The King’s Demons

“The King’s Demons” is one of those rare two-part serials that turn up from time to time throughout Doctor Who. And the story certainly benefits from the shorter running time as the characters arrive, get involved in the situation, expose the mystery and then escape with their lives, all in short order. The plot moves along at a brisk pace. And though the comparison is not perfect, it is perhaps as close as the original series gets to the modern “celebrity historical” episode, both due its length and the historical figure in the form of King John… though of course, it’s not actually John.

As the extras on the recently-released DVD make clear, “The King’s Demons” was written around the introduction of a new robot companion named Kamelion. The robot had impressed producer John Nathan-Turner enough that he wanted to include it in the show. Thankfully, the limitations of the prop were apparent enough that the writer was directed to limit the robot’s appearances in case of trouble. I suspect this is what led to its shape-shifting abilities, and then to the plot about the Master forcing Kamelion to impersonate King John, all so an actor could play the robot in disguise. The idea of a shape-changing robotic companion for the Doctor certainly has dramatic possibilities, so the production crew can’t be faulted for that. It’s just a pity that their reach exceeded their grasp, and that the actual Kamelion robot didn’t work very well due to a number of circumstances. Meaning that it wouldn’t be seen again until “Planet of Fire”, where it was written out.

But Kamelion is put to good use here, whatever the limitations of the robot prop. He is disguised as King John and under the control of the Master, who plans to disrupt the signing of the Magna Carta and thus alter the history of the Earth for the worse. As the Doctor recognizes, it’s “small time villainy, by his standards”. Still, this small-time villainy makes for a fun romp through English history with castles and knights and jousting. Not to mention the historical inaccuracy of iron maidens and the Doctor’s opinion of King John.

However, there is a rather glaring plot hole in the story. The Master spends the first episode disguised as the king’s champion, a French knight. Whatever you think of the accent and disguise, they fooled me as a kid watching the show. These days it’s rather evident that Sir Gilles is Anthony Ainley. Regardless, during the swordfight with the Doctor at the end of part one, the Master disposes of his disguise, revealing his true face. And no one seems to notice or comment on this. Later on the Master returns, having changed his clothes, and everyone just accepts him as a friend of King John, despite the fact that they all saw him alter his appearance in front of the whole room and get stuffed into the vanishing iron maiden. Perhaps he was never in disguise, and just had some mass hypnotic effect on everyone? I know if I vanished into thin air and then later turned up in a change of clothes claiming to be someone else, it’s not likely that I’d be believed or trusted.

Thankfully there’s not too much time to think about this as the story just brushes past it and goes on with the plot. For once, the Master is not exposed as the villain that he is. The Doctor takes Kamelion and escapes, stopping the Master’s plan to scuttle the Magna Carta, but to the end the people in the castle believe that the Doctor is their enemy and the Master is on their side. It’s a messy victory, and one that will lead into the events of “Planet of Fire” when the Master later tries to reclaim Kamelion.

So, the final verdict: “The King’s Demons” is short and sweet and doesn’t outstay its welcome. The Master’s removal of his disguise in full view of the dinner crowd should mean that everyone will recognize and distrust him in episode two, but they don’t, which is just bizarre and unexplained. And oddly enough, this never occurred to me on first viewing. The performances and atmosphere are good, and the Doctor/Master rivalry is always fun. I’d say the story is flawed, but worth watching.

Posted in 5th Doctor - Peter Davison

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