Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Serial 59: The Daemons

Doctor: Jon Pertwee (3rd Doctor)
Companion: Jo Grant

Written by: Guy Leopold (aka Robert Sloman and Barry Letts)
Directed by: Christopher Barry

Background & Significance: It feels like we've been talking about The Master season a lot lately. You know the one. It's season eight. Pertwee's second season. The one in which The Master appears in every bloody story. I don't think that's far off. I mean, two of the last three Pertwee stories for the blog have been season eight. I just watched "Terror of the Autons" for the first time back in January. And "Claws of Axos" was a fairly recent story we covered on the podcast a few weeks back.

So if I sound a little weary of the season, you now know why.

But "The Daemons". Yes. The season finale to this Master season. And it's the one in which "The Master Problem" is solved "once and for all" until we get to the next appearance by him later. Regardless, it is the closing of a book of Master stories, I suppose. And it's fitting that it's a story co-written by the era's producer Barry Letts and the other half of that co-writing team is something of a "regular appearance" for the era, in that Letts's co-writer Robert Sloman would be the co-writer for the rest of the Pertwee season finales. It's one of the things I like about the Pertwee era. You can always count on a story in each season to be written by Malcolm Hulke. And once you hit the "UNIT family" stuff you can always count on a season finale written by Sloman and Letts and for that season finale to USUALLY be a good thing. (There is the one glaring exception, though).

To ring out the season, Letts (and Sloman because he was involved) decided to explore a specific paganistic and black magic iconography they hadn't yet seen in Doctor Who

As such, and because it's widely considered such an iconic story for both the era and The Master, it has been celebrated up and down the halls of Doctor Who fandom as one of "the great Master stories". While my initial watch of the story is hard-pressed to disagree, I think I'm most interested to see how it pans out on a repeat viewing and when I'm taking it apart and all that. It'll also be especially interesting to see the directorial style of Christopher Barry, who is something of a hit-and-miss director as far as I'm concerned. But yes. We will see.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

I will say this about this story: it does something extremely unique in its first episode. And by “in”, I mean all throughout.

The first thing to strike me is the sheer amount of… straight horror in it. This is a dark story, or at least, it’s a story that goes for iconography and imagery that immediately calls up great classic horror films. The one that I’m thinking of mostly is The Omen and the way that movie captures a tone that is never not completely unsettling. It’s the sort of movie where you can feel the terror creeping in around all the corners and in every moment of silence. And it’s got everything from the blatantly obvious opening sequence in which a dude is attacked while walking home at night in the rain and there’s a black cat and a graveyard (which is all extremely on the nose) to the more effective sequence in which the wind rises and the police officer dude almost bludgeons Olive Hawthorne (the local witch) over the head with a massive rock…

It builds tension. Everything about this. And it does it by decidedly not making The Doctor in the middle of the action.

Consider, for instance, the fact that the running motif in this episode is the news coverage on BBC Three by “rugged” ace reporter Alistair Fergus. It’s on Fergus to convey a great deal of the setup and exposition that’s going on here, what with this mysterious archaeological dig at this place called “Devil’s Hump”, which is just on the outskirts of the town Devil’s End. The news report really ties various components of the story together, showing us not only Olive as a local authority or what have you, but also the chief excavator guy Professor Horner, who is going digging up Devil’s Hump “in the name of science” or whatever.

What’s curious is it's the only way UNIT knows about what’s going on. Were it not for this news report, UNIT (and The Doctor for that matter) wouldn’t be getting involved at this point in time.

And it’s not just UNIT. The whole town of Devil’s End has turned up in the local bar to follow the story in what is basically a town-wide viewing party.

Now, this is unconventional. The “news report exposition” stuff is the stuff of the Davies era, in which Russell T. Davies uses news reports to convey a sense of scope and breadth to his vision of Doctor Who (which, for those who didn’t know, is all about a running theme that Doctor Who is *here* and its events are on the evening news and the whole world is involved in this sorta thing). What’s interesting is that Letts and Sloman use the same technique here, only to convey a sense of community within all of the people in this story.

