“She Vanquished Me” – Doctor Who: BattlefieldMarch 25th, 2011 at 23:36
I ordered the DVD of Doctor Who: Battlefield recently in a wave of nostalgia about the late Nicholas Courtney. His ‘I just do the best I can’ speech had been a big part of many reminiscence post about the Brigadier as an iconic character, and it was ages since I’d seen the story. It was one of my favourites when I was a teenager, and forms part of one of my favourite Doctor Who eras: the Seventh Doctor and Ace.
So the other night, when my honey was away for work and the kids were in bed and no one was being wrong on the internet, I settled down with some sewing to watch it. I was a bit worried that the suck fairy might have visited since I last inhaled this one, especially as I have heard so much fan dismissal of it as a story, but my worried were unfounded.
Battlefield is AWESOME.
For a start, it’s gorgeously shot on location. They actually used money on it, in a way that surprised me – several uses of a helicopter, for instance, and at least half as much military hardware than we saw in the whole original UNIT years.
Also, it’s a clever story. At times it is a little thinly expressed, and there’s certainly a much larger epic tale going on here in between the scenes we actually see, but it centres around Arthurian legend, we don’t actually need to be told all the details: there’s Morgaine, there’s Ancelyn (Lancelot), there’s Mordred, the Doctor might be Merlin, it’s science fiction not magic, let’s do this thing!
(apropos of nothing, is there Mordred/Ancelyn slash out there? I know there must be, there’s everything slash out there, I learned my lesson when I checked on the existence of Crookshanks/Padfoot, but still… if there isn’t Mordred/Ancelyn, there is something very wrong with the internet)
Jean Marsh playing Morgaine was not a particular revelation to me. I always loved her in this role, though my brain had understandably squished it together with Queen Bavmorda in Willow, a far less subtle take on the Evil Queen Sorceress type character that Marsh does so well. Morgaine looks magnificent, and owns every scene she is in.
The thing I had not quite put together when watching this many times in my teens is that Jean Marsh is being reunited here with Nicholas Courtney, who played her brother in The Daleks Masterplan back in the 1960′s. Perhaps it’s that I have actually listened to the audio of that story in the last year, so it meant more to me than a random piece of Who trivia, but it was lovely to see them together, threatening to kill each other, and so on.
By far the most extraordinary Morgaine scene is where she discovers the significance of a War Memorial in the town, and is furious at her son for allowing her and her soldiers to desecrate a sacred site. The exchange she has with the Brigadier, when they agree to a ceasefire so she can honour the fallen from Earth’s World Wars, is utterly compelling and shows that Morgaine is not just Bad Lady™ but works to her own logic. We see this dichotomy later where she kills a UNIT soldier in cold blood, then turns around and gives the blind landlady back her sight as payment for Mordred’s drinks. The unpredictability of her honour system and compassion makes it more believable when, in the climax, the Doctor has to convince her that causing destruction and death on a massive scale is not in fact something that she wants.
The Arthurian cycle is responsible for some iconic female characters, and it is lovely to see such a major actress take on a legend with a science fictional twist, and play it completely straight. Having been really impressed with Jean Marsh in audio interviews published with her recent Sara Kingdom Big Finish plays, I was also delighted to see a DVD extra all about her work on Doctor Who. She’s a wicked, lovely old lady now and tells marvellous anecdotes about plotting incestous vibes between her Joanna and Julian Glover’s Richard the Lionheart (“I know what you’re up to,” said Verity Lambert) and how she kept sandwiches in the box that was attached to Sara Kingdom’s belt. She also analyses some of the characteristics of Morgaine as a character, with great detail and insight.
Lovely though Jean Marsh’s Morgaine is, as one of the best female villains of Doctor Who, it wasn’t only her which made me sit up and start thinking that Battlefield might be one of the most interesting Classic Who stories from a feminist point of view. Between script editor Andrew Cartmel and writer Ben Aaronovitch, this story is one of the final wave of Classic Who which was to be so influential on the two decades of books and audio plays which were to follow. You can see the seeds of the New Adventures here, with an ethnically diverse cast of characters, and and emphasis on the role of women in the military.
Let’s talk about Brigadier Winifred Bambera (Angela Bruce). The idea of passing the Brigadier baton to a black woman is a brilliant one, but the writing and performance here makes it far more than a literary gimmick (or as the writer suggests, a shorthand technique for making it feel like the near future rather than the present). Bambera is a lovely grumpy military leader, competent and aggressive but maintaining a sense of humour throughout. I loved watching the Angela Bruce of the 21st century describing with her eyes alight how she got to play with broadswords and be in choreographed fight scenes, and about how important it was to have a role like this available to a black woman. But she does it so WELL, it makes me a little sad that Angela Bruce didn’t go on to become an action hero.
Bambera is most definitely an action hero. No one questions her leadership (apart from one minor joke by Brig Classic where he assumes she will be male, and that is saying more about him than her). She is bold, competent and smart – but also impulsive. She also gets one of the most satisfying and subtle romances of 1980′s Who, with Ancelyn (Marcus Gilbert), a floppy haired blond pop-star-looking interpretation of the Lancelot character. And, I have to say, the most likeable Lancelot I’ve ever seen. The two of them absolutely relate as equals. There’s a joyous scene where their mutual warrior natures clash and they end up basically trying to beat each other up in the background of a scene between the Doctor and Ace.
Later, they catch up with the others, Ancelyn is in handcuffs and quite obviously in love, happily informing them all that “she vanquished me and I threw myself upon her mercy.” He is my favourite kind of male warrior character, the type who is so confident in his own masculinity that a powerful woman delights rather than threatens him. From then on, their courtship dance is one of embarrassed hints, jeep driving, broadsword fights, and fiery mental undressing. I love them to bits.
Oh, and yes. Did I mention? It’s never stated, but certainly implied that Bambera is Guinevere. Her real name is Winifred after all, which is practically the same thing. Considering that even in pro-feminist retellings of Arthurian myth, Guinevere usually gets the irritating drip end of the stick, it’s so exciting to have her represented here by a tough-as-nails, sarcastic, occasionally violent black female Brigadier who can wither you with her steely stare.
I also very much liked Lavel, a Russian wisecracking helicopter pilot who happens to be female. Her scenes with the Brigadier and later with Mordred are excellent, and most importantly, there is nothing about her role which made the female casting necessary – in the 70′s UNIT years she would have been a bloke, plain and simple. I also like that she and Bambera’s 2IC are obviously not English by their accents, which helps to give more of a sense that UNIT is a global organisation.
But I haven’t even talked about Ace (Sophie Aldred) yet! This story showcases her really well as a character and is surprisingly lacking in angst. Don’t get me wrong, I loves me some angsty Ace (Acengst!) but considering so many stories of this era have her dealing moodily with mother issues, guilt issues, clown issues, cute bloke turning out to be evil issues and friends kidnapped by cat people issues, it’s kind of nice to see her just having fun, kicking arse and blowing things up.
I particularly like that Ace stands in for young Arthur in the Camelot Metaphors Contest, being Merlin’s apprentice as well as accidentally drawing the sword from the stone. She also makes a great 20th Century lady of the lake in her bomber jacket and leggings, and cuts through the ego of the knights with her casual attitude. She is also paired with Shou Yuing, a Chinese-English girl who actually has little role in the story, but serves to give Ace someone to talk to (not, with my Bechdel hat on, about boys or male drama, but about blowing shit up). Their friendship is challenged in a Powerful (and yes, angsty, can’t get completely away from it) scene where they have to guard Excalibur in a chalk circle, with their emotions and fears being turned against them.
The father-daughter relationship between the Doctor and Ace has never been so evident as in the scene where she has to explain to him that she gave the sword up to Morgaine to save her own life, and he agrees that was the right thing to do: “Exotic alien swords are easy to come by… Aces are rare.”
Later, she hurls herself into a vortex to get silver bullets to him, and he knows she has them even before she tells him – because of course she does! Their trust in each other and mutual respect is just lovely.
I really like the fact that this story, the first real UNIT story in more than a decade, explores violence and military solutions in a sophisticated way. We see that UNIT is now far better equipped to deal with the alien menace than ever before, thanks largely to Brig Classic’s influence on them, but there’s also a strong thread about the futility of war and violence. The Brigadier actually knocks out the Doctor, to take over the job of shooting the Destroyer – on the surface it’s explained as him seeing himself as more expendable than the Doctor, but I like to think it’s also about the Brig preventing the Doctor from bearing arms, because that’s not his job. It makes for a marvellous coda to the UNIT years and to their long friendship.
Something I found interesting in the extras is how Ben Aaronovitch, the writer of the show, actually feels his script was a failure. In particular (MAJOR SPOILERS IN CASE YOU HADN’T ALREADY NOTICED) he feels that he made a wrong narrative move in letting the Brig survive the story rather than being killed off as was originally planned. Personally I think that the Brigadier surviving is a far more interesting result, particularly because the narrative of the story was set so obviously on him dying heroically. Aaronovitch lamented that the baton was supposed to be passed to Bambera and now it wasn’t – but um, actually, the baton WAS already passed. She is the Brigadier, she runs UNIT, she has the job. Brig Classic didn’t come out of retirement because the job was too difficult for her to manage, he did it because the Doctor had turned up.
The Brigadier, crucially, does not take over from Bambera in the field. He operates instead, much like the Doctor, as a vigilante and independent troubleshooter.
Also, and here we get back to the feminist issue, there’s Doris. In the opening scenes of the story, the Brigadier’s wife has a very traditional role. She represents happiness, domesticity and safety, and she questions his choice in returning to the field, even as she shows her resignation that she always knew their peaceful life together was temporary. Crucially, she has no idea who the Doctor is. Official secrets act or not, what does it say about their relationship that her husband never mentioned he was once good friends with a man from space?
If the Brig had died, Doris would be a tragic and slightly pathetic footnote, one of those characters in Spooks or The Bill or other shows where people regularly get killed off for queen and country. It would have been BORING as hell. Instead we get a quirky but (I think) amusing epilogue in which the two halves of the Brigadier’s world have been smushed together. Doris meets not only the Doctor and Ace, but also Shou Yiang, Bambera and Ancelyn, and the younger women sweep her off in Bessie for a day out. It’s all a bit cheesy but after four episodes of watching so many women kick butt, I rather appreciated the laden-on-with-a-trowel feminist message at the end, with the ladies taking the Doctor’s souped up roadster for a spin, and the gentlemen left behind to see to the house. Doris is most definitely giving her husband a gentle dig for abandoning her for his adventures, and making it clear that he gets to have a turn of doing the housework, and waiting for his honey to return.
Sure, one of the most epic stories of the era ends with a wry chuckle and the Doctor volunteering to cook supper, rather than an almighty bang, but considering that the story was bangs galore, I’m okay with that.
Also I choose to believe that Doris and the girls totally drove to Cambridge and picked up Dr Liz Shaw before they went on their adventure. She could do with a day out, I’m sure.
PS: Just discovered there’s a second disc with an edited-together version of Battlefield and extra scenes. Wheeeee!