Saturday, 18 January 2014

Battlefield written by Ben Aaronovitch and directed by Michael Kerrigan

This story in a nutshell: The Earth is dragged into a war that doesn’t even belong to this dimension!

Master Manipulator: When people declare that the 7th Doctor’s era is the nadir of televised Doctor Who they have probably just watched McCoy’s performance in Battlefield. It hurts me to say this because I never like to admit that the central character is ever an embarrassment but this really is about as bad as it gets. This is not just McCoy bashing, I will cite examples and explain myself but McCoy simply cannot play anger or fear convincingly and he spends quite a bit of this story doing ridiculous pratfalls. Trying to suggest this gurning fool is Merlin is an insult to the Arthurian legend. The one thing that really shines through well (despite some painful dialogue) is his unspoken affection for Ace, I’ll give him that. He gets very excited about going to an archaeological dig (he and Benny will get on fine!). He pulls out his UNIT pass to try and force his way in despite the fact that it still has Pertwee’s mug on it! I really liked the talk about the Doctor changing his appearance being a disguise; the story could have done with more of that kind of innovation. McCoy doesn’t have the talent to convince when he is threatening Mordred, he spits and struggles with the dialogue. McCoy is extremely adept at popping crisp packets whereas he completely fudges his agonising attack when Morgaine first appears and that’s because he is a good children’s entertainer and not a terribly good actor. The Doctor can hypnotise people to his will, I can only think of a hundred other times where that might have come in handy. It’s a typical Cartmel innovation, super powers that are used and then forgotten (one finger can be a deadly weapon). At one point he actually turns to the camera and says ‘Ace, what have I done?’ which I thought was as low as his character would sink but then he growls unconvincingly ‘Morgaine! If there dead…!’ This pure pantomime material. We get our once a story ‘Haaaaaaaccceee!’ which Simon always cites when he wants to remind me how much he hates this era. Why he insists on screaming her name when his companion is only a foot away baffles me. Leaving notes for himself to explain the plot is such a lazy plot device, it is exactly the sort of clever cleverness (but not actually that clever at all) that has infected the series of late. The Doctor’s final heart rending speech to McCoy is scuppered by McCoy’s hideous, gabbled delivery. This story would be improved exponentially with a more commanding actor in the role.

Oh Wicked: And I thought the characterisation for the Doctor was bad enough…Ace’s is ten times worse! Whilst it is nice to see Ace pairing up with a young contemporary character their relationship isn’t even slightly believable and the dialogue for both characters beggars belief. Thinking about it plausibly for a moment who on Earth would go about with explosives in a rucksack and call themselves Ace? I can make some pretty big leaps but that’s quite a hurdle you have to make before you reach the appalling slang and embarrassing attempts at cool. She is so unconvincing, boasting about her explosive actions at school and where any sane person would politely retire and get as far away from her as possible but fellow pyrotechnic junkie Shou Yuing seems to love it. Wouldn't Ace be locked up in a remand prison for young adults if she really let off explosives at school? When she’s under pressure her own racism slips out, an interesting aberration given her expressed of people with xenophobic views. ‘Looks like Colonel Blimp has a fancy taste in hardware’ – Ace’s dialogue is frequently painful and chokes Sophie Aldred of any credibility. I wish she had been allowed to play the character as a cockney, Aldred's middle class accent doesn't marry at all well with the dialogue. It’s a shame because both the character and the actress (especially the actress) can be very good (go and watch Ghost Light) but this is the norm with Ace, hideous hip language and false bravado. As much as I complain about Tegan (and even Peri in her whinier moments) neither of those two characters can touch Ace in the embarrassment stakes at her worst. And this is her worst.

