THE KING’S DEMONS
“And you can’t approve?” “You know I can‘t.”
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What’s this truncated little story lurking down at the bottom of Season 20? Ah yes, it’s the overlooked, er, cubic zirconia, The King’s Demons.
As anyone who’s read any of our Fifth Doctor reviews knows, the Fifth Doctor’s not at the top of the list of our favourite Doctors. He’s not in the middle, either. In fact, he’s not on it at all. SoftDoc, as one of us cruelly insists on referring to him, is just so awfully, awfully nice.
So finally getting our hands on the only Fifth Doctor story we hadn’t seen was more an occasion for yawning than rejoicing. It did have the introduction of Mr Roboto in it, though. And after all, it was only two eps. What could possibly go wrong?
To be fair, it doesn’t start all that badly. True, the banquet is as clichéd as all get-out (Jester? Check. Lute? Check. Eating meat from point of knife? Check. Doublets, tankards, goblets, wimply things? Check. Yep, it’s Mediaeval-In-A-Box, all right). But when Gerald Flood as King John tires of the meat and turns instead to snacking on the scenery, it’s a delight. Maybe it’s just in contrast to the triple shocker we’ve recently been inflicted with, but we were actually enjoying it. Compared to the Russell T Davies eps, it seemed practically Shakespearian.
They don’t waste any time getting to the drama, either. One minute it’s all banquety-banquety, and the next it’s flying gloves and pleas for clemency. It’s very nicely done: we’ve only just met these people, but Sir Ranulf’s dilemma makes us immediately sympathise with him. It’s clear he’s telling the truth about having already handed over all his readies to the King, yet here the King is, picking a fight and threatening the son and heir besides, and there isn’t a thing Ranulf can do about it.
But it doesn’t last. Away we go with Ye Olde Jousting: the son who looks like a refugee from a Duran Duran video, see, he’s on the white horse, and Mysterious Guy In A Ginger Wig’s on the black horse. Getting any hints yet? As they gallop back and forth, though, the TARDIS appears, and it all starts to fall apart: first with slow grace, then like the collapse of a house of cards.
As usual, the TARDIS scene consists of the companions making cutting remarks to the Doctor, who meekly takes it. Tegan moans about leaving the TARDIS, and spends most of the story moaning to go back to it, which makes her protestation at the end that she doesn’t want to go home a bit startling. Maybe she enjoys torturing the Doctor. Well, he has to be good for something. Turlough is, if possible, even more surplus to requirements, although he is at least hilariously camp, so that’s some consolation.
So apart from the moaning, it starts off all snappy, with peril and stuff. Then quite an intriguing mystery emerges, especially when we find out the King’s actually hundreds of miles away. After that, however, the more it goes on the more pointless it gets. People are dragged hither and yon into dungeons, yet the Doctor’s oh-so-convincing explanation that they’re from an outer province, let alone his brilliant improvisation of “yes…well…” when asked about their fashion sense is magically enough to allay all suspicion. Until it isn’t. Then it is. Then, because they still have some time left before they have to return the banqueting set to the hire shop, it’s back we go for some royal karaoke and acting hammier than the suckling pig. This time it’s the Doctor’s turn to pick a fight with Bad Ginger Wig And Even Worse Accent. And what a fight it is: slow, dull and embarrassingly hamfisted. The sandwich-eating Third Doctor/Master bout it isn’t.
Yes! We said Master! Are you shocked? Oh. Well, neither are the laid-back mediaeval types, who view Sir Gilles’s wavy-faced transformation without so much as a squeak. You might think this revelation would trigger a more intense and thrilling bout of combat, but instead a whole bunch of backfilling goes on about Xeraphas, the Tissue Compression Eliminator and blah blah blah. Even King John gets impatient, and he’s supposed to be the Master’s slave. Oh, wait, we don’t know that yet.
