Sunday, 27 December 2009

Ten Stories #7: "Let us teach them the limits of their technologies!"

Written by Ben Aaronovitch, directed by Michael Kerrigan, 1989

Though I’ve seen Battlefield before, it was always such a crushing disappointment compared to the rest of season twenty-six that it has remained very unfamiliar to me. Opening a season with a scene set in a garden centre is baffling enough, and I can’t help but question the logic of presenting the Brigadier and UNIT without explanation, fifteen years after they stopped being regular fixtures of the series.

However, rewatching it now, despite not being a prime example of its era, the change of emphasis from the last few stories I’ve watched is notable: Doctor Who is suddenly aware of and drawing on its own mythology in a positive way – rather than through meaninglessly returning monsters. There’s a complex, adult awareness of the Doctor as a mythic, legendary figure; for the first time the Doctor is explicitly presented in the mythologised way which will culminate in Russell T Davies’ ‘lonely god’. Similarly, UNIT and the Brigadier are rejigged and reimagined in line with the current production team’s approach, not rehashed verbatim; UNIT is international and hardware-oriented, while the Brigadier is given a domestic life.

Suddenly Doctor Who is trying to be bigger and more ambitious than just telling ‘thrilling adventures’ – it’s epic and mythic, and has themes (nuclear armageddon, etc). Even in a shit story it’s noticeably more sophisticated an approach, being experimental in a way Doctor Who hasn’t been since, arguably, season eighteen (not that that season is a flawless template, as evidenced by Full Circle).

It’s such a shame the production is fumbled here, cos Aaronovitch’s skill at characterisation and the continued mythologisation of the Doctor has the potential to be as effective as in Remembrance of the Daleks. I’m not sure the cast of characters are even especially likeable, but never before this period would such a multitude of characters have been as economically but effectively characterised as broadly believable real people. There’s also a lot of good – if somewhat hyperbolic or portentous – lines, which remind me quite a lot of Steven Moffat’s scripts: “The situation is normal. It doesn’t get much worse than that”; “She vanquished me. And I threw myself on her mercy”; “I cannot be bound so easily!”; “Night has fallen here”; “Look to your children, Merlin!”

What’s particularly frustratingly is that the superficial awfulness of this story masks the good stuff underneath. If there was ever a story crying out for a dark tone, and a bit of subtlety to emphasise its mystery, it’s this. Instead we get bizarre little decisions which really damage the story’s credibility, like characters inexplicably spinning into the tinselly vortex. The sunny weather really doesn’t help the atmosphere, either, and the infamous music ruins it.

However, though a lot of things aren’t right with this production, it’s not hard to imagine it pruned and reshaped (beyond the realms of what’s possible with the DVD edit, which I haven’t seen), with a subtler score and more atmosphere (night filming, stormy weather), and performances taken down a less-is-more route. Unfortunately, the production design is obviously unalterable, which is tragic as the initial shot of Excalibur makes my heart sink; it’s so cheap and tawdry, in its Quasar set. (A far cry from Mike Tucker’s brilliantly original, organic design sketches.)

I also really wish the budget had stretched to the intended technological suits of armour, with mirrored visors and built-in displays; it would not only have been much more memorable, but also helped to visually present the idea of extradimensional knights. Similarly, though the Destroyer really is excellent, it’s a pity his gradual transformation from businessman to demon couldn’t have been realised (especially since this could have been done inexpensively with some horned shadows and creativity). More prosaically though, he’s crying out for an action figure!

In terms of format, it struck me whilst watching this how bizarre it is that the 25 minute episode-and-cliffhanger format remained entirely unchanged from 1963 to 1989 (even more so given the exception of season twenty-two’s 45 minute episodes). I’m not sure if that’s a case of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,’ or whether it just shows a dubious reticence on the part of the production team to alter anything fundamental, when they should’ve had the bravery to do whatever would best suit the stories.

Ultimately, it doesn’t work to try to reconcile Battlefield with the darkness and realism of the rest of season twenty-six, but viewed as an ideas-packed, larger than life adventure more akin to the preceding season (with a certain amount of complexity and underlying themes), it works quite nicely. It’s set in the near future! A modernised UNIT are back! And the Brigadier! With Arthurian knights from another dimension! And a big blue demon! And helicopter crashes! These are the bold – but slightly bonkers – concepts that people are so taken with if Russell T Davies’ name is on the credits, but reviled elsewhere.

Looked at in this way, I actually quite enjoyed this story. The realisation is a mess, and it should be a lot better than this, but even in terms of what actually made it to the screen, I found it quite agreeable. Which is a lot preferable to hating it for not being as good as Fenric or Ghost Light (or even its own novelisation). Watched charitably, it’s an imaginative script let down by cartoonish realisation. You can see at least a bit of the brilliance of the writer of Transit and The Also People (ie, the ‘tab’ scene, and the hardware-oriented international UNIT), and that’s enough for me to forgive any amount of sparkly gunfire and weedy swordfights. (It’s interesting noting Aaronovitch’s interest in the Brigadier and African characters, which will culminate with the African Lethbridge-Stewart dynasty, and Kadiatu, in the New Adventures.)

I’m not sure whether it’s watching the eras in context that’s making me more charitable to stories I’ve always disliked, but it is refreshing to actually be able to take back a negative opinion. As this is what a lot of people seem to have used the 2009 gap year for, I’m glad I’m managing to join in with the reassessment.

As for the eighties overall, in a recent DWM interview, there was a box-out containing some of Gareth Roberts’ so-called controversial opinions about Doctor Who, including the fact that the Doctor has never been miscast (with any faults being down to production team), and that with the right marketing, the whole of the decade could have been a success. Both of those points seem quite self-evident to me, but it’s interesting imagining, say, Colin and Sylvester actually having had some standing in the public eye – I can’t imagine quite what the general public would have made of Battlefield, but in fairness I don’t think it’s any worse or less accessible than quite a lot of the new series.

NB: So… is Ancelyn related to Marcus Gilbert’s role in Evil Dead 3?? Does this make Bruce Campbell canon?!

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