In a parallel universe Doctor Who is a fantasy series and the Doctor is a powerful wizard. Except we don’t need a parallel universe for this to be true. He might not have his magic wand at this point, but science-fiction is still just a veil of technobabble, never more so that during the final classic series of Doctor Who, which in much less interested in being sci-fi than any other series.
At this point it has been a while since the publication of Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Daniken, but the insidious appeal of pseudoarchaeology has never gone away. Doctor Who has played with the idea of aliens influencing Earth history many times over the years, but this is far from being a stale idea. In fact, the near-future setting pitches the story into a time of a huge revival of pseudoarchaeology, albeit in a rather more watered down state, with the publication in the 90s of various compelling (and compellingly ridiculous) ancient history books by authors such as Graham Hancock, Robert Bauval and Colin Wilson. The Doctor as Merlin, influencing human history in the past, feels ahead of its time in this context.
Where it is even more ahead of its time is in the timey-wimey stuff, years before Steven Moffat made it a standard Doctor Who thing to play around with time travel. The plot reaches River Song levels of intricacy, which is unprecedented at this stage and will not happen again for two decades. So the Doctor is thrown into the second half of a story, and all the antagonists already know him although he doesn’t know them. He has no idea what his future self has done during the first half of the story, but Future Doc has left him some handy clues, such as a mysterious inscription that turns out to say “dig hole here”. If this all sounds a bit like a game of chess played across time, that’s because it is the theme of the season (and also a wider theme within the Seventh Doctor era): the Doctor playing games across vast swathes of time, often using other people as the chess pieces. He can’t compete with Morgaine because she is already able to beat his future self, so he changes the game. It’s used to set up the punchline of a lame joke, but it’s very Doctorish.
Just when we think the Doctor will get the upper hand, the Big Bad conjures up a Bigger Bad. This will not be the last Lovecraftian abomination this series (Mike will like this). To fight this black king on the chess board, the Doctor needs a powerful piece of his own, and he has one: the Brigadier. What happens with the Brig and UNIT in this story is widely misunderstood.
Superficially the story seems to be setting up the Brigadier’s replacement, and the new version of UNIT. The common line of criticism is that the new Brigadier, Bambera, is undermined by the old Brig and never gets her chance to shine and properly establish herself as his successor. Bambera is pretty useless here (and quite irritating with all that child-friendly swearing). But she’s not supposed to be any good, because the whole point of this is to undermine UNIT and bury it once and for all in the past. Note how they are transporting a nuclear weapon, again. This is a call back to The Mind of Evil, and once again it shows UNIT as generic soldiers, doing army stuff. This highlights the problem of UNIT, where they became increasingly a simple branch of the army, and the Doctor was working for them. This was always a troublesome fit for a character that works best when he is being an anarchist force of nature. So UNIT can’t be impressive here. They have to be shown to be a pointless bunch of troops, useful only in the sense that they can be the pawns on the chessboard. Bambera is just another pawn like the rest of them.
The Brigadier (Lethbridge-Stewart) is different. He is no longer a member of UNIT, and has been made brilliant by so much time spent with the Doctor. He is like a returning companion, not a returning soldier. He is the Doctor’s friend, not his employer any more. And he doesn’t come from the world of the military now, but the world of the domestic: of daily, gloriously normal human life. Going back to doing the gardening is his reward for defeating the Destroyer. This is why killing him off would have been so wrong, because it would be the defeat of the everyday by the fantastical, and that’s not what the story is trying to do. Quite the opposite in fact.
The first half of the McCoy era was about escaping from the humdrum to a life of adventure: Mel (a computer programmer from Pease Pottage) goes off the travel the universe with Glitz; Ace escapes from her London street kid life and ends up as a waitress in a cocktail bar, before escaping again to a life of time travel with the Doctor. But the second half is different: it is more grounded in human concerns, and Ace’s character arc is all about coming to terms with her past, grounding herself in the reality of her London youth. Battlefield shows the mundane to be magnificent. There is nothing wrong with a normal, human life. In fact, going back to it is the Brigadier’s reward, and getting a taste of it is everyone else’s. It is a powerful message and a beautiful moment for Doctor Who. Sarah Jane once said “there’s nothing only about being a girl”. The message of Battlefield widens out that message to the whole human race.
