|The Master, at his most Aleister Crowley, faces down
Sergeant Benton at his most Bruce Springsteen.
It’s May 22, 1971. Dawn are at number one with “Knock Three Times,” and hold it for four more weeks before giving way to Middle of the Road’s “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep,” which is just one of those things that happens on the British charts. See also Israeli novelty blues. What’s more interesting is the lower reaches of the chart, where we see… OK, well, here’s the thing. I have next to no idea who any of these bands are. Admittedly, I am not the world’s biggest 70s Music Buff, but I like to think that I’m not completely hopeless and that many of you will also be more or less mystified by the information that John Kongos, Tami Lynn, Blue Mink, East of Eden, R Dean Taylor, and the Elgins were also in the top ten.
In other news, a massive earthquake levels Bingol, Turkey. Neville Bonner becomes the first indigenous Australian to sit on the Australian parliament. But the big stories are the US dropping its trade embargo with China, which we’ll talk more about on Monday and the beginning of publication of the Pentagon Papers. (Though two days after this story ends, the British grant asylum to a Russian space scientist, which is kind of cool too.)
To recap, we’ve been playing of late with the idea that there are two completely distinct modes of thought operating in the Pertwee era at any given time. The first is what we’re calling glam Pertwee – a style based on the interplay and juxtaposition of images. The second is what we’re calling action Pertwee – a style based on telling tense techno-political thrillers. Thus far virtually every Pertwee story can be understood reasonably well as a combination of influences from the glam and action styles. Colony in Space started to challenge this, but only superficially by bringing in a more complex ethics than past action-style stories had displayed, not by breaking out of the paradigm.
The Daemons does not shatter that paradigm, but it does push it a little bit. And it is as a result an unusually complex story. So to some extent, we’re going to do it in two parts. First we’ll look at what the story does today. Then on Friday we’ll do a Pop Between Realities post in which we try to make sense of the larger cultural signifiers going on here.
The Daemons is, by any measure, one of the major Pertwee stories. It’s well-remembered both by everyone who worked on it and by audiences at the time. It also marks the introduction of one of the major writers of the Pertwee era as Barry Letts puts on his third hat, already being the producer and occasional director of Doctor Who. Here he and his friend Robert Sloman collaborate under the pseudonym Guy Leopold, but make no mistake – this team ends up doing the season finales for the next three years as well as this one, which means they get to write some landmark episodes.
This is also significant, of course, because it’s the first time where we have to assume we are getting a more or less untempered look at what the producer wants the show to be. Not as untempered as when we get to Planet of the Spiders and Letts writes, produces, and directs, but still pretty untempered. Watching it, then, two things become immediately clear. The first is that Barry Letts is a visionary with a genuinely interesting take on what Doctor Who should be. The second is that Barry Letts very often has not got the first clue how to go about making the show he wants it to be.
On the basic level of plotting, The Daemons is at best puzzling. As soon as you set up the premise – the Master is trying to summon the Devil in a small English village – you know how this has to end: a three-way showdown among the Master, the Doctor, and the Devil. Thus prior to the end the story has to take some measure to prevent the Doctor from getting to the Master’s base of operations. Which is why Devil’s End gets surrounded by a force field. Except that the effect of the force field is to trap the Doctor inside with the Master and leave the Brigadier standing around outside. The force field, in other words, cripples the ability of the story to extend itself.
As a result, much of the middle of this story borders on the tedious. Episode four is in particular egregious. Starting from the cliffhanger of the Master successfully summoning Azal and a massive earthquake seeming to hit, the episode has everyone not immediately around the Master calmly go back to what they were doing without worrying much about the Earthquake and the Master sending Azal back to sleep for a bit. Then the story wanders off and squares away some other plot points it had introduced to delay things, and ends with a cliffhanger of… the Master summoning Azal. In other words, episode four opens with a big cliffhanger, resolves everything it can possibly resolve without addressing that cliffhanger, and then simply repeats the cliffhanger.
And yet, staggeringly, despite these delaying tactics, when Letts and Sloman actually reach the final confrontation they’re so pressed for time that they have to have Jo suddenly pipe up to save the Doctor and have Azal explode for reasons that had zero setup prior to this scene. It’s bewildering. On the one hand, this story is a four parter that has been stretched out an episode. On the other hand, the climax is rushed. Not since Enemy of the World have we seen this strange mixture of delaying tactics and a hurried ending, and there, at least, the delaying tactics were the point – Whitaker systematically moved through all possible configurations of “Doctor Who meets James Bond” before getting to the one everyone wanted to see. Enemy of the World needed an extra episode more than anything. The Daemons simultaneously needs to lose one and gain one.
But comparisons to Enemy of the World raise an alternate possibility: what if, as with The Enemy of the World, the point isn’t the final confrontation but the journey. OK. But what is the supposed value of that? I mean, if we treat this not as a story that builds towards a climactic three-way showdown but rather as one where the things seen along the way are the fun, what is it that we see instead?
