Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Serial 155: Battlefield

Doctor: Sylvester McCoy (7th Doctor)
Companion: Ace

Written by: Ben Aaronovitch
Directed by: Michael Kerrigan

Editor's Note: Hey, kids. Matt here with a small introduction to this week's blog entry. I know Cassandra is going to talk about it later, but I might as well hop in real quick with just a few passing words about Nicholas Courtney, who, as I'm sure you've heard, passed away yesterday.

It's strange that this week's blog and podcast both covered this story. 'Battlefield'. It is, in many ways, The Brigadier's last hurrah even though he did appear in several other stories (both in audio and on The Sarah Jane Adventures). But it's one of his absolute best and the timing really couldn't be better to do him a service.

So five rounds rapid and a moment of silence for the great and wonderful Brigadier. He was one of those real Doctor Who tent poles, a legend in his own right, and a tremendous presence without whom the show would not be the same.

He will be missed.

Background & Significance: One name: Nicholas Courtney.

"Battlefield" is the last onscreen appearance of The Brigadier on Doctor Who. It's befitting, especially because it's pretty epic, much like him. I know there are other reasons why this is a significant serial, but I just wanted to start off with him, especially in light of the news of his recent passing (which I'll discuss a little more in the final thoughts section). Because of the way I write these, I tend to do the commentary first, which I wrote before I found out the news. It's going to be a little bit of a jolt to read, but my hope is that the commentary captures my thoughts and feelings about the serial itself as well as celebrating Nicholas Courtney's storied contribution to and legacy in Doctor Who. Thanks for bearing with me, it's rather upsetting and I'm a little all over the place right now.

"Battlefield" is also notable for being the first serial of Season 26, not only McCoy's last season as The Doctor, but also the show's last full season before the long hiatus that would only be broken by the Paul McGann movie in 1996 before the reinstatement of the show in 2005. Not only does it see the first reappearance of UNIT since the Tom Baker serial "Seeds of Doom," and the Brigadier, as I've mentioned before (last appearing in "The Five Doctors"), but it also saw the return of actress Jean Marsh, who portrayed (semi-)companion Sara Kingdom in "The Daleks' Masterplan", in the role of Morgaine.

But enough of that. Let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1
So the first time I was watching this, I really had no idea what to expect, but it definitely wasn’t this. In a good way, I assure you.

The first part of this serial introduces so many different and interesting concepts, much like any good first part, but there’s so much going on in this story, it’s pretty impressive how writer Ben Aaronovitch is able to pull it all off and make it cohesive and interesting and engaging. Lots to keep track of, but ultimately lots to love.

Generally, first we get the set-up and introduction of the setting, characters, and the potential trouble/mystery that’s going to keep the story going for the next four episodes. These, of course, are Vortigen Lake and the surrounding village; Brigadier General Bambera and her various UNIT toadies, the couple who owns the hotel in the village, the archeologist; and space knights, respectively (heck yes, space knights). Interestingly, though, Aaronovitch chooses instead to begin the episode with the reintroduction of our good old friend Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart… The Brigadier. Anyone else claiming that title is an imposter and not as cool, obviously.

I don’t know about you, but I absolutely adore The Brigadier. Pertwee’s years stuck on Earth working for UNIT is not my very favorite era of Doctor Who ever, not by a long shot, but The Brigadier is one of the best things to come out of that entire era. He’s just so badass and awesome and a great foil for the Doctor, as well as a dear old friend (as we’ll be reminded in a couple episodes from now. But I’ll get there when we get there).

I think it’s a really interesting touch to start us off with the Brigadier, especially because he doesn’t fully enter the story til episode three of this serial, and he’s really only tangential til then. Conversely, those viewers unfamiliar with him until this story gets a nice introduction to the nature of his character and how he’s acquainted with the Doctor (it’s only the mention of him that draws the retired Brigadier back into action, after all), while those who have encountered him before get some nice fanservice as well as some added tension to the story—when are the Brigadier and the Doctor finally going to meet up?

As far as fanservice goes, the JNT-produced era of Doctor Who is quite notorious for it. There’s callbacks to old stories and foes and characters and such, but for this story so far, it just works. We know UNIT’s involved (or will be inevitably drawn into involvement) with what’s going down here by this lake with these awesome space knights (I will be talking about the space knights, fret not), so naturally there’s an avenue for Brigadier callbacks. It just doesn’t feel forced, doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the story, and it’s just a lot of fun for fans of the older stuff who know who this guy is and can wink and nod sagely at each other (or, in my case, giggle uncontrollably).