There’s nothing only about being human. RP
The view from across the pond:
How is it that there are those who don’t like Battlefield? I admit, watching McCoy get “angry” is a bit silly considering his facial contortions come off looking like a kid who just had someone smack his ice cream cone out of his hand, but that doesn’t take away from the episode! The episode actually has a lot going for it. For instance, two words: “the Brigadier”! I don’t mean Winifred Bambera, who seems to think our Brig is about to hand a torch over to her so she can replace him…. But no. She doesn’t come close. I’m talking Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart is back, in the flesh and we finally meet his wife. Truly legendary! Thinking he might be killed off was another matter altogether. And don’t you just love how the Brig now just recognizes the Doctor. That’s a friendship that is utterly unwavering! After all these years, he’s back and alone can carry the episode through any of its hardships. Know what else is back? Bessie, the Doctor’s yellow roadster of awesomeness, although I can’t say that it needed the license plate change. Jean Marsh returns to Doctor Who as Morgaine; she conveys such strength in her performance. There’s something about Marsh that carries a lot of power; it’s got to be in the eyes! And to this day, I still think the Destroyer was one of the best creatures ever to appear in Doctor Who. This was a being of darkness; a creature with “epic villain” written all over his blue skin! And why did it take so many decades to link the Doctor with Merlin? McCoy, contortions aside, gives a stunningly moving speech when talking about nuclear war:
Death falling from the sky, blind, random, anywhere, anytime. No one is safe, no one is innocent. Machines of death, Morgaine, are screaming from above, of light brighter than the sun. Not a war between armies nor a war between nations, but just death, death gone mad. The child looks up in the sky, his eyes turn to cinders. No more tears, only ashes. Is this honor? Is this war?
Plus, by now everyone knows the story, but McCoy actually became a real life superhero during the filming of this story. For those who are not aware, Ace is in a container that is rapidly filling with water. The front of the container is glass. Sylvester sees it buckle and crack and instantly shouts to get her out. Had that exploded outward, Sophie would have been thrown onto shards of broken glass in a pool of water, heading toward electrical lights. Come on! How can anyone dislike an episode that has real jeopardy in it like that?
McCoy’s time was a mixed bag but this was a highlight regardless of the senseless things. What senseless things? Well, alas, they are many of those too. The glowing fish thing that attacks the Doctor looks fake and it just gives McCoy a chance to flop around a lot. Andred and his cronies come falling out of the sky like missiles at the start of the story and that looks about as lame as one might imagine of the very early days of Who. (When Flat Stanley looks better in The Keys of Marinus, one has to wonder!) Sophie and her new-found friend, arguing to see who gets pushed out of the chalk circle is acting right out of grade school; it’s a bit embarrassing to watch. And then there’s … oh, my word, it’s so embarrassing…. McCoy knocking someone out with his thumb! Give. Me. A. Break! First off: I’ve seen The Presidio and it was far more impressive when Sean Connery did it. (Fair point, Connery could make opening a tuna can look impressive!) Then, to add something to the lore of the show is a welcome thing, if it makes sense. It doesn’t add anything; in fact, it takes away from the character. You’re telling me he can knock people out with a touch, but he never uses it before this or since? How many times would it have helped him out of a scrape? And you thought the Sonic Screwdriver was a “get-out-of-jail-free” card??? No wonder they wrote this out and hoped no one remembered it.
But I still feel that the strengths of the episode far outweigh the weaknesses. And isn’t it nice that the story can end with the Doctor spending time with his old friend? In many ways, that alone offers a lot of untapped potential. We have to wait so long for new Who episodes; wouldn’t it be nice to get a series of vignettes each week like we did with Pond Life showing the Doctor visiting old friends? Well, DWM did a series called “Brief Encounters” and though they are one page stories, there is one where the Brig and his wife are looking at their wedding photos and realize the Doctor was there all the time. Call me a sap, but that’s the icing on the cake, and a beautiful epilogue to a legendary episode… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Ghost Light