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16 Jul 2003The Dæmons, by Paul Clarke
15 Nov 2005The Dæmons, by Ed Martin

Oh dear. For some fans, ‘The Dæmons’ epitomizes the Pertwee era; if this is true, then the Pertwee era isn’t very good. I take no pleasure in slating a story so widely considered to be a classic, but there is so much wrong with ‘The Dæmons’ in my opinion that try as I might, I just can’t find it in me to like it. 

I’ll start with what I do like. I like the basic plot, although this is largely because it is the plot of Quatermass and the Pit. Not that I’m complaining, since many very good Doctor Who stories are hugely derivative of other stories; to continue the Nigel Kneale theme for example, I’d like to point out that ‘Spearhead From Space’ of which I am a huge fan, draws heavily for inspiration on Quatermass II. I merely point it out since it explains why, in a story that is so mediocre in most respects, the basic premise is sound. 

Secondly, I like Jon Pertwee’s performance. It has been argued that the Doctor is at his worst in ‘The Dæmons’, being intolerant, patriarchal, and patronizing. This is all quite true, but it works for me in the context of the season. During the first three stories, he was bad-tempered and irritable, resenting his exile and desperate to escape. In ‘Colony in Space’, he suddenly and unexpectedly gets a brief reprieve from his exile and is markedly more relaxed and generally in better humour than in the three prior stories. It makes sense then that having been reminded so dramatically of what he has lost, he is even more foul-tempered afterwards, his exile once more enforced. Having said that, he goes a bit far with Miss Hawthorne; I don’t believe in magic either, but if I knew that someone who did had just seen a thirty-foot tall were-goat I think I’d be a lot more understanding if they thought that it was the Devil. 

Finally, I like the Master. No change there, then. Interestingly, after offering the Doctor a half-share in the universe in ‘Colony in Space’, he now seems genuinely to want to kill his rival. I’ve noted as I’ve reviewed the past four stories that the Master often finds excuses not to kill the Doctor and seems to want to impress him; having perhaps finally realized that he can’t, he seems to have adopted a “sod him then” attitude, which fits in nicely with his character development over the season. In addition to this, watching this season in sequence, I suddenly realized just how much it must have stung him when Azal offers his power to the Doctor first. This is particularly of note given that being humiliated by the Doctor is his worst fear, as exposed by the Mind Parasite in ‘The Mind of Evil’.

That’s about it for what I like about ‘The Dæmons’; the rest is in my opinion utter dross. For starters, UNIT’s degeneration into farce is complete by this point, all traces of the secretive, paramilitary organization of Season Seven lost. The Brigadier is little more than a buffoon here, doing nothing but blustering and issuing ludicrous orders (“Chap with the wings there…”). Sergeant Osgood, a ridiculous caricature who frequently questions orders, does not help this. Captain Yates is even worse. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I dislike the character, and this story epitomizes my reasons why. Yates is smug, cheeky and generally irritating. I’m no expert on the military, but he seems remarkably lippy when he’s talking to the Brigadier on his radio transmitter, most notably when he smugly tells Lethbridge-Stewart as an afterthought that the Master is responsible for events in Devil’s End and promptly hangs up. He’s even worse when he points out Bok to the Brigadier in Episode Five, adopting an air of superiority and a suppressed mirth as he demonstrates the gargoyle’s threat to his superior. Nice to know he’s getting some amusement out of the impending end of the world then… UNIT basically feels like Dad’s Army and has lost all credibility. Benton at least is quite good here though, John Levene proving quite good at fight scenes. 

‘The Dæmons’ also struggles for cliffhangers. The Episode Four cliffhanger is absurd, with the threat posed not to the Doctor or his companion but to his archenemy. It typifies the silly cosy “UNIT family” attitude adopted by the series. Imagine a cliffhanger in which some Daleks face destruction – the principle would be exactly the same. The cliffhanger to Episode Two is even more flawed, but in its resolution this time. Bok, it is made clear, is a statue animated by Azal, a powerful alien fully aware of how his own people’s psionic science works and with a far greater understanding of it than anyone else present. The Master, an intelligent Time Lord who has been studying Dæmon technology in order to summon Azal, controls Bok. So why exactly is Bok, animated by Azal and controlled by the Master, scared of a trowel? The Doctor’s explanation to Jo that although he doesn’t believe in magic Bok does, smacks of complete bollocks. 

Speaking of complete bollocks, we have the ending. Firstly, I find it hard to believe that Jo’s self-sacrifice is sufficient to make Azal blow himself up: if so, it is no surprise that he is the last of his kind. For starters, he considers the Doctor irrational but shows no sign of self-destructing in response. It is, quite simply, a contrived and nauseating ending. It isn’t helped by the fact that Jo’s cry of “Don’t kill him, kill me” is horribly melodramatic and poorly delivered. She could have just thrown herself in front of the Doctor, as she did in the novelisation, but instead she just bounces frantically up and down and offers herself instead, as though bidding for some kind of terminal auction. 

