Tony goes in to battle.
When he was chosen to write the season opener for Doctor Who’s silver anniversary year, there’s little doubt Ben Aaronovitch knocked it out of the park with Remembrance of the Daleks.
So he was invited back to essentially pull the same trick again to open Season 26, this time without Daleks, but with figures from Arthurian legend, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and a new incarnation of UNIT.
It’s probably impossible for fans who have been born and raised on New Who to quite grasp how big a deal that was at the time. Fans hadn’t seen UNIT in anything like a proper capacity for well over a decade, since the early Tom Baker seasons. We’d had dabblings with the Brigadier since then though, so we knew enough about the fire Nicholas Courtney still gave to his portrayal to be excited.
As he had done in Remembrance, Aaronovitch moves the Doctor and Ace on again – the Doctor (all hail the gods of style!) having ditched his cream coat for a darker brown number. But right from the beginning, there are bits of Battlefield that don’t make a whole lot of sense, like the idea that they’re from a dimension sideways in time, which seems to suggest parallelism, but yet Ancelyn, Mordred and their miscellaneous re-enacters have to be fired at the planet like missiles, rather than simply popping through into existence. Come to that, how can their armour protect them against, presumably, re-entry heat and a hell of an impact, and then be pierced by bullets or sword-points? Where does Mordred get the equipment to summon Morgaine?
But let’s not niggle about stories making sense just yet. Let’s revel in what we have: look, look, there’s the Brigadier! In a – wait, what? In a garden centre?
Still, it’s the Brigadier.
Oh and look – there’s another one. A new Brigadier! And, in case this escapes your notice, she’s a woman! Cool – bet she’s gonna kick ass.
Scriptwise, Battlefield takes Aaronovitch’s strengths and stretches them rather thinner than before, though there’s a familiarity of form: there’s a MacGuffin – this time Excalibur, mythic sword of King Arthur of the Britons - and two warring factions who want to get hold of it, for reasons that are never adequately explained, though any fantasy fan can pretty much fill in the blanks for themselves: mythic sword of power, ultimate destiny, yadda yadda yadda.
The strengths of this Ben Aaronovitch script are not so much in the actual bones of the plotting though, as in the originality of some of the concepts that help give them life. Firstly, Morgaine and co are from a reality where the very tenets of Doctor Who are turned on their head – the idea that everything that passes itself off as magic is merely superior technology is inverted here so that what looks like superior technology is actually ‘magic’ – we just fail to understand it as such. That’s bold for Doctor Who even now, and it was even bolder in 1989. Then there’s the feminism on display – despite being a show where the whole universe, with its myriad of rulers and creatures, was open to visit, feminism had made only slowish strides in Doctor Who, so the idea of UNIT suddenly being run by a woman was a glorious bringing up to speed with the evolving society of the late 80s, and the make-up of the UNIT troops in Battlefield, from the witty Lavel, who only speaks Czechoslovakian when she’s drunk, through Zbrigniev with his service history under Lethbridge-Stewart and Major Husak, did to UNIT what, for instance, Gene Roddenberry had insisted be done to the original Enterprise crew – it showed a multi-national group of both men and women, working together for the same goals. In fact, Aaronovitch and Script Editor Cartmel pull the same magic out of their respective hats as they had in Remembrance when it comes to secondary characters in Battlefield. Granted it took until 1989, but here was a UNIT we could really have got behind – Bambera, played by Angela Bruce, is frankly and unremittingly brilliant, like a coiled spring of crankiness, only really hampered by the children-friendly mission of Doctor Who, which forced her to turn “Oh, shame!” – which really works as a sarcastic response to hitch-hikers the first time she uses it – into a universal swear-word irrespective of context. And possibly the undercurrent that what she really needs to make her happy is a man who can keep up with her.
