Arise, Sir Doctor.
The TARDIS, according to the founding mythology of Doctor Who, was to be a vehicle with which to teach history; the Doctor, two schoolteachers, and a precocious teenage student were to travel in time to various historical settings, educating and exciting viewers in equal measure. The Daleks aside, the first several seasons bear out that emphasis, but eventually the “historical” became a rarely used device, as monsters and mayhem came to predominate. Why have mad Nero fiddling when you can have the Dalek emperor exploding? Under producer John Nathan-Turner, the historical begins to make something of a comeback during Peter Davison’s run as the Fifth Doctor, exemplified by Terence Dudley’s “The King’s Demons” (Story Production Code 6J) a two-episode story that serves as an A-level refresher course in British history, focusing as it does on a day in the life of King John (Gerald Flood).
Materializing suddenly during a joust between King John’s champion, Sir Gilles, and Hugh (Christopher Villiers) the impetuous son of Ranulf Fitzwilliam (Frank Windsor), the TARDIS causes horses to rear and peasants to fear, but the King greets this “blue engine” with surprising equanimity, welcoming the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough as his “demons” and providing them seats beside him to witness the resumption of the trial by combat. The French knight with the dodgy accent and even more dodgy facial makeup vanquishes his young foe, and only the Doctor’s pleas to the king spare Hugh’s life, after which everyone returns to Ranulf’s castle for a feast in honor of his highness.
Director Tony Virgo and the production staff raid the BBC’s costume and props stocks, creating an effective medieval atmosphere, with lingering shots of feasting tables piled high with roast beast, extended lute jam sessions, and panoramas of castle walls and crenelations. With only two episodes to work with, though, this scene-setting takes time perhaps better served by plot development—except that, to a real extent, the setting is the narrative, to a degree not seen since, well, “The Crusade” some eighteen years prior. The date of the story plays a significant role: March 4, 1215, the day King John took the Crusader’s oath and three months before he agreed to Magna Carta.
The Doctor, then, knows that King John should be in London on this day, not antagonizing a rural lord’s household for more money and men for the Crusades. Tegan doesn’t seem moved, even though she knows the basic story of King John’s life, but her seeming indifference points out just how beholden this story is on a thorough understanding of King John, specifically his reputation as something of a villain, who, along with his brothers, Henry II and Richard I, was scurrilously claimed to have been beholden to devils and demons. Contemporary viewers were expected to fill in the gaps in the narrative here and realize the significance of King John offering a seat at his table to those he himself calls “demons,” though Dudley, ostensibly with the aid of script editor Eric Saward, make sure to sketch in a few details for those not steeped in Angevin lore.
Quite quickly, given the short runtime of this story, the Doctor figures out that this king seems off somehow, with the arrival of Ranulf’s cousin, Geoffrey (Michael J. Jackson) from London where he just took the Crusader’s oath with King John confirming that an impostor stalks Fitzwilliam castle. After a duel of honor with Sir Gilles, in which the Doctor displays quite effective swordsmanship, the French knight is revealed to be, yes, Anthony Ainley in thick makeup, to absolutely no one’s surprise. The Master’s real revelation comes later, when the Doctor discovers the truth behind bad King John…
He’s a robot, or an android, “a complex mass of artificial neurons,” at any rate, once a tool of earlier invaders of Xeriphas, where the Doctor thought he had stranded the Master after the events of “Time-Flight.” Named Kamelion (voiced, uncredited, by Gerald Flood), the artificial life form can take any form or personality, an instrument of deceit the Master intends to use to bring down every significant civilization in the universe in order to create chaos and a power vacuum only he can fill. Destroying Earth’s nascent effort at some form of parliamentary democracy, by discrediting King John prior to Magna Carta being signed, is but one strand of his plan. (Just how the TARDIS came to arrive at this very moment remains unexplored by Dudley, with the blue box simply appearing there without the Doctor’s—or the Master’s—intervention.)
The Master escapes the duel with the Doctor by jumping into his TARDIS, which takes the form of an iron maiden, enabling him to turn the inhabitants of the castle against the king’s demons. By “rescuing” Ranulf’s spouse, Isabella (Isla Blair) and Hugh, who were put into captivity by the King (at the Master’s orders), he brings the castle to his side, enabling him to corral the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough, at least until Tegan jumps in the TARDIS and causes it to dematerialize, giving the Doctor a chance to escape and discover Kamelion.
It’s notable that the final confrontation between the Doctor and the Master in “The King’s Demons” takes place over the last ten minutes of the story, an agonizingly short period of time for a normal denouement in a four- or six-episode story but occupying roughly twenty percent of the full run-time of a two-episode story. The extended battle of wills between the two Time Lords, each attempting to sway Kamelion’s susceptible mind, should feel rushed and haphazard, but just as the narrative relies on the historical setting and the audience’s inherent knowledge of the time period to fill in major elisions in the plot, it also relies on viewers knowing the Master’s history.
