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Doctor Who: The King’s Demons (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 King’s Demons originally aired in 1983.

Do our demons come to visit us? Bid them attend us.

Demons? Very odd indeed.

Makes a nice change for you not to take everything in your stride, I must say.

– King John, the Doctor and Tegan set the mood

The show’s twentieth anniversary deserved better than this. Okay, there are a number of qualifications that can made, excuses that can be offered. The King’s Demons was never intended to close out the season, and was instead intended as a two-part episode to bridge into the triumphant return of the Daleks, a return that ended up postponed a year and reworked into Resurrection of the Daleks. There’s also the fact that The King’s Demons wasn’t the last piece of Doctor Who to air as part of the show’s twentieth anniversary year, even if it was the season finalé. The Five Doctors would be broadcast later in the year to celebrate the anniversary.

However, none of these excuses take away from the fact that The King’s Demons is an exceptionally weak piece of television, and a demonstration of everything wrong about how John Nathan Turner and the Doctor Who production staff approached the show’s twentieth season.

Hardly a Master piece...

Hardly a Master piece…

I tend to be more forgiving of John Nathan Turner than most Doctor Who commentators. I like the way that he approached Tom Baker’s final season. While I dislike the revamped opening, I do accept that the show needed something of an update, and his initial season at least contained a clear direction. I also think that he deserves some credit for hiring Andrew Cartmel during the Sylvester McCoy era and encouraging that period of creative rebirth.

However, Nathan Turner also made very stupid decisions. The entire twentieth season of Doctor Who has to rank as one. Organising a celebratory multi-Doctor story for the actual anniversary was a good idea. I think a lot of people accept and embrace The Five Doctors for what it is. It’s not a perfect piece of television (I’m not even sure it’s a decent piece of television), but it’s suitably nostalgic and we can forgive it those indulgences.

Staying sharp...

Staying sharp…

However, turning the entire twentieth season into a glorified victory lap was a mistake. Decreeing that each of the season’s adventures should feature a returning adversary was missing the point a bit. One of the big problems towards the end of the Davison era, and into the Colin Baker era, was the tendency of Doctor Who to look backwards and inwards rather than forwards and outwards. Deciding to do a bunch of stories themed around a bunch of characters purely because the show had done stories using those characters before was a mistake.

It’s no coincidence that the two strongest stories of the season – Enlightenment and Snakedance – were the two with the weakest links to the show’s past. Snakedance featured an alien menace introduced only a year before, while Enlightenment was a mostly original story with the Black Guardian grafted on. These felt like stories that were stories first and foremost, rather than excuses to bring back foes that hardcore fans would recognise.

Me's a crowd...

Me’s a crowd…

And what’s really weird is that – outside the Mara – none of these foes really worked that well in their last appearance on the show. Even the success of the Mara is also up for debate. Although the consensus on Kinda is beginning to shift, fans responded quite negatively to the story when it first aired. So there’s an argument to be made that none of the returning villains were really that successful, and the only reason they were being brought back is not because they were interesting characters, but instead because they were old characters.

That’s the biggest problem with the nostalgia in this twentieth season. It trumped story. There was absolutely no reason to bring back Omega in Arc of Infinity beyond his symbolic importance as “the bad guy from The Three Doctors.” However, the show never engaged with him as a character. He was just a generic bad guy, an old Time Lord who was evil for some reason. There was no reason for us to invest in his story, save the assumption that the family audience would somehow recognise a monster who appeared once ten years earlier.

I bet he does a mean robot...

I bet he does a mean robot…

The same could be said of the Black Guardian and White Guardian. These were the arc-welding characters from the whole Key to Time season. However, they even felt superfluous to those stories, serving more as a continuity link than as plot points interesting in their own ways. Recycling them again and making them serve the same purpose with the same problem in another string of episodes only serves to demonstrate how broken this twentieth season was.

So it makes sense, then, that the final adversary in this mess of a season should be the Master. Never mind that he’ll be returning in The Five Doctors. Never mind that the production staff on Doctor Who have swiftly eroded all the good will generated by the character’s return in The Keeper of Traken. Never mind that the character has been wanting for direction and purpose for quite some time. Never mind that his last appearance, Time-flight, measures as one of the most reviled episodes of Doctor Who ever produced.

Once a knight is enough...

Once a knight is enough…

The Master is back because he’s an old adversary and he’s recognisable. Given the season couldn’t work in a Dalek or a Cyberman story, he’s also the jewel in the crown of the nostalgia gripping this season. So, as you can imagine, there’s little serious pressure to “fix” the character or to make an effort to remedy to problems which have plagued him since Logopolis. All he has to do is turn up. The rest of the episode is an after-thought.

You can see that in the way the show is structured. The big cliff-hanger reveal is that – gasp! – it’s the Master. Then the screech sounds and the credits roll. Okay, the stock “it’s the Master!” cliffhanger ending has been a weakness of the show since Roger Delgado played the role, but there’s a big difference here. The King’s Demons is a two-part episode. It only has one cliff-hanger. Where you put that cliff-hanger is important.

He's really not trying that hard any more, is he?

He’s really not trying that hard any more, is he?

