“Battlefield”

I find it very interesting that my non-fan friends are surprised when I tell them that such-and-such episode is not very good. For some reason, they think that if I’m a fan of the show, I must love every episode, and to me, that’s a very unrealistic expectation. In any fiction of a serial nature, some installments will be good and some will be bad, and they don’t always have the same type of quality. I love “Human Nature’/ “Family of Blood” because I feel it’s one of the best stories in the entire show, but I’ve probably seen “Smith and Jones” more often, simply because it is such a fun adventure. This goes for the classic show as well: you can’t run a show with seven different lead actors over twenty-seven years without some variation in quality.

Merlin and Morgaine

Merlin and Morgaine

And so we come to “Battlefield”, the first episode in the very last season of classic Doctor Who, featuring the Seventh Doctor with Ace as his companion. I watched it completely fascinated, and while I’m not sure that this was a good episode plot-wise, it was a lot of fun and I came out of it smiling.

Spoilers ahead! Not a complete episode synopsis, but instead a recap of the elements and twists.

When the Doctor and Ace arrive in present-day England this time, there’s a nuclear missle convoy stalled near a lake, and UNIT is called in to take care of it. Though the current brigadier, Brigadier Bambera, is on the scene, the Brigadier, our faithful Lethbridge-Stewart, is called in to assist. However, unknown to the Doctor or UNIT, men in chain armor begin appearing in the area.

To make a long story short, Morgaine, a sorceress of great power, comes to Earth from her dimension to find King Arthur, who supposedly is in a state of suspended animation beneath the nearby lake. Ancelyn, one of Arthur’s knights, comes to Earth first to defend Arthur and wake him, while Mordred, Morgaine’s son, chases him. When they (separately) encounter the Doctor, they immediately recognize him as Merlin; though they knew him with a different face, they could identify him simply by the power in his form.

The Doctor figures out that a future incarnation of himself visits their dimension and defends Arthur, and leaves hints to his former self to try to find and protect Excalibur, the artefact Morgaine needs to open the portal between dimensions. They discover the Doctor’s spaceship beneath the lake, but Arthur is long dead. It then becomes a race to convince Morgaine that Arthur is gone, so that she ends her war.

The plot itself is not as twisty-turny as many of the Seventh Doctor’s episodes, but it was still interesting, as you find out just what Morgaine is after and why, after all these years, she still wants to battle Arthur. Morgaine is also very interesting in her own right. She has a very solid sense of honor, even stopping to pay respects in a graveyard to the fallen soldiers from World War II, even though she had nothing to do with their conflict. At the end of the episode, when she is mourning Arthur’s death and frustrated with her centuries-long quest that she threatens to fire off the nuclear missiles, the Doctor dissuades her by appealing to her sense of honor, explaining what the missiles will do and pointing out that they are not honorable weapons of war.

The appearance of the Brigadier, the first (and only) one since “The Five Doctors”, wasn’t wasted. He starts at home, where he’s living a happy life with his wife Doris, and she’s upset that he’s being called back for a mission, even though he’s retired; she is, of course, afraid of him getting injured or killed. The Doctor is very happy to see him, and they solve the mystery together, but when Morgaine’s big monster, the Destroyer, appears, the Brigadier knocks the Doctor unconscious and faces it himself, knowing that the Doctor would not want to kill it and wanting to spare his friend the onus of having to do so. Doris was very right to worry: the Brigadier faces down the Destroyer and kills it, but nearly dies himself. It was a glorious last episode for the Brigadier, fighting as Earth’s Champion.

Ancelyn and Brigadier Bambera

Ancelyn and Brigadier Bambera

Another side plot which was fun to watch was the relationship between Bambera and Ancelyn. At first, Bambera views Ancelyn as an enemy, while he attempts to disarm her with rogueish banter. At different times, they argue and duel and fight, but by the end, they have formed a strong friendship with hints at future romance. One of the strengths of the classic show is that it takes the time to develop the guest characters, and this episode continued that tradition.