Unfortunately, the answer is just as confused. If this is the point of the story, the decisions taken are deeply inscrutable. The show has, in this season, a staggeringly large six-person regular cast. The Doctor is mostly used up solving problems, which is wholly proper. The Master is mostly used towering over people and manipulating them, which, again, a good use of him. After that, however, we fall off a cliff. If the process of exploring the world is the point of Doctor Who… OK, look, I’ll come out and say it. There are four remaining regulars on the show after Pertwee and Delgado: Manning, Courtney, Franklin, and Levene. Two of those are very good actors, one of them is a fantastic utility player, and one of them was an abject failure of casting.
Manning and Courtney, as we’ve discussed previously, are both absolutely fabulous because they play their characters with illogical consistency. Because Courtney and Manning are both, in their own ways, utterly unflappable and at ease, it’s consistently a hoot to put them in a scene with someone. Think for a moment about how much more fun this script would be if the Brigadier got to share a major scene with Miss Hawthorne. Instead, however, he spends most of the story staring at an invisible wall waiting to get into the town and deliver his immortal “chap with the wings there” line (which is, admittedly, pure genius). Manning, on the other hand, enjoys her fourth consecutive story as a vapid peril monkey as the writers continue to not quite be certain what to do with her. (Thankfully in her second two seasons this stops as people realize how to write a good Jo Grant scene, whereas previously only Robert Holmes and whichever of Houghton or Dicks wrote the chess scene in Mind of Evil seemed to have a clue.)
Instead, it’s Richard Franklin and John Levene who get put in the village to interact with people. Which is just a staggering mismanagement of your cast. Levene is a fine utility actor who showed back in Inferno that he both has range and has the good sense of when not to use it. He understands that Benton’s role is a simple action man and infuses the part with a genuine working class charm here, but he’s by his nature not a character who is very interesting. His scenes with Miss Hawthorne are admittedly great, but again, why is he the one to get so many of them?
But Richard Franklin… I mean, if there were any evidence that he was trying to systematically infuse every scene he was in with a gay subtext, I’d have to admit that he’s a subversive genius. But there isn’t. All evidence is that he actually thinks this is how he should go about playing an action hero. Which is to say, awkward, artificial, and stiff. It’s nearly impossible to effectively hang a scene on him. Again, I’m more than capable of loving Mike Yates, but I’m hard-pressed to argue seriously that my love is based on anything that can reasonably be construed as actual quality. So having him be one of the major contributors to all the local color scenes is… a mistake.
But there’s a larger problem here. One gets the sense that we’re supposed to care about Benton and Yates hanging around the village primarily because they’re Benton and Yates. This isn’t completely out of line. One thing that does steadily happen over the course of the Pertwee era is that a style of plotting heavily influenced by soap operas begins to take hold. In contrast to the disposability of companions that has infected the series in the past (most obviously under Innes Lloyd), the soap opera style requires an intense commitment to characters, because that commitment is what generates long-term viewership. (Soaps, like cult science fiction shows, depend not on gaining new viewers but on holding onto the ones it has forever. They are actually among the closest cousins on television. Not that Doctor Who in this phase is cult sci-fi.) But soap characters generate that interest in characters by giving them plot arcs and doing things with them. Let’s pause here to think about Benton and Yates’s plot arcs in stories past.
Except there aren’t any. Benton got turned into a werewolf once in an alternate universe, and Yates was kidnapped once by the Master. That’s really all we have to hang our commitment to the characters on. The only way they’re distinct from the mass of replaceable UNIT figures is that they appear in multiple stories. And in Benton’s case, that’s purely down to Douglas Camfield’s directorial style relying on actors he can trust, and thus deciding to bring John Levene back in Inferno, at which point it was decided that he should just be the same character he played in The Invasion. Recall that this is also how Nicholas Courtney became the Brigadier – Camfield wanted the actor, so they recycled his character from Web of Fear.
Which is all well and good, and the characters – especially Benton – are beloved for it. But there’s a difference between loving a bit character and being able to hang an episode on them. Shows have managed this before, perhaps most obviously the Buffy episode “Superstar,” in which a beloved bit character suddenly takes over the show, including the opening credits. But the whole point of that episode is that there’s something wrong with the world where the bit player has taken over. The point is that we actually don’t want to watch Jonathan the Vampire Slayer. To inflate a bit character, you have to actually do something with them. (And, of course, once Jonathan was inflated by “Superstar” and the earlier “Earshot,” he could be used as the basis for episodes after that.) Without that, the characters fall flat. And so just because we love to watch Benton tell the Doctor that he still doesn’t understand doesn’t mean it’s fun to watch him hang out with the local color.
Of course, you’ll note also that the only bit of local color we’ve mentioned thus far is Miss Hawthorne. There is a reason for this, which is that Miss Hawthorne is the only actual character in the village. The rest are just stooges that get dominated by the Master. This has been a recurring problem in the series since Spearhead From Space – the decision to depict rural Britain as full of comedy yokels. But here we run into real trouble because the entire story depends on a rural village. Unlike in The Silurians or The Claws of Axos where there are lots of other people running around, virtually everybody in this story is either a regular or a villager. Admittedly the villagers clear the incredibly low bar set by The Claws of Axos, but this is hardly an accomplishment.
