(ROBERT SLOMAN & BARRY LETTS)
(10.5 MILLION WHEN REPEATED)
'The DÆmons' DVD (BBCDVD3383)
RELEASED IN MARCH 2012.
In the peaceful village of Devil’s End something very strange is happening. A professor is preparing to open a nearby burial mound, and a local white witch foresees death and disaster. Meanwhile, the new vicar looks suspiciously like the Master and he is using black magic to conjure up an ancient Dæmon. Can the Doctor, Jo and UNIT stop their old enemy before he succeeds?
22ND MAY 1971 - 19TH JUNE 1971
The Dæmons is a Doctor Who serial that, ever since it was first broadcast, has topped many a fan’s list of favourites. Written by then-producer Barry Letts and distinguished dramatist Robert Sloman, this seminal five-parter epitomises the series’ UNIT era at its apex, folding strange goings on in a bucolic village into an enthralling storyline that would finally see the Master apprehended and the Doctor’s UNIT colleagues shine in more ways than one. Back in 1971 it not only brought Season 8 to a stylish and unforgettable conclusion, but also served as Doctor Who’s first feature-length Christmas special when ten and a half million viewers tuned in to the ninety-minute compilation repeat Doctor Who and the Dæmons - two million more than had watched the original broadcast. No matter how extraordinary Brian Wright’s original season finale, The Cerebroids, might have been, I’d be very surprised if it could’ve topped that.
The first time that I saw The Dæmons I was taken aback by its striking sense of atmosphere. Having been afforded twice as much location filming as was the norm, director Christopher Barry was able to imbue the whole production with a lush, filmic feel that calls to mind the many popular portmanteau horror movies of the era. This is particularly evident in the serial’s opening episode as it’s mainly free of any special effects work, its creeping fear borne of suspense rather than spectacle. Indeed, from the episode’s eerie opening shot until the cliffhanging cracking-open of the Devil’s Hump at its end, the viewer can feel the tension. It’s palpable.
As the narrative unfurls, The Dæmons may lose a little of its cinematic sheen, but this is more than made up for by other elements. Roger Delgado’s performance as the Master here is amongst his finest; he seems to delight in taking what should be a sacrosanct position and turning it into something sinister. For me, it is the hold that the Master has over the villagers that makes this serial so singularly unsettling - there’s something inherently terrifying about children sat around on their bikes blithely licking ice creams as their parents tie a man to a maypole, intent on burning him alive. It’s hard to believe that Mary Whitehouse and her cronies spent their time whittling about The Dæmons’ alleged debasement of the clergy and the blowing up of a (model!) church when faced with such patently troubling imagery.
The eponymous Dæmons also impress, not only in fact but in concept. Stephen Thorne’s Azal may pander to the demonic (dæmonic…?) archetype in his appearance, but he and his species couldn’t be any further away from it – they aren’t evil creatures of Hell, but unscrupulous scientists. It is this “science versus sorcery” outlook that ultimately defines The Dæmons, as embodied in the enjoyable enmity between the scientific Doctor and white witch Miss Hawthorne. It’s a delight to watch Jon Pertwee’s self-satisfied Time Lord lauding it over Damaris Hyman’s amiable mystic, particularly when the writers leave just enough wiggle-room for us to be able to entertain the possibility that there is magic in the world – or at least a form of science that even a Time Lord can’t distinguish it from.
Like many aspects of The Dæmons, Pertwee’s performance is not only perfect but emblematic. His Doctor visibly softened following the lifting of his sentence in The Three Doctors, but I was always much more taken with the ill-tempered, weather-beaten exile that finds himself at his lowest ebb as this serial opens. Having just returned from a one-off adventure on Uxarieus that only served to emphasise his exile, rather than provide respite from it, here the third Doctor is at his grouchiest – and thus his most compelling. He sneers his way through the story, talking down to everyone and, on one memorable occasion, even slagging off the Brig to his assistant Jo, only to bite her head off for agreeing with him and thus disrespecting her commander. It’s a testament to Jo’s good character that, despite his poor treatment of her, she’s prepared to lay down her life for the Doctor in the final episode. Erstwhile series script editor Terrance Dicks may make no secret of his distaste for the supposed illogic of the story’s dénouement, but I love the emotional grandeur of it – it is, quite simply, Jo’s defining moment.
