Sunday, 9 January 2011
"I'm getting a little tired of hearing about your mother."
I really like Battlefield. It's definitely among my favorite Doctor Who stories. Yet at the same time I have to try hard to be really objective about it. There are an awful lot of things about Battlefield which really drag it down. Just like Ghost Light in the same season, it is a story badly weakened by a clear failure in both script editing and direction. Oddly, however, Ghost Light seems to have a better reputation among fans. I find this surprising because Battlefield seems to me a much more enjoyable and much less dense story than Ghost Light. Both stories suffer from the same problem of having too many characters, subplots and ideas, yet Battlefield is not confusing in the way that Ghost Light is and it has many far more memorable scenes. I suspect it comes down to an additional problem; that is the attempt to do a very epic story on the cheap. It is probably fair to say that Battlefield has the lowest production values of Season 26 and they are very noticeable.
This is certainly not the first story to deal with an Arthurian theme; that had been done rather less obviously in The Stones of Blood (Vivian Fay is very clearly Morgana Le Fay, despite also being a green-skinned alien and a former Brown Owl). We are given the fascinating concept of a world in which the Arthurian legends were true and in which powerful magic sat alongside incredibly advanced technology. Obviously, such a world could never be created on a BBC budget. The real genius of this serial is that it gives us a very vivid glimpse of this world simply through the dialogue. Thus, we cleverly learn something about their technology through the reference to ornithopters. We discover that Morgaine is the battle queen of 13 worlds, a truly titanic notion. Our imagination is fed by the discovery that Merlin, the future Doctor, is imprisoned by Morgaine in the ice caves. Morgaine gives us a beautifully vivid description of her happy childhood in the company of Arthur, her brother. This is a story for romantic, poetry reading Kate Bush fans.
The story begins with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart enjoying his clearly very comfortable retirement with his new wife Doris. Doris was o course mentioned in Planet of the Spiders. Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood point out the incongruity of Doris' portrayal in Battlefield. The reference to the Doris the Brigadier met in Brighton is clearly a girl of rather loose morals and probably from a working-class background. This is a very striking contrast to the very upper-middle class Doris we meet here. Doris is clearly one very expert social climber (and given the simplicity of the Brigadier's lifestyle in Mawdryn Undead and the very plush house and garden in Battlefield, it looks like Doris is the one with the money).
A major selling point of this story for many is the return of Nicholas Courtney's Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. This point saves this story from damnation for many fans. Personally, I would have liked to have seen this element left out. There are simply too many other characters and elements going on this story to do the return of the Brigadier any justice. Something has to go. Given that Battlefield offers us a newer model of Brigadier in Bambera, it would make sense to my mind to simplify things and leave Lethbridge-Stewart out of it. I doubt many fans would agree with me, however.
UNIT get a bit of an update in this story. Their international character is manifested in the presence of foreign troops. The presence of Czechslovakians should not be seen as a goof. In the Whoniverse, the Cold War ended in the Seventies and Britain was a neutral power (see Day of the Daleks), so there is no reason why we should expect Cxechslovakia to have broken up in the nineties. Sergaent Zbigniev is a bit puzzling; he claims to have served under Lethbridge-Stewart. Given that he does not look middle-aged, this supports my contention that the UNIT era is the 1980s, not the 1970s. Given that the Cold War ended before the UNIT era and Britain was not an ally of America in the Whoniverse it is possible that there were Eastern European troops on British soil in the UNIT era. What I find troubling is that we never saw this in the earlier UNIT stories. I suppose it is possible he was here as an individual on some sort of military exchange program, but it would be unlikely that a raw recruit (as Zbigniev must have been given his age) rather than an officer would be on such a program. It's nice to see UNIT wearing the UN blue berets (this was not possible before, because of the limitations of CSO). UNIT also have a lot of new military hardware, of which Lethbridge-Stewart has a remarkable awareness given that he is retired.
The new Brigadier, Bambera is both black and female. If this was a development in the BBC Wales series this would no doubt be read as an ironic joke about political correctness. However, this is the 80s when the politically correct agenda was taken seriously (we even get an Asian character thrown in for good measure as well). These politically correct values continue in the Virgin New Adventures. In Transit (by the same writer), we find out that Lethbridge-Stewart had an affair with an African woman and so starting an African branch of the Lethbridge-Stewart family. I quite like the 'right-on' NA values. It is tedious the way people trash political correctness these days. There is nothing funny about taking a stand against racism and prejudice. Angela Bruce gives a very butch performance as the new Brigadier. Some viewers are irritated by her bad language substitute, 'Shame!' I find this rather funny.
