Doctor: Sylvester McCoy
Companion: Sophie Aldred
Script writer: Ben Aaronovitch
Producer: John Nathan-Turner
Director: Michael Kerrigan
Originally aired: 6th September 1989-27th September 1989
Episode 1: Some stories begin on alien planets, with death and peril and inappropriate costuming. Others exude mystery, in gloomy corridors where anything could happen. This one opens with a nice retiree couple browsing a plant nursery. No aliens are in sight, but the ex-military gent chivalrously carrying his wife’s purchases and complaining about inefficient salesmen is awfully familiar…it’s the Brig! Everybody stop right there and cheer! Having followed a complicated route to retirement (see ‘Mawdryn Undead’ in the Davison era), he’s now living the quiet life with his wife Doris, leaving UNIT in the hands of Brigadier Winifred Bambera – a curt, capable woman currently trying to keep a nuclear missile convoy on the road despite dodgy weather, mysterious communication failures and irate archeologists.
This isn’t a show about UNIT, though, this is Doctor Who, so let’s catch up with the latest regeneration. Doctor No.7 is a very different man to his predecessor. He is enigmatic and intellectual, with far quieter taste in fashion, though he does like to advertise his aura of mystery with question-mark accessories. His companion Ace is a rebellious teenager with a deep and abiding love for blowing things up, who insists on calling him ‘Professor’. They get along much better than you might think, but they do have their occasional disagreements, like when Ace wanders into the console room to find all the lights off and the Doctor deciphering a creepy-sounding distress message. “Wherever it’s coming from,” she tells him, “I don’t think we want to go there.” “Too late,” the Doctor tells her, “we’ve already arrived.”
They have materialised in a stretch of lovely and entirely uninformative woodland. In this era the TARDIS isn’t much cop for short hops, so they try to thumb a lift with the first vehicle that passes – that being Bambera’s UNIT van. She ignores them. Luckily the next car along is more friendly. It belongs to a local archaelogist who is happy to chat and is completely unfazed when an explosion goes off somewhere nearby. The area, he explains, is a military firing range. Not to worry!
He’s wrong of course. It’s raining men! Or at least heavily armed warriors in gender neutral armour! War from another world has started bleeding into the countryside and that means there’s every reason to worry, especially as the convoy has become stuck near Lake Vortigen, the site of the archaelogical dig. This is where the Doctor and Ace are dropped off. The Doctor produces two old UNIT personnel cards to fudge their way into the temporary base, using a photo that’s a few regenerations out of date. Ace is given Elizabeth Shaw’s ID and told to ‘think like a physicist’. UNIT security being what it is, the only person to see through this cunning plan is Bambera, who’s pretty pissed off. For once, though, there are reasons. Her second in command, Sergeant Zbrigniev, served under Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart and he remembers when the Doctor regenerated. He also remembers the chaos that inevitably followed. As he puts it, “whenever this Doctor turns up, all hell breaks loose.”
The Brig himself, meanwhile, is busy in the gardens of his pretty country house. There’s flowers and sunshine and Doris is bringing out a tea tray, it’s all very civilised. Then a telephone call comes through from Geneva, bringing word of the Doctor. Doris doesn’t know what that means, but the Brig does. It means he’s already on his way.
Bambera drops the Doctor and Ace off at the local hotel, where Ace immediately befriends a punky teenager at the bar, bonding over a shared love of explosives. Bambera, meanwhile, heads off again to look for the giveaway blue police box. She discovers it and an otherworldly invasion at the same time when she is attacked by four knights at the same time. Just to make things even more confusing, they are also attacking each other, and as they are all in armour she has no idea which side is which.
Ah, knights with swords and high-tech guns. I love you, Doctor Who.
Bambera fights her way out of there, only to find her truck’s been wrecked. She has to walk all the way back to the hotel, where the Doctor is examining a relic from the dig: an ancient scabbard hanging on the wall that is burning hot to the first touch, then cold under his hands. The barkeep’s wife may be blind, but she feels its presence. Sometimes, she confides, it’s like it’s waiting for something…or someone.
