Monday, July 23, 2012

A Good Wizard Tricked (Battlefield)

K-KLACK!
It's July of 1991. Songs that hit number one this month are Jason Donovan's "Any Dream Will Do" and Bryan Adams "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You," while Erasure, Paula Abdul, and Guns N' Roses also chart. In real news, the Warsaw Pact is dissolved, Boris Yeltsin becomes the first elected president of Russia, and Mike Tyson and Jeffery Dahmer are both arrested.

While in literature, the final Target novelization of the Sylvester McCoy era comes out as Ben Aaronovitch's Battlefield is novelized by Marc Platt. For its part, Battlefield was transmitted from September 6-27 of 1989. During this time Black Box were at number one with "Right On Time," while Alice Cooper, Tears for Fears, Tina Turner, Madonna, and, once again, Jason Donovan also charted. In real news, the IRA murder Heidi Hazell, the wife of a British soldier. John Major replaces Nigel Lawson as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The final election held under apartheid takes place in South Africa, and Vietnam withdraws from Cambodia after eleven years.

(In the gap between Battlefield and Greatest Show in the Galaxy, for reference, the famed fatwah on Salman Rushdie is issued, leading to the UK and Iran breaking off diplomatic relations. The Ayatollah Khomeini also, coincidentally, dies. Communism begins to fall on a number of fronts, most notably in Poland, where the recently unbanned union Solidarity wins elections. Communism stands up rather better in China, meanwhile, which just runs people over with tanks instead of allowing democratic reform. The poll tax is introduced in Scotland, the Exxon Valdez crashes, and the Hillsborough disaster kills 96 Liverpool supporters in Sheffield, followed by what is a strong contender for the most sickening moment in Rupert Murdoch's career as the Sun falsely blames Liverpool fans for the tragedy.)

But in many ways, all of this is secondary to the Battlefield of 1991, and this fact is very important. Because one thing that happened during the Sylvester mcCoy era was that the novelizations of stories suddenly became important in a way that they hadn't been since Malcolm Hulke was writing them - a fact that would prove extremely important when the series found itself continued as a line of novels from Virgin Books.

It's a small sample size, due to there just not being that many Sylvester McCoy stories. There are about four novels that people really point to as dramatically expanding the scope of what the novels were: Remembrance of the Daleks, Battlefield, Ghost Light, and The Curse of Fenric. But these four proved to be significant simply because they provided the blueprint that the better entries in the Virgin line would follow.

They also, by and large, reflect a significant change in how Doctor Who was written in the Cartmel era. The writers of the Cartmel era, as discussed previously, were the first generation to have largely grown up on Doctor Who. And for several of them - most obviously Aaronovitch and Platt - the novelizations were a part of Doctor Who. (Cartmel recounts a story of Aaronovitch excitedly describing a Hulke novel as Communist propaganda.) And it's clear that for these writers getting to do the novelization was part of the fun of writing for Doctor Who. In many ways this is an odd bit of nostalgia; even though by 1987 Doctor Who was a show that was obviously going to be rerun and, more to the point, taped and rewatched, Cartmel's stable of writers had grown up with the novelizations being the "permanent" versions of Doctor Who.

And much as the lack of overt focus on the series from the BBC was surely part of how the Cartmel era was able to get away with being so radical, the fact that the novelizations were increasingly a hollow exercise in merchandising meant that writers who cared to could have some real fun with the novels. As a result there became, in the McCoy years, a tendency to use the novelizations to create "definitive" versions of stories that went beyond what television could depict. These didn't just add new details and restore many of the scenes that got cut due to Cartmel's chronic inability to get script lengths right (the McCoy era routinely overshot as much as an episode's worth of material per story), but instead pushed towards creating new mythology for the show and a new style of telling stories about the Doctor. This new mythology and new new approach was, by and large, the starting point for the Virgin line.

Actually, the novelization of Battlefield post-dated the release of Timewyrm: Genesis, the first of the Virgin New Adventures. In this regard, if I really wanted to talk about novelizations and their impact on the future of the series I'd have wanted to talk about Ben Aaronovitch's novelization of Remembrance of the Daleks. But since that entry was already four thousand words, I decided to do this one instead simply because of the McCoy stories with "major" novelizations this was the one that belonged to a story that is somewhat widely considered to have failed in its television version.

This is terribly unfair, of course. Battlefield is flawed as a television story, yes, but it's not actually nearly as disastrous as its reputation. Let's look at the major charges against it. Yes, it misjudges the size of its budget badly and ends up doing some ropey and unconvincing action sequences, but everyone believes their bubble wrap decently. It's been a long time since we've had a Doctor Who story whose biggest problem is that it looks a bit cheap, as opposed to that it was fundamentally misconceived on every level from its basic design on up.