This sense of community is in no way unintentional, and the story does an excellent job of bringing all of these extraneous elements together in a large tapestry of a narrative. As viewers, we are brought in and given privy to all of the things about this story that the other characters can’t see: for example, The Master.

Yes, The Master is back. But that shouldn’t surprise you at all. Why would it? I mean, it’s not like the guy hasn’t been in every bloody story this season AND I told you that he was in it in the background. But what’s interesting about The Master is that he is the only one who isn’t pulled in by Alistair Fergus’s news report. No. The person who brings The Master into the narrative is Olive Hawthorne, Local Witch (which I think is what I’m just gonna call her moving forward because it humours me), who IN ANY OTHER STORY is the crackpot crazy person. And yet JUST before she talks to The Master she is seen seemingly calming a wind storm that might in some way be inadvertently responsible for the guy almost whacking her in the face with a rock. So she’s given agency and cred BEFORE The Master appears.

I say this because were it not for the fact that she has credibility as both a witch and the character responsible for dragging The Master into the narrative, the insanely good end to this episode wouldn’t be nearly as compelling or interesting.

And the end of this episode is a clusterfuck of incredible. It’s outstandingly good. And it’s effective for two reasons: First, we don’t know what The Master is up to and whether or not it IS black magic because he has this discussion with Olive Hawthorne, Local Witch about magic and seems to believe her. And he’s also doing some creepy rituals in a tomb with some fellow robed dudes while wearing a pimp badass robe of his own. We don’t know what The Master is doing, BUT he’s doing it at the same time that they’re opening the tomb, which is… off-putting.

But the reason it’s most effective is because it scares The Doctor in a way we simply haven’t seen. And it’s the turn from “there’s no such thing as magic” (which is the key moment of his first scene) to suddenly caring about a place called “Devil’s End” and then to watching the news report and then the casual statement that he wants to drive out there. And that’s all fine. The Doctor is curious. He loves humans and their silly rituals. Why not be around for that? And yet by the end he is running. He’s driving in Bessie. He’s racing to get there. He’s screaming and yelling. Jo falls and he doesn’t care. All that matters is he has to get there and shut this whole thing down before it spirals out of control. He has said magic isn’t real, but his actions say something completely different. It’s breathtaking, and it’s masterfully intercut by Barry, who stages and cuts the chaos so effectively that by the time it’s all going down you have no idea what the fuck is going on.

All that matters is that The Doctor is scared and The Master is up to something potentially dangerous and all hell is breaking loose as a result.

AND, it’s enhanced by the fact that this community that we have seen, starring everyone from Professor Horner to Olive Hawthorne, Local Witch to the Devil’s End Folk in the bar to The Master’s team to even Benton and Yates (as their own little UNIT community) who are back at UNIT HQ watching the telly (and by proxy, ANYONE who has a television, which is a sizeable personage) is now threatened. This whole situation affects everyone and we as The Audience are left freaked out because Alistair Fergus and the cameraman and the rest of the crew have scattered from fright and an insane amount of random wind that sprung up at the same time The Master finished his ritual and the wall of Devil’s Hump came tumbling down.

It’s impossibly good and impossibly gripping. And I can’t wait to see what they do with it next.

Part 2:

I guess it goes without saying that this episode is just as good as the first, but in a completely different way.

Structurally (I know, we’re talking about structure again, but I’m fascinated by it) this story does an excellent job of deepening the mysteries we already had in place for the first episode. As we said in the first episode, a lot of the time was spent setting up the two communities that were going to collide for the majority of this story. There’s the community of the small town of Devil’s End (though I must ask, again, why anyone would want to live there unless… you know… they LIKE playing Russian roulette with superstition)  and the community built around a UNIT narrative (what with Jo, The Doctor, Yates, Benton, and The Brig) and how they’re going to come into play with each other.

So what we get in this part is a more… interesting sort of thing.

