This was Doctor Who’s concession to the fact that military types often use post-watershed language when stressed. The main military figure in this episode, Brigadier Winifred Banbera, uses this motif on a number of occasions to express, in a typically British manner, that she’s just a little bit cross – quite possibly because the pre-9pm showtime forced her to restrain her preferred expletive!
Battlefield is a curious crossover between older seasons and the new direction the show was going in. By bringing back Nicholas Courtney as the popular Brigadier Leighbridge-Stewart, reintroducing UNIT, with whom the Doctor had enjoyed (or endured depending on your viewpoint!) a long relationship in the 1970s, and of course John Pertwee’s classic yellow car “Bessie”, the show unashamedly looked back. By replacing the Bridgadier with the strong female lead of Banbera however, there was a distinct sense of easing continuity – very much like Russell T Davies was to do by referencing UNIT in the Christopher Eccleston story Aliens of London. Credit where it is due – if one leaves aside the embarrassment of watching Banbera look like she’s forgotten how to swear, UNIT work very well in the story alongside the Doctor.
This was the first serial of Season 26 – the last season of the classic run. By now Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred were in prime form as the Doctor and Ace, and the stories now reflected Ace’s own growing self confidence, and the emergence of McCoy as a dark and manipulative character playing a much larger game. This was played out rather well in The Curse of Fenric … but rather less well here.
This story was penned by Ben Aaronovitch, who did a stellar job on Remembrance of the Daleks. Unfortunately in this serial, whether due to the briefing given by Script Editor Andrew Cartmel, or just pure mistake, he manages to achieve a degree of weirdness not seen since … well, Rings of Akhaten to be fair! The theory is that a group of medieval(ish) knights have fallen through from another dimension, loosely based on the Arthurian legends. Adding to the mystique of the Seventh Doctor, he is recognised as “Merlin” – implying a future adventure that McCoy was yet to have. Their King Arthur is trapped beneath a nearby lake with his sword emitting a distress signal – attracting both his loyal knights, and the attentions of his enemy Morgaine. And the rest of the story consists of them fighting each other (and UNIT – caught in the middle) for the sword.
Confused? Yes, I still am, having watched the serial twice! And that’s rather the problem – Aaronovitch manages to be too clever by half and you’re not really sure who’s fighting whom, or why (or at some stages, even how).
This was the final Doctor Who serial repeated in 1993, and I remembering wondering why it hadn’t been as good as the stories that had preceded it. Sadly, despite a big jump in production values and acting quality, the serial is badly let down by a convoluted and at times nonsensical story. The Doctor and the Brigadier deserved a much better farewell than this.
I did draw two positives from the DVD however. The first was succeeding to buy it new for £3 in Sainsburys (no idea why it was so low – easily the cheapest I ever bought a Doctor Who DVD). The second is the rather excellent DVD extra, “Tank.” At the end of episode two, the cliffhanger has the Doctor knocked unconscious, seemingly unable to save Ace, who is trapped in an alcove that is filling us with water. The geniuses at the BBC had not thought to test the glass to see if it could cope with the pressure of the water, and it had started to crack. The DVD presentation includes the camera footage of McCoy quite literally saving Aldred’s live, crying loud and clear “GET HER OUT OF THERE!” Moments after Aldred being lifted out with only a few cuts, the glass broke and flooded the studio – which had a huge number of live electrical wires on the floor.
I may find the serial difficult to enjoy, but I can see very clearly why the footage is now used in risk assessment videos!