The Daemons

3 May

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2012. (Sadly, there was no room for my theory that Bok is the Master’s Tardis. A glow-eyed, peripatetic statue, like a mini Melkur. At the the end of this story, it sits there, cross-legged, in the churchyard, waiting for the Master to escape from prison.)

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There comes a point, in the final minutes of The Daemons, when the Doctor inches perilously close to losing our goodwill. He’s locked horns with the alien Azal – 20 feet tall in his stockinged hooves – regarding the creature’s interference in the development of our race. “Thanks to you, Man can now blow up the world,” our hero heckles. “And he probably will.” Probably? Well, thanks for the vote of faith, mate. Who’s spat in your coffee today?

The Doctor has a chip on his shoulder throughout The Daemons. “I’m obviously wasting my time trying to turn you into a scientist,” he huffs at Jo in their first scene. Later, he bitches her up for criticising the Brigadier, even though he’s just done it himself. So why, we might ask, is the Doctor so grumpy today? Well, with his car undergoing its latest comedy upgrade, it’s possible he’s had to take the bus to UNIT HQ this morning. British public transport can bring out the misanthrope in even the most gracious and high-minded of life forms, especially if there’s a 20-minute tailback due to roadworks at Devesham. Two years in, perhaps the chains of exile are starting to chafe, and he’s finding his beloved humanity not so much indomitable as insufferable – they’re fun to hang out with on holiday, but you wouldn’t want to actually live with them. And if our erstwhile citizen of the Universe really can feel the Earth spinning wondrously beneath his feet at a thousand miles an hour, he must be deeply resentful of the fact that, every seventh rotation, it delivers a Tuesday.

We can sympathise. We can forgive the Doctor’s bad mood. Anyway, we don’t want him to be cute and cuddly all the time, do we? The Doctor must be eccentric, of course; but not merely whimsical, and certainly not entirely adorable. The first thing he ever did to a human travelling companion was electrocute the poor bugger, so these catty remarks to Jo are practically a charm offensive. Even today, Matt Smith’s performance is at its most bewitching when the twinkle fades and he turns to ice. His eyes slip their focus, and you sense an old and troubled soul gazing out from behind. And so it is that, from first to last, our hero has shown a dark side. The Third Doctor’s selfishness and sententiousness make him difficult for many to warm to, but they’re the reasons to love him most. Without the brittleness, this era would be long strings of “moments of charm”, and all the syrup and saccharine would rot it away to nothing. Doctor Who’s unique flavour is as much salt as it is sweet.

If you remain unconvinced, and are looking for someone warm and loveable to snuggle up with in The Daemons, then there’s always the Master. Roger Delgado steals the show from the moment of his reveal, early in Episode One, and only Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier – at his droll best – ever comes close to taking it back from him. The majesty of the idea has perhaps become dimmed with familiarity, so let’s linger for a moment to appreciate the brilliance of seeing the Master in dog collar and thick-rimmed spectacles, but as saturnine as ever, posing as the vicar of an English village. He’s hoping to encourage the aforementioned Azal – an interstellar busybody who’s been bricked up in a local long barrow for centuries – to share his immense power. Witchy Miss Hawthorne, who knows that something’s up, scoffs at the idea of “a rationalist, existentialist priest”. It’s as good a description of a Time Lord as we might find. She thinks that the Master should be worried about “the souls in his care”, but he dismisses the soul as “an outdated concept”. That’s ironic. Later in his life, the Master’s own incorporeal essence will find a home – at various times – in a pocket watch, a signet ring, Nyssa’s old dad, and a string of snot dribbling from the TARDIS keyhole. If anyone in this Universe proves the existence of the soul, it’s our remorselessly reincarnated Master.

