Tuesday, February 3, 2015

"The Dæmons"

Aired May 22 - June 19, 1971

5 Episodes

Story 59

Written by Guy Leopold (aka Barry Letts & Robert Sloman)

Directed by Christopher Barry


There's something sinister happening at Devil's End. An archaeological dig excavating an ancient, an reportedly cursed, barrow is occurring on the outskirts of the small town, and while watching the live coverage on TV, the Doctor becomes alarmed and he and Jo race to Devil's End.

The town's new vicar, Mr. Magister, is in fact the Master in disguise. The renegade Time Lord appears to be using black magic and ancient rites to summon the foul demon Azal, and he had used his mesmeric powers to enlist the help of local townspeople. After the Doctor and Jo arrive, they are soon joined by Mike Yates and Sgt. Benton, though before the Brigadier and more UNIT troops can arrive, Devil's End is surrounded by an impenetrable heat barrier.

The Doctor reveals that Azal is not a supernatural being, but a member of ancient and powerful alien race from the planet Dæmos. The Dæmons have guided and experimented on humanity for centuries, becoming part of human myth and folklore in the process. The Doctor fears that, should the Master succeed in awakening Azal, the being will judge their experiments on humanity a failure and destroy the race. Azal will supposedly appear three times, and on on the final appearance, he will decide whether or not to destroy the planet, or transfer his powers to an Earthly custodian.

The Master hopes to become the custodian and receive these powers, and is using the science of the Dæmons to prevent the Doctor and UNIT from interfering. He animates a stone gargoyle, Bok, into a destructive weapon that battles UNIT, and attempts to sacrifice Jo to Azal, but is stopped by the Doctor as the Dæmon makes his final appearance.

The Master makes his case to be the recipient of Azal's power, but the alien selects the Doctor instead. The Doctor, who believes humanity should forge its own destiny, declines. This decision angers Azal, who decides to kill the Doctor. Jo cannot allow the Doctor to be killed and offers to take his place, and Azal cannot comprehend the idea of self-sacrifice and destroys himself. The Master is finally apprehended by UNIT and taken into custody while the Doctor and his friends enjoy the village festivities.


It has been many times remarked upon that The Dæmons is viewed in two different ways by fandom. There are those that see it as the ultimate example of the UNIT era of Doctor Who, exemplifying everything great about that period. And there are those that see it as an overrated and smug mess that is fondly remembered only by those who saw it as children and by the cast and crew that had so much fun making it.

Both views have their points, but as always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

There are significant problems with The Dæmons, all of which stem from the script. When I watched it this time, I was struck by how badly the exposition was handled. The Doctor knows everything that's happening from pretty much the very beginning, there's no mystery for him to solve at all. The audience just has to wait around until the massive info-dump that happens in the pub when the Doctor lays everything out the rest of the cast, and for us. The fact that the Doctor knows what's going on means the plot basically revolves around finding ways to keep him from taking action until the end. The Master's plan once again relies on him trying to exploit an alien menace, one that he cannot hope to control. And the story is riddled with village cliches that border on the ridiculous. Bert the Landlord, for instance, is actually credited as Bert the Landlord, like it's his last name. There's the whole Morris Dancing thing, and the yokels all seem to be beyond dim. The scene where the Master tries to convince the town to serve him by revealing all their embarrassing secrets is baffling. And all of the cliffhangers aren't very good. To top it all off, the set up of the plot is almost a direct lift from Quatermass and the Pit.

But, this serial is still one of the most fun of the Pertwee era. First off, the direction by Christopher Barry is wonderful. He directed 10 stories for the series, and was consistently one of its best directors. He was inventive, strong with visuals, strong with filming studio-bound sets in as cinematic a way possible, very good at pacing and adept at atmosphere. The Dæmons, while not the best of his stories overall, features some of his best work.

The regular cast are all at their best, with the Brigadier being capable but still humorous, Mike Yates in his most effective action hero role yet, Benton being stalwart and brave and tough, and Jo's devotion to the Doctor saving the day. Delgado is his customary brilliant self. Pertwee, like the rest of the stories of this season, is at times too much of a jerk (best/worst example is a toss up. Either his constant put-downs of Jo, or his chastisement of her when she makes fun of the Brig, in THE EXACT SAME WAY HE WAS DOING like two minutes earlier). But, aside from those moments, his performance is entering his classic period, adding a wry sense of humour that brings extra warmth to the role. 

As for the guest cast, they're all pretty solid, but the standout is clearly Damaris Hayman as Miss Hawthorne. It's a funny character that the story doesn't make fun of, and Hayman is so winning and charming and wacky without being stupid. It's a lovely turn.

All of those elements combine to create such a charming and fun experience that it papers over the very, very large cracks in the construction of the story. None of that charm saves the conclusion from being the most risible and ridiculous in the history of the series to this point. I cannot for the life of me see any reason why Jo's sacrifice destroys Azal. He's not a Star Trek android, he's a living being. He's ancient and his race has been guiding humanity since time began but he's never seen love or selflessness before? It's idiotic, there's no way around it. It's also kind of crazy that a show famous for explaining magical elements through technobabble is content in this story to just let things actually be the result of magic. 

But, that final scene encapsulates everything about this story; it's silly, it's charming, it's fun and it winds up being enjoyable despite its flaws.

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