There's the complaint of childishness, focused mostly on Bambera's use of the word "shame" where she obviously means "shit" and on the "boom" scene towards the end of the first episode. Bambera's fake-swearing can be adequately squared off with the same "children's television that's gone above its station" principle that we've been using for a while now. The sort of character who casually falls in love with Ancelyn over the course of about 24 hours and one of the most flaccid courtships not to involve alien royal jelly is also the sort who has a dumb fake-swearing catchphrase. One ought read Bambera's swearing as one of the guideposts the story gives you for what sort of thing it is. Instead of treating it as a placeholder for "shit," treat it as Battlefield staking out territory among the sort of shows that have fake-swearing.

Put another way, one can easily treat the fake swearing of the Cartmel era as a very slightly camp performance of children's television - something that provides a needed hedge against the potential misconception that Doctor Who is somehow engaged in serious drama or straightforward literary science fiction. It's something that forces the audience to read the show as children's television punching above its weight instead of as epic science fiction that has no budget. And a similar explanation serves for the "boom" scene, though that one isn't helped by the fact that Ling Tai isn't exactly giving Sophie Aldred a lot to work with.

The botched near future? I mean, really? We're going to complain that this story tries to actually do the "near future" concept that UNIT supposedly went for and in practice completely ignored? That it had the gall to get it wrong about the Cold War? Yes, it had some rather spectacularly bad luck in that Communism began imploding right as the story was being made. Yes, things like the lack of a five pound coin stick out now, but if this is meant to be a serious critique of the story then God help most Doctor Who.

And then there's the complaint about pacing. Yes, this is a three part story that got stretched to four. Yes, as a result the final part drags, with a profusion of extensions to continue the crisis past its selling point. All told it's not actually that bad, though. The pacing is lax for a military techno-thriller, but given that the military techno-thriller aspects are already unconvincing due to the budgetary issues the leisurely pace isn't actually detracting from much of anything. There's maybe five minutes of excess padding in the final episode - again, a reason to ding the story a few points, but surely not a reason to treat the story as a failure.

About the only critique of the story to really stick is Tat Wood's observation that they should have killed the Brigadier, as the story was visibly about coming up with a new vision of what UNIT is. This is true - killing the Brigadier would have paralleled nicely with Arthur turning out to be well and truly dead, applying one of the Cartmel era's most persistent themes - that the past cannot be recovered - to the series itself. Structurally the Brigadier serves as the series' version of Arthur: the old hero returned in an hour of need. What should ensue from this is twofold. First, his version of UNIT, anchored in a "keep calm and carry on" vision of national identity and, let's be honest, supremacy, should have been shown to be past its time regardless of its nobility. Second, the new and improved version of UNIT, a genuinely international effort, should have been shown to be a worthy successor. Instead Bambera is mind controlled and shown up while the Brigadier remains top dog.

Instead the Brigadier is cheated out of one of the best scenes in the show. His casual, unpresuming confidence in the face of The Destroyer is fantastic. But if that had been the Brigadier's death scene it would have jumped to one of the top scenes in Doctor Who. Instead the show veers towards cheap nostalgia in a way that cuts against everything it's been doing in the Cartmel era, treating Pertwee era values as somehow immutable and unchallengeable. And it's the last chance to do that - after this the Brigadier is above reproach. And he didn't have to be - Battlefield was a one-time opportunity to simultaneously let the Brigadier go out in a phenomenal blaze of glory and to close the book on the ethics of the Pertwee era, allowing that era to be simultaneously respected and left in the past. But frankly, this is the line of critique that's least taken against this story simply because fandom, for wholly justified reasons, adores the Brigadier and didn't want him permanently written out of the show or subjected to any sort of sustained critique. And fair enough, as Nicholas Courtney is reliably fabulous.

So why does this story have a somewhat rougher reputation than much of the McCoy era? I mean, I'll readily grant that the niggles outlined above are sufficient to put it behind a tour de force like The Curse of Fenric or Remembrance of the Daleks, but this ought still qualify easily as solid Doctor Who. And yet it by and large doesn't.

Part of the answer is, frankly, the novelization. Or, rather, the reason the novelization exists, which is that by this point the series was doing things that were, to say the least, a wee bit ambitious. Sandwiched as it is between a horror circus about the failures of the 1960s and a Victorian horror story about Darwin, ultimately Battlefield's biggest sin is that the story it's trying to be is so good that the merely passible result is a crushing disappointment.

And the book goes a long way towards repairing that. It can afford to show the Doctor as Merlin. It can give Bambera a proper globe-trotting past that we get to see pieces of. And perhaps most of all, it can go into the Doctor's head a bit and make clear one of the story's biggest ideas. After a season that repeatedly stressed McCoy's Doctor as a manipulative figure who is often a static presence around whom chaos occurs, Aaronovitch - responsible for the script that flipped McCoy over to this - does what is in many ways the ultimate trick of the McCoy era. Having established McCoy's Doctor as an infinitely clever person who can outsmart anyone and anything, Aaronovitch figures out the one person who can successfully cast McCoy's Doctor as a pawn: a future Doctor. And so we get a story of McCoy's Doctor being a pawn in one of his own schemes. It's a great conceit, but the televised story doesn't really have a way to hammer it home. The novel, on the other hand, is perfectly comfortable at this.