In short, ‘The Dæmons’ is full of annoying trivial shortcomings that add up to drivel. The story feels as though it is struggling to fill five episodes, with UNIT wrestling with technobabble outside the heat barrier (which incidentally is quite well realized and one of the story’s better aspects). Then we have the Doctor stating that the release of heat energy in Episode Two is final confirmation of his theory about what is happening, but then refusing to explain to anyone else until he is certain. So what, precisely, does he think “final confirmation” means? What he actually means is, “I’ll explain in Episode Three so that we can crowbar another cliffhanger in first”. To be fair, there are also other minor things that I like in ‘The Dæmons’, including Professor Horner, the final scene, and Azal himself – Stephen Thorne is not the most subtle of actors, but he fulfills his role very well here. Overall however, I just find ‘The Dæmons’ to be a smug, slightly glib, self-satisfied runaround, playing the UNIT family game by numbers.

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Episodes suddenly becoming widely available after a long period are liable to see their reputations alter quite drastically, sometimes in a positive way (The Gunfighters) and other times in a negative way (The Web Planet). Usually after a few years people get used to them being around and they settle down into a more deserving place in polls, for better or worse. Time and time again this has happened – but with The Daemons things have stalled a bit because despite it being released on video in 1993 many fans have never got over the initial demystification and go around roasting it. It has never found its fair place between the two camps of its original reputation and its subsequent fall from grace; in fact, it has developed a reputation for not being able to live up to its reputation, which is unfortunate. More so than any other story then, it is important for me in this review to be objective and to judge this episode by its own standards; I have tried to ignore its contextual place in fan circles, which I feel has become hopelessly distorted.

It certainly begins well enough, with a brilliantly atmospheric beginning showing a man walking a dog over a graveyard on a dark rainy night (a form of suicide in this kind of thing), while Doctor Who’s most prolific director Christopher Barry cutting in shots of requisite spooky animals such as owls, rats and cats. This might sound a bit derivative but really these are simply stock elements that have been used and re-used over and over, and always will be; the Harry Potter novels wouldn’t have such a fan base if people worried about that sort of thing. This is the first of many location scenes in this story, giving it the genuinely good, non-tacky look that is so rare in a Barry Letts production.

Miss Hawthorne is a good character, but it is not until later that she gets a chance to shine as in the first episode Damaris Hayman is completely eclipsed by Robin Wentworth, who gives a brilliant and hilarious performance as the curmudgeonly Professor Horner. Other characters are not so good though: the Doctor is about as pompous and as patronising as he has ever been, which is one area of the critics’ argument I must confess to agreeing with, which can be seen from the start when he condescends Jo horrendously for not knowing about his remote control unit for Bessie (in terms of technology, this story rips of James Bond to the extent of splicing in actual footage and passing it off as its own). On the subject of Jo, then Katy Manning’s cutesy-girly persona is grating and doesn’t help matters at all. UNIT come off better, with Courtney, Levene and Franklin generally playing it straight against some quite silly lines: Nicholas Courtney even manages to sound authoritative when saying lines like “we’ve got no idea what you’re talking about, Doctor”. And since this is the end of season eight, is anyone honestly surprised to see the Master?

The locals are straight out of Straw Dogs and The League Of Gentlemen, but this is a good mysterious opener as it’s reliance on familiar imagery allows explanations to be withheld, heightening the atmosphere.

As for the BBC Three reference is funny in the light of subsequent developments in thirty years time but in the episode itself it’s an in joke, which passes muster though for not being too outlandish (I could hardly call it unrealistic). What makes it funnier though is that an archaeological dig is in fact more likely to be shown on BBC Four. The part where the reporter Alastair Fergus asks the professor to clarify his point “for the viewers” is a nice way of justifying the exposition, which borders on metafiction. I don’t mind metafiction when it’s done as subtly as this; it’s the “she’s read a website on the Doctor and she’s a girl?” from Rose and the awful “and now for our new science-fictions series, Doc-” from Remembrance Of The Daleks that are so annoying. The reference to the Doctor’s wig is also funny in a tightrope-walking kind of way that veers just the right side of self-referentiality, as clever witty humour can be very effective in serious episodes when used unobtrusively.

The set of the cavern is very impressive (and brilliantly filmed; this is one of Christopher Barry’s best episodes in terms of his skill as a director), but it does show up Barry Letts’s habit of spending money on one episode and the expense of others, John Nathan-Turner style. Still, it works well for this episode especially in scenes like when Bok comes to life, and the cliffhanger is a knockout. Following this Yates and Benton seeing Jo on television seems nicely non-contrived, which makes sense considering that in terms of the construction of the narrative it was the real reason the film crew were present in episode one.

