Doctor Who: Battlefield Review
In all of Doctor Who’s long history there are few subjects which divide opinion more sharply than the Seventh Doctor’s era. There are those who believe it marked a thrilling renaissance, a triumphant return to form following years in the creative doldrums which, had it not been cruelly cut down before having a chance to fulfil its promise, would have heralded a new golden age for the programme but which instead stands as a glorious last stand for the good Doctor. Conversely, there are others who regard it as little more than the pitiful death throes of a series which had been going downhill for years and which, in its final hours, hit new lows with a direction totally at odds with the show’s core principles and starred a leading man who couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag. It’s a difference of opinion which seems to bring out the worst in fandom, with discussions regularly becoming quite absurdly vitriolic, as though to defend McCoy is akin to endorsing genocide or to denigrate him equal to suggesting that Gandhi wasn’t that great a bloke after all. So-called McCoy-bashing and counter-bashing is a staple of Who forums across the net, and is a somewhat fruitless exercise, given that neither side will ever agree even though, looked at objectively, both have a valid point of view. No matter how much you might or might not like them, one can’t argue with the quality of scripts such as Remembrance of the Daleks, Ghost Light or The Curse of Fenric, some of the densest, most intelligent stories ever to bear the Who moniker, but equally there isn’t one of the twelve stories from his time where one can’t point out a shoddy effect, a risible piece of dialogue or, yes, an embarrassing gurn or two from its leading man. And so we come to Battlefield, an aptly named tale if ever there was one for if any story represents the front line of the McCoy wars this is the one. Breaking down roughly into one third bilge, one third mediocrity and one third really rather good, it manages to neatly sum up the era as a whole in its four parts, showing why the actor's three years are beloved and abhored in equal measure. Just as on screen the knights of the round table do battle with UNIT's finest so too do the metaphorical armies of Good McCoy and Bad McCoy clash in a tale which, like the majority of his time, is frustratingly close to being brilliant but all-too-often ends up looking rather stupid.
Somewhat surprisingly for a show which from its beginning had raided English myth and legend for inspiration, this was the first time the worlds of the TARDIS and Camelot had collided. Unfortunately, writer Ben Aaronovitch takes previous little advantage of his highly appealing premise, bizarrely relegating most of the main protagonists of Arthurian lore to bit parts and mere shadows. Arthur himself appears only as a pile of ashes, Lancelot is nowhere to be seen while Merlin, in the guise of the Doctor, doesn’t remember anything about his days at the Round Table, given that it hasn’t happened to him yet and possibly never will. Instead, we focus on the efforts of Arthur’s old adversary Morgaine le Fey, here known simply as Morgaine and played by ex-Mrs Jon Pertwee Jean Marsh, who travels with her rather ineffectual warrior son Mordred (Christopher Bowen) from a parallel universe version of Camelot to engage Arthur in battle. Regrettably for her, she’s in for some disappointment, as Arthur is dead, his body lying at the bottom of Lake Vortigern in a submerged spaceship courtesy of the future Merlin incarnation of the Doctor who evidently temporarily abandoned the TARDIS to take up residence in court to advise the knights in the noble art of chivalry. To help stop Morgaine unleashing chaos and bringing the world to a premature end, our current Doctor teams up with his old friend the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), who has been called out of retirement to help UNIT when they find they can’t possibly cope with half a dozen evil knights roaming around the countryside.