Basically, what this episode ends up being is one of those “we’re in a strange little village and strange kooky weirdness is happening and our team of paranormal investigators have to investigate.” And if you’re into that sorta thing, then man this episode is for you. There’s a whole manner of bizarre and strange things going on in this here town. There’s giant GIANT footprints that Yates and Benton (who have arguably the best costumes in the ENTIRE Pertwee era; or at least Yates does anyways) see as they’re flying in their helicopter on their way into the village, which they investigate. What is this footprint? No idea, but I’ll bet you it’s the same thing the guard at Devil’s Hump sees early in the episode. You know. That big giant ass dude that casts a shadow and makes the guy scream.

Now I tell you that, and then I’ll turn around right here and say “there’s a monster reveal at the end of this episode.” Your gut reaction to me saying that is going to be “oh snap. It’s the big giant thing. I am too smart for you, Doctor Who.”

But the genius thing that Letts and Sloman do is pull back on that reveal and give us a smaller, different monster reveal. This time, it’s the statue, the winged demon dude who comes to life and terrorizes The Doctor and Jo in the underground cavern. As a reveal it’s great because in the LAST episode we saw that statue come to life and here we realize it’s around to terrorize. But this creature doesn’t match up with the giant footprints of the ominous shadow. And so we get something, but not what we’re expecting. Which is clever and a good way of suspending the reveal while simultaneously giving us something different to care about or deal with.

Beyond that, though, there’s a bunch of clever touches that do a good job of masking other things. For example, the “death” of The Doctor at the beginning of this episode (after he's seemingly frozen to death) is around to both give stakes to the situation as a whole, but to also delay the story so we can go from night into day and not have to spend so much money on night shoots.

And of course, there’s Barry as a director, who chooses to shoot everything askance. Nothing that is not UNIT or the benevolent townsfolk is ever entirely in frame and the bad guys are always allowed obscurity in favor of full frontal whatever. It’s a clever choice, especially when it comes to something like Benton and Olive Hawthorne, Local Witch in the Satan Cellar and how they are forced to fight the evil dude. It’s just clever and a good use of ratcheting up tension or what have you.

Also ratcheting up the tension? Mike Yates and this outfit. Wooo. That's pretty grand.

Finally, there’s the heat barrier, which is… just great. To say things about it terribly briefly, it’s both a great visual and a clever way of isolating the isolated town even further. The Brig and UNIT are not able to send in reinforcements and The Doctor and Benton and Yates and Jo are on their own. The UNIT community is now at least partially fractured and unable to be as strong as they can be.  So that’s some great stuff and really helps make the story just that much more interesting. Our heroes can’t quite count on each other as much as they should be able to.

At least for now.

Part 3:

So here we are, at the exact middle of the story, and this is when a lot of pieces of the plot and mythology start to coalesce and make sense. Needless to say, it’s quite a strong part.

For one thing, I’m actually all over the stuff that Letts and Sloman write into this part. Of course, a lot of that is Letts because of his fascination with the occult and how to mesh the worlds of black magic fantasy and Doctor Who, and you know what? It actually kinda works and works in a way that’s believable. And this is coming from a guy who tends to hate the “aliens built the pyramids” suggestion/theory that seems to go around never-endingly. But the work here about blending what people call magic and science is really clever and a perfectly rational explanation to all the things going on.

Sure, this isn’t a new concept. The notion that all magic is just unexplained science. But I don’t mind it here because it’s EXTREMELY well thought out.

Take, for instance, the idea that our main alien beastie IS about forty feet tall. Yeah, that’s kinda massive. But the show gets out of having to show him because it comes up with not just a clever rationalization for why you can’t see him all the time, but also one that requires our imagination in just about every way. First we have to imagine that there IS an alien. And then we have to imagine that that alien can shrink and grow basically at will. Which is entertaining. No seriously, there’s nothing more entertaining than imagining a four-inch tall alien.

And that’s enough. Letts and Sloman can stop there. But instead, they expand on the mythology and think of it rationally. What IF the alien could shrink and grow at will? What would happen?

THEN they fold it into an explanation for all of the things that are concurrently happening in the story. Because energy is conserved and this thing’s mass is changing, any change in mass results in a massive release/intake of energy, which is why it got extremely cold at the end of episode one when The Master summoned the demon and made him grow really tall (almost freezing The Doctor to death) and why there’s now a heat barrier around Devil’s End keeping The Brigadier and UNIT out.  It’s because the alien is incredibly small and completely unfindable.