Outside, Ace and her new friend Shou Yuing are talking dynamite. As you do. Ace is relating the story of how she once blew up her school’s art room, punctuating the punchline with a grandiose ‘BOOM!’, when – with impeccable timing – a knight crashes through the roof of the hotel brewery right behind them. The Doctor strides off to investigate, the girls trailing curiously behind him. They find a man in armour sprawled against the wall amidst the debris. The Doctor pulls off his helmet and the knight stirs, proving that he is alive, conscious and ridiculously pretty. He recognises the man in front of him at once but the name he uses is not ‘Doctor’, or even ‘Professor’. It’s ‘Merlin’. When Ace tells him he’s got it wrong, he politely disagrees.
ANCELYN: Oh, he has many names, but in my reckoning he is Merlin.
DOCTOR: Do you recognise my face, then?
ANCELYN: No, not your aspect, but your manner that betrays you. Do you not ride the ship of time? Does it not deceive the senses, being larger within than without? Merlin! Cease these games, and tell me truly: is this the time?
Once they finally convince him that the Doctor genuinely has no idea what he’s on about, Ancelyn clarifies. The knights have followed the call of Excalibur. They await the awakening of Arthur, who will lead them to war. Now the Doctor finally realises what’s going on: bad news. Really bad news.
This is the junction at which Bambera arrives, freaked out and holding a gun, quite happy to arrest them all. What she isn’t ready to handle is the arrival of more knights, fully armed and ready to kill.
Episode 2: Bambera tries to arrest them too, and when that fails she opens fire. The bullets do exactly nothing. Did she not get the memo when she joined UNIT? The bullets never work. There is a testosterone-infused sneer-off between Ancelyn and the leader of this new gang, who is no other than Mordred. There is history there. Mordred intends to kill them all, but then Ancelyn reveals the presence of Merlin, and the Doctor quickly plays along. “Go,” he orders, “before I unleash a terrible something on you!” Mordred, channeling a thwarted toddler, stalks sulkily away, warning them to just wait until his mum gets here. Never fear, Mordred, she’s on her way.
With a respite from immediate death, the Doctor swoops out, Ace and his sort of volunteer companion Shou Yuing on his heels. That leaves Bambera with no one to grab for answers but Ancelyn, who unwisely tells her he doesn’t talk to peasants. Her patience only stretches so far. She throws him to the ground to let off a little rage, and UNIT training comes good for some things because when it comes to wrestling he’s completely outclassed. When he’s properly trounced, she handcuffs him and shoves him into the hotel, announcing she’s now in charge.
She’s wrong. The person really in charge of this mess is on their way, and I don’t mean the Brig. In the ruins of a nearby castle Mordred is invoking a ritual to bring his mother across dimensions to join the battle. This involves glowing orbs and maniacal laughter, and brings about a violent storm. In the hotel, glasses fall off shelves, smashing on the floor. The scabbard is called by the rip in space and time; it takes everything the Doctor’s got to hold onto it. Morgaine uses her sorcery to contact him directly, warning him to keep out of her way. “Let this be our last battlefield.” The lights of the hotel go out, and everything goes black.
The sun rises in clear skies, on a scene of demolished lawn furniture. Ancelyn and Bambera are asleep, slumped together in unlikely harmony on a sofa; the Brig is enjoying sunrise en route in an army chopper. The peace doesn’t last, of course. The Doctor’s first port of call is the dig beside the lake, where the scabbard was first discovered with a set of runic carvings no one has ever been able to translate. This is because they are instructions from the Doctor to himself, and his handwriting’s awful. Ace blows up the specified point to make a hole, and when the smoke clears, a tunnel is revealed.
Morgaine is also on the move. One of her first acts on British soil is to bring down the Brig’s chopper with one contemptuous flick of her finger. Mordred’s disdain for this world is present also in his mother, but afterwards she finds a war memorial in the town and realises her knights have landed on the burial place of this world’s warriors. She’s furious with her son for not according this ground its proper respect and sends him out of her sight. The Brig, leaving his injured pilot at the scene of the crash while he goes looking for help, comes across Morgaine himself not long afterward and she welcomes him, recognising an old warrior when she sees one. With equal courtesy, he suggests she surrender. In honour of her ceremony for the fallen, she lets him leave alive, though she calmly explains that the next time they meet she will kill him. He makes his way to the hotel, commandeers Shou Yuing’s car with her inside it, and drives off to look for the Doctor – who, along with Ace, is deep beneath the lake inside a half-dead spaceship, navigating their way past doors keyed to his voice, even though he’s never been in the place before.
