In our reckoning, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is Merlin.
"Whenever this Doctor turns up, all hell breaks loose."
The Doctor who turns up here is Sylvester McCoy, the seventh and last actor to play the Time Lord in the original series. By 1989, Doctor Who was no longer a big draw in England, although it was likely near its peak of popularity in the States. Shortly after Doctor Who: Battlefield aired to the series' lowest ratings ever, all hell broke loose for the long-running sci-fi serial, and it disappeared from screens after twenty-six seasons. McCoy made one last cameo in a Fox Doctor Who pilot; Doctor Who didn't return that time, but eventually rose again.
Facts of the Case
"If my hunch is right, the Earth could be the center of a war that doesn't even belong to our dimension," says the Doctor at the end of Part One. As usual, his out-of-left-field hunch is right on the money, filling in a lot of plot holes.
Before that, though, he gets a distress call from Earth and lands in Carbury, where he gets out his UNIT card and goes to meet the new Brigadier (Angela Bruce, Red Dwarf), who's doing something or other with a nuclear missile convoy. One of her men realizes who this stranger is, even though he has changed appearance. Meanwhile, knights with big guns turn up from another dimension. One of them recognizes the Doctor, sort of: "In my reckoning, he is Merlin." From his description, Merlin turns out to be the Doctor, but he hasn't met anyone around here yet (Maybe Paul McGann will do that in the radio series. The concept seems a good fit for him. Hint. Hint.). That includes Morgaine (Jean Marsh, Upstairs Downstairs), who wants Excalibur, which companion Ace (Sophie Aldred, Shadow Play) just happens to pluck out of a stone.
On this adventure, the Doctor will meet a pair of old friends: the original Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney, The Sarah Jane Adventures) and Bessie, his souped-up answer to John Steed's roadster.
The series seems to have been trying hard to update itself. There's a nifty new title sequence and a frenetic Eighties score that seems a little too obvious. Elsewhere, the show's budget seems to have been upgraded, but there's still a light snake that just looks silly. While the idea of knights from another dimension may be absurd, the writing fortunately doesn't overdo the humor. A good running bit finds the new Brigadier meeting her kindred spirit in one of the interdimensional knights.
I haven't seen much of Sylvester McCoy's Doctor previously, but Battlefield proves he's up to the role, playing the Time Lord as a nervous little man who shows his true strength in standing up to powerful adversaries. He spends a lot of time searching his pockets for whatever he needs, like his UNIT card, but doesn't really seem absent-minded. In this episode, he gets to deliver a speech on the horrors of nuclear war without sounding too melodramatic. He also worries about the dangers he puts his friends in. When he finds he's lost Excalibur, he's more relieved that he hasn't lost Ace. "Exotic alien swords are easy to come by. Aces are rare," the Doctor says, with McCoy adding some heart to the corny line.
The script gives Sophie Aldred too much yelling, but she seems to have a good rapport with McCoy. Her best scene has her fiddling with explosives, a little off in her timing. In this episode, though, she's overshadowed by the return of the Brigadier, who views the Doctor's eccentricities with a dry wit and a friend's fondness. It's also good news that they got Jean Marsh to play the witch Morgaine, who delights in playing nasty (incinerating the old Brigadier's aide) and nice (curing a woman's blindness) in the same scene. She has a good laugh over that one in "Storm over Avallion" in the extras.
The digital remastering looks as good as new, without flaring or other problems. The score might be overdone, but it sounds good.
The commentary has a lot of voices—Aldred, Bruce, Courtney, script editor Andrew Cartmel, and writer Ben Aaronovitch—but they manage not to trip over each other. They point out a lot of differences between the script and what's on screen. I watched it with the pop-up option, giving me two streams of Doctor Who trivia. My favorite pop-ups were a mention of a nixed crossover with a cop series called Z Cars back in 1965, the revelation that Jean Marsh was once married to Jon Pertwee, and an explanation of what a franc is, just in case you don't know that it was the French currency before the euro.
"Storm over Avallion" features the cast—including McCoy, Aldred, Courtney, and guest star Jean Marsh—reminiscing about the shooting; it's thorough, providing lots of good tidbits for fans, and it shows the actors as they look today. "Past and Future King" brings in the writers for more reminiscences, including talk about the discussion they had in 1989 over whether to kill off the Brigadier. A studio recording from June 1, 1989, shows McCoy checking his script, Aldred nervous on the set during a long pause in filming, McCoy and Aldred running from a light snake to be added later, and a lot of laughter at the dialogue. "Watertank" shows an accident with breaking glass that could have cut short Sophie Aldred's career. Marsh talks about her earlier Who appearances during the William Hartnell era (in "The Crusades" and "The Daleks' Master Plan") in "From Kingdom to Queen," which includes clips and photos, a rare treat since the serials only exist in part. If that's not enough, there are promos and announcements about the show, including vintage spots talking about Doctor Who on VHS, and a photo gallery set to the episode's fast-paced score. There's also a music-only track (Yuck!), a Season 26 trailer, and some DVD-ROM extras.
If that's still not enough, Disc Two presents a recut special edition of the episode, with a few extra scenes. It's nice to have the choice between the original serial episodes and a streamlined movie version, but I'd have liked the additional scenes to have been included separately to give viewers a more complete choice.
You do realize that, if you watch the pop-ups on a separate trip through, the wide selection of extras means that the serial itself is only about twenty percent of the viewing experience in this two-disc set?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Knights with big guns shooting fire? If the idea just seems silly, skip this one. There's lots more Who where this came from.
There's one big hole in the massive array of extras. Why didn't they come up with a feature on Nicholas Courtney's Who career for his last appearance? It also could have been fun to include entire episodes from those partially existing Jean Marsh runs on the show.
I was pleasantly surprised by Battlefield. Although the concept may be absurd, the execution is top-notch. Writer Ben Aaronovitch was hard on himself in his own assessment of the script, noting pacing problems as the three-episode serial grew to four, but Sylvester McCoy's gently tongue-in-cheek touches help hide the seams.
The serial's a good introduction to McCoy's tenure as the Doctor, but the real interest probably will be from Jon Pertwee-era fans out there who want to see Nicholas Courtney's last bow.
Not guilty. Now what did I do with my UNIT card?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Feature-Length Version
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