After the success of Remembrance of the Daleks it was inevitable that Ben Aaronovitch would be asked to contribute another script. Battlefield began life as a three-parter which was later expanded to four episodes, although Aaronovitch was to express his dissatisfaction with the story as it appeared on screen – feeling that it too obviously a three-part story with an extra episode bolted on.
But whilst there are script problems, there are also some rather dodgy performances which do drag the story down. It’s probably (apart from Time and the Rani) Sylvester McCoy’s worst Doctor Who performance. He’s all over the place and far too many times his line delivery is very poor (“There will be no battle here!”, ” If they’re dead”, etc, etc). Comparing this and Ghost Light back to back is particularly instructive. He’s at his best in Ghost Light (restrained and still) and very much at his worst in Battlefield (ranting and over-expressive).
Sophie Aldred has her poor moments as well (“Boom!”) whilst Christopher Bowen’s turn as Mordred is on the ripe side, to put it mildly. Angela Bruce settles down as the story progresses, but she’s also not especially good to begin with (“Shame!”).
It’s not all bad though – Marcus Gilbert has a nice comic touch as Ancelyn and James Ellis is always watchable. His Tennyson ad-libs (“ Thou rememberest how, in those old days, one summer noon, an arm rose up from out the bosom of the lake clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, holding the sword“) work very well and it’s nice that Michael Kerrigan allowed him some space to indulge himself.
The main guest roles were filled by Nicholas Courtney and Jean Marsh. Marsh manages to bring out the contrary nature of Morgaine, as she’s someone who is more than capable of destruction but also has her own moral code (observing remembrance for the dead and restoring Elizabeth’s sight).
Ben Aaronovitch was quite clear that bringing back Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT was something of a fannish indulgence. In many ways this undoes some of the good work from Mawdryn Undead. It would have been the easy option in 1983 to have the Brigadier back with UNIT and fighting monsters, but instead they went for a more interesting story with a retired and somewhat broken-down figure.
Here, it’s pure fannish wish-fulfillment to have the Brig back in his old uniform and in charge (albeit temporarily) of UNIT. It’s hard to believe, to be honest, that any military organisation would reinstate a retired soldier like this, so it may have been more credible to have had him along as a civilian advisor, due to his knowledge of the Doctor. Courtney’s always good value (especially when facing down the Destroyer in the last episode) but after Mawdryn, this can’t help but feel like a little bit of a let-down.
As with many stories script-edited by Andrew Cartmel, some interesting material never made the screen (although it was restored for a special edition of the story when it was released on DVD). Chief amongst the cuts was the disdain that Ace has for the Brig, something that is totally absent from the transmitted story.
The story is a little incoherent with various plot devices (a stranded nuclear missile convoy is introduced in the first episode and then forgotten about until the last ten minutes of the final episode) not used particularly well. And the reason for Morgaine traveling to this universe is never made clear – has some catastrophe affected her own, maybe? The plot is a little wooly at times, it’s made clear that Morgaine knows she’s traveled to another dimension, but at another point in the story the Doctor maintains that the Earth will be a battleground for a conflict that doesn’t belong here – implying that Morgaine is unaware she’s no longer in her own universe.
The reveal of the Destroyer at the end of the third episode does give the story a little more impetus and it has to be said that the design is wonderful. Some seven years earlier, the Terileptils in The Visitation were able to curl their lips but that’s nothing compared to the lip-curling that the Destroyer indulges in. It’s a good indication just how animatronics and technology in general had evolved over the course of seven years or so.
Flawed though Battlefield is, it’s still enjoyable – but it’s very much the weak link in S26. And a special mention must go out to the closing scene. Keff McCullough’s comedy tune as the girls leave is perhaps a fitting ending to a real curate’s egg of a story.