The Doctor and Ace arrive near Carbury, where the Doctor re-encounters UNIT, headed by Brigadier Winifred Bambera, who has a nuclear convoy nearby Lake Vortigern. At the bottom of that lake is a spaceship from another dimension, containing King Arthur held in suspended animation and his sword, Excalibur.
A knight, Ancelyn, arrives on Earth to help his King, but is followed by the villainous Morgaine and Mordred, all of whom recognise the Doctor as Merlin. The involvement of the Doctor ultimately brings Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart out of his cosy retirement to join the inevitable fight.
The Brigadier is in this. So clearly this is a 10/10.
What? You want a full review? Oh, go on then.
Battlefield is probably the weakest story in the final season, but it is not as bad as that would suggest. The final season of the original show’s run is known for perhaps being one of the strongest in its history and Battlefield kicks things off with a nod to the show’s past in the shape of the Brigadier and a romp of a story concerning Arthurian mythology with knights from other dimensions. It’s reputation is probably not helped by the fact that it came from the pen of Ben Aaronovitch, who wrote the superb season opener for the previous season, Remembrance of the Daleks, which I think we’d all prefer to remember as the real 25th Anniversary story than Silver Nemesis. There are flaws, as with a lot of Doctor Who, but to me, Battlefield feels like a comfort blanket.
The problems with this story really circulate around the writing, direction and music. Keff McCulloch’s score feels really overblown and intrusive. Those who find Murray Gold’s early scores to be too over the top should watch this story and see how understated Gold’s music is in comparison. When it comes to the direction, it is interesting to compare this story to the early Jon Pertwee era where the HAVOC team performed a lot of the stunts. Meanwhile here, the action scenes feel rather flat and lifeless, in particular the battle between Mordred’s forces and UNIT, which does make it difficult to take them seriously. When it comes to the writing of the story, there are some really poorly written aspects, such as Ace and Ling Tai’s dialogue, which makes it feel like nobody on the production team had ever spoken to another teenager, and, like in previous review of The Ultimate Evil, Mordred has moments where all he seems to do is manically laugh for what feels like five minutes at a time. It does feel as though there are too many characters here, and perhaps this was realised by the production team as they remove characters like Warmsly and the owners of the hotel later on in the narrative. Additionally, there are some logical leaps, like why Morgaine’s army fight with a combination of laser guns and grenades, but on the other hand, just normal medieval swords. For all the writing problems, there are moments like where the Doctor explains to Ace that the reverse of Clarke’s Law is also true, which reminds me of when Thor explains how Asgard works to Jane Foster in his first movie.
Can someone tell me what on earth is going on?
Well if my hunch is right, the Earth could be at the centre of a war that doesn’t even belong to this dimension!Shou Yuing and the Seventh Doctor
I’ll move on to something that I think is more positive: the return of the Brigadier. This is a different Lethbridge-Stewart to the one that was last seen in The Five Doctors and Mawdryn Undead, as he is domesticated, only interested in getting involved when he knows that the Doctor is there. It’s a lovely moment between Sylvester McCoy and Nicholas Courtney when the Brigadier immediately recognises him as The Doctor. He is a bit more uncomfortable when it comes to dealing with Ace, addressing her as the latest one, but it is perhaps a poor bit of writing for her reaction. Ace came in immediately as her predecessor, Mel, left, so she doesn’t have the excuse of not knowing that the Doctor has travelled with others before her. Perhaps it is supposed to denote that Ace isn’t like the previous companions, but it is poorly written and makes Ace seem rude to someone she has just met. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart acts as a comparison to Brigadier Bambera, played by Angela Bruce. Bambera comes across as much more cold and clinical, perhaps understandably as she doesn’t have the same back catalogue of appearances as Lethbridge-Stewart. Her appointment is just one of the sweeping changes that seem to have occurred since we’ve last seen UNIT, which seems to have come on leaps and bounds as a military organisation since we last saw them briefly in The Five Doctors. They seem a lot more capable than they were in the Pertwee era and have made developments It is perhaps surprising, however, that Bambera has not been briefed as to the possibility of encountering the Doctor.
