The Dæmons [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who.

The Dæmons

Starring Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor.
Companion:  Katy Manning as Jo Grant.
Recurring Characters: Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Roger Delgado as the Master, Richard Franklin as Captain Mike Yates and John Levene as Sgt. Benton.
Written by Guy Leopold (aka Robert Sloman and Barry Letts).  Directed by Christopher Barry. Produced by Barry Letts. Script Edited by Terrance Dicks.

Format:  5 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  May-June 1971  (Episodes 21-25 of Season 8)

Once upon a time, Doctor Who was a show I had read about more than I’d actually seen. In those days, when I was scratching for episodes to watch on local PBS stations which were sometimes tenuously tuned into via UHF broadcasting, my hunger for Doctor Who content was satisfied by novelizations, reference books, and fan club newsletters. In those days, the reputation of a story was built up by the reviews and opinions of others–even by the show’s actors and production team–more than any actual viewings of the story. Nowadays, of course, the story is readily available, and like most things, we can see very quickly that the serial is a mixture of things that work well and things that don’t.

Spoilers Ahead!

One of the best things about The Daemons is the fact that it almost entirely takes place on location in the village of Devil’s End. To this end, the production almost entirely gets out of the studio and does everything on location. We are immersed into the little hamlet and the whole feel of country life, whether the action is taking place in the church, in the local pub, or in the town square. When you combine that with the fact that Benton and Yates spend their time running around in civilian clothes, you get a feel of naturalism with The Daemons that is rare in classic Doctor Who: the story is focused and contained, without any of that jarring “meanwhile back in the UNIT lab” editing that is so common amongst the era’s UNIT stories.

Unfortunately, it’s also a bit tedious and slow-moving, and the effective setting is filled with bland guest characters–most of the residents of Devils End are pretty forgettable.

As a result, the threat that Azal poses is only engaging because the entire world is at risk, not the world of the story itself. Maybe if the TV people had stuck around, or if the Professor from the beginning of the story had lived for any length of time, it might have been different. As it is, only Miss Hawthorne stands out, but while her interaction with Sgt. Benton is kind of cute, she herself is kind of tiresome.

(Although having said all that, we must also commend the plucky UNIT Sgt. Osgood, played by Alec Linstead, as the fun sort of guest character the show could have used more of. It’s a small part, but a good one, and is presumably where the more recent Petronella Osgood from the modern series got her name).

Of course, this might have been because of all the attention that our semi-regulars got in this story. Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton get great roles this time around. They aren’t exactly deepened as characters, but they both gets lots of action and screen time. The Brigadier is also as present as he ever is, with perhaps one of his most famous (albeit silliest) lines of dialogue, as he orders a soldier to fire at an animated stone gargoyle: “Chap with wings there. Five rounds rapid.” With Jo and the Master also being major players, and a cute dance-around-the-maypole at the story’s conclusion, the whole thing has a “UNIT-family” feel that might account for some of its high regard.

Roger Delgado’s Master is the main villain of the story but I wouldn’t call it one of his best appearances. It seems to take an awful lot of effort to control one little village long enough to bring back an ancient scientist and convince him to hand over the keys to his experiment. And though we see a little bit of his magnificently manipulative ways, by the time we get into the story he is basically just publicly killing people who disagree with him, which is not terribly interesting.

Of course Delgado is so committed to the role that he is always impressive on the basis of personality alone, and as has been noted by others, the fact that he gets his very own ‘Will he die?!” cliffhanger at the end of Part 3 shows how popular the character was.

Azal, the story’s monster, is also a bit problematic. Actually, when he’s off-screen, he’s great. The episode does a great job implying the presence of a giant, murderous monster, with the high camera angles and the big footprints. And Azal’s physical appearance is pretty good, and Stephen Thorne puts in a convincing performance.

But the effect of Azal growing from his miniaturized form is pretty dodgy, and the fact that once he is visible on-screen he doesn’t really do anything takes away from his sense of menace. But worst of all is the way he is defeated: Jo throws herself in front of the Doctor in a moment of self-sacrifice, and Azal can’t compute that so he just destroys himself?? What sort of alien scientist is that? Talk about confirmation bias! “If the results of my experiment take me off guard, I just might have to blow myself up!” It’s a terrible denouement which completely undercuts any tension that the story had built up.

In the end, The Daemons is a good example of the Third Doctor’s UNIT stories–a great showcase for the cast and the era’s style, with a good dose of cute moments. But as an actual story, it’s nowhere near as strong or tight as it should be, and it’s main monster is let down massively but a weak climax.

2 thoughts on “The Dæmons [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. It’s a very mixed bag, though I think the good bits outweigh the bad. I agree the ending is weak — I’d remembered it before rewatching as Azal re-evaluating us based on Jo’s actions and, as you say, ending the experiment.
    I do like that the resident white witch in the village is the most sensible and least superstitious.

  2. The Daemons agreeably can’t hold up as well as Pyramids Of Mars, Image Of The Fendahl and State Of Decay as far as Whoniversal gothic or folk horror is concerned. But as one of Doctor Who’s most specific portraits on how ancient aliens may have influenced human history, it’s never far from my thoughts. Thanks, Ben, for your review.

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