There’s nothing deep or profound about “Battlefield”, but it’s a great example of a fun and satisfying episode. It’s probably a great popcorn muncher, and if you’re anything like me, it’ll leave you happy.

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“Sympathy for the Devil”

Sympathy for the Devil CD CoverPoking around on the Big Finish site, I looked through the ranges of available audios and found one that really piqued my interest. No, it’s not the “Gallifrey” range: I’ve already ordered those and I’m bouncing up and down waiting for the CDs to arrive. It’s the “Unbound” range. This series of audios is analogous to Marvel Comic’s “What If?” series, telling stories of what would have happened if… We’ve seen one episode in the modern Doctor Who that did the same thing: “Turn Left” showed what happened if Donna had turned right instead of left, leading to her never having met the Doctor. The “Unbound” range is similar, dealing with things like “What if the Doctor had never left Gallifrey?” or “What if the Doctor’s core philosophy had been different?” The plays feature different actors playing the Doctor, supporting the assumption that the Doctor’s regenerations are influenced by his experiences and situation.

While purchasing a different subscription, I was offered a free audio and took the opportunity to get an “Unbound” audio, selecting “Sympathy for the Devil” because of its basic premise: what if the Doctor, condemned by the Time Lords and exiled to Earth, had arrived in 1997 instead of 1968? This Doctor was played by David Warner, and of course, arrives with no companion in Hong Kong on the eve of the handover of the territory from Britain to China.

I should note that “Sympathy for the Devil” was released in 2003, before the premiere of the modern show, so it only refers to the classic show timeline.

Spoilers ahead. Lots of them.

Upon his arrival, the Doctor encounters Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The last time he saw the Brigadier, he was Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart at the London Underground. This Brigadier, however, is no longer with UNIT, and is running a pub in Hong Kong. Without the Doctor’s help, the Brigadier had been able to establish UNIT and had battled alien menaces, but history took a very different turn, as he had to come up with different solutions to all of the many problems. For example, the middle of London is dominated by a large lake, because to battle the Silurians, he had to send Mike Yates on a suicide mission into the past to drop a nuclear bomb. Other examples are given, but the gist of it is that though the Brigadier had varying degrees of success fighting off threats, his claims of the extra-terrestrial origins of these threats got him branded as s nutcase, and he eventually left UNIT in disgrace. He’d been heading for New Zealand, but ended up staying in Hong Kong.

While the Doctor and the Brigadier are catching up (and they’re not friends; they barely know each other), an airplane crashes in the hills outside Hong Kong, and they go to investigate. Meanwhile, UNIT also arrives, because the plane was carrying a British defector to China, a very dangerous scientist. The UNIT forces are led by Colonel Brimmicombe-Woods, who is disdainful of the Brigadier and suspicious of the Doctor. Now, this part is the major part of the episode, so I’m going to distill it down into a few sentences, with very major spoilers, so stop reading here if you don’t want to know.

Okay, I’m moving on.

After investigation and action and plot twists, they discover that the occupant of the plane is the Master, who had been trapped on Earth without a TARDIS by the Time Lords, and he’d been hatching plots for thirty years, trying to get the Doctor’s attention. He’s lived through all of the years of invasions and attacks, not to mention the regular human things going on on Earth, wondering how the Doctor could allow all of these horrible things to happen. Of course, some of it were his schemes, as he’s not averse to causing chaos in order to get his ticket off this planet. His current plot is to create an army of mind-controlled soldiers, but he had been fleeing China (where he had defected) when his plane crashed.

