On First View: Battlefield

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Guest contributor Antti Björklund concludes the series offering a first time view on a Classic story.


In Doctor Who Magazine’s 2009 poll, The Mighty 200, Battlefield came in at number 146. This makes it the fourth most liked Seventh Doctor story according to that poll.*

In case there are readers for whom this is the first article of this series they read, here is a reminder about what this series is about: in this series, I will try and evaluate exactly how good the episodes I have not seen before, or have seen only a couple of times, are from the viewpoint of someone watching the episodes for the first time. I will try and make note what are the episode’s strengths and weaknesses.

Battlefield opens Sylvester McCoy’s third season as the eponymous Time Lord. It also began the 26th and final season of the Classic era. Afterwards, the show would be off the air until the 1996 TV Movie when McCoy handed over the figurative torch to Paul McGann.

* For the sake of continuity with the earlier articles in this series, I’ve kept referencing the ”Mighty 200” poll, even though Doctor Who Magazine’s latest poll results have already been released.

The Characters

The Seventh Doctor is portrayed by Sylvester McCoy, who took on the mantle as the Time Lord after Colin Baker was untimely (get it?) fired from the role after Season 23, also known as ”The Trial of a Time Lord”. Initially portraying the character as a slapstick character, with him playing spoons, by the time the final season of Classic ”Who” came, his character had turned into a more darker and scheming character.

The Doctor’s companion, Ace, is portrayed by Sophie Aldred. She was conceived as a ”streetwise” teenage character from contemporary Britain. Aldred portrayed the character from 1987 until the close of the Classic show in 1989.

The Doctor

mccoy-b-sevenThe first impression I got of McCoy’s Doctor is one of a friend. He and Ace get along very well, and it is very nice to watch them interact. He shows signs of humor here and there, but also a darker side. McCoy’s Doctor, to me, shows clear signs of being a ”brains over brawn” character – he relies more on wit than strength.

McCoy’s Doctor is a somewhat darker, Doctor. He is not afraid to turn into a manipulative character. This is evident in a scene in which he attempts to manipulate Morgaine into surrendering by threatening to kill Mordred. The words Mordred uses – ”look me in the eye, end my life!” – were used by McCoy’s Doctor in the previous season’s The Happiness Patrol, which just shows how McCoy’s Doctor has become so dark other people are using words he himself used to use. He seems, too, like a calm Doctor, which is evident in the scenes in which he just walks through a scene, even though the surroundings are unruly in some way or another.

The Companion(s)

ace-battlefieldSophie Aldred’s Ace comes across as the classic, maybe even stereotypical, companion. By this I mean that she is there to ask the questions the audience is thinking. That said, she does also have moments where she isn’t just an assistant, but a fully fleshed-out character. As a character Ace seems, on the other hand, exactly as she was meant to be – a streetwise teen – but on the other hand she’s also something more. Ace has been mentioned at least once in The Sarah Jane Adventures, the spinoff to Doctor Who. Although, I must say I find it a little bit hard to understand how a teenager from 1987 would know about Clarke’s Third Rule – ”any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Although not strictly speaking a companion to the Doctor in Battlefield, I can’t help but talk a little about Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, who makes his last appearance in the show in this serial. He clearly is a man of action, as is evident by his remark that it is great to be back working for UNIT. In some way it is the Brigadier who saves the day, not the Doctor. This is because the Brigadier is the one who kills the monster of the serial. The Brigadier presents one way in which this story can be introduced to a first-time viewer, as he has been mentioned a couple of times in the post-2005 series of Doctor Who, most recently in The Power of Three.

The Monsters and Villains

doctor-who-battlefieldThe villains of the story come straight from Arthurian legend, namely Morgaine and Mordred. Out of the two, Morgaine seems the more fleshed out character of the two. She is the instigator of the plot, whereas Mordred is more of a pawn in the bigger picture.

Morgaine is portrayed by Jean Marsh, who portrayed two characters during William Hartnell’s tenure as the Doctor. The first of these is princess Joanna in The Crusade and the second is one-off companion Sara Kingdom in The Daleks’ Master Plan. To a wider audience she is most famous as an actor in both the original version and the sequel series of Upstairs Downstairs. Both of these facts can be used as a way of introducing the story to a first-time viewer.

The monster of the story is called simply ”the Destroyer”, and it comes from the same dimension as Mordred and Morgaine. It comes into the story relatively late, and seems rather powerless at first, being under Morgaine’s power. When it finally gets loose, it at first seems like a real threat, but sadly the solution to beating it is found quickly.

The Overall Story

Combining Arthurian legend and Doctor Who? This is what Battlefield achieves perfectly. The story is somewhat of a timey-wimey one in that it seems to Mordred and Morgaine that the Doctor is Merlin, and the Doctor even admits that in the future he might become Merlin.

The story features the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, better known as UNIT. To me, as a first-time viewer, this is one point of familiarity. The UNIT of Battlefield seems like the UNIT of the Russell T. Davies: full of action and truly international, whereas the Steven Moffat-era UNIT seems to me more like the UNIT of the Third Doctor’s era, which, based on the stories I’ve seen, was more about science and seemed more British. This is evident by the clear signs of there being more UNIT personnel that have foreign-sounding names or that are clearly stated to be non-British. All of these points provide an entry point for a first-time viewer.

I can clearly see that the story might be very interesting to someone who is interested in Arthurian legend. It portrays an interesting take on traditional Arthurian motives such as ”the sword in the stone”, ”the lady of the lake”, ”the once and future king”, Merlin and magic. The dialogue presented by the Arthurian characters is also interesting, because it is said in a medieval or Shakespearean fashion.

The story provides lots of fanservice. There are nods to the UNIT era of the Third Doctor, such as a mention of Liz Shaw and the appearance of Bessie, the Third Doctor’s famous vehicle, but also nods to other eras of the show, such as the Second Doctor’s era with mentions of the Yeti and Cybermen. While these, to me, are quite clearly examples of fanservice, they also serve the story in some way or another. They also provide another entrance point for new viewers, as the person introducing the story can tell about the UNIT history of the show, referencing stories that might be familiar to new viewers.

All in all, I think that Battlefield is a great example to use against those who say that late-1980s Doctor Who had grown tired and was past it’s heyday. It is my opinion that by it’s final season the show was starting to get into new dimensions, new lengths.

It seems fitting that this, the final part in this series, has looked at a story from the final season of the original run of the show, when the very first part looked at a story from one of the very first seasons.