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Doctor Who: The Dæmons (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Dæmons originally aired in 1971.

I’ve bought you a nice cuppa, Sergeant. I hope you like china.

For goodness sake, Miss Hawthorne.

What’s the matter? Don’t you like tea?

Something’s gone badly wrong. We’ve no idea what’s happening to Miss Grant and the Captain, the Doctor should be back here by now, I can’t get through to the Brigadier and you’re nattering on about tea.

You must learn the art of waiting, Sergeant. The Doctor will come, or else he won’t, and that’s all that can be said. Now, milk or lemon?

– Miss Hawthorne helps Sergent Benton get his priorities straight

Barry Letts was a very talented man. I feel like I don’t stress that often often. I’ll freely concede that the UNIT era isn’t my favourite part of Doctor Who history, but there are times when you really have to admire the skill and competence of Letts as the show’s producer. In fact, he served as both a director and a writer on the series. He had a very clear vision for the show, and he implemented it remarkably well, to the point where his work on the show still stands out as something quite distinguished from the work of other producers.

The Dæmons is a very clear illustration of just how carefully and how thoughtfully Letts had overhauled the show for the seventies. While it’s not the most Letts-ian episode ever produced (he would produce, write and direct Pertwee’s final episode, Planet of the Spiders), but it is a great illustration of Letts’ approach to the programme and perhaps a testament to his lasting legacy.

Rock on, you crazy Master...

Rock on, you crazy Master…

Letts is firmly identified with the Jon Pertwee era, to the point that it is barely worth mentioning that he only actually assumed the role of producer for Pertwee’s second serial (The Silurians) and stayed on for Tom Baker’s first adventure (Robot). However, it is worth noting that Pertwee’s second season in the role was actually Letts’ first full year as producer. Letts definitely left his mark on Pertwee’s first year in the role, and to suggest otherwise would be unfair. That said, I think you could argue that he only really solidified his approach to the series during this second Pertwee season.

Terror of the Autons laid out a pretty clear formula for this period of the show’s history, and a very flexible blueprint for the series to follow. This year has featured its fair share of experimentation – for example, Colony in Space was the first colour outer space adventure – but it has also generally stayed within the lines as laid out in Terror of the Autons. The first Pertwee season may have featured only four occasionally over-extended stories, but it felt much more experimental than the template that Letts established during the following year.

Ironing out any difficulties...

Ironing out any difficulties…

The Dæmons is interesting because it pretty much establishes the structure of the season. It gives Doctor Who a very clear season finalé. Of course, these days, season finalés are all but a given – the idea of structuring your season with a big bang at the end is just common sense, as you offer dramatic pay-off to what came before, or you offer a cliffhanger to keep viewers hooked. However, such a concept was far from rigidly codified in the early seventies.

Letts’ concept of a season finalé  might seem relatively modest, but Letts had a hand in writing each of the remaining closing Pertwee adventures. He was always uncredited, but the producer stepping in to write the final story of the season almost makes that serial a big deal. While he produced all the Pertwee episodes, he did not write any others. He only directed two more episodes – Terror of the Autons that opened this season and Carnival of Monsters in the following season. Both are considered “important” Pertwee-era stories. Terror of the Autons was Letts’ first season premiere, and Carnival of Monsters fundamentally changed the way that the show was shot – filming two episodes per week rather than one. It’s also no coincidence that they are also two of the more iconic Doctor Who stories to the public at large.

I never trusted Morris men...

I never trusted Morris men…

The fact that Letts wrote four of the five Pertwee season finalés gives them a certain amount of weight. Indeed, you could further argue that Letts’ vision of the show had a major impact on the way that Russell T. Davies structured his seasons, writing a big cinematic blockbuster pay-off at the end of the year. Of course, The Dæmons is also a considerable influence on Davies’ other Doctor Who work. The Impossible Planet and The Satin Pit both owe a conscious debt to it, and Utopia‘s only clip of a pre-Jacobi version of the Master comes from this episode. You could probably even argue that the Master’s use of religious references at the en of The Sound of Drums serves as a reference to this story.