This is to be applauded for being an extremely well-executed concept. Is it explained outright? Sure. But that’s not really a problem. It’s just tremendously clever.

Don’t worry, though, friends who don’t agree with me about this silly little idea thing. There’s plenty of other stuff in here that’s great, including The Master’s complete takeover of Devil’s End. And this is… this is why Delgado is a fantastic Master. He’s got such a powerful commanding presence that when he summons the little silly winged demon (who has arguably the best costume ever because it’s so completely ridiculous) and vaporizes one of the townsfolk, the scene is never NOT about him and he’s never not in control of what’s going on.

Oh, and there’s a terribly wonderful chase scene in this that features The Doctor and Jo in Bessie racing for the heat barrier and a helicopter chasing them.  It’s a thrilling sequence and one of my favorites in the UNIT era helped along by the utterly fantastic pimp badass moment when Yates gets on a motorbike and hijacks it and uses it to chase after the helicopter. There's gun play, racing, explosions! It's wonderfully delicious if you like this sorta thing (and I do, I do) and it's great to have the big UNIT action set piece right in the middle of an episode full of explanations and mythology dumpage. It beefs the pace and makes everything suddenly exciting as we rocket into the penultimate part.

Really, this story is proving to be just a fantastic breeding ground for everything I love about the Pertwee years but with added perks and bonuses or what have you. It’s just a delight and a wonder. And we still have two parts to go.

Part 4:

Now that I think about it, it’s weird how Letts and Sloman choose to use The Master here.

There’s a defining moment in this story, just before the end. And it’s right when Jo jumps out from her hiding place in the secret Satanist cavern and reveals herself to both The Master and his fellow cult whatever. What makes it so defining is that it is the first moment in the whole story in which someone from “the good side” (that is to say UNIT) crosses paths with The Master. That’s right. We’re in part four, and it’s only in the final minutes that we get The Master interacting with any of our main characters. And that… I think that’s an interesting choice, don’t you?

For one thing, we know that by this point Letts was regretting putting The Master in every story this season. And so was everyone else for that matter. But it’s key that Letts realized this and wrote his scripts to reflect the change.

The change, of course, is that The Master is given a lot of freedom here. He gets to do pretty much whatever he wants and nothing The Doctor or anything UNIT does seems to be having any real effect on the proceedings. It’s much more effective than something like “The Colony in Space”, in which The Master shows up three episodes in and crosses paths over and over with The Doctor or what have you. No, this is more effective, I think especially because from a narrative standpoint, it’s difficult to see how The Doctor and UNIT are going to stop The Master. At no point in all this has UNIT been successful at much of anything.

In their defense, that’s not their fault, really. There’s just not been many direct threats from the Master in any way. So the stories really are tending to run in parallel.

That’s an effective move, I think, and it really gives the story something to do. Because it’s two parallel narratives, there’s the assumption that they will directly collide at some point, but by putting it off Letts and Sloman really build intrigue and suspense and they do it in such a way that you don’t even really notice. Both individual stories are bouncing off each other, but only indirectly. And it begs the question: how long until The Doctor faces off against The Master? What in the world is going to happen?

To stray away from that and promise that we’ll deal with that whole situation in the next episode, I think we should talk a little bit about May Day.

May Day is a festival that I rather enjoy, at least in theory. It appears in "The Awakening" and because I rather enjoy "The Awakening", I’ll mention that I think it’s used well there. That said, it’s perhaps better used here, where in the middle of this episode we get a sequence in which the town of Devil’s End randomly decides it wants to throw a May Day celebration. From out of nowhere we get a May Pole with all the little strips of whatever it is that dangle from a May Pole and dudes in outfits and a parade and coordinated dance moves…

Let’s get the big question out of the way first? Who in the hell put this together? Because there’s no way this was either cheap or spontaneous. It’s too well planned and put together. And fine, okay, it’s planned. THEN WHY HAVEN’T I HEARD OF IT BEFORE NOW?

