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James Chapman’s Top Ten Classic Doctor Who Stories: The Daemons

James Chapman’s Top Ten Classic Doctor Who Stories
The Daemons, Doctor Who, Jon Pertwee, TV
The Dæmons

BBC1. 5 episodes: 22 May-19 June 1971.

Starring Jon Pertwee as ‘Doctor Who’, Katy Manning as Jo Grant and Roger Delgado as The Master.

Produced by Barry Letts

Written by Guy Leopold (pseudonym for Robert Sloman and Barry Letts)

Directed by Christopher Barry.

Six down, four to go in my personal selection of the ‘top ten’ classic Doctor Who stories, and now I’m getting to the stage where rather than deciding which story I might include next I’m thinking instead about which stories I can’t leave out. ‘The Dæmons’ is a must-include for me: it’s my favourite Jon Pertwee adventure and quite possibly – if I had to pick just one – my favourite Doctor Who story of all.

‘The Dæmons’ was the fifth and concluding serial of Series 8 in 1971, following ‘Terror of the Autons’, ‘The Mind of Evil’, ‘The Claws of Axos’ and ‘Colony in Space’. This series is best known for introducing a recurring antagonist for the Third Doctor in the character of a renegade Time Lord known only as The Master, played with suave menace by the marvellous Roger Delgado. The Master was conceived as a sort of Moriarty figure to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes – or perhaps, given Pertwee’s fondness for gadgets and the increasingly action-oriented nature of the series at this time, as the Ernst Stavro Blofeld to the Doctor’s James Bond. The Master’s high-buttoned Nehru-style jacket certainly associates him with a villainous archetype: similar garments have long been the dress code for fashion-conscious super-criminals such as The Hood (arch-enemy of International Rescue in Thunderbirds) and assorted Bond villains. At the same time Delgado’s ‘hypnotic’ eyes and pointed black beard place The Master in the tradition of Victorian melodrama.

Series 8 also introduced a new companion for the Doctor in the shapely form of Jo Grant. Jo – played with an innocent sort of sex appeal by Katy Manning – was conceived very much as an alternative to Liz Shaw (Caroline John) of Series 7. Liz herself had been written as a riposte to the charges of sexism levelled against Doctor Who: in the later 1960s the Doctor’s female companions had mostly tended to be screamers in short skirts rather than the more intelligent and mature type of character exemplified by the first companion Barbara Wright. Liz, as a scientist attached to UNIT, was meant to be an intellectual equal to the Doctor. While this was a progressive step in terms of the series’ gender politics, however, the character was less popular with fans. And from a dramatic point of view one of the essential functional roles of the companion – i.e. to ask questions so that the Doctor can spout some technological gobbledygook (Pertwee’s favourite was to “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow”) – was lost as Liz understood things as well as the Doctor. So out went Liz and in came Jo, who had failed her Science O’Level and who accepted that the role as the Doctor’s ‘assistant’ was “someone to pass your test tubes and tell you how brilliant you are”. As far as the gender politics of Doctor Who go, Jo was a reversion to the screaming bimbo stereotype of the 1960s, but Katy Manning’s performance was so delightful that she soon became a favourite character and remained for three seasons. The last episode of ‘The Dæmons’ includes a scene that was written as Manning’s audition piece: when she offers herself up as a sacrifice in order to save the Doctor’s life and so confuses the monster Azal who cannot understand why anyone would do this.

It would probably be fair to say that Series 8 overall is not the best of classic Doctor Who: it might even be the least of the five Pertwee series. ‘Terror of the Autons’ was as near as Doctor Who has ever come to a straight remake (of the previous year’s ‘Spearhead from Space’), ‘The Mind of Evil’ is a run-of-the-mill Mad Super-Computer thing, and I’ve always found ‘Colony in Space’ to be quite terminally dull. ‘The Claws of Axos’ has its points of interest: it seems to be starting out as a friendly alien/non-invasion story (recalling the previous season’s ‘The Ambassadors of Death’) but turns out to be unfriendly alien/invasion narrative in the end. It also exemplifies this era’s recurring motif of distrusting authority: the men from the ministry are never to be trusted in a Pertwee story. But in the tradition of saving the best for last, the series ended with ‘The Dæmons’.

