Doctor Who complete reviews: Battlefield
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Neither the moments of visual genius nor the return of The Brig can really save this late outing in classic Who...
Imagine if you were the lucky one to succeed in pulling the sword from the stone. You'd be revered as a hero or heroine, your name would be toasted in pubs up and down the country, you'd be a living legend.
Well, unless you pulled the sword from the stone, then toppled backwards because the sword was so heavy, then fall down the stairs behind you, hurt yourself while doing so, and then end up in a big, smelly pile of cow dung in front of a chortling crowd of millions.
That's what Battlefield feels like. It's one of those frustrating tales in which the good bits are regularly balanced out by the story's own limitations. On paper, it's got all the promise of a Who classic. Ancient knights and an evil sorceress do battle with The Doctor and also...
Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart! In fact, Battlefield runs along the same lines as writer Ben Aaronovitch's recent masterpiece Remembrance Of The Daleks in that it brings back a key element of The Doctor's past while putting a late 80s spin on the more traditional elements of before. So apart from The Brig, we get a more modern take on UNIT, which is now more equal in terms than it was in the 1970s. Not only is there a woman at the top of the pile in the form of Bambera, there's a more multi-cultural feel to the previously middle England characters of the 1970s stories with members like Bambera, Lavel and Zbrigniev. Not only that, we get another nod to the past with the return of Bessie, The Doctor's beloved roadster.
So all of that sounds inviting for the fans and viewers. The problem with Battlefield is that it is its own worst enemy. It's summing up Doctor Who in a nutshell with its constant battle between good and bad. There's plenty of good stuff in Battlefield, but more often than not, it's countermanded by some of the biggest dross ever seen in the series.
The good stuff, then. Well, Nicholas Courtney inevitably steals the show. He may be slightly older and worldly wise than before, but The Brig slips back effortlessly into Doctor Who like that faithful pair of old comfy slippers. What I like about The Brig of Battlefield is that he's seen as this throwback to the past, who hasn't quite got round to adapting to changes in society. When he's chinwagging with Lavel in the helicopter, he asks whether Bambera is a good sort of chap, to which Lavel rolls her eyes in weary resignation. And despite ending up with his beloved Dirty Weekend Doris, he's still amusingly inept with women. He's constantly uneasy about Bambera's methods of leadership and worse still, alienates Ace with his old-school approach (“Just call me the latest one!” she scowls as The Brig shuffles uneasily on the spot).
For all that though, we're reminded that deep beneath the military bluster and old-fashioned values, The Brig is essentially a decent man who stands for everything that The Doctor champions. He's willing to lay down his life for his old friend by taking on The Destroyer alone, and these scenes pretty much sum him up (“I just do the best I can”). It's another superb performance from the late, great Nicholas Courtney in what was to sadly prove to be his last appearance in the programme.
"Even in the late 1980s, the threat of nuclear war was still a terrifying prospect, and Battlefield at least does raise the issue. If only it didn't do it quite so heavy handedly"
Another returning blast from the past is Jean Marsh, who had last been seen collecting her bus pass as Sara Kingdom in The Daleks' Master Plan. This time around, she's doing what she does best – sneery sword and sorcery in the form of Morgaine. Morgaine's just that little bit more than your average evil witch. While she's undoubtedly hellbent on going on the rampage and spreading death and destruction with consummate ease, she's also seen to have a more compassionate side. Take the scene in which she sucks the mind out of hapless UNIT pilot Lavel and then reduces her to a scorched outline on the floor. Most baddies would then do the same to the other characters in the room, but instead, pays for her son's drinks by restoring blind Elizabeth Rowlinson's sight. Now that's good writing.
Just as good is the way in which she's broken down at the end. She's not brought down by her own tyranny, but by her compassion. The Doctor manages to persuade her to abort the nuclear strike, and when she requests to see her lover and foe, Arthur, she is quietly devastated when she learns of his death. Again, good writing and more to the point, an excellent performance from Jean Marsh just add that bit more depth to what could have been a dull cliché.
