Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Battlefield - "No, my blood and thunder days are long past."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Battlefield - Details

Season 26, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #156)

My first time watching this story. Won't be able to say that too many times during this project. The process goes something like this: read the write-up on the BBC site; check to see if Sandifer or the A.V. Club have written it up; scan the tumblr gifs to see if anybody's had any fun with it; since it's a McCoy, hunt through google for a passionate defender to see if anybody has made a outsider argument that holds any sort of promise ...

This quick survey has me a bit nervous. While I'm delighted to see the Brigadier again, everything I'm reading makes me suspect this is one of those stories that tries to do too much with too many characters (transdimensional Arthurian mythology characters so, of course, The Doctor is/will be Merlin) while looking and sounding like crap that was cheap and dated when it was new and had no chance to age well. Sandifer's defense seems largely based on the fact the novelization does things the show couldn't get around too, but I'm not reading or reviewing the novel, so that's not going to be much help to me. The folks defending it are also the folks who rate "The Curse of Fenric" as a classic. I've tried to watch it twice and just didn't see it; quite the opposite, I found it unbearably tedious. However, I'm going to be going back and trying to approach that one with an open mind later, so maybe "Battlefield" will be the stepping stone that gets me over the hump on "Fenric"?  It did, after all, take three tries before I could abide "Remembrance of the Daleks" (also written by Ben Aaronovitch, who penned this story) and actually became fond of it. Which means I've been broken down and am wearing the tinfoil hat that makes it possible for me to receive only the correct signals, or I was being too harsh and letting the awful production values distract from development of the mythology.

And now that I've watched it, I liked it more than I thought it would, if less than a lot. Let's start with the things that made me cringe: the incidental music, this era is terrible for it; having Ace go racist on Shou Yuing who is in the story apparently just for Ace to have someone to befriend, then call a "yellow, slant-eyed ..." before stopping and realizing Morgaine is using mental tricks to turn them against each so they'll fight and step outside the circle of protection with Excalibur. Look, if that was supposed to be a lesson in "racism is wedge powerful people use to divide the little people who would oppose their plans to become even more powerful," it needed to be better done, because it came off as just a casual slur thrown in the heat of the moment. I've recently read one reviewer's complaint about "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" where he wrote that he would feel obliged to hide his DVD away if he had guests of East Asian descent over to his house. I have to admit, I think I'd have an easier time watching "Talons" with my Chinese friends than sitting through the scene just described. "Talons" certainly is problematic, and I've put off watching it to write about for that very reason -- I love it, but I'm not sure I should. It feels much like if we were to watch a new play today about the making of a Fu Manchu or Charlie Chan movie set in the 1930s. We know it's about a specific cultural moment, when imperial Britain had certain attitudes about "the Orient", and certain attitudes about itself, but both are ridiculous caricatures. 

The problem with "Battlefield" and that moment of racist name-calling is the overall story is just far too silly to bear the weight of what may, or may not, be a moment where we're supposed to reflect on racial tensions and who benefits from them in our capitalist society. The story is not just too silly to bear that burden, it's too silly to be a self-respecting narrative of nothing but let's just have some fun with the Arthur legends. I've ranted this rant before, but a story needs to at least make sense within itself, the internal logic needs to be consistent enough to not make the viewer wonder, "Why are the characters doing this, when it seems to directly contradict what they were doing in the last scene?" If we're doing that, it can still work, if we're watching something that's about the nature of storytelling itself, where it's intended for the viewer to think about why the story they're watching is constructed the way it is, because it has something to say at that meta level. This one doesn't.

So, all that said, why do I still kind of like this story, warts and all? Well, for one, it's helping me get over my loathing of the Ace character. I really want to like her, because I've grown very fond of Sophie Aldred through all the watching of supplemental materials and seeing more of her interviews recently. (I have this same problem with the sixth and seventh Doctors. I'm not exactly fond of either, but both Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy are, by all accounts and everything I've seen of them, absolutely delightful human beings who had the misfortune to get cast as the Doctor when the show was of wildly uneven quality and constantly in production chaos of one sort or other.) Apart from having to spit the "yellow, slant-eyed" slur, Sophie Aldred is much more fun to watch as Ace here than she was in the execrable "Dragonfire". Between this and "Remembrance of the Daleks," I'm starting to see why she has fans. I don't remember having these relatively warm fuzzy feelings after watching "Ghost Light" and "Fenric" so it remains to be seen (from my perspective) if her debut was just an unfortunate anomaly.

The (old) Brig and 7 share a moment.
There are those who've argued the Brigadier should have died nobly in his conflict with the Destroyer, that it would have given his character great closure and cemented his legacy. I disagree with that sentiment completely. If the Brigadier had died here, I think we'd be saying, "Wow, they brought Nicholas Courtney back just to kill the Brigadier off in this mess?" He gets most of the good lines in this story and gets to go back home to retiring life with Doris, which seems fair enough for the old soldier. 

The flirty interplay between the blonde-wigged Ancelyn and the new Brigadier, Winifred Bambera, may not have been progressive as late as the mid-80s, but at least it wasn't regressive, and the two actors really seem to be enjoying themselves in their roles. 

The (new) Brig, Bambera, and Anceyln roll like thunder into battle.
It's also great casting to bring back Jean Marsh (most notable in Who lore for having played Sara Kingdom in "The Daleks' Master Plan") to play Morgaine here. It's a vampy role and a character who makes precious little sense, but she does her best to sell it and likewise seems to be having a great time back in the fold. 

So, despite its numerous faults and the fact I really can't say it's that well-made a story, this ends up being, for the time being, my second favorite McCoy-era story. It's only the third I've watched since deciding to write up my feelings about every televised story, so there's room for that to change, but what I know or remember about the others makes it a longshot to be unseated.

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