That’s not to suggest that The Dæmons is really a big season finalé in the way that can compete with modern end-of-year adventures. Quite simply, at this point, the show didn’t really support year-long arcs to pay off and the spectacle on display here isn’t that much greater than a trip to another world or gold-covered aliens. Still, it does draw a line under the Master thread that has been running through the season, putting an end to a full season of appearances. It also features the Doctor taking on Satan. If that doesn’t count as a gigantic increase in scale, I don’t know what does.

Mass hysteria...

Mass hysteria…

Let’s talk about that for a moment. One thing that Letts did phenomenally well was to play off popular trends. Atlantis gets name-dropped here, and the next season’s closing adventure would see the Doctor visit the mythical lost continent. Stephen King would use the continent as a metaphor for 1960s idealism in Hearts in Atlantis. Donovan had recorded the idealistic Atlantis in 1968, producing an anthem for counter-culture. Like The Dæmons, it built heavily on that sort of mythological fascination.

“But it really is the Age of Aquarius,” Jo suggests at the start of The Dæmons. To be fair, astrologists apparently still disagree about when (or even if) the “Age of Aquarius” actually began. However, the term isn’t strictly astrological. Thanks to the musical Hair in 1967, the phrase has a broader connotation. Indeed, it applies to more New Age schools of thought in America. Barry Letts coopting that iconography in 1971 might feel a little behind the times, but it’s worth considering that this is a British show and that this sort of New Age thinking hovered around popular culture for quite some time.

Tearing Mayday to ribbons...

Tearing Mayday to ribbons…

And Letts does a rather excellent job combining this American New Age philosophy that Jo embraces with the more cynical occult imagery that the Master exploits. It’s no coincidence that the “Secret Satanic Dungeon” is buried underneath the local church. Although the Satanic Ritual Abuse scandals were a few years away, the Church of Satan had only recently emerged on the scene as an organised religion, building off  The Satanic Bible, written in 1969 by Anton Szandor LaVey.

Of course, The Dæmons builds off a somewhat richer cultural background. Noted British occultist Aleister Crowley had been dead for nearly a quarter of a century at this point, casting a large shadow over British culture. Indeed, during the Second World War, Ian Fleming had considered using Crowley’s to supply Rudolf Hess with faked horoscopes. Which, by the way, really sounds like it needs to be a proper pulpy movie. Or a Doctor Who story.

The master will give anything a stab...

The master will give anything a stab…

Indeed, the influence of Crowley is quite keenly felt on The Dæmons. The Master, it appears, is quite a fan, even offering his own twist on one of Crowley’s famous moral proclamations. “To do my will shall be the whole of the law,” he states, thinking that perhaps Crowley’s rhetoric needed a bit of a tweak. It’s also worth noting that the Master’s mystical chant is Mary Had a Little Lamb recited backwards. It’s a nice little moment, because it also seems to foreshadow the “satanic backmasking” controversies that would become popular in the 1980s in the United States.

Although it was popularised by the Beatles with Revolver, The Dæmons seems to foreshadow its associations with the occult. In 1973, The Exorcist would feature hidden messages found in the recordings of a person possessed, only revealed when the tape was played backwards. Of course, the Master saying Mary Has a Little Lamb backwards is unlikely to have a direct link to any of that, it is a nice connection and it suggests how keenly Doctor Who had its finger on the pulse of such things.

Creatures of darkness...

Creatures of darkness…

Of course, it isn’t just the occult that lurks in British history. As The Dæmons explicitly points out, many annual British holidays are rooted in old pagan beliefs about ghouls and demons and ghosts. This sort of magic and mysticism might seem strange now, but it’s a part of the rich historical landscape. The Dæmons represents the first time that Doctor Who has really engaged with that sort of thing, the sense that modern England is built upon something far less rational and logical.

The result is quite interesting, and something that very few science-fiction shows could actually pull off. The Doctor is able to confront the Devil, Satan, Lucifer. Of course, the Devil is an alien, as these monsters always are. But he is also definitely Satan. Most science-fiction would use the rational to dismiss the illogical or the mystical. Application of Clarke’s famous Third Law would mean that everything is science and everything is rational – it’s just science playing as magic. Doctor Who manages something a bit different. This can be both magic and science, with one not excluding the other.

