Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The horned beast!

Doctor Who
The Daemons

The Daemons, once heralded as an all-time classic, now languishes somewhat, tarnished by the kind of reappraisal that rendered the once-lost The Tomb of the Cybermen not, after all, all that. This may be fair enough – an unassailable status is always ripe for toppling – although I rest firmly in the defender camp for both. While The Daemons undoubtedly has its issues, it’s a story I enjoy in spite of and sometimes for the things it gets criticised over, be it the “cosy” UNIT family vibe, or just being “not really very good” (pretty much the party line in The Discontinuity Guide’s appreciation of the Pertwee era, while unaccountably finding Davison’s run cherishable).


The Doctor: You might say he blew a fuse.

So what of the major beefs, then? Well, I can’t honestly argue that the ending isn’t a weak cop-out, as Azal gets abjectly confused (“It does not relate!”) by Jo’s offer to sacrifice herself in the Doctor’s stead. It doesn’t actually annoy me, however, mainly because the tropes themselves – the computer self-destructing when confronted with imperfect logic, human values as oddities that make us unique and special, which ostensibly “higher” lifeforms perversely fail to comprehend - have been flourished many times across the genre.


The resolution might have been more irksome had Azal been built into a substantial character, but the consequence of delaying his appearance until the fourth episode, and then not actually seeing his face until the end of that episode, is that there’s so little to define him, other than his curious rationale for offering stewardship of mankind to the Doctor or the Master. And, while he’s quite well designed (you can’t really go too far wrong with Pan), I’ve never been fully on board with Stephen BOOMING Thorne’s performances, not in this, not in The Three Doctors, and not in The Hand of Fear.


As for the Doctor being a right bastard, he certainly has a couple of prize moments, of which Jo is mostly on the receiving end. All that’s missing from “Jo, did you fail Latin as well as science?” is “You stupid bloody bitch”. Later, he compounds this by being extremely contrary over her dismissiveness of the Brigadier (something she has undoubtedly learned from him), reprimanding her for showing disrespect towards her superior officer.


Winstanley: Forgive me. Well, I thought, the costume and wig.
The Doctor: WIG?

On the other hand, Pertwee has highly memorable moments – in a good way – throughout, belying the idea this is some kind of nadir for his incarnation’s personability. These include his response to the suggestion his hair might not be his own, his interaction with Osgood – which may be superior (“Let’s concentrate, shall we?”) but the back-and-forth of is a delight, in no small part thanks to Alec Linstead’s performance – “You’ve got the mind of an accountant, Brigadier”, and the Venusian lullaby “Close your eyes my darling, well three of them at least”, which appears to make Katy Manning genuinely crack up. It’s not as if Pertwee’s Doctor is ever that consistently approachable, as prone to giving a tongue-lashing as he is to turning on the charm (if not more so). Generally, though, he’s more likable here than, say The Mutants (which I’ve also revisited recently).


The Doctor: What’s the bounder’s name?

The other notable Doctor utterance in The Daemons that tends to receive a less than glowing reaction is his suggestion Hitler was only a faintly disreputable fellow. This one’s a storm in a teacup, since the reason for mentioning Hitler (or Genghis Khan; he’s not quite sure which bounder it is) is to compare one-time best chum and supreme bounder-whom-he-still-quite-likes-really the Master to someone else he once observed using similarly totalitarian language. He’s massaging his disapproval with a bit of sarcastic understatement. So they you have it, what more proof could you wish for of the Third Doctor’s suspect ideological (Tory) underpinnings?


Of the rest of the regulars, the Brigadier is at his best, and Courtney plays a blinder (see below), Jo is supremely dim throughout, and Manning’s and John Levene’s performances range from variable to plankish, so no change there, although the latter is especially noticeable as Benton has more to do. Richard Franklin pitches Yates as supremely uncomfortable as ever (he’s never really at ease until he gets brainwashed).


There’s no faulting Roger Delgado, of course, but the Master by this point rather beggars belief. There’s a superb scene where he magisterially begins identifying the villagers’ sly sins and best-kept secrets (“Are you still padding the grocery bills of the local gentry?”), promising he’s not there to judge, merely to fulfil their desires if they do as he says. Unfortunately, less than two scenes later he’s yelling at them, his persuasive veneer replaced by derision (“Why, you’re all less than dust beneath my feet!”). And isn’t this about the fifth time in row the Master has fundamentally miscalculated the power of the bottle he’s uncorking? Nevertheless, Delgado dishes up a storm, whether he’s in vicar’s duds or satanic rites robes.


Jo: But it really is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Well, that means the occult, you know, the supernatural and all that magic bit.

