We have covered in other reviews the stories that comprised Doctor Who’s 20th season. Resolved to celebrate the series’ history, producer John Nathan Turner brought back a returning nemesis for each adventure. In the middle of the season was a loosely linked trilogy featuring the Black Guardian, last seen swearing painful death to the Doctor in The Armageddon Factor. This powerful being, the embodiment of darkness, chaos, and destruction, finally succeeded in tracking the Doctor down, and decided to enlist a helper to aid his cause.
In Season 20 the Doctor Who production team decided that the Doctor would face off against a returning foe in each adventure, originally intending that the season would conclude with an adventure entitled “The Return” – which was delayed until Season 21 as Resurrection of the Daleks, leaving viewers instead with the lamentable King’s Demons as an unworthy substitute! While the season opened with the return of Omega in Arc of Infinity, and the Mara in Snakedance, the season’s three middle stories were covered by a loose trilogy featuring the Black Guardian, last seen cursing the Fourth Doctor in The Armageddon Factor.
This serial from Peter Davison’s second season as the Fifth Doctor is forever going to be associated with the rather ridiculous get-up Martin Clunes’ character Lon ends up wearing in episode 4. But it is unkind and undeserved, for Clunes plays a good straight performance and I would argue that Snakedance is even more effective than Kinda at exploring the nature of true evil.
Season 20 of Doctor Who was intended to commemorate 20 years of the show – culminating in the anniversary special The Five Doctors. As part of the commemoration, the showrunners determined that each episode of the season would feature a returning villain from the show’s history – although they rather neatly circumvented the spirit of this by making the Black Guardian the notional villain for three of the six serials! For the opening serial the showrunners returned to the story and villain used ten years previously in The Three Doctors by resurrecting the character of Omega.
This story is infamously remembered for the moment when Nyssa decided to take her clothes off for no readily apparent reason. For those wondering how this escaped the watershed, I should perhaps point out that she was still wearing an underlayer that by present standards is moderately modest, but it says a lot about the rest of the serial that this is the talking point most fans take away. (For the record, as Sarah Sutton knew it was her last story and had heard of complaints from fans that she’d been too well covered up, this was her response. Misogyny is sadly timeless)
I promised that the reviews would be less negative very quickly – and behold I keep my promise! When I finally watched the King’s Demons I was very pleasantly surprised by the story, having read dire warnings against it on fan sites. The story is a semi-historical adventure – the Doctor appears to land in the court of King John – only it turns out that the man presenting himself as the King is not even a man, much less the King! He is in fact Kamelion – a shape shifting robot (hence the name – ingenious eh?)
Of course the problem that everyone highlights with the story is that the plot is incredibly silly. Kamelion’s controller is none other than the Master, who indulges his usual penchant for pointless disguises and names by parading as French nobleman Gilles Estram – rather like vampires, the Master seems incapable of donning an alias that doesn’t reference his own name. His aim is to prevent King John signing the Magna Carta and to return England to the Dark Ages … which even allowing for the dubious historiography, is a plot so lamentably lame that even Davison’s Doctor feels compelled to observe: “a bit meagre by your standards surely?”
Let us lay that to one side however and embrace the positive – I genuinely enjoyed the story. I grant you that Tegan and Turlough scarcely get a look in, but Gerald Flood is excellent as King John – not least for the lute playing scene in episode one. As a historical piece it is on a par with some of the scenes shot for The Day of the Doctor or The Time Warrior – it bears up reasonably well. It is a pity in that regard that the story is so silly – as a four parter with a better disguised Master and a threat of genuine peril, I think The Kings Demons could have been quite entertaining.
At this point you may well be wondering why it is rated so far down my list if I enjoyed it? Aside of the obvious point that enjoyment is relative, and referring to how I have rated the stories, there is one important thing to consider. I enjoyed this story mostly because I did not have high expectations of it – I was able to appreciate it basically by disengaging my brain and accepting it at face value. When calmly considered in the light of the full list of episodes, I had to admit “actually, it’s not that great to be honest!” So while I enjoyed the DVD – and in actual fact will probably rewatch it in the near future inspired by this blog – it only just escapes the bottom ten on my list!