“I’m rather enjoying this.” –The Brigadier
I remember the first time I saw this, four years ago, I really liked it. Then I read somewhere or another that everyone hated it and thought it was rubbish. Well, if that’s true, I don’t care. I still like it a lot. Though if I say this I will probably regret it, but it’s hard to mess up King Arthur. This is a nice combination of “present-day” Who (well, it was present-day in 1987), historical stuff, and outer space stuff. It’s also UNIT’s last stand, as it were (grumble, grumble, Russell T Davies).
We have Ben Aaronovitch to thank for the script who was, probably without question, the best writer of the Seventh Doctor era (take a look at the wonderful “Remembrance of the Daleks”) and the first, as far as I know, “fan boy” to write for the series. His knowledge of the series does him credit, especially when he brings in the knowing touches (Totters Lane in “Remembrance,” for example, and the Who-mobile in this story). I think he’s making an ‘80s homage here to the Pertwee episodes, by setting it on Earth and using UNIT (and the Brigadiers!). Nicholas Courtney is always a delight to watch, as his chemistry with each of the Doctors is hard to duplicate. He also gets most of the good lines in this one! (“I just can’t let you out of my sight, can I?” when he first sees the Doctor. The Doctor wonders how the Brig recognized him. Instinct. Also, to Mordred, “I’m getting a little tired hearing about your mother.” To the Doctor: “I’m rather more expendable than you are.” “I just do the best I can.” To Ace: “He’s all yours from now on.”) I also really appreciate the fact that we first see him at home with Doris—retired, but still willing to pitch in for the Doctor. The end is also quite funny, but we’ll get to that.
I also like the new Brig, that is, Winifred Bambera (Angela Bruce). It’s a cute touch that Lethbridge-Stewart asks, “This Bambera—good man, is he?” It’s a shame to see that she’s such a hard-arse she won’t let the Doctor and Ace by with “outdated pass cards,” though it does make for a good joke: the Doctor shouts, “YetiAutonsDaleksSilurians!” Like the old Brig, Bambera hasn’t yet learned that guns are rarely the answer to alien menaces. I wish they had let her just say “shit” instead of “oh, shame.” It’s nice to see a tough woman in such a role (the late ‘80s appears to be the era of tough women in Who; look at Ace) but she also has the adorable and very funny would-be romance with Ancelyn. This is one of the weirdest pairings I think Who-dom has ever come up with, but you know what? I like it. They, too, get some very funny moments. First off, they fight in the background while the Doctor talks to Ace and Shou Yuing, and I couldn’t help thinking: foreplay? “She vanquished me,” Ancelyn breathlessly tells the Doctor later, while he’s in handcuffs. There’s a cute, telling moment when they fall asleep on each other—only the Doctor would wake people up by popping a bag. There’s the rather annoying throwaway line, “Call me ‘milady’ one more time and I’ll break your nose,” and the better one: “Is milady vexed?” “Now I’m vexed.” Eventually she softens up to him, and he becomes her ally—“we have a great tradition here of tactical retreat.” “Let’s do it with some style!” I was afraid one or both was going to die, but happily they didn’t. I hope someone’s written a story about them—otherwise I’m going to have to.
Well, we see a different Doctor here than the one banging around Lakertya, eh? I don’t really see the angst of his weighted decisions in “Remembrance,” nor the manipulative creepiness of “Ghost Light,” but Sylvester McCoy does get to use his outdoor voice A LOT. He’s also hitting the anti-nuclear theme pretty hard: “Nuclear missile convoy?” “Yes, it has that graveyard stench.” Of course, it’s very Doctor-ish to empty out his bottomless pockets. He gets some good lines, from time to time: “Oh, Ace—it’s only a trap.” “Something’s wrong—we haven’t been attacked yet.” I know there have always been questions about McCoy’s acting abilities, since as I understand it he had only done children’s shows until this point? Anyway, in addition to shouting a lot, I think he may be tipping the scale here with overacting. Confronting Mordred, he gets to gurn like Patrick Troughton and roar. I think a bit more subtlety could have helped make him be more menacing here. (It’s ironic that he says, “High drama is very similar to comedy”!) The Doctor also gets to fall down. A lot. To the point where you wonder if it’s an accident anymore. Wow, and he gets to use Jedi mind tricks—very Seventh Doctor. To be fair, the Doctor does get some strong moments in this story. He threatens Mordred, who says, “We know you of old, Merlin—you will not kill.” I’m reminded of a fan vid about the Seventh Doctor with a song by the Killers that goes, “I’ve got a soul but I’m / not a soldier.” This scene is a perfect illustration of that. Meanwhile, the Brig is less hampered by morals: “Try me.”