ACE: Are you Merlin?
DOCTOR: No. But I could be. In the future – that is, my personal future. Which could be the past.
In the heart of the spaceship, a crowned man is slumped over his tomb, a sword embedded in the stone beside him. As a joke, Ace pulls on it. To her amazement, it comes loose straight away. This isn’t the way to win a kingdom though; what she’s done is wake a phantom programmed to defend the king which doesn’t mean to let them leave the tomb alive. The Doctor is flung across the room, while Ace is driven into a dead end that rapidly fills with water…
Episode 3: The Doctor manages to get to a console and rip out a key piece of circuitry. This results in Ace being ejected from the drowning chamber and out into the lake, which you might argue is a negligble difference, but luckily she can swim. She emerges in the middle of a conversation about the Lady of the Lake, falling into Bambera’s arms and dropping the sword into Ancelyn’s. The Doctor, though, still has the phantom to deal with, and he’s not doing terribly well. In order to get rid of it he has to crush the liberated piece of circuitry, and the phantom won’t allow him close enough. The Brigadier arrives just in time, smashing it capably beneath one boot.
BRIG: I just can’t let you out of my sight, can I, Doctor?
DOCTOR: Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart! So you recognise me, then?
BRIG: Yes. Who else would it be?
Good point, Brig, good point. The two men emerge from the tunnel, allowing the two Brigadiers to meet. Bambera is not entirely happy about this but acknowledges his authority (and maybe realises he’s better at handling the Doctor than she is).
While the lake is spitting out legends, Mordred is holding court in the hotel, terrorising its owners and getting himself drunk. When the Brig’s long-suffering and still injured pilot bursts in, Mordred’s first reaction is to start flirting with her; when she pulls a gun on him, he takes that as a compliment and offers her a drink. That’s when his mum arrives and demands to know what sort of company he’s been keeping. She catches the pilot’s bullet and crushes it in her bare hand, then drains both the secrets and the life out of the poor woman. Before she leaves, she politely pays off her son’s tab by restoring the owner’s wife’s eyesight, because murder is okay but unpaid bills are dishonorable.
Team TARDIS are on their way back from the lake, Bambera and Ancelyn in one truck and everybody else in the other. The knights attempt an ambush but the Brig, who is used to this sort of thing, drives straight through them. Alert to danger, Bambera turns the wheel over to a baffled Ancelyn and opens the top of the truck to fire back at the knights with a machine gun. Wisely, they retreat. She slides back into the truck and beams at Ancelyn. “So, are you married or what?” He doesn’t get the chance to answer; they drive directly into a second ambush, which just isn’t fair.
Ace wants to go back and help, but the area is swarming with knights. The situation is far enough out of control that UNIT has begun evacuating the area. The residents of the hotel are at first vehemently opposed to being turfed off by the military, but the Doctor flashes some Merlinesque hypnotic powers and convinces everybody to leave in peace – everybody except Shou Yuing, that is, who’s hiding out the back with Ace. The Brigadier grabs this chance to show off UNIT’s new tech for the Doctor, bullets designed for actually dealing with unstoppable monsters, but the Doctor doesn’t think it will be enough. He wants silver bullets and on no other explanation than that, the Brig immediately orders some. Also, because he’s the Brig and he’s awesome, there’s another old friend waiting – dear old Bessie, the third Doctor’s yellow convertible.
While the Doctor is reuniting with his second favourite mode of transport, Bambera and Ancelyn are fighting for their lives in the woods. She’s trying to convince Ancelyn to try a tactical withdrawal, which means threatening to kill him if he doesn’t start running. He’s very impressed by her bloodthirsty intensity. “Art thou betrothed?” he asks, but those romance-wrecker knights interrupt the moment again and the two of them start running.
