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Saturday, 29 October 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Battlefield has suffered since it first went out, being viewed as the weak link in a generally strong period for the show and even as a nadir of 80s Doctor Who. Ben Aaronovitch has it doubly hard as far as I'm concerned as I happen to think his other episode, Remembrance Of The Daleks, to be the most horribly overrated in the series's history. On the other hand, I have very fond memories of seeing this episode when I was a kid, and I used to rave about it years ago. Consequently, I can never make up my mind about Battlefield.

It certainly gets off to a poor start, with the same continuity-tsunami that characterises much of Remembrance owing to the requirement once again to dig up the Brigadier. It suffers as well considering its status as a McCoy season opener: it's hardly the Star Wars homage of Remembrance (the best bit about the episode), and as for Time And The Rani...tacky it may be, but a regeneration is a regeneration. Aside from the very first scene though, the first episode shows a lot of promise, with an unusually multi-cultural feel that almost borders on political correctness (shock horror!). There is an enormous drag factor evident though in Keff McCulloch's appalling score, as Arthurian warriors slug it out to the sound of a Milli Vanilli backing track.

Given my general dislike of excess continuity it is still nice to see UNIT back again and the namedrops come thick and fast, with the Doctor mentioning five monsters in as many seconds Normally I'd hate this, but I'm in a kind mood. This is punctuated by the occasional piece of nice pyrotechnics, of which it seems there can never be too much in this story. Bear in mind though that this story is set in the future (i.e. now, from their point of view) and this leads to some odd jokes, like three drinks costing five pounds (innocent times) and the Brigadier dismissing a telephone call by saying "I don't care if it's the King!", the "ha ha, Queen Elizabeth has popped her clogs" subtext of which blowing my earlier remark about political correctness to pieces.

What the story is notable for, and this episode in particular, is the monumentally rubbish fight scenes: it's as if the stunt men decided to save on effects by attacking each other in slow motion. If you look at the episode though it is actually deceptively expensive but - in true John Nathan-Turner style - the money has gone on all the wrong things. For example, they hired a helicopter when stock footage would have done; I know we'd all be moaning about it but we might have got a better battle, so it would be the lesser of two evils.

Meanwhile, while the battle rages, the heroes have gone for a swift half in the local pub, where they find a scabbard that can mysteriously heat up and cool down (rubbish for swords, great for making hot milk). This is the first example of a very shaky plot: why have the soldiers come to Earth, why do they want Excalibur? The episode hinges on these questions, but never is any attempt made to address them. Even so, I quite like the pub scenes as there's some great dialogue; even if Ling Tai is not the greatest actress in the world, at least she looks like she's enjoying herself. Ace is annoying, but it is good for the season as it paves the way for her personal growth in Ghost Light and The Curse Of Fenric. Curse was originally intended to come before this, but Ace would never have worked if the episodes were that way round.

It is in part two where things start to fall apart, with the introduction of Mordred, woefully played by Christopher Bowen. He is from the Ronnie Kray school of Mummy's boy villains, and his remark in part four of "my mother will destroy you!" is possibly the lamest threat I've ever heard. I bet he was the school bully just because his mum was a mighty sorceress. The summoning of Morgaine is painful, with Mordred spouting ridiculously portentous sub-Tolkien dialogue, intercut with Sylvester McCoy overacting like a lunatic (not for the last time this story). Worst of all is when Bowen starts screaming "ha ha ha ha ha haaaaa!" at the top of his lungs: I'd call it laughter but there's clearly no humour. Perhaps he has a chest infection.

After this it settles down a bit more, showing that Aaronovitch is clearly better at the human elements of his scripting. The scene with the Brigadier and Morgaine just about stays on this side of self-parody, and the underwater spacecraft is impressive, if a little gaudy. The action scene with the glowing snake thing is a nice idea but badly executed, like all of the serial's action scenes, and the snake thing (no other possible description) is never adequately explained. Also, on your left you will see the infamous scene where the water-filled tank cracked, and McCoy got to be a real hero by running away and shouting for other people to do something. Unable to do the scene twice they were forced to salvage what footage they could, with the result being that the cracked glass is clearly visible. This does give the ship an air of shoddiness, but hey, it is supposed to be thousands of years old.

Episode three continues in the same vein, with dire battles intercut with better moments and the dialogue veering uncontrollably between the good and the downright ludicrous: The soldier's call of "the seabirds are still operational", when taken out of context, is a strong contender for the title of Most Surreal Moment. The killing of Lavell though is a wonderful scene, and Morgaine's subsequent gift of vision to the landlady shows her to be a more complex character than she is allowed to be.

Episode three also contains the scene where all extraneous characters get evacuated. It's a cop-out, yes, but there've been worse in better episodes so I'll let it go, and the scene with the chalk circle is excellent (if shakily acted). The episode also sees a return to some issues left hanging in part one, such as the missile convoy and the continuity references: the Daleks are namechecked, and Bessie is seen for the first time since The Five Doctors. It is a testament to the innocence the programme still had even in its last season that anyone seriously thought the flaming tracks gag would ever work. This kind of thing highlights exactly how little actually happened in episode two.

Moving on to episode four we get the Destroyer: never has such a good idea been wasted so badly. No sooner has Morgaine removed his bonds than the Brigadier has pumped him full of lead (well, silver) and that's the end of him. It. That. Whatever. Oh well, perhaps we'll see more of him in the prequel that Aaronovitch is blatantly setting up. This is in truth a very rushed episode, with the vortex between the pub and the villain's lair being another example of very dodgy deus ex machina plotting. The "is that a spaceship" line got a laugh in spite of myself, but basically the denouement is very cheesy: both the aforementioned death of the Destroyer and also the stop-the-countdown confrontation with Morgaine, with more bad dialogue and overacting. Am I the only one who considers "lock them up" to be slightly inadequate, given their powers?

After this we go back to the Brigadier's house for the final scene, which is pleasant enough - in a sense, the jumps between good and bad make for an appropriate ending for a very uneven story. However, it is still - and yes, I'm in the minority here - the best of Aaronovitch's two scripts for the series.