England, March 1215. King John is visiting the castle of Sir Ranulph Fitzwilliam. The arrival of the TARDIS disturbs a medieval joust, but the Doctor and his companions are proclaimed to be friendly demons by the King, who seems strangely interested in their “blue engine”. It soon becomes clear that neither King John or his Champion, Sir Gilles Estram, are who they pretend to be. One of the Doctor’s oldest and deadliest enemies threatens the future of democracy on Earth, and he must be stopped!
The King’s Demons brings to a close the 20th Anniversary Season, and unfortunately, it bows out with a whimper rather than a bang. This is a season which has brought back some of the Doctor’s classic antagonists, although in reality, the return of the Master here is probably much more of an A-List than foes such as the Black Guardian, the Mara or Omega. This story feels really anti-climactic as a season closer, even if it does lead into The Five Doctors, but that does not mean that it even recovers towards the end.
One of the biggest problems with The King’s Demons is that the story is clearly convinced that it is better than it is in reality. At times, the guest cast sound like they are reciting a poor Shakespearean knock-off play to the extent that this feels like a pantomime, and their earnestness comes off as making the whole thing feel cheap. The story is really poorly paced, and a lot of this comes around the determination to have the reveal of the Master as the cliffhanger to Part One, which feels illogical given the two-part structure of this story. A far superior cliffhanger would be to introduce the shape-shifting Kamelion rather than having this packed into a rushed second part which has no time to really flesh out its ideas and make Kamelion really effective and memorable. The story also seems paper-thin and never really sets out how the Master preventing the signing of the Magna Carta will lead to anything that he might even be interested in, or lead to him ultimately ruling the universe. The whole narrative seems to crumble from within if put under too much scrutiny. The direction does not do this story any favours, as even the location filming at Bodiam Castle looks flat and lifeless and the interiors just look like dimly lit wobbly sets. That being said, I did quite like the sword fight between the Doctor and “Estram”, which keeps the Doctor on the back foot until the last possible moment.
Kamelion is really the story’s biggest flaw, and the blame for the inclusion of this character must be placed at the doors of both producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward, as much as he may attempt to distance himself from it. Whilst the idea of a robotic companion is an interesting one in theory, the practical technology was not there in the 1980s to make this in any shape or form a workable idea. Kamelion, simply put, shouldn’t be here. It’s surprising that having made the decision to move away from K-9 at the beginning of his tenure as producer, Nathan-Turner is so keen to bring a robotic companion back so soon, and the only logical conclusion is that he is doing it for the publicity. Obviously, Kamelion’s story does have a degree of tragedy to it with the untimely passing of Mike Power, but the basic fact remains – Kamelion was not workable and does not work for dramatic purposes. Even having Kamelion morph into other characters means that the audience can get to grips with the true companion, and means that you can have exuberant performers like Gerald Flood coming from a robot that has to lean up against the TARDIS wall.
This is possibly one of the weirdest Anthony Ainley performances too. Whilst it is understandable that the Master enjoys being in disguise and tricking the Doctor, once he is revealed, that energy seems to complete dissipate. Maybe, like Davison, Ainley senses that this one is a bit of a contractual obligation and is just longing to get to The Five Doctors – as presumably are modern audiences doing chronological rewatches, I know I was. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the disguise is so clearly a rubber mask and a rather shaky French accent, which certainly had me under no illusions as to who was under the mask from his first appearance. Certainly, there is nothing in The King’s Demons to make me think that this story had to feature the Master at all. In fact, considering the calibre of the returning antagonists that came back in this Season, perhaps the Meddling Monk could have made a return as this plot seems to match his modus operandi more than the Master’s.
I really like Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor but there is a feeling that he knows how weak this story is, and unlike some of his predecessors or even some of his successors, he is unable to pull this story up by the scruff of its neck. With stories like this one, it is perhaps understandable as to why Davison wanted to leave the show at this time. The story largely sidelines Mark Strickson’s Turlough for the second time this series, and it seems that the show is increasingly uninterested in him after the Black Guardian trilogy, which is a shame. If the show had actually committed to showing the audience his home planet, as suggested by the end of Enlightenment then this perhaps would have given us an opportunity to develop his character further – but perhaps there was no budget, considering how cheap this looks. Janet Fielding equally has very little to do, but at least has more screen time than Strickson.
Verdict: The King’s Demons brings the 20th anniversary season to a close with a whimper. At least it finishes at the Eye of Orion…2/10
Cast: Peter Davison (The Doctor), Janet Fielding (Tegan Jovanka), Mark Strickson (Turlough), Anthony Ainley (The Master), Gerald Flood (The King/Voice of Kamelion), Frank Windsor (Ranulf), Isla Blair (Isabella), Christopher Villiers (Hugh), Michael J. Jackson (Sir Geoffrey) & Peter Burroughs (Jester).
Writer: Terence Dudley
Director: Tony Virgo
Original Broadcast Dates: 15 – 16 March 1983
Behind the Scenes
- This story had the working titles of The Android, The Demons, A Knight’s Tale and Demons Keeper.
- This story is notable for numerous reasons:
- It introduces Kamelion, the first non-humanoid companion of the Doctor since K9. Kamelion was a computer-controlled, sound-activated, animated robot created by software designer Mike Power and computer hardware expert Chris Padmore of firm CP Cybernetics. Power died shortly after completing his work on Kamelion in a boating accident, before he was able to complete fully detailed notes on how to operate the robot, making it incredibly difficult to operate and meaning that he only featured sporadically.
- The first appearance of Vislor Turlough where he is at no point under the influence of the Black Guardian, making him truly an ally to the Doctor.
- The story focuses on a genuine historical figure and a significant event, something that had not been frequently used since the William Hartnell era.
- The first story to feature the Anthony Ainley incarnation of the Master not to feature Adric or Nyssa.
- To disguise the fact that the Master featured in this story, producer John Nathan-Turner had the Radio Times credit the role of Sir Gilles Estram (whose surname is an anagram of Master) as being played by James Stoker (an anagram of Master’s Joke).
- This is one of a few stories in the original run to have an original song, ‘The King’s Song’, written by Peter Howell.
- Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor becomes the third consecutive incarnation of the Doctor to be shown to have some degree of fencing prowess, and the last to see the Doctor wield a sword until The Christmas Invasion. The duel between the Doctor and the Master was choreographed by John Waller and was completed by the actors without the need for stunt doubles.
- Frank Windsor would go on to play Inspector Mackenzie in Ghost Light.
- Isla Blair has appeared in a number of Big Finish audio plays, including Exotron, Donna Noble: Kidnapped and Palindrome.
- Christopher Villiers would go on to appear in the Twelfth Doctor story Mummy on the Orient Express as Professor Moorhouse and Cacothis in the Big Finish play Absolution.
It’s tough to pick one of these in stories that aren’t great, but I think it has to be the sword fight between the Doctor and “Estram”.
You may disguise your features but you can never disguise your intent.The Fifth Doctor
Previous Fifth Doctor review: Enlightenment