The Doctor yet again bottles out of killing the Master, but his conviction doesn’t seem all that convicted, since he gives the Master up to be toothpicked to death by the Iron Maiden without as much as a glimmer of a cunning plan. King John makes some apropos remarks about the Doctor’s puniness, and we can’t say we blame him. It’s actually quite a nasty moment when the Master’s bundled into the Iron Maiden, but it’s immediately undercut: you’d think someone would have noticed by now that it doesn’t actually have any spikes, but no, and whoopsie, it turns out to be the Master’s TARDIS. Then there’s a bit more sword-waving, and hey, Queen Victoria’s not the first monarch to have knighted the Doctor. Not that this is actually a monarch, of course. Oh, wait, we don’t know that yet. The Doctor’s in favour. Then he’s a villain. Favour. Villain. Etc etc. There are far too many exclamations of “You lie!” and “Take them!” There is toing. There is froing. And then the Doctor discovers Kamelion.
If you’ve never seen him, we bet the first sight of a metal guy – with a lute – is quite a sock in the jaw. It’s genuinely gobsmacking and constitutes the story’s single wow factor. Alas, after that it’s all explaining of evil plans and staring competitions. And then they leave.
Yes. Leave. The plot was vague, random and silly before, but that’s nothing compared to the fact that they just bugger off in the middle of it. Yes, the Master’s had his toy removed and all, but isn’t it just the teensiest bit abrupt? Back in the castle, they probably searched for the missing king for weeks.
The writing does have its moments – we’re particularly fond of The Doctor and Tegan’s “…I must say.” “Must you?” “Too right” and Turlough’s bitchy riposte to “Could you not call on hell?” of “I could, but so could you. With a better chance of success, I fancy”. We also love the way the Doctor rolls his eyes when Tegan suggests the King’s the Devil. And the “You can disguise your features but you can never disguise your intent” line’s nice too. But when the writing starts making excuses for itself, you know you’re in trouble. Pointing out that subverting Magna Carta is small-time villainy by the Master’s standards is no substitute for a plot that actually has a point. We know the only reason this story exists at all is to introduce Kamelion, but did they have to make that quite so obvious?
And after a good start, character’s a letdown. Ranulf’s son, the only one with an actual personality, is a highly irritating mediaeval Kevin the Teenager, and the initially promising Ranulf and his wife get lost in the good old “suspect the Doctor of evildoing” plot. And the Master? Feh. His pretending to be some French guy is totally inexplicable (in every way imaginable). His scenes with the Doctor have potential – those toe-to-toes could have been like the Tenth Doctor and Finch’s face-off at the swimming pool - but between the Master’s evil chuckling, the Doctor’s feebleness and that horrifically flaccid swordfighting it’s all about as electric as a decaying flounder.
A cliché-stuffed, meandering story, all for the sake of a new companion who then only made it out of the cupboard once. How ironic.
MORAL: Always ask for identification.
HAND TO HAND COMBAT
As the joustiness kicks off, the King raises his left hand, they cut away, then in the next shot he drops his hand. His right hand.
There’s something very weird going on with Sulky Son’s hair. For most of the time it’s all boofy, but just after he takes his helmet off when his life is spared it’s plastered to his head as if an entire tube of gel’s been squeezed on. Nasty case of helmet hair? Could be, except that he’s had the helmet on and off before without that happening, and he’s only supposed to have had it on for a few minutes. Even stranger, when we next see him, inside the castle, it’s all fluffed up again.
We’re sure Tegan and the Doctor’s lines “Look at the size of that bed!” “Another way of keeping warm” played rather differently in the innocent days pre-Kompanion Kisses.
BASED ON A TRUE STORY
What's the Doctor been smoking with his bizarre insistence that King John was gagging to get Magna Carta signed? Bollocks.
ALL FOR LOVE
“You’ve always been my greatest stimulation, my dear Doctor…” Ahem. What can we say?
THE SPIRIT IS WILLING
Does the Master really say “You’re getting old, Doctor; your willy’s weak”? Oh, your will is weak. Never mind. At least it’s a better line than “Mediaeval misfits!”.
Buy this Doctor Who DVD: UK