The Lair of the White Witch

The Dæmons on DVD

Probably to a greater extent than most stories, opinions of The Dæmons became polarised between those who either saw it on transmission or suckled at the teat of Jeremy Bentham-era Doctor Who Monthly, and those who first encountered the story in 1992, either on BBC2 or VHS, when fan murmurings about the Pertwee years were starting in earnest. As all those Third-Doctor-as-establishment-stooge arguments started to rage, The Daemons, as the emblematic story of its period, got more than its fair share of criticism.

So it’s a pleasing irony that the story finally gets a DVD release in the middle of a Pertwee revival. It may well have largely been for technical reasons that so many Pertwee stories have appeared late on in the release schedule, but this has resulted in people revisiting stories that they haven’t seen, or even wanted to see, for years and found them refreshing or been reminded of merits long forgotten. It’s particularly nice to see Jon Pertwee himself getting more credit for his performances as when he was on form as in Day of the Daleks, Invasion of the Dinosaurs and Planet of the Spiders he was phenomenal. Sadly, and surprisingly when you consider its reputation, The Dæmons may be a nice advert for an era, but a terrible one for both actor and the leading character.

There are two defining moments of horrible behaviour in this story from the Doctor and both involve Jo. After bollocking the Brigadier in his usual charming manner, he tears Jo off a strip for being mildly critical as well – a classic case of “Do as I say not as I do” which is infuriating, but it’s when he snaps at the poor woman “Did you fail Latin as well as science?” that he goes from cantankerous sod to hurtful bastard. The fact he then goes on nearly to kill her because he’d rather install a pointless remote control system in his car than fit decent seatbelts just adds to the problem.

In my more charitable moments, I like to think that this is all deliberate, and that the Doctor is a character who once had the freedom to roam the Universe but is now being driven slowly mad by his boring exile on Earth. It’s a stretch though, and any kind thoughts were dismissed during the Doctor’s slide show in Episode Three where he becomes almost transcendentally annoying. “Tell us then” exhort the cast, “No, not just yet. I want to wait until I’m exactly sure. So I can annoy the f*** out of you.” replies (sort of) the Doctor.

The only time this pompous puffball meets his match is when he arrives at the pub in the first episode. The locals have no time for him at all, and mock his silly outfit and hair, much like the incident in Kentish Town involving Adam Ant, only in this case the Doctor doesn’t return and lob a car alternator through the pub window, unless that happened in a Big Finish sequel that I missed. The fact I enjoyed seeing the Doctor taken down a peg or two isn’t a good sign. I should be cheering him on.

But if you can forget about the lead character (which is good practice for some of the later eras) there are loads of things to enjoy about The Dæmons, and the first episode in particular is wonderful. You get to see the UNIT team relaxing and watching television, and best of all there’s a whole new (then) fictitious BBC3 to marvel at. You get the impression that director Christopher Barry and the writers had a lot of fun with the television scenes at the dig, and they’re helped enormously by the brilliant David Simeon (later to shine so brightly in End of Part One) who carries off the role of the beleaguered and hard-bitten presenter Alastair Fergus with aplomb.

There are some lovely lines in this sequence with the cantankerous Professor Horner (Robin Wentworth) promising one of the crew that “I’ll do my best to be absolutely super” in a manner later to be perfected by Windsor Davies in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum when parroting Mister La-De-Dah Gunner Graham. Best of all is when Fergus, exasperated by the barracking from Horner, hits back with the bitchy line to camera “Or will the Professor be proved disastrously wrong?” – it’s just lovely stuff. My big regret about The Dæmons is that Fergus and the crew disappear almost immediately after the start of Episode Two. Imagine how great it would have been to have Fergus trapped inside the heat barrier, sitting on a big news story but not able to tell the wider world and reduced to following the regulars around while making waspish comments. Oh well.

Some of the events of the first episode remain rather mysterious. Was Professor Horner under the influence of the Master, or just a publicity hungry cantankerous old git cashing in on the contemporary fad for archaeology? He doesn’t really act like he’s under the influence whatever might be hinted at in the shooting scripts. It’s possible that the Master was just taking advantage of the course of events, and again it’s unclear just how deep his cover goes and how long he’s been in Devil’s End. How many couples were married by him? How many bring-and-buy sales has he opened while rummaging in bran tubs? It doesn’t matter – not only is Delgado as great to watch as ever, but the Master as a trendy vicar is a delightful idea and perfectly in keeping with the time the programme was made. Magister is a “rationalist existentialist priest” which is no odder than the fact that my college chaplain was a Marxist – slightly less odd in fact.

A shame then that the Master is humiliated more in The Dæmons than ever before, which is saying something. Not only does he have to spend time with Garvey, who is creepy even by normal verger standards, but he also has to micromanage Bok the gargoyle. The Master does his best to delegate but Bok clearly does not feel empowered enough to make decisions when the Master isn’t present, even straightforward ones such as zapping a defenceless Doctor armed only with a trowel and a song. This must be a burdensome managerial overhead for the Master who has enough on his plate with ceremonies to organise and backward nursery rhymes to learn. Worst of all, he gets metaphorically pissed on, from a literal great height by the preposterous Azal who dumps him for the Doctor.

Azal is much like a dæmonic bus, in that you wait thousands of years for him to show up and then you get three manifestations at once. Sadly, the appearances aren’t quite rapid enough to make the story zip by, and after the first episode the story becomes a sequence of delaying tactics until we reach the inevitable final confrontation with the shouty beast. The scenes involving Sergeant Osgood and the heat barrier are quite good, and were surely in Gareth Roberts’ mind when he came up with a similar character and scenario in Planet of the Dead, but there’s not a lot otherwise going on between Azal’s appearances. Although who knows what Tiny Azal is doing between gigs?

It’s been argued that the climax of The Dæmons makes no sense, but it’s very dangerous to use that as a criticism of any Doctor Who story. As Artie once said in The Larry Sanders Show “Jesus, Larry. Don’t start pulling at that thread, our whole world will unravel.” and as I don’t want the Who universe to collapse I’ll leave it alone. In any case, the real end of the story doesn’t take place in a church crypt – sorry cavern – but with the UNIT family prancing around on a sun-dappled village green. It’s a potent image that means a lot to Doctor Who fans probably because for many it conjures up memories of childhood and a rather nicer world than we inhabit now. At a distance it’s enticing – even though deep down we know things were never that simple – but when I watch the final scene I can still almost taste the beer in The Cloven Hoof.

Extras:

An important part of the critical reaction to The Dæmons is bound up in the state of its holdings in the BBC archive, as this has to some extent driven the changing opinion of the story’s merit. After the archive purges only Episode Four still existed on its PAL transmission master tape, while the others were only available on 16mm telerecordings and non-broadcastable NTSC on U-matic. Famously, bringing colour back to The Dæmons was the first project for the nascent Restoration Team, and the results were granted transmission in 1992 and a rapid VHS release. This was such a big deal that it was even featured on Tomorrow’s World, and that piece, presented by Howard Stableford, is included here as an extra along with the original test colourisation of Episode One that started the ball rolling.

The Restoration Team are only now coming to the end of the monumental task of remastering the Doctor Who DVD range a mere 20 years since the process got underway with The Dæmons restoration. It’s certainly the case that in this new release the story looks better than ever. Obviously there’s still a marked difference between Episode Four and the others, but it’s hard to imagine much more improvement being feasible. It’s been worth the wait.

There are two main supporting features. The first is Chris Chapman’s piece about the production of The Dæmons entitled The Devil Rides Out. It’s an artful title, referring as it does to the Dennis Wheatley novel which inspired Barry Letts to write the audition piece on which The Dæmons was based. The film is a revealing look at the production history of the story, which was notably unusual for featuring so much location footage, and by dint of that required the acting team to stay in Aldbourne for a few days which probably accounts for the happy memories as everybody likes a school trip.

Katy Manning, Richard Franklin and others have a great time reminiscing but it’s noticeable from the memories that Jon Pertwee himself seems to have been in a bit of a mood during the filming. The odd petulant outburst is reported, and a fairly well-known story about an argument with Christopher Barry is also touched upon. Maybe Pertwee’s mood was the driving force behind the Doctor’s surly behaviour in the story, or perhaps vice-versa. Anyway, this is a solid documentary and yet another addition to the huge volume of valuable production information contained within the DVD range.

But the best extra on this release is Ed Stradling’s Remembering Barry Letts, a comprehensive look at the life and career of the much-loved producer of Doctor Who, a man who perhaps more than anyone was responsible for keeping the show alive at a vulnerable time, and then provided it with the ultimate insurance policy by casting Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor. Of course, there was far more to his life than Doctor Who and this film covers his acting career, his transition into writing and directing, and the way his political and religious beliefs informed his work.

His sons Crispin and Dominic provide insightful, amusing and touching comments, and other important figures such as Terrance Dicks and Ronnie Marsh make valuable contributions. Letts was not only a famously nice man, he was also very canny, and although his era of the programme is often criticised for being a bit childish or simple, he was responsible for the most explicitly political and philosophical themes in the series’ history. This documentary reflects that and much more besides – it’s a fitting tribute.

The regular commentary features Damaris Hayman, Christopher Barry, Katy Manning and Richard Franklin throughout all five episodes, and it’s pleasant enough. Hayman has a razor-sharp memory for detail, and Barry is particularly interesting about the way they filmed the sequences at the dig. Martin Wiggins’ production notes are amusing and almost absurdly detailed – he’s even worked out which newspaper was torn up to make Bert the Landlord’s hat. I won’t spoil it for you – you’ll have to read the notes.

The final extra is some mute home move footage of the original production filmed back in April 1971. Even more than The Dæmons itself this rather haunting material makes the past seem as tantalisingly close and yet as unattainable as ever. The reality was probably a grumpy lead actor and a harassed film crew, but in this form it’s a brief glimpse into an impregnable land of lost content, the past, unlike the heat barrier, being impossible to breach.

The Dæmons is released on Monday 19th March in the UK.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *