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Saturday, 24 March 2012

Doctor Who: The Dæmons (1971)

"Chap with wings, there. Five rounds rapid"
- Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart

The Daemons has great central conceit - that what we call "black magic" is actually the science of an alien species (cf. The Shakespeare Code) - but sadly this results in the whole affair almost suffocating under a dense cloud of technobabble.

Still grounded on Earth - after Colony In Space - the Doctor learns of the excavation of an ancient barrow outside a village called Devil's End and agrees with the local self-proclaimed white witch  Miss Olive Hawthorn (Damaris Hayman) that no good can come of digging into this mound.

It's never really explained why he feels this, but The Doctor, Jo and UNIT soon discover he is - of course - right when supernatural-seeming forces are released and the village finds itself shut off from the outside world by a deadly 10-mile force field.

At the centre of the force field sits the village church where the sinister new vicar, Mister Magister, is revealed to be known other than The Master (no great effort is made to conceal this as he had appeared in every story of this season; although this was to be his last appearance for a while).

Roger Delgado chews the scenery wonderfully as The Master turns to the black arts to summon the mighty (alien) daemon Azal - with the hope of being given the power to rule the world (bwahahahaha!)

The Master actually looks terrified by the power of the size-changing Azal - which gives some indication of just how powerful this creature is supposed to be.

Perhaps there is some connection between the alien daemons and The Beast from The Satan Pit as both have been attributed, by The Doctor, as the source of horned, demonic imagery in human (and other) cultures? Was The Beast the first and Azal the last of the daemons?

The Daemons is a wannabe Hammer horror outing that, to today's eyes, suffers from some very weak special effects - particularly the materialisation of the Big Bad himself (clumsy CSO that just looks ridiculous), a man in a skintight leotard as an animated gargoyle and a lame exploding model (that somehow fooled '70s audiences into believing the BBC had actually blown up a church for the show).

At five-episodes - 122 minutes - The Daemons also feels padded, as stories of this era often did, even though the requisite car chase (Bessie being pursued by a helicopter) actually has some story merit for a change.

However, the UNIT family is on top form, there are some cracking lines of dialogue in the script - by producer Barry Letts and Robert Sloman (writing as Guy Leopold) - and, as I've already said, the core theme is brilliant as it allows for pretty much any story to be told in the Whoniverse.

The Daemons makes good use of Aldbourne in Wiltshire as the fictitious Devil's End (shades of Quatermass And The Pit here with its own Hobb's End setting and aliens masquerading as devils) and there are few things more frightening than grown men Morris Dancing, but you can't avoid the feeling that 'Guy Leopold' was using atmosphere as a bit of a smoke-screen to smudge over the plot holes and padding.

Ultimately, The Daemons is less than the sum of its parts and what could have been a cracking four-episode story (with some judicious trimming) is a rather lacklustre five-parter ... as epitomised by the half-hearted pantomime heckling of The Master as he is driven away from Devil's End at the close of the final episode.

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