The Daemons is brilliant fun. An accusation levelled at the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who is that it could be worthy, but dull, tackling interesting subjects with poorly padded and overlong stories. More often than not, though, it was worthy and entertaining. The Daemons is possibly the peak of this combination. It explores rich themes and imagery, takes Hammer horror tropes and an argument between science and magic, and turns it into a fantastic bout of family entertainment.
The village of Devil’s End is the site of an archaeological dig, to be broadcast live on TV. Rumours abound that the excavation will awaken Old Nick himself, and the Doctor and Jo speed off in the Doctor’s vintage roadster to investigate.
The talk of Beltane, famous curses, and a rural village doused in rain and lightning, and secret covens gathering in crypts tick all the boxes. It lacks Kensington Gore and lesbian vampires, as this is a horror film for children. Presenting the Master (in disguise as a ‘rationalist, existentialist priest’) as the leader of a Satanic coven is a stroke of genius. The camera lurches away from his triumphant laughter at the end of part one, as the entire village is shaken by tremors and blasts of wind.
It does exactly what any good first episode should do. There’s a mystery unfolding, and the supporting cast is introduced with great aplomb, with great characterisation of the UNIT team. It’s a shame that the TV production broadcasting the dig only appears in the first episode. The highly strung presenter, the sanguine producer and endearingly grumpy Professor Horner are all very entertaining as they bicker amongst themselves. I wish they’d brought these characters back again. Then there are the villagers themselves, and the local witch (white), Miss Hawthorne. Miss Hawthorne is hilarious; a classic case of a great character working because the actor is delivering the lines as if they don’t see anything strange about them whatsoever.
Jo Grant, meanwhile, is the most earnest that she’s ever been. She’s very sweet, and saves the day several times, which is all the more impressive considering she is obviously a puppy in human form. The Brigadier, for it is he, Captain Yates, and Sergeant Benton are all on brilliant form too. Nicholas Courtney and Richard Franklin’s exchange by radio in part two is a masterclass in deadpan comedy and good exposition. This is a UNIT that cannot be accused of slipping into parody, the characters are interacting like real people, but still maintaining their ‘Us against the world’ style of interplanetary peacekeeping where three people with resigned facial expressions have to thwart alien invasions because everyone they’ve phoned for help is washing their hair that night.
Faced with no backup and the Brigadier out for a smirk-worthy evening’s entertainment, Yates and Benton borrow his helicopter, fly it over giant hoofprints in the English countryside, and land it on the village green (incidentally, if there is such as a thing as a boyband in the Time Lord rock universe, they have to be called ‘G-Unit’, because there simply aren’t enough pop groups named after helicopters).
As this is Doctor Who, there is a (relatively) scientific explanation for all of these paranormal and occult shenanigans, and it is a good one. It were aliens what done it. Demons are, in fact, from the planet Daemos. This idea works so well it was re-jigged for The Satan Pit in 2006. This is the first instance of the series suggesting that most human achievements were actually the results of alien intervention. Humanity is an experiment, rather than a natural progression, and the scientist in charge has decided the experiment has failed. Witchcraft, paganism and the dark arts are residual effects of a higher technology. This is communicated to us by the Doctor giving everyone a slideshow and impatiently explaining everything several times. Jon Pertwee gives one of his most craggy performances, never more than a few seconds from berating anyone for their relative stupidity.
The Master, meanwhile, gives the villagers a de-motivational speech that mixes abuse with a promise of unchecked hedonism, demonstrating more insight into human nature than the Doctor one minute, and then forgetting himself and calling them less than ‘dust under my feet’. This annoys them somewhat, so he summons his new friend, Bok the Gargoyle, to disintegrate the village squire, then sends the rest of them off to enjoy May Day. Azal – the Daemon himself – finally appears in episode four, and UNIT arrive just in time for some legendary one liners, Stephen Thorne BOOMING his every line, and the kind of character-based resolution that we see more of now than we did in the original series. Jo is incredibly earnest again, Benton is terrified of capes, and it doesn’t make much sense, but the ensuing coda is enough to make sure it ends on a high note.
The script is complimented by solid direction and production values, including an exploding helicopter, and memorable music cues courtesy of Dudley Simpson. There are no moments that take you out of the story, and several impressive special effects. There’s a lot going on in The Daemons, but it never feels padded. The pace is fast by the standards of the era, and it is relentlessly amusing throughout. While the resolution lets the story down somewhat, overall it’s excellent entertainment, solidly made, and features villagers crying ‘Burn him!’ in unison, and the capturing of a super villain is followed up with Morris Dancing.
How can anyone fail to warm to such a story?
The commentary features Christopher Barry, Katy Manning, Damaris Hayman and Richard Franklin exchanging good natured and positive memories of the shoot. It’s great to hear them rightly championing their own era rather than be humbled by the new series’ quality. The Production Subtitles are informative, entertaining, and comprehensive as ever (even listing the name and dates of the newspapers that make up Bert the Landlord’s Morris Dancing costume), but flash past quite quickly at times.
The making of documentary – The Devil Rides Out – is nicely tongue in cheek, gently informative, the main drama of the shoot being the large amount of location shooting and editing, but the talking heads supply a steady stream of pleasant anecdotes, including details of a Jon Pertwee hissy fit. Mute cine-camera footage of the location recording features Roger Delgado wearing shades and a small inquisitive child following Satan worshippers around to see what happens, and makes me oddly nostalgic for a time that predates my existence. Part One from the1992 VHS colourisation is provided, along with a clip from Tomorrow’s World explaining the basics of the re-colourisation technique and announcing that The Daemons would be repeated on BBC 2 soon after Happy days. We also have a photo gallery and PDFs of the Radio Times listings for The Daemons.
Best of all is Remembering Barry Letts, a biography of the former Doctor Who Producer, Director, Writer, and Executive Producer. He improved millions of people’s childhoods, and this documentary is an essential snapshot of the man to whom all Doctor Who fans owe so much.