Doctor Who #696: Battlefield Part 4

"Machines of death, Morgaine, are screaming from above, of light brighter than the sun. Not a war between armies nor a war between nations, but just death, death gone mad. The child looks up in the sky, his eyes turn to cinders. No more tears, only ashes. Is this honour? Is this war? Are these the weapons you would use?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Sep.27 1989.

IN THIS ONE... The Brigadier shoots the Destroyer and the Doctor prevents Morgaine from starting World War III.

REVIEW: So would Battlefield have been a better story if the Brigadier had really been killed? No, I don't think so. It just doesn't need it! AND it would have made lighter moments in the back half of this episode impossible, moments I don't really want to part with. The Brig doesn't need a heroic death to be cool because he gets a lot of the best lines and moments. Telling Mordred he's tired of hearing about the man's mother. Emptying a clip on the Destroyer as soon as he sees him, while the Doctor looks disappointed (they missed a trick though; he should have just fired five shots). Telling the demon he's probably not the best champion Earth has to offer, but does the best he can. Knocking the Doctor out so he can take a shot at the monster himself (for once, with bullets that have an effect), and happily waking up in the Time Lord's arms to a relieved audience. And the final moments when he gets his comeuppance for his old-school sexism, left to cook with the boys while Doris and the girls go out shopping in Bessie. The prophecy of his dying in bed is secure, and a little sadder today knowing it's finally happened.

And if the focus was only on the Brig, Part 4 would be a good episode. That it gives almost everyone else a strong part makes it an excellent one. By telling Ace to stay behind (and I love to see Ace dejected), the Doctor ensures she will follow him through the vortex to the old castle (a Christmas light effect turned into something great by shooting through it rather than superimposing it), and manipulates Morgaine into moving where Ace will naturally pop out to get the drop on her. It's not chess he's playing (layering in that he's still playing chess with SOMEone or SOMEthing), but poker, but Morgaine beats him at this too. The Doctor gets quite dark in places, threatening Mordred's life, though it's just a bluff. The Brigadier is perhaps more serious, but Morgaine calls his bluff too, abandoning her son in the process. Mother and son's reunion later is well-played, her code of honor, not lack of love made her leave him to his own devices. The Doctor's not all darkness either. I love the moment where he walks between Mordred and Ancelyn and salutes them with his hat in the middle of a sword fight. Speaking of Ancelyn, he and Bambera get sidelined a little bit, but their big moment has the knight smiling at the glorious battle he was just engaged in, while we see the battlefield with Bambera's eyes, a regrettable field of death and destruction. Says it all, really.

Of course, the Doctor has to say some more, and his final confrontation with Morgaine is the place to do it. What a scene! The Doctor's speech (reproduced above) reminds Morgaine of the code she holds so dear and makes her realize WMDs are anything but honorable. As with his other great speeches, it's both poetic and sincere. But Jean Marsh's performance as Morgaine blows all of that out of the water. Giving up on nuclear Armageddon, she asks to meet Arthur in single battle and won't believe he's dead and gone. Her love for her adversary, and how lost she is without him as her natural opposite, gives the scene great pathos, and damn it, I got teary-eyed, which I seldom do in Classic Who. Amazing stuff.

VERSIONS:
The DVD includes an extended cut (as a telefilm) that changes the order of scenes, restores a few lines of dialog and deleted scenes, and lays in slightly better effects (mostly energy beams, but I don't think they were needed). The new order and faster intercutting between scenes makes this the superior edit, creating more motive power and, for example, making the Brig's helicopter journey seem far shorter. The most important element restored by the edit is the rivalry between Ace and the Brig as to who should be protecting the Doctor (culminating in that final self-sacrifice). Sometimes it's funny (as when he inadvertently pisses off both Bambera and Ace), and usually it feels true for Ace to carry this massive chip on her shoulder. Don't call her "the latest one"! Another deleted scene shows the Doctor and Ace going up spiral stairs (with hokey Christmas lights on it), discussing Clarke's Law on magic and science. In another, Ace figures out what Excalibur is for and why it's so prized, and gets even angrier at the Brig because he let Bambera and Ancelyn die. The sound design also makes clear the voices Ace and Shou Yuing hear while in the chalk circle. The Target novelization includes a lot of this too, and in addition includes a prologue with King Arthur and Merlin in it, rather a lot of drinking (Bambera and Mordred, not together), Warmsly has a big dog that acts as comic relief, the story of how Doris reconnected with the Brigadier, the Destroyer appears in a modern suit, and Bambera is wearing Ancelyn's ring at the end.

REWATCHABILITY: High
- Every time you think you've found your favorite moment, there's another just behind it. Plus, HAVOC-level action (better!), a demon that would feel at home on Buffy 10+ years hence, and the glory that is Jean Marsh.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: High
- Perhaps your mileage will vary on the more comedic elements of the script, but this is a strong start to one of Who's strongest seasons ever. A celebration of the UNIT years with one of the Brig's best ever showings, a wonderful villain played by a powerful actress, and it's ABOUT something, with lots for the Doctor, Ace and various guest stars to do. When I think of Season 26, my mind will usually go to The Curse of Fenric and Ghost Light, but I've really neglected Battlefield. It ranks just as high, if for different reasons.

6 comments:

Madeley said...

While the last series is remembered for the darker Doctor, Battlefield also manages to balance McCoy's clownish tendencies, but in a way that really works. The novels that followed went way too far with portraying him as a manipulator, forgetting the funnier bits in their need to distance themselves from McCoy's early days.

You need a bit of humour in Who, and the bit where he explodes a pack of crisps, and walks through the sword fight, are just perfect moments.

LiamKav said...

Ah, yes, Doctor Who has finally refound it's feet. With it's current team, I predict more seasons of excellence to come.

What?

As an aside, regarding the Doctor's new darker jacket... apparently the plan was that next season he would abandon the question mark jumper as well. I am curious how far they would have taken this...

I also agree with Madeley above. The manipulative Doctor works in the TV series because he's still likable. I'm sure it says something that during one of the short stories published during the time that Virgin had the licence, when they did a Doctors-Get-Together tale they intentionally left out the 7th because none of his other incarnations trusted him. Reading about someone like that for several years of novels can get a wee bit tiring...

jdh417 said...

I'm still waiting for a payoff on the Doctor being Merlin! They could get a whole season out of that.

Siskoid said...

The Merlin thing was eventually resolved in an 8th Doctor short story, "One Fateful Knight" in Short Trips: The Quality of Leadership. He also posed as Merlin in The Shadows of Avalon.

d said...

I haven't read that story. What was the resolution?

Siskoid said...

Synopsis courtesy of TARDIS Wikia:
The Doctor travels to Arthur's World to aid in his birth; the Doctor used the alias Merlin but discovered that he was the second person at the time to use the name Merlin. The other Merlin was another renegade Time Lord who had given Arthur and his kingdom advanced technology and prompted Morgaine to seek an alliance with them. This other Merlin, disguised as the Doctor, was imprisoned in the Arctic by Morgaine after she was temporarily banished to a desert by the Doctor, leaving the Doctor to set up the events that would later be experienced by his seventh incarnation.

 

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