Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The Crusade

Previous viewings - few

The only Season 2 victim of missing episodes, The Crusade follows the new pattern of four-part historicals that will last until the genre is phased out. It's also a return to the more serious historical seen in the first season, which is just as well, as we're into the second half of the season and I'm gasping for something of the calibre of Marco Polo or The Aztecs to take away the bad taste left by The Web Planet.

The Crusade reeks of excellence. Set during the third crusade in the 12th century, it's very a well written and literate script, intense, captivating performances and powerful moments. It follows the now-familiar convention the TARDIS crew staying behind because one of them is missing, and Barbara is kidnapped alarmingly quickly here - mere moments after she steps out of the TARDIS, which did seem somewhat contrived. However the story has already made a positive impression; in the first scene we're introduced to two central guest characters, King Richard and El Akir. Richard and his men are a welcome British presence in an historical story, and show that they are in good humour despite the foreign setting. The Saracens use the opportunity to launch a surprise attack and kidnap who they think is the King, along with Barbara. Propelling viewers into the story with an action sequence in the first few minutes is a technique commonly used in the new series, but it is rare for the classic series and I'm not sure I like it, it only makes it seem as though the TARDISeers can't catch a break wherever the TARDIS takes them. However, this does set us up for an unusually fast-paced story, which was desperately needed at this point.

Once the attack is over, the Doctor realises where and when the travellers are, and concocts a plan to aid Richard and the sole surviving wounded knight, hoping that Richard will help get Barbara back. This is really the extent of the travellers' plight in the story, give or take some escaping/recapturing of Barbara, and although there are some subplots involving the historical characters, this is a paper thin plot. It's true that The Aztecs centered around getting past a wall, but everything that happened in that story moved that overall plot forwards. In The Crusade, the best material, such as Richard's plan to marry his sister Joanna to Saracen king Saladin's brother Saphadin in a bid for peace, are stories that, however well written and acted, scarcely involve the Doctor or the companions and could work just as well without them. It's perhaps the biggest victim of a common criticism levelled at the pure historicals - there is no drama because you know any proper historical events aren't going to change. There is drama of course, loads of it, but it does seem as though that the scenes in Richard's court have the Doctor and Vicki doing little more than sitting on the sidelines and watching the plot unfold rather than being part of it.

However, the writing and acting are good enough to make up for it. What strikes me about The Crusade is that it doesn't take sides, and except for El Akir, gives all of the guest characters good sides and bad sides. Saladin is reasonable and intelligent, while plotting against his enemies, and Richard is by turns a heroic leader willing to make concessions for peace and a selfish man unwilling to listen to anyone else's opinion if it differs from his own. Even the comedy shopkeeper character turns out to be a thief.

A superb subplot involves Barbara escaping from El Akir and ending up with Haroun ed-Din. With Ian knighted and on his way to find Barbara (William Russell had time off so barely appears in the story), and the Doctor and Vicki not up to much, Barbara gets a larger role than normal. Her scenes in Episode 3 are excellent. Haroud's family have been killed by El Akir, and he intends to kill El Akir for revenge, but leaves Barbara his knife, asking him to kill his remaining daughter and herself if they are found, because they would have worse deaths at the hands of El Akir. Barbara is struck as she realises the horror of her situation, and ends up giving herself away so that the daughter isn't found. I think it's material like this that Jacqueline Hill was hoping for when from the series, rather than being chased around by Nero. It's disturbingly gritty for Doctor Who.

The corresponding scenes in Richard's court are equally brilliant. The Doctor praises Richard for his peaceful solution, which is challenged by the Earl of Leicester, who prefers to fight. In the last few stories, the Doctor has been in a fairly jovial mood, but here is is deadly serious as he realises he might have got too involved and wants to get out while he still can. However, he has made an enemy of the Earl of Leicester, who gives away Richard's marriage plan to Joanna, and she refuses to co-operate, leading Richard to accuse the Doctor and Vicki of telling Joanna. These scenes are among the finest in the story, and the dialogue is more classically written than usual, almost to a fault; it's not just that the Doctor is hardly involved, because the new Doctor-lite episodes are the same, but that it's a purely historical problem that doesn't even concern him. At times I feel as though I'm watching an historical dramatisation. Why doesn't the Doctor just return to the TARDIS and wait for the others?

Questions like these are asked again in Episode 4, when suddenly it becomes all about the TARDISeers again as they try to reunite and get back to the TARDIS, which is weird, because it leaves the historical plots unresolved, when the story had spent so much time on them. Am I expected to read a history book to find out how it all turned out? Bizarre. Yes, I usually end up researching the period depicted in a Doctor Who historical anyway, but not to find out how the plot is resolved!

Anyway, I'm picking too many holes. It's a great moment when Sir Ian tricks the Earl of Leicester into giving him custody of the Doctor and Vicki, then all four escape to the TARDIS for their next adventure, and The Crusade was a satisfying story, certainly worthy of its predecessors in terms of characterisation and acting, with the dialogue arguably working at a level above.

My only gripe at this point in the series is Vicki. Apart from a few moments in The Rescue, we haven't seen the new TARDIS crew operate as a team the way the group did with Susan, and Vicki hasn't had much to do at all since The Rescue. Susan may have grated at times, but at least she had stuff to do. I know Ian and Barbara are on their way out soon anyway, and Vicki's relationship with the Doctor has been developed best, but we should be seeing more of them interacting together.

Horror quotient - Not so much visual horror, but some grim ideas do come up in this story I can't imagine doing so in many family shows.
Comedy quotient - The Doctor's exchanges with the shopkeeper are the comedy highpoint of this story, but once the Doctor starts worrying about political intrigue he's back to serious again.
Drama quotient - One of the most dramatic stories ever. All of the actors are given something to sink their teeth into, and they all do a good job.

Gratuitously clever in places, but ultimately good writing is good writing. A classic.


No comments:

Post a Comment