Talking of Morgaine's motives, there is a worthy anti-nuclear message at the heart of Battlefield. Even in the late 1980s, the threat of nuclear war was still a terrifying prospect, and Battlefield at least does raise the issue. If only it didn't do it quite so heavy handedly. The Doctor's last impassioned speech is just a bit too over the top (“Is this honour? Is this war? Are these the weapons that you would use?”) to convince, and the message could have been handled just that bit more subtly.
But then Battlefield doesn't quite get the meaning of subtle. While it's a fast-paced and moderately exciting adventure, it's also more often than not, gormless in the extreme. The supporting characters are all over the shop – there's too many of them, for one thing, and so most of them are unceremoniously shunted off to the middle of nowhere in part Three in a sloppy I-Don't-Know-How-To-Get-Rid-Of-Them fashion. For another thing, they're largely awful. Warmsly is a grumpy old caricature yokel, who's dividing his time between pulling scowly faces like a moth-eaten teddy bear and mumbling angrily about any given thing, event and person.
There's a glimmer of hope with Elizabeth Rowlinson, a potentially interesting character, who's not really developed enough for anyone to give a damn. Her sudden restoration of sight never feels real for one minute because both Elizabeth and her sour-faced hubby Pat (apparently played by Peter Skellern) react with no emotion whatsoever. Pat doesn't react with overwhelming tears of joy at the fact that his wife can see again, but instead reacts with the emotion of winning a jar of homemade chutney at the local village fête tombola stall.
We haven't even scratched the surface yet though. The other long-standing puppets on strings are even worse. Ace is paired off with the annoying Shou-Yuing, a woman who's dressed like one of the Kids From Fame and whose only function is to ask crushingly inept questions or to state the blinking obvious (“You know these guys then?” she asks after Morded's just bellowed “MERLIN!!” in The Doctor's face). There's also a knuckle-suckingly bad attempt at delivering an anti-racist message after a possessed Ace starts hurling insults at Shou-Yuing from the Bernard Manning Guide To Ordering A Chinese Takeaway. It's so clunky and stagily done, thanks to the crass writing and the rather am-dram acting – again, a worthy message is lost in a sea of incompetence.
Talking of incompetence, there's a three-way contest to see who can be the most incompetent Battlefield Buffoon. First up, we have flop-haired Ancelyn, a warrior who curiously never seems to enter into the spirit of battle. Instead, he's spending his time being Bambera's gimp. Every single scene he's in, he's either being whacked and punched by Bambera or gazing dreamily into the distance at the thought of his beloved – probably with a whip. And as Ancelyn and Bambera head into deadly danger, he inexplicably finds the time to ask whether she's married. Huh? It's like proposing to your other half while being held at gunpoint in a bank robbery.
Still, Winifred's just as smitten and asks exactly the same thing to Ancelyn when the two are just about to crash into an army of soldiers. Bambera's terrible though – a butch old cliché with a man's haircut and a tendency to say “Shame!” on a loop. Yeah, apparently that's the swear word of choice in the UNIT ranks. It's hard to imagine Bambera as the capable leader of UNIT, since she's forever ranting, raving and beating the crap out of anyone that crosses her path – and while Angela Bruce does her level best with such a rotten part, the terrible writing pushes any credibility of the character from a multi-storey window.
"In Mordred's mind, he's a swaggering behemoth of towering proportions when in fact, he has all the gumption of Walter The Softy"
The winner of the Battlefield Buffoon award though inevitably goes to lank-haired mummy's boy, Morded. Mordred, for reasons best known to himself, stomps around bellowing in the voice of a blockbuster movie announcer. When he's not doing that, he's quaffing copious amounts of ale and leering at Lavel in a desperate bid to prove how macho he really is.