"Is that your weapon? Prayer?"

“Is that your weapon? Prayer?”

This is, after all, the show that gave us the Doctor wandering into the Land of Fiction in The Mind Robber. I’ll argue that – for what ever an arbitrary distinction is worth – Doctor Who is more science-fantasy than science-fiction. In fact, the opening discussion between Jo and the Doctor does an interesting job putting the show’s unique slant on the Third Law. “Everything that happens in life must have a scientific explanation,” the Doctor explains. “If you know where to look for it, that is.” It’s a fairly simple idea: it’s only magic if you don’t understand it.

However, Jo raises an interesting point. “Yes,” she answers, “but suppose something was to happen and nobody knew the explanation. Well, nobody in the world, in the universe. Well, that would be magic, wouldn’t it?” If something exists beyond all comprehension, to the point where it is impossible to understand on our own terms, then surely the argument over whether to call it science or magic must be completely arbitrary? It’s a very clever way of handling the question, one which allows the show to have its cake and eat it too.

Gargoyles may ward away evil spirits, but what about spirited evil?

Gargoyles may ward away evil spirits, but what about spirited evil?

Indeed, as the Doctor observes that perhaps our understanding of our own world is somewhat limited, giving the Brigadier a bunch of orders that amount to technobabble gobbledygook, commenting, “Yes, well, according to classical aerodynamics, it’s impossible for a bumblebee to fly!” Of course, that assertion is no longer true, as we’ve figured out how bumblebees can fly without breaking the laws of aerodynamics, but the general point still stands. There are more things in heaven and earth, and even if they all must operate by their own laws of rationality they need not conform to ours.

I actually like this interpretation of Jo Grant. I’ve been quite harsh to her as a character in the past few serials, and I’ll concede that I’m not overly fond of her as a companion. Still, I think this sort of New Age philosophical approach suits her well – it gives Jo a bit of an edge over the Doctor, making up for her lack of technical proficiencies and allowing her to be more than the character who exists for the Doctor to patronise and rescue.



And, of course, I say that conceding that Jo’s relative weakness as a character does wonders for the Third Doctor. Quite simply, she allows the Doctor to show his softer and less adversarial side. He still picks on her quite a bit, though. “Jo, did you fail Latin as well as science?” he mocks at one point. At another he laments,“You know, really, Jo, I’m obviously wasting my time trying to turn you into a scientist.” And yet, despite that, she does bring out his compassion and affection.

“Look, I’m going in,” he explains at the burial site. He seems quite aware of her fear, and rather kindly offers, “Would you prefer to wait outside?” She replies, rather timidly, “No. I’d rather stick with you, if I wouldn’t be in the way.” It’s a surprisingly sweet moment. The Doctor politely replies, with Pertwee showing a great deal of affection for his companion, “No, of course not. I’d be glad of the company. Come on.”

Maybe we take her for Grant-ed...

Maybe we take her for Grant-ed…

This is an exchange that wouldn’t have been possible with Liz Shaw, and it does wonders for Pertwee’s interpretation of the Third Doctor. Given his characterisation in the first season, you’d wonder why he’d stick around when the Time Lords eventually give him his TARDIS back. His affection for Jo gives us the hint of an anchor that holds him to Earth, a deep and abiding love of people that he masks behind his arrogance and his petty sniping.

Although, to be honest, we are beginning to see the limits of the Brigadier as a character. And I say that as somebody who loves him to death. After Colony in Space effectively sidelined the character, what with visiting another world and all, The Dæmons effectively relegates the Brigadier to the role of concerned parent supervise those damn pesky kids. It seems like managing the Doctor and Jo (not to mention his staff) takes up more of his time than actually making military decisions.

Rapid fire.

Rapid fire.

In fact, The Dæmons follows the format of a sitcom episode where the parents go out for a night. Invariably, while the designated adult is away doing designated adult stuff, the kids find a way to get themselves involved in an incredibly messed up situation. “Typical,” he sighs at one point, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for him. Later on, he idly asks, “Do you know, Sergeant, I sometimes wish I worked in a bank?”

