Saturday, July 17, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "Battlefield"

The Seventh Doctor's era was the swan song for the series for about 15 years (sort-of). The era had actually started somewhat badly with Colin Baker's tenure seeing ratings tumbling and Baker himself taking a lot of the heat for the failure. When Baker was fired from the job the production team sought out a new actor to play the Doctor. They found Sylvester McCoy -- a Shakespearean trained actor who happened, at the time, to be doing mostly a quasi-vaudeville revue. Originally his version of the Doctor was to be seen as somewhat befuddled -- dropping malapropisms everywhere. By the time "Battlefield" rolled around, however, this characterization was dropped for a version of the Doctor who used a disarming exterior to hide the fact that he was actually a master manipulator and schemer with something of a dark side. Sadly, ratings were still below where the BBC wanted them and there were those within the company who were sharpening their knives to cut it out no matter what.

At the time "Battlefield" was filmed the production team had heard rumblings that the series might be put on hiatus or even cancelled outright but they made the decision to continue on as if expecting to be renewed for the next season. At least they did for the most part. The opening sequence in the TARDIS is notably dark and sharp-eyed viewers will notice that there seems to be something wrong with the TARDIS walls. This is because the "walls" are, in fact, painted sheets. The set walls had been damaged and the production team opted not to have the expense of re-building them as the remaining scripts in the season didn't really call for much in the way of TARDIS interior shots.

As it happened, it was during the next story in production, "Survival" that the team learned that they would be allowed to finish out the season and then would be put on "hiatus". Most of the cast and crew believed that the so-called "hiatus" would be permanent. They were more or less right.

The story is also rather a tribute to the Third Doctor's era, with the inclusion of UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Task Force, complete with the blue berets this time), Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, and even the Third Doctor's yellow roadster nicknamed 'Bessie'.

The Plot: The Doctor and his young companion, Ace, receive a strange distress call and land on Earth sometime in the near future after 1988. Also summoned to Earth by the call are two groups of knights from a parallel dimension where the rise and fall of Camelot were rather more real. One group proves loyal to King Arthur while the other group are followers of the sorceress Morgaine. With a mixture of magic of futuristic technology these two forces pick a new battlefield and await the restoration of King Arthur. Adding to the commotion, a UNIT force is in the area trying to relieve a nuclear missile convoy which got off the road and bogged down near a lake. When the Doctor shows up UNIT immediately calls in a retired Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and he joins a new Brigadier -- Winifred Bambera. The forces in this war are small but the stakes are incredibly high. If the Doctor cannot stop the fighting then the planet itself may become a barren cinder.

My Take: I have to admit, when I was younger I thought "Battlefield" was a bit of a sub-par story. It seemed a bit too trite and a little too self-referential and self-reverent of the show's own past. Upon watching it again I find that I was more than a bit harsh on it.

I also have to say that the Seventh Doctor's era had the version of the theme song that I hate the most. It's too.... 'fiddly'.

It should be mentioned that this DVD comes with two copies of the episode -- the original as broadcast and a second version with some cut scenes added back in, enhanced visual effects and sound effects and all of the episode breaks taken out so the whole thing plays like a two-hour movie.

Getting down to brass tacks... The story itself is a mix of good and bad things. This new version of UNIT displays a rather conscious effort to put the U.N. in UNIT and while the diversity is nice it also feels a little bit forced with a French helicopter pilot, a Polish second-in-command, and at least one Czech officer as well. Fans were probably surprised to hear characters talking about "The Brigadier" and then not only NOT having Lethbridge-Stewart appear on the screen but have it actually be a black woman. Angela Bruce as Bambera is one of the best things about the new UNIT. She's tough and smart but without being annoying and is a shot in the arm for Women's equality. She also proves herself a capable leader and a capable warrior as well.

The plot is a bit of a mix and yet, somehow it all hangs together. It is a study on war and peace and honor in battle and yet manages to tack on an anti-nuclear polemic that actually works, as nuclear weapons are framed as a coward's weapon -- a killing without honor. There is also a sub-plot of the Doctor's future catching up with him. To the denizens from the alternate dimension the Doctor is known as "Merlin" but as the Doctor tells Ace, he is not Merlin... yet. But he might be someday. For now though, there are characters who know of his possible future while that future remains shrouded in mystery for him. It's a bit of the Timey-Wimeyness that Steven Moffat has gone back to in the recent series. On top of all that, the extended version of the story has another running plot of Ace and the Brigadier butting heads as Lethbridge-Stewart's old-fashioned attitude toward women tends to rankle Ace and she also feels that being the Doctor's companion is HER job now, not the Brig's.