Colonel Blimp: Finally I can say something nice! Whilst the Brigadier does have some questionable moments, Nicholas Courtney is such a seasoned pro at this by now he can make pretty much anything sound good. The Brigadier has done alright for himself, bagging the fabulous Doris (a charming woman) and a gorgeous house in the country. I would have no complaints if I was in his position at his age. He has retired and decided to fade away, the only think that can tempt him to put on the (ill fitting) uniform is mention of the Doctor. Bureaucracy according to the Brig is ‘inch thick forms and half a pint of blood’. Once his helicopter is shot down and destroyed he begins to enjoy himself, the old daredevil. It’s really nice that he recognises the Doctor: ‘Who else would it be?’ It doesn't matter which actor is playing the part, Courtney seems to find a way to relate to them (check out his chemistry with Colin Baker in the Big Finish audio The Spectre of Lanyon Moor as well). The Brigadier is a bit rubbish with the ladies, it’s not really his thing but at least people will be shooting at him soon. UNIT looks after its own, alive or dead, a lovely touch excised from the transmitted version. He is steeped in blood. Such a brainless thug at times, he pumps bullets into the Destroyer without thinking about his actions and the capabilities of his opponent. He thinks he is too old for this malarkey and wants to go home to Doris and leave the action to young kids like Ace from now on. What is really highlighted in Battlefield is that the Brig is the Earth’s protector: ‘Get off my world!’ A role that he was born to play.

Sparkling Dialogue: Yeah, that’s a good one.

The Good Stuff: Bambera makes a fine new Brigadier for the next generation and Angela Bruce is perfectly cast, it’s a shame we never got to see more of her. I instantly fell in love with her when she chose to ignore the hitchhiking Doctor and Ace, driving past them and shaking her head the eccentrically dressed pair. The TARDIS looks gorgeous in the English countryside, glowing in the morning sunshine. Ancelyn and Bambera’s blossoming romance works almost entirely because of the performances and not because of the script. I love how violent she is towards him, he really seems to appreciate this physical form of communication. Jean Marsh might be typecast but by God she’s good, utterly convincing as an avenging heartbroken war queen. Marsh’s icy blue eyes give me the shivers. She gives the story a degree of credibility, which is some feat given how it plays out. Ace being spat from the airlock and emerging from the sea holding the sword like the Lady of the Lake sees Aaronovitch finally do something interesting with the Arthurian myth. The scene where Morgaine takes information from Lavell’s mind is chillingly played and I love Morgaine’s benevolence at restoring Elisabeth’s sight. It makes her far more interesting than a cut-price villainess. The Destroyer is one of the most impressive Doctor Who monsters, truly demonic and frightening. It's not often that we get to see such detail as a monsters drool dripping down his face and hair bursting from its chest. Morgaine's 'die well, me son' came at precisely the right time, I was waiting for somebody to dispatch Mordred.  The pan across the corpse-strewn battlefield manages to  make a poignant statement about war thanks to Bambera’s reaction to Ancelyn’s comment. Morgaine even manages to exit on a high point where she discovers that her love is dead and Marsh plays her lament over her dead lover sensitively. The last scene is lovely and precisely the sort of thing this story needed more of, moments of unforced genuine charm.

