Aired 6 – 27 September 1989
‘Battlefield’ opens up what would become Doctor Who’s final season, following in the footsteps of the previous season opener and incorporating a look to the past while further defining the more complex characterization and storylines of the Seventh Doctor. Indeed, the Doctor here is at his most manipulative, a version of him from the future managing to use the current version as a pawn in one of his many grandiose schemes. The Seventh Doctor traveling around the universe to settle old scores and tie up loose ends had been gradually introduced over the previous year, but this is the first time that the Doctor’s personal past, present, and future have crossed paths, lending an extreme depth to the character and adding a degree of certainty to his future when the continuation of the programme was anything but certain.
‘Battlefield’ is actually quite successful with its blending of elements and imagery from different eras of both real-life and the programme’s history even if the production never quite meets its full potential. The notion of Arthurian knights invading modern-day Britain is an enticing concept and certainly helps to anchor the story on a visual level. However, it’s the incorporation of UNIT after a lengthy absence that forms more of an emotional anchor, especially as the force now evokes a truly international and very professional approach to protecting Earth in the Doctor’s absence. UNIT had, of course, been central to the Third Doctor era when the character was trapped on Earth with few other options afforded him, but the militaristic nature of the organization never perfectly aligned with the more peaceful goals and optimism of the Doctor. Accordingly, while the Fourth Doctor simply tried to distance himself from UNIT as much as possible, it’s quite fascinating to note just how scornful of the group the Seventh Doctor is, even as he shows immense respect and fondness for the returning Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. There has always been an ambiguity regarding the Doctor’s pacifist claims given the violence that surrounds him, and placing both the Brigadier from the past and Ace from the present side by side to highlight his companions’ greater willingness for more aggressive measures throughout his lifetimes works incredibly well.
It’s perhaps unsurprising to find that Nicholas Courtney is the highlight of ‘Battlefield,’ the franchise finally offering a more intimate look at one of its most beloved characters. Obviously set in his twilight years, ‘Battlefield’ is careful to suggest that he will never properly retire from his role in UNIT, but that he is also simply another man who becomes the hero when needed in order to return home to his loving wife. The summons he receives at the beginning of the serial expertly draws the core conflict of the character’s desires to be both the Brigadier and a dutiful husband into focus wonderfully, and his return home at the conclusion marks the perfect ending point for a man who had been so instrumental to the Doctor’s lives previously while simultaneously grounding the larger-than-life events and heroism on display with a very familiar and personal element.
The story also does well in balancing science fiction and fantasy, two elements that had been equally important to the long-term success of the franchise but the latter of which had seemingly been forgotten over the preceding years as grit overtook mysticism. Even as the script posits that the Doctor will someday become Merlin with plenty of supporting evidence, the story does well to indicate just how closely advanced technology and magic can be and how something so familiar can become so intellectually conceptual depending on one’s perspective. Yet while Morgaine’s magic and Brigadier Bambera’s threat of nuclear weaponry take centre stage, the altogether bigger threat of the Destroyer is never forgotten. As complete eradication incarnate, the Destroyer by necessity spends much of his time chained, but it’s telling how much fear he evokes even in his captors since he has no hidden motivations other than to consume and destroy as his base nature dictates. The creature is brought to life wonderfully and again adds another layer of depth to the surreal happenings and threats around him.
‘Battlefield’ may not be a perfect episode of Doctor Who since the production can’t quite live up to the potential of elements from throughout time colliding, but it showcases the bold path that script editor Andrew Cartmel had in mind for the Doctor and the programme itself and starts the final run of episodes off on very strong and enjoyable footing.