Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Serial 128: The King's Demons

Doctor: Peter Davison (5th Doctor)
Companions: Tegan, Turlough, Kamelion

Writtten by: Terence Dudley

Directed by: Tony Virgo

Background & Significance:
Now here's an odd one.

"The King's Demons" is one of the few two parters in Classic Who history, and it's something of a strange thing as a result. For one thing, these two parters are usually a bit of diversionary fun, but often structured strangely.

For one thing, they usually build like the first part of a four parter and then resolve and deal with complications rather quickly. In fact, there's rarely actually any sort of complication to them. They just sorta happen. Like I said, diversionary.

Terence Dudley, if you'll remember, is the fellow who did the script to "Black Orchid", which was also a two-parter. That, like this, was a bit of diversionary fun, something to intermissioncise the season between two stories--whatever was coming up supposedly being major or whatever. In this case, the plan was for "The King's Demons" to fall between the "massive" Black Guardian Trilogy and Eric Saward's revival of The Daleks in what was supposed to be called "The Return" but which turned into "Resurrection of the Daleks" a season later when it was postponed from this season (season 20) due to a labour strike (which was becoming far too common, if you ask me).

So it only makes sense that "The King's Demons" come here. I mean, The Daleks were about to come back. And now we're going to give The Doctor a cool, new, in-no-way-like-C-3PO robot companion with which he can use to fight The Daleks? Awesome. I approve.

Oh if only it were that simple.

So yes, this is the beginning of the Kamelion disaster, Kamelion being a robot so awesome he only made one other appearance in the life of the show. And rightfully so, because he totally was a botched attempt and not wonderfully realized or given that real chance to shine or whatever, but I'm sure I can talk about that as I go through it or something. Especially in part two.

Also fun to point out: it's Season 20! So we get the return of a villain. Last time we talked about this season, we talked about Omega (which was a genius callback, kids; seriously genius), but now we're at the tail end of the season and we get... Oh. We get The Master, again.

You can feel the wear and tear on the show. Producer Jonathan Nathan Turner's original plan to include The Master at least two times a season was quickly sidelined in favour of other stories that were, quite frankly, better. Also, the last time The Master showed up it was so super sucky that it makes you want to put a gun in your mouth. This is another almost famously infamous Master-is-totally useless story. Which is weird because if they had just gone straight pseudo-historical with this or maybe had the Monk (there's an idea, Captain Jonathan "Callback" Nathan-Turner) or something this would turn out a bit more interesting, but... alas, I suppose.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

The worst part about this whole story is the cliffhanger.

What we have in the part one of this two parter is a really fun, delightful, period piece romp thing. Which is lovely and intriguing and captivating. There’s a great mystery being set up here and in a Medieval context no less (1215 if you want to kinda guess where this is going). There’s presentation of court life, an oppressive if not confusing King John, and a very strange Knight named Gilles Estram who is the King’s Champion despite the fact that he’s French.

See, that right there would tip me off to something odd. The King of England having a Frenchman as his Champion? He better be a damn good knight/swordsman, is what I’m saying.

Beyond that, there’s the fact that this feels like your standard first part to any story. There’s a definite sense of mystery going on between The Doctor, his companions and how they’re treated. It really does almost lure you into a false sense of security, that maybe you’re watching more than just a two parter, that maybe there’s more. I mean, “The Sontaran Experiment” did the same thing. And that second part was rushed.

Here, though, it’s all swords and world building, which is lovely. The joust at the top of the episode really makes me want to do something lame like Medieval Times or something insane like that. The court itself makes me yearn for more period stories or period dramas (or maybe it’s that I’m itching to get moving on Game of Thrones and literally haven’t had time, because I love this whole swords and sorcery and castles thing, but yeah that could be just me). The mystery of the politics is… well… right up my alley. There’s tons of intrigue and interest built over the story so far that makes it super fascinating and stuff. Gotta say, it gets me hooked, this first episode.

So when I say that there’s a problem with the cliffhanger, I mean that there’s a problem with a cliffhanger.

But before I get to that, I have to show it to you.

Now why am I showing it to you? You could find out when you watch it I suppose. But I’ll just tell you here so that you know exactly what the hell is going on. See… There’s a reason I can’t not love this story and the truth of the matter is this. I’m easy. I’m ridiculously easy. Seriously. You put in a sword fight and I’m putty in your hands. If it’s The Doctor in the sword fight? Damn. Forget about it. Just seriously forget about it.

I know it happened with "The Sea Devils", and yeah. That’s a better fight. But come on. Watch this thing. It’s awesome. And then see the cliffhanger and you’ll see what I mean.

See? How bloody awesome. HOW BLOODY AWESOME! Davison in a sword fight! With broad swords! Be still my heart! And he wins because he is a super pimp swordsman. “Thank God we’re not in France then.” What a line! He kills it!