Indeed, one of The Dæmons’ strongest qualities is its vibrant portrayal of not only the Earthbound Doctor, but Jo and UNIT too. Having overseen all but one of the third Doctor’s adventures at that point, Letts was perfectly placed to tailor his script to the idiosyncrasies of the series’ many regular characters - and their actors too. With the Brigadier locked out of the village for great swathes of the action, Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton are each afforded more central roles than usual. Richard Franklin’s love of motorcycles is indulged as Yates gets to tear up the roads on a bike, as is his penchant for dry humour as he “borrows” the Brigadier’s helicopter without permission only to lose it in action – something that he then must explain to his unimpressed CO. Similarly, Benton enjoys some extensive physical action sequences which John Levene realises with commensurate flair, as well as a few uneasy, comic moments as he desperately tries to spurn the advances of the libidinous Miss Hawthorne. However, best – and most notoriously – of all, the script allows Nicholas Courtney to expound upon the Brigadier’s acerbic sense of humour that earlier stories had fleetingly alluded to. Immortal lines such as “You know what? I sometimes wish I worked in a bank”, and particularly “Chap with the wings, there. Five rounds rapid”, may have been done to death since, but it’s with just cause. They’re peerless.
“Chap with the wings, there. Five rounds rapid.”
The DVD’s bonus disc’s showpiece feature is The Devil Rides Out, a half-hour retrospective that does a splendid job of succinctly summarising the evolution and reception of The Dæmons. By way of a 2008 interview, Barry Letts is on hand to explain how the script was borne out of his fascination with black magic, and extrapolated from a rousing audition piece that he’d summarily scribbled for the character of Jo Grant. The documentary even dissects the pseudonymous Guy Leopold, whom we learn took his name from Robert Sloman’s son’s first and Barry Letts’ middle names respectively, while also revealing that it was director Christopher Barry who put the ‘æ’ in The Dæmons and actor Richard Franklin who ad-libbed Yates’s wry final line: “Fancy a dance, Brigadier?” To my great pleasure though, the programme proved to be every bit as amusing as it was informative – the hilarity vested in Katy Manning’s sage counsel “Never give Jon Pertwee a motorbike when he’s having a hissy fit” is eclipsed only by Damaris Hyman’s real-life belief in the occult. Of course, such matters are also broached in the disc’s commentary, and occasionally with a little more humour than in the inevitably more sober documentary, but sadly the track lacks the insightful input of Letts, who must have already passed away by the time of its recording.
Appropriately though, The Dæmons affords its co-writer due deference, gifting him a little over thirty minutes’ worth of disc space in the touching tribute Remembering Barry Letts. Narrated largely by Letts’ two sons (who show unexpected shades of Bart Simpson in how they refer to him as ‘Barry’ throughout), the piece provides an overview of Letts’ career as an actor, writer, producer and director. With my narrow focus being set squarely on Doctor Who, before watching this I hadn’t been aware of what a prolific talent Letts had been, particularly in his heyday. I also love the idea that he and his actress wife first met on screen, the spark of their earliest encounter etched forever into film.
Above: Dæmons’ co-writer Barry Letts rides in to discuss his magnum opus
The remainder of the bonus disc’s features are far less remarkable, but worthwhile nonetheless. Around seven minutes’ worth of mute 8mm film offers us a rare glimpse of the location shoot in the picturesque Wiltshire village of Aldbourne, while two titbits from the early 1990s lift the veil on the recolourisation of the serial’s surviving monochrome films. The first is a short clip from the television series Tomorrow’s World, which takes a look at the technology and techniques used, whereas the second takes the form of the serial’s full first episode, presented as it appeared having been put through the initial process. I can’t help but wonder if 2|entertain included the latter simply to highlight just how bloody good the remastered five episodes on the first disc look – the difference is staggering.
The Dæmons is a Doctor Who serial that, ever since it was first broadcast in 1971, has topped many a fan’s list of favourites. It’s also a Doctor Who serial that, ever since the series first arrived on DVD in 1999, has topped many a fan’s DVD wish list. At long last though, we can excitedly cross it off our ever-shortening lists and revel in what is, without a doubt, the third Doctor story in all its digitised splendour.
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