy didn't like any hints of kissing or romance bits, wondered why Angela Bruce was saying 'Shame' "instead of the S-word" and was frankly baffled by her wanting to arrest people at the end of episode 1: what would they be charged with exactly? He has a point there.

First-time round:
I first saw this on its debut BBC1 broadcast in Autumn 1989, but can't remember much about it, if I'm honest. I can tell you that I would have been poised with the video recorder, finger hovering over the record button, ready to tape each episode as it went out. I know this, as that's how I prepared to watch all the final four seasons of original series Who, and would have done for many previous seasons had my family possessed a VCR earlier. This was during a brief period when I was not buying Doctor Who Magazine, but we were regularly getting the Radio Times (I remember avidly reading Michael Palin's Around the World in Eighty Days travel diaries in the RT during some weeks of season 26's broadcast). This meant that I hadn't read much in advance about the new season, except for the sheer blaze of mainstream un-publicity that the Beeb put out to accompany the launch (this comprised one short trailer and a half page interview with Sophie Aldred in the John Craven kids' section of the aforementioned listings magazine). Given that since 2005 I have had the internet (and in 1996, a magazine was published in advance of the TV movie detailing its entire plot from start to finish), this would be the last time I watched Who being fully unspoilered. And I don't even remember it. I don't even recall whether or not I knew the Brig was coming back. Oh well; so much for surprises.

It's a somewhat hackneyed view, but nonetheless one I share, that the 1989 season was the best season of Doctor Who for many a year, ironing out the issues of McCoy's previous seasons and presenting strong enjoyable story after strong enjoyable story. The obvious thing happened next - the show got cancelled. But the quality of the output had nothing to do with that decision, I'm convinced. At least it went out (temporarily, as it turned out) on a high. Except... it wasn't quite perfect, was it?  Battlefield was a bit pants. That's the fly in the ointment for any that love season 26 and regret that there was no season 27 the following year. What about the season opener with the ridiculous flying knights and Sophie Aldred overplaying "BOOM!" in unforgiving close-up? Well, this time round, I gave it a chance, watched with an open mind, and - reader - I loved it. Rather than being the clunker I thought it was, it was instead at least an 8 out of 10. Flawed, yes, but almost up to the quality of the other three stories shown that year.

Aside from the risible flying knights, and a couple of moments of 'large' acting which should have been reined in by the director, the only other major drawback, and possibly the key reason it isn't as well thought of as the other stories broadcast in 1989, is the incidental music. This is the only story shown this year with music composed by the much maligned Keff McCulloch. He is the least good of the three regular composers of this period to my mind, and usually the stories he scores are the weaker ones; is that a coincidence or something connected to his music? There's some good cues here, mostly when what's on screen is ominous and brooding, but everything else he tends to smother in tinny synth stabs and drum machine. Ignoring the music applied, though, Battlefield seems weaker when it's doing action or comedy compared to the ominous and brooding moments, so maybe Keff is just reacting to what he sees, and trying to lift the less good material.
McCoy has a few dodgy moments, but just as many brilliant ones: his reaction to the nuclear missile convoy's "graveyard stench" is particularly nice. The moment when Ace emerges from the lake, sword aloft, is very confident for a TV series which is supposed to be on its last legs. Angela Bruce is magnificent casting; she doesn't get to do a whole lot now I watch it back, but what she does is perfect; when she wields a sword and gets stuck in promising to do her job with some style, the new Brig has arrived. I'm sure she and the new UNIT would have been back in season 27 had it happened. The old Brig holds his own too; a couple of Nicholas Courtney's finest hurrahs are here; the big confrontation with the Destroyer, of course, but also the wonderful reaction on first hearing that the situation he's being drafted in to help out involves "the Doctor". Even Keff's twiddly synth enhances the magic of the moment. The Destroyer himself is a great creation, lifting the last couple of episodes - possibly he's a metaphor for nuclear destruction, or perhaps just a horned beast with a buff chest.

