I have no idea when the tipping point occurred that meant Doctor Who would be cancelled in 1989 after season 26, but if it wasn’t before Battlefield was transmitted I suspect this was another nail in the show’s coffin. It could be argued that there are elements of a strong story in Ben Aaronovitch’s tale of magic and warriors but I can’t pretend this was anything other than TV episode first and any other media second. I don’t lay the failings on anyone’s door in particular but a lot of things went wrong before this hit the air.
I can’t find more than some minor redeeming features in the transmitted stories and do remember that at the time I was so distant from the show that I did watch these but with little enthusiasm (my story as a fan is covered here). I recently watched this for the first time in more than 23 years; here are my thoughts…
The first story from the final season of Sylvester McCoy’s tenure as the Doctor. The Doctor and Ace arrive on Earth in the late 1990s where they become involved in a battle between King Arthur and Morgaine. However, these are not the heroes of Britain’s past but warriors from another dimension – and they recognise the Doctor as the wizard Merlin. As usual it is down to the Doctor and Ace to save the planet, but this time they find some help in the guise of the Doctor’s old UNIT ally, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.
The Seventh Doctor and Ace arrived near Lake Vortigern (somewhere in England) and encounter a small UNIT convoy moving a nuclear missile. Led by Brigadier Bambera the encounter the Doctor and shortly afterwards a certain Lethbridge-Stewart is called out of retirement.
We switch to a hotel where Ace meets a girl named Shou Yuing, an archaeologist with an interest in explosives. The Doctor is intrigued by a scabbard on the wall and then the plot falls apart.
In short succession we have a knight appear who takes the Doctor for Merlin; we have Mordred, Morgaine (Jean Marsh) and all sorts of badly played supernumeraries in poorly fitting armour doing their best VIth for re-enactment of a battle. Several times.
Under the lake we have a spaceship inside which is Arthur’s body, Excalibur and we are led here by clues from the Doctor’s future self. We also have the line about a sufficiently advanced magic being indistinguishable from technology as an inverse Clarke’s Law (specifically his third law – see wiki).
We get lots of explosions, fighting, parallel worlds, magic and posturing. We even get the summoning of a World Eater (see here). The Brigadier also at one point looks to be going to his death in a final encounter.
All ends well and we finish in the Brigadier’s garden as the women-folk go shopping in Bessie. How twee!
Ben Aaronovitich can writer a decent story; even in the 1980s this was clearly true – see Remembrance of the Dalakes. What then happened between imagination, paper and production? Clearly I can only speculate (unless I ask Ben or Andrew Cartmel). Did this read better than it played? What was actually wrong with it?
The Arthurian Myth
What was the concept here? Was this a loop into a big Cartmel Masterplan or a forlorn hope of making the show more interesting? The Doctor as Merlin? Really? The concept of Morgaine being a misunderstood psychic or alien can play with me but the whole Merlin / Arthur / Mordred all set in our world seemed a plot for a one-off show not Doctor Who.
Why introduce a character that merely serves to amplify all of Ace’s worst traits or at least the ones that work only in small doses? Ace becomes all giggly and silly and we suffer lots of Nitro-9 and general one-dimensional rendition of a character that in other episodes has a unique position in the Doctor’s affections.
How padded was this and how poor were the fight scenes? You get better battles in almost any kids programme and this is risible.
I like Bambera and she works well on Big Finish audio (Animal in the Raine trilogy). Here she is a bit hit and miss, possibly looks a bit too young (or maybe I am much too old!) and is rounded out well. The Brig though is badly served – married, big country house and spends his time in garden centres?! Where did it all go wrong? Watching this I can’t work out how seriously the part / script was being taken though he does get a chance to be a hero near the end.
There are some might have beens that could have lifted this from the depths – I understand the idea was that this would be Nicholas Courtney’s last appearance and the Brig was to die gloriously. It would have been an ending for the character and I think might have helped focus the episode.
My last complaint it the advanced magic looks like technology; oh dear this is a nice phrase but dreadful when turned into a production concept. I can get advanced magic and technology working together with both needing a deeper understanding of reality(ies) than we have, but magic doesn’t produce a spaceship that looks to be the result of conventional science. Technology is our way of affecting the universe through science, why would magic end up converging? Advanced technology looks like magic because we can’t conceive how it might operate. Maybe I should delete all my science from my brain when watching Who?!
So, I disliked this when it was new and I dislike it again in 2013. I am not the same person I was and I am far more of a fan now than I have ever been. That all said I don’t plan to dig this out again at any point in the future. Apologies to anyone concerned with this but I disliked it immensely.