Doctor Who: Battlefield DVD review

The Sylvester McCoy adventure that comes complete with the Brigadier and a sprinkling of Arthurian legend makes its DVD debut…

Sylvester McCoy in Battlefield

Battlefield was intended to be a notably different story from the one that eventually got made. The opening story of Sylvester McCoy’s final series in the role – and the last before Doctor Who got canned – this was the tale that was set to kill off one of the show’s best-loved characters: Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart (to the point where it had already been discussed and agreed with Nicholas Courtney). As it turned out, and is discussed in the extras, a U-turn was done in the end and the Brig makes it out of this one alive (free to appear in The Sarah Jane Adventures nearly 20 years later). But for bringing him out of retirement in the first place, Battlefield immediately earns some interest.

Time has seen it turn into quite a maligned story, and certainly it has its problems. Odd shots of a clearly toy-sword, budget compromises in evidence and a little bit of padding certainly hurt the story a little, but still, it remains an underrated adventure from the McCoy era.

It takes place on Earth in the near future, and mixes in elements of the King Arthur legend. Thus, the Doctor is frequently mistaken for Merlin (or is he, in his own personal future, Merlin for real?), while armour-clad warriors Ancelyn and Mordred appear and do battle, all in the hunt for Excalibur, and to recover the body of Arthur. Meanwhile, Mordred’s mother, the dastardly sorceress Morgaine (played by Jean Marsh, who used to be married to Jon Pertwee), also appears, believing that she has bound Merlin, and isn’t best pleased to see that he’s up and about.

Also in the mix is room for some further side characters. There’s a new Brigadier, Winifred Bambera, while Ace finds a companion of her own in the shape of Shou Yuing. The two gel well, and it’s a shame that Shou Yuing couldn’t have made it into more episodes.

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Ben Aaronovitch’s script juggles these elements well, and by the time The Destroyer arrives on the scene – a smart, convincingly looking monster, particularly for the McCoy era – Battlefield has emerged as a good, solid adventure that papers over its cracks well. It’s also a story I’ve always had a soft spot for, and it’s nice to see that it holds up quite well nearly 20 years later.

The DVD, incidentally, presents two versions. On disc one, you have the as-transmitted, episodic adventure, while disc two houses a newly merged movie edit, as 2entertain previously did with The Curse Of Fenric. This latter edition also contains souped up and more convincing special effects (from the arrival on Earth near the start, through to better backgrounds when people are flying around in helicopters), added footage, and a 5.1 audio remix. The purist in me still prefers the original, but the new version is just as intriguing.

Across the two discs as well is quite a collection of extra features. The commentary track is arguably the highlight, bringing together script editor Andrew Cartmell, the Brigadier himself (Nicholas Courtney), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Angela Bruce (the new Brigadier) and writer Ben Aaronovitch.

It’s the latter who’s the most interesting, too, as he’s clearly frustrated with how the story turned out. They discuss the decision not to bump off the Brigadier, and talk about how budget cuts compromises even the cliffhanger when troops who are supposed to bash their way through a wall simply amble through the door. Aaronovitch is interesting too in the way he argues that Battlefield is the partner to his earlier Who script, Remembrance of the Daleks. Remembrance, he argues, is all about the Doctor’s past, while Battlefield is about his future. We also learn that John Nathan Turner took out a reference to Tom Baker and his Jelly Babies, and Aaronovitch’s unhappiness that Bessie the car also got squeezed in.

They also talk about the infamous incident where Sophie Aldred nearly came a cropper in a water tank stunt that went very badly wrong. However, there’s a full featurette devoted to this, which includes the studio footage from the time. It’s a fascinating snippet, and Aldred credits Sylvester McCoy with saving her life at that moment.

Incidentally, as usual with Who DVDs, you can watch the main feature with a titbit-filled trivia track running too, although we tend to find these a little tricky to read. It’s, as usual, jam packed with snippers, though.

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Lots of talking heads adorn the main Storm Over Avallion feature, where the cast and crew talk about making the serial, the location, and the fact that Sophie Aldred had to take special tablets before being allowed into the water that provides the drinking supply to Birmingham. Nice…

Past and Future King, meanwhile, runs for about 12 minutes, and features Andrew Cartmell and Ben Aaronovitch talking about the gestation of the story. It traces back to Aaronovitch sending in his story idea, and how Cartmell decided to get him in for a natter. Aaronovitch confesses that he didn’t know anything about the Arthurian legend, and had to get himself a big book in the pre-Wikipedia days. Director Michael Kerrigan, along with Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, then chip in too. Aaronovitch then talks about how he ranks the story as his first failure, that the story didn’t come out the way he intended at all. It’s an interesting extra.

Then it’s to the studio recording, which is just short of 19 minutes of studio filming from assorted scenes. There’s the scene from the last episode where Ace reads the note that the Doctor has left for himself. And there’s also the scene in the same chamber where the Doctor is attacked, and when the Brigadier discovers him. Then there’s the Doctor and Ancelyn at the end of episode one. It’s, again, quite interesting to see this sort of material. It’s presented with no frills, but for once, that’s the point!

From Kingdom to Queen meanwhile is devoted to Jean Marsh and her appearances in Doctor Who over the years. This runs to just over eight minutes, and covers her appearances in The Crusades (with William Hartnell), her time as Doctor Who assistant, Sara Kingdom, and then coming back to the show in Battlefield. Marsh talks through her time, and it’s an engaging featurette, particularly when she touches on her thoughts on William Hartnell, and how the show had changed come the late 80s.

A nice, brief inclusion is the specially commissioned trailer from the time for the 26th series of the show. Originally shown at the show’s press launch, it’s as much an education in how far trailers have come over the past few years, and it brings in snippets of several stories from the classic show’s last series.

The other trailer included is for the upcoming DVD release of the E-Space trilogy next year, which we’re looking forward to, and the disc is rounded off with Radio Times listing PDFs, subtitles, and production notes. There are also production photos on the discs as well.

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Battlefield is a fine story from the McCoy era of the show, and despite what its writer feels, is an underrated one too. It’s good to see it effectively get the deluxe treatment, and the disc is yet another cracking addition to the classic Who DVD library. What next from McCoy’s turn, though? Paradise Towers? The Greatest Show In The Galaxy? Silver Nemesis? Or what about the magical Candyman in The Happiness Patrol? Don’t bet against one of these turning up next year..

The Feature:

3 stars
The Extras:
5 stars
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1 out of 5