The Daemons, Doctor Who, Jon Pertwee, TV

So why do I think this is such a good Doctor Who story? Well, for one thing, it again demonstrates the flexibility of Doctor Who as a concept and its richness when it comes into contact with themes and motifs from other genres. Here the influences are occult fiction such as Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out (which had been made into a film by Hammer Film Productions in 1968) and even the likes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is the one where the Doctor investigates a series of apparently supernatural phenomena occurring during the excavation of an ancient burial site near the village of Devil’s End. The locals attribute this to black magic, and it turns out that a new vicar ‘Mr Magister’ (actually The Master) has been conducting occult ceremonies beneath the church in an attempt to conjure up a creature known as Azal – a towering, horned apparition whose appearance accords with the popular image of the Devil. Even in Pertwee’s second season, therefore, the producers were looking to vary the invasion narrative formula that is generally seen as the defining template of the Barry Letts/Terrance Dicks era.

Of course Doctor Who is rooted in science fiction rather than supernatural fantasy so there has to be some sort of rational explanation for all this. As the Doctor himself informs us: “Everything that happens in life has to have a scientific explanation – if you know where to look for it.” It turns out that Azal is the last survivor of an alien race known whose spaceship crashed on Earth thousands of years ago. His occasional appearances over many centuries have passed into folk memory as manifestations of the Devil. It’s this insistence on a ‘rational’ explanation – even if the ‘science’ involved is techno-babble – that differentiates Doctor Who from a series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Another influence on ‘The Dæmons’ was Quatermass and the Pit, the last of the three BBC ‘Quatermass’ serials of the 1950s which had also been turned into a film by Hammer in 1967. In his role as scientific adviser to UNIT during the years of his ‘exile’ on Earth, the Third Doctor bore some similarity to Professor Bernard Quatermass, Director of the British Experimental Rocket Group. (That Doctor Who and Quatermass share the same fictional universe is suggested in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ when – confronted with Daleks on the streets of London in 1963 – a character remarks “I wish Bernard were here”.) Quatermass and the Pit concerns the excavation of what is initially taken for an unexploded German bomb from the Second World War but turns out to be a space capsule of alien origin that landed on the Earth five million years ago. On that occasion it’s the Martians who have been mistaken for the Devil and whose ‘race memory’ has been inherited by humans.

The Daemons, Doctor Who, Jon Pertwee, TV

There are many incidental delights in ‘The Dæmons’ that stand out. We get a James Bond-style action sequence involving a helicopter and a motorcycle: this was part of the trend towards more action-oriented stories during the early 1970s that would reach its fullest extent in the big chase sequence in ‘Planet of the Spiders’. The locations – it was shot mostly in and around the Wiltshire village of Aldborne – are well realised. The motif of the apparently tranquil English village harbouring a deadly threat to the whole human race links ‘The Dæmons’ to another British cult adventure series: The Avengers.

And it’s also a great story for the UNIT ‘family’ of the Brigadier, Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton. A feature of the UNIT stories is how the supporting characters were built up over time: in particular ‘The Dæmons’ may have been John Levene’s finest hour as Benton. It’s also the one with the Brigadier’s classic line when confronted by the living stone gargoyle Bok: “Jenkins – chap with the wings there – five rounds rapid.” The Brigadier’s unflappable countenance and sang froid in the face of assorted monsters – so far in his career he had faced Yeti, Cybermen, Autons and Axons – is one of the delights of this period of Doctor Who. Nicholas Courtney came to own the role to such a degree that it’s impossible now to think of anyone else playing ‘the Brig’.

Like ‘Planet of the Spiders’ – also written by Robert Sloman, and which I reviewed a few weeks ago – ‘The Dæmons’ anticipates future directions in Doctor Who. The revelation that the Daemons have treated the Earth like a giant laboratory experiment – events including the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution are attributed to their intervention – would be employed by future Doctor Who script editor Douglas Adams in ‘City of Death’ where the course of history has been shaped by Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth, in order to accelerate its technological development. And in Adams’s The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy it turns out that the Earth is really a planet-sized living super-computer tasked with finding the Question to the Answer of Life, the Universe and Everything. In the new series of Doctor Who, ‘The Satan Pit’ included a devil-like monster that drew upon ‘The Dæmons’.

Inside the Tardis, James Chapman, Doctor Who, Book, I.B.Tauris

James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, second edition, I. B.Tauris, 2013.

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