What comes over most of all when watching is how modern it is: underpinning the action - however cartoonish it gets - are the real emotions of plausible characters. The aside made at one point that whenever the Doctor turns up "All Hell breaks loose" is a refrain that the new series plays often, word for word sometimes. Also picked out are some regular McCoy era themes: a villain frustrated by the ravages of time, the Doctor as game player and arch manipulator (this time of himself), and a three-dimensional female villain brought down by her own grief. But why anyone would want to start this story (and the season, lest we forget) with a scene of two OAPs in a garden centre, baffles the mind. It's not representative or exciting, and it ruins the marvellous gag a few moments later when a UNIT soldier calls for the Brigadier and the person who turns up confounds all expectations. This is even staged as a long shot in a rear view mirror to add to the build up, and it would surely have been intended to come before the reveal of the older Brig in his retirement. I checked the special edition and they even retain it in the same place there too. Why not start off with Excalibur?

Both Battlefield and The Day of the Doctor introduce new UNIT personnel, build on the backstory of an incarnation of the Doctor of which we've not previously been aware, and contain the return of a series regular from another era. Both stories contain Jean Marsh interacting with UNIT (there's a picture of just such an event on the companion pin-board in Day of the Doctor), and Sylvester McCoy saying "Across the boundaries that divide one universe from another" - a clip of Battlefield is used as part of the sequence of all the Doctors working together in the 50th anniversary story.

Deeper Thoughts:
Old, New, Borrowed, Who. The producer of Battlefield, John Nathan-Turner, had been in charge for a long time by the time of its broadcast, and had publicly declared he was going to leave, before being persuaded to stay, at least twice by that point. Hanging on to Doctor Who was killing his career, but if he left it would kill the programme. No one in BBC management wanted to hand the show over to any other in-house producer, and not many would have wanted to pick it up anyway. Before casting Sylvester McCoy, Nathan-Turner's production had gone into nuclear meltdown with the script editor leaving, and the star being sacked. So, bringing in Sylv and appointing Andrew Cartmel, the script editor for the remaining three years of Classic Who's lifetime, must have been a relief as well as a breath of fresh air. Rather than sinking down to a combative level as he had done with the previous script editor, he let this younger man run with things. Cartmel got to reshape Doctor Who with a group of like-minded young writers without too much in the way of micro-management from his boss.

Interestingly, the initial attempts to deliver this new angle on the show - those stories that form the 24th season of Doctor Who, McCoy's first run - are popularly thought to have been a misfire. Things only came together (at least according to popular consensus) when Cartmel and his writers started to dig into the show's history - Cartmel's second year marked the 25th anniversary of the show's creation, which prompted some looking back - and they found that some of those archive stories were much more to their taste than the more recent shows before they took over. Battlefield launches the third and final year of Cartmel and McCoy, building on that anniversary season, and producing the best single run of stories in many a year. Again, as I mentioned above, this is all according to the popular view, and your mileage may vary, but - whatever we think of these stories - I think any but the most rabid anti-McCoy fan would agree that they could have been a lot worse. Presumably, it was Nathan-Turner's idea to bring back another archive element in the form of Nicholas Courtney's Brigadier character, and one can imagine the continuity-heavy bore-fest story this might have proved had it happened pre-Cartmel in 1985 or 86.

Why did it work so much better here? I can be a little slow sometimes, and it's only just occurred to me on this watch that writer Ben Aaronovitch's research before he completed the shooting script for Battlefield must have included watching 1971 Doctor Who story The Daemons. It existed (albeit not all in colour) in the archives in 1989, and had a good rep, making it an obvious touchpoint for a writer embarking on the first UNIT story in over a decade, and various elements of Battlefield mirror those in the earlier serial: the action centres on a village pub in which the regulars stay overnight, a helicopter goes up in flames, there's a cute ending scene where the regulars are suddenly seen in a more domestic context; Battlefield's foregrounded hints of the near-future setting (carphones, inflation, 5 pound pieces, the UK having a King) are the equivalent on the fictional channel BBC3, and The Destroyer bears quite a resemblance with Azal, the big bad of The Daemons.

Crucially, though, all this is done subtly, the plot does not rely on these details being known or even noticed, and an effort is made to do something new: the multi-country, multi ethnicity, multi-gender UNIT on show here, which has learnt from its previous skirmishes, is forward looking, and could have returned in this new form regularly had the show continued. Late in the scripting period, Battlefield still climaxed with the death of Lethbridge-Stewart. But a realisation dawned on Aaronovitch, which he's mentioned in quite a few interviews over the years, that it would be the wrong thing to do: Doctor Who can be remade afresh without the need to destroy or even ignore its history.

In Summary:
Despite its reputation, Battlefield is not at all bad. Everything else propaganda.

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