Doctor Who: Battlefield

Doctor Who: Battlefield September 13, 2012

The first episode from the last season of Sylvester McCoy’s time as the Doctor is “Battlefield” and it is ripe to be revisited in the era of Matt Smith. Spoilers follow.

In this episode, the Doctor comes to Earth at a time when former Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stuart has retired and is married (although he eagerly comes out of retirement when he hears that the Doctor has turned up). There is a new Brigadier in charge of UNIT, a woman named Winifred Bambera. When the Doctor and Ace arrive in response to a distress call, the Doctor hands Ace an old UNIT ID which had previously belonged to Liz Shaw, for a nice bit of continuity.

Soon they are all encountering knights in armor in the vicinity of Vortigern’s Lake, the name of which we are told translates as “the Lake of the High King.” One knight identifies the Doctor as Merlin, and knows of his manner, his changing appearance, and his box that travels through time and space that is bigger within than without. But that is still in the Doctor’s future – and that’s why I suggested earlier that it would be great for the Doctor as portrayed by Matt Smith to meet King Arthur (one in a parallel universe, who, as we are told in “Battlefield,” more closely resembled the myth than the one in our own universe).

Oh, and Bessie makes a reappearance too:

The most direct connection with religion is when Morgaine de Fay conjures up a demon, “the Destroyer.” The Doctor had taught Ace to protect herself and their new-found friend Shou Yuing from Morgaine by drawing a chalk circle around themselves. Ace asks whether they should also sprinkle holy water, and Shou Yuing replies “I don’t know – it’s not my mythology.” Morgaine threatens the girls that the Destroyer will take them and make them his handmaidens in hell. All of that sounds pretty dubious, but reflects popular notions of hell – and in the Doctor Who universe, there are entities who are not viewed as supernatural but who otherwise correspond to what humans refer to as “demons.”

Yet the stance that everything ultimately has a scientific explanation is less clear than in earlier Doctor Who seasons. The Doctor says at a particular moment that they need to worry about “sorcery.” What Morgaine can do seems at times to depend on technology, at times to be magic. If the Doctor is here genuinely worried about something that has only a supernatural, and not a scientific, explanation, then this would mark a significant departure from the show’s earlier history, in which, the presence of daemons and gods notwithstanding, it was always assumed or asserted that everything has a scientific explanation.

On the whole, the episode works well, in spite of its low-budget special effects. It has much of the comedic content that makes Doctor Who special.

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  • The Doctor makes a specific claim that any sufficiently advanced form of magic is indistinguishable from technology. The inverse of Arther C. Clark’s claim that any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from magic. Fun to imagine and very convenient for scriptwriters but I don’t know how much credence I’d put into that. Just because our technology seems magical to technologically primitive cultures doesn’t mean that highly advanced alien technology would seem like magic to us.

    I like to think that if I did encounter real alien tech I’d ask them what basic principles it operated on and that I could get up to speed in short order. After all, I don’t understand the details of how my computer works but I know enough that it isn’t quite a magic picture box to me.

    I liked Ace. She was one of my favorite companions.