In reality, all this fake machismo is just a smokescreen for the fact that he can't do anything without his mummy's permission. Mordred wouldn't even be able to make a cup of tea without Morgaine's help. In Battlefield, Mordred needs his mum to pay for his drinks and also to help save him from the jaws of death. In Mordred's mind, he's a swaggering behemoth of towering proportions when in fact, he has all the gumption of Walter The Softy.
There's also that inexplicable bit in part two when Mordred's required to just stand there laughing non-stop for about five solid minutes. Forget your Vivien Fays and your Captain Wracks, when it comes to unconvincing bwa-hah-hah-ing, Mordred scoops the prize. It's so badly done, and you can almost sense the pleading in Christopher Bowen's eyes as he unconsciously wills such a painful scene to limp to its overdue end. What's so funny anyway? OK, so The Doctor's gurning again, but that's not really that funny. He evidently hasn't popped the latest Michael McIntyre DVD on the player, since like any sane person he'd be weeping uncontrollably at the thought of 90 minutes in the unfunny company of a demented chipmunk in a suit. Maybe he's just seen a playback of his own ridiculously OTT performance – well, to be honest, it made me bellow with laughter, sad man that I am.
I'm only laughing at the ineptitude of it all, and to be honest, there's so many inept sequences present, that it feels like Battlefield was written and assembled by Frank Spencer. Battlefield's a frustratingly painful experience in that it's groaning at the scenes with ill-advised attempts at humour or badly choreographed action sequences. The awful “BOOM!” bit with its terrible dialogue, bad editing and Goodies-esque flying knight had me cradling my head in my hands, as did the flaming tracks of Bessie. The action sequences seem to comprise uncoordinated extras in ill-fitting suits of armour letting off kids' firework guns or hitting each other with plastic swords, the sort you'd get as a freebie at your local toy shop.
"Even when it frees itself, The Destroyer still mooches about while grunting like an over-heated pig"
Even when there's a potentially promising development, Battlefield wastes the opportunity. The Destroyer for instance, is a triumph. It's very well designed and is a welcome return to the monster era of Doctor Who. The problem is, it doesn't do anything but stand around like a spare part in the background feeling sorry for itself. And even when it frees itself, The Destroyer still mooches about while grunting like an over-heated pig.
And the disasters flow thick and fast. The treatment of The Doctor and Ace is another casualty. The Doctor's got more dialogue disasters to contend with than your average episode of Take Me Out, the nadir of which is probably the odd “MORGAINE!... If they're dead...!” Ace, in the meantime regresses from a streetwise teenager to a five-year-old with all the sophistication of Viley Sinus, sorry, Miley Cyrus. Pairing her up with the similarly infantile Shou-Yuing doesn't help either, since they resemble two giggling schoolgirls who have just stuck a KICK ME sign on the back of the headmaster's tweed jacket.
The crowning fly on the turd is of course, Keff McCulloch's increasingly odd score. It's very much a case of “Anywhere But Here” since the music never matches what's going on in the story. So we have what sounds like a Pat And Mick B-side while the warriors do battle; a final 60 seconds jingle for Linda Barker to complete a room while The Doctor and Ace dodge a cartoon genie; and a gameshow prize fanfare as Bambera walks mournfully to the pub. Apparently it's possible to view the story without Keff's bizarre musical histrionics, but would it make Battlefield any better?
I'm not so sure. Battlefield, at its core, is a perfectly serviceable adventure. It has one or two interesting ideas and characters, and provides a welcome return for The Brigadier. But it's constantly tripping over its own feet in the process. Aaronovitch's script feels like a sprawling first draft, and needed much more attention in the script editing stages to get rid of the silly ideas and to tone down the worst excesses of the characters. Michael Kerrigan the director does his best to inject some sort of life into the story, but with such a lousy script, it's an uphill struggle. The problem is when you're kicking off a new season of Doctor Who, you need to launch it with a bang. Battlefield instead launches the season with a laughable whimper and a comedy pratfall – and in an age where the show's survival was still shaky, that's a big mistake.
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.
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