The policeman’s death and the aerial sighting of the hoof prints makes for a very effective build up for Azal, and there is some great footage of the Brigadier’s helicopter (which amusing has G-UNIT printed on the front, like it’s part of a rapper’s entourage. Oh man, this review’s going to be dated in a couple of year’s time). The always-likeable John Levene gets a chance to shine, and his special effects-free incapacitation on the mandala is actually very impressive. Garvin’s death is visually stunning and also ties in well with getting the Doctor out of his coma, although this means he starts talking about the devil in a way sure to offend religious types.

We get are first good look a Bok, and to be honest he looks a bit mime-artisty although Brian Hodgson’s sound effects for him are excellent. The idea of a shrinking spaceship is interesting, but it does give rise to the question of why not just build a tiny spaceship in the first place? Because you might need a MASSIVE spaceship one day, that’s why!

Letts’s and Sloman’s script takes a controversial tone by calling the devil “mythical” and stating that Stephen Thorne in stockings is “far more real”, especially given Letts’s efforts not to be offensive. If I sound like I’m upset by this then I’m not, I can just see when people are undermining their own efforts. The much-derided “with horns” scene is also poor, because it presents yet another example of an annoying, boorish Doctor and also because it’s so crude on the expositionary front, with Jo asking the Doctor to repeat himself in plain language. The Daemons have been influencing humans for centuries, along with the Fendahl, Fenric, the Osirans and even the Daleks according to the new series; convenient how they all got what they wanted out of this conflict of interests. Yates’s popular line of summing up is good though, and he comes off much better than the Doctor.

Nicholas Courtney seems embarrassed at saying the “spare lemon” line, as he should be. The heat barrier, although a bit pointless, is amazingly cool and well realised even though the technobabble starts to reach critical mass as the Doctor starts giving instructions on how to build a fiddly machine (truly this is a Jon Pertwee episode) that can overcome it. The whole sequence of the helicopter’s hijacking is terrific, arguably one of the best action scenes in Doctor Who during the 1970s, and is it me or is it a North By Northwest parody? 

This is quite an exposition-heavy episode and a slight downturn (but only slight), and it shows the importance of the Master that he gets the cliffhanger.

The fourth episode begins with Azal’s legs: the CSO is actually quite good, but Stephen Thorne’s tights are a bit too obvious. In his four appearances in Doctor Who Thorne is best remembered for shouting, and it must be said that he relies on his voice a bit too much. Still, any criticisms levelled at him are easily outdone by later actors such as Terry Molloy. Meanwhile, Yates and Jo hide in plain sight behind a bit of railing, which is always annoying. 

The soot on Osgood’s face is a bit heavy on the slapstick, and the Morris dancer’s look uneasy. Benton being attacked by one and then rescued by Miss Hawthorne does not help is credibility. He redeems himself though in the scene where he shoots at objects to help the Doctor fake magic powers, which is just brilliant.

The final CSO when Azal is seen in full is less effective; although not bad in itself, the usual problem of a lack of environmental interaction presents itself and Thorne never really looks like he is actually in the cavern. The scientific nature of the Daemons’ power comes as a bit of a disappointment, although it is appropriate and even perhaps necessary to this programme.

This episode is padded out a little at the beginning, with some dialogue and action scenes that, while watchable and by no means bad, aren’t strictly necessary. Courtney’s “chap with wings” line has become a bit blunted by my overexposure to it, although there’s nothing wrong with it in itself, and Bok’s destruction and subsequent reconstruction is very good. The episode picks up again when the Doctor meets Azal, where the Daemon comes across as an extremely interesting character: a monster that cannot be called either good or evil. The moral dimension Letts brought to the series (and later took to an extreme) make an early appearance here, and is used well. I also have to agree with the story’s detractors in that the ending is very annoying and contrived, although hardly worse than the Doctor’s original plan of using his fictional machine to sap Azal’s power.

The Master is caught and, in another almost metafictional scene, is booed by the locals. Thankfully it’s Roger Delgado playing the part; if it has been Anthony Ainley it would have been unbearable. The last scene is corny, but more than made up for by the last few lines of the Brigadier and Yates going off for a pint, and the Doctor’s admission that “there is magic in the world after all”.

There’s a lot to criticise here (particularly in the later episodes) but also a lot to praise, and most of the criticisms are of fairly minor points. This isn’t the classic it could have been (mostly because the series’s lead character is so dislikeable), but it certainly doesn’t deserve to be trashed into the ground. It makes an above-average end to a fairly run-of-the-mill season, and I feel it should be recognised for it; unfortunately, after the initial demystification that happened twelve years ago, it has failed to reclaim the place it deserves in fan circles.

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