Anyways. Yes. So. The Master hath arrived.

I take a problem with this. I take a problem with it because I have a good, fun, exciting time with the first part of this story, and then all of a sudden it becomes The Master and I find myself rolling my eyes almost instantaneously. Not that it wasn’t expected because I knew The Master was in this before I even picked this story to review. Likewise I knew The Master would appear LIKE THIS in THIS cliffhanger because I’d already seen it in other youtubes posted online (yeah, that’s right I will post my own version of a youtube just because I can).

It’s strange because this doesn’t FEEL like a Master story. Not yet. And I know there’s not a lot of time for them to establish or create the feel or tone of it being a Master story, and what’s the point of revealing The Master if it’s not in a cliffhanger.

So here we are. And it suddenly becomes a Master story. And why? What hints do we have besides the fact that Gilles Estram’s last name is an anagram of Master (which is totally camp but let’s just ignore that because it’s British tongue in cheek or whatever) or the fact that it TOTALLY IS Ainley in the Estram outfit but make-upped and bearded out with a big ol’ thick accent. From what I understand, this is a fairly simple historical story. And fine, it turns into pseudo-historical….

But why is this a Master story?

Before I start musing on that too much, I really do have to give props to Ainley because I’m about to more-or-less tear him apart in the next episode. Like his role as the Portreve in "Castrovalva", his turn here as Gilles Estram is unparalleledly awesome. Of the disguises Ainley gets over the course of his tenure as The Master, this is easily the best, because he just looks so savage and primal and his cadence is masked by that slight French accent that makes it hard to hear if you can’t tell. Hell, Tony Virgo can even get a close up and you might not even see it if you’re not even looking close.

But why? I guess we’ll find out, but when a character hits this level of weak where he’s literally bringing down stories, you’re not doing anyone any sort of service. Fans will stop tuning in because it’s not novel to see your favourite villain anymore (*cough Daleks cough*) and you’re not servicing your stories.

So what we’re left with is a really interesting, compelling twenty five minute episode, punctuated by mystery and excitement and seeing WHAT could come next all popping and cooking and simmering and building to a big ol’ swordfight—then The Master shows up, we take a left turn…

And suddenly we’re stumbling down the rabbit hole and this whole story suddenly gets really strange and kinda loopy.

Part 2:

So I’m reticent to say that this is where the story totally falls apart, but ummmmm…. This is where the story totally falls apart.

It’s odd, going through it. This story really hits all the major beats of a normal, four part story, but it just races through them, with each one accelerating the pace more than it probably should or would in a normal story. The Doctor meeting Kamelion halfway through this part feels like a great ending to part two of a four part story, with The Doctor using the next two episodes figuring out the best way to defeat The Master’s evil plot.

Not so here. The Doctor confronts Kamelion. He postures against The Master for a bit. They do a battle of the wits (which is, admittedly, cool) and then Kamelion turns into Tegan and The Doctor whisks it into the TARDIS and they fly away all happy.

It’s weird that it’s all resolved so quickly, is what I mean. We never get a good image of The Master’s evil plan. The Doctor says it has something to do with Magna Carta, that The Master is using Kamelion to impersonate great rulers and then he’ll use them to disrupt ordered democracies. Which is… Well… The Doctor says it best when he says “It’s small time villainy, even by his standards.” And that… I suppose you could say that this is the writer and everyone calling out “Yeah we know this is lame.”

But then you’re in a problem. A huge problem.

Just because you call something out doesn’t entirely excuse it. It does sometimes, when they know it’s cheap and try to actually do something with it, but here it feels tremendously cheap and not thought out and they’re telling you it’s not. Which is a problem. You’re pointing out the faults of this story and not even trying to do anything special or interesting with them to minimize them. It’s almost like they used that as a big ol’ excuse and said “f*ck it. We don’t care.”

This is why The Master is lame in JNT years. To make The Master look even worse than he did in “Time-Flight” (which, by the way, was the most useless Master story ever) is pathetic. Why does this even need to be The Master? Why isn’t it someone else? Someone for whom this story actually makes sense or even make it a Kamelion story where it’s all about an impending Robo-takeover of everything. Something, anything to make this story feel important or like it matters. But what we’re left with is a runaround that doesn’t make much sense.

Example: what is the point of putting The Master’s tissue compression eliminator in The Master’s TARDIS (which was the Iron Maiden, which I’ll admit was terribly clever)? What was the point of that?

Not only that, but we’re furthering the uselessness of The Master by not explaining where he came from. The most response we get is “So you escaped from Xeriphas” and just the barest explanation of how he MIGHT have escaped. It’s cheap, it’s forced, and it fools no one with its transparency. Honestly, it’s a whole manner of pathetic. It’s at this point that it doesn’t even matter where The Master will show up next (In “The Five Doctors” no less, where he’s apparently prisoner of The Time Lords) because how he gets out of there or to there or any of that deal is completely irrelevant in the scope of the story.

