Welcome to a new feature, in which I re-evaluate Doctor Who stories I’ve previously found underwhelming. All aboard the Fairclough Towers DVD player for a white witch, a Satanic master, UNIT in civvies, violent Morris Men and The Cloven Hoof: “I told Yates and Benton to stay in the pub!"
|“Yes, Miss Hawthorne, I would like
to defeat the Master,|
but I’m a bit tied up at the moment.”
I’m pretty easy going when it comes to Doctor Who these days, but for various reasons there are still a few stories I find it hard to sit through. In this anniversary year – and to be honest, so I could write about it – I thought I’d give some of them another go. First up, every fan of a certain age’s favourite story: ‘The Daemons’.
Here’s why I don’t like it: artistic cowardice.
When it comes to a mature presentation of the occult in Doctor Who, which ‘The Daemons’ is supposed to be, script editor Terrance Dicks and producer Barry Letts are juggling with porridge: they just can’t get a grip on it. It’s OK having invented, pagan religions on other planets – y’know, like they did every other week on Star Trek – but when it comes to dealing with the real thing, Dicks and Letts bottle it.
Why do a story about the actual Devil then get cold feet halfway through? Exactly the same thing happened with ‘The Satan Pit’ umpteen years later:
"So, IS it the Devil?"
“Well yes, but, um, we can’t go there with any potentially controversial religious questions, so even though it clearly IS the Devil, we’re going to pretend it isn’t.’
Quite. It’s the same kind of wibbly-wobbly thinking that adds ‘a’ to the name ‘Demons’ in the hope of avoiding any controversy.
Anyway. Nurse! The DVD player.
An afternoon on the sofa later…
‘The Daemons’ is completely mad. It looks like Doctor Who, that well known Saturday children’s series ‘that adults adore’ is really going to put its Time Lord hero up against Lucifer, the Horn-ed Beast himself. In the middle of the afternoon just after Grandstand, the Master (the stylish and faultless Roger Delgado) is conducting a Black Mass and quoting Alesteir Crowley. All in all, it looks like Letts and Dicks have been at the Patrick McGoohan pills.
Despite all this – or perhaps because of it – there’s a lot to enjoy. Episode 1 is striking for its accurate portrayal of a BBC production crew on location and the nicely jaundiced attitude of their guest archaeologist, Professor Horner (Robin Wentworth). When the producer nervously wonders what to do if the Devil does appear on the stroke of midnight, Horner has the answer: “Use your initiative, lad. Get your chatty friend over there to interview him.”
|Even better than the real thing.|
At one point, it looks as if he’s about to swear on children’s television then, as if remembering the tender age of some of the viewers watching, modifies his language to describe himself as waiting around "like a spare lemon waiting for the squeezer" (still fairly risqué, in my opinion.) It’s also good to see Benton used in an original way, in plain clothes and undercover like Yates, applying his marksmanship skills to assist the illusion of the Doctor being a powerful magician.
Mercifully, the residents of Devil’s End couldn’t be further away from Pigbin Josh, the embarrassing comedy yokel in ‘The Claws of Axos’. It’s good to see both Miss Hawthorne (Damaris Hayman) and Squire Winstanley (the splendidly named Rollo Gamble) resist the Master’s mental dominance. Bert the landlord (Don McKillop) is a great low-key henchman, dazzled by the Master’s promises of avarice.
I love the philosophical discussion in the church crypt in episode 5 between the Master, the Doctor (an on form Jon Pertwee) and Azal the Daemon (an enjoyably theatrical Stephen Thorne) about the fate of humanity, as Azal has decided that the race his people were responsible for nurturing are a failed experiment that must be destroyed. The Master proposes a fascist doctrine – as the Doctor notes – while the Doctor offers Mankind self-determination as its salvation. I really like this aspect of Pertwee’s stories and it’s done extremely well here.
After that… Well, Azal’s ‘defeat’ is still bollocks, despite the nice exploding church. I just can’t believe that a civilisation as advanced as the Daemons could be freaked out to the point of self-destruction by the concept of self-sacrifice. Surely they’ve done a bit of it themselves on the way to their exalted status? It’s Letts and Dicks writing themselves into a corner – how do you defeat a being that is, to all intents and purposes, a god? The scene was weak in 1971 and it’s still weak now.
So there you have it. ‘The Daemons’ is made with care, is a lot more fun than I remember and clever with it, almost to the point of being self-aware in places. Watching it again has been a lesson in not letting one bad moment spoil an otherwise enjoyable whole. As of now, I don’t even mind Letts and Dicks’ determination to rationalise something as powerfully mythic as the Devil as a visitor from another planet. I hadn’t realised it before, but ‘The Daemons’ is the beginning of Doctor Who’s ‘aliens-as-gods’ sub genre, which in later years would welcome to its ranks the Solononians, Kronos, Sutekh the Destroyer, Mandragora and the Fendahl, to name a few.
The ending, however, still makes me want to throw things at the television.
Right then. Now where’s that DVD of ‘The Twin Dilemma’…?
This year, the BFI Southbank is hosting Doctor Who at 50, a 12-month celebration of the series’ half century. Details of the monthly events here: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/doctor-who-at-50