Okay. Bureaucracy settled. Let’s talk May Day.

Traditionally, May Day was a pagan ritual that celebrated a number of different things. It could mean the end of the planting season for farmers or it could be a celebration of fertility. In a lot of ways, it was a celebration of life and the promise to come. Yet it’s in the middle of a Doctor Who episode in which a demon is about to rise and does at the end of the episode.

What I love about this is that it’s insanely ominous. The townsfolk here are clearly under The Master’s influence, and it’s not a stretch to suggest that this is entirely his doing. It’s also not an accident that the townsfolk are quick to abduct The Doctor and prepare him for a ritual sacrifice to celebrate the season.

So The Doctor, who in a lot of ways is a knowledgeable, sensible traveler is being sacrificed to ring in whatever’s coming next. And because we know The Master’s plan, it’s clear that what’s coming next is him subjugating the earth through the use of this big ol’ alien demon thing. It’s rather backwards, isn’t it? Especially if this sacrifice is a ritualistic “out with the old” sorta thing. I mean, cuz then what we get is what The Master’s world will look like: violent, barbaric, and uneducated (but not necessarily dumb).  Such rejections seem like a Master sorta world, and... I dunno. I just really enjoy how Letts and Sloman incorporate this festival thing into the middle of a fantastic narrative about old cultures and society.

And isn’t it telling that while this May Day festival is going on we’re getting The Master and his final summoning of the alien downstairs which is also a ritual? The parallel is great, I think. Great stuff.

Part 5:

So it’s weird that this episode is the ending to this story, especially because it’s the only Pertwee five parter, with the rest of his stories almost exclusively split between four or six parts.

As such, I feel like this story gets a little wonky in the final episode. That’s not to say it’s bad. It’s really rather not. But I think it’s interesting that an era almost exclusively famous for its padding is now given an opportunity for a happy medium between its two options and it strangely never chooses to do this again. In their defense, a five episode structure is a weird structure to follow and was only ever done effectively one other time (and that time had a one episode prologue to what was essentially a four part story). This story doesn’t get that benefit, but it does allow it to work in other ways.

I think the biggest and most glaring problem for me personally when you hit this episode is that it’s almost too obvious that Letts and Sloman didn’t leave this episode enough and they’re left scrambling.

Sure, the stuff in here is fine, but it’s not got the pace of the other episodes, which are extremely methodical in how they're laid out. The layout here is good as well, but it’s problematic in that (again) there’s not enough to do. I love the way the climax of this story crosscuts between The Doctor in the basement sanctuary place confronting both The Master and Azal (which is what the giant 30 foot tall demon alien thing is called) and UNIT as they attempt to take out the weird freaky gargoyle with the tongue. You know the one.

And it’s well done. I’ll admit that. It’s fun to watch UNIT try and fail over and over to talk out the freaky gargoyle. It's also fun to watch The Doctor try to talk humanity’s way out of this one.

But it is incredibly dull, I think. And not because I lied to you in the first paragraph. No. This is different. This is dull because the whole sequence, starting from The Doctor entering the church and going all the way until the church is caught in a massive explosion is well over eight minutes long. Aesthetically, I enjoy long scenes, but it’s bad when you can tell the whole thing is overly padded out the wazoo as they vamp for time. Everything that happens is just running around and overly complex as we wait for the simple and inevitable ending of Jo throwing herself in front of The Doctor. And it’s not even like this is the sorta thing that I can just “get over” because it’s the bloody climax of the story.

It’s unfortunate, too, because it’s got some great stuff in there. Watching Delgado and Pertwee BOTH tear up the scenery is just wonderful as they try to grapple with the potential of receiving the power Azal might impart. It’s also great to see Jo Grant basically give us the “Emotions are powerful, u guyz!” ending, which totally did happen in Classic Who and in a good story FOR the show I might add. But it’s interesting how the ending is both logical and surprising. It’s one of those things that makes sense if you assume that emotions are intangible and abstract and how magic is simply science unexplained. Well then doesn’t that make Jo’s “completely irrational” sacrifice some kind of magic because love is actually completely unquantifiable?