As he glides about churchyard and vestry, one has to wonder how long the Master has been playing the role of the Reverend Mr Magister of Devil’s End. He’s recruited a coven of a baker’s dozen to chant at his secret black masses, and that could have taken some time. Our tale begins on the last day of April. Was he here for the winter? Did he have to bless the Christmas crib? Has he invited eager grooms to kiss their spring brides? Has he christened the newborns of the parish? Certainly, his congregation must wonder why their vicar makes them sing He Who Would Valiant Be at every single service, giving them a peculiar kind of glare each time they reach the end of the first couplet.

In Episode Three, the Master seeks to blackmail the whole village into joining his band of disciples. He’s learned all their secrets, you see. There’s Thorpe the grocer, “padding the bills of the local gentry”, and Charlie, defrauding the post office. But best of all is the way the Master skewers poor Mr Grenville. “Has your wife come back from her sister’s yet?” he smarms. “Will she ever come back, do you suppose?” What’s the Master implying? Has Mrs Grenville merely run away with the coal man, or has Mr Grenville poisoned her beef tea and buried her under the rockery? We’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter, because what’s most wonderful is how casually the Master can indulge in this petty gossip and innuendo. The Doctor, whatever his incarnation, is forever struggling to understand humans and their funny little ways. The Master has no such difficulty; which, if you think about it, makes the Doctor look foolish at best, and thoroughly closed-minded at worst. The most recent extrapolation of the Master, by a modern series understandably eager to find a new angle on old material, painted him as psychotic; his mental illness caused by a kind of trans-temporal tinnitus and a fear of being taken out at night by old men to be shown the Doctor Who title sequence. That’s all good fun, but I prefer my Master sane. He shouldn’t represent madness, blind destruction or boring old ‘evil’. He’s temptation; just as the Doctor is salvation. The Master views human weakness, greed and desire with the same cool cynicism as the serpent in the Garden of Eden. And that’s why the Master is at his best in The Daemons, offering the citizens of Devil’s End “whatever they want in this world… whenever they want it”. It’s his finest moment in this, the character’s foremost adventure.

To their well-recorded pleasure, The Daemons serves all its regulars well. Sergeant Benton gets a couple of good punch-ups and Captain Yates joins the mid-story runaround that’s a tradition of this era. It’s padding, of course, but of the highest standard – with car and motorbike stunts and an exploding helicopter – and it displays a wild ambition in terms of physical action rarely seen in Doctor Who since, even in the modern era. Across its five episodes, The Daemons makes the most of its extended time on location. A lovely sequence sees the Doctor beset by morris dancers, of all things. Again, we mustn’t let familiarity distract us from the great wit of it all – especially the moment when the Doctor, hastening to save the world, is roundly beaten with a pig’s bladder on a stick.

The Brigadier, meanwhile, is kept away from the action by a force field placed around the village by Azal. He’d have got in if he hadn’t rocked up late. Lethbridge-Stewart is off to a regimental bash at the start of the story, but when Yates tries to track him down, he’s told that his commanding officer “went on somewhere after dinner – no one knows quite where”. Ooh! It’s another tiny mystery to ponder, but an image of the Brig dancing on a podium at an all-night disco flashes unbidden to the mind of this viewer. The fact that the Brigadier spends the next episode playing catch-up allows Nicholas Courtney to be quite brilliantly deadpan when replying to a report from his captain. “I see, Yates… So the Doctor was frozen stiff at the barrow and was then revived by a freak heatwave, Benton was beaten up by invisible forces and the local white witch claims she’s seen the devil?” Allowing the earnest Brigadier to hang a hat on the absurdity of the whole business only makes it more beliveable.

In addition to the helicopter chase and the maypole scenes, The Daemons’ other great set piece is – well – the whole of Episode One. It’s among the very best opening instalments you’ll ever find, and builds a sense of the uncanny while at the same time being full of genuinely laugh-out-loud dialogue. It’s sublime from scene one; where, late one night, Old Jim and his collie battle home through a storm of nostalgic BBC sound effects. The collie runs away. Old Jim sees something terrifying out of shot, cries out…  and dies from a heart attack, or so the local GP assures us after the cut. “Slight protrusion of the eyeballs, rictus drawing back of the lips over the teeth. Common enough in heart failure,” he says. (Oh, it needn’t be that serious, doc. I display those symptoms myself when watching Arc of Infinity.) Miss Hawthorne, however, is certain the man died of fright, and that diabolic forces are abroad in Devil’s End. It’s a bewitching brew of cliché and melodrama, with the theme of the whole story laid out in this brief exchange. (Sadly, we never do find out what Jim saw that night. It could be the gargoyle Bok, but as he seems to animate for the first time at the end of Episode One, it’s unlikely. And while we’re on the subject, the fate of the dog also remains infuriatingly uncertain.)