Ace and Shou Yuing emerge from concealment and start poking fun at Bessie. The Doctor presents them with Excalibur and a piece of chalk. One of these needs protecting, the other is for defence against Morgaine, and yes that’s the right way around. He then zooms off with the Brig in his modified car, leaving Ace and Shou Yuing in the hotel, bunkering down inside a chalk circle. Morgaine is watching from afar. Sneering at the Doctor’s trust in human children, she tests his defences. Suddenly Ace and Shou Yuing start shouting at each other, a fight springing from nowhere, and Ace is nearly backed out of the circle. Realising at the last minute that they are being manipulated, the two girls grab each and hold on tight. It won’t be so easy to break them as Morgaine thought.
Meanwhile, the Doctor and the Brig have arrived at the nuclear missile convoy by the lake, where UNIT soldiers are fighting Morgaine’s knights. Bambera and Ancelyn stumble right into it. Ancelyn and Mordred exchange obscure insults then run at each other, swords raised, yelling. The Doctor, unexpectedly, yells louder. “There will be no battle here!” Mordred gives away the plan; this is not a real battle, only a ruse. His mother has summoned the Destroyer, a monstrous creature that thrives upon destruction, and a chalk circle is no defence against him.
Episode 4: The Doctor, frantic, hooks a sword around Mordred’s throat and orders Morgaine to call off the Destroyer. She isn’t fooled; she knows his hatred of killing, and sure enough, the Doctor can’t do it. As it turns out, he doesn’t have to. The Brig steps up with his pistol to Mordred’s head, telling Morgaine to leave his world or he’ll kill her son. She knows he means it, but won’t let her plans be ruined now. Telling Mordred to die a good death, she severs her mental connection to the battleground and turns her full attention on the girls. Battle recommences. Ancelyn runs forward, sword drawn, and Bambera snatches up one from the ground to join the fight. The only ones not fighting are the Doctor, the Brig and Mordred.
MORDRED: My mother will destroy you!
BRIG: Just between you and me, Mordred, I’m getting a little tired of hearing about your mother.
You tell it, Brig. Bullying the captive knight into Bessie, the trio head for the hotel, where Morgaine has come up against the chalk circle and been rebuffed. She is determined to obtain Excalibur at any cost, even the risk of releasing the Destroyer from his silver chains, though she knows all he wants is to eat this world. By the time the Doctor and the Brig arrive, the middle of the hotel is rubble. In the chaos and distraction, Mordred runs away, but he’s the least of their worries right then, believing Ace and Shou Yuing to be dead. Only, they’re not – not even hurt, just covered in a light layer of rubble and very embarrassed about handing over the sword. The Doctor is fine with that. “Exotic alien swords are easy to come by,” he tells them firmly. “Aces are rare.”
Morgaine’s portal remains open amidst the debris. The Doctor jumps into it, followed by the Brig. Moments later, Ace catches sight of the forgotten silver bullets and leaps after them with a shout of ‘Geronimo!’ That particular word will lodge somewhere in the Doctor’s subconscious for a few more regenerations…
Morgaine is using Excalibur to open a gateway to her own world but switches to duelling as the Doctor interrupts, forcing him to parry with his multi-purpose question mark umbrella. When Ace jumps out of the portal she smacks straight into Morgaine and the sword flies through the air into the Doctor’s waiting hand. Furious and thwarted, Morgaine finally frees the Destroyer from his chains.
Mordred, with impeccable timing, chooses this moment to storm in and inform his mother of his continued existence. Despite abandoning him on the battlefield, she is overjoyed to see him safe, and her distraction allows the Doctor, the Brig and Ace to run. Outside the derelict castle Morgaine has appropriated, Ace hands over the bullets to the Doctor. He loads the Brig’s gun. His intention is to go back, shoot the Destroyer, and hope like hell it’s enough – but the Brig neatly knocks him unconscious, takes the gun and returns to the ruin in his stead. The Destroyer, freed of his chains, sneers at this unlikely opponent.
