The Dæmons, by Matt Barber (and Barry Letts)

The next in the Black Archive sequence of commentary on Doctor Who is on The Dæmons, which rounded off the eighth season of Old Who in 1971. As usual, I went back and rewatched the original story, and then reread the novelisation, published in 1974, before getting to the Black Archive analysis.

When I first watched it in 2007, I wrote:

The Dæmons, first shown in 1971, is presumably the only Doctor Who story featuring a character in the title outside the standard 26 letters of the alphabet (plus numbers and punctuation). I’m a bit stunned that it is remembered as the peak of the Pertwee era by some. It’s not very good; it’s not very bad either; perhaps that makes it an archetypal Pertwee story, and so those who like that sort of thing will like this sort of thing. Delgado is good; Benton and Yates are good (and this story has clearly provided much inspiration for slash writers); both the Third Doctor and Jo are bad, as usual; and the monster is just awful, as is the final twist (it is destroyed when Jo offers her life instead of the Doctor’s as such self-sacrifice CANNOT COMPUTE).

My brother in 2010 wrote up The Daemons in the style of New Who:

JO: Don’t kill the Doctor, he’s fantastic! Kill me instead!
AZAL: Good point. I was just realizing how stupid it would be to kill the Doctor. (KILLS JO).
DOCTOR: Tut tut.
AZAL: I’m the last of my kind, you know.
DOCTOR: Really?

When I got to it again myself later in 2010, in my Great Rewatch, I liked it a lot more than first time around:

The Dæmons is surely the greatest of the UNIT stories, and one of the most English stories of this very English show. Evil morris dancers! A white witch! The Master is your local vicar! The first time I watched this I didn’t like it much, but taken in context, and an episode at a time, I can see why this Barry Letts script is seen as a high point of the Barry Letts years; it is the first time, apart from The War Games, that we have had a season finale as such, pulling all the characters together and ending with the Master’s disgrace and capture.

The Brigadier is off the main field of action for most of the story, which actually gives him a chance to shine on his own rather than be snarled at by Pertwee, and generates a nice the-boss-is-away dynamic among the other UNIT folks, augmented by Delgado on top form and by Damaris Hayman’s wonderfully batty performance as Miss Hawthorne (who we assume had a jolly good fertility dance with Benton throughout the following night). Apart from Richard Franklin, who is clearly the weakest of the regulars, everyone is excellent. (I enjoyed also watching the Return to Devil’s End documentary, bringing Pertwee, Courtney, Franklin and Levene back to the village along with director Christopher Barry.)

commented back in The Abominable Snowmen that Who has four ways of treating religion: squabbling sectarians, deluded cultists, religious buildings used for nefarious purposes, or true believers. The Dæmons includes both the second and third categories. As far as I remember it is also the first time religion has been portrayed on the show since The Abominable Snowmen, and the only time apart from Steven’s profession of faith (or at least denomination) in The Massacre and the unecclesiastical antics of The Smugglers that we have had anything explicit about the Church of England. More on this in the story after next.

Once again, I liked it a bit more on rewatching. Sometimes one enjoys performances that little bit more because the performers are clearly having a good time, and this is one of those. The spooky line between science and magic is nicely explored as well; we’ll get to that later.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the novelisation, by Barry Letts, is:

Across the churchyard flitted a shadow a little more dense than the shadows of the gravestones in the moonlight. Seeking the sanctuary of the church wall, it paused momentarily as if to make sure it was unobserved and then vanished through the vestry door.

The Master talks to a young man in the vestry

When I re-read the novelisation in 2008, I wrote:

This was one of those books which, on rereading, very much lived up to my fond childhood memories. It is funny, witty, adds bags of backstory to both minor and major characters (the account of the Doctor and the Master growing up together on Gallifrey ought to be canon for all interested fanfic writers), substitutes far better special effects on the page for the end-of-budget ones we got on-screen, and is generally a good read. My favourite Third Doctor book so far.

Again, I still think this is the best Third Doctor novelisation, with Doctor Who and the Green Death by Malcolm Hulke being its only serious rival; it’s the only classic series novelisation by Barry Letts, the producer throughout the Pertwee years. One aspect that I feel deserves a bit more attention: the dramatic internal illustrations by Alan Willow, this being the first of seven novelisations that he illustrated between 1974 and 1975. (Though his take on Jo isn’t brilliant, and “creature” is misspelt in the second caption – not his fault, I guess.)

You can get it here.

Matt Barber’s Black Archive on The Dæmons is of average length for this sequence, but has very long chapters, so this review will probably be unfairly short.

The introduction sets out Barber’s stall: The Dæmons is actually a very atypical and unusual Doctor Who story, “without time travel, with little science fiction and, debatably, an ambiguous approach to the existence of magic; a story in which the TARDIS does not appear and is not even mentioned.” Barber himself has an MA in the History and Literature of Witchcraft, and his PhD focused on the mythologising of American politics in film and television, so he brings an unusual set of analytical filters to the task.

The first chapter, “The Unholy Power of Olive Hawthorne”, looks at witchcraft lore through Margaret Alice Murray, Gerald Gardner, and James Frazer of course, before turning to the role of Miss Hawthorne in the narrative; he makes the interesting point that although she is presented initially as a somewhat batty busybody, in fact she is right about what is really going on and all the men she argues with, including the Doctor, are wrong.

(I must add also that Damaris Hayman, who plays Miss Hawthorne, appears in the very last episode of Here Come the Double Deckers! which also dates from 1971.)

The second chapter, “Satanism, Devilish Pacts and Scientists”, starts with a real-life West Country vicar who was accused of involvement with black magic in 1969; then looks at Faust and the Master (and to an extent the Doctor as well); then at the influence of Aleister Crowley and Dennis Wheatley in general; and finally at the similarities and differences between The Dæmons and The Devil Rides Out.

The third chapter’s title is “A Tour of Devil’s End”. Its second paragraph is:

There is something about the English village that made it an enticing location for particular genres of popular culture in the 1970s. But why should such a parochial and picturesque location become such a standard for horror and dark fantasy? In the previous chapter, I inferred that the writers of Doctor Who were, like fan creators, ‘textual poachers’. In this chapter, I want to press this idea further by looking at how the series adapts the work of genre writers including John Wyndham and Nigel Kneale, MR James and HP Lovecraft to create a new, gestalt narrative. Through this, I want to explore how the English countryside and pastoral mythology has been adopted and reshaped by popular culture before, during and after the production of The Dæmons. In this way I will unpack what the English village brought as a location for this story and others in the 1970s and 1980s, and what Aldbourne in particular contributes to the character and popularity of The Dæmons. This will be a whistle-stop tour through subjects ranging from folk horror and pseudo-archaeology to psychogeography, hauntology and religion.

The opening paragraph of the chapter points out that Aldbourne, the village where The Dæmons was filmed, is very close to Silbury Hill, the ancient artificial mound which was the subject of a televised dig in 1969. (My old friend Jonathan Last has things to say about Silbury Hill.) Barber then looks at the real geography of Aldbourne, the connections between The Dæmons and the Fifth Doctor story The Awakening, the subgenre of Folk Horror, Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit, John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, the role of the Church (both institution and building), M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft and the role of the pub.

A brief conclusion reflects on Barber’s personal reaction to visiting Aldbourne over the years, and an appendix gives a plot summary of The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley, which is clearly a taproot text for this story.

In general I prefer the Black Archive books that reflect a bit more than this does on the production, plot and performances in the stories that they are looking at. But this was a very interesting and well-informed exploration of the cultural roots of The Dæmons. Recommended. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Face of Evil (27) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)