And that’s pretty much all they do, for Morgaine’s ultimate intentions seem to be constantly changing, making her a rather aimless baddy in what is a pretty aimless script. The previous year Aaronovitch had single-handedly brought Doctor Who back from the dead with the brilliant Remembrance of the Daleks, a clever, multi-layered script which in one fell swoop banished all the bad memories of Colin Baker’s era and set a new, more emotionally mature direction for the series which it has been arguably following ever since. Unfortunately, everything that made that script so good is missing almost entirely in this sophomore effort. Whereas Remembrance had depth, three-dimensional characters and an epic feel, Battlefield is almost totally superficial, seeming to rely totally on the attraction of the Arthurian legend to excuse some extremely lazy writing and a rather uninvolving plot. At times it feels like a poor first draft, being as it is extremely badly structured (the Brigadier spends most of the first two episodes flying around in the sky) and with an excess of paper-thin characters, at least one of whom, Shou Yuing, serves no purpose whatsoever other than to give Ace someone to talk to. Morgaine spends more of her time talking about all the evil she is going to do than actually getting on and doing it, giving the Doctor ample time to figure out what’s going on and what to do. Despite its subject matter, and a valiant attempt on the part of Marsh to infuse her character with sufficient grandeur, the story feels small, ordinary, with the revelations regarding the Doctor’s future, which in Remembrance had proved tantalising and mysterious, here too vague and contrived to provoke a similar reaction. It doesn’t help that the scenes of the knights doing battle are clumsy and resemble not so much a grand army as a rather feeble weekend’s Cosplaying in the local woods, with director Michael Kerrigan, helming his only Who having an unfortunate habit of making many dramatic scenes laughable rather than thrilling.
Which is frustrating because there are many glimmers of something that could have been far, far better. The three characters who get the most to do, the Doctor, the Brigadier and Morgaine, all have moments of individual magic (no pun intended) which briefly elevate the story far above the mundanity of what surrounds them. This is most apparent in its treatment of the Brig, who despite his late arrival into the thick of things, gets quite his best story for some fifteen years. His final confrontation with the Destroyer, Morgaine’s pet monster, would have proved a suitably heroic departure had Aaronovitch stuck to his original intention of killing the UNIT man off – did the character even once in the Pertwee years get a line as heroic as “Get off my planet” or as human as “I just do the best I can”? His first meeting with Morgaine, in which the witch recognises him as a noble warrior, is enough to make one cheer (only slightly hampered by the appearance that Courtney is trying very hard not to burst out laughing and his rather big stomach) while he also gets an amusingly spiky, if underplayed, relationship with Ace, complete with arch references to the sexism of the major UNIT years with his exasperated exclamation “Women!” and the retort of another female character who asks if he expects her to make the tea. There are other moments too, but fears prompted by the opening scene in which the Brig appears to have been all but castrated when he visits a garden centre are more than allayed by what follows. I’m glad he wasn’t killed off, but if he had been, it wouldn't have been a bad way to go.
It also helps that Marsh plays Morgaine absolutely straight. Keeping her cool in the face of some really very daft moments, her performance is committed and totally genuine, all of which makes one wish she had been given far better material with which to engage. The same, sadly, cannot be said of McCoy. I love Sylv, he was “my Doctor” and I will defend him against the naysayers to my dying breath, but bloody hell there are times during these four episodes when he’s truly, magnificently awful. Bashers need no more ammunition than the infamous “Stoopppppppppp!” scene, in which the Doctor interposes between a battling Mordred and Lancelot-substitute Ancelyn, to make their case; it’s quite possible McCoy’s desperate attempts to do anger and authority here is the single most cringeworthy moment in Eighties Who which, in a decade which featured both the Bandrils and Matthew Waterhouse, is saying something. There are almost equally bad moments elsewhere, such as another doomed attempt to do anger in the hotel in episode two, but - and here’s why this story epitomises the era as a whole - there are others where he is very good. The opening TARDIS scene sees him not trying so hard and is all the better for it, as is the new scene in the reedited movie version in which he debates the nature of magic with Ace, that are fine, while the cheeky moment near the end in which, once again, he walks between the two battling knights, this time cheerily raising his hat, encapsulates exactly what the Seventh Doctor should be like all the time, at once comic and in control. Sadly, this are moment rather than full scenes, and while elsewhere in this last season McCoy was superb – all of Ghost Light and nearly all of Fenric – here he is very much having an off-day.
