Sunday, 13 September 2009

The Dæmons

Previous viewings – none

The Dæmons is a story I’ve wanted to see for ages. From the way it’s described, I had it pegged as the better cousin of The Claws of Axos – the UNIT Family era in all its coziness, but done right. Sitting snugly at the end of Season 8, it’s a five-part story by Robert Sloman, with heavy input by producer Barry Letts, so we can expect mild exploration of a topical issue. It all sounds so very The Green Death.

Doctor Who isn’t hard sci-fi by any means, in fact things like the TARDIS and the sonic screwdriver are more magic than science, so it could come off as a bit cheeky for the show to address the magic vs. science issue, putting itself firmly on the science side, noting that anything remotely supernatural can be explained away by science. It’s in keeping with the character of the Doctor and something the show has implied throughout its existence, but never has the realm of the supernatural been dismissed so readily, and at times none too subtly, in such a manner that the Doctor might as well be speaking directly to the camera. There was perhaps no other way to do it, but it comes off as quite patronising and even agenda-setting.

The story itself is great though. The first episode packs a lot in, establishing the village of Devil’s End (yeah, it had to be called that, didn’t it?), and establishing the plot via a BBC news report investigating the excavation of the Devil’s Hump, with the same device used to introduce us to the guest characters, namely local witch Miss Hawthorne, who warns the archaeologists not to open an ancient tomb which has been discovered. The reporter is a clever plot device as it puts us in the know very quickly, as a real news report would, via a completely irrelevant character we don’t have to know or care about (notice how he vanishes when the Doctor arrives). The setup required is minimal.

The UNIT crew are lazing around as the Brigadier is away, and the Doctor shows off his remote control device for Bessie. He sees the TV and rushes to Devil’s End to stop the tomb being opened, arriving just too late and getting blasted when it’s opened, while at the same time the Master (again!) chants somewhere in some robes. In this story, the Master is trying to summon Azal, a Dæmon with immense power whose spaceship is in the Devil’s Hump. He hopes Azal will grant him immense power (ooh, original!), and the “magic” aspect of the story is nothing more than the Master’s usual mind control tricks and his use of the telekinetic energy from the villagers chanting to summon Azal. Of his stories so far, the Master is least restrained in this, at his most unhinged, spending most of his time chanting, which gets boring after a while. This doesn’t hurt the story but the Master has been a great asset to the stories so far, and it’s weird for Delgado’s presence not to significantly improve things. However pivotal his role, he feels peripheral.

The Doctor is knocked out for most of Episode 2, with most of the action falling to Sergeant Benton and Captain Yates, who head for Devil’s End after seeing things going wrong on the TV (weird that they seem to be the only ones concerned about it considering it was on national television). They find some unfriendly villagers and a concerned Hawthorne, who teams up with them. Miss Hawthorne is a strange one – she’s a witch, and is more than willing to challenge the Doctor about his stance on the supernatural, but when she does, she’s shot down. Thanks to a good performance by Damaris Hayman, she’s likeable and retains her dignity, so she never comes off as foolish, and fortunately she is not written as the humourless quack you’d expect.

UNIT tries to enter the village in Episode 3 but can’t get past a barrier which burns anything which tries to enter the town, even from above. This was quite a cool plot twist, because there were some funny scenes of the Doctor trying (and failing) to advise UNIT’s alternative gadget man, unable to pass through and fix the problem himself, and of the Brigadier’s patience wearing thin as their attempts to penetrate the barrier fail. Also, it kept UNIT out of action, keeping the focus on the village and the villagers, allowing us the scenes in Episode 4, where the Doctor is kidnapped during the May Day celebrations, where the people under the Master’s influence try to burn him alive (what a great cliffhanger that would have been! Surprising they pass up the opportunity). Miss Hawthorne warns them that he is a great wizard, and demonstrates his powers using trickery. When released, he gives an obligatory lecture that science is the answer, not magic, before setting off to save Jo, who is to be sacrificed to Azal.

And then it all goes so wrong. In Episode 5, we get the hilarity of the Brigadier’s “chap with wings” line – which I never got but seeing it in context makes all the difference – but the climactic scenes of the Master summoning Azal are ruined by a pretty rubbish resolution, of Azal deciding to destroy the Doctor until Jo steps in and demands that she be sacrificed in the Doctor’s place. Unable to comprehend the notion of self-sacrifice, Azal destroys itself, blowing up the church and the plot. I can only assume the writers were totally stuck on how to resolve the story because Azal’s nonsensical demise comes out of nowhere, surely a (I hate using the term but it fits) deux ex machina. It’s not even as if there wasn’t time left, or the crisis was unsolvable. Very weak, and such a shame for a story that had been very good up to that point.

It’s the inverse of The War Games – the conclusion makes the whole story suffer. That’s not to say there isn’t loads of great stuff in The Dæmons – the characters and themes are solid and it’s very atmospheric. If you like the UNIT family, everything you like is here, and it’s nowhere near as shabby looking as in The Claws of Axos. The regulars look like they’re having a great time, and there’s loads of action. A season in, I’m finally getting the rapport between Pertwee and Katy Manning, building on Colony in Space rather than going back to the relationship in her earlier Earthbound stories. The final scene especially underscores this – the Master is finally captured, so lets all dance and be happy.

So... Master Season isn’t the master of seasons. But at least Doctor Who feels like it’s in a good place, vibrant and imaginative.

Horror quotient – Even the Master fears Azal, getting a cliffhanger to himself as it menaces him (what’s that about, anyway?). For the first time since Troughton left, Doctor Who has a right to call itself scary for reasons intended, rather than because the CSO is dodgy.
Comedy quotient – I’ve mentioned a few favourite moments. With the increasing emphasis on comedy with the Brigadier (he joins the action because he’s worried about his helicopter?), we lose some of the believability of the man as a military man of some importance, but it works in this story.
Drama quotient – Plenty of this too. The tension is deflated by the crappy conclusion, but until then it’s a solid story.

Like a lot of Pertwee stories, everything works well, but it lacks that certain oomph that classics are made of, and is held together by charm. The conclusion is a big disappointment, though.


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