I begin my top three Doctor Who adventures with a wonderful story that rounded off Jon Pertwee’s second season as the Doctor. It is a testament to the production team that they managed to work within the constraints of the Doctor’s enforced exile on Earth with such skill and creativity, and they saved the best in Season 8 until the very end.
I first came across the Daemons as a small child, but probably did not take it in at all! My dad adores this story, and had recorded the version broadcast on UK Gold at some point in my childhood. As such, my first memories of the story were tantalising glimpses and memories; the sense of mystery around the archaeological dig where the story begins; the wonderful chemistry between the Doctor and the U.N.I.T. family – for never in the entire U.N.I.T. era has there been more of a family feel than in this adventure. And more than anything else, this adventure displays Roger Delgado’s Master at his absolute Machiavellian best, leaving a lasting impression even as I began to watch adventures that featured Anthony Ainley’s Master instead.
And so it continued. My dad never bought the official VHS, and not knowing where he kept the recorded version I only ever got snippets of the story, each adding to my understanding of the story, and making me even more eager to watch the whole thing from start to finish. I was more than satisfied when I finally got to watch the whole thing, and ecstatic when BBC Worldwide eventually got around to releasing it on DVD.
Why then is this story so highly prized in my collection? For one thing, it’s a truly wonderful piece of science-fiction. Right at the very start, there is a delightful scene in which the Doctor berates companion Jo for expressing belief in the occult. He secretly controls his yellow roadster ‘Bessie’ to drive off, seemingly of her own volition, demonstrating how a seemingly supernatural event can have a scientific explanation.
Aside of the charm of the scene, in which the fondness the cast have for each other is extremely evident, it is also important for reducing the horror impact of the story that lies ahead. The Daemons features demons, monsters, a white witch in the indomitable Miss Hawthorne, and the Master seemingly using occult practices to summon supernatural beings. The undeniable darkness of this aspect is balanced by the Doctor’s scientific explanation – the Master is channelling human emotions (specifically fear, jealousy, and anger) to create psionic energy; and the being they summon is not a supernatural being, but Azal; the last of an ancient alien race known as the Daemons. The Daemons had been involved in earth history for millennia, and entered into mythology as horned gods – again charmingly explained by the Doctor in a tutorial style class halfway through the adventure!
The tale in terms of the Master’s scheme is delightfully straightforward, but not so simple that the game is given away. Azal has been hibernating in an ancient burial mound, and is released when archaeologist Professor Horner is foolish enough to open the mound at midnight on Beltane, the ‘witching-hour.’ The Professor intended it for a publicity stunt, but it takes a sour turn as the Master uses the occasion to gather his followers and summon Azal into corporeal existence, killing Horner and almost freezing the Doctor to death. Posing as the local parish vicar, the Reverend Mister Magister (‘Magister’, as the Doctor points out, being the Latin word for ‘Master’), the Master’s intent is that Azal will pass on his considerable powers to him, making him the new guardian of earth and enabling him to build a power base.
U.N.I.T. become involved as the Doctor rushes to try and prevent Professor Horner from opening the burial ground, before Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton respond to Jo’s desperate plea for help – borrowing the U.N.I.T. helicopter from a less than impressed Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart! When the Brigadier and his men seek to follow up with reinforcements, they discover an energy barrier has been created around the village the Master has made his base, making it impossible for anyone to approach. An entertaining side story to the Doctor’s confrontation to the Master becomes his efforts to help the Brigadier break through with the equipment he needs to defeat Azal.
The story builds to a wonderful crescendo in the final episode. Jo is captured, to be offered as a sacrifice to Azal. The Doctor narrowly escapes being burned on the village maypole by a mob organised by the Master’s ally, Bert the landlord, before racing into the church where the Master has made his base, to appeal for Azal to leave the planet. In the meantime, the U.N.I.T. troops are held at bay by a gargoyle named Bok, animated by the Master’s application of psionic energy, leading to the Brigadier’s most memorable line: “Chap with the wings there – five rounds rapid.” The resolution is breathless, but incredibly satisfying.
What else can I say about a truly delightful episode? Not one piece of the story is out of place. The adventure builds progressively over time, never telling you more or less than you need to know to enjoy the adventure. The cast are universally superb, and the series regulars are especially outstanding. This adventure is so much more than a superb example of Doctor Who; it is a truly fantastic piece of television storytelling, that only grows richer for each re-watch. Gripping and clever, dark but also hopeful, and thoroughly charming throughout, The Daemons is deservedly one of the best adventures in the entire history of Doctor Who.
Next time: The first Doctor Who adventure I ever watched, and a brilliant take on the origin of the Doctor’s oldest enemies …