“See these good people: courage, loyalty, and wit are gathered here.” – Richard on the TARDIS crew
We only have half this story on video but it’s still considered by many to be one of the top historicals. This is in no small part to the fact that this encounter with Richard the Lionheart in the midst of a tete-a-tete with the Saracen sultan draws on a real strength of the BBC—medieval drama and costume portrayed in they style of Shakespeare. Two very strong Shakespearean actors (who will again appear in well known roles in the program in the future) play Richard and his sister Joanna. The strength of their performance can best be seen in their wonderfully stormy argument in the third episode. (“This unconsulted partner has no wish to marry! I am no sack of flour to be given in exchange!”)
It is also a story of court intrigue which the Doctor is particularly adept at manipulating–in fact I would say it has become the first Doctor’s signature trait by this point to be able to play the master politician. Example after example is shown in this story of him building allies at just the right moment, talking people into things before they’ve realized they’ve agreed, or—as in the case of him and Vicki being accused as thieves–using a dizzying array of logical questions to not only get out of the situation but turn it to his advantage. (Even Princess Joanna notes to the Doctor: “There’s something new in you, yet something older than the sky itself.”)
Teacher Ian shows off his warrior skills again by sword-fighting but this time gets official status by being knighted. Meanwhile, poor Barbara is kidnapped and in need of rescue again (for the fifth story in a row!)—but escapes through her own wits and connections. Though it wouldn’t fly today to cast so many white British men in the role of Middle Easterners, I think they did a good job nevertheless. I especially find it noteworthy that they don’t portray the Saracen leader as bloodthirsty and evil but instead as a worthy and thoughtful adversary, just as able to scheme and to give grace as the English king (who actually comes off as childish and petulant throughout most of the story).
In addition to the strength of characters both royal and peasant, what gives this story most of its richness is the elaborate dialogue. There are endless dramatic lines, some even in iambic pentameter, of which the writer David Whitaker should be proud. Some of my favorites are:
- “I’ll turn them from a rabble into victors once again, and we shall set a noise of sharpening and polishing till the ground fair trembles with sound of axe and sword against the whetstone, and the sun shall find a glittering home in every visor.”
- “When you men of eloquence have stunned each other with your words, we, we the soldiers, have to face it out. On some half-started morning while you speakers lie abed, armies settle everything, giving sweat sinewed bodies ironed life itself.”
- “You ask for the impossible lightly.”
- “You must serve my purpose or you have no purpose”
- “My friends cut down about my ears or stolen. My armies roust about the streets and clutter up the streets of Jaffa with the garbage of their vices. And now I learn my brother John thirsts after power, drinking great draughts of it, though it’s not his to take.”
- “Yet with our armies do we both lock in deadly combat, watering the land with a rain of blood, and the noise of thunder is drowned in the shouts of dying men.”
- “All wise men look for peace. The terms of peace make wise men look fools.”
- “And how would you have me go to Saphadin? Bathed in oriental perfume, I suppose? Supient, tender and affectionate, soft-eyed and trembling, eager with a thousand words of compliment and love? Well, I like a different way to meet the man I am to wed!”
- “Hold one hand out in friendship but keep the other on your sword.”
Best unsettling moments:
Haroun’s story of the loss of his family is sad enough but it’s an alarming and uncomfortable realization of how desperate times are when he gives Barbara a knife and asks her to kill his daughter if they end up with no other escape from capture.
Of course that episodes are missing. Though the audio is thankfully available on the lost episodes DVD set, there are many scenes without words that we can only imagine and we are missing a huge dimension of the colorful character acting of Ibrahim, Maimuna, and others by not getting to see their facial expressions and actions. Also the casting that makes many uncomfortable would probably have been more appropriate if it had been made today.