Yes, in a box.
From the utterly fantastical, web-filled world of Vortis, our intrepid travellers careen back to Earth’s middle ages, landing just outside of Jaffa, where they encounter Crusaders doing battle with Saracens. And you know what? They don’t find that strange one bit. It’s taken them some fourteen stories, but in “The Crusade” (Story Production Code P), our jaded time travellers no longer display amazement at what they discover outside the TARDIS doors. If it’s Tuesday, it must be the Levant, ho hum.
Even when they meet King Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, there’s no real sense of wonder. Ian only wants to persuade Richard, one of the most mythologized of British kings, to help him rescue Barbara (who was this story’s kidnap victim and court intrigue player, just as she was in our last historical, “The Romans“), expecting this favor as payment for the return of the king’s shiny gold belt.
Indeed, the parallels between “The Crusade” and “The Romans” are striking—Barbara is separated from the group and used as a pawn in various court intrigues (Saladin’s court, in this case); Ian spends the entire story trying to rescue her and engaging in sword fights; and the Doctor and Vicki pal around with historical personages, dress in period clothing, talk about changing history, and have a few laughs while narrowly escaping at the end.
Given these similarities, why, then does “The Crusade” rank as perhaps the finest historical story of all of Doctor Who‘s run? Simply put, the quality of the writing and the acting. David Whitaker’s script provides strong enough characterizations of the story’s historical figures that one does not balk at sequences without the Doctor or the companions. The writing itself flows gracefully—aside from some awkward sequences with Arab characters speaking broken English—resisting even William Hartnell’s legendary efforts at mangling lines.
But then, the story would also work without the Doctor and his companions. For all of Barbara’s escaping and running and being re-captured by the evil El Akir, the story centers on Richard’s attempts to end the war with Saladin; the strongest moments of the story revolve around Richard and his sister Joanna’s arguments over her proposed marriage to Saladin’s brother. It’s as though our time travellers were dropped into a BBC period drama and wander around at the margins of the story. Very little time is given to “sightseeing” and explanations of the strange world in which they’ve arrived. Too, the story remains essentially serious, with only a minor humorous aside featuring stolen court clothing, a tone that helps reinforce the laconic response of the travellers to meeting such significant historical figures.
So what makes “The Crusade” a Doctor Who story other than the presence of the TARDIS?
For me, not that much, a feeling that might have been in the minds of the production team, as historical stories disappear from the series almost entirely after the Season Four story “The Highlanders.” The mere notion of the Doctor scampering away from Richard when he is raging after Joanna’s refusal to wed Saladin’s brother suggests to me the problem with the historical story format. Just one story prior, the Doctor and his companions help the butterfly people destroy the evil Animus at the heart of a planet-spanning web, but in Earth’s History (as opposed to its amorphous past), the Doctor can do naught but stare and hold his tongue. Good history makes poor Doctor Who.
Though I might not be quite as sold on this story as the majority of critics, the acting and writing do deliver a pleasing narrative. At least, what we can see of it, for “The Crusade” is another of those “missing episode” stories.
Only episodes one (“The Lion”) and three (“The Wheel of Fortune”) exist on film in the BBC archives; the remaining two episodes are available as audio only. The version of episode one on the BBC DVD release shows extensive flickering, possibly made from a second or third generation transfer. So we miss out on Ian being staked, honey-covered, to the desert ground with a stream of ants nearing and his being knighted Sir Ian, Knight of Jaffa. It’s a shame William Russell had only a few stories left after this one, because as the joking on his knighthood between the Doctor and the companions at the end of the story would have been a nice recurring theme.
The use of the word “companions” to describe the, er, companions makes a very strong return to the series with this story, being used twice in direct reference to them.
Ian (to Richard): There were four of us in that wood. One of our companions was a lady.
Richard (to Ian): Take this gold belt to the Sultan Saladin. Beg him to release Sir William des Preaux and your companion.
We have to reach back to Season One’s “The Sensorites” for the last use of “companions” in this context.
The Doctor, despite a relative lack of screen time, continues to display a pugilistic streak, knocking out an armed Saracen in the first few minutes of the story. He’s no stranger to fisticuffs. His glee at stealing clothing from a market vendor (whom he overhears buying stolen clothes) reveals a mischievous streak, one Hartnell seems to delight in playing.
Ian and Barbara just go through the motions at this point, with little to no actual character development, perhaps foreshadowing their nearing exit from the series. Only Vicki gets any real characterization in this story, though her main emotion is a strong fear at being left behind in time and space by the Doctor. One wonders if Barbara and Ian let slip that the Doctor locked his own granddaughter out of the TARDIS on a Dalek-devastated Earth . . .
And the TARDIS, of course, malfunctions yet again, right after Barbara jokes about it doing what it wants regardless of the Doctor’s intentions. This time, we’re going on a field trip to “The Space Museum.”
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(Next Episode: The Space Museum)
Post 14 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project