(Inevitably, the twist has roots in Alan Moore, who proposed the exact same trick as the resolution to his aborted Twilight of the Superheroes crossover, which ends with the revelation that John Constantine has, through the entire story, been being played by his own future self. Interestingly, in this case the connections are completely coincidental, as the Twilight of the Superheroes plot didn't leak to the general public until the Internet came along.)

The novel can also go further in destabilizing our assumptions about what the world of Doctor Who is like. The first chapter of Platt's novelization, for instance, contains a substantive section written from the point of view of the TARDIS. It's terribly interesting, but what's interesting about it is largely philosophical: it depicts the mind of a sentient machine. The entire point of it is the word choice and the phrasing used. There's not an equivalent technique in film or video. There are things film and video can do that prose can't, but equally, there are things that language can do such as depict a train of thought that a television program simply can't. More to the point, experimental prose is easier and more utilitarian than experimental video. Metaphor, pataphor, and sudden transitions are much easier with words. Prose, in other words, allows for a wider variety of strange techniques, and it's clear in Battlefield that Platt is interested in what those techniques can do for Doctor Who and what new things it lets Doctor Who depict.

In this regard, then, what's ironic about Battlefield is that despite kicking off the last season of Doctor Who it's an incredibly forward-looking story. It suggests that in a real sense a move to prose novels was a natural evolution for the Cartmel era. That's not to say that the impending cancellation is a good thing, but it is to say that the transition from Survival to Timewyrm: Genesis is a smoother and more straightforward thing than it appears.

This is fitting for a story that so confidently treats the future of Doctor Who as a given. Yes, we'll probably never see the Merlin period of the Doctor's life explicitly. (Although the novel's assertion that the Merlin incarnation of the Doctor has red hair provides humorous justification for the Doctor's desire to be ginger) Which is a pity in some ways, as a storyline rooted in the ancient heritage of Britain about a mysterious woman who rises from a lake, who eventually traps the Doctor in a prison for all eternity, and to whom the Doctor appears to live backwards in time would be really, really interesting.

62 comments:

  1. Fair enough!

    I do like the Brig's survival. In a way, you do get your death scene, set up and played; you also get an additional bit of fun where he stands up again and says "no, we're not doing that scene today". All it needs is a record scratch on the incidental music!

    Similarly, it's much funnier for Bambera to say "oh, sh...ame". It's a gag which children and adults can both get, maintaining Who's status as the "children's show that adults adore".

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    1. Absolutely. And my recollection is that most kiddie shows with fakeswearing *didn't* have gags about it being obvious what swearword was being used, because they were aimed at kids and that would be missing the point of not swearing. As usual, Doctor Who is at its most interesting when it's written for adults but aimed at kids. (And at its worst, like much of the Sixth Doctor era, when it's the other way round.)

      And, after all, it's not like people were saying "shit" on BBC One at 7:35 in the 80s even in programmes that *weren't* aimed at kids. Even today, the BBC guidelines claim that "crap" can cause mild offence and should not be used indiscriminately.

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    2. For the book, if not correcting here: despite the half-inched vocals, Black Box’s hit was “Ride On Time.”

      “in this case the connections are completely coincidental, as the Twilight of the Superheroes plot didn't leak to the general public until the Internet came along”

      It probably was entirely coincidental, but the full proposal was definitely circulating well before Netscape Navigator opened the internet up – I got it from a Legion Of Super-Heroes APA in 1992, where the person who photocopied it was presenting it as “here’s an old classic some of you may not have seen if you’re new to organised fandom...”

      And feel free to talk about the Remembrance novelisation all you like!

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    3. I agree that the Brig's survival adds to the humor, and it also plays a bit with the theme that you can't resurrect the past. The Brig is in an Arthurian role *because* Arthur is dead. You can't resurrect the past, but you can recreate elements of it in a more modern form, which is very much what the series was doing throughout the previous season, and what the new series will do as well.

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  2. A corking review. I've always maintained that Battlefield is underrated for the same reason any story is either underrated or overrated - ratings. Its status as the lowest of the low, particularly given the cancellation of the series, leads fans to watch it looking for reasons to hate it, in a way that they don't really with say Mark of the Rani or Nightmare of Eden. This would tie in with Cornell's view that everyone was perfectly happy with it when it was first on and only later started panning it till it crawled away and died. Slightly ironic given your line about reruns, since I think this is the only post-haitus serial ever repeated on either BBC1 or BBC2...

