Battlefield, by Philip Purser-Hallard (and Ben Aaronovitch, and Marc Platt)

When I first watched Battlefield in 2007 I was not at all impressed.

Battlefield must have been the killer blow which led to the cancellation. It is simply awful. The story is incomprehensible, the direction (particularly of the all-important action scenes) both uninspiring and incoherent, the supposed killer-end-of-the-universe monster is atrocious, and the background music some of the worst of all time. I haven’t seen much late-eighties Doctor Who, but I shall be very surprised if I find another story as bad as this. I am among that minority (even among the small number who have watched it) who thought Ben Aaronovitch’s other story, Remembrance of the Daleks, was bad too, so it comes as little surprise to me.

Surely the programme’s makers must have realised what a risk they were taking with an uneven writer for the opening story of a season where the entire programme faced cancellation? [In retrospect this was very unfair of me, and I have enjoyed a lot of Aaronovitch’s other work.] Ye who complain about Torchwood, or about how not quite every story of new Who comes up to the standards you have come to expect of Buffy or Battlestar Galactica, some time please sit down and watch Battlefield, and marvel.

Anyway, I should not be wholly negative. [Indeed.] Nicholas Courtney puts in one of his best performances as the Brigadier, and has a great confrontation scene with Jean Marsh playing the chief villain. (The two of them had appeared together in Doctor Who 23 years earlier, playing brother and sister galactic agents in The Daleks’ Master Plan.) But that’s about it; even McCoy and Aldred seem to have little idea of what is going on.

Curiously I was much more forgiving when I reached it in my Great Rewatch:

In my last post I recanted my previous disdain for Remembrance of the Daleks, and uneasily anticipated that I might have to do the same for Battlefield. And so it proved to be; I take it all back, or almost all. Even if the precise background to the intrusion into our world of the Arthurian mythos as interplanetary battle is not really spelled out, it is generally pleasing, and especially pleasing to see the Doctor made to play the role of Merlin in someone else’s drama. (He is definitely more of a Merlin than a Prospero.) The many effects all work to enhance the story, and we have the excellent Bambera / Ancelyn subplot (it was nice to be watching this so soon after Bambera’s return in Tony Lee’s play Rat Trap for Big Finish) and the Ace / Shou Yuing spark too.

Most importantly for us longterm fans, we also have the final return (for Old Who) of Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier. It allows him to return to military heroism as he did when we first saw him stalking Yeti in the Underground, rather than the blimpish buffoon of the later Pertwee years; even better, we have Courtney sparking against Jean Marsh as they did, briefly, in 1965 in The Daleks’ Master Plan. The moment when the Brigadier chops the Doctor in order to take the final confrontation himself is fantastic, as is the Doctor’s reaction when he thinks the Brigadier is dead (as had been the original intention of the script). It’s a strong enough start to a strong season.

Rewatching it now, I confess I have swung back again to my first take. It seemed to me incomprehensible and badly made. The direction is dull and the music intrusive and inappropriate. Nicholas Courtney is still very good, but (having been reading some military memoirs recently) I wondered about the nature of UNIT hierarchy, and who precisely was giving him orders to go to Carbury and why these were not communicated to Bambera. The final scene is terrifically stupid, though at least it established that the Seventh Doctor can cook.

The novelisation is a different matter. The second paragraph of the third chapter of Part 1 is:

The roads were slippery with the wet green leaves stripped from the trees by the storm. Zbrigniev’s training took each obstacle of debris in its stride, but although the onslaught had died, the UNIT car never topped fifteen miles an hour.

I wrote in 2008:

I’m not the greatest fan of Ben Aaronovitch, who wrote the original script, but Platt has taken the story and makes it work really well on paper. It makes you realise just how much of the TV version’s problems were down to poor direction, bad music and lousy acting. We get some lovely back-story for the Brigadier and Doris; we get just enough explanation for the Doctor being Merlin to leave room for further speculation without just being stupid; we get the Bambera/Ancelyn relationship decently treated as well. Interestingly Platt has broken the story up into four parts which more or less coincide with the episodes as broadcast, the only novelisation where I remember this being done. [Actually not the only one; see also: Galaxy Four]

An easy pass for the Bechdel test, with Ace and Shou Youing defending each other against the forces of darkness (in the book, we are not distracted by their awful acting).

I still agree with all of that. The middle and end of the story still don’t make much sense, but the beginning is very well developed and that gives you enough momentum to keep going. Intriguingly, Platt’s future Doctor has red hair. You can get it here.