I do like the acknowledgement, though, that the Brigadier does have a life outside the Doctor. Yates and Benton are unable to reach him after a night out because the guy isn’t on duty 24-7. “The Brigadier went on somewhere after dinner,” we’re told. “No one knows quite where.” Secret double life? Late-night takeaway? Passed out in the cloakroom? Visiting a lady friend? Emergency sock cleaning? While it’s a necessary plot point to get Benton and Yates to Devil’s End by themselves, it also adds a strange sense of mystery to such a straight-laced character.

Gunning for the Doctor...

Gunning for the Doctor…

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. After all, the Brigadier still gets several of the adventure’s best comedy moments. Clarifying all that has happened in his typically no-nonsense manner is a beautiful moment played superbly by Courtney. “So, the Doctor was frozen stiff at the barrow and was then revived by a freak heat wave,” he repeats. “Benton was beaten up by invisible forces and the local white witch claims she’s seen the Devil.” You should just get this guy to do the continuity announcements.

And, of course, he gets the best line of the episode. “Chap with the wings there. Five rounds rapid.” That really is the peak of the Brigadier as a character. If you could reduce him to one line, that would be it. In fact, Nicholas Courtney borrowed the line for the title of his autobiography. However, there’s a sense that the Brigadier has really gone about as far as it is possible for him to go, which is a shame.

The Master might need to alter his plans...

The Master might need to alter his plans…

Of course, it took a while to really reach the limits of this most unconventional companion, but there’s a sense that – with The Dæmons – his role has been formally and rigidly defined. He’s still a great character and Courtney is still great in the role, but there’s a sense that this is really it as far as the character development is concerned. However, given that the classic series was never really too concerned with character, I guess I should be happy it took this long.

I suppose that’s another way this feels like a season finalé. Another character who really goes as far as he could possibly go is the Master. I don’t mean that this is his last great appearance or anything like that. I just mean that this is really the limit of his villainy until Russell T. Davies gets ahold of him. He might destroy a significant portion of the universe in the blandest way possible in Logopolis, but he summoned Satan in The Dæmons. In order to surpass himself, he’d have to invade and commit genocide on Earth with a human companion and a human army warped to his philosophy. Or something.

"Hm. I've all the ingredients for a classic episode."

“Hm. I’ve all the ingredients for a classic episode.”

What’s interesting about the portrayal of the eponymous aliens or devils is that the show goes to great lengths to present them as more than simply evil. After all, if your show were going to feature Satan, you’d at least imagine he was going to be the bad guy. The Dæmons actually subverts that a bit, in a very clever way. The Doctor suggests that Devil is in fact beyond human morality. We’re told that the creatures have been coming to Earth for eons. “To help Homo sapiens kick out Neanderthal man. They’ve been coming and going ever since. The Greek civilisation, the Renaissance, the industrial revolution. They were all inspired by the Daemons.”

It’s a bunch of interesting imagery that immediately conjures up not only Faustian imagery (literal deals with the Devil), but also biblical parallels. We were ejected from the Garden of Eden, the Bible tells us, for seeking knowledge. The Dæmons sorts of plays with that a bit by making the Devil a being of pure knowledge, responsible for countless leaps in human civilisation, but without any implicit morality.

On re-establishing communication with the outside world, the Third Doctor was disappointed to discover that capes were still not cool.

On re-establishing communication with the outside world, the Third Doctor was disappointed to discover that capes were still not cool.

Asked about whether they are evil, the Doctor responds, “Amoral, perhaps. They help Earth but on their own terms. It’s a scientific experiment to them. Just another laboratory rat.” Even when the fact that they might wipe out all life on Earth is raised, the episode still stresses that they aren’t inherently evil. “What does any scientist do with an experiment that fails? He chucks it in the rubbish bin.” Which, by the way, is a great image and analogy. It’s the kind of thing that Davies and Moffat quite like, that.

