Battlefield ★★

Nicholas Courtney and Jean Marsh star in this spluttering Arthurian codswallop

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Season 26 – Story 152

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“Get off my world!” – Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart

Storyline
A Unit convoy carrying a nuclear missile is waylaid close to an archaeological dig at Lake Vortigern near Carbury. The Doctor arrives with Ace, and his old friend Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart is called out of retirement to manage the crisis. Arthurian knights materialise from another dimension and recognise the Doctor as Merlin. The wicked Morgaine is seeking Excalibur and Arthur, whose remains lie in a spaceship under the lake. She threatens to unleash the monstrous Destroyer upon the world, and perhaps only the Brigadier can stop it…

First UK transmissions
Part 1 – 6 September 1989
Part 2 – 13 September 1989
Part 3 – 20 September 1989
Part 4 – 27 September 1989

Production
OB recording: May 1989 at Little Paston, Fulmer and Black Park, Buckinghamshire; Dowager House, St Martin’s Without and Twyford Woods, Lincolnshire; Rutland Water, Old Hall and St Andrew’s Church, Hambleton, Leicestershire.
Studio recording: May-June, August 1989 in TC3

Cast
The Doctor – Sylvester McCoy
Ace – Sophie Aldred
Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart – Nicholas Courtney
Morgaine – Jean Marsh
Peter Warmsly – James Ellis
Brigadier Winifred Bambera – Angela Bruce
Mordred – Christopher Bowen
Ancelyn – Marcus Gilbert
Doris Lethbridge Stewart – Angela Douglas
Pat Rowlinson – Noel Collins
Elizabeth Rowlinson – June Bland
Shou Yuing – Ling Tai
Sergeant Zbrigniev – Robert Jezek
Flight Lieutenant Lavel – Dorota Rae
Knight Commander – Stefan Schwartz
Major Husak – Paul Tomany
The Destroyer – Marek Anton

Crew
Writer – Ben Aaronovitch
Designer – Martin Collins
Incidental music – Keff McCulloch
Script editor – Andrew Cartmel
Producer – John Nathan-Turner
Director – Michael Kerrigan

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
Excalibur, Morgaine, Mordred, Merlin and Arthur (or at least his ashen remains)… the return of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce with not one but two Brigadiers… an archaeological dig and a nuclear missile… Considering everything this story has going for it, it’s a shame it falls short of excellence or even coherence. Indeed it’s precisely because there are too many elements that it is so shambolic.

Perhaps we can swallow that the key figures of Arthurian legend actually exist in another dimension and can cross sideways in time, that evil queen Morgaine has magical powers at her fingertips and that her warriors use ray guns. It’s also a clever notion that the Doctor will, at some point in his future, become Merlin to these people and leave messages to his earlier self.

But it’s never properly explained why the warring factions need to settle their differences in our dimension. It’s a feeble coincidence that Unit happens to be transporting a nuclear missile past the ideal lake at a less than ideal time. (We never learn where they’re taking the missile from or to.) It also seems highly unlikely that the Brigadier would be called out of retirement to deal with what, on the face of it, is a relatively minor incident.

There are too many characters drifting around. The young oriental Shou Yuing is the most annoying, although she does provide Ace with a sounding board. And as if to confirm their redundancy, the archaeologist Warmsly and the hotel-owning Rowlinson couple are shipped out of danger (and the story) in episode three, never to be seen again.

It’s not all bad news. Battlefield largely passes muster on bluster and spectacle. Yes, the swordfights lack polish, the smoke-bomb explosions and spluttering weapons would shame a firework party for five-year-olds, but at least there’s a lot of “activity” on screen.

The UN nature of Unit is emphasised for the first time with multinational soldiers, and there’s the nice touch of a black woman being the new Brigadier. She seems alarmingly butch but is clearly hot for a fling with flouncy knight Ancelyn.

The bullish, blue-faced Destroyer is a magnificent design, snarling and booming about his desire to “devour the world” but for the most part standing around in chains looking like he needs to go to the toilet.

Often writer Ben Aaronovitch gives the dialogue an antique, lyrical charm; occasionally it’s clunky (Doris bringing us up to speed on her husband, the Brigadier’s career choices, in a garden centre).

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The main selling point of Battlefield is that it has Nicholas Courtney’s final appearance as the Brigadier in mainstream Doctor Who (although he’d be mentioned several times later and revived in other formats). Originally, Aaronovitch planned to kill him off, but luckily the Brig won a reprieve. For a moment, the Doctor cradles his old friend’s body, believing him slain by the Destroyer. He reveals, “You were supposed to die in bed” – a line that Steven Moffat picked up 22 years later (in The Wedding of River Song) when writing of the Brig’s peaceful death in a nursing home.

What’s lovely here is that the Brigadier is back on form, a reassuring presence, a comedy foil, but also as heroic as he was in 1970. He’s married Doris (a woman mentioned in passing in Planet of the Spiders) and has kept the Doctor’s vintage yellow car Bessie in mothballs all this time. Long-term fans also have the pleasure of seeing Nicholas Courtney and Jean Marsh reunited on screen. Way back in 1965, they briefly played space agent siblings Bret Vyon and Sara Kingdom in The Daleks’ Master Plan.

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Marsh is terrific as Morgaine – one of a run of wicked queens she played in that period (Willow, Return to Oz). Morgaine is a complex woman. Within the same discomforting scene, she incinerates a Unit pilot then restores the sight of a blind hotelier. Later, she stoically accepts her son Mordred’s death, but crumples after hearing that Arthur (“who burned like star fire and was as beautiful”) has been dead for more than a thousand years.

Although Ace is back to wittering tediously about explosives and schoolroom japes, Sophie Aldred remains lovely – and is a game leading lady, emerging from the filthy lake with Excalibur and thrashing about in a hazardous water tank at TV Centre.

Sylvester McCoy exudes confidence, but is better with lighter material. Whenever snapping, scowling or bawling, the seventh Doctor looks a twerp. But for this season, script editor Andrew Cartmel and his team of writers were determined to portray the Time Lord as a darker figure, a manipulator of events. His darker jacket is a subtle indicator. Also his first and only Tardis scene this season shows the control room plunged into darkness. (Actually, the lights were low because the set hadn’t been maintained between seasons.)

Battlefield is by no means execrable, but there’s a nagging sense of skills having been lost in all departments. If the scripts had been tightened, polished and produced in the 1970s, this could have been proper magic.

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Radio Times archive

RT billings  part one  part two  part three  part four

Sphie Aldred introduced the season in a small feature – Monster bash

letter of complaint about RT’s treatment of Doctor Who.

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Available on BBC DVD