Spared from needing to explain why the malevolently mustachioed Master would want to conquer all of space and time, Dudley, Nathan-Turner, and Saward just get on with the good stuff, the Doctor and Master picking up their long-running feud as though no time had passed at all since their last encounter at prehistoric Heathrow Airport. Tegan shouts, “Tissue compression eliminator!” when the Master wields his signature weapon before the Doctor disarms him, the audience being supposed to know what that is, and though the planet Xeriphas is mentioned time and again, no explanation is offered of how or why the Master was stranded there at the conclusion of “Time-Flight.” Dudley even glosses over Kamelion’s assistance in getting him away from “that benighted planet,” in order to keep the action moving.
Virgo rapidly intercuts between Davison and Ainley’s stern faces, locked in concentration, the Doctor and the Master each trying to win over Kamelion’s mind. The effect works well, as does the blurring of Kamelion’s figure—disguised as King John—during the confrontation. The Master urges Ranulf to kill the Doctor, but Tegan manages to materialize the TARDIS in the room at just that moment, in a bit of piloting the Fifth Doctor has yet to match, allowing the Doctor to triumph. Kamelion transforms into Tegan—almost entirely because the Kamelion prop could not actually walk, as well as to prevent it from looking like aliens abducted King John—and everyone dashes into the “blue engine” to escape, including the newest member of the TARDIS crew.
Despite being burdened with thick makeup (again) and even thicker dialogue, Anthony Ainley dominates pretty much every scene he’s in, selling the Master’s mania and confidence in equal measure. He’s turned into an exceptional foil for the Fifth Doctor, who, it must be confessed, does indeed have a touch of naiveté about him. Gerald Flood likewise holds his own as the befuddled King John, acting imperious and clueless as the moment demands. His manner suggests someone used to having his whims indulged. The Master’s plan, such as it is, relies on the impersonation being close enough to the truth to convince people but also strange enough to give onlookers a sense that something’s not quite right with bad King John. Flood carries off the role with ease.
Mark Strickson could have had the week off for this one, alas. Turlough does little more than find a horse, shake a sword, and get mad at people disrespecting him. There’s a hair-trigger to Turlough, and Strickson does “flip that switch” rather convincingly, but it beggars belief that Turlough would be more upset about the fact of being accused of something than with the potentially fatal consequences of that accusation.
Tegan, by contrast, plays a more substantial role, with Janet Fielding frequently in scenes with Peter Davison, both as the target of his historical exposition for those viewers who didn’t study the Plantagenets in school and, more disturbingly, as a counterweight to the Doctor trying to save the day. Dudley portrays Tegan the same way as in his “Four to Doomsday,” as a scared bystander who only wants to go home regardless of the events going on around her, a trope that very much outstayed its welcome with Ian and Barbara and Ben and Polly. Particularly after “Arc of Infinity,” where Tegan makes the choice to return to the TARDIS, her character has proven that, while perhaps burdened with a surfeit of caution, she wants to travel with the Doctor, even given the harrowing events of “Snakedance.” Still, Fielding gamely works with the script as given, imbuing Tegan with character and depth despite the words on the page.
Rare of late, it’s Peter Davison who actually does something in “The King’s Demons,” driving the plot from start to finish. He gets a sword fight worthy of Jon Pertwee, a stare-off that Tom Baker would have loved, and a historical setting that calls to mind the Hartnell and Troughton eras. Pretty much everything that happens in this story derives from the Doctor’s actions, and Davison runs with it. His apparent chemistry with Ainley sells the climactic battle, despite that fact that they just stand there grimacing at one another for a few minutes.
As for Kamelion, well, he’s invited himself aboard as their new “colleague,” asserting, “And who knows where it will end?” As it turns out, for the next few stories it ends with the android interloper in a cupboard somewhere, as he’s not seen again for nearly a year when he makes one (very) final appearance. It’s a strange sidelining of a potential companion; particularly for a series that has striven to emphasize continuity and canonicity, to have a passenger on the TARDIS who is literally just along for the ride strikes a discordant note. It’s likely one detail Nathan-Turner wishes the audience forgot rather than remembered. The problems with the prop itself limit what can actually be done with the character. Even K-9 could be pulled along if (and when) the inevitable mechanical foul-up occurred, but no such luck with a six foot tall animatronic metal skeleton.
As so often is the case with Doctor Who, particularly as it enters the 1980s, it shouldn’t work, and sometimes it doesn’t work, but more often than not it just plain works. “The King’s Demons” manages to present a compelling adventure that feels full and well-developed despite the fact that it’s not actually developed at all. There are two banquet scenes, one jousting scene, two dungeon scenes, one scene of a guy on a horse, and ten minutes of Peter Davison and Anthony Ainley staring at each other with a half-baked silver robot playing a lute in-between them.
It works because everyone—audience included—knows their roles, knows their history, and knows their expectations. Not unlike Dudley’s last story, “Black Orchid,” also a two-parter, the conventions of Doctor Who have been firmly established, allowing for a bit of leeway in how the story is told and what kind of story is told. And just like Dudley’s other brief interlude, “The King’s Demons” provides a nice change of pace from the typical universe-saving. It is, as the Doctor says, “small-time villainy” on the Master’s part, just right for a story told in its entirety on subsequent nights in the middle of a winter week. If nothing else, students who saw it will always remember what happened on March 4, 1215…
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Post 133 of the Doctor Who Project