It’s the beginning of the end for “Doctor Who.” Broadcast in September 1989, the four-part serial “Battlefield” was the debut story for the long-running BBC sci-fi program’s twenty-sixth – and final – season. The decade saw shrinking budgets and declining ratings, and despite a slight rise in both viewership and critical response since Sylvester McCoy took over the title role, the Beeb decided to scheduled the show for the second time against ITV powerhouse “Coronation Street,” effectively signing its death warrant. Following the season, the show was placed on “indefinite hiatus,” but unlike the hiatus of 1985, this one was permanent. The run of the original program would come to an end for good.
And yet while nobody was watching, the “Doctor Who” of 1989 was a show on the rebound. This final season features some terrific storytelling and makes room for inventive character work, reinvigorating the format. Miniscule budgets be damned, there’s some great stuff to be found here.
Written by Ben Aaronovitch, who joined the show the previous year with the exceptional serial “Remembrance of the Daleks,” “Battlefield” finds the Doctor (McCoy, beginning his third year as the Timelord) and companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) following a distress beacon that was sent “sideways in time.” Sideways? Ah, yes, the worlds of other dimensions – setting up a clever mix of science fiction and fantasy as Arthurian knights from a far-off universe invade England, a few years into the future. Leading the fight is the sorceress Lady Morgaine (Jean Marsh, who previously appeared in two William Hartnell serials, “The Crusade” and “The Daleks’ Master Plan”), a dimensional counterpart to the Morgan le Fay of our own legends. Oh, and a certain Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) comes out of retirement to lend a hand in saving the world.
While Aaronovitch and script editor Andrew Cartmel continue the plan they began with “Remembrance” to rework McCoy’s seventh Doctor as a dark (yet still compassionate) trickster prone to use all around him – even Ace – as his pawns, even more compelling is the writer’s take on the Doctor as a time traveler whose future can be someone else’s past. Steven Moffat’s scripts for the new “Who” series’ episodes “Blink” and “Silence in the Library” would gain deserved praise for understanding that the Doctor’s life might not be so linear, but watch how Aaronivitch handles the same notion. The knights recognize the Doctor as Merlin, yet the Doctor has not seen them before. Are they mistaken? Perhaps, the Doctor explains, nonchalantly accepting the more plausible solution that he is indeed their Merlin, only to him, he hasn’t gone back in time yet to play the part.
McCoy does wonders wrapping his character around such zigzaggy concepts. Clearly having fun with the new directions his Doctor has been taking, McCoy creates such an involving hero – thoughtful, quick-witted, eager to accept the improbable – that we don’t mind when he chews the scenery.
And chew he does, as does everyone here; director Michael Kerrigan, in his lone “Who” assignment, goes ridiculously over the top, leaving each scene hammier than the last. (The biggest offender is a lengthy shot of Christopher Bowen as Morgaine’s villainous son, cackling madly at what one assumes is the mere thought of how great it is to be evil. It’s so goofy it approaches parody.) But there’s such fun to be had in the melodramatic script that we welcome the corniness of it all. The dialogue is, for the most part, crisp and vibrant – I adore the Doctor’s on-the-fly threat of “Go, before I unleash a terrible something on you!” – while Cartmel’s addition of a climactic speech against the horror of nuclear weapons is one of the serial’s highlights.
Aaronovitch has stated his own dissatisfaction with the story (a sentiment echoed by many fans; despite my own admiration for it, this is widely considered one of the weakest McCoy tales), which comes mainly from his struggles in having to expand the serial from three episodes to four. Such a task leaves the story with a little too much padding, yet, paradoxically, even with the extra room the plot still remains a bit of a clutter, riddled with holes and unanswered questions.
Some of this gets chalked up to that bane of “Who,” the budget. One scene, a cliffhanger in which Ace gets stuck in a booby-trapped airlock filling with water, had to be cut short when the glass cracked during filming, threatening Aldred’s life (she escaped unharmed); with a shortage of time and money, the scene could not be finished, so the final product isn’t as impressive as the set-up. Later, Morgaine conjures up “the Destroyer,” a ravenous demon that will destroy the planet, or, um, something. The mask for the creature is stunning, one of the series’ very best – yet that left no money left over to complete Aaronovitch’s original idea of the beast as a man who transforms into a monster. Instead, we’re left with vague threats, and all the Destroyer does is stand around, growl, and get shot.
(Spoilers this paragraph!) By the way, the person doing the shooting is the Brigadier, making his first return to the series since “The Five Doctors.” (He wouldn’t appear again until 2008, when he popped by “The Sarah Jane Adventures.”) This was designed at the time to be the character’s swan song, and as such, Aaronovitch originally planned to kill him off – only to change his mind during the scripting process. It’s a reversal the writer says in an interview he regrets. Yet it actually works in the story’s favor to keep the Brigadier alive. Bringing a character back just to kill him off wouldn’t really work beyond the level of cheap stunt, and the weakness of the Destroyer (who would’ve done him in had Aaronovitch stuck to his initial plan), with all his underwritten blandness and non-threatening silliness, wouldn’t provide the proper balance needed for killing off such a beloved character. Keeping him alive at the end allows us to relish his heroics (he gallantly describes himself as “expendable”) without having to sit through a character being killed just for the sake of a gimmick. (End spoilers.)
Courtney is in fine form here, comfortably fitting back into his most famous role. In addition to his thrilling bravery in the fourth episode, the script tosses him some sly dialogue as he dismisses Ace as “the latest model.” The script has some other fun with the Brigadier’s return, including a terrific throwaway gag involving former companion Liz Shaw and the return of Bessie, the Doctor’s vintage roadster, now upgraded to achieve “wicked” speeds!
Such lightness is appreciated for a story that’s quite dark indeed, a mood fitting well with the melancholy of rest of the season, which would take a sinister tone in expanding Ace’s backstory. Here, the theme of war and its futility is never too far from hand. The Doctor sets the tone early, describing a nuclear missile as having “a graveyard stench.” Later, Ace meets Shou Yuing (Ling Tai), a fellow teenager with a similar interest in explosives; their youthful fascination with destruction is (none too subtly) contrasted with the real horrors of battle.
Then again, the story fails to be consistent with its attitudes toward violence. Gunplay is rampant, especially in the hands of Brigadier Bambera (Angela Bruce), yet only rarely, when it suits the moment, does the Doctor chastise her and her soldiers for being so quick with a pistol. Morgaine, meanwhile, is presented as a villain with an honorable streak, which makes her quite compelling (a scene where she kindly restores a blind woman’s sight is one of the serial’s highlights), yet it muddles the story’s intents. Her culture is built on battle with honor; her son is expelled because he acted without honor; the Doctor attempts to appeal to her not on a “killing is bad” level, but “mass murder isn’t honorable” level. The story wants to be anti-war but often walks away by saying war is fine as long as you follow the rules.
(I’ve always been fascinated by this in “Doctor Who.” The Doctor can spend episodes railing against killing and praising the sanctity of life, only to turn around and off some poor alien baddie later. What could this mean? Is it merely a TV program relying on genre conventions to amp up the action? Or is the Doctor leading a life of complex morality that’s not clearly defined? Or am I spending too much time looking into stuff like this?)
For all its messy plotting and iffy production values, “Battlefield” remains a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, thanks to fine performances and many sharply written moments. This is a serial that gets by on its ideas – I didn’t even get to the brilliance of the organic spaceship and the use of Clarke’s Law in discussing Morgaine’s magic – which is sort of how much of classic “Who” got by. “Battlefield” is a flawed gem, an intelligent mess, a intriguing beginning to a most peculiar end.