Indeed, it would appear that most involved were having a bit of an off-day. McCoy, Aaronovitch, composer Keff McCulloch whose brash, overblown scores are the stuff of legend, all help contribute to make Battlefield look very silly indeed. Ultimately the story doesn’t remind one so much of Camelot as of a pale, rather inept attempt to do Robin of Sherwood, with Marcus Gilbert’s Ancelyn even bearing a striking resemblance to Jason Connery. And yet, here’s the thing. I remember vividly watching this show when I was but a wee lad. I remember thrilling to the knights appearing on the scene, finding Marsh genuinely scary, spending the entire week after episode two wondering how Ace was going to escape from the water tank cliffhanger, and, at the end, thinking that the Destroyer was quite possibly the best monster I had ever seen (indeed, even today he stands up, and bears a striking resemblance to the Judge from Buffy's Season Two). As such I find it impossible to condemn completely and while looked at today one can’t help but see that much of it doesn’t work, there are still those flashes, the odd line or decent special effect, that prevents it from being cast into the same pit as a Twin Dilemma or Timelash. While it fails often in its execution, there is an ambition about it, a desire to be good and a genuine earnestness in the whole thing which, while often making the whole thing look absurd, every so often unearths a small diamond amongst all the dirt. Morgaine's initial appearance, the Brig's desire to get back into the saddle, the curing of the blind woman, all help to lessen the blow of each rubbish bit. Two thirds mediocre or worse, one third magical, it encapsulates perfectly the frustrating, mad, often terrible but occasionally brilliant, last three years of Doctor's Who original run.
This disc sees a new innovation for the Classic Who series; on first playing either of the two DVDs you are invited to select, should you wish, the option to access the menus with Audio Navigation, an excellent feature which instantly makes the DVD far more accessible to those with poor or no sight. Other than that, it’s business as usual for the release, with the Main Menu made up of the options to Play All, select an episode, audio options and subtitles and Special Features. My retail copy didn’t have the usual leaflet within, a problem which has been reported by several other purchasers all of whom got their copies from Zavvi (no wonder they went bust.) The story itself, and most of the Extras, are on Disc One; Disc Two holds a new, edited together TV movie version by the Restoration Team’s Mark Ayres in the same style as that on The Curse of Fenric, of which more in a moment, and the two trailers. The story itself and all the extras with the exception of the commentary are subtitled, and in addition to those listed below there is also an Isolated Music Score option (although why you’d want it I can’t imagine) and PDFs of the original Radio Times billing.
It’s an unfortunate fact that the stories of Season Twenty-Six have suffered from Video far below the normal high standard for the Classic Whos. Fortunately Battlefield is better than either the murky Ghost Light or the low quality images of Survival, but it’s not going to win any awards. There is a low level of detail to the image most of the time and the occasional bout of blockiness in, for example, some of the greenery. That said, it's far from unpleasant to watch, but there are other Classic Who titles which look better. The Audio, on the other hand, is very good. The four-part version has a cleaned-up 2.0 track which is very clear (unfortunately so, some would say, given how strident McCulloch’s music is) but the real star of the piece is the new 5.1 mix for the Special Edition version. This is suitably atmospheric, making great use of the stormy weather and battle scenes to give an immersive experience which, together with the music being very much toned down, make this by far the more enjoyable experience.
Indeed, it’s the toning down of the music which is the first thing one notices in the Special Edition. While it would be impossible to rehabilitate McCulloch’s score entirely, Ayres makes far more judicious use of the track, using it far more sparingly, so much so that the tone of some scenes which were absurd in the original version has now completely changed, for the better. Going back to the original camera scripts, Ayres has rejigged the order of the material, giving a more coherent approach to, to name two examples, the opening few minutes and getting rid of that rubbish “Boom!” moment, while restoring some scenes cut for time in the aired version. These include a rather lovely exchange of dialogue, alluded to in the main review, between the Doctor and Ace and some extra dialogue with the Brig in the helicopter (which also includes a new, library shot, of London to emphasise that he isn’t just flying around aimlessly, the impression one gets from the original version). There are also some new SFX shots, some of which admittedly are more successful than others; there’s a new, somewhat curious sonic boom which almost but ultimately doesn’t work, but there are also better explosions peppered throughout and an enhanced storm. Unfortunately, I doubt very much that it will persuade anyone who previously thought the story rubbish to change their opinion – I haven’t seen it used myself, but I’m sure the expression “polishing a turd” will have sprung to mind to many bashers – but for those who don’t mind it, this is undoubtedly a sounder, more convincing version, definitive even, and I can’t see myself, certainly, ever going back to the aired version again.