How fitting, then, that The Doctor comes back around at the very end with the remark that “maybe there’s some magic in the world after all.” Is it unabashedly sentimental and feel-good? Sure. But doesn’t that also satisfy the character as he’s gone through the story? This is a guy who spent four and a half episodes talking about how great science was and how technology is the only real thing we have to fear. But here he has something of a change of heart, which is significant, I’d say. And it’s not the sort of thing we always need The Doctor to deal with as like his ongoing story or arc or whatever, but it’s the sorta thing that’s positively lovely to see Doctor Who do in that it pushed his character and saw what would dramatically happen.

And yes. We end with a May Day festivity. Isn’t that peculiar?

The symbolism of this is wonderful and it’s interesting how it works as a wonderful closing image for the season. With the loom of The Master hanging like an unfortunate pall all over this season, by the end here we finally get some closure on that whole thing. We get UNIT carting him away in a Jeep, making sure to take one celebratory lap around the May Pole before they go. And it’s nice to see The Doctor and Jo celebrating this new future and a “fertility” of a whole mess of new stories that don’t need The Master to clutter them. It’s also nice to see them take a break or what have you before they run off and do the next season. It’s just a great closing image.

Not to mention The Brig and Yates going out to get drinks instead of doing a May Dance. Glorious.

Final Thoughts?: So I'm not going to really dissent from majority opinion here, but "The Daemons" is truly one of the great gems of the UNIT era.

And really, there's a lot of reasons for that. For one thing it's astonishing just how much the writing team of Letts and Sloman manage to accomplish over the course of just five parts and it's an absolute delight to see unfold so seemingly effortlessly.

The standout piece of this is really The Doctor and how he relates to the mythology as it's constructed by the writing team. Like with "The Green Death" and "Planet of the Spiders" later, they really latch onto an arc and theme that's both strong and able to push the characters in bold and colorful directions. But in terms of sheer plotting, this takes the cake. Everyone really has something to do at every step of the proceedings and it really does show off all of the UNIT arsenal in a big, big bad way. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's the best use of UNIT on the show in the entire season and easily one of the standout UNIT stories in general.

It's also one of those great pieces of pop culture that isn't just senseless mindless running around. No. It's a great thematic piece about communities and customs and how these things affect the world they inhabit. They even manage to tie this into The Master and show him slowly picking apart an entire township piece by piece and how his unraveling of this community eventually becomes his own undoing. He himself is taken down by a type of magic (Bessie is magic in this story, remember?) and it's a really cathartic moment to see both Benton get the drop on him in the last episode AND The Doctor help deliver him into UNIT hands. Great, great stuff all around. If anything, I'm almost sad The Doctor and the Master don't share more scenes together, and yet I'm not quite convinced they need to, really. Watching them deal with their respective spheres of influence is great and it's nice to see them played off against each other as their respective orbits slowly decay into a climatic, cathartic ending.

So what I'm left with at the end is a big ol' grin. It's a great story. It's got everything. It's got some wonderful horror, it's thought-provoking, it's iconic, it's got everything you could want out of a Jon Pertwee story.

And it really does show off just how good Letts was at writing his own era. And sure, that's fine. You could argue that Hinchcliffe coulda written a kick-ass Hinchcliffe script because he knew his vision so well, but in his defense, why do that when you have Robert Holmes as your man? No. Letts is a guy who wanted to try his hand at Doctor Who, had some ideas, got a co-writer, and wrote this. And it's fantastic. Sure, he didn't always hit it out of the ball park, but no one with more than a few credits to their name really has, right? And if you come in and slam this out as a first story, that's extremely impressive regardless of whether or not he's a ringer because he knows his era pretty well. You could be a ringer and you still might utterly and completely fail. But he doesn't, and this story turns out memorable and a poster child for utterly fantastic UNIT greatness.

And it just means that I can't wait until we talk about our next Pertwee story. Can't. Wait.

Next Time!: 2nd Doctor! Giant Crabs! A society under attack! And who's REALLY pulling the strings? Next week, Cassandra steps in yet again, this time to cover "The Macra Terror!" Coming Next Tuesday!

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