Nicholas Courtney, David Warner, David Tennant

Nicholas Courtney, David Warner, David Tennant

That’s about as much of the plot as I’m going to reveal here. I found this episode to be very enjoyable, because it contains a lot of Doctor/Master banter, double-crossing, and plot twists – in short, it felt very much like a Third Doctor/Master episode, and it was really nice to revisit that era and that type of episode, something that the show hasn’t done for a very long time (the Doctor/Master dynamic in the modern show is very different). In addition, the three main characters of the audio, the Doctor, the Brigadier, and Colonel Brimmicombe-Woods (man, that’s a handful to type), were designed and portrayed very well, starting at odds with each other (the Brigadier doesn’t trust the Doctor, as he was at the first instance in which the Brigadier encountered alien threats but then never appeared again for thirty years; the Colonel thinks the Brigadier is a nutcase; the Doctor is freshly exiled and thinks he should be able to trust the Brigadier but obviously the Brigadier has other ideas) but coming to a working truce and trusting each other. It only helped that the four main characters were played by some of the best actors in Britain: David Warner as the Doctor, Nicholas Courtney (who else?) as the Brigadier, Mark Gatiss as the Master, and David Tennant as the Colonel. (No, I didn’t know Mr. Tennant was in this when I selected it. I knew he played Colonel Brimmicombe-Woods, but that character wasn’t listed in the synopsis of the play. This was complete coincidence on my part, and quite a nice surprise.)

The bottom line is that “Sympathy for the Devil” was a great play, taking advantage of the greater freedom that working in an alternate timeline gives you but still providing the great dialogue, twisty plots, and wonderful characterizations we watch/listen to Doctor Who for. And it was nice having a different Doctor for once. Based on this one, I’ll be picking up more of the “Unbound” series as I work through the audios.

“Robot”

Perfect outfit, Doctor!

Perfect outfit, Doctor!

“Robot” was the first Tom Baker episode ever, with Sarah Jane Smith as his companion previous to his regeneration and with the introduction of Harry Sullivan as his second companion. It was a bit jarring to return to watching a 1974 episode after the 1988 “Remembrance of the Daleks,” but the episode was excellent enough to make me forget that I’d gone back in time 14 years in terms of production values.

Spoilers, ho!

Since “Robot” is a regeneration episode, the first part of it was taken up with the usual hijinks that happen after the Doctor regenerates, and it was certainly fun. The Doctor started out addled enough that the Brigadier orders bedrest for him, and Harry was assigned to take care of him. He attempted to leave, and when Harry tried to stop him, he outwitted the UNIT doctor by basically confusing him with his eccentric behavior. Why the Brigadier didn’t tell Harry that the Doctor was going to be a handful, I don’t know. Later on, after the rest of the story had started, the Doctor tried on many possible costumes, which the Brigadier rightfully disapproved of, until he finally came out of the TARDIS wearing the Bohemian outfit and long scarf that we all know and love. Great scene!

The rest of the episode is about the eponymous robot, which was created in a think tank which, unbeknownst to anyone else, secretly wanted to rid the world of unintelligent people and rule by (their version of) science. The interesting part of the episode was the treatment of the robot: it had a “don’t harm humans” prime directive, but the think tank deliberately gave it commands to kill humans, so that it would become confused (“Do I do what was ordered, or do I follow the prime directive?”), and eventually it broke down and became psychotic. The only human it respected was Sarah Jane, who, due to her experiences with the Doctor with aliens and robots, recognized that the robot was sentient and displayed care and understanding of it. The episode was a study of sentience and how humans can easily mistreat other sentient creatures.

Another thing I liked about this episode was its unusual structure. Because the Doctor was incapacitated for the first part of the episode, the story had to be carried by the other characters. Sarah Jane went out to investigate the think tank under the guise of her job as a journalist, and the Brigadier investigated the mysterious thefts and attacks that were going on at military and research centers. It gave us a bit of a look at what the humans would do if a situation came up and the Doctor wasn’t around, something that we don’t get to see again until “The Christmas Invasion” (as far as I know, anyway).

One last thing, which I probably wouldn’t have noticed if we hadn’t been watching whatever episodes happen to be in the house at the time, is that the Fourth Doctor seemed in this episode to be a lot more likable than he was later. I’m referring to him in “The Horror of Fang Rock.” In “Robot, he seemed charmingly eccentric, while in THoFR, he was nearly offensively random – at a few points, he had completely non-sequitur outbursts that almost felt like the writer said, “Oh, he needs to be eccentric, so let’s just make him yell something random here.”

Bottom line, “Robot” was a pretty good episode, not the best, but certainly above average, and a great introduction to the new Doctor.