The Doctor arrives in 13th Century England at a key historic moment, but something is not right. Why is King John taking up home in a Lord’s castle instead of signing the Magna Carta in London and who is his strange French champion? As the mystery unravels, the Doctor finds himself face to face with an evil that he had thought vanquished at last. As a finale, the two-part adventure that closed out Doctor Who’s shortened 20th anniversary series is somewhat out of place, given its lack of impact, but on closer examination it is an intelligent story that provides distinction to the fifth Doctor that would carry over to the following year. The youngest actor to play the role at the time, Peter Davison was already a familiar face to TV viewers thanks to the success of All Creatures Great and Small. In contrast to the bombastic Doctor No. 4, it was decided that the fifth incarnation would instead be quieter than his predecessor, seeming to blend into the background and later rising to the occasion in the conclusion of an adventure. As he faced the evil Mara and defeated the Black Guardian, this quiet champion was gaining credibility, but more was on its way.
The last story of the second series starring Peter Davison, King’s Demons has many hallmarks of the actor’s last series on the program, which has always been my personal favorite of his. After a solid first year and a sophomore series that was perhaps far too ambitious on ideas and slim on budget, 1983/84 saw the actor in peak form as the program had at last found a strong supporting cast backing a Doctor who had finally fleshed out his own persona. In King’s Demons, the Doctor, Turlough and Tegan arrive in England circa 1215, shortly before the signing of the Magna Carta (the basis of parliamentary government) which would forever change history. If anything is an indicator of how much dumber the modern program is, the fact that an adventure of the classic series centered on the perversion of an historical event certainly is.
The Doctor’s TARDIS crew for King’s Demons is Janet Fielding as Tegan and Mark Strickson as Turlough. Both characters were introduced as one-note ‘problem’ companions who opposed the Doctor at every turn (and in Turlough’s case attempted to kill him) rather than following him blindly. By this time, however, Turlough had dropped his evil intent (having renounced the Black Guardian in Enlightenment the previous week) and Tegan seemed almost agreeable. Stripped of their prime motivations, both characters remained quite clever and combined actually made what could be considered one of the better pairings with the Doctor’s youthful fifth persona. Compared to Nyssa who served more as a valor-clad encyclopedia, Adric as the whining kid and Peri who filled out a bikini better than she could fill out a complete sentence, the competition ain’t much, but it bears recognizing that this was a strong line-up.
The story opens with a rather obnoxious King John imposing himself in the good graces of a local lord, Sir Ranulf Fitzwilliam. Accompanying him is the red-haired French Knight Sir Gilles Estram who matches the King’s irascible mood and charm, smiling while the pair slowly degrade a lord to an uncomfortable servant in his own home. After Sir Fitzwilliam rankles at paying even more to King John, his headstrong son speaks up. Deciding that there would be some sport in watching the young sir battle his champion, King John arranges a duel. In the middle of the joust, the TARDIS arrives. Immediately, the Doctor is suspicious of their landing and feels that something is not right. Proving the Doctor’s instincts to be rightly founded, King John welcomes the strangers as his ‘demons,’ rather than exhibiting shock or disbelief. Intrigued, the Doctor accepts King John’s hospitality, determined to uncover just what has gotten his Timelord nerves in a twist.
In no time, the Doctor discovers that nothing is right in the castle or with King John, who by all historic record should be in London signing the Magna Carta. Meanwhile, Sir Gilles has found Turlough snooping around and placed him in chains alongside Sir Fitzwilliam’s son. After King John entertains the court with a bloodthirsty madrigal in a lute, Sir Gilles produces the Fitzwilliam’s young lad and an iron maiden for further sport. Deciding that he has observed enough, the Doctor lashes out and engages the French Knight in a rather splendid bit of sword play reminiscent of the great Jon Pertwee himself. The sword fighting scene is so well done and accompanied with some clever quips as well (After being told that Sir Gilles is ‘the finest swordsman in France!’ the Doctor remarks that ‘it’s a good thing we’re in England’).
This adventure is a necessary step in the process of what was billed as a vulnerable and human-like version of the Doctor’s development into the bold hero seen in later adventures who finally sacrificed himself in The Caves of Androzani. The fifth Doctor was already played as an English gentleman, but here he was also a dashing cavalier.
Forcing Sir Gilles to drop the facade, the French Knight is exposed as the Master, last thought to be dead in the adventure best left forgotten, Time Flight.
I have to admit that I did not appreciate the performance of Anthony Ainley as the Master when I first viewed him in the role. A character first played by the late Roger Delgado, followed by Peter Purves, the Master is a cruel and conniving villain every bit as brilliant as the Doctor but steeped in evil intent. The performance of Ainley can come across as over the top until you realize the sheer insanity of the Master as a threat.
A seasoned actor known for both stage and small screen work, Ainley was said to have been overjoyed with the role of the Master, calling it the part he had waited for his entire career and it shows as he positively devours each scene with relish. The only actor to perform against all of the surviving classic versions of the Doctor, Ainley’s Master is full of contempt for the Doctor, hunting him down like a dog that refuses to lose a scent. Each successive duel with the Doctor brings out still more of this insatiable desire to see the Doctor defeated, even to the point where he uses alien technology to alter human history. It’s easy to view this Master as camp, but it’s just so genuine that as a viewer you can feel the sinister nature of the character. If you are unclear on how much of a rare find Ainley is, just look at the embarrassing prancing by John Simm (an excellent actor woefully miscast) in the new program.
While the first half was mainly a physical battle, the second half of the adventure features a duel of the minds as the Doctor struggles to wrest control of Kamelion from the Master. The scene is vaguely similar to the mind bending routine from the Tom Baker story The Brain of Morbius and I’m sure that the comparison was no mistake. The third meeting between the fifth Doctor and the Master, the strain is beginning to show between the two.
During Castrovalva, the Doctor was too weak to put up much of a fight and the Master seemed to have crafted the perfect trap in Time Flight, but in King’s Demons, it seems that the Doctor is in peak fighting condition, making for a memorable encounter. Actors Davison and Ainley seem more at ease with each other also (I can only imagine the impact that Ainley had on Davison on first meeting!) and they play off of one another remarkably well. I’m sure producer JNT had visions of Pertwee/Delgado for the 80’s in his head and while they never quite reach that mark the final effect works, firmly re-establishing the Master for a new generation.
The key point of King’s Demons is of course the introduction of Kamelion, an alien robot capable of shape shifting into anyone. It’s a brilliant idea hampered by the fact that the only person who understood its operation passed away shortly after this two-parter was aired, leaving the program with a special effect that no one could operate. Actor Gerald Flood is positively entrancing as the eccentric King John and later the strange shape-shifting robot Kamelion. It’s tragic that the technological challenge proved too much for the production team to overcome as he would have made an interesting companion.
An under-appreciated adventure, King’s Demons is full of charm and an inspired plot. Filmed on location at Bodiam Castle, the entire production contains a touch of class that was missing from the other stories in the 20th anniversary series consisting of mainly studio-bound adventures. Released this coming June as part of a two-story set (along with Kamelion’s final adventure Planet of Fire), I recommend giving King’s Demons another look.
Kamelion Box Set Trailer
(Kings’ Demons/Planet of Fire)