The Bad Stuff: Prepare yourselves people. Season 26 of Doctor Who begins with two old dears walking around a garden centre – cancel this show immediately! The music is so tacky and detrimental to the story’s atmosphere; go listen to the bland lift music as they reach the hotel. I think this story would play out far more effectively with no music at all if this is the only alternative. I'm not sure what is worse; the unconvincing and stagy sword fights or the appalling spark guns which release all the strength of a wet fart but seem to do extreme damage to the English countryside. The direction is so slow in places, reaction shots take forever and the scenes are edited awkwardly together (it is especially obvious when compared with the fluidic storytelling of Greatest Show). Like plenty of the Cartmel scripted stories the opening episode is a number of unconnected scenes fighting for attention. ‘If my hunch is right the Earth is at the centre of a war that doesn’t even belong to this dimension!’ – what the fuck? Where did that come from? Is the Doctor in another story? Where have we seen anything to indicate a statement like that? Get a new script editor quick! The Special Edition gets it right but the televised version failed to include any establishing location shots of the helicopter arriving at London. Mordred’s laughter – cancel this show immediately! His mirth seems to go on for a lifetime and there is no escape from it. The attack on the helicopter is clearly beyond the shows resources and it really shows, the shell that combusts is clearly made out of cardboard. There’s some really dreadful pacing issues…it really slows action set piece…crawls to a halt again...another abysmal set piece...oodles of exposition... ‘What manner of man are you?’ – what is this nonsense about Morgaine and the Brigadier having a gossip for no reason whatsoever but to slow things down. It seems to serve no narrative function whatsoever. ‘When we meet again, I shall kill you’ – why don’t they just get it over with now? The fairy light staircase…cancel this show immediately! The exterior spaceship looks like a model in a fish tank and the interior feels like a tacky children's television studio set. How can the budget have been swallowed up right at the beginning of the season? The end of episode two might be the nadir of the era, the camera rushes at McCoy and hits him right in the face as he does pratfalls all over the place whilst Ace runs into a passageway that clearly isn't a passageway and waits patiently whilst the glass slides down and a dodgy effect swoops around the room. Probably the most obviously choreographed sequenced in the shows long history with clearly no room to manoeuvre despite what is expected of the actors. There are too many extraneous characters (and clearly unnecessary as they are shipped out of the story in episode three never to be heard of again) taking up space. The knights hide in plain sight (you would have to be blind not to see them!) and have a penchant for shooting out windows rather than taking out tires of aiming straight for the engines. Plus they miss Bambera when she is a standing target. Plus they fail to hit the deckchair when it ambles around a corner at an ambling speed. They are the worst army ever...and we've seen some pretty duff examples in the past. There is a scene in the special edition version where the Doctor, Ace and the Brigadier discuss and explain important plot points about Arthur, the spaceship and the sword which was excised in the transmitted version – cancel this show immediately! Why on Earth would you excise such a vital scene and keep in so much of the extraneous bollocks like Warmsley and his archaeological obsessions. The argument between Ace and Shou Yuing is the perfect example of the banality of the dialogue (‘I bet even your parents hated your guts!’). Simon said watching this scene was like listening to fingernails scraping down a blackboard for five minutes. Bring back HAVOC – this battle seems to be more about gymnastics (watch as soldiers somersault across the screen) than combat. I cannot believe they gave Bessie fire tracks – cancel this show immedia...oh you get the idea.. The green sparks and smoke wafting from the castle are hardly the apocalypse we were promised by the Destroyer. To top it all off the final explosion looks exactly like what it is…a model going phut.

The Shallow Bit: When Ancelyn turned up I perked up for a little while.

Result: Battlefield is exactly the sort of thing they needed to be doing in 26th season, a contemporary thriller but it exactly the way they shouldn’t be doing it. The production is plagued by poor direction and a script that should have come with a career destroying warning. There are so many attempts to be hip that fall flat on their face that I am forced to grip hold of the remote in case my husband walks into the room and spots what I am watching, particularly the attempts to make Ace appear contemporary and hip. The material is beyond McCoy’s ability to bring to life with any kind of realism so he ends up throwing himself all over the sets and screaming his head off to get some attention. Too many characters, too much filler, too little coherence and too many scenes that make you want the ground to swallow you whole, Battlefield fails on practically every level. The best thing on offer is Morgaine who deserved a far better vehicle and a return appearance in a much superior story. Panto villains, unconvincing action sequences, dreadful music, wasted monsters, unimpressive hardware, banal dialogue...the list goes on and on. Why was the show cancelled in its 26th year? The execs watched Battlefield and decided that enough was enough. You might be able to watch this story through rose tinted glasses and with the rosy glow of nostalgia but for me it is another example of how shockingly inconsistent the McCoy era turned out to be. A spin off featuring Bambera, Ancelyn and Mogaine would have been great but the rest can be jettisoned with my blessing: 4/10


Anonymous said...

While I do think there are some problems with some of the dialogue and some of the performances, I find this to be a cracking good story that more than makes up for those weaknesses. And it's also a great UNIT story for their final story on the classic series.

I will say that I think Courtney had started showing signs of age at this point that makes some of the action-oriented stuff he had to do less believable, bu again, it was a great story for him.