Now, space knights. There’s a lot being set up and happening around these seemingly random fire-fights in the woods (which Imposter Brigadier Bambera just feels compelled to join by firing into the fray willy-nilly, without any regard for sides. What the heck, man, seriously? Since when do you just randomly fire into a fight that’s not your own? That seems in really poor form. Maybe you should go back to the Academy or something. Maybe hang out with the real Brigadier, learn some tips). Seriously though, one of the coolest things about this story is the fact that these knights are not only from space and not only tied into Arthurian legend (spoilers), but they’re from ANOTHER DIMENSION. I’m sorry, but that’s fucking awesome. Anytime you want to take a story into another universe/alternate dimension, or bring that nonsense into ours, it’s win. Not only that, but Arthurian legend, no less. Which means, if the Doctor is involved in this (of course he is, we’re dealing with McCoy, he’s the Grand Schemer), there’s only one role for him that makes sense: Merlin.

Oh, what do you know. The Doctor’s Merlin in this story? Awesome. (No, seriously. AWESOME.)

Another fantastic concept that’s introduced in this is that while The Doctor is recognized by Ancelyn as Merlin, it’s not because of his appearance, but his demeanor and actions. Which means, kids, that the Doctor hasn’t done all this Merlin stuff of old yet (it obviously wasn’t in a previous incarnation, or he would have remembered, right?). Which means that this Doctor is dealing with the consequences of actions that he hasn’t yet done, but will in the future of his own personal timeline.

You know what that’s called? Fantastic science fiction concept that is not nearly explored enough in Doctor Who. He’s got a time machine, of course he’s going to be all over the place. So why not mess with the timelines a little? As an aside, that’s why I love Steven Moffat so much, because he just *gets* time travel and all the crazy little things and nuances that can happen when you’re dealing with a character like the Doctor. People meeting out of order. Events that haven’t happened yet being referred to as the past. Time loops. Timelines in flux. It’s supremely fascinating, and I love the way they pull it off in this story. It’s quite elegant, really. But let’s see how it plays out as we go on.

Part 2

If there’s one problem I have with this story (and there are a few, much as I love this thing; they can’t all be perfect, or my brain would probably explode in gleeful delight and sheer awesome), it’s that it suffers from something I would like to call Shitty Cliffhanger Syndrome. It’s almost like this story has so much awesome and creativity going on that Aaronovitch couldn’t figure out a halfway decent cliffhanger for any of the episodes. Which is…. fine, I guess. I can live with that. But cliffhangers are supposed to be the way you hang on to an audience to draw them in til next week. So far we’ve got two fairly stock cliffhangers in a row: Doctor and companions in peril, and… well, Doctor and companion in peril. Frankly, that’s been done so many times before that you’ve got to come up with a new and interesting spin on it to keep us on our toes and keep us guessing. We’ve seen the Doctor and his friends in peril so many times before that we know he’s not going to die. We know his friends aren’t going to die. We know they’re gonna get out of this one. So why even bother with ending the episode here, of all places? And in a story that is chock full of invention and creativity, these stock cliffhangers just come off as lazy and decidedly anticlimactic.

The other problem I have with the cliffhanger for this part in particular: what the hell is the green snake ghost whizzing around the underwater spaceship cave. It is NEVER fully explained; we get that it’s some kinda defense mechanism, but why is it such a threat? Why is it there in the first place? Just what the hell. Also Ace just stands there in the chamber instead of leaving it right after seeing it’s a dead end. And then she’s surprised it fills with water? Come on, Ace. You’re smarter than that.

That’s another problem I have with this story. You can kinda tell that Sophie Aldred is not entirely on top of her game in this serial. As far as Ace performances go, this one is pretty mediocre. But it’s almost forgivable because this story is very much about the Doctor as Merlin and everything else that’s going on. Ace isn’t a major player in this one. Plus The Brigadier is there to cover everyone else’s ass. (Can you tell I love The Brigadier?)

