THIS STORY TAKES
PLACE BETWEEN THE
ANTHOLOGY "A COLD
DAY IN HELL!" AND
THE TV STORY
STORM OVER AVALLION
RESPONDING TO A
DISTRESS SIGNAL, THE
DOCTOR AND ACE
ARRIVE NEAR THE
VILLAGE OF CARBURY,
WHERE A NUCLEAR
MISSILE CONVOY HAS
RUN INTO DIFFICULTIES.
THE PEACE OF THE
ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE IS
SHATTERED AS UNIT
TROOPS ARE BESIEGED
BY ARMOURED KNIGHTS
DIMENSION. AS THE
STEWART IS CALLED OUT
OF RETIREMENT TO JOIN
THE BATTLE. TOGETHER,
HE AND THE DOCTOR
MUST FACE THE
SUMMONED BY THE
WITCH QUEEN MORGAINE
TO DEVOUR THE
6TH SEPTEMBER 1989 - 27TH SEPTEMBER 1989
With Arthurian legend prevalent in popular culture thanks to shows such as Stargate SG•1 and Merlin, not to mention Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart recently returning to our screens in The Sarah Jane Adventures, 2 Entertain couldn’t have timed the release of this Battlefield DVD any better.
Modelled on the highly popular two-disc special edition of The Curse of Fenric, this sumptuous DVD set features the original four episodes of the serial (as transmitted back in September 1989), together with an all-new 95-minute movie version of the story, complete with reinstated scenes and new CG effects.
The first disc of the set is brimming with a series of rather substantial special features, not least of which is the delightfully informative commentary track featuring Sophie Aldred (Ace); Nicholas Courtney (Lethbridge-Stewart); Angela Bruce (Bambera); Ben Aaronovitch (writer); and Andrew Carmel (script editor). The notable absentee is of course the Doctor himself, Sylvester McCoy, who I would imagine was busy playing the Fool to Ian McKellen's King Lear when this was recorded.
“If he’s Lancelot, where’s Guinevere?”
It’s fascinating to hear Aaronovitch discuss the writing of this story, particularly as there are numerous deft little touches that I’d failed to appreciate until now. Take, for example, the quotation cited above, lifted from a deleted scene – Ancelyn / Lancelot, Winifred / Guinevere, get it? The same is elaborated upon further in the twelve-minute featurette Past and Future King, and to a lesser extent in the showcase documentary Storm Over Avallion, which focuses more on the actual production of the serial. Other features on the first disc include a featurette detailing Aldred’s brush with death in the ruptured water tank, as well as almost twenty minutes’ worth of unedited studio footage and the usual trails and continuities.
It’s quite astonishing to see how hard Aaronovitch is on this story, both in terms of his own script which he feels “lacks elegance” and also the tawdriness of the production. Now whilst from a cynical, grown-up point of view some of the structural problems are indeed apparent, when I first watched this story as a child I can’t recall ever being all that critical of them. And in fairness, when a writer is asked to extend a three-part story to fill four episodes, there are inevitably going to be problems, and indeed vice-versa. It’s rather ironic that the dramatically curtailed Ghost Light is so pithy that it doesn’t make any sense unless the viewer watches a documentary to explain the plot, whilst on the other hand Battlefield has to keep the Brigadier up in the air in a helicopter for nigh-on a whole episode just to pad things out.
“My future is catching up with me.”
It’s also remarkable that Battlefield was intentionally written as a ‘reflection’ of Remembrance of the Daleks. Rather than battling futuristic monsters that couldn’t be reasoned with from his relative past in the actual past, here the Doctor battles non-technological human adversaries from his relative future in the near future. I’m particularly fond of the latter aspect of this idea, with the seventh Doctor, for once, a pawn in his own game… a game that he has yet to commence! With the Earth at the centre of war that doesn’t even belong to its dimension, the Doctor faces a foe that claims to know him of old – a foe that knows him as Merlin; the man of many faces who rides the ship of time.
The future history between the Doctor and Morgaine adds a depth to the story that it otherwise would have lacked, and of course it further fuels the intrigue that suffuses the Doctor’s character, albeit in an innovative new way: here we aren’t curious about his past, but his future. The last two seasons of the classic series really made a concerted effort to re-inject the Time Lord with all the magic and the mystery that he had once possessed, and by the end of this serial they had more than succeeded.
ACE Are you Merlin?
THE DOCTOR No. But I could be. In the future. That is, my personal future.
Which could be the past…
And so is the Doctor Merlin? I don’t think that we will ever know for sure, and rightly so. But with doors keyed by Merlin to the Doctor’s personal voiceprint, and notes apparently scribbled by a future Doctor, it’s certainly plausible, if not inevitable…
“Any sufficiently advanced form of magic is indistinguishable from technology.”
