“Not a war between armies nor a war between nations, but just death, death gone mad.” – The Doctor
My history with this story is very confused in my mind. On the one hand, I feel like I can remember quite distinctly experiencing several moments like the Brigadier facing off with the Destroyer, Bambera constantly saying ‘Shame!”, and the Doctor yelling about Yeti and Cybermen for the first time on screen. On the other hand, my first memories of other scenes differ from what is on screen because they come from how I imagined things in the novelization of the story which I read over and over as a kid. I am not at all sure which one I encountered first.
Trying to imagine this story without having the much more fleshed out explanation of the book, I can see why many may not like it. The sudden appearance of knights in the middle of modern England and their relationship to the Doctor are only briefly explained or hinted at in the actual show. The editing is a bit jumpy at times too. That said, I really like this story as another example of the much higher level, mysterious characterization of the Doctor of this era. Of course the legends of King Arthur and Merlin are a perfect fit for Doctor Who; in fact, it’s a bit surprise it wasn’t used before this. I also love how the story plays with time—the Doctor finding notes from himself in the future, encountering people who’ve met him but that he hasn’t met yet. (It does admittedly get a bit muddled when you start talking about extra dimensions and if there is another version of the Doctor.)
A standout surprise for this story is the reappearance of the Brigadier—and a domesticated version no less! It’s funny to see him shopping for flowers and kissing his wife goodbye, but it doesn’t lessen his character at all. Indeed, it makes his loyalty to the Doctor that much clearer since he is willing to leave these behind to help. It makes sense that he would be the one to encounter Morgaine and survive because of his years of understanding how to assess an alien enemy, even if that means respecting their honor. His near sacrifice is a wonderfully huge moment (“Get off my world”) that makes you want to cheer—but I’m glad the opted not to have him die. One of my favorite lines is Morgaine telling her son: “Ware this man, Mordred. He is steeped in blood.” Nice to see UNIT too.
Battlefield is chock full of good moments—brief snippets full of emotion and consequence or humor: how merciless Morgaine heals the innkeeper’s wife’s blindness (and I love that they briefly explore the emotional impact of this as well), Ace rising with Excalibur just as they are telling the story of the Lady of the Lake, Bambera and Ancelyn “establishing credentials”, Ace and Shou Yuing’s standoff with Morgaine, and much more. They also get to play around with a bit of future casting: references to the King, higher prices, car phones, and such. There are some nice directorial choices like a nice view of the scene by the lake or slowly revealing the incongruity of “the Brigadier” now being a black woman by seeing her growing approach in the car mirror. The Doctor’s final speech to break Morgaine as he rails against nuclear destruction is quite well done. Overall, I really don’t think this story gets as much credit as it deserves.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The scene with Ace and Shou Yuing in the chalk circle as Morgaine plays with their teenage emotions and almost drives them to push each other outside its protection is tense and great. That Ace catches herself nearly using a racial epithet, the worst thing in the world to her, and thus shockingly realizes the outside manipulation is also a great moment for her character. The whole shot of the scene is ominous and full of portent—the single shaft of light in the darkness protecting them as they huddle together realizing that they are facing an enemy which they are ill-equipped to handle. Though Morgaine muses “They breed their children strong on this world,” we realize it is not over.
A little less of people being blown like ragdolls in the sky would have made the story more palatable to the general populations perhaps. I also wish they could have spelled out the nature of the other world and the Doctor’s role as Merlin (as in the book) instead of just implying it. I also have a little quibble with the silliness of having the Brigadier first flown to London, it’s an over-obvious way of timing his interest but doesn’t make a lot of sense. I am also not sure if I’m a fan of the Doctor suddenly being able to do some Yoda-like mind control.