Is late ‘80s Who all about characters slapping each other? Because the Doctor slaps Ace’s hands off the control in the TARDIS—a bit uncalled for, I think. Now, was it standard that young women of the late ‘80s were experts in explosives? Because the first thing Shou Yuing and Ace can find to talk about is blowing stuff up! (“He gets upset when we talk about explosives”—is that a precursor for “When he’s upset he insults species”?) Pure Ace: “Think he’d be asking if he did, tinhead?” “Seen one spaceship, you’ve seen them all.” “It’s not like I’m King of the Britons,” she says, and pulls out Excalibur. Like we couldn’t see that coming. There are moments in the late ‘80s when I think the platonic nature of Ace and the Doctor can be questioned, but for the most part, they’re good friends. (Odd, isn’t it, how easily everyone accepts, “We need two rooms—one for myself, one for my young friend,” if the Seventh Doctor says it, but Nine or Ten with Rose?) Despite Ace’s overall toughness, she does have a sort of self-critical side, which Morgaine’s magic brings out when Shou Yuing says, “The first chance he got, the Doctor went off without you!” Simple things like that remind you of how much Ace needs the Doctor. Still, Morgaine notes, “he must care for you very much.” The Doctor himself puts in, “Aces are rare,” while giving her his signature nose tweak.
I think Aaronovitch has a way with writing secondary characters to elevate them slightly above function and make them interesting and as real as they can be in 100 minutes—and he rarely kills them off. Mr. and Mrs. Rowlinson, the proprietors of the Crow Head Inn, are case in point. I like that the Inn offers “the finest beer in the area,” but the Doctor doesn’t let Ace have any. I also like how archaeologist Ellis is poked fun at, but also makes a pretty good character. His vocation is to “carefully recover the past,” while Ace would like to blow it up. Doris, though she isn’t in it very much, does have her moments. “Alasdair, who is the Doctor?” I think she makes a good point when the Brig gets ready to leave: “All this means so little to you?” It’s a bit like Jackie begging Rose to stay home if she loves her (you can tell me any time to stop making the season 27 parallels; I know they must be getting old). And I like, hackneyed as it might be, that the Doctor, Lethbridge-Stewart, and Ancelyn are left on the Brig’s estate while Ace, Shou Yuing, Doris, and Bambera go off on a ride. That’s quite a grouping. I love Bessie.
I understand Chris Bowen, who plays Mordred, was in line to play the Eighth Doctor in 1996. Forgetting for a moment my fierce loyalty to Paul McGann, I’m not sure this would have been a great idea. Certainly, though of the knights, he was the best looking-one, his acting leaves something to be desired. Check out when he summons Morgaine and laughs in such a manner that the viewer wants to crawl into a pit and cringe. To be fair, he gets better. There’s a rather funny bit where he notes of Mr. Rowlinson, “It is well that she [Mrs. Rowlinson] is blind.” Still, I don’t know . . . he could have only improved in the intervening 10 years or so. Actually, of all the candidates besides McGann up for the role, I think John Sessions would have been an interesting choice.
When Bambera shoots at Morgaine, she catches the bullet and shakes it out as dust, a move I thought looked remarkably similar to one done by Queen Bavmorda in Willow. Sure enough, who played Morgaine but Jean Marsh, who played Bavmorda. Very strange. She’s a good actress, by the way, and good at being bad, though I think the camera lingered a bit too long on ECUs of her. I think Morgaine is a cut above similar villains because of her investment in honorable death (I love that she holds a vigil for the WWII dead!) and she isn’t completely evil—she restores Mrs. Rowlinson’s sight. She also succeeds in being rather scary: “Look to your children, Merlin, for soon they shall be no more.” And there’s the well-played bit when the Doctor reveals that Arthur’s dead. She’s genuinely sad, and there’s even some love there.
Arthurian mythology is full of iconic moments; this story exploits them knowingly. For example, the first shot of Ancelyn in armor rising from the ground? Pretty cool. Less effective but rather funny is Ace standing in for the Lady of the Lake. One of the most interesting parts of this story is considering the Doctor as Merlin. It’s Ancelyn who first identifies him as such, not by what he looks like, “your manner betrays you. . . . He has many names.” Mordred and Morgaine certainly think he is. He tells them “I’m a master of time.” When Ace asks him point-blank if he is Merlin, he responds, “No . . . but I could be.” This is a nice mysterious touch, and with a little less levity than the Doctor hinting to Rose that he was Father Christmas (which is so creepy, to be honest). The Destroyer is scary and also mysterious, and I’m glad he had blue skin instead of your standard Devil-red.
I should mention that there’s a particularly good directing sequence (Michael Kerrigan directed) when Ace is describing to Shou Yuing how she blew up her high school, intercut with scenes of Mordred’s knights trying to blow Ancelyn up. I should also like to observe that explosions got a lot more convincing in the late ‘80s on Doctor Who, and the program used them—a lot. I think the sequence where Ace is drowning in the spaceship under the lake could be better done. Well . . . I’m not so sold on the music this time. Parts of it work, but when people are driving around in Jeeps while strange cheerful music plays . . . well . . . I am impressed with the location filming, however (always good to get out of the studio), and the sets, except for the underwater spaceship—looking a little skimpy there. The costumes, by Anushia Nieradzik, are great. All the secondary characters are best muted, and so they are, except for Shou Yuing (funny how that style is coming back now!!). I love the knights’ armor, and Morgaine’s costume is a good mix between historicity and Sci Fi goodness. I think there is a hint of influence from Excalibur, but not in such a way that it becomes mimic.
 Re: 2008, quit yer gripping.