It also has to be said what a bloody good premise Battlefield is built upon; a premise beautifully and explicitly illustrated by the special edition of the story, which features some reinstated dialogue between the Doctor and Ace that sees them discuss how Morgaine and her army are examples of Clarke’s Law in reverse. Swords and sorcery don’t feel in the slightest bit of out of place here; indeed, the juxtaposition of UNIT troops with machine guns and knights in armour with swords is an image that seems to resolutely cry out Doctor Who.
However, a lot of the credit for how convincing Battlefield is is squarely attributable to the former Mrs Pertwee, Jean Marsh, who plays Morgaine le Fay - the Sunkiller, Dominator of the Thirteen Worlds and Battle Queen of the S’rax. Marsh imbues the character with such a terrifying ambivalence, a quality perhaps demonstrated best in the infamous pub scene in which she kills a UNIT soldier and then, in short order, cures the landlady’s blindness in payment for her son’s ale. It’s wonderfully written, of course, but Marsh really convinces in a way that I don’t think most actresses could. It’s fitting, then, that the DVD pays homage to Marsh in the short featurette From Kingdom to Queen, which briefly examines Marsh’s three roles in the series, including her brief stint as the first Doctor’s companion Sara Kingdom in 1965/66. Sadly the feature doesn’t look at her appearances in the recent Big Finish audio productions The Wishing Beast and Home Truths, but I suppose there is a limit to disc space.
THE BRIGADIER Oh dear, women, not really my field.
THE DOCTOR Don’t worry, Brigadier, people will be shooting at you soon.
Turning to the Brigadier’s last televised appearance in the series, I have to say that I love how the character is portrayed. With the no-nonsense Brigadier Winifred Bambera running the UK division of UNIT, Battlefield shows the much-beloved Lethbridge-Stewart in a whole new light. He isn’t craving “the Blunder Days” of yesteryear; he simply wants to quietly “fade away” in his picturesque country home with his lovely wife, Doris… but he’s still needed. To Doctor Who fans, the Brigadier may be a legend, and from Battlefield it appears that to the next generation of UNIT personnel, he’s pretty much the same.
Now from watching all the bonus material on the DVD, and in particular listening to Aaronovitch rip his own script to shreds, it has really brought into sharp focus just how discordant the ending of the final episode is. And to be fair, even watching this story through the naïve eyes of a seven-year old, I couldn’t help but feel that the Brigadier was going to die right from his very first scene. Just look at the way in which Aaronovitch builds up the Brigadier’s cosy retirement; his poignant goodbye to Doris; hell, for the first time he even shoots an alien monster that dies! For the Brigadier to survive this story defies all the laws of poetics.
Aaronovitch describes writing the Brigadier’s death scene, and then immediately writing “and then he opened his eyes.” Just like the fourth Doctor on Skaro with those two wires, Aaronovitch couldn’t make the kill, and it seems that to this day that he regrets it. Shame. Yes, the Brigadier’s survival is utterly unexpected and yes, it flies in the face of storytelling convention. But it’s also almost farcically welcome. It is, if you’ll pardon the expression, magic.
The bright and rather indulgent ending to this story contrasts magnificently with the opening scenes set inside the poorly lit TARDIS console room. Unlike Remembrance of the Daleks, Battlefield has an overwhelmingly happy ending which, no matter how many times I’ve watched it, can’t fail to have an uplifting effect on my mood. Perhaps it’s down to the brilliance of Courtney’s last ever line in the series, which has to be right up there with Colin Baker’s “carrot juice!” “You any good with a lawn mower, Ancelyn?” the erstwhile Brig asks with a wry smile. It certainly beats “get off my world!” in my book.
Ultimately then, Battlefield is a thing of beauty, especially in its jazzed-up special edition format. Replete with some of the best one-liners in the history of the series the dialogue simply sparkles, and some of the set pieces are absolutely out of this world - we have the enduring image of Ace rising out of the lake holding Excalibur high above her head, as well as the Doctor running right into the middle of an old-fashioned battle and shouting
“STOP!”… and they stop! We even have the Doctor’s old roadster Bessie show up (albeit with a nauseatingly vulgar ‘Who 7’ number plate).
What’s more, the Restoration Team have really put a lot of effort into making this one shine in its new movie-format. Little touches, such as some aerial shots of London as seen from the Brigadier’s helicopter, and the voices of Ace and Shou Yuing echoing inside their chalk circle, really help to lift the story no end. I only wish every story released was afforded such lavish treatment. I may have always had a soft spot for Battlefield, but even I have never enjoyed it this much. Trust me, this DVD is a must.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
When is now? A number of stories in the spin-off media state that this adventure took place in 1997 (as its author famously opined when writing a Virgin writers’ guide), confirming what many had inferred. Given that The Dying Days takes place in May 1997, it seems reasonable to infer that Battlefield took place some time between January and April.
Please see the UNIT Dating Dossier for further information.
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