I do find the characterization of him having trouble with the women a bit interesting. I do think it's a bit misplaced to imply that he's a male chauvinist. I think it's more that he has trouble with *civilian* women, especially those civilians who put themselves in harms way (Isobel, Sarah Jane Smith, Tegan, Ace). UNIT has had women in it. Take a look at Spearhead and you've got a women in position of authority (at the radar station) and you've got Liz Shaw.

I guess one thing I should keep an eye out the next time I watch the Invasion is if he treats Jamie and Zoe differently, since that's the best example I can think of of a male civilian putting themselves in harms way in a UNIT story.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and while I do agree about leaving notes to himself is a lazy deice, it was unique enough in this story that it's novel (as opposed to how similar stuff has infected the new series).

That said, I've always felt that the Merlin Doctor was the alternate universe's version of the Doctor, rather than a future version of the Doctor.

Anonymous said...

The Fourth Doctor hypnotized Rodan in THE INVASION OF TIME just by saying to her, "you're in a deep state of hypnosis."

Anonymous said...

I find a lot more to enjoy in Battlefield that you do.
Best of all, of course, is the Brig's return - why is his line "I just do the best I can" not in your (sneering) 'Sparkling Dialogue' box? Or, for that matter, 'UNIT looks after its own, alive or dead.'
His remark about the ladies I take to mean that he doesn't understand them, not that he doesn't have much success with them (a statement that could be uttered by just about any male, if they were wise enough to realise it). The Brig was tall, dark and gorgeous - success with the ladies would not have been a problem, believe me!
Ace's immediate, incredibly rude, response to him (in the SE) is just unnecessarily nasty - she hasn't told him her name, nor has anyone else, so how exactly is he supposed to address her?
The episode does have weak points, yes, but it's also a lot of fun. And I'm so glad that Ben Aaronovitch didn't have the heart to kill the Brigadier!

Anonymous said...

"Season 26 of Doctor Who begins with two old dears walking around a garden centre".
Leaving aside that one of them is The Brigadier FFS, I think it's insulting to describe people in their fifties/early sixties as "old". The Brig would doubtless have put you through a wall for such patronising contempt.
Incidentally, establishing normality, before chaos descends, is a perfectly valid way of beginning a TV show (or a film for that matter). 'Gone With the Wind' starts with rich folks having a party, not with the burning of Atlanta.

Joe Ford said...

I almost deleted your post because you swore but I found the whole thing so hilariously over dramatic I thought is keep it up.

carlr said...

I really enjoy reading your reviews and I agree that Battlefield deserves a shallocking in some regards, an opinion which I believe its creators also share. However, when you say the McCoy era was 'shockingly inconsistent' I would have to disagree. Given the budgets/time constraints there are only 3 truly awful stories in three seasons; more of a problem, I think, that of these 3, 2 of them were the opening of the series: this one, an unexpected and out-of-the-blue stinker, and Time and the Rani, which I think was a major issue in deterring people from watching the show. Silver Nemesis, buried in the otherwise excellent S25, would have been less of a problem.

All the other stories from 24, 25 and 26 are highly imaginative, even pioneering in some ways (I watched SJA with my son, and some episodes are really as though 'Survival' had a late-night encounter with 'Greatest Show'). I think the fact that this show, in this incarnation, didn't find a place on British TV says a lot more about British TV in the late 80s and early 90s, than it does about the skills of Aaranovitch and Cartmel.

David Pirtle said...

My favorite thing about this story is that it brings Courtney and Marsh back in the same story, albeit in very different roles from their first appearences almost 24 years earlier. I guess it doesn't say much about the story itself that this bit of fan trivia is what stands out most in my memory.

Guy Grist said...

I happen to really enjoy Battlefield yes it's rubbish from a production standpoint however I find the ideas that the script is playing about with really interesting and Ben Arronovitch would reuse some of them in his Rivers of London series. I don't know what it is but I find Slyvester's moments of bad acting really entertaining he's probably one of best bad actors.