I was very curious as to how Philip Purser-Hallard would approach this story for the Black Archives. In his earlier monograph on Dark Water / Death in Heaven, he persuaded me of some of the redeeming features of a story that I still don’t like very much. Other Black Archive writers have tried the same – thinking here of L.M. Myles on The Ambassadors of Death. But there are other possibilities – James Cooray Smith, writing on The Ultimate Foe, my least favourite of all the stories so far covered by the Black Archive, analyses in forensic detail just how it came to be such a mess.

Purser-Hallard disarmingly admits in a prologue that many of the criticisms of Battlefield are valid, but “despite the story’s various missteps and mishaps, it succeeds in certain important respects, and it is this tension in which this book is most interested.”

The first chapter, “One Painstaking Layer at a Time”, looks at the first two versions of the storyline, both of which made better sense, and the changes made to the script at the last moment. He makes the point that the armour worn by Morgaine and her knights should have been obviously high-tech, as described in the script, and the decision to just use ordinary armour instead had a serious impact on the quality of the story as broadcast.

The second chapter, “Daleks, Master-Plans”, starts by comparing and contrasting Battlefield with Remembrance of the Daleks, and then looks at the Cartmel Master Plan, and the (slim) possibility that Bambera might have returned in future seasons if Old Who had not been cancelled.

The second paragraph of the third chapter, “This Thing About King Arthur”, is:

One method is to construct a science-fiction story with parallels to a myth – more often than not a classical myth – and usually to flag the fact in dialogue. This is the approach taken to, for instance, the myths of Jason and the Golden Fleece in Underworld (1978), the Minotaur in The Horns of Nimon (1979-80) and the Minotaur again in The God Complex (2011). Another is to suggest that elements of various mythologies are real, but explicable through science fiction tropes, generally ancient visitations by aliens – the view taken of the Titan Kronos (and the Minotaur again) in The Time Monster (1972), the Egyptian god Set in Pyramids of Mars (1975), and the apocalypse-heralding Norse monster Fenrir in The Curse of Fenric. (This is also a common approach to invented alien religions, for instance in The Face of Evil (1977) and Planet of Fire (1984).) A third variant consists of stories where, rather than inspiring a myth, the alien takes advantage of an existing one to deceive the superstitious locals. In the earliest example of this, The Myth Makers (1965), the alien masquerading as Zeus is the Doctor himself; a more recent one is the Mire warlord who impersonates Odin in The Girl Who Died (2015).

The chapter looks at sources for Arthuriana: Roger Lancelyn Green, Boorman’s Excalibur, The Mists of Avalon, the comic series Camelot 3000 and the BBC series Knights of God which starred Patrick Troughton but was not shown until after he had died. (I am surprised not to see T.H. White or Monty Python on that list.)

The fourth chapter, “The Legendary Arthur, Yes”, looks in detail at the Arthurian roots of various characters and concepts in Battlefield, running into problems with Bambera who is not a brilliant match for Guinevere. This chapter alone takes up a quarter of the book. I think this is trying a little too hard.

The fifth chapter, “Builder of Worlds”, points out that Battlefield is set not in 1989 when broadcast but in an unspecified near future where the UK has a king and various other things have happened. (God be with the days when you could get a vodka and coke, a lemonade and a glass of water for much less than a fiver.)

The sixth chapter, “Is This War?”, examines the story’s depiction of the military and the Doctor’s relationship with them, and the concepts of “honour” and “shame”, the latter of which is used euphemistically by Bambera as a swear word.

The seventh chapter, “Sufficiently Advanced Magic”, points out that the 1988 and 1989 stories had more overtly magical content, and that Morgaine’s witchcraft is in the end her undoing.

The eighth chapter, “Britishness, and Other Identities”, looks at how the story’s heterogenous concept of Britishness is developed further in Aaronovitch’s (excellent) Rivers of London books, and also looks at just why that last scene is so bad.

The ninth chapter, “It’s Only a Trap”, comes back to the Bambera/Guinevere question, and also looks at how future incarnations of the Doctor might appear in the current Doctor’s story. As noted above, Platt’s future Doctor in the novelisation has red hair.

In the conclusion, Purser-Hallard rather disarmingly confesses that “for many years – 16, to be precise – [Battlefield] was my favourite story.” (Sixteen years from 1989 takes us to the dawn of New Who.) I’m really charmed that he managed to resist the temptation to go full-on apologetic for a youthful enthusiasm, and instead provided a thoughtful analysis.

But I still wonder about a few things, notably, why are the direction and the music so awful? It’s a book that answers a lot of questions, but not all of them are the ones I would have asked.

Anyway, you can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56)