With only two episodes, it’s particularly important to manage the show’s pacing. Black Orchid was a two-parter which only really became a murder-mystery in its second episode, what with the lack of a murder until the first episode climax. As a result, the first half felt too slow and the second half too fast. It’s the same basic structural problem here. The show is so desperate to have the traditional “it’s the Master!” cliffhanger that nothing can really happen in the first episode and everything has to rush to a conclusion in the second.

And the Master’s only reason for being here is because he’s the Master and this is apparently the sort of thing the Master does. One imagines that there’s a more productive way to conquer the universe than stopping the signing of the Magna Carta (after all, the Magna Carta hasn’t stopped conquerors from existing on our own planet, and I doubt it works that much better in the wider cosmos. Even the characters wonder what the hell the Master is doing, which is not a good sign.

"Because EEEEEEEVIL, that's why!"

“Because EEEEEEEVIL, that’s why!”

“What possible satisfaction can that give him?” Tegan ponders. The Doctor retorts, “He wants to rob the world of Magna Carta. Small time villainy by his standards, but nevertheless something I intend to stop if at all possible.” Why this? Why Earth? Why England? Why not just use his advanced technology to conquer the planet? One of the better things that Russell T. Davies did in resurrecting the Master was to suggest that Master’s primary motivation was messing with the Doctor – his repeated messing with Earth history was just the time-travel equivalent of “trolling.”

Unfortunately, we get nothing as smart as that here. I’d love to see Ainley’s Master admit that he just wants to prevent the signing of the Magna Carta just to tick the Doctor off. Then he’ll just fly off and start messing with the scores in historical cricket matches to rub salt in the wound. If you’re going to do a nutso Master, at least do it properly. Sadly, the episode plays the Master’s evil plan disappointingly straight. “With Kamelion’s unique ability at my command, it’s only a matter of time before I undermine the key civilisations of the universe. Chaos will reign, and I shall be its emperor.”

The King is alive!

The King is alive!

The Master’s Evil Plan

Step 1: Stop the signing of the Magna Carta.

Step 2: Stop and gloat.

Step 3: Rub goatee a bit.

Step 4: Pick up milk. TARDIS fridge running low.

Step 5: ????

Step 6: Emperor of the universe!

It is all sorts of pants.

Tough luck Turlough...

Tough luck Turlough…

It’s disappointing that The King’s Demons forces Davison’s Doctor back into his default characterisation so soon after Enlightenment seemed to figure out how to write a Peter Davison Doctor Who story. He’s reduced to a rather weak individual who resorts to begging to make his case. Early on, he seems to plead with King John to spare a contestant’s life, with none of the strength of will any of the other versions of the character might show. “If this is trial by combat, your Majesty, there’s clearly a victor and a vanquished. Must blood be shed?” He sounds more afraid it will put him off his lunch than outraged at the brutality.

Davison tries his best with the material, which is part of the problem. A Fifth Doctor who seems to be so constantly on the back-foot in a story as banal and generic as The King’s Demons is going to seem weak and easily over-whelmed when he faces a more credible or severe threat. The script can’t offer us a convincing hook, so it’s up to Davison to do the heavy-lifting. He does a great job, but his attempts to wrangle drama from the set-up only serve to make the story more frustrating. This should be a walk in the park. It’s easy to imagine Tom Baker or Patrick Troughton having great fun. Instead, the Doctor seems quite clearly on edge.

Now I've seen everything!

Now I’ve seen everything!

Then there’s Kamelion. I like the idea of Kamelion, even if it’s the kind of thing that seems like a monumentally risky idea in hindsight. It’s nice the show was willing to take a chance to do something relatively bold, but it’s very hard to believe that nobody could foresee the problems lying ahead if things went even slightly wrong. Obviously, Mike Powers’ passing was a tragic accident, but it seems very poorly organised to have an advanced machine that only one person can control. And the accounts behind the scenes make it sound like the device wasn’t exactly stable on the best of days.

Still, I like the look of the puppet, and the fact that it obviously can’t be a person in a suit. It crosses the uncanny valley, which is really ideal for a robotic character. There is something unnerving about the puppets movements, right down to the way that its lips move as Gerald Flood speaks. Still, it seems like the kind of thing that really shouldn’t have been greenlit until it was entirely ready for use. Rather infamously, the puppet only appeared in a deleted scene between here and its departure in Planet of Fire.

He doesn't want to die in a blade of glory!

He doesn’t want to die in a blade of glory!

As an aside, I do like the fact that Turlough isn’t suddenly a massively heroic character in the mould of the archetypal Doctor Who companions. When he’s ambushed and held at sword point, he can’t wait to confess absolutely everything. “I’ll tell you anything you want to know,” he pleads when threatened. (It’s implied that he even told the natives that he was a time traveller.) A far cry from Tegan’s defiant heroism, Turlough still seems to a character most interested in saving his own skin. It gives him a nice edge.

The King’s Demons is a massive waste of a season finalé, especially as the closer to what should be a celebratory season of Doctor Who. However, it’s more worrying as a sign of things to come. The indulgent nostalgia of the show’s twentieth season would encourage the series to become more introverted and backwards-looking. One can see the roots of Attack of the Cybermen in the fan-pleasing continuity porn of this twentieth year.

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