Review [DW]: “Battlefield”

26×1. Battlefield
Writer: Ben Aaronovitch
Director: Michael Kerrigan
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: A strange signal draws the Doctor and Ace to near-future Earth, where a UNIT convoy guarding a nuclear weapon become caught between the forces of Morgaine of the Fey and those of Ancelyn, both seeking control of the legendary Excalibur – and both of whom believe the Doctor to be Merlin.

Review: I get the feeling that I might have appreciated “Battlefield” more fully if I knew the ins and outs of Arthurian legend in more detail. Unfortunately, my familiarity with that particular mythology is limited to having read The Sword in the Stone nearly thirty years ago and seeing it sent up in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and in watching “Battlefield” I sometimes felt like I was just watching a bunch of strange characters fighting and chasing each other around for reasons left frustratingly vague. Is Excalibur literally supernatural or just very advanced technology, for example? Why does Morgaine want it and what power would she gain by capturing it? I’ll grant for the sake of argument that the average British viewer might understand the references better than I did, and perhaps this is best considered not so much a traditional Doctor Who serial as a “crossover,” in this case with the Arthurian mythos in general rather than with another television program. On the other hand, it was written and filmed to air as a Who serial, and as such I’d argue that it still has *some* obligation to explain itself to us Arthurian-illiterates in the audience as well. Fortunately, there’s still enough here to mark this as a clever and entertaining serial if not an entirely satisfying one from my perspective. The idea that the Doctor will one day become Merlin is an imaginative one, and he responds adeptly to this revelation about his future, memorably bluffing Mordred by threatening to “unleash a terrible something” and correctly guessing that the underwater spaceship will comply with his voice commands. His disdain for armed conflict also shows through, as he remarks at the “graveyard stench” surrounding the missile convoy and manages to talk Morgaine down (with an assist from a note from his future self!) from detonating the nuclear weapon and delivers her alive into UNIT custody. Speaking of UNIT, “Battlefield” also boasts a strong guest cast between the welcome return of Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, the introduction of his successor Winifred Bambera, a friend for Ace who shares her skill with explosives in Shou Yuing, and of course Morgaine, Mordred, and Ancelyn, all of whom are fishes out of water in 20th-century Britain and whose archaic manners of speaking feel appropriate and authentic. And at some level, I can’t help but admire a script with the nerve to take the premise of “Arthurian knights from another dimension cross paths with UNIT soldiers and the Doctor discovers that he’s Merlin” and run with it, whatever its shortcomings. Like several other entries in the McCoy era, this is an experiment that doesn’t fully succeed, but I certainly respect its intentions.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)

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