Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Dæmons - "A rationalist, existentialist priest indeed!"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Daemons - Details

Season 8, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #59) | Previous - Next | Index

Azal in defeat.
To a large extent, I grew up with Jon Pertwee and have a genuine fondness for his Doctor and the stories of that era. Tom Baker was the Doctor I saw first, but between Connecticut and Massachusetts Public TV of the late 70s early 80s, I saw all the Pertwee stories alongside the Bakers. I think it was CPTV 24 that showed episodes every weekday at 6pm for a while, while one of the Massachusetts stations, probably channel 57, showed entire stories on Saturday nights. It was a great time to be a young Doctor Who fan!

Anyways, "The Dæmons" is one I first saw episodically over the course of a week, at a time when I went to my grandparents' after school and my mom would pick me up after work. My grandfather watched with me, though I can't say for sure that he actually liked the show, probably too "liberal" for him even during the Pertwee-era, but he at least tolerated it. I do recall this story in particular ruffled his religious sensibilities; as a deacon in the Congregationalist church, he wasn't thrilled that I was disdainful of religion even as a kid, and I don't think he approved of the Master impersonating a vicar to manipulate the townspeople. While there was a degree of discomfort in watching this with him, it was also kind of a mischievous thrill to watch a show where the vicar was evil, the religious townsfolk were suckers, the other character with a supernatural belief system, Miss Hawthorne, was a self-professed witch, and the Doctor had no patience for any of the superstitious mumbo-jumbo, trumping everyone with science from the get-go.

Hawthorne and the Master, it turns out, are the most interesting dynamic in this story for me. The  female witch and the male magister, playing out a conflict between the sexes as old as time. One of my favorite scenes in this story comes early, where Hawthorne barges her way through a henchman to insist on a chat with Mr. Magister (The Master) and resists his hypnotic suggestion to just trust him and shut up, drawing on her own mental strength to resist the patriarchal authority figure. Good for her! Of course, she still a bit of a loon, and the Doctor will later demonstrate the efficacy of science over magic in practice, after being a bit of an inarticulate buffoon himself in trying to convince her with argument:
HAWTHORNE: You're being deliberately obtuse. We're dealing with the supernatural, the occult, magic.
DOCTOR: Science.
DOCTOR: Science, Miss Hawthorne. 
He's right, of course, just not particularly eloquent about it.

As for the rest of the characters, The Doctor, while he does get to ride a motorcycle and drive around in Bessie to showcase his Action Dandy credentials, is not exactly as likable a character in this episode as I like to remember him. He's a bit bossy and brusque with Jo, imperious with several of the other characters, and only really has that twinkle in his eye in the scene where he's trying to talk his way out of being burned at the maypole by the townsfolk with the help of Damaris. Jo is fine, and plays an important role in the episode, but it's pretty much either to assist, care for, or be scolded by the Doctor until she saves him and the world at the end. (Will come back to this when I list my nitpicks.) Benton and Yates have a bit more than usual to do in this one and yet only Benton distinguishes himself in any way as having any charm -- these guys work best in supporting roles, Yates especially not being a character it's much fun to watch leading the action. (Not that he's terrible, just ... unremarkable.)

The other representative of the scientific mindset in this story is Professor Horner, as curmudgeonly and arrogant example of the Professor-type, but at least fun to watch issue his put downs. It's a strange tension to have the scientists shown to be correct and reasonable in their assessment of the facts, but for the genuinely likable personalities to be the more superstitiously-minded ones in Hawthorne and Jo.

The Master flatters Azal. Heavy metal style.
The story in this one moves along decently, never really bogging down, and even daring to be a bit unusual in having one of the cliffhangers be one where it's the Master who is in peril. It's a strange sort of cliffhanger, for the defeat of the villain to be the event we are supposed to left wondering how it will be avoided. It's a tacit acknowledgement that we view the Master as a character we want defeated, but able to come back and wreak his brand of havoc again. But even though it's suitably atmospheric, has strong supporting characters, and taking some chances, it doesn't come together in a wholly satisfying way.

This is one of the most popular and acclaimed stories of the Pertwee years and it certainly has elements that justify that appraisal, but I consider it a lesser story when compared to even "The Time Warrior."

Bok, the chap with the wings.

For one thing, the whole concept of the Dæmons as villains is a bit klunky. OK, they are the horned gods and demons that pop up throughout human history, but it's because they're running a series of experiments in human progress? And worse, they're somehow responsible for all the great leaps forward and cultural highpoints in human history? Come again? This idea of alien intervention in human development can work in science fiction, but it doesn't here; it demeans humans in this case, implying we'd all be ape-like savages still if it weren't for the intervention. And besides, isn't it the Jagaroth doing this throughout human history? Or the Fendahl? The Silence? It's later examples leaping to mind because those are stories I've watch recently, but the end result is the Ancient Astronaut trope, and the All Myths Are True, They're Just Aliens trope are so over-worked in Doctor Who continuity that each instance becomes an irritant. We could accept it in one or two stories, but not when humans are little more than pawns in successive waves of alien invasions and experiments.

And back to Jo saving the day ... it feels like an ending purloined from Star Trek, where Kirk defeats a super-computer with a Logic Bomb that blows its mind. It doesn't generally work dramatically when the mind blown is the super-computer's, but when the same illogical behavior is the key to the defeat of the baddie, it's really odd when that baddie is not a super-computer, but is a twenty foot tall horned goat demon alien that's been studying humanity for millennia. One imagines they would have seen some illogical behavior in all that time, so it wouldn't be that surprising when Jo bravely tries to sacrifice herself to save the Doctor. It feels more like the writers needing an ending and, having written themselves in a corner where no ending that makes sense presents itself, they just borrowed one from another series regardless how little sense it made in the context of the story they were telling.

A final complaint that's not so much a complaint as a lament, perhaps ... there's no TARDIS in this story. Not even a mention. I know it's the Pertwee-era and the TARDIS has been minimized by design, but Doctor Who without the TARDIS is like a chocolate chip cookie with no chocolate chips in it.

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