One thing I’m noticing on this watch-through is that this episode is very… almost comedic. It’s an interesting choice. There’s a lot of lighthearted and genuinely funny moments going on. Most of those deal with the double act that’s developing between Ancelyn and Imposter Brigadier Bambera. Ancelyn is great on his own (also very good-looking. I’m just saying), Imposter Brigadier is…. not so great on her own (she has like two emotions: anger and destruction), but together they’re just really amusing. I really love their interactions, the random wrestling match they have that apparently goes on for hours, and the super-cute scene when they’ve fallen asleep on each other. You can kind of see where their relationship is going, but it’s still a lot of fun to watch.

There’s also some great dialogue and witty repartee and lines in general. Especially in the scene where The Brigadier comes across Morgaine and they have a little chat about how she really has no grudge against him but the next time she encounters him she’s probably going to kill him. It’s just a really interesting moment that establishes both of their characters quite well, I think. Morgaine and The Brigadier, while obviously on opposite ends of the people to root for spectrum, as people of military background they have a bit in common. Honor, especially seems to be a keystone for much of Morgaine’s actions, and that plays into one of the later parts.

But Morgaine comes into play much more into the latter two parts of this serial, so I’ll reserve more discussion of her til then. Onward, shall we?

Part 3

I really think this part is interesting because, among other things, it’s in this part where Morgaine beats the Doctor at his own game. But I’ll get to that part in a bit.

As far as third parts of four-part-story-structure, this one is another good one. Third parts are all about killing time and keeping the audience on hold while ramping up for the finale of the fourth part and also imparting some information we’ll need to see the story through to the end. And I think Aaronovitch really excels here. It’s a fun episode with lots of explosions and battle and magic and even an appearance by Bessie, everyone’s favorite yellow roadster. Oh, and The Brigadier and the Doctor finally meet up. What’s not to love?
I really think this is my favorite episode out of the ones we’ve seen so far. I know that nothing instrumental to the plot happens, but there are just lots of good, solid moments that help contribute to the awesome.

I really want to take a look at the character of Morgaine in this part, because she is the main instrumental force behind what happens in most of this episode, and she’s a fascinating character to examine. It’s really a credit to the writer, Aaronovitch, that he was able to introduce a villain that, while evil, is also multi-faceted. As I mentioned earlier, Morgaine is very much about honor; in the previous part she gets really upset at Mordred, her son, for not telling her that they were fighting in an area where the dead were buried without paying the proper respect to them. To compensate for this huge dishonor, she calls a ceasefire while her troops pay their respects to the fallen warriors of this world. I think that’s really quite powerful and a layer of characterization that is definitely unexpected and adds some depth and reality to her. Even though she hails from another universe, even though she’s the Bad Guy, there’s still something we can hold onto and admire about her.

That trend continues in this part, where we witness her do crazy horrific things like burning a soldier’s brain and then disintegrating her body while trying to gain information about the enemy forces she and her troops will have to face while at war on Earth, yet there’s a moment just after she does this where she cures the hotel owner’s wife of her blindness as a way of payment for Mordred’s drinking a ton of beer. It’s a really, really intriguing choice that, like the ceremony and ceasefire of the previous part, just lends an even greater depth to her character. It’s just so intriguing and thought-provoking.

And then, like I mentioned earlier, she does beat the Doctor at his own scheming game. While he and The Brigadier head over to the lake and the crazy battle in an attempt to stop it, Morgaine focuses her energies at regaining Excalibur, which The Doctor left with Ace and her new friend, Shou Yuing. She tricks the Doctor, and reveals her own secret weapon: a freaking demon. Seriously, she summons a demon. Badass. I know I was hating on the other two cliffhangers earlier, but I actually kinda give this one a pass because it’s so unexpected. And it’s magic and a big scary demon that is totally not The Judge from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Conversely, as far as character development goes, there’s not a lot for the three locals we meet and interact with, the couple who own the hotel, and the archeologist that gives the Doctor and Ace a lift to the dig site in part one. It’s just like they’re plot elements and serve as a gateway through which the Doctor and Ace gain information that they need to have their adventure. In this part they’re even shipped off and evacuated from the area by the UNIT troops. I think that’s kinda lame. So there’s two routes you can take as an example of character development when it comes to this story. And, if you want to tell good stories, take the Morgaine route instead of the townie one. Cuz the latter’s just lazy.

