Doctor in Distress
Battlefield is one of those rare stories wherein you can just feel the audience being baited into watching it.
Surprising no one, a retrospective look at the tenure of Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor tends to elicit more groans than cheers, as his two-year tenure (from 1987-1989) produced some of the worst episodes in the storied sci-fi show’s history, ultimately leading to its cancellation after being on the air for 26 consecutive years. Much like Colin Baker’s tenure as the Sixth Doctor, however, this isn’t really a fault of the actors, though.
Following extraordinarily well-received runs by Tom Baker and (to a lesser degree) Peter Davidson, the quality of the scripts and production values had declined in the Colin Baker/Sylvester McCoy age. While a trademark of the show had always been its low-budget special effects miracles, the “latter-era” episodes used these constraints more as a crutch than an opportunity to find new ways of visually excite the viewers; instead, it felt like the producers thought “well, the effects are bad enough anyway—why try?”
Amidst the declining ratings and increasingly poor scripts, a small “stunt” was no doubt needed to draw people in, and with Battlefield, the Who producers decided to play the nostalgia card. Battlefield features the first appearance of the original Brigadier, Lethbridge-Stewart (the always-fine Nicholas Courtney), pulled out of retirement to help the folks at UNIT deal with a nuclear bunker they are commanding, presently under attack by a slew of evil knights armed with laser guns. Pulled from the 8th century, the knights are lead by Mordred (Christopher Bowen), whose mother—the evil sorceress Morgaine (Jean Marsh)—wishes to extract revenge on King Arthur, initially failing to realize she’s stuck in the 20th century, even if she does recognize the Doctor: everyone seems to know him as “Merlin”.
Amidst all the Knights of the Round Table and Excalibur references (coupled with the pointless reappearance of Bessie, the famed car famously driven around by Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor), writer Ben Aaronovitch apparently forgot to add motivations to his characters, resulting in a parade of some of the most one-dimensional archetypes that have been trotted out in front of the TARDIS. The new Brigadier (played by Angela Bruce) is a single-minded product of military discipline, Ace’s friend Shou Yuing (Ling Tai) is more an accessory than a character, and Mordred is just so villainous, he has a whole scene where he laughs manically (an entire minute passes by of him cackling—an actual minute of film time). By the time that Morgaine unleashes the world-eating creature known as The Destroyer, most viewers will have lost the inclination to care about what actually transpires.
Though the cinematography is actually quite striking (lots of tracking shots and swooping angles), most of the production aspects of Battlefield are woefully subpar, even for Who standards. The music is so deliberately “80s-sounding” it’s almost painful, the “snake spirit” that attacks the Doctor in King Arthur’s lair one of the worst effects the already-cheesy show has ever introduced, and as for the sassy cliché-spewing companion Ace (Sophie Aldred)? Well, at least it’s not Adric.
Ultimately, since the episode’s characters and storylines are painted in such broad strokes, it’s hard to find time to emotionally invest in the proceedings. Even the ending of the episode—in which some sort of far-fetched philosophical moral is usually flung at us—feels dry and deflated, the only real emotional sticking point proving to be Morgaine confronting her own desire for personal revenge despite the far-reaching effects her actions might have.
As always, the special features feature a nice balance of on-set anecdotes and actual behind-the-scenes magic, though a quick listen to the McCoy-less commentary proves to be remarkably self-serving, as many of the anecdotes (Angela Bruce getting last-minute fight training, Sophie Aldred having to shoot her emerging from the lake with Excalibur multiple times ‘cos she couldn’t get the angle of the sword right) are repeated nearly verbatim in the other featurettes. To top it all off, the bland “extended feature-length edit” of Battlefield on Disc Two is for die-hards and die-hards only.
Though it’s often unfair to hold-up Sylvester McCoy and Colin Baker’s go-rounds in the TARDIS as evidence of the show’s gradual decline in the ‘80s (Baker himself has had some very good adventures, actually), these criticisms aren’t without merit. Despite it’s best intentions, Battlefield is Who at it most unimaginative, hopelessly tied to its own story at the expense of actual fleshed-out characters. It’s not Black Orchid, but it’s not too far off either ...