The writer, Ben Aaronovitch, had intended to kill Lethbridge-Stewart in the story but in the end just couldn't do it. In a way this worked out for the best because fans have gotten to keep the old Brig around (and Courtney has reprised his role in a couple of Doctor Who audio stories as well as an episode of the spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures) and in addition it actually becomes a surprise. The foreshadowing of the Brig's death is so sledgehammer obvious that we expect it and then find the tables turned on us!

The dialogue has some real triumphs. Great, quotable lines and sequences with a real Shakespearean flair. There are also moments, though, when things fall down. There is a lot of name dropping of Third Doctor friends and enemies which serve no purpose in the story other than to have their names dropped. It seems very forced and awkward when it happens.

The characters are also, on the whole, a delight. Angela Bruce has great chemistry with Marcus Gilbert, the actor playing the knight Ancelyn, and Gilbert infuses the role with charm and humor... and he's pretty easy on the eyes too so there's that. Nicholas Courtney had reprised his role as the Brigadier twice during the Fifth Doctor's era and here he slips back into it as easily as putting on a comfortable pair of shoes. Jean Marsh, who was a Doctor Who veteran turns in a surprisingly unexpected turn as Morgaine. At times she is a straightforward baddie but then she can turn on a dime and transform Morgaine into a concerned parent or inject pathos into a scene so that we actually feel sorry for the character. The actor playing Mordred, though... well, he does the best he can with the role but many of his lines are written so very over-the-top and his part is nothing but a 2 dimensional villain without any of Morgaine's twists.

The regular cast of Sophie Aldred as Ace and Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor turn in great performances. In particular, Aldred does a good job at showing Ace making a friend in a girl close to her own age. It rather points up the normality of such friendships which Ace misses by traveling with the Doctor. McCoy, for his part, brings drama and gravitas and the ability to move easily from a lighthearted attitude to a man you would not want as your enemy.

I don't often mention the music but here I feel I must. Back in the early 1980's the production team dumped series composer Dudley Simpson in order to have all of the show's music produced by the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop -- which was primarily into electronic and synthesizer music. The stuff they create here is sometimes quite good but at other times it is entirely too jaunty and just wrong not only for the scenes but the story itself.

While I do encourage seeing the original story as it aired, the second disk with the enhanced story is a very nice addition. While some of the added scenes somewhat interrupt the flow of the story most of them are really welcome additions. The conflict between Ace and the Brigadier, for example, adds some depth to the story. There are also sequences which help tie the Brig to Morgaine and Ancelyn -- that show the Brig as as old war-horse, who doesn't really like battle but by God when called to fight he will do so with honor... for both the living and the dead.

The enhanced special effects as well as the new sound effects are also helpful. The knights' supposedly futuristic guns which, in the original, only shot silly-looking sparks now have ray beams and many audio effects help fill-in plot holes. the one area I didn't care for it was in one crucial scene where Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor runs into a battlefield and should to stop the fighting. In the original it is all Sylvester McCoy letting loose with a Shakespearean roar but in the enhanced version an effect is added to McCoy's voice. I much prefer the unadulterated version as the "enhanced" version implies that the Doctor is employing some kind of device or technique to stop the fight where the original makes it clear that the Doctor is doing this just with his sheer personality.

On the whole, even the anti-nuclear message still holds up. While one can still hear some old, Cold War overtones here and there most of the points hold true in our world today. Just as the issues of war and peace and honor also hold true. There is a tribute to the past of the series while looking towards the future, there is charm and excitement and complex characters, great scenes and great dialogue. "Battlefield" is well worth the time.

1 comment:

  1. I love Battlefield. Its definitely one of my favorites, though I admit it has problems as a story.

    There are some wonderful characters, but there are so many of them. Its one of the few Doctor Who stories that needs to be longer.

    They should have taken the Third Doctor tribute further and made it a six-part story.