There was a rumour that persisted for many years that this story was supposed to feature the Monk. No evidence has ever been found to support the idea, so it is almost certainly incorrect, but you can see why people thought that because the Master’s meddling in history is basically a re-run of The Time Meddler, and remarkably small-scale for the Master. When the Doctor does an info-dump he even acknowledges this, and when the script has to admit that it is not actually very good then that’s a bit of an issue.
He wants to rob the world of Magna Carta. Small time villainy by his standards, but nevertheless something I intend to stop if at all possible.
“If at all possible”? He should be saying “go and put the TARDIS kettle on, this one’s not going to take long”. There is some attempt to talk it all up by conflating British history with world history, which was already an approach that felt egotistical, stale and a little bit xenophobic at the time, and it’s not fooling anyone other than the youngest of children (who are more interested in the Master anyway). The supposition that world democracy wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been a British thing spread around the world typifies the wonky approach to history Terence Dudley takes here, including a redemptive interpretation of King John, but he goes strongly down the route of history as a recognisable set of images rather than anything particularly grounded in reality. In a two-parter that doesn’t have much time for anything other than getting on with the plot, that’s not a bad starting point.
As for the Master himself, it has to be said that this is his low point. There is something interesting here in the way he turns up to subvert what appears to be a pure historical, but that’s about it. His dialogue is appallingly hackneyed (in fact, this is a rare example of a Doctor Who script that you could consider incompetent from beginning to end before it got filmed), all “my dear Doctor” and “come my toy, perform” and “twart my little game”. My sisters used to throw a word around a lot in the 80s: “corny”. You don’t hear it so much nowadays, but The King’s Demons is a corn-fest.
The whole point of the Master is to hold up a distorted mirror to the Doctor, and his inclusion always runs the risk of making the Doctor seem a bit boring in comparison. This is a problem with the Fifth Doctor, who is a long way from being the charismatic lead for whom this doesn’t matter (look how well Ainley’s Master worked against Tom Baker, and he’s also much better with Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy). The Master is also there to make us doubt the Doctor: as a mirror of the Master, could the Doctor ever be like this? Is there, deep down, the potential for him to go off the rails like the Master did? They are two friends whose lives took different paths, but they had the same starting point. Again, this works with every Doctor apart from the Fifth, because he is just too clean-cut to create any ambiguity in the characterisation. So all the Master does here is make a weak man look even weaker:
Doctor: You cannot be allowed to alter the course of history, even indirectly.
Master: How do you propose to stop me?
Doctor: I shall have to give it some thought.
One final thought: Kamelion is brilliant. I don’t mean the prop – that’s clearly useless. But you don’t actually need it much, or at all, after this point. Could nobody see the potential here in a shape-shifting robot? For each adventure you get to have a different actor playing the companion, with just a quick establishing shot of the robot doing its shape-shifting thing. The silly prop doesn’t even need to talk or move for that! Imagine the fun of tempting in some big name actors with the promise of being a companion for a few weeks, without the need to even establish the character they are playing. Shape-shifting is a huge amount of fun as a sci-fi idea, as the greatest comic companion proved: Frobisher. But instead Kamelion gets forgotten until it’s time to dust him off and get rid of him. What a waste. RP
The view from across the pond:
Remember way back when, during my review of The Visitation, I commented on how Doctor Who gave the audience a chance to learn something and that a child’s interest could be piqued by something he or she learned watching Doctor Who? That was actually part of yesterday’s article. If you’ve forgotten, be glad there’s no quiz! (But you might want to invest in memory-enhancing apps!)
Well The King’s Demons is an even better example of how Doctor Who did promote learning. I can attest to it, because I was able to win a round of Jeopardy courtesy of this episode. It was a question about the signing of the Magna Carta. I don’t recall the question exactly, but I got the correct answer because the TARDIS landed the Doctor and company in 1215, just in time for the signing of that historic document.