Many of the other UNIT troops feel rich and real, to the point where one of the most chilling points in the whole of the story is the silent death of Lavel, robbed of even the freedom to express the pain she feels. And while they’re less richly textured, some of the locals too – Warmsley, Pat and Elizabeth Rawlinson - are entirely believable, if never especially likeable.
And third in Battlefield’s roster of extraordinary achievements is the use of the ‘timey-wimey’ concept, long before it was particularly coined or infantilised in New Who. The idea of the Doctor travelling the universe of space and time and sometimes having adventures in the wrong order had never been done so explicitly in Who before, and here, there’s a sense of the ‘future Doctor’ following patterns of behaviour that are explicitly Doctorish, leading us on. Perhaps the only point at which that falls down is the note that explains that Arthur died in the final battle, and that ‘all else is propaganda.’ UNIT soldiers and Arthurian knights die in the battle, and Morgaine is en route to destroy the area with a nuclear missile, so it feels quite laissez-faire of the future Doctor to arrange all this just for propaganda – except of course that now we know they’ll be forced to, by the simple logic-loop of having experienced the adventure from the Seventh Doctor’s viewpoint earlier in their life.
So Battlefield’s extraordinary for its inventive inversions, its forward-thinking feminism and multi-culturalism, and its temporally twisted reason for being. Let’s not forget it also gives the Brigadier a far more exciting send-off from mainstream on-screen Who than the likes of Mawdryn Undead ever did, and doesn’t relegate him to a bit-part like The Five Doctors by necessity did. However Battlefield ended – with the Brigadier’s death (as was originally intended), or with his glory (as it actually did), it was a great rip-roaring roller-coaster to do justice to one of the Doctor’s most constant friends.
Then there’s the Doctor’s anti-nuke speech, and Morgaine’s horrified face at the lack of honour such weapons embody. That had right-on Who fans pointing at their screens and shouting “Exactly!” in much the same way as Series 9’s speech from The Zygon Inversion did.
And of course, all credit to the monster mask and make-up departments, which had been on irregular form in recent years, surprising us with Kane’s meltdown but then undoing the goodwill it bought them by giving us both The Kandyman and Fifi. The Destroyer was a thing of creative gorgeousness, even if, really speaking, it didn’t actually do a lot when it wasn’t being filmed in close up, drooling extremely fast.
Is Battlefield an all-time classic then?
No. Unlike Remembrance, which deserves that status, Battlefield’s flaws prevent it ever really getting there. Flaws that touch almost every level of the production. There’s some dodgy dialogue from the otherwise reliable Aaronovitch (particularly from Ace and Shou Yuing, including “Your convoy’s stranded by the Lake of the High King,” and “More brisance? Than Trinitrotoluene?”). There are some unfortunate performances – Ling Tai as Shou Yuing never convinces, and both Arthurian lead males feel pale and weak by comparison to the excellent work of Angela Bruce and Jean Marsh as their respective commanders. We’re looking mostly at Christopher Bowen as Mordred there, though he’s certainly not aided at the most critical of moments by a dodgy directorial choice – the episode ending ‘evil laugh’ goes on faaaaaaaar too long to ever sound like someone who’s actually amused by anything, and so looks and sounds like someone who’s been told to ‘insert an evil laugh here.’
And there’s also a budget issue in that when you have to equip alien knights in armour, unless you do it well and/or blow the budget, there’s every chance it’s going to look naff and cheap, and the sword-fights in Battlefield take that chance and fall down. Knights versus UNIT troops, yes, it’s good to see that here, UNIT getting stuck into an aggressor again, but the ‘knights versus knights’ sequences feel drab and slow in this story, their firearms a little silly and their swords run-of-the-mill some twelve years after the birth of the lightsaber.
For lots of reasons – the invention, the time-twisting, Nick Courtney, Jean Marsh – Battlefield is a bright, engaging, colourful way to start a season of Doctor Who. For reasons of budget, performance and one more edit, it won’t ever achieve the classic status of Aaronovitch’s first Doctor Who story.
Still tremendous fun, though.