Part 4

I really love the Doctor and The Brigadier’s relationship and how they just show that off so well in this serial, especially this episode. As I said before, the only reason The Brigadier comes out of retirement to don his uniform and see some crazy nutso action again is because he hears that the Doctor is involved. I think that speaks volumes to the sort of friendship and lasting impression that the Doctor had on him.
You can also see it in this episode, when the Doctor, Ace, and the Brigadier are running from that big scary demon that’s preparing to devour the world. He knows that the Doctor is prepared to face the thing on his own so he doesn’t have to endanger his friends in the process; instead, he tricks the Doctor and takes on the task himself in a moment of pure badassery that I was thinking about youtubing. But you know what? This is just one of those serials that you need to go out and watch. It’s a lot of fun, I promise.

Anyway, the Brigadier takes on the task of killing the demon with the silver bullets because he says that he’s more expendable than The Doctor (not true! Well… maybe it is a little bit, but come on. How sad would it be if The Brigadier died in this episode? I’d be devastated). Again, I think that speaks volumes about the impression that the Doctor made on the Brigadier. And of course the Doctor is extremely sad when he finds The Brigadier and thinks he’s dead (thank god he’s not, though. Seriously. Devastated). I just love their relationship and the history and how much these two men genuinely care about each other, even if they might drive the other up the wall with their respective antics at times.

You might have noticed that I’ve barely talked about Ace in this blog post at all. Well, that’s because in this serial, she’s pretty much useless. Which is a huge huge bummer, because a character like Ace is designed to be the antithesis to useless-Companion types. There is literally a scene in part two where she PULLS OUT EXCALIBER FROM THE STONE IT’S STUCK IN, and they don’t do anything with that. Come on. COME ON. How freaking badass would that be? Ace rallying the troops into battle with Excaliber held aloft? Hell, she could say she was Arthur incarnate. Ace, Arthur…. Not too much of a stretch, right? That’d be amazing. But no. We’re focusing so much on the Merlin aspect that we forget that Merlin was a tutor to King Arthur, which…. is really kind of perfect for Ace and the Doctor’s relationship. Ace is very much the Doctor’s protégé, asking questions and challenging him and learning from him, just as he challenges her to be the best she can. That’s a really fantastic relationship to use in this context, but it doesn’t go anywhere in this and it’s really frustrating and puzzling, especially since Ace plays such a pivotal role in the rest of this season.

And then they put Excaliber *back* and the only thing anyone did with it was hold it for a while. Come onnnnn, what the heck. That’s just lame.

As far as the wrap up on the rest of this goes, it’s not that bad. It’s actually quite enjoyable. The Doctor is able to dissuade Morgaine from launching the nuclear missile with some awesome rhetoric about nuclear war that’s actually quite moving and powerful, Morgaine is sad because Arthur’s dead and he was really pretty and awesome, she and Mordred leave, everyone is happy. But the interesting thing is that Morgaine and Mordred just scamper off into their alternate dimension again. If that doesn’t leave this open for a sequel, I don’t know what does. At the very least, I want the story that we get references to in this, about Merlin’s mighty deeds and Morgaine sealing him up in some ice caves for all eternity. Wouldn’t this be the greatest thing to see on Doctor Who under Moffat? It’s totally a darkish, fairytale sort of story that is ripe with possibility. Matt Smith as Merlin? Hell yes. Let’s make this nonsense happen.

Final Thoughts?: It came to my attention just after wrapping up the commentary section that Nicholas Courtney, otherwise known as The Brigadier, sadly passed away today, February 22, 2011 at the ripe old age of 81. Just looking at that sentence I just wrote, it's tough to process, but I'm going to try and articulate exactly how I feel and how much Nicholas Courtney's portrayal of one of the best companions in Doctor Who history means to me.

The very first Classic serial I ever watched was "The Claws of Axos", just over a year ago. I don't really remember too much of it, because, let's be honest, it's "The Claws of Axos". But I do remember watching and really digging some of the characters, and one of those was The Brigadier. And then I watched "The Three Doctors" and "The Invasion" and he just kept turning up. It was fantastic. He quickly turned into one of my favorite characters on the show, and every time he made an appearance I loved it that much more.

