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Posts Tagged ‘The Daemons’

How are you supposed to find something new to say about The Daemons? This is surely one of the most dissected, remembranced, and praised Doctor Who stories of all time: they were making nostalgic DVD extra features about this story long before DVDs were actually invented. At one point it was voted the greatest Doctor Who story of all time (nothing lasts forever: the last time anyone checked it came in at #38, not even as the highest-placed Pertwee story). Nevertheless I suppose I shall have to try.

The plot runs thusly: still trapped on Earth at some point in the 1970s (or possibly the 1980s), the Doctor is passing the time by making various modifications to Bessie likely to invalidate her MOT, not to mention patronising his co-workers. His despair at Jo’s credulity (falling for a load of southern Californian Age of Aquarius stuff) is abruptly dispelled when an archaeological dig due to take place in the country village of Devil’s End is mentioned. The local white witch is auguring dread tidings if the local barrow is penetrated, and for once the Doctor tends to agree with her. Meanwhile the new village clergyman (the old one having disappeared in obscure circumstances) has a well-trimmed goatee beard and clicks his fingers a lot. Clearly something rum is afoot – or possibly ahoof.

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In a sense it’s stories like The Daemons that really give the lie to this suggestion that the UNIT stories are really set in some vague near-future world: never mind the fashions, the elements of this story are thoroughly early 70s. Quite apart from the references to hippy counterculture, this is one of the first Doctor Who stories to draw upon the ancient astronaut theories of the Swiss hotelier and fraudster Erich von Daniken, whose works were at the peak of their popularity in 1971. However, one should not fixate too much on this, as some of the influences on The Daemons obviously come from rather closer to home.

When we talk about gothic horror-influenced Doctor Who, it’s a no-brainer that the place to start the discussion is with the Hinchcliffe-Holmes stories from the mid 70s. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other examples elsewhere, of course, and it’s equally obvious that The Daemons was playing the classic-horror reference game long before Hinchcliffe and Holmes were in post. The location with an odd history and the name Devil’s End, the ancient spacecraft buried under an archaeological site, the image of the horned beast as a misunderstood recollection of alien contact: all of these things are central to The Daemons, and all of them seem quite plainly to have been pinched from Quatermass and the Pit. (I reiterate that I’m aware I am not offering bold new insights here.) The question is really why the later horror-influenced stories like Pyramids of Mars and Image of the Fendahl (another tale cannibalising Kneale) feel like just that, genuine horror lurking behind a SF rationale, while The Daemons has much more the sense of a jolly runaround with some startling imagery but no real sense of darkness about it.

Partly I suppose we must thank the sensible, thoughtful philosophy of Barry Letts for this: here was a man ever aware of his responsibilities to the family audience. I suspect he would have been pathologically incapable of pushing a story beyond the boundaries of decency and good taste, even one like The Daemons. Imagine a version of this tale scripted by Robert Holmes, on the other hand: it might well have caused Mrs Mary Whitehouse to spontaneously combust. I think the difference is that Holmes was interested in telling horror stories, and for him the SF rationale wasn’t much more than an enabling device to be established as rapidly as possible as a plot device, while Letts (together with co-writer Robert Sloman) does seem genuinely interested in exploring the ramifications of Clarke’s Law (which is what The Daemons is largely about). There are numerous lengthy philosophical discussions about the difference between magic and science, and the Doctor is given numerous opportunities to express his ultimately rationalistic world-view. As I say, this is what the story is about, at least as much as it is about enjoying and playing with its satanic imagery.

So The Daemons isn’t as suffused with darkness as you might expect – the Doctor even makes the point that the Daemons themselves are amoral rather than actually evil, compare and contrast with the distinctly malevolent but otherwise highly similar Sutekh from Pyramids of Mars – but it does work as a spiffing adventure in the countryside for all the regular characters. Everyone gets something to do – Mike gets to ride a motorbike and be heroic, Benton gets his hero moment rescuing the Doctor from the evil morris dancers, Jo gets to be daffy and unwisely intrepid, the Brig gets to be dry and understatedly heroic, and the Doctor gets to be very sagacious (and also a breathtaking hypocrite). There’s such a lot of fun stuff going on that it probably takes two or three viewings before you notice that not a huge amount happens to advance the plot in the middle episodes of the story – the Doctor and his team spend most of it ensconced in the pub, occasionally venturing out for a car chase or what-have-you, while the Master is equally confined to the crypt, from whence he occasionally emerges to glower and issue various evil directives you just know his staff are not going to be able to carry out.

At least some of the success of the story must therefore be attributed to Christopher Barry’s direction, which works with a polished and ambitious script to achieve a level of stylishness not often seen in the series around this time – the show-within-the-show sequence in episode one is just a single example of this, but so is the serial’s fondness for high-angle and helicopter shots (it must be said that the enormous amount of location shooting benefits The Daemons enormously).

In the end there is perhaps less going on in The Daemons than meets the eye, and the climax of the story finds the series once again falling back on sub-Star Trek deus ex machina plotting (I’m sure there’s a gag to made here along the lines of this story having a daemon sine machina climax, but my Latin’s just not up to it), but most of the story still stands up and entertains extremely well: this is surely the best story of its season. Given that it was relatively rare for 20th century Doctor Who to manage to pull off a truly effective season opener or finale, this is one more thing that makes the story noteworthy: but even so, it’s probably the only aspect of the story to put you mind of the current series. The rest of it is defiantly and magnificently of its period.

 

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