And the worst of this is? Ainley is not bad. His portrayal of The Master is utter tosh, but that’s because he’s told to ape Delgado. Ainley as his own Master would be awesome, because seeing him up against The Doctor (specifically this Doctor, as I’ve said before) is something iconic.

So it’s a shame he’s poorly used and wasted.

Beyond even The Master, there’s still the issue of Tegan in the TARDIS, which… how does that work, exactly? She slips in and the doors close and then it dematerializes and then re-materializes just in the nick of time? Well that’s convenient, isn’t it? I’d say so. Good for them being so perfectly timed with everything. But why did it disappear in the first place and why did it buzz and beep and make with the chiming? It doesn't make sense to me. All she did was close the door.

And then the story just kinda ends. The Master is still running around Medieval England (isn't that dangerous even if he doesn't have Kamelion as his partner in crime?) and we're left with three to four minutes of discussion on the TARDIS before we cut out to the credits. It feels like this story (which was rushed) didn't even have enough time to develop anything. What was still around was just useless and a waste of everyone's time almost because it really was just about bridging the gap and pushing it out to as long as possible. Or at least, that's what it feels like. Which is most unfortunate.

How does this story have to fight to get itself to time?

Final Thoughts?: It's hard to be too harsh on this story after all is said and done.

When I think of this story I find it difficult to be too terribly critical, because it really is experimenting with what is, in modern times, a typical single episode adventure. And really, if you did this story today it would be totally different and probably much much better.

And yet, I can't exactly totally fault this story. By this point, the show had been running for twenty years nonstop. The structure is practically engrained into each episode or story at this point whether they were consciously aware of it or not. Indeed, the first part of this is your standard Doctor Who fare, setting up mystery and intrigue and excitement at the prospect of a period drama full of drama or what have you. And I'll even go ahead and say that the cliffhanger to the first episode is good. Disregarding WHY The Master feels it necessary to hide in disguise or all that... It's still a decent reveal and the Master being a cliffhanger is definitely awesome.

The problems are all in the second part, as far as I'm concerned. Things are accelerated and never discussed again. A four part version of this story would be richer and more exciting.

Seriously, The Master invades Crusades-era England to mess up time and shape it to better suit his ends (whatever those might be)? That's a fun premise, and one I'm interested in. But the lack of scale and attempt to do something more than just your average mystery that we got in the last two parter ("Black Orchid") really sorta falls on their face. Expanding this out, making it rich... That's the sorta thing that would make this more memorable.

Not to say it isn't. I mean, Davison. Any excuse for him is good with me. And he has a swordfight? I'm always on board with that. And then there's a Robot sitting in a chair playing a lute? Call me easy but that's super badass.

More than anything, though, this really always will end up being the opening shot to the Kamelion debacle. Don't get me wrong, Kamelion is cool in concept. Mad useful and a friendly companion, but I don't understand why they had to fund and provide a working robot? Couldn't they just use an android a la Anthony Daniels as C-3PO? That seems at the very least more feasible. It's because of all the troubles in this that Kamelion doesn't appear until his final appearance in "Planet of Fire". And it's a shame because while he's creepy, I'm certain there's some cool stuff in here as fodder with which they can use to tell interesting stories.

Although can robots have a narrative arc?

Regardless, I really do think it's a shame it didn't quite work out. Maybe they can get Matt Smith a robot sometime in the near future. It'd be clever or something (Steven Moffat, you know). Or maybe even a talking head of lettuce on his shoulder. That should be brilliant.

Or something.

Next Time!: 1st Doctor! A SPACE BOAT! Two halves of the same story! More Dodo and Steven! Mystery! And a tale that spans millenia! Next week Cassandra steps in for a discussion of "The Ark"! Coming Next Tuesday!


  1. Not a story I care for very much.

    Is it a surprise that the King has a Frenchman for a champion? The English dynasty came from France and part of France was ruled by England in the middle ages.

  2. I gotcha. I was being facetious and teasey. It's kinda funny if you think about it.

  3. Another good review, cheers.

    I've never really liked Ainley's portrayal of the Master, and yeah I agree... he does seem a bit useless, I usually end up letting out a groan or rolling my eyes when I learn that he's in a story. Loved Delgado though.

    As for Matt Smith getting a robo-companion... dear God, I hope not. Do we really need Smith defiantly telling us something ELSE is 'cool'?

  4. You don't think a robot companion would be cool?

  5. Hi,

    I'm putting together a book which involves reprinting reviews of classic Doctor Who stories and I'd really like to include this. Email em at smithr@math.mcmaster.ca and we can discuss the details.


    - Robert Smith?