"Battlefield" is no exception. I feel that it's only right that we're reviewing this serial this week of all weeks. Not only is it his final "official" television appearance on Doctor Who (he would return for the Children in Need 1993 special "Dimensions in Time" but apparently that was terrible and nobody counts that in their canon anyway), but it is a great one. It showcases not only the Brigadier's heroism, resourcefulness, down-to-earth, no-nonsense attitude, but also his kindness and the very unique and quite touching relationship with the Doctor. And Nicholas Courtney's still got it. It's really wonderful to watch.

The Destroyer: "Can this world do no better than you as their champion?"
Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart: "Probably. I just do the best I can."

So that's why I wish this blog entry be dedicated to the memory of Nicholas Courtney. I don't pretend that this is up to the impossibly awesome standard that he deserves, but it's the best I can do. Rest in peace, sir. And thank you.

Next Time!: Fourth Doctor! Sarah Jane! Space station! Creepy bugs! Robert 'the Goddamn' Holmes! And the potential beginnings of some horror? Matt's back next week with "The Ark in Space!" Coming next Tuesday!


  1. It is sad to hear about the death of Nicholas Courtney.

    You were a little more positive about this story than I expected.

    I like Battlefield, but I do think it has loads of faults.

    I know every fan would consider this to be heresy, but I actually think Battlefield would be a much stronger story if they left out Nicholas Courtney. I know he gave a great performance and it's nice to see him again, but his presence really does distract from the plot and leave little room for the development of the other characters.

    Clearly you don't like Bambera, but I do. I love the Seventh Doctor era 'political correctness' that challenges stereotypes that gives us a black and female brigadier. Having introduced a new brigadier, it would have made sense to focus on her character rather than having her upstaged by Nicholas Courtney.

    I don't know why you say that Morgaine and Mordred leave for another dimension, this does not happen at all. The Doctor tells UNIT to lock them up.

    I know it is difficult to imagine how a superwitch like Morgaine can be imprisoned, but the Doctor knew what he was doing. Perhaps there are drugs that can block the part of her mind that uses her magic. Or perhaps the Doctor knows an occult technique like the chalk circle that will keep her imprisoned.

    Anyway, I would love to see a 'women in prison' movie featuring Morgaine! That would be cool.

  2. I like Brigadier Bambera in theory. The black female Brigadier is definitely a good and progressive thing, but I ultimately think she fails because of the actress. When I was re-watching it I was fairly disappointed because of the acting, not because of anything she actually did.

    Not only that, but she's not exactly upstaged by Courtney, at least not for the first half (in which The Brigadier isn't involved with any of the actual action). And regardless of the upstaging, she's pretty solid all the way through as a UNIT commander. She's definitely memorable and has some great moments (pairing her off with Ancelyn made for really great scenes and moments).

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  4. I notice that she already is. I just thought it odd that it is always yourself that posts the reviews, rather than Cassandra posting hers.

  5. I've pre-constructed all the reviews that we're going to do for the blog, so because I've created them, they post as me. Cassandra is more than welcome to create her own entry, but I doubt that'd happen because the dashboard is covered in reviews and has the order and such like as that yes.

    I've been bad about mentioning when they're her. We always say it ahead of time in the "Next Week" section, but I'll work on being better about pointing it out in the future.

  6. It would be nice if it was more clear which of you I'm reading.

    I have done multi-author blogging before and it helps when you know who is posting. I used to always put my avatar on posts on one team blog I was involved in.

  7. How very nice to read a decent review of this often criminally underrated story, a sentimental favourite of mine.
    Still gutted about Nick.

  8. Love the Brig, love 'Battlefield'. But Ace couldn't do the 'Arthur' stuff because someone else was already carrying that role - the legend says that Arthur "will be awakened from sleep to save Albion in its greatest hour of need". For 'sleep', read 'retirement' :-)

  9. I've seen other commentaries where people detested Battlefield, but I really liked it. Knights in armor are always cool and adding the legend of King of Arthur is win. However, knights in armor from another dimension with laser guns is silly. I could never figure out why they were fighting with sword AND guns?

    The back story of the Doctor being referred to as Merlin and dealing with the actions of his future self was interesting. It was fun that he left several clues to his 7th Doctor reincarnation, so he could find the buried spaceship.

    I was somewhat confused why "The Destroyer" was brought into the picture? He appeared out of nowhere. Even though the story was a little confusing, I still liked it.