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…