I’ve cast the runes. I’ve consulted the talisman of Mercury.
If the BBC didn’t pay royalties to Erich von Däniken for “The Daemons” (Story Production Code JJJ), perhaps they should have. The premise of aliens having guided Earth’s history, as put forth in von Däniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods?, forms a central conceit in much of Doctor Who, and that ur-plot essentially starts here, in the Season Eight finale. There are hints of ancient aliens in earlier stories, notably “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” but in “The Daemons,” Guy Leopold (actually producer Barry Letts with Robert Sloman) makes the Chariots connection explicit by linking the alien in question to the Devil.
As the Doctor explains—at the Cloven Hoof Inn in the English town of Devil’s End, just in case anyone missed the point—the Daemons, from the planet Daemos, came to Earth one hundred thousand years ago and helped homo sapiens defeat the Neanderthals as a sort of science experiment, in the process forever imprinting the notion of powerful horned beasts into the collective unconscious. The rituals that evolved around the Daemons came to form religious and magical beliefs, though the Doctor avers that because the Daemons are attracted to psychic energy, these rituals, passed down through generations, merely serve to focus human emotions, neatly squaring the science/magic circle.
The Doctor is not the only one who knows of the power of the Daemons, though. The Master is also in on the secret, and he’s dressed to play the part, posing as both the newly installed local vicar and as the head of the local black magic coven, the better to harness the town’s mental energies to summon the last of the Daemons, Azal. Conveniently, Azal just happens to have parked his spaceship in the nearby Devil’s Hump burial barrow.
The story goes off the rails quickly enough, with several long expository sequences given over to a giant heat barrier surrounding the town once Azal manifests, and as usual, the Master has set into motion a plot more likely to kill himself than anyone else.
For all the Master’s cunning, he really doesn’t think these things through, assuming that the ability to summon an ancient alien from an advanced civilization using a rooster somehow confers power over said creature (the Daemon, not the rooster). But then, the biggest threat to the Doctor comes not from Azal, nor Azal’s pet gargoyle that for some reason does the Master’s bidding, but rather from the Master’s chief henchman, a newspaper-clipping-clad Morris dancer. That’s the kind of story this is…
More than anything, Letts and Sloman’s story feels disjointed, with some scenes just thrown in as makeweights. While one can’t be too upset with the return of the UNIT bazooka and the obligatory helicopter chase scene, one wishes for a more focused exploration of the conflict between magic and science, between ritual and reality, and indeed between the Doctor and the Master, who only confront one another directly at the very end of the story. There’s simply too much going on for a five episode story, none of which seems connected. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart amply sums up the jumbled state of affairs in a radio conversation with Captain Yates:
Brigadier: I see, Yates. So the Doctor was frozen stiff at the barrow and was then revived by a freak heat wave, Benton was beaten up by invisible forces, and the local white witch claims she’s seen the devil.
Sergeant Benton, Captain Yates, and even the Doctor take turns getting smacked around and hogtied by the Master’s mad Morris dancers, but they fare somewhat better than Jo. Katy Manning suffers not just the indignity of being offered up as a sacrifice to Azal but also gets called, well, stupid several times over by the Doctor, both for her belief in the supernatural and for questioning the Brigadier’s instructions. That the Doctor himself mere moments before suggested that Lethbridge-Stewart was a buffoon only makes the insult sting more. Jo serves as the butt of the joke more frequently than any other companion, and seldom in a loving way. It’s hardly a shining example of the Doctor’s character here, particularly since Jo is the person who saves not just the Doctor but the whole world at the end.
The Master’s plan centers on getting Azal to grant him power over the Earth. Apparently, Azal’s mission over the last hundred thousand years has been to empower humanity in order to see what they did with the power, and if the experiment is not successful, this Daemon, the last of his kind, has the duty to destroy the planet. The Doctor suggests, foolishly, that Azal’s efforts have only caused humans to begin to ruin their planet, and when the Doctor rejects Azal’s offer of dominion over Earth to right the wrongs, the Daemon grants the power to the Master and attempts to kill the Doctor.
Jo throws herself in front of the Doctor, and her willingness to sacrifice herself in the place of the Doctor causes the Daemon to explode for some reason. The Doctor puts it down to Azal, a creature of logic and science, being unable to process the illogical choice Jo made to save the Doctor. It’s an odd reaffirmation of the power of spirit and emotion over reason in a story that attempts to explain away all traces of the numinous.
But then, there’s no real coherence in Letts and Sloman’s tale, and no apologies made for it. The story remains frankly fun, and though the plotting might be a bit wonky, there’s no denying that the cast and crew have developed a real fluency with one another. The location scenes of the Maypole on the village square, with the Doctor tied up and about to be burned as a witch, are a delight, as a hidden Benton shoots targets that the Doctor calls out to demonstrate his “magical” ability. And the UNIT lads (John Levene and Richard Franklin) get quite a bit of screen time in this one, running hither and yon, throwing (and taking) punches, and really dominating several episodes. Jon Pertwee even gets in on the act, riding a motorcycle with some skill.
In the end, the story just sort of, well, ends. The Master is finally captured after an entirely ineffectual escape attempt in Bessie, the Doctor and Jo do a bit of dancing around the Maypole, and Yates and the Brigadier nip off for a pint. The fact that the Daemon’s spaceship exploded in the nearby barrow upon his death and that the local church went up in flames with along with Azal all gets left to the side. Granted, most Doctor Who stories tend to leave the clean-up for off-screen, one reason that the Second Doctor so frequently left the scene before anyone could ask who was going to pay for it all. Here it feels a bit jarring, but only a bit.
The world is safe for the time being, with the local white witch commenting on the birds singing and the flowers scenting the air, despite the wafting smoke from the ruined church. All is right, or close enough. I suppose it’s not too much to ask for a dance and drink. Our heroes have earned it.
(Previous Story: Colony in Space)
(Next Story: Day of the Daleks)
Post 61 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project