DESTROYER: Pitiful. Can this world do no better than you for its champion?
BRIG: Probably. I just do the best I can.
He shoots the Destroyer in the chest and the resulting explosion leaves the castle in ruins. Ace and the rather dazed Doctor come running and find the Brig battered but alive on the grass outside. It seems they’ve won…but Morgaine and Mordred have returned to the nuclear missile convoy, catching Bambera and compelling the missile launch code from her mind as Morgaine did to the Brig’s unfortunate pilot. Unaware of this, the Doctor, the Brig, Ace and Ancelyn return to the spaceship under the lake to replace Excalibur in the tomb. They argue politely over who should have the honour until Ace gets impatient and does it herself. Arthur does not wake; he never will. While others fight in his name, he has long been dust.
Coming back to the convoy, Ancelyn sees Mordred dumping Bambera’s body and hurls himself into battle. The Doctor slips between their swinging swords and makes his way to Morgaine, who is about to launch the missile. She intends to win her war by whatever means necessary – but there is a price to that, and the Doctor hurls it in her face. “All over the world, fools are poised ready to let death fly. Machines of death, Morgaine, are screaming from above, of light, brighter than the sun. Not a war between armies nor a war between nations, but just death, death gone mad. The child looks up into the sky, his eyes turn to cinders. No mor tears, only ashes. Is this honour? Is this war? Are these the weapons you would use?…Put a stop to it, Morgaine. End the madness!”
And Morgaine does stop. That is not her form of war. She asks instead to face Arthur in single combat, to make an honourable end to this mess, and at first will not accept her opponent is dead; when it sinks in, she mourns the loss of a beloved enemy. She wants to see Arthur’s body, but even that is impossible, as Ace just blew up the spaceship. The Doctor quietly offers his condolences and leaves Morgaine to her grief.
Her son, who doesn’t know that the battle is over, has his sword to Ancelyn’s throat. Ancelyn bitterly retorts there’s no point in living if Bambera is dead. The Doctor differs. He catches the sword with the hook of his umbrella and sort of mindboozles Mordred with his Merlin powers, then tells Bambera – who IS alive! if looking somewhat shattered – to lock Morgaine and Mordred up before they can start anything else. Then he walks away, leaving Ancelyn and Bambera staring at each other, beaming.
So, it’s over. Everybody ends up at the Brig’s beautiful house in the country, where Doris promptly arranges a girls’ day out with Bambera, Shou Yuing and Ace. They pile into Bessie and zoom off, leaving the boys with a lengthy to-do list that includes gardening and cooking. “Are they not magnificent?” Ancelyn sighs. “I’ll cook supper,” the Doctor murmurs, and smiles.
The Verdict: I almost didn’t review this one; my first thought for Sylvester McCoy’s era was ‘Paradise Towers’, a childhood viewing of which left me with some unresolved fears of being devoured in a swimming pool. Then I saw part of a very old interview with Angela Bruce, who played Bambera, saying she’d love to come back like the Brig did. That she hasn’t is a dreadful shame and a waste, but if you had to appear in just one story, this is the one to choose. It’s everything really excellent Doctor Who should be – intelligent and funny and poignant and diverse. Just don’t look at the science. Really, don’t, there isn’t any. But it has Bessie. It has the BRIG. It passes the Bechdel test easily with fantastic female friendships, puts a black woman into the shoes of a fan favourite and doesn’t try to knock her out of them even when the owner comes back, has one of the most adorable romances ever and a female antagonist who is as honourable and complex as she is formidable.
I remember the first time I watched this, being terrified of the Destroyer (who never actually does anything, but doesn’t do it with immense scariness), wishing I could hop in Bessie with all those fabulous women (whom I very much hope remain friends for life), and wondering what a Time Lord might make for supper. There are many people in Who fandom who don’t like Sylvester McCoy’s era, but I don’t really remember his bad stories. I remember the ones like ‘Battlefield’. Because when he was good, he was amazing, and so was everyone with him. Join me next month for the end of his era, when a new incarnation faces off against an old adversary, impersonates Frankenstein’s monster, and goes searching for just the right pair of shoes…