Doctor Who: Battlefield


Rating 2¾

Written by Ben Aaronovitch

Directed by Michael Kerrigan

Starring Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart), Jean Marsh (Morgaine), James Ellis (Peter Warmsly), Angela Bruce (Brigadier Winifred Bambera), Marcus Gilbert (Ancelyn), Christopher Bowen (Mordred), Ling Tai (Shou Yuing), Noel Collins (Pat Rawlinson), June Bland (Elizabeth Rawlinson), Dorota Rae (Flight Lieutenant Lavel), Robert Jezek (Sergeant Zbrigniev), Paul Tormany (Major Husak), Marek Anton (The Destroyer) and Angela Douglas (Doris Lethbridge-Stewart)

The Doctor responds to a distress signal and the TARDIS materialises close by Lake Vortigern in England in the 20th Century, where he encounters a UNIT convoy transporting a nuclear device. When Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, now retired from active service, is informed that the Doctor has returned, he immediately responds to the call and a military helicopter is sent to take him to the site. They all get caught up in an ancient war spilling sideways across time from an alternative dimension involving sorcery and the legend of King Arthur. The Doctor is already known to the combatants, who identify him as Merlin.


‘Battlefield’, which was broadcast on BBC1 between the 6th and 27th September 1989, was the opening story of the twenty-sixth and final season of the original Doctor Who, the so-called “classic series”. It was the third and final season to feature Sylvester McCoy, the seventh Doctor, although he did return for the “regeneration” scenes in the 1996 film version starring Paul McGann. McCoy is, along with David Tennant, one of two Scottish actors to have played the Doctor.

‘Battlefield’ was made during the period when John Nathan-Turner was producing Doctor Who (pictured with Sylvester McCoy). He was the longest-serving producer on the series, having taken over the role in 1980, and presided over 130 episodes. Nathan-Turner cast the fifth, sixth and seventh Doctors (Pater Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy), during what became an increasingly turbulent time after the tremendous popularity and success of the Tom Baker years. He dealt with complaints from campaigners like Mary Whitehouse, who thought the show had a negative influence on children, and opposition from within the BBC. He also faced criticism from some fans of the show as a result of the changes he made, not least because of declining audience ratings.

In Sylvester McCoy’s first season the Doctor was portrayed as slightly comical and clownish, not entirely dissimilar to the second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton. This perhaps was influenced by McCoy’s own acting background and in particular his time as a member of the Ken Campbell Roadshow, where his brand of physical humour included hammering nails up his nose and setting fire to his head. Later on, however, McCoy’s Doctor became a distinctly darker and more ambiguous character.

I have always been extremely fond of McCoy’s third and final season in the role and consider the four stories, told across fourteen episodes, to be amongst my favourites from any era of the series. However, it had been many years since I last watched ‘Battlefield’. It’s an ambitious attempt to marry the legend of King Arthur and Excalibur to a theme of inter-dimension warfare and although it is a little bit messy and convoluted it is not altogether unsuccessful, despite more than a few faults.

The battle scenes do look like the rather peculiar re-enactments that historical societies like to put on and the special effects are a long way short of being realistic. The incidental music is horrible and not remotely fitting, although certainly typical of the late 1980s. These faults, however, are more than made up for by the simple fact that this is a spirited romp, even if it does feel a little rushed at times and perhaps would have benefited from more than its four 25-minute episodes. I would have liked to have seen the Arthurian legend expanded a little more. There is an interesting take on the legend that one day King Arthur will make a messianic return to lead the Britons to freedom and victory. Here, it is ultimately discovered that Arthur turned to dust centuries ago and the continued conflict has been a futile exercise in unnecessary killing and retribution.

There is a return for Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart after quite a considerable gap. Courtney made his first appearance in the Doctor Who story ‘The Web of Fear’ in early 1968 and was most recently seen in 2008 in the second season of the spin-off series ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’. There is also an unnecessary but not at all unwelcome appearance by “Bessie”, the car that had been driven by the third Doctor.

When Sylvester McCoy first took over the role of the Doctor he inherited the companion of his predecessor Colin Baker. Sophie Aldred joined in the final story of that first season and her character Ace became the Doctor’s companion for the next two seasons. This was a rebellious, forthright and tough character with a troubled home background and in many ways quite a departure from the past, a clear reaction to the slightly simpering companion exemplified by Jo Grant (played by Katy Manning). Ace is an interesting character and even if Aldred is perhaps not the most skilful of actors, I always thought she was a good match for the role and she and McCoy worked very well together.

A few seeds of the revived series devised by Russell T Davies can be found here. Ace quickly forms a friendship with the only other young person she encounters, Shou Yuing. The Doctor’s relationship with Lethbridge-Stewart is seen at the end of the story to be very much that of old friends. Instead of making a swift departure in the TARDIS, as he would normally do, he stays as a guest at the brigadier’s house. In fact, more than one friendship has been forged during the events just told. Davies expanded on this theme, something that contributed greatly to the success of the revived series.

There are several things in ‘Battlefield’ that alert us to the fact that this story was made in the 1980s and not the 1970s – and that some hard-fought battles had been won in between times. The presence of a female “brigadier” is just one example. In retrospect it may seem rather quaint and for younger viewers the significance of it may be lost entirely now, but it does lend this period of Doctor Who an added importance.

If truth be told, ‘Battlefield’ doesn’t stand the test of time. However, for someone like me who remembers it with great fondness its weaknesses are outweighed by the sheer nostalgic joy of watching it again. It was great fun and brought back some good memories.

The Northern Irish actor James Ellis, who plays archaeologist Peter Warmsly, is a well-known face on British television. He starred in the long-running crime drama series ‘Z Cars’ between 1962 and 1978, appearing in 625 episodes.

Review posted 3 May 2010


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