The Commentary is another of the fairly regular ones on Who discs in which one or more of those involved spend the time ripping apart what they are watching – and for once, Janet Fielding is nowhere in sight! This time the principal, self-confessed moaners are Cartmel and Aaronovitch, who complain about much of the production of the story for virtually the entire four episodes. At times one senses that their carping is getting on the nerves of their co-commentators, the always positive Sophie Aldred, Nicholas Courtney and Angela Bruce who played UNIT's new Brigadier and who at one point rather sadly says, “This was one of the most enjoyable jobs I ever had.” Lacking the humour of the aforementioned Fielding tracks, it does get a bit wearisome, but given that many commentaries these days are sickening love-ins, the honesty of this and other tracks is only to be applauded. If you find it too exasperating, you can always turn on the informative-as-ever Production Subtitles while you listen, which are filled with all the trivia you could want about the story.
Storm Over Avalon (22:32) is a collection of reminiscences from all of the principles, with the exception of Christopher Bowen, which reveal that as a shoot nothing very interesting or amusing happened, watertanks aside, and therefore makes for a rather dull, if perfectly competent, Making Of. Past and Future King (12:03) is more interesting, focusing as it does on the writing of the story, with a very cheerful Aaronovitch admitting that it was “his first failure” while not seeming that worried about it.
When fans have nothing better to do, they like to speculate what extras future DVDs will have and one long mooted has been the BBC Safety Training Film which was made as a result of the on-set water tank accident which occurred during filming. In the end that wasn't included, but instead we got what is a far more interesting account, Watertank (6:38) in which Aldred, McCoy and others talk about what happened over the actual footage. Having heard the story many times down the years but not until now actually seeing it, this is fascinating, and while the crisis point is over in a flash, it makes for a well-put together look at one of Who’s most famous incidents. Less exciting is the Studio Recording, (18:58) raw behind-the-scenes footage consisting mainly of Sylv, Sophie and Nick filming in the underwater spaceship which, aside from seeing the two leads’ genuine rapport, is hardly absorbing. The Photo Gallery (7:02) is dull, too, consisting of the usual collection of stills and publicity shots, without anything very much of note to remark upon. Trails and Continuities (5:11) are always fun, however, with this particular collection including some awful puns (“the knights fly by”), a rather flowery introduction to episode one, an advert for what looks like a particularly ghastly teen magazine, and the intros to the serial’s repeat several years later. The Season 26 Trailer (1:34) comes from the same time and was screened at the press launch for the season but doesn’t do it particular justice; needless to say, it’s nothing like the Coming Soon (1:13) trailer for January’s release of The E-Space Trilogy which once again manages to make a decades-old bit of Who look as thrilling as anything being produced today. Finally, and a little apart from the others, From Kingdom to Queen (8:09) sees Marsh talking about her three roles in Who, accompanied by appropriate clips. She seems to have really enjoyed her three appearances and has lots of amusing anecdotes about her on-set mischievousness which are good fun and make for a charming interview.
Season Twenty-Six, the last of Doctor Who's original run, was by some distance the finest of the Eighties, but Battlefield was undoubtedly the one weak spot. However, it does have - just - enough echoes of what made the rest of the run so strong to stop it being a dead loss, but you do need to be extremely indulgent to its failings to be able to enjoy it. I am, and do, so this DVD, complete with its new improved version and collection of amusing if occasionally caustic extras, a welcome addition to my shelf, but this was never going to convert any of the naysayers.