And here’s where The Dæmons gets interesting. Because the eponymous aliens are not inherently evil, they can’t really be the villains of the piece, especially when sharing the show with the Master. It’s quite clear that, as far as The Dæmons is concerned, it’s the Master whose villainy is closest to demonic. Consider the scene where he bends an entire village to his will. He doesn’t use hypnosis, but instead offers a Faustian bargain:

Now, as I’ve told you, this is not going to be a sermon. But all the same, I do beg of you to listen carefully. Because this could be the most important day in your lives. Now as you know, I am a newcomer among you, and yet already I feel that I know you all. For instance, you, Mister Thorpe. Are you still padding the grocery bills of the local gentry?

What are you on about? That’s slander.

Now, now, don’t deny it. I know. And you, Charlie. How’s your conscience? Do you think you’ll manage to balance the Post Office books in time? And you, Mister Grenville. Has your wife come back from her sisters yet? Will she ever come back, do you suppose? Now, now, no, please. Please do not be angry with me. I assure you that I’m on your side. Now, listen. If you do what I say, you can all of you get whatever you want in this world, when you want it. If you listen to me.

Yes. He knows all your secrets. In a way, this feels like the logical climax of the Master’s villainy throughout the season. After being a constant threat, he eventually reaches a point where he takes on the role of Satan. Again, it’s relatively understated, but it’s the kind of thing you’d expect from a season finalé.

A black (and red) sabbath...

A black (and red) sabbath…

Anyway, The Dæmons pulls a neat little trick where it manages to acknowledge the existence of Satan while both reconciling it with a scientific view of the universe and refusing to blame the Devil for all that is evil in the world. The Dæmons very clearly makes the case that good and evil stem from people rather than from gods or devils. Knowledge itself is amoral, but the application of that knowledge by mankind has very serious moral implications.

“Leave humanity alone,” the Doctor begs. “Just go. You’ve done enough harm.” Azal protests, “We gave knowledge to man.” It’s hard to really condemn the Dæmons for that, despite the fact that we associate them with devils and demons. “You certainly did,” the Doctor concedes. “Thanks to you man can now blow up the world and he probably will. He can poison the water and the very air he breathes. He’s already started.” Later on, he begs, “Don’t you understand? I want you to leave. I want you to go away and give man a chance to grow up.”

Talk about bringing Azal back to size...

Azal grew on me…

Indeed, it’s fascinating that Doctor Who can acknowledge theology and religion, but still incorporate the show’s trademark humanism and its social conscience. Despite the fact that this is a story featuring demons and aliens, it’s still the smallest gesture from a human character that saves the day. It’s Jo’s capacity for some gesture that is small in the grand scheme of things, but impossibly large to her, that thwarts Azal’s plan to destroy the planet. “You see, Azal couldn’t face an act as irrational and as illogical as her being prepared to give up her life for me.” It’s the small (and yet impossibly large) things that save the day. Again, I suspect Davies learned much from this.

Of course, I haven’t talked that much about the story itself. It’s five episodes long, which gives it a very weird structure – too short for a six-parter, too long for a four-parter. The pace seems off, with lots of shaking and a completely superfluous second appearance by Azal that exists merely to build tension and provide a cliffhanger. (Which, yet again, relies on the Master realising he’s summoned an ally he can’t control. And yet he summons Azal a third time.) Yates and Benton seem to have come along purely to pad out the runtime. However, at five episodes, it moves along nicely enough and there’s enough iconic stuff here that it’s never boring.

I'll be Bok...

I’ll be Bok…

That said, the special effects are a bit knaff. Azal is realised by CSO (of course), but the biggest problem is Bok. He’s meant to be a living gargoyle, but he’s clearly just a guy in a grey ski suit. To be fair, at least the episode seems to concede how crap he is. When they encounter him, Jo seems a bit disappointed. “But that wasn’t what Miss Hawthorne described, surely?” The Doctor seems to move to assure the viewers as much as to assure Jo, “No, the creature she saw must have been a hundred times more hideous.”

Still, these are small problems. The Dæmons is an effective close to Barry Letts’ first full season as producer. He seems to have laid down a formula for the series, and the show would roughly adhere to that structure throughout the Pertwee era. To a certain extent, the Letts’ era is really best viewed as a successful execution of the formula established this year. And The Dæmons stands a pretty solid execution of that formula.

You might be interested in our reviews of the eighth season of the classic television show:

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