And now we travel to 1989 – possibly – as Morgaine Le Fay invades our dimension from whatever realm she came from. Jean Marsh had previously played a witch queen in the films Return to Oz and Willow, and decided to make it a hat trick here. It’s also her third appearance in Doctor Who. Uniquely, Marsh played a guest star and a companion and a villain in the show.
I’ve never thought Ben Aaronovitch’s “Battlefield” was all that well realized, but behind its many poor line readings and stagings and a couple of diabolically bad performances – stop laughing, Mordred – there’s a good story here that comes across much better in Marc Platt’s novelization for Target Books. Later on down the line, David Tennant’s Doctor was completely baffled and stumped to meet River Song for the first time when she knew him already. That’s precisely what happens here – all these knights of old know a future Doctor and call him Merlin – and Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor understands it immediately. Maybe McCoy’s Doctor read the book The Time Traveller’s Wife and then erased his own memory.
It’s set a few years in Ace’s future, but we never learn exactly when Ace’s present is – there’s no reason to think it’s 1987 – and yet here we are in 2019, still without a king on England’s throne and without five pound coins. We were just talking today about old TV and books getting their future predictions wrong. And of course, Nicholas Courtney is back as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and this story is so set up to be his grand finale with a valiant death in episode four that when it doesn’t happen, it ends up feeling like they forgot to tape something important.
Incidentally, both Marc Platt’s novel and a subsequent title in Virgin’s New Adventure range establish that the future Doctor, the one who regularly had scraps with Morgaine and Mordred at King Arthur’s side, is a Doctor with red hair. If we ever do meet a red-haired Doctor on television, about nineteen of us are going to call him Merlin.
So what did our kid think? We gave him a crash course in King Arthur today to make sure he knew what was going on. He mainly reported that he thinks that Lancelot might have been like Tony Stark and Gawain like the Hulk. He was enjoying things just fine until episode two’s cliffhanger, where the Doctor and Ace set off a trap and a very 1980s computer effect hisses around the room and attacks them. I would never, ever have thought this moment would have been anywhere near Who‘s most frightening cliffhangers, but it scared him so badly that he left the room and ran to the top of the stairs. I’m always amazed by how he reacts to something I took for granted.