“Just twentieth century men playing a particularly nasty game.” – The Doctor
This is a short little gem that I liked very much as a child. It’s fairly straightforward—a dormant monster has been awakened in a small village and is feeding off the psychic energy of anger and confusion its influence creates. It’s telling that it is so easily able to push people’s natural tendency towards power to use what were supposed to be fun war games into evil. A bit longer story could have explored that theme even a bit more. The muddle of the modern day with projections from the past is nice even though the rules of how all that works don’t come across very clearly. The face of the Malus breaking through the wall is definitely iconic even if a little too static to be totally frightening. The characters of Jane and Will are almost immediately likeable and have such rapport with the Doctor that you think they might end up being companions. Despite being so short, it has a few nice little lines like Jane’s under her breath muttering at the Doctor’s explanations: “Oh, no. I’ve escaped from one madman to find another” or my favorite when the soldier in thrall to the Malus yells “You speak treason!”, the Doctor defiantly answers “Fluently!”
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
The projection of the rat-like little Malus hanging on the wall spilling goo definitely freaked me out as a kid. Now, I realize that the truly disturbing part of the story comes as we watch some of the villagers get way to carried away with their role in the games to the point of being ready to accept the burning of the May Queen. You can blame the influence of the Malus but it’s also a reflection of mob mentality that has led to real-life atrocities–which is why it’s rather frightening to see even the good-hearted characters going along with events. The total impunity of leaders getting away with things that nobody would have ever accepted in the past resonates deeply these days. (“As the local magistrate, I shall find myself quite innocent.”)
The story is very rushed by the end—especially as it glosses over any surprise by the characters at the TARDIS or aliens or all they’ve seen. Everyone blithely boards the TARDIS for a ride without question. This is most evident as Tegan and her grandfather joke about the day as if they’ve never been apart and things had been totally normal. There was pretty much no need for his character at all, so I wish they’d reduced those scenes and bolstered some of the others.