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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
he Sylvester McCoy era of “Doctor Who” is probably the most divisive of the entire series. Some will defend it as an important stepping stone in the show’s history and an era in which the show was at its strongest in terms of narrative and characterization. Then there are others, like me, who think it’s mostly a bunch of nonsensical, poorly written garbage. Oddly, I didn’t always feel this way and, in fact, was in the former camp when these stories were first produced. But most of the era has not aged well, and it often feels like it’s trying to be about ten times more important than it actually is. The show turned into a series of grand gestures that it was incapable of seeing through to their proper dramatic conclusions. “Battlefield,” the first story from the classic series’ final season, may even be the perfect example of everything that was wrong with the McCoy era of “Doctor Who.”
The story was written by Ben Aaronovitch, who had offered up the far better “Remembrance of the Daleks” in the previous season. Whereas “Remembrance” was designed to be a story dealing with the Doctor’s past, “Battlefield” was intended to address his future, and much of the tale refers to events that have yet to be seen (and indeed at this point likely never will be seen). The Doctor (McCoy) and his companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) receive a distress signal coming from Earth, so they ease on down the time/space road to a sleepy English village on the bank of Lake Vortigern. There they discover a nuclear missile convoy led by Brigadier Bambera (Angela Bruce) of UNIT, and soon after, knights from another dimension – armed with swords and laser guns – begin popping up to wreak havoc, and they’re followed by Mordred and Morgaine (Jean Marsh), and pretty soon everyone starts recognizing the Doctor as Merlin. And then, in a bid of fannish nostalgia, the real Brigadier from the seventies (Nicholas Courtney) shows up as well. There’s also the magic sword Excalibur, and a spaceship buried beneath the lake and lots of explosions, but the plot is thoroughly confusing, and it’s only when one sits down to try and explain it that one realizes how truly silly the whole thing is. I’m not even sure there is a cohesive plot (there certainly isn’t an engaging one), as much as a bunch of set pieces, linked together by Arthurian legend and “Who” lore.
Perhaps the problem is that the story is far too ambitious for what “Doctor Who” was able to achieve onscreen in 1989. With about another 10 or 20 million dollars behind it, this might have been a cool little sci-fi action movie, but as is, the action scenes are downright embarrassing – and there are loads of them, along with aforementioned explosions that look more like fireworks gone wrong. Oh, and the background score is probably the worst ever to be heard on “Doctor Who” – worse than listening to a cat in heat at three in the morning. It’s obnoxious, synthesized crap, and completely tramples any subtlety the story may possibly have. It’s so bad, in fact, that it may even be the cause of many of this story’s ills, as “Battlefield” with a different score might just be passable “Who.” (It’s a shame we’ll never find out, because if ever there was an opportunity to tinker with this aspect of the story, this DVD was it.)
Then there’s the matter of the mostly terrible acting on display, with McCoy loudly shouting at the top of the heap. I really hate picking on McCoy (yet I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said a thousand times before), but the guy is just not a convincing dramatic actor – especially any time he tries to project anger or intensity, both of which he’s often called upon to do in this story. It must be the worst performance of his tenure, and that’s saying something if you’ve seen some of his other stories. Jean Marsh, who had basically played this character before in both “Willow” and “Return to Oz,” looks like she’s slumming it, what with the Halloween press-on nails, stupid looking crown, and ill-fitting costume she’s forced to prance around in. The less said about Christopher Bowen’s Mordred, the better. There’s a scene where he delivers a stock evil villain laugh that goes on forever, and the action even cuts away from the laugh a couple times, only to repeatedly return to his extended cackle.
Surely the story must have some strengths, right? Well, Nicholas Courtney can do little wrong, although it’s pretty touch and go here, given what he has to work with. Nevertheless, the Brig is the highlight of this otherwise silly yarn, which should come as no surprise to “Who” fans, and Marcus Gilbert, who plays the heroic knight Ancelyn, also delivers goods that some of his co-stars would’ve been wise to take notes on. All the location work is pretty decent, and much of the story takes place outdoors (unfortunately, though, by this point in the series, the exterior locations were no longer being shot on film). And then there’s the Destroyer, a monster who appears to threaten the planet in the last two episodes. He looks like a blue version of Tim Curry’s Darkness in “Legend” – probably one of the best-looking monsters ever seen on the classic series. It’s just a shame he’s given very little to do, and that he’s defeated so easily.
As stated before, this era of “Who” has a very loyal following, so take my opinions with a grain of salt. Certainly if you’re already a fan of this story or this era, you’ll love this DVD, which has been given the same treatment that “The Curse of Fenric” was given some years back: Disc Two of this set presents a movie-length extended edit of the story, with enhanced effects and Dolby 5.1 Surround (although given the score, that may be a huge minus). This new edit is a slight improvement over the episodic version, and the effort put into it is why I’m giving the set an extra half star. But ultimately, the only way this story would ever be any good is if it were remade for the new series, which all things considered, might not be a bad idea. As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that with the release of this set, the entire final season of the classic series is now available on DVD.
Special Features: There’s an audio commentary on Disc One for the original four-part serial featuring Sophie Aldred, Ben Aaronovitch, Nicholas Courtney, Angela Bruce and script editor Andrew Cartmel. Amazingly, the only one of the bunch who’ll admit that the story is crap is Aaronovitch, who swears up and down that what’s onscreen is not what he had imagined in his mind. “Storm Over Avallion” is a decent enough making-of that runs 22 minutes; “Past and Future King” features Aaronovitch and Platt discussing the screenplay; “Watertank” details how Aldred nearly died in an on-set accident during the production; and “From Kingdom to Queen” is an interview with Jean Marsh about the three roles she’s played on the show over the years. There’s also 19 minutes worth of behind the scenes footage recorded on set, trails and continuities, a photo gallery, production notes option, the usual DVD-ROM Radio Times listings, and an isolated music score that I guarantee you will not use. Aside from the movie edit, Disc Two features only a trailer that was used to promote Season 26 back in ’89.