Doctor Who #609: The King's Demons Part 1

"He is said to be the best swordsman in France." "Fortunately, we are in England."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Mar.15 1983.

IN THIS ONE... Our heroes meet King John, who is attended by a knight who's obviously the Master.

REVIEW: Though there are obviously some science fiction shenanigans brewing, this episode is so close to a pure historical as to make me long for the days when such stories were possible. The BBC has always been good at recreating history, especially England's own, and production values are quite high. The castle and costumes are credible, the various feasts thrown in King John's honor sumptuous, the music nicely medieval, and they even stage a proper joust! By the time King John plays the lute and sings a period song, I'm in the mind that writer Terrence Dudley is pulling another Four to Doomsday, padding his tale with cultural entertainments. It's actually closer to Black Orchid's first episode, with cricket and dancing meant to give the audience a sense of place and time. And as it's also a 2-episode story, it seems like it's going to be a slim story indeed, though the setting would justify more.

Like a proper historical, there's a fair bit of educational material, not only in the way things are presented, but in the dialog as well. Tegan seems to take the Shakespearean/popular view of history (with King John a right villain), while the Doctor is naturally more of a revisionist (and quite up on the details this time). I can't fault Tegan, since the Medievals' dialog, while not in verse, has that Bardic sound, lovely and literate. And with the Magna Carta three months away, there seems every chance this is going to be a classic "set history back on track" story. After all, King John is obviously an impostor, taking in his stride a TARDIS landing on the joust lists, and calling the crew his "demons". As the real King John is supposed to be in London taking the Crusader's Oath, it looks like this is more than a case of being manipulated by the Master.

Because yes, Sir Gilles, the French knight, is the Master. They try to hide it with brief shots of his face initially, and with a singsong delivery, but it's pretty obvious (and yet, I have a vague memory of not realizing until late in the episode the first time I saw it). I suppose it's the equivalent of titles with "...of the Daleks" in them. You know who the baddie is, it's just a matter of getting to the first cliffhanger for them to be revealed. Depending on when you realize Gilles' identity (and his last name being Estram is a dead giveaway), you'll probably have clued in that the somewhat rude, buxom iron maiden ("fill her!") is his TARDIS. Was he trying to grab Turlough as he had Adric when he ordered his men to throw him in there? In any case, the Gilles persona gets us a sword fight with the Doctor, a rematch after The Sea Devils, and a fairly well-choreographed one. It's all part of the Medievalism that gives the episode such great color.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - It's a fun romp in the Middle Ages, like the Doctor crashing Ivanhoe or something. Sadly, the Master has to show up.


Anonymous said...

"The BBC has always been good at recreating history, especially England's own, and production values are quite high."

Of course, to a certain extent, the BBC style has shaped our opinion of quality historical recreation. If you compare, say, "I, Claudius" to "Rome", the latter is likely a much more believable depiction of the Roman world, while the former looks like it was filmed on a sunny day at the Parthenon. I can't fault the 1975 BBC for not having CGI technology, but neither can I deny the difference it makes.

That said, the BBC still produces higher quality material; they've always been about overcoming low budgets with good writing. I hear that HBO is working on their version of "I, Claudius", and you just know they're going to go apeshit with the opportunities that CGI and laxer programming standards offer. It's going to be an unwatchable bloodbath.

BBC style, meanwhile, emphasizes the writing and acting:

You rock out loud, Clavdivs.

Siskoid said...

To be sure, it would be unfair to compare 1975 production values to today's, just as I don't judge these Doctor Who episodes by the new series' production standards. It all comes down to how well it was written, acted and done within the context of the era that produced it.

What the BBC production departments of these various eras did well re: Doctor Who historicals is already know what things should look like, making historical settings quite a bit more believable and detailed than most of the SF fare. That said, I think Season 20 had some great fantastical settings (Snakedance, Mawdryn's spaceliner, even parts of Terminus).


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