Which is where the “it’s about exploring the setting” theory fails. Because Letts and Sloman don’t let anyone interesting explore the setting, and don’t make the setting interesting. The result is that one of the key scenes of the story is the Doctor being burnt at the stake in broad daylight by a bored crowd. Which is a good enough idea – a crowd of angry people who won’t listen to the Doctor burning him at the stake. In fact, for Pertwee, it’s a great idea. Not because I want to see him burnt at the stake, but because his character is defined by his casual insistence on respect from the social order, and having that social order turn on him as an angry, unthinking mob is an interesting case of giving the Doctor the exact sort of problem he’s ill-suited to solving. But the execution is painfully flat, in no small part because Letts and Sloman decide to collapse their evil Morris dancer set setpiece and their angry mob set setpiece into one event.
Which brings us back to our first theory – that the point of the story is the three-way confrontation. This is actually fortunate. For the most part, “The Doctor, the Master, and the Devil face off” is a considerably more interesting hop than “Mike Yates chats up a witch” anyway. For all the flaws in the execution, we have to admit that this is a truly interesting premise. This alone is sufficient to explain the story’s popularity – because as we’ve pointed out before, in a world where there’s no way to revisit a past Doctor Who story, flawed plotting is forgettable, iconic images are eternal. For all its flaws, The Daemons features the Doctor arguing with Satan, and that’s enough to make it a landmark transformative story.
But it’s worth noting exactly why it’s interesting, which is that it is a premise that seems impossible to fulfill. The Devil exists outside of Doctor Who’s paradigm – so much so that Russell T Davies was able to recycle this exact same trick 35 years later. The premise isn’t just that it’s fun to see the Doctor and the Devil face off, it’s that the Devil is something that shouldn’t exist inside Doctor Who’s premise in the first place.
This is where the parts of The Daemons where Barry Letts is an unequivocal genius come in. Letts has figured out that when the premise of the show is that anything can happen – and now that the Doctor is partially restored to time travel, that’s back to being the premise of the show (note that next season the Doctor travels away from contemporary Earth in four of the five stories) – the trick is to come up with ideas that the audience would never have thought of when they imagined what stories might be showing up in Doctor Who.
And notably, Letts goes to great lengths to have it both ways in this story. Yes, there’s a scientific explanation for the Devil and he’s really just an alien. But, equally crucially, Miss Hawthorne ends up winning her debate with the Doctor over science vs magic by saying that the Doctor’s account of what the Master is doing is wholly consistent with her claim that magic works. This is a story that revels in the gap introduced by the observation that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, using this to assert that traditional occultism is in fact extremely advanced technology. This means that the creature the Doctor meets may just be a powerful alien, but he’s also genuinely and truly the Devil.
This is a new approach – find something that on paper sounds like you can’t do it in Doctor Who and then find a way to make it work. And what’s so interesting about the approach is that it restores a lot of the original point to Doctor Who: taking things that shouldn’t go together and putting them together. It’s just that it moves the game to a higher level. Instead of just creating a collage of dissonant images, the show now takes things that shouldn’t go together even in Doctor Who and puts them together. It’s the sort of clever advancement of the premise that a show – even one as flexible as Doctor Who – needs going into its ninth season.
The only real downside is that this effectively ends the Master as an interesting character. Once you’ve summoned the Devil in Doctor Who, you’ve kind of peaked. The remaining room for the character to come up with a mad scheme is vanishingly small, and arguably nobody manages it until Russell T. Davies. Arresting him at the end of the story not only brings to a close an entire season’s plot arc, it’s a fitting tying off for a character that has, at this point, seemingly run his course. (Not that there won’t be any good Master stories to come, but he doesn’t have nearly as high a success rate after this run of five as he did this season.)
But the upsides are massive. Doctor Who has, with this move, opened an entire new bag of tricks. Suddenly myth and legend are as much a part of its repertoire as science or history. We’ve seen glimpses of this – The Myth Makers, most obviously, carried with it a hint of the supernatural. But we’ve never seen something like this, which establishes that magic, in the general case, is real. And it’s done so aggressively. The bulk of the first two episodes consists of the Doctor behaving seemingly entirely out of character, siding with mystics and new agers through and through.
But this is crucial. Letts and Sloman are dragging the show from its comfort zone into completely new territory. Simply quietly doing a story in which something that seems to be the devil is really an alien wouldn’t work. That, after all, is the usual trick: the giant lizard is really a mining robot, the Yeti are really robots, and the man in a rubber suit is, erm… a man in a rubber suit. The trick here isn’t that the devil is really an alien. It’s that he actually is the devil. It’s that the Doctor is completely correct to believe in magic. This is the ultimate trick of the story. We spend the first two episodes expecting to find the scientific explanation behind it all. But there isn’t one. The Doctor may have an explanation… but it’s still magic.