I am surprised that more reviewers do not pick up on the similarity between this Battlefield and Delta and the Bannermen. They both have a rural setting and a summery vibe that gives them something of a pastoral quality. They both feature a rather odd invasion of earth. They also both feature a very strange relationship; in Delta and the Bannermen, between Delta and Billy; in Battlefield, between Bambera and Ancelyn. It is so cute the way Bambera and Ancelyn fall asleep on top of each other after their beating each other up. As with Delta, there is a real sense of a classical celebration of love in a pastoral setting. Thus, the two stories can be seen as light-hearted and comedic, despite the violence (and you can find violence in Shakespeare's comedies too).
Morgaine is a strange lady. Ben Aaronovitch does an unusually brilliant job of portraying a completely alien mindset in her. She can't start fighting until her men have venerated the dead of our world wars; she kills a female soldier in cold blood, then heals a woman of blindness because her son has drunk without paying and she wants vengeance against Arthur, yet she gives the most beautiful lament when she learns he is dead. She is not a totally warped and evil being, because the Doctor persuades her in the end of the evil of unleashing nuclear warfare on earth. Jean Marsh definitely makes a cracking return performance to Doctor Who.
I tend to appreciate stories where the bad guys are not killed off Hincliffe style. In the end, both Morgaine and Mordred are taken prisoner by UNIT. The Doctor tells them to 'lock them up.' A lot have fans have suggested this is absurd; surely with her magic powers, Morgaine will have no trouble escaping? However, the Doctor must know what he is doing. Perhaps there are certain drugs that will prevent Morgaine from using the part of her mind that controls her magic. The Doctor also has a lot of occult knowlege. He knew that a chalk circle would keep Morgaine out. Perhaps there are runes or magic inscriptions that will have the similar effect of keeping Morgaine imprisoned. It would definitely make a great prison movie, with a title like 'Deathless Morgaine and other Bad Girls Behind Bars.'
Mordred is defintely a fun character. He is such a mummy's boy. Lethbridge-Stewart puts him in his place with the immortal line "Just between you and me, I'm getting a little tired of hearing about your mother." That Knight Commander is a bit awful, however.
LIn Tai gives a pretty unimpressive performance as Shou Yuing. She seems to be in the story simply to be one of the few Asian characters in Doctor Who outside of Marco Polo, Talons of Weng Chiang, and I almost forgot, Mavic Chen in Dalek Masterplan. Lin Tai did make an earlier appearance as an extra in Warriors of the Deep. The scene with her and Ace in the chalk circle is quite effective. Warmsley is a bit irritating. His part suffers from competition with the many other characters in this story. It is a bit odd that an archaeologist would suggest that it does not matter what period the scabbard is from (or that he would hang up a major find in a pub).
The idea of a future incarnation of the Doctor turning out to be a Merlin in another universe is awfully interesting. The Seventh Doctor is awfully mysterious through this serial, always appearing to know a good deal more than he is letting on. That said, this is clearly not McCoy's best performance. He comes across as quite bizarre, and rather unintentionally hilarious. He is incredibly manic and tries too hard to come across as scary. The moment when he tries to growl menacingly "If they are dead..." just cracks me up. Sorry, Sylvester, you just aren't that scary.
The moment when Ace says 'boom!' just as Ancelyn crashes into the building has been mocked by fans, but I think it makes an interesting point. It seems to challenge Ace's passion for destruction, pointing out the reality of violence and war.
The Destroyer is one of the most effective monsters ever. True, it is killed rather easily, but this is used to make a point about violence and death. As is typical of Cartmel-era Doctor Who, the Destroyer is used as metaphor. He represents the destruction and horror of nuclear weaponry.
With it's Arthurian theme, Battlefield reminds me of CS Lewis' offbeat novel, That Hideous Strength. Like Battlefield, That Hideous Strength threw in a mass of characters, ideas and subplots. It also had the pastoral vibe and the demonic element, though I doubt a Leftie like Aaronovitch would use such and influence. Speaking of CS Lewis, it would appear that as with Narnia, time in the Arthurian universe moves differently to ours, as both Mordred and Acelyn are contemporaries of Arthur, who has been dead in our world for over a thousand years.
There are a fair few places in this serial which are really cheap-looking. The costumes of Morgaine's knights for instance. And of course the interior of Arthur's spacecraft. When you compare that to the brilliance of that other biological spacecraft in Claws of Axos, it looks just pathetic.
This is a very flawed production, but it is definitely a very enjoyable one. It seems to have a paricular appeal to younger viewers. I remember this serial being on television when I was a child, before I started liking Doctor Who. Other boys at m school really loved it, with all those knights and soldiers, plus a big scary monster.