The villains of the piece are a bit of a mixed bag: on the positive side, there are Morgaine and the Destroyer, on the negative is Mordred. Jean Marsh does really well with Morgaine, who could become overblown in different hands, but she takes this part and makes it really good. Her scene with Courtney after his helicopter is blown up is great and she does certainly carry off her performance with a sense of majesty. The Destroyer is, from a technical point of view, spectacular especially in a story where the lack of budget is painfully obvious. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, Mordred is rather poor. It’s rare that I find a character so annoying that I was glad when Morgaine was willing to let him die at the hands of the Brigadier, then frustrated when he cropped back up. Having been slightly obsessed with Arthurian legend in my childhood, I liked the idea that they were from an alternate dimension where Arthurian legend was closer to reality.
The Seventh Doctor is central to this story, trapped in a situation orchestrated by his future self, known as Merlin and this is a good performance from McCoy. At times he is utterly bluffing his position but at others, he is utterly in control. He is in his element when he is dealing with the Brigadier and it is utterly believable that he is a future incarnation of Pertwee’s Doctor. Sophie Aldred doesn’t have a lot to do here, and isn’t terribly well written. This story does include her throwing a racial slur at Shou when Morgaine is trying to manipulate them to get her own hands on Excalibur, which is troubling. It also does go some way to explain that Ace is a bit of an outcast and doesn’t really have friends outside of her travels in the TARDIS, something which would be explored more in the season to come.
Verdict: This is no Remembrance of the Daleks, but frankly, few things are. Aaronovitch’s difficult second episode is good fun, if littered with issues around writing, direction and music, but ultimately is quite easy watching. 7/10
Cast: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Jean Marsh (Morgaine), Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart), James Ellis (Peter Warmsly), Angela Bruce (Brigadier Winifred Bambera), Christopher Bowen (Mordred), Marcus Gilbert (Ancelyn), Angela Douglas (Doris Lethbridge-Stewart), Noel Collins (Pat Rowlinson), June Bland (Elizabeth Rowlinson), Ling Tai (Shou Yuing), Robert Jezek (Sergeant Zbrigniev), Dorota Rae (Flight Lieutenant Lavel), Stefan Schwartz (Knight Commander), Paul Tomany (Major Husak) & Marek Anton (The Destroyer).
Writer: Ben Aaronovitch
Director: Michael Kerrigan
Behind the Scenes
- This story marks Nicholas Courtney’s final appearance in televised Doctor Who ahead of his passing in 2011, and the Brigadier was written out in The Wedding of River Song. Courtney did reprise the role in The Sarah Jane Adventures and in the independent production Downtime, as well as for Big Finish.
- In the original outline for this story, the Brigadier was going to die, however, when the production team realised that this was going to be largely overshadowed by explosions, they reconsidered.
- Graeme Harper was approached to direct, however, he was busy working on Boon.
- The water tank sequence at the end of Part 2 almost caused catastrophy when the glass began to crack, sending water over the studio floor towards live wires. Sylvester McCoy alerted the crew by breaking character and swearing to get Sophie Aldred out of the tank. The majority of the cast and crew, including Aldred, believe that she would have died without McCoy’s intervention, however, Gary Downie disputed that Aldred was at any risk, but the floor crew were.
- The last story to feature Bessie, the Third Doctor’s vintage car, in original footage. Bessie would appear in The Name of the Doctor, but only in archive footage.
- The last serial of the original run to feature the TARDIS interior. The scene in Part One was shot on a hastily constructed set, covered up by shooting in semi-darkness. The regular scenery had been accidently disposed of after recording The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.
- Working titles for this story included Knightfall, Storm over Avallion, Lakes Over Avallion, Pool of Avallion, Song of Avallion, Stormtroopers of Avallion and The Battlefield.
- Part One had the lowest rating of an episode of Doctor Who at 3.1 million viewers.
- Jean Marsh had previously appeared in The Crusade and The Dalek’s Master Plan. Coincidentally, Nicholas Courtney was also in The Dalek’s Master Plan.
- June Bland had previously appeared in Earthshock.
- Angela Bruce would reprise her role as Brigadier Bambera in the Big Finish audio story, Animal.
As someone who is fond of the Brigadier, I do quite like his face-off with the Destroyer, followed by the revelation that he is not dead, but prepared to hand his responsibilities over to Ace.
Ahh…little man. What do you want of me?
Get off my world!
Pitiful. Can this world do no better than you as their champion?
Probably. I just do the best I can.The Destroyer and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart
Previous Seventh Doctor Review: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy