Synopsis: Warriors from another dimension bring their fight to a lake reputed to be the last resting place of King Arthur. Nearby, a convoy of UNIT troops is transporting a nuclear weapon. The Doctor and Ace recover Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, observed by the witch Morgaine and the chained beast The Destroyer. But the invaders haven’t reckoned on an old soldier coming out of retirement for one final mission. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart has arrived!
Divided into Part One, Two, Three and Four, and subdivided by numbered chapters – eighteen in total.
Background: Marc Platt adapts scripts by Ben Aaronovitch for the 1989 serial, completing the run of stories for Season 26 and the seventh Doctor. This is also the last Doctor Who TV story to be novelised under the original Target banner.
Notes: The prologue details the final hours of Arthur as he and Bedivere leap across dimensions to flee from the war with Morgaine and Mordred. Bedivere casts Excalibur into a lake, before Mordred slits his throat. Arthur is taken to safety, where he’s reunited with Merlin, a man with an ‘avuncular face’ and ‘twin hearts’. He has ‘unruly red hair’ (is this why future Doctors are so excited by the prospect of being ‘ginger’?) and wears a ‘tatty embroidered Afghan coat’ and a floppy, brown felt hat with a saffron Katmandu bandana around the brim. Receiving Excalibur, he places it in the exact position that he remembers finding it in (so ‘Merlin’ is definitely a future Doctor).
Brigadier Bambera is lifted out of a mission in the Zambezi region to command operation ‘Dull Sword’, the name for the removal of ‘Salamander Six-Zero’, a ‘ground-launched cruise missile system, in breach of the Berlin Convention’. She arrives at UNIT HQ, a former ‘finishing school’ located ‘six klicks’ from Geneva; the base itself is 200 metres below ground. Her callsign is ‘Seabird One’. The signal sent by Excalibur to the TARDIS is much more powerful than on TV; it’s responsible for an electronics blackout that hits the south of England – and the TARDIS itself. Inside the darkened main control room, the Doctor has a lectern in the shape of an eagle (the one he had on TV in the 1960s). The electronics blackout is followed by a violent storm greater than the ones in ‘1987 and 1995’. The Doctor finds a copy of Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th-century work Le Morte D’arthur and pops it in his pocket. Mordred has a disappointing night of drinking at a tavern in a place called Gore; he leaves the inn at dawn and is taken by an ornithopter to meet with his mother, the Queen. All of the suits of armour from this other dimension are equipped with display screens in the visor and the ability to leap across the dimensions.
The events in England take place in the spring of 1999 (the tax disc of Peter Warmsly’s car is due to expire on 30 June ’99). Peter has a ‘northern accent’ (the actor who played him, James Ellis, did his best to disguise his Belfast accent, so that accent would be ‘Northern Irish’) and his companion is a large Irish wolfhound called Cerberus. Bambera attended lectures at Sandhurst (the military academy that trains all British officers) delivered by ‘Chunky Gilmore [see Remembrance of the Daleks] and she also remembers that UNIT’s ‘Zen Brigade’ at Aylesbury had been led by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.
Doris is an economist and she inherited her mock-Tudor home from an aunt. She became reacquainted with Lethbridge-Stewart after seeing him in a TV documentary that insinuated he was keeping secrets from the British public:
‘We may never know what happened at the atomic installation at Wenley Moor, the fate of Mars Probe 7, the Styles Conference on disarmament or the terrible ecological accident at Llanfairfach. But we do know that Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart was a leading agent in the Government’s response to these crises.’
Doris arranged to visit Lethbridge-Stewart at his home in the grounds of the school where he taught Mathematics [see Mawdryn Undead] and, reminded of a previous encounter at a Brighton hotel, she suggested they get married.
Shou Yuing is a student at Exeter University and is surprised by the sight of Ace’s 80s-style clothes. Her family name is ‘Li’ (she introduces herself to the Brigadier as ‘Li Shou Yuing’) and her grandmother, a great story-teller, spoke only Mandarin all her life, despite having been a British subject for 53 years (we might speculate that she was a refugee from the Chinese Civil War, which resumed in 1946). Her brother appears to be a mechanic and he gave her car a respray only a week before she came to the area. Her parents wait for her outside of the exclusion zone and she feels she’ll be in a lot of trouble when they find her (which is possibly why she sticks around long enough to be invited home with the Lethbridge-Stewarts at the end).
At the Gore Crow Hotel, Pat sells four flavours of crisps, ‘plain, roasted peanut, onion gravy or cauliflower cheese’. The Doctor has various units of currency in his pockets, including ‘Pallistratum Gromits’, ‘seven-and-three-eighth Rlarix Sovereigns’ and ‘something shaped like a small mechanoid crab’, but pays for the drinks with a ‘1998 five pound ecucoin’. It might be ten years into Ace’s future, but it’s more than 20 years in our past and £4.95 for half a cider, a lemonade and a packet of crisps is still extortionate in 2022.
Ace is still wearing the same shoes she had in Iceworld and they’re letting in water (even before she gets ejected into the lake!). She tells Bambera to ‘piss off’. Suspecting that his future self might have been ‘too clever for his own good’, the Doctor considers that ‘so many regenerations in so short a span could not be good for the brain.’ The knowledge of the future Merlin makes him suddenly and uncomfortably aware of the mortality of his current form. Morbid thoughts turn to a memory of the Time Lord academy.
The Doctor and Ace discuss Clark’s Law – ‘Any advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from magic’; The Brigadier tactlessly addresses Ace as ‘the latest one’, which makes her immediately very snarky towards him; and Ace and Shou Yuing deduce that the legend of King Arthur came from the ‘real’ Arthur, and that Excalibur wasn’t inserted into the stone, it was plugged into the console of the ship in the lake – all of which were scenes deleted from original broadcast but restored for a Special Edition edit on the DVD release.
Elizabeth Rowlinson has been blind for 22 years. Her husband, Pat, goes to the crashed helicopter with a