    (While we're on the subject of the novelisation, does anyone else's copy end a bit weirdly? Mine cuts off seemingly in mid-conversation, without even a close quotation mark for the dialogue. Is there some terribly clever reason for this that's always gone straight over my head, or have I just got a botched copy?)

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    1. Is there some terribly clever reason for this that's always gone straight over my head, or have I just got a botched copy?)

      Let's see...

      'You see I've just got a job offer it would be hard to turn down. (sic, no quote mark).

      May have been a way of avoiding 'down' ending up orphaned at the bottom of the page, but it's probably just a typo that got missed by both the editor and the proof reader. It happened in the later Target books - there's a reference to the seventh Doctor uncharacteristically 'peeing over a shelf' in 'Delta and the Bannermen'.

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    2. Well, at least they gave him spectacular aim... :-D

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  3. I really like Battlefield, and the version of the story I like best isn't the televised one - but it isn't the novelisation either, which I've not read. It's the Special Edition on the DVD. Some of the SEs are pretty poor (Planet of Fire, take a bow) but this is one that (for me, at least) substantially improves on the original.

    Sometimes this my favourite McCoy story; sometimes that's Fenric. Both are great, both have flaws, and when I'm in the mood for one I'm rarely in the mood for the other.

    What I like about this post is less what it has to say about the serial than how it explains the psychology that led to the NAs. Very nice.

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    1. I'm going to second this and once again cast my votes for the DVD Special Editions of the McCoy era serials (namely this, "Fenric" and "Remembrance"). I do think they improve them substantially.

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  4. Which is a pity in some ways, as a storyline rooted in the ancient heritage of Britain about a mysterious woman who rises from a lake, who eventually traps the Doctor in a prison for all eternity, and to whom the Doctor appears to live backwards in time would be really, really interesting...
    --That never occurred to me before, but...yes, River Song's story has some very intriguing elements in light of Arthurian legends. And as a fan of Arthurian legend myself, I would actually rate Battlefield as a wonderful story for several reasons, including the ambiguity of Morgaine's actions. She dissolves a man for information, yet heals someone's blindness in payment of a debt.

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  5. So, wait. The first New Adventures novel was actually titled "Timewyrm: Genesis?"

    Huh.

    (Also, I have no idea what in this article lead to a Romney ad at the bottom of the page, swing state or not.)

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    1. Yep. It was.

      As for Romney, no idea, but I'm on my way to the ad control console to terminate the ad.

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    2. What did you think it was named?

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    3. I suspect, like me, Ununnilium thought it was named Timewyrm: Genesys. Mostly because that's what it says on the cover...

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    4. Well, I knew what the book was named, but I had no idea it was the first of the line. This surprised me, due to two points:

      1.) I would assume by that name that it's the first chapter of the "Timewyrm" miniseries; to start off the book line with several integrally-linked books seems like an odd decision.

      2.) The name itself is the '90s-est name that ever '90s'd.

      But I've never actually read it, so.

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    5. Battleground state = Battlefield state?

      At least, that would be my guess...

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    6. Hmmmm. The economy as Arthur?

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  6. My main problem with the serial was the scenery-chewing villain and his over-the-top maniacal laughter.

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    1. Even there I found myself mostly thinking "Man, if they did this today they'd totally try to hire Tom Hiddleston for this role."

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    2. Tom Hiddleston was just last week playing Prince Hal/ Henry V in the BBC's Richard II-Henry V production.
      I suppose it says something about the quality of Joss Whedon's writing that I found myself thinking about similarities between Prince Hal and Loki.

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    3. I thought Mordred's scenery chewing laughter was just part of the tongue-in-cheek attitude Cartmel was developing. The whole reason Mordred turns out to be a bit of a naff villain is that his cackling signals from the beginning that he isn't a serious villain: the audience is laughing (or at least I was laughing) at how ridiculous his laughter was.

      Morgaine was positioned as the really dangerous villain because she does calculated, dangerous things. Also, there's a scene early in the story were one of the characters asks what could be the cause of all these weird goings-on, and we then cut to Morgaine in the globe viewer of the sword on the spaceship, looking straight into the camera (fourth wall breaking normally being the Doctor's territory), and answering the dialogue that he character couldn't possibly have heard. It signals to the audience who the real danger is: Not the cackling doofus too full of himself to realize what an ass he is, but the deadly serious (if scenery chewing in her own way) villain that can speak through the television.

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  7. Wood's critique about killing off the Brigadier makes sense, for all the reasons stated. That said -- and not because I justifiably love the Brigadier -- I still appreciate the choice not to kill him off. My reasoning is rooted in my take on Myth. Sure, a dead Brigadier would have served as a wonderful critique on the UNIT era, but it would have, on the other hand, reinforced the mythology of Arthur, and the whole notion of being saved by kings. Sorry, but I'll take a flawed UNIT and glossy nostalgia over king-myths any day.

