When most people think of Ben Aaronovitchs contribution to the television series of Doctor Who they automatically say Oh yes, he wrote that one with the Daleks. Having watched the forgotten other story recently I would like to mention a few points in its favour. I get the impression that this opening story of the twenty-sixth season is a neglected classic of the McCoy era with many references and influences from other stories that have preceded it. Some of which are more obvious (the inclusion of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and the yellow roadster Bessie (however one thing I thought was a bit too much of a coincidence was when it was finally uncovered after however long its been that it now surprisingly has the licence plate WHO 7!), whilst other are more subtle. Examples of which would be the use of a Citroen 2CV (echoes of the vehicles used in The Sea Devils) and King Arthurs spaceship under Vortigerns lake (sounds a bit like Terror of the Zygons if you ask me!). Also it was probably a throw away line but when first encountering the UNIT personnel by the lake the Doctor is conviently carrying antiquated passes presumably originally issued to the third Doctor and Liz Shaw. I say throwaway as Brigadier Bambera quickly ignores them, although it is enough to prompt her assistant Sergeant Zbrigniev to recall his time spent working for Lethbridge-Stewart.
We open with the garden centre scene and the remark of Do you regret leaving teaching? directed at Lethbridge-Stewart clearly links to the 1983 Mawydrn Undead story. As far back as Planet of the Spiders we knew of his romantic involvement with a lady called Doris, and it is here that we finally have the chance to briefly meet her at either end of the story. In the timeline of the series, having now retired from UNIT it is heartwarming to see they are now married and enjoying their more relaxed life together. An impressive Tudor residence set in beautiful gardens coupled with glorious summer weather is certainly one of many pleasing and memorable images this story presents. As he prepares to temporarily leave this tranquil setting, having once more dusted off and put on his uniform I thought it a nice bit of continuity that the case containing his service revolver and bullets had, in gold lettering, the inscription AGLS-6 (an acronym of Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart).
I feel this story succeeds in reaffirming the mystical quality of the Doctor who gains the identity of Merlin from those star travellers from another dimension, visiting the Earth of the future. This is further supported by Sylvester McCoys interpretation of the Doctor whilst dealing with Ancelyn, Morgaine and her followers.
What we appear to have here is, in broad terms, a medieval knight society visiting a future Earth in our dimension attempting to acquire King Arthurs sword Excalibur. I suspect from the battle between good and evil forces using some element of magic which has caused a time slip into our reality.
A criticism levelled against this story is the use of a lot of armour clad knights clonking about with broadswords with a lot of macho posturing. I personally think this is underserved as these brief medieval jousting is entirely appropriate to the piece. It is, at this point worth mentioning that the use of sword fighting is well documented throughout the series. Who could forget the Doctor battling the Master at the Fort (The Sea Devils) and in the banquet hall of Ranulfs castle (The Kings Demons). Not forgetting a tussle with Count Grendel (The Androids of Tara). And armour clad warriors brings memories of the Gundan robots (Warriors Gate). Here the protagonists really go for it coupled with some rousing incidental music to engage the viewer. Of course this is merely a prelude to the main medieval warriors against UNIT soldiers battle waged during the fourth episode, a suitably engaging piece filled with explosions, roars, swords, guns, and men flying through the air, all accompanied by more appropriately composed music.
Another criticism levelled against this story is regarding the temporary interest shown by the Doctor towards the scabbard hanging up next to the fireplace inside the Gore Crow hotel (an apparently long established building if the figure of 1684 carved into the stonework is to be believed). My opinion is that as the story progresses it is merely a red herring as there are more important things for our heroes to concentrate on. I think it is possibly because of Carbury Trust archaeologist Peter Warmsleys action of removing the scabbard from its buried position Morgaine, Ancelyn and the other knights were able to lock onto the general location of Excalibur. It is when Morgaine and Mordred reach the Gore Crow hotel they then realise that it is merely an empty container and they then focus their attention elsewhere. Although it is interesting to note that whilst Mordred is performing a summoning ritual the scabbard is affected. We know that Excalibur poses magical powers, I suspect some of these rubbed off on the scabbard which had been in contact with it. It does indeed appear to be the same length as the mystical sword when the two objects are later held together by Ace and Shou Yuing whilst they dwell in the chalk circle thus supporting the supposition.
The future as depicted in the story is not so very different from our own, although inflation has certainly spiralled ever higher (£5 for three drinks at the Gore Crow hotel in the first episode sounds like daylight robbery!). The only changes to UNIT appear to be pale blue berets and, now in command, a seemingly resolute determined young black female Brigadier in the shape of Winifred Bambera (taking charge on her arrival at the Gore Crow hotel, and threatening the assembled group at the end of the first episode spring to mind). Whilst most of the people seemed to accept her authority it is the attractive blond haired Ancleyn who delights in belittling her position of command from their first meeting. The character interaction between them during the remainder of the story (she trying to assert her authority, he belittling her) is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story. Bambera finally appears to win this light hearted conflict during their journey in the 2CV when they encounter Morgaines troops blocking the road. You can understand the Knight Commanders comment of Magnificent when she pulls the top back and, having got Ancleyn to hold the steering wheel, climbed up, machine gun in hand and proceeded to coldly and clinically force the obstructing soldiers out of the way with abrupt precise rounds of her weapon.
The pairing of Ace with Chinese student Shou Yuing definitely worked well and providing the opportunity to probe into Aces past as the two girls enjoy their drinks outside at the rear of the Gore Crow hotel. The humorous story of the home made gelignite and schoolteacher Mrs Parkinsons inquiry and attempted confiscation of said questionable material further reaffirms her ultimate arrival on Iceworld (Dragonfire).
As the main protagonist Jean Marsh, I feel, portrays the character well, thanks in part to an impressive bronze costume of plate and chain mail finished off with a subtle full length cloak. The finishing touches of long witch nails, long crimped red hair and a tall plainly detailed regal crown added to her imposing presence. I particularly remember her encounter with Lethbridge Stewarts pilot, Lovel in the Gore Crow hotel bar. Lovel uselessly fires her revolver at Morgaine who catches the bullets, grinds them into dust, then casually scatters them over the floor. With an air of subtly she moves in, fingernail talons extended towards Lovels head, the soldier slowly sinking to the floor in meek submission. Having gained the necessary information, the continued mind probing finally causing Lovel to scream out as her brain fries. Having been prompted, a brief extension of a taloned hand and the still figure of Lovel is dispassionately disintegrated.
The only aspect I found disappointing would be The Destroyer character whom seemed to offer a threat to humanity but didnt really deliver. However credit though is deserved to the make up team for realising this chained enemy who is easily despatched, via a polished performance from Nicholas Courtney, towards the end of the story.
In summary this is an enjoyable romp with a healthy mix of series history, magic, humour (McCoys creeping about early in the morning at the Gore Crow hotel, using a blown up crisp packet to wake Bambera and Ancelyn from their slumber is a good example of this) and armed conflict combined with an engaging incidental music score. If you are one of those people who have previously looked unfavourably on this story I hope you will return to it, give it another chance and possibly, just possibly you might realise that it isnt quite as bad as its unjust reputation would suggest. For myself I sincerely hope that it might eventually be considered at some point in the near future, for membership in the ever growing exclusive DVD title release club, complete with deleted scenes and maybe, if applicable, with a stereo soundtrack.