“Battlefield” is a frustrating blend of good ideas and a few good performances mixed with some terrible staging, poor direction and some bad performances. The bad just about outweights the good, but the story is, however, miles ahead of most serials from the previous two seasons.
I have a certain degree of fondness for this story which is largely based on the fact that it guest-stars Nicholas Courtney, reprising his role as the Brigadier one last time. The Brigadier is older, retired from teaching, and married to a woman named Doris, who was mentioned in passing way back in “Planet of the Spiders”. He’s clearly content to spend his days in her company and tending the grounds of his rather nice home, until the call comes asking him to return to duty, with the added news that the Doctor has returned. Courtney acts as though he’s never been away from the part as he dives back into the fray, playing the Brigadier as a much wiser and more seasoned soldier who is prepared to do what has to be done, but doesn’t necessarily go in right away with guns blazing.
Episode one gets off on a good foot, with lots of effective location footage and the setup of numerous plot elements. The Doctor and Ace arrive in the near-future setting in which most UNIT stories of the 70s take place. A UNIT missile convoy has stalled beside a lake at exactly the same time that a mysterious sword has begun to send out a signal that attracts the attention of the sorceress Morgaine of Aurthurian legend, nicely played by Jean Marsh. In response, knights begin planetfall from orbit and begin scouring the countryside. The Doctor and Ace are drawn in by a distress signal looking for “Merlin”. It’s all mysterious and interesting, and it’s all just about ruined by the horrible soundtrack. Normally the music in Doctor Who doesn’t bother me, but some of the stuff during Sylvester McCoy’s time sounds like a video game soundtrack. It’s hard enough to take the slow-motion swordfights and firework pistols of the knights seriously without a happy little keyboard and percussion tune playing in the background while they slug it out. The music really does sabotage any effort at creating a foreboding mood. Of course, the Warner Brothers flying knight doesn’t help either, especially when intercut with scenes of Ace talking with pride about blowing up pottery pigs. The first episode starts out well but crashes and burns rather badly near the end. I did note with amusement the Pepsi logo on the umbrellas outside the hotel… I can’t recall having ever seen product placement in Doctor Who before, inadvertent or not.
The second part starts badly and hardly improves. The attempted comedy fight between Brigadier Bambera and Ancelyn, the flying knight, is incredibly lame. It doesn’t paint a good picture of the high-ranking and presumably professional Bambera, not that her entrance and attempted arrest of the Doctor and his “freaky” friends does very much for her aura of professionalism and authority either. Mordred’s lengthy and baffling laughter is embarrassing to watch, and much of the Doctor and Ace’s smug dialogue is annoying rather than amusing. However the idea that a future Doctor leaves notes for himself and locked doors that his past self can figure out how to pass through is interesting. It’s fun to see the Doctor causing trouble for himself for once, and to see the manipulative seventh Doctor completely out of his depth as all and sundry call him Merlin and refer to events which he has yet to experience. The underwater spacecraft model and interior set look quite good. Lethbridge-Stewart’s encounter with Morgaine is a high point of the episode. It always gives me a fannish thrill that both Nicholas Courtney and Jean Marsh were in “The Dalek Master Plan” some twenty years earlier, and here they are again in the same story in what would be the final appearance for both in Doctor Who. They may be playing completely different characters, but they still add their strong acting and personality to a less than stellar production, and lift the quality whenever they appear. Good for them.
Episode three finally sees the Doctor and Brigadier meet as the Brigadier disables the security system in the spacecraft. At this point it becomes clear to me that the primary reason I enjoy “Battlefield” is because it calls up fond memories of the good old days, not because it has a lot of inherent story value of its own. Apart from scenes featuring Jean Marsh, who is very strong in the role of Morgaine, the only time I’m really interested in the story is when the Brigadier is on screen. However even he can’t save the woeful “action” scenes where Morgaine’s knights attack the vehicles as they pass down the road. The lackluster alien guns and pitiful camera angles kill any attempt at drama, and the awful music is the hammer that drives the nails into the coffin. Watching Bambera and Ancelyn interact is almost painful due to the badly-acted attempts at humor, and I have to assert yet again that Angela Bruce is woefully unconvincing as a military officer. The episode perks up when the Brigadier reviews UNIT’s updated weaponry and brings Bessie out of retirement, much to Ace’s amusement.
Episode four returns to a higher level of quality as the Doctor and Morgaine face off, and the Brigadier gets to save the world as he guns down the Destroyer. The scene where the Doctor talks Morgaine out of detonating the nuclear missile is dubious, given that she had just set a big blue demon loose on the world, and it’s rather amusing that he tells the UNIT officer to “lock them up”, as if that would do any good. The whole thing smells of a writer or production team who knew that the episode was about to end, and had to tie up the loose ends somehow, however implausible that wrap up might be. The end with the girls going off to have fun, leaving the Doctor, the Brigadier and Ancelyn to cook and clean, is actually quite fun.
Overall, “Battlefield” unfortunately falls flat. There’s so many things that are poor about the performances and the production that I really can’t call the story a success. It’s not without merit though. Nicholas Courtney’s final appearance as the Brigadier is worth watching, as is Jean Marsh as Morgaine. The Destroyer is a well-realized monster and his confrontation with Lethbridge-Stewart is the highlight of the story. “Battlefield” is a story where the successful elements largely stem from the nostalgic elements of the script, so go into it looking to enjoy the nods to the past and you’ll find something to enjoy. Go into it looking for a solid plot and action, and you’ll walk away disappointed. Thankfully this is the last dip into negative territory in the classic series’ run, and from here on it the quality level is fairly high, sending the series out on a high note.