There are other negatives that should fairly be acknowledged; it’s definitely a bit murky in places just who is doing what in Devil’s End and how and why (the Master or Azal) in respect of Bok (like Azal, a memorable piece of design), heat shields and potential braining incidents. And, while the dialogue is often marvellously memorable (“In the name of the unspeakable one, back!”, “The horned beast!”, “This planet smells to me of failure!” and Miss Hawthorne’s linguistically inventive Quiquaequod), sometimes Sloman and Letts let things slip; Miss Hawthorne (the wonderfully lispy Damaris Hayman) references the old vicar, “the one who left in such mysterious circumstances”, like it’s Scooby Doo. Also, while Devil’s End is a suitably evocative name, are we really supposed to believe Satanhall is to be found nearby? However, I love the local yokels. They’re great fun, part-and-parcel of the story’s heightened appeal, as much in your average Hammer horror.


The Daemons’ position as one of the least threatening, most archetypal Who stories – its reputation held so high for so long on account of being a much-loved cornerstone of its era, from those who made the series down – makes it more striking for occupying territory the series hadn’t explored before, and wouldn’t again, really, until the cloth-brained The Curse of Fenric attempted to fashion a crude commentary on comparative faiths. This being the BBC, it was generally nervous of upsetting its licence payers, so it definitely was not okay to undermine the beliefs of the nation’s little ones (or rather, their discerning parents), however fractured they may have become by the early ‘70s; the show wasn’t in the habit of even broaching the subject of Britain’s dominant religion, let alone undermining its tenets.


Indeed, the show has mostly avoided – wisely, I think – getting into the sticky territory of challenging specific beliefs; far better to generalise or make something up to bring home your point. We’d seen Christianity in the show, but mostly in the context of the pure historicals (The Crusade, The Massacre) where the Doctor was passing judgement on events, rather than the validity of the faiths that supported them. Sure, there was an alien posing as a man of God in the second and third seasons, but he was a comedy character unlikely to cause offence. The supernatural and occult, or ideas that directly undermined a belief in the Christian God, weren’t generally entertained. You might invoke An Unearthly Child’s Stone Age tribe as an indirect support of evolution and so a slight to biblical accounts, but it was fairly oblique. And The Abominable Snowmen offered a religious order infiltrated and used by evil forces – even featuring what would later become commonplace, demonic possession, but was then highly unusual –  but they were Buddhist, so comfortably far from home.


That all changed with the Letts era, and it did so nearly from the beginning, even if the series largely reverted to form thereafter (the occasional “Set, Satan, Sadok” aside, but in referencing an Egyptian god it was again closer to The Abominable Snowmen example). The Silurians posited a race of intelligent reptiles ruling Earth while man was yet an ape, while Inferno suggested a reversion to a more primitive rung on the evolutionary ladder. The next logical step was tackling the antiquated prime religion itself. I even wonder if – given Buddhist Barry being rather aggrieved by the appropriation of Padmasambhava in The Abominable Snowmen – he took a touch of relish in rebalancing the scales.


In The Daemons, the Doctor indicates outright that Christianity is bunkum (“No, not your mythical devil, Jo, no. something far more real and more dangerous”), with, von Däniken style, the activities of alien visitors propelling its mythology (“Of course, Azael, the fallen angel”). The Bible is quoted, but to emphasise Old Testament intolerance and zealotry (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”). Further, Letts introduces a force of good as a direct rebuke to this (“I’m a witch. White, of course”) and engineers the restoration of positive, celebratory forces of paganism at the conclusion, the invading religion having been wiped from the village in explosive fashion.  


We also have the curious exchange between The Master and Miss Hawthorne, where the former, as Reverend Magister, wears the woolly, ineffectual mask of the modern church, which doesn’t really believe in anything very much at all (the Master is a rational man, and “the soul is a dated concept, viewed existentially”) One wonders if Miss Hawthorne’s disdain (“A rationalist existentialist priest indeed!”) mirrors Letts’ view, who may have had no truck with Christianity but could appreciate that it was at least a belief system, and professing to be one of its adherents while believing nothing very much at all was far more objectionable than espousing its less forgiving tenets.


Miss Hawthorne: But that is magic. That’s precisely what black magic is.

Of which, the story’s debate in respect of science versus magic is often held up as a wonderful example of how the show always elevates enlightenment over ignorance, and science over superstition. Really, though, it’s nothing of the sort. While the plotting may sometimes suggest a slipshod approach on Letts’ part, I suspect his philosophical exchanges were entirely intentional. The Doctor’s discourse on psionic science, as Miss Hawthorne surmises, represents little more than smug semantics on his part. 


