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The Fog of War
on 14 May 2014
`Battlefield' is a good story but it should have been a great one. It has clever ideas, some fine characters and performances, beautiful location photography and a fabulous `monster'. So why only three stars?
Somewhere in England, warring techno-magical Arthurian knights from another dimension have arrived to fight their final battle. Last time they tried (in 800 A.D.) they were stopped by guess who, who they call Merlin, who hid the good king (that's King Arthur) in everlasting sleep under a lake. The Doctor doesn't remember this because it hasn't happened yet but it will in his future, our past. Any `Doctor Who' fan should take wild `timey-wimey' things like this in their stride, it's a good plot idea.
Watch the extended, re-edited Special Edition on disc 2 for extra scenes, much better special effects and 5:1 sound - and they've cut one of the silliest bits too, a very good special edition which improves this often enjoyable but uncertain story.
`Battlefield' is basically about the battle between good and bad within human nature; only one character (not a humanoid) is actually `evil'. But it looks like a battle between the good and bad of 1980s `Doctor Who'. Were they making epic science fiction or children's comedy, or were they not sure? And there just happens to be a broken-down UNIT nuclear weapons convoy stuck by the lake, because obviously in the 80s they drove such things around the countryside, across archaeological sites and through boggy nature reserves all the time. Obviously.
Nicholas Courtney is back as the Brigadier, brought out of gardening retirement to help his old friend save the world again. It was a brilliant idea to have him return, a `splendid chap' as usual and heroic as ever. But he is largely wasted for the first episode, away from the heart of the action and only meets the Doctor partway through episode 3. And he doesn't get the ending he deserved, instead it's a light comedy anti-climax.
Jean Marsh is superb as the warrior sorceress Queen Morgaine, ruthless, deadly but honourable within her own rules of war. A perfectly written and acted character, faultless. But her son Mordred is far more `Blackadder II' than `Henry V' and he's supposed to be a serious character. Did I laugh? Yes, but not as loudly as he does. No wonder Morgaine was ready to let the Doctor cut his head off ...
Opposing Morgaine is Brigadier Bambera - a female, black UNIT commander, a good idea given more impact in 1989 by the fact that she's a British officer (not USAF as originally planned) and very good casting of Angela Bruce. But the character is mostly wasted, with some daft stunts (heroically taking on a whole troop of the enemy - but from a tiny little 2CV not a tank or even a jeep!), truly silly dialogue ("You're under arrest - you and your freaky friends!" (!!) ) and spends most of her time in a `Taming of the Shrew' romantic sub-plot with good knight Ancelyn; even when under fire they're sparring and chatting each other up. Exactly the sort of `distraction on the front line' idea that opponents of women soldiers like to imagine, undermining the character for the sake of `comedy'.
A fabulous demonic monster, `The Destroyer' is conjured up by Morgaine as the ultimate weapon. The costume looks fantastic, it's a fine performance from Marek Anton and he will obviously feature as the climax of the story. Except he doesn't. No, they still have to wake King Arthur so obviously he will fight Morgaine as the climax of the story. Except he doesn't, because Arthur is dead and dust, it was all a myth. Why? To make some point about `national myth'? Why base an interesting story around an alien `once and future King' and then find him boringly dead?
Instead we get what felt like a tacked-on final section where Morgaine tries to explode the broken-down nuclear missile, which seems to be there mostly so the Doctor can make a speech about the horrors of nuclear war. (Actually in the 1980s we were all too aware of that, but the Soviet Union took a lot of convincing.) Happily, Morgaine is much easier to convince, and surrenders. So they lock her up. They simply `lock up' a dimension-hopping sorceress who can call planet-eating demons like you'd phone a friend. That will work won't it? A poor ending for this excellent character - she should have magically escaped to return in a future season. (OK there were no future seasons but, with a few changes, there should have been.)
The location filming is excellent, glorious weather and choice of views creating an idyllic, almost Arthurian vision of rural England which is then undermined by the 80s musical style, which I felt was out of place in this story - it needed the classical orchestral style of 70s `Doctor Who' to evoke the correct `legendary' atmosphere.
Parts of `Battlefield' are 5-star `Doctor Who' at its very best; parts of it are no-star silliness, so I gave it 3*. On one of the DVD special features, writer Ben Aarononvitch says "`Battlefield' is my first failure". It's better than that, a good story with its hearts in the right place; probably his same basic story going through the `Doctor Who' production process a decade earlier would have come out as one of the all-time classics.
`Battlefield' is worth watching and proves that even this late in the day `Doctor Who' still had its vital spark, but if you are new to the Sylvester McCoy years I'd start with Aarononvitch's earlier `Remembrance of the Daleks' - now that is a classic.
Thanks for reading.
DVD Special Features:
On Disc 1:
The usual interesting commentary and production subtitles, including the embarrassing fact that this was the least-watched `Doctor Who' story - ever! But it's definitely not the worst, by a long way.
`Storm Over Avallion' - the `making of' documentary, very good set of contributors. Nice to see Nicholas Courtney ask the question that had occurred to me - how did a retired Brigadier own a manor house like that?! Probably a gift from a grateful Queen and Country, he deserved it for saving the world so often!
`Past and Future King' - how `Battlefield' was written.
`Watertank' -a Health-and-Safety moment on set which could have been very serious, watch this from behind the sofa...
`From Kingdom to Queen' - looking at Jean Marsh's three appearances in `Doctor Who' including two shows with William Hartnell.
`Studio Recording' - 20 minute behind-the-scenes view, interesting.
On Disc 2:
The movie-style Special Edition, very well done.
Trailer for the final Season 26 - four stories, all inventive ones including the excellent `Curse of Fenric'. Shows why the programme should never have been cancelled, just overhauled.