    The other reason I'm happy the Brig lives is that I justifiably love the character, and I think killing him off would have swerved back into Saward territory, upholding a misanthropic cynicism rather than hopeful graciousness. Rather than a maudlin funeral, we get a progressive denouement, and I think that served the series better in 1989. Had the problems of the previous regime been quite different, the dramatic choice of killing the Brigadier could have worked.

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    1. That also speaks to why I thought the living Brigadier at the end worked best. It subverted both the mythic status of Arthurian legend by Lethbridge-Stewart not following through on what his narrative parallel structure would have forced him to do, and ended with a rebuke to the UNIT era that fits even better with the general theme of the Eruditorum.

      Phil, I remember one of your strongest critical remarks in you essay on Mawdryn Undead being that the story positioned the otherworldly adventuring life as inherently superior to the daily life of people, as if the Brigadier's life as an ordinary person was a pathetic downfall from his true greatest days leading UNIT.

      In Battlefield, the Lethbridge-Stewart returns from retirement buying trees with his wife, wearing his famous uniform in an epic helicopter ride, standing up to Morgaine as a warrior in a classic mold. Then he walks through all the beats of a typical Hero's Sacrifice at the end, including the awesomely humble line to the monster ("Are you the best this world can offer?" "No, but I do the best I can."), then as the Doctor is eulogizing him in the wreckage of the building, he opens one eye in a reverse wink, dusts himself off, and goes home. At the end of the kind of stereotypically epic narrative that Saward would have played completely straight, he just gets up and goes home.

      He goes home to a quiet daily life. The most unironic epic character of the whole story, Anselin, is happily put to work at the lawnmower, while Alastair cleans up the garden, the women take the hot rod out on the town for the day, and the Doctor cooks dinner. That's the rebuke to the Letts era and the Saward era at once: The Doctor's adventuring isn't an end in itself, but a means to secure the happiness of ordinary life.

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    2. I love the subtle mythological nods regarding the Brigadier. Buying a tree with Doris, who he's now married, a perfectly mundane way of suggesting Alastair's already a master of two worlds, for the World Tree is an alchemical symbol of connection between Above and Below, rooted in the Now. So it makes sense for the Brig to escape the heroic sacrifice, because he's already moved beyond such paltry dramatic concerns.

      Likewise, tending to the Garden at the end symbolizes a return to Eden, and positions the Ordinary World as positively heavenly.

      I wonder about the Silver Bullets. The Destroyer isn't a werewolf (though we just had one in the Greatest Show) but he's susceptible to Silver. Silver is what we use for Mirrors, so there's the notion that the Beast can't face itself. A bullet, though, would be quick silver, the mercurial element which is the Doctor's stock and trade. Naturally, the Brig's got a stash, so he's integrated the Doctor's tricksterly arts into his own.

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    3. Bravo, Adam! Great reading.

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    4. Thirding/Fourthing. Jane and Adam have pretty much said what I wanted to say about "Battlefield" and The Brigadier surviving. As the one-time Doctor Who reviewer on History of The Doctor once said, "Isn't it magical?".

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    5. I further applaud Adam's reading - a fine redemption. That said, I remain hesitant about a wholesale embrace of it - there is, for me, still a problematic knot that doesn't quite untie here. The problem, for me, is that Mawdryn Undead and The Five Doctors have, by this point, transformed the Brigadier past where he can still fill the function Adam's reading requires.

      Had this been Benton I think Adam's reading would have worked perfectly. But with the Brigadier, a character who had already made two, arguably three appearances after his seeming departure (depending on what you want to do with Terror of the Zygons), I don't think he can return to "normal" life as such. He's the one Doctor Who character for whom departure from the narrative seems foreclosed. As evidenced by the fact that he doesn't get his normal life, or, at least, that fandom is hell bent on not giving it to him. Battlefield and his survival are what finally push him to become a Doctor Who standard that every Doctor supposedly must interact with. Even the novelization sells him out, ending with a tease that he's going to be re-recruited by UNIT in some capacity.

      I love the story Adam is mapping out, but I'm just not sure it can be done with the Brigadier post-Mawdryn Undead.

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    6. I still think my reading can work with the Brigadier, because he doesn't necessarily have to retire or die as much as change priorities. Just because you're not fighting alien invaders and suchlike for the sake of fighting them, doesn't mean you'll never fight alien invaders and the rest again. It just shifts adventuring from being an end in itself to a means to the further end.

      I mean, the Doctor is never going to stop adventuring, even if he does volunteer to cook dinner. But they're all happy in that role, now that the televised adventure is over. There will be other television adventures for the Doctor, and the Brigadier can show up. But the ending of Battlefield changes the reasons why they show up for adventures, why Lethbridge-Stewart has a working retirement instead of a totally opting out. As I think about it, a retirement that entirely opts out of adventuring would suit the problematic Letts and Saward visions: you either devote yourself utterly to adventure or drop out. Lethbridge-Stewart shows how you can blend those lifestyles.