With a flourish of psychokinetic energy, or a wave of a psionic wand, Bazza is able to give stone creatures life and grant all manner of occult methodologies instant legitimacy (“All the magical traditions are just remnants of their advanced science”), while having the Doctor mention the (then) limits of scientific knowledge (how it’s “impossible for a bumble bee to fly”; Tom was rather fond of that one too). The Daemons actually seems to be saying that magic and science are the same thing, and neither perspective is superior to the other (as such, the Brigadier instructs Osgood of his technical specifications, “Never mind the mumbo jumbo”).


Underlining this is the tilt against science as practiced by the Daemon. There is no moral consideration to Azal’s actions. We are “a scientific experiment to them, just another laboratory rat”. Which leads to the Doctor’s rather alarming assertion “What does any scientist do with an experiment that fails? He chucks it in the rubbish bin” (I hope he checks for toxic waste first). Despite the Doctor’s dogmatism, science isn’t placed on a pedestal here, and it doesn’t win the day (illogical human compassion does). If only Azal had been a Buddhist, he might not have got himself into such a tizzy.


The Daemon element is, of course, something of a Nigel Kneale redux, adapting Quatermass and the Pit’s pre-von Däniken take on ancient astronauts and their influence on beliefs and superstitions, Christian and pagan. While it can claim its part in the zeitgeist thanks to “all that magic bitThe Daemons nevertheless has several Who antecedents, in the advanced, long-dormant semi-mythic race of The Tomb of the Cybermen and the alien/ cryptozoological beasts of The Abominable Snowmen (via HP Lovecraft). Letts and Sloman also precede the likes of Horror Express (1972, itself based on John W Campbell’s Who Goes There?) and its ancient alien aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, and even the quasi-archaeological horrors of Alien and John Carpenter siege movies The Thing and Prince of Darkness.


In broader terms the story effectively juggles the soon to be receding passions of the hippy era, voicing a generation’s era’s disaffectation with, and suspicion of, the prescribed religion, as exemplified by The Wicker Man (1973) a couple of years later. So, while The Daemons is a cosy story, and an unthreatening one, it is thematically much more substantial than many of its predecessors to that point; it only superficially looks like kids’ fare (although that facile ending admittedly doesn’t help its cause). As such, it even laces in more adult themes, from misrepresenting Crowley (“To do my will shall be the whole of the law”) to the Doctor and Jo engaging in a fertility dance (even the new series never went that far, yet).


Other elements also merit mention in defence of this out-of-favour story. If it’s a tale that peaks early, that’s in part because the first episode is near-perfectly paced, structured and written. Director Chris Barry is on form throughout (his contribution to the following season is decidedly less impressive), opening with effectively rain-lashed night filming, and taking obvious care with his compositions; he handles the logistics of the heat barrier particularly impressively. Not everything works (the mismatched scale of Azal’s hoof prints when seen from the air and the ground is all-too noticeable), and the CSO is dickey, but I’d dispute that it’s sometimes unclear what’s going on. You know when a point-of-view is supposed to be a point-of-view.


Alastair Fergus: But now the question is, can Professor Horner pull out his plum?

One of the highlights of the first episode is Professor Horner (Robin Wentworth), and the dead-on parody of twittish public school BBC(3) presenters; when Horner is told it would be “absolutely super” if he could break into the burial chamber at the stroke of midnight, he sardonically replies “Right ho, lad. I’ll do my best to be ‘absolutely super’!” Especially winningly, his reason for staging the event on Beltane is revealed as entirely mercenary; “My new book comes out tomorrow”.


Yes, The Daemons rather falls apart at the final hurdle, but otherwise unfolds confidently over its five episodes, and unlike many a Pertwee suffers no discernible sag midway through. It’s a top notch Brigadier story (“Chap with wings there. Five rounds rapid” – only diminished through being incessantly cited as a summation of all things Lethbridge-Stewart – “Fancy a dance, Brigadier?” “That’s kind of you Captain Yates. I’d rather have a pint”), enough to banish all memory of his bizarre and ignoble final fate as an exhumed Cyber-corpse at the instigation of Steven Moffat (talking of whom, I completely hadn’t made the connection between Osgood and his nu-Who namesake until this viewing, but I see that only as a good thing). And even if I’m not really that fussed by the added value of Benton and Yates in their civvies, they do have their amusing (and action-packed, and amusingly action-packed – Levene can’t get enough of that bazooka) moments.


Miss HawthorneThe May Day miracle has happened again. The Earth is born anew.

The familiar rural idyll is intrinsic to The Daemons’ appeal, so if that element and its accompanying clichés proves off-putting, or the UNIT family atmosphere provokes a disdainful response, the story stands little chance of finding many favours. Yet it ends on such a warm and good-natured moment (“You’re right, Jo, there is magic in the world after all”) it would surely take a heart of ice not to be melted. It may not be the absolute pinnacle of the Pertwee era, but The Daemons still stands tall, no CSO required.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

No comments:

Post a Comment