I also remember being part of a small internet community back when 56K modems were all the rage and I went online right after watching this only to have one of my friends tell me to go back to the TV because The Five Doctors was on! I then did my best to move with the speed of a Raston Warrior Robot… Ah, the things we remember… But The King’s Demons is even more bizarre than many of the other historical adventures because it features King John … as a robot. Welcome, Kamelion. (But be ready to utterly forget him for The Five Doctors, the very next episode, because everyone else does too, including the Doctor!) Kamelion was an actual, real-live, animatronic character, aka robot, that should have been a major selling point for Doctor who, but was relegated to sitting down a lot, or often lying down, screaming in pain. (You’ll notice I didn’t even include him as an audience identification figure of the 5th Doctor because it would have been far too depressing!) That had everything to do with the fact that it took 2 weeks to program him (in real life, mind you!) and he couldn’t actually move around. Which, with a bipedal robot, is sort of the point. His voice was as alien as many of the strange creatures we’ve encountered in Doctor Who too. Conceptually he was a great character that was grossly underutilized but for all the right reasons. K-9 actually outperformed him, and he was a tin dog. So The King’s Demons was a landmark episode if for no other reason than introducing a “companion” that wasn’t really ever a companion in any traditional sense. (Call a spade a spade here… the sonic screwdriver had more personality and that was obliterated by lizards!)
Ah, and then there’s that beard himself, Anthony Ainley as the Master. Ainley was to Davison what Delgado was to Pertwee, and it’s very apparent in this story. The King’s Demons truly gave these rivals equal footing. Their sparring goes beyond verbal very literally as the two actors did their own fight scenes, too. This Master may only rarely hit upon that level of rivalry Delgado [ahem] mastered, but this one story does give Ainley a chance to do it right. And there’s something to be said about the Master using an Iron Maiden for his TARDIS; it suits his personality. There’s something else entirely to be said for the Doctor using the Master’s own weapon on the dimensional control of the TARDIS. But a few things to take note of: this is the Doctor sabotaging the TARDIS, like he did to the Monk a mere two hundred years earlier. It is not intended to injure the Master himself. Oh, yeah, and remember the Monk in 1066? Well we are still in familiar territory for the Doctor. Recall Hartnell’s The Crusade; that took place in 1190, so the Doctor was dangerously close on many occasions to running into himself, or the Master, or the Monk… This isn’t as surprising as it really sounds though, since almost all of his contemporary Earth stories should have him bumping into himself time and again. It’s just more interesting to put that into perspective with the historical stories.
There’s not a whole lot to say for this story. It’s encapsulated in the image of the Doctor and the Master standing on opposite sides of King John/Kamelion. That’s it! But jumping back to Gerold Flood, who voiced Kamelion, I can’t have a review of this episode without discussing his singing. His… strange…exaggerated… singing. I know Bill Shatner may be king when it comes to odd singing (I’m a ro-kit… man, rockitman!) but the good King John might have Shatner beat. Flood extends words in ways that are actually a bit frightening. And observe that smile when he does it. “We sing in praise of total warrgh! Against the Saracen we abhawwww!” He belongs in a David Lynch movie, not a family friendly show. Not only is it horrendously jarring… it’s morbidly fascinating to listen to. And while I have no way to prove this anymore, I am completely certain that Rassilon’s harp used that same tune when opening up the secret chamber President Borusa hides in, during The Five Doctors just one story later! The reason I can’t prove it is that my memory of that dates back to before the remastered version of The Five Doctors, and I can’t find a copy online or even in my house to go back to! If I am wrong, that just proves two things: Rassilon had better taste than I gave him credit for and my memory was dangerously affected by that strange piece of music!
At any rate, The King’s Demons is mostly filler and would have ended a season on a pretty weak point, only made better by the special The Five Doctors which followed. It’s only 2 parts, so it takes little effort to sit through as together, the running time is less than an hour. But it is a joy seeing the Master and the Doctor back to their old shenanigans with a bit of swordplay again. ML