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Doctor Who complete reviews: The King's Demons

REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO

The Master lowers his sights as season 20 draws to a close...

Peter Davison and Anthony Ainley in 'The King's Demons'

Like it or not, Star Wars has always been a steadying influence on sci-fi telly since its debut in 1977. You can picture the exasperated look on Graham Williams' face as he realised that he now had to compete with a big-budget blockbuster that threw more visual trickery in your face than you could shake a magic stick at. Interestingly, despite the frugal budgets available, some of the results were not half bad. The Invasion Of Time pays homage to the film convincingly in its opening moments, while the spaceship scenes of Underworld and The Invisible Enemy are very very good indeed.

And since then, there's been the merchandise (kids today now have the Star Wars figure effect with the many Doctor Who figures), sly visual references (The End Of Time bar scene) and of course, Kamelion.

Kamelion with Peter DavisonWhat's that? Who's Kamelion? Well, amazingly, Kamelion was supposed to be the new travelling companion of The Doctor, except with a twist. With C-3PO a familiar metal face at the time, Doctor Who came up with its very own metal man, a shape-shifting robot that had been captured by The Master for use on the planet Earth in 13th-century England.

It's a nice idea, but in practice, the concept of Kamelion became a bit botched. It's a damning indictment that the DVD boxset called Kamelion Tales comprises the only stories to feature the robot - save for a deleted scene in The Awakening and a goodbye cameo at the end of Caves Of Androzani. No wonder Kamelion's the companion that time forgot.

In a way, it's a shame, since at least Kamelion was a worthwhile attempt to try a slightly different tack from the average squealing companion. And the argument that Kamelion was shunted to the sidelines because of impracticality doesn't really carry much weight. He could have just transformed himself into a human being and presto! Problem solved! I guess that in the end, Kamelion was one of those inexplicable half-baked ideas that didn't really pan out in the end. Again, it's a curse of having four people in the TARDIS. Someone's got to give, and on those grounds, Kamelion never stood a chance.

Still, at least his debut (for want of a better word) adventure is fairly entertaining. That's a big achievement, considering that it's a two-parter from Terence Dudley, a combination that sits as easily as sausages and ice cream. I quite like The King's Demons though - it is what it is - a lightweight break after the trials of the Black Guardian shenanigans. Rather than a straight-ahead historical, it's back to the pseudo-historical, where science fiction elements are introduced into the equation. This time around, The Master is using Kamelion to impersonate King John in order to stop the signing of the Magna Carta.

"The Master's just been reduced to a figure of fun rather than a terrifying villain, and his latest dastardly scheme reflects his drop in fortunes"

Anthony Ainley as The Master in 'The King's Demons'If there is a criticism (and a strong one at that) that can be levelled at The King's Demons, then it's definitely the use of The Master. Wow, talk about a comedown. One minute you're plotting to hold the universe to ransom, the next you're faffing about with a historical signing. Even The Doctor says that this is small-time villainy by The Master's standards.

So what's happened here? Well, the drop in the Master's fortunes has been brewing ever since his latest regeneration. First he was a suave epitome of cool with a click of his black-gloved fingers, then he was a scary-faced grim reaper, but lately, The Master's got a bit silly. For one thing, he's too busy working out what disguise to wear. Following an ancient old goat in a silly hat and then a magician in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, The Master now decides to pass himself off as the world's worst Charles Aznavour impersonator ever. Listen to that accent: "You insult zeeeee keeeeeng!!" is just one example of this ridiculous French pissing, and makes Leclerc from 'Allo 'Allo! seem like the real deal. You almost half expect The Master to whip off his wig and say: "Pssst, eet eez I! Zee Master!"

With that in mind, The Master's just been reduced to a figure of fun rather than a terrifying villain, and his latest dastardly scheme reflects his drop in fortunes. Wow, preventing the signing of the Magna Carta - that's the sort of thing a small-fry amateur crook might try on his first day on the job. It's possible that The Master's experiencing some sort of disillusionment with this conqueror of the universe lark. So let's look at some of the other possible low-key evil that The Master may have sorted on the quiet:

• Travelling back to 1911, The Master dons the disguise of a sweet shop owner in a genteel country village, and in his most audacious scheme yet, decides to swap black jelly beans with real live bugs. The faces of the unwitting kids should be a picture.

• Upping his game, The Master decides to go festive and become the Santa From Hell. He swears at the kiddies, having consumed ten pints of strong lager, burps to the tune of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and then having ripped off his disguise to prove that there is no Santa, steals all the kiddies' presents (Santa's sleigh, is of course, his TARDIS).

• And then the most heinous crime yet - travelling forward to the mid-1990s, The Master allows the signing of the most fearsome contract yet. It's an act that will allow two evil beings to seemingly dominate the world. A scheme that will make millions feel horribly ill. Yes, The Master draws up the contract for Robson and Jerome to become pop singers. Pant-wetting terror at its most fiendish.

Incidentally, the above examples are all featured in The Master's latest book, Master Mindless (AKA Mundane Evil Plans For Beginners), retailing at all good galactic bookshops for £100,000,000.

Back to The King's Demons, and it's a shame that The Master had to be the included villain. Couldn't some other new baddie have been devised, or more to the point, couldn't Kamelion have devised the plot all by himself? And then having found redemption at the end, Kamelion could have still travelled with The Doctor. The now-customary inclusion of The Master seems to get more tiresome with each passing story, and Anthony Ainley's bored performance - both as his alter ego Sir Gilles Estram (geddit?) and as the usual Heh-heh-heh-ing Master only reinforces this point.

"The sword fight between The Doctor and Sir Gilles is handled well, as is the sequence in which the two Time Lords battle for mental control over Kamelion"

Swordplay in 'The King's Demons' (Doctor Who)Despite this, The King's Demons still works, albeit on a production level. I'm a big sucker for medieval-style drama, simply because it looks great on screen. The King's Demons is no exception, with some sumptuous production values. Despite the freezing location work, the jousts are well done, and the camerawork is of a very high standard. Just as good are the interior scenes. The designs are intricately detailed - the tapestries, the furniture, even the Iron Maiden (guess what that happens to be). The costume designs are equally first class, with a lot of detailed research showing in the final products.

Overall, The King's Demons is very well assembled by Tony Virgo, who makes his lone directing contribution to Doctor Who. It's a shame he wasn't asked back, since he directs in an unobtrusive but stylish way. The sword fight between The Doctor and Sir Gilles is handled well, as is the sequence in which the two Time Lords battle for mental control over Kamelion. His guest cast is generally very good, with plaudits going to Isla Blair, Frank Windsor and Gerald Flood as King John, who also has a mean way with a tune - well, more than Robson and Jerome anyway.

The King's Demons isn't really the best way to close a season though, but it wasn't planned that way in the first place. The much-vaunted Dalek battle was put back until the following season, so it's left to The Doctor to promise Teabag and Turlough the trip of a lifetime to the Eye Of Orion. The King's Demons doesn't exactly raise the stakes highly, but taken on its own, it's a pleasant little interlude that gets by on its lavish visuals and strong acting. Take The Master's rubbish plan out of the equation and it might almost be perfect.

 

John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.

Check out John's previous Doctor Who review, Enlightenment

Read more Doctor Who articles at Shadowlocked


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