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Doctor Who: The King’s Demons

November 12, 2010


Producer John Nathan-Turner thought of a unique selling point for Doctor Who‘s 1983 season. To mark the show’s twentieth anniversary, each story in the forthcoming series would include an element from the programme’s history. In practice this turned out something of a flub (the nostalgic element of ‘Terminus’, right in the middle of the season turned out — despite fans’ excited predictions that classic villain the Ice Warriors would show up — to be the Black Guardian, a sinister character who had last appeared in Doctor Who precisely six days earlier). Furthermore, an appearance by the Master, who turns up in two-part historical romp ‘The King’s Demons’, is almost as unsurprising in early 1980s Doctor Who as in the 1971 series (in which he appears in every story). Fifth Doctor Peter Davison, showing great audience empathy, never manages to muster much of a look of astonishment as his bearded nemesis emerges from beneath his latest unwieldy and often pointless disguise: this is a Doctor who responds to the arrival of his arch-rival with the same mildly irked expression he might have on receiving a parking fine.

The story: arriving in England in 1215, the Doctor uncovers a plot by the Master to pervert the course of Earth’s history. Er, and that’s about it.

Watching ‘The King’s Demons’, one starts to suspect that writer Terence Dudley also recognised that the Master had become a less than impressive threat, and decided to exploit this for something approximating comic effect. Nobody sniggers, however, as Master actor Anthony Ainley wanders around proceedings lumbered with a ginger wig and a French accent, something Ainley gamely attempts but proves utterly incapable of. (‘What accent is that?’ asked the Monkey, a Who ingenue, watching with me. ‘Pakistani?’ Well, yes, but not intentionally.) You wonder quite why Sir Gilles Estram — another thing the 80s Master enjoyed, as though aware he was being watched by a young audience, was indulging in a series of pseudonyms as silly as his disguises — couldn’t have simply been an English-accented aristo: it’s not as if ‘Estram’ is even a French surname. Dudley continues poking fun at the Doctor’s nemesis — a sometimes suave, sometimes unhinged psychotic who has, in his time, variously attempted to raise the devil, blackmail the entire universe, and resurrect a dead race to lay waste to the galaxy — by here having him trying to prevent the signing of Magna Carta. Even the Doctor sighs that this is small beer by the Master’s standards, and the script bungles things further by totally failing to turn this into a bigger threat by describing what chaos the Master could wreak if successful. History could fall apart like a smashed watch — civilisations fail, empires founder, the future unravel in devastating ways — yet the Doctor seems not to take the possibility seriously, as if he’s aware this is a two-part story and the solution will turn up within the half-hour.

There is a hint that Dudley toyed with the implications, though. Intriguingly, Tegan maintains that King John was meant to have signed Magna Carta under duress, and the Doctor rejects this statement (though her history is better than his, it seems). In the context of the stort — if we assume that in the Who universe the Doctor is right and Tegan wrong — this could have been an early clue to the Doctor that history is being led astray. Thus we miss out on an exciting twist, though we do at least avoid another chance to lecture Tegan in an interminable TARDIS bickering scene, an opportunity this era rarely passed up, entire episodes seemingly bolted on to otherwise serviceable scripts so that the regulars could snipe at one another (not literally) for twenty-five minutes.

I wondered, watching this, whether another element from Doctor Who‘s own history might at one time have been considered for ‘The King’s Demons’. The Meddling Monk, a largely comical foil to the First Doctor, seems a far more apt choice for the villain: his schemes are mischievous rather than diabolical, and focus on his fondness for upsetting (or trying to) the course of established history. Just as a Saxon tomb hides his time machine in ‘The Time Meddler’ (1965), so too the Iron Maiden of this story is the Master’s TARDIS in disguise (a flimsy disguise too — extras struggle to struggle with an obviously polystyrene door at one point). But it was not to be: in these days, a time meddler of any variety really always had to be the Master (at least until the woebegotten Rani turns up a few years later).

A two-parter screened across two evenings, ‘The King’s Demons’ is best watched in that format too. It’s only as complicated as it needs to be, and the short form leaves very little for two companions to do. Turlough looks out a window, pats a horse, and is incarcerated, while Tegan wafts around with the Doctor, making the occasional helpful comment — though he still tries to ditch her at the end of the story in favour of new companion Kamelion. This is the story’s McGuffin, a shape-shifting robot with an agreeable temperament, who’s been the Master’s puppet (almost literally) in his plans, impersonating King John (a highly entertaining performance by Gerald Flood, giving it his theatrical best — a shame the other actors weren’t encouraged to ‘heighten’ things likewise, as for a short story that might have worked rather well), and the subject of a strangely undramatic climactic battle of wills between the Master and the Doctor for, as it were, possession of his soul. Kamelion looks delightful — a tinfoil cherub, wired articulated fingers picking at a lute — and if his expressions are somewhat limited they are at least appropriately benign to reflect his amiable persona (a sort of pewter C-3PO, without the chipper personality). With the lessons of K9 apparently forgotten, the production team decided against the more sensible option of a man in a costume as Kamelion and opted instead for a remote controlled robot, which explains why the companion appeared only briefly in the show thereafter. (One of the programmers who designed and built Kamelion suffered a fatal accident and nobody else truly knew how to fully operate the robot.)

As a sidenote, it’s interesting to remark the Fifth Doctor’s apparent determination to fill the TARDIS with as many companions as possible, customarily travelling with two or three assistants. He’s far more charitable in this regard than the post-20o5 Doctor who explicitly — in ‘The Long Game’, ‘Planet of the Dead’ — ‘auditions’ would-be companions, rejecting those who don’t meet his moral standards. The Fifth Doctor, a breezier and rather less judgmental figure, is more all-embracing, suggesting that the Time War brought out this unforgiving side to the later Doctor: perhaps someone let him down rather badly in that unseen conflict?

‘The King’s Demons’ is a strange little confection, like those other two-part Davison Doctor Whos ‘Black Orchid’ (1982) and ‘The Awakening’ (1984).  There’s nothing really wrong with any of these stories: ‘Demons’ is well-acted, it looks great, and (which is more than you can say for those other two) introduces a new bit of Who lore, albeit a short-lived and short-circuiting one. The problem is it’s inconsequential, despite that: while as much incident as in an old six-parter can (sometimes) be crammed into a single 45-minute twenty-first century Doctor Who episode, no-one seems to have twigged how to pace these fifty minutes. This could be a frantic and exciting runaround, yet there are an inordinate number of scenes where people are arrested, imprisoned, freed, recaptured etc. Despite these faults it’s quite a charming story — if still, like the Master’s disguise, somewhat slight.

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