Doctor Who #64: The Lion

"You must serve my purpose or you have no purpose. Grace my table tonight in more suitable clothes. If your clothes beguile me, you shall stay and entertain." "Like Scheherazade." "Over whose head hung sentence of death."TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 1 of The Crusade, available on the Lost in Time DVD boxed set. Only episodes 1 and 3 survive, though the DVD includes both missing episodes as audio only. I've also listened to the serial as part of the BBC Lost Episodes audio series, as narrated by William Russell. First aired Mar.27 1965.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS lands in the medieval Holy Land where Barbara is captured by the Saracen and brought to Saladin's court, while the others fall in with King Richard Coeur-de-Lion.

REVIEW: Ahhh, it feels good to in a historical again. Writer David Whitaker gives some grand cod-Shakespearean language, so much so it was hard to pick a single quote for the top of this review, and hey look! Julian Glover as King Richard! And a live hawk! What is immediately striking after six episodes of The Web Planet, is how much music (and sound design) there is. It creates a real sense of place (and time), even if the sets don't. A dense forest, a castle interior, a couple of tents from the 1001 Nights... Is that really the Holy Land during the Middle Ages? But it's a very small flaw to an otherwise wonderful episode. The only other problem is that the print is more damaged than most and you'll see vertical lines on parts of it almost all the way through. Maybe it's because it was found so recently (1998) and had deteriorated more than most, or maybe 2|entertain didn't have time to properly restore it in the rush to complete the Lost in Time collection. Easily forgotten because it really is gorgeous, with great acting and exciting fight scenes. It's beloved Who director Douglas Camfield's first onscreen credit, but he had done the savage fights in 100,000 B.C. Here, he uses claustrophobic close-ups to ramp up the tension, and shocking violence as cathartic punctuation. Let's not forget the acting scenes, where he makes good use of people not looking at each other when they speak, keeping reactions hidden from all but the audience, or playing with the Saracen brothers by making them two sides of a same coin, back to back, separated by a thin gauze.

The script features a Shakespearean game of doubles (pretty clear who Whitaker's main influence is and he'll get no complaints from me), with two King Richards and two Joannas (the second set provided by William de Preaux and Barbara, though they are quickly found out), two Saracen brothers, and of course, mirrored leaders in Saladin and Richard. The irony is that it's the Saracen - nominally the baddie, if only because El Akir, the first Saracen we meet, IS a cruel, contemptible creature - it's Saladin that's reasonable, thoughtful and kind. Richard, though affable, is impetuous, self-pitying and thinks nothing of letting Barbara rot in a Saracen jail. History (or Robin Hood stories) would have us believe the "Lion" is a great hero, but he's put to shame here by Sir William and his honorable sacrifice in putting the royal target on his back. And he's a child compared to Saladin's stoic and calm demeanor. We don't learn as much from Saphadin, except that he's a little obsessed with the Princess Joanna, but he stands a more emotional counterpart to his brother. Both are sympathetic and literate, not what we expected. And for the time, even if played by white men in tan face, a surprisingly balanced portrayal of Arabs.

As for the Doctor, he gets to cheat yet another clothes merchant because I guess the TARDIS wardrobe doesn't really have EVERYthing. There's a lot of fun business here as we see just how the theft is carried out, and you can see just how well Hartnell takes to both historical adventures and comedy. He thrives in such an environment, in a way he simply doesn't in technobabble/fluff-heavy sci-fi stories. Ian and Vicki are mostly hangers on in this episode - Ian is refused an escort to go and rescue Barbara, and Vicki helps the Doctor steal clothes - but they get to play bigger roles in episodes to come. I can't wait.

THEORIES: We didn't get a cliffhanger at the end of the previous story, and here the cast all seem to have different clothes and haircuts. Ian even looks a little frazzled. Might there have been unseen adventures in between The Web Planet and The Crusade? Certainly seems a good place for them.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Highly literate, with historical characters brought to life by great actors. Best of all, they don't steal the spotlight from our heroes, who are very much involved in the story. An excellent beginning.

4 comments:

King Beauregard said...

Historically speaking, there is a record of Saladin's use of mercy (for example not slaughtering non-Muslims when he re-took Jerusalem -- Jerusalem hadn't been so lucky when the Crusaders had previously taken over), while Richard the Lionhearted is known for atrocities such as killing prisoners.

Siskoid said...

Definitely, and it's great that the script features a well-researched piece of history rather than the "Hollywood" version of it.

snell said...

Your observations regarding the differences between Harnell's hostoricals and sci-fi stories are interesting. Why couldn't sci-fi stories of the era do as much to make Hartnell thrive, to give us production that invokes a "real sense of place and time" as well as historicals?

It comes down to a lack of confidence/imagination, I think. There's really no reason you can't have as complex a set of characters in, say, the Sense-Sphere as you do the medieval Holy Land, or Rome.

I think too often the writers/producers let themselves think they had to throw out everything they knew and make the sci-fi stories completely "original" and "different." But there's no reason cod-Shakespeare and stuff already in the BBC production house couldn't produce a satisfying alien culture. They just never really tried, at least not during the Hartnell era.

(Plus, perhaps relying on the historical tropes the BBC was used to turning out relaxed the makers enough to focus on the quality of characters...)

Siskoid said...

That's certainly part of it. The BBC "culture" probably also plays a part. Sets and costumes no doubt came from other historical/literary productions, or at least could be hired out, while SF stories spent all their budget creating things from scratch and hoping for the best. And it's the same with the writing. Writers at the time knew how historical stories worked (everyone did), but not this new SF thing (no one did). The whole of the Hartnell era feels experimental as far as tone, writing, and design go. Some experiments were failures, that's all.

 

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