Lavishly filmed and well characterised, the first half hour of The Daemons quivers with small pleasures. The quirks of the BBC team visiting Devil’s End for the opening of the barrow are written and played to perfection. A neat directorial gag sees the episode switch from film to videotape for the first time at the moment of presenter Alistair Fergus’s piece direct to camera, turning a familiar and often painful Doctor Who discontinuity into a strength. Actor David Simeon finds every nuance of Fergus’s pastiche dialogue – chewing on his narration like David Frost (“There is. Something strange. About Devil’s End”), or doing an Alan Whicker as he affects to reach for the right word (“Standing here, in this… unquiet… place”). Archaeologist Professor Horner has no time for him, and their mutual dislike is played to great comic effect. Acting as go-between is another endearing character: Harry, the camp BBC assistant. When snapped at by Fergus for asking if he’s okay, Harry huffs: “Well! I only asked. There’s no need to make a production number out of it.” He’s a familiar stereotype of course, but one wonders if the writers found specific inspiration close to home. The Daemons’ production assistant is Peter Grimwade. Taking a similar role on the previous story, Colony in Space, was one Jonathan Turner. A decade later, with the former a director of Doctor Who and the latter the producer (his name, by then, gunning double barrelled), their bitchy snits and spats would become the gossip of the Doctor Who world.

Sadly, the BBC crew heads for the hills after the barrow is cracked and Azal awakes. Following his invocation, the pace of rest of the story is entirely set by the bizarre habits of our Daemon. The Doctor tells us that Azal will manifest three times before we finally learn what he’s about – though quite why, or how the Doctor knows his schedule, is a total mystery. Azal can also change size at will. He first struts across the countryside as a towering Mr Tumnus, stamping on policemen, but then gets all shy and shrinks to a speck in the Master’s cellar for a long while. What’s he doing down there on the floor all that time? Smiting ants? Put together, these affectations mean that Azal can keep us waiting for a couple more hours, but still go ‘ta-dah!’ every so often. It’s almost as if he knows he’s in a multi-episode, cliffhanger-based melodrama.

For his final encore, Azal plays the proper bossy boots, booming judgments through ill-fitting teeth. “THIS PLANET SMELLS TO ME OF FAILURE!” he bellows, though that may be an unfortunate side effect of the fright he gave the Master at the end of Episode Three. Azal considers destroying the Earth, but then decides to give it over to the Master and kill the Doctor. Jo shouts: “Kill me, not him!”, and her noble self-sacrifice causes Azal to blow up – which must be really frustrating for him after all those centuries waiting for his big moment.

It’s far from a fresh observation to say that the climax of The Daemons is disappointing, and Azal’s reaction difficult to swallow. Even the script editor, Terrance Dicks, doesn’t believe in it. So how might it have been handled better? What’s the simplest fix? Well, how about if Azal instead ruled in favour of the Doctor and tried to kill the Master – but Jo still intervened. She would do it because she knows it’s what the Doctor would do, and because no one should die. Minutes before, the Master was poised to cut Jo’s throat, so this would be a properly bewildering act of self-sacrifice. As our representative of humanity, Jo would be proof of how far we have come as a race. Bamboozled Azal goes poof. Church goes bang. A bewildered and broken Master is dragged away by UNIT.