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  8. The main problem with Battlefield is that it hits just wide of the mark, aesthetically speaking.

    It was produced only three-and-a-bit years after Hawkwind's Chronicles of the Black Sword tour, and that's the aesthetic that this show should have achieved. Larger than life epic fantasy warriors in a high tech / mediaeval mashup swinging legendary swords to a driving heavy metal soundtrack. Instead it's... not quite that. Overblown fantasy-rock nonsense is like a souffle: it can be splendid if you get it exactly right, but get it just slightly wrong and the whole thing collapses.

    These aesthetic issues aside, there's a lot of great stuff in Battlefield. It's still the worst story of the season, but any season of Doctor Who in which Battlefield is the low point is a very strong season indeed.

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  9. Small point, but they weren't entirely wrong on five pound coins coming into circulation in the near future: I was given one in 1990 when they were first issued.

    True they were "commemorative" and more likely to be collected than spent (their perceived worth being greater than their face value), but nevertheless legal tender.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_pounds_(British_coin)

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    1. I spent one of those five-pound coins. I was twelve years old at the time.

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    2. Being legal tender doesn't mean a coin is actually accepted in general circulation. "Legal tender" is a narrow concept relating to the settlement of debts and not a law about what coins and notes must be accepted in day to day transactions. Most retailers et al look on commemorative coins even less favourably than Northern Irish bank notes - something they've never heard of, are not sure if the bank will accept it, and they'll never be able to give it out as change that customers will accept. A few might accept it but it's foolish to rely on it.

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  10. Nothing at all about that extraordinary scene in episode 3? The one where the Doctor talks Morgaine out of setting off a nuclear warhead by explaining both to her and the audience exactly what a nuclear explosion is and why it is the sort of weapon that even the most evil of villains should consider unthinkable to use? For all the talk about a political bent to the Cartmel/McCoy era, I don't think Doctor Who has ever gone after a contemporary political target as fiercely and unambiguously as this story did with the threat of nuclear conflict. This wasn't a thinly disguised Maggie Thatcher clone in a pink wig. It was Sylvester McCoy talking about a child's eyes turning to cinders! That's a helluva lot more provocative to me than Bambera not saying shit on television.:)

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    1. I also loved Mordred calling the Doctor's bluff by using the same lines the Doctor used in The Happiness Patrol to talk down the sniper. "Look in my eyes. End my life."

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    2. I don't believe I left that line out of the post! Yes, it's a fabulous line, and it further reinforces the way in which McCoy's Doctor is wrongfooted. He's wrapped up in a game assembled by an older and wiser version of himself, and the other people in the game know him well enough that they can use his own tricks against him. And so the Doctor's own moment of triumph from Season 25 gets used against him, shattering the idea of McCoy's Doctor as ontologically being the cleverest person in the room. (And, of course, it's only the low-key modesty of the Brigadier that can actually solve the problem.)

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    3. But in a way isn't he still the cleverest though? After all, it is still a game of his own design he's fallen for. I can totally see the Doctor of "Valhalla", "Robophobia" or even "A Death in the Family" pulling something like this.

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  11. You know, Phil... if you had really wanted the Brigadier to be killed off at a logical point for the series, the original version of "The Hand of Fear" might be something for you to look into: http://www.shannonsullivan.com/drwho/serials/4n.html

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  12. The novelisations of Season 18's stories were generally as high concept as the TV stories themselves, and the Warrior's Gate and Leisure Hive novelisations did a fair bit of embelishing on the televised versions. Additionally, it was around this time that Ian Marter was writing more gritty, edgy and embelished versions of the older stories. So arguably if the show had ended in 1981, then the novels would have still been seen as the natural second home for Doctor Who.

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  13. The 'five pound coin' reference is sad as it's clearly an attempt to repeat the 'decimal currency' prediction of 'An Unearthly Child' and thus obliquely addresses 'the problem of Susan' (The other 'near future politics' references also recall the Pertwee era's predictions of a female Prime Minister) but the show just doesn't have the magic anymore. Not in this TV incarnation anyway. It's fitting that it calls out to a smarter future Doctor to resolve the plot. It got that prediction right at least. The River Song/Lady of the Lake connection hadn't occured to me either. I wonder if Moffatt's spotted it.

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  14. Morgaine is played by Jean Marsh, of course. Sometime I like to pretend that Sara Kingdom survived the Time Destructor by escaping to another universe. And then I realise how silly that would be...

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    1. Of course, there's 'when we meet again, I shall kill you!' from Morgaine, then the two never do meet again.

      But two thousand years later Sara Kingdom guns down Bret Vyon...

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    2. Yay; it's a mini-reunion from The Daleks' Master Plan! :-D

      All they needed to complete the set were Adrienne Hill, Peter Purves, and Kevin Stoney...

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    3. Yeah, I think that's completely ridiculous.

      Morgaine is obviously Joan of England, Queen of Sicily.

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    4. Aha, perhaps the Time Destructor splintered Sara Kingdom in time, so she's Joan of England, Queen of Sicily and Morgaine, just like Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth.

      Who just so happens to be Richard the Lionheart...

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  15. It's interesting that Morgaine folds with relatively little fuss. Yes, the Doctor's speech about the disgusting horrors of nuclear warfare is disturbing for anyone with a moral sense rooted in this world. But Morgaine is a character who is played as pathologically careless about death and suffering; vaporising a UNIT soldier as a way of cleaning up the carpet and bringing down a helicopter to show off. Getting snarled at by a little man in a question mark jumper should be fairly easy to cope with. But she gives in, and even submits to being locked up at the end. And I think the key to it is the fact that she is a fictional character- but one from the wrong fiction. Morgaine comes from an Arthurian fictional universe that sits slightly skewed to the universe of Doctor Who; one which the Doctor crucially describes in Episode 1 as “sideways in time”.

    The Doctor “is” Merlin in this Arthurian universe. He fulfils the same role as trickster, magician on the outside, with a hint of universal force within. In the same way, Wotan in Wagner's Ring Cycle “is” Zeus in Greek mythology- a father god, wayward in sexuality, but ultimately more aware of the deepest moral dilemmas than any of the lesser gods. Of course we're not necessarily going to see a red-haired Doctor in a police box turning up at King Arthur's court on Saturday evenings at any time, nor is Wotan going to get Zeus's post redirected from Mount Olympus to Valhalla. But just like the Doctor and Merlin, they play parallel games, separated by the boundaries between fictional universes.

    And of course, the Arthurian cycle as a whole is just as much a living self-referential universe as Doctor Who. In fact, the two are fairly close cousins. They both have no one creator; they help to define that odd chimera, “Englishness”; they both were and are still being created over a period of time beyond that of any ordinary text (admittedly, Arthur's thousand-odd years trumps Doctor Who's fifty). It's superfluous to mention their common romance, their excitement, their profound moments and their occasional rubbishness.

    So it makes sense (for a given value of “sense”) for a message to spill out sideways from Arthur's universe to its younger cousin Doctor Who. And once that spillage has occurred, the message to Merlin homes in on the TARDIS console- the closest thing to Merlin's cave in the universe of Doctor Who.
    (continued below- sorry for rambling on!)

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    1. So why does this make Morgaine's capitulation work any better? Because her apparent callousness about death is centred on the defining event in the Arthurian universe- that Arthur will rise again at Britain's time of need. That is the principle that gives her whole universe its conclusion, and its mythic life. (Rather like a certain Question in the Doctor's own universe). Just when all seems lost, Arthur will come back, and everything will be alright- in that fictional universe. Their values are of chivalry as play, expressed with toys rather than real weapons: Excalibur looks suspiciously like the Sword of Omens, beloved of a thousand Thundercats fans, and tell me those glitterguns aren't actually from a playset suitable for ages 8 and up!

      But Morgaine and all the other knights have slipped sideways into the wrong fiction. In this story war isn't a fun adventure with lots of flying knights and no blood. It's a diplomatic stand-off where grey-suited men threaten each other with the deaths of millions of children. And Arthur is dead, and will be forever; no matter if Morgaine tries to engineer Britain's real hour of need (which is surely what she's up to really). In this universe, the sound of nuclear explosions will herald no hero; just death, death, death.

      And who is it who tells Morgaine she's in the wrong story? None other than the Master of the Land of Fiction himself. In the previous story, he slipped up a narrative level and we saw him dancing in front of the Gods of Ragnarok; now, he's dancing between parallel fictional universes and putting stray warrior queens back in their correct stories. She won't stay locked up, of course. You can't lock up a fictional character!

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    2. Ooooooh. Indeed. Go back to your own story, where you can deal with the consequences.

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  16. But Morgaine is a character who is played as pathologically careless about death and suffering; vaporising a UNIT soldier as a way of cleaning up the carpet and bringing down a helicopter to show off.

    Gotta disagree here. Morgaine was the opposite of "pathologically careless about death and suffering." On the contrary, she unilaterally initiated a temporary truce as a way of atoning for accidentally fighting near a war memorial without properly respecting the honored dead of her enemies. She took down the helicopter but without inflicting any casualties more serious than a twisted ankle for Lavel. She apparently only killed Lavel to obtain tactical information and then made a remarkably magnanimous gesture to the nearby mortals in recompense for disturbing them. Morgaine, to me anyway, is presented as someone scrupulously committed to honorable warfare (at least as she perceives it) and it was no surprise to me that she would consider nuclear warfare to be utterly dishonorable once the Doctor emphasized its horrific and indiscriminate nature.