The final scene we leave untouched, of course. The Doctor and Jo Grant, the Brigadier, Yates and Benton, all smiling in the spring sunshine. Around the maypole, the Doctor dances. The Brig would rather have a pint. As we slowly pull back high and away, we leave them together, forever, in an moment of undeniable Doctor Who perfection; in a timeless and perfect bubble of joy.

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DVD Extras

A reel of Super-8 film, shot on location during production, flickers with the rainbow palette of 70s nostalgia. Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning waltz by. Roger Delgado and Nicholas Courtney grin from behind groovy shades. Bok the gargoyle slips off his wellies and into papier maché feet.  Young children roll on the grass of the village green. They’ll be parents themselves now. Grandparents.

Suitably advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, they say. It’s technology that gives the Doctor Who Restoration Team its ineffable powers, but I see only magic. A clip from Tomorrow’s World in 1993 demonstrates the Team’s early sorcery, while the episodes on this DVD show how much further their wizardry has come.

The documentary Remembering Barry Letts pays just tribute to the polymath producer of the Pertwee years, and features interviews with Letts himself, admiring colleagues, and his sons, Dominic and Crispin. The programme rightly puts its subject’s Doctor Who work into the context of a long and high-achieving career, and while one wishes the budget had been available to provide more footage of Letts as an actor – and clips from other TV series on which he worked as producer – it proves an excellent and quietly moving tribute.

The Daemons was a famously jolly job for its cast and crew, and that mood is captured by both the commentary and production documentary here. If you think there’s nothing new to be learned about the making of this serial, then prepare to be surprised; not least by the story of the floor manager’s hat. However, the most rewarding extra here is the ‘Info Text’ commentary, provided by the master of the art, Martin Wiggins. Intelligent, witty and insanely meticulous, it brings the making of these episodes vividly to life. By day, Dr Wiggins is one of the world’s leading Shakespearean scholars. By night, he’s researching and compiling these facts for us; including a list of all the newspapers used to make Bert the Landlord’s coat for the morris dance sequence – and I mean down to the specific days’ editions. Frankly, we should count ourselves lucky that Wiggins is on our side. Because if all this focus and brain power were instead used for evil, there’d be no stopping him. We would all be as dust beneath his feet. As is his will, so mote it be.

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6 Responses to “The Daemons”

  1. John E. May 5, 2012 at 6:58 am #

    The newly released DVD for ‘The Daemons’ is excellent, restoring the ‘fluid’ video look of the original studio sequences. This technical feat seems to have improved the balance and pace to what had been already a production with higher than normal levels of film material.

  2. worldofquark May 8, 2012 at 7:36 pm #

    Brilliant review of a brilliant story (and a brilliant DVD). One slightly obvious thing to add: I love the way The Daemons wears its influences lightly, but obviously – a touch of John Wyndham here, a fairly large dollop of Hammer there, and a few sprinkles of ‘Wicker Man’. It clearly enjoys those influences – without taking them too seriously, mind; which makes for a lovely blend.

    The review above includes some great insights – that’s a lovely suggestion for an alternative ending, for instance; nice reflections too on the “original” for Camp Harry.

    Apart from the fact that narrative needs, rather than logic, drive Azal’s appearance, as you say above, the other hilariously odd thing in the script (not that one really wants to cavil) is the idea that the Master “hides out” in an English village, adopting the “disguise” of a pair of thick rimmed glasses and the Latin version of his name, invokes the Devil, “disappears” Canon Wosshisface, generally causes mayhem, and then seems genuinely surprised when UNIT (mission statement: investigate the unusual, keep an eye out for Masters) appear.

    But then, I suppose it never really does to apply logic to Masterly schemes…

  3. redflagwalks May 25, 2012 at 7:12 am #

    quite a big nod also to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit, in which the locale where the alien spacecraft was found was called Hobbs Lane (Hobb’s End in the 60s film)…not seen it again since the first broadcast 40 years ago but greatly enjoyed seeing it once more and excellent review…

  4. Gary Gillatt May 12, 2015 at 11:59 am #

    Reblogged this on Squabbling Rubber.

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