    As for her "surrender," it was obvious to me that she was, if not in love with Arthur, then at least fixated on him. She bore the burden of immortality for untold centuries for the sole purpose of finishing her battle with him, and upon learning that he'd been dead the whole time, she simply lost her only real motive for action. I imagine the Master would react similarly if he'd caught Ace in a trap intended for the Doctor and she casually revealed that the Doctor had died without regenerating years earlier.

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    1. That's a really good point which I hadn't thought of- I'd forgotten about the scene at the war memorial! So rather than being completely careless towards death and suffering, the issue is that Morgaine only cares about death within certain narrow bounds that she considers "honourable". It's like the paradoxes of the old Samurai code, where on the one hand you have the call to protect the helpless peasants- but on the other hand, murdering them to practice your swordsmanship was also acceptable.

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    2. No particular paradoxes in "the old Samurai code" as it has nothing about the "call to protect the helpless peasants." That's Seven Samurai you're thinking of which, despite the name, pointedly is not really about samurai ethics, as Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune's character) is actually not from the buke.

      Samurai derives from saburahai which does indeed refer to protecting: but it was the kuge (nobility) they protected in the old days. They didn't even pay lip service to the idea of protecting the peasants: indeed they specifically stripped that element of Confucianism out of the philosophy when they imported it.

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    3. I thought that someone who knew more about it than me would pick me up on that! But was there not an element of compassion (for the lower orders or more generally) in bushido? Or was it purely limited to the nobility the samurai were engaged to protect?

      I'm genuinely intrigued, as most descriptions of European feudalism (at least in its early stages) emphasise the principle of mutual contribution to society ("I rule for all, I fight for all, I pray for all, I pay for all"). Alright, that's a romanticised generalisation after the fact- but it relies on the fact that a knight can't feed himself and a farmer on his own can't defend himself. (Of course, when the farmers start being able defend themselves without the warrior classes, that's when you start getting revolutions- as in archaic Greece). But was there no sense of mutual provision in Japan, and it the only thing preventing a revolution boiled down to "They've got swords and we haven't"?

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    4. Bushido was essentially a romantic rationalisation after-the-fact. Even then, it didn't have compassion. From a purely pragmatic basis, the buke recognised the necessity of the farmers.They were placed second in the Confucian order of society (shi-no-ko-sho, the former being scholars in China, but samurai in Japan, the latter two being artisans and merchants respectively). However, in practice the money of the merchants compensated for their allegedly low status.

      The romantic image of the samurai was bound up in loyalty to the daimyo (hence the resonance of the 47 Ronin story) though even this, too, was an image for stories -- in practice samurai were as likely to betray if they could get away with it as anyone else.

      Japan doesn't have a myth akin to the Arthur myth, whether in its original Celtic forms (the Mabinogion etc), or in its French chivalric development. The Kojiki is basically freaky stories, and the Nihonshoki is an attempt to get some of the sense of historical authenticity the Chinese were perceived to have on account of their meticulously kept histories.

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    5. It's a fascinating and somewhat terrifying picture- many thanks for this! Now we just need to see the Eleventh Doctor landing in fourteenth-century Japan...

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    6. a knight can't feed himself and a farmer on his own can't defend himself.

      "It has been implied -- by the statement that gunpowder abolished the Middle Ages -- that the peasant was defenseless against the knight. On the contrary, the knight was hopelessly vulnerable to the peasant. A man in armor relying for mobility on a horse in armor could be put out of action, the horse hamstrung, the rider brought down, by one or two quick-footed men with scythes and pitchforks. The knight could scarcely mount unaided; on the ground he was clumsy; if he fell, he could not spring up nimbly. A human tortoise, the knight was equipped only to encounter another knight. He was no less dependent economically. His armor had to be forged by the smith, his food and clothes supplied and his horse maintained by the labor of the peasant. The knight knew no useful art, and was wholly an end-product of a rigid system. If the system were interrupted for more than a very short time, the knight must perish anyhow." -- Isabel Paterson

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  17. "That it had the gall to get it wrong about the Cold War?"

    This might, of course, be the whole result of the reasoning behind Ben Aaronovitch getting excited about "Communist propaganda"... ;-)

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  18. By the way, I'm fairly sure that one of the major influences on Doctor Who throughout pretty much every era is T. H. White's 'The Once and Future King' - Merlyn pretty much IS the Doctor, so much so that the last time I reread it, whenever he said anything he did it with the voice of Patrick Troughton. Which was, frankly, a little bit disconcerting.

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    1. I'm now saddened that there isn't nor never will be a film adaptation of The Once and Future King starring Patrick Troughton as Merlin

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  19. "Which is a pity in some ways, as a storyline rooted in the ancient heritage of Britain about a mysterious woman who rises from a lake, who eventually traps the Doctor in a prison for all eternity, and to whom the Doctor appears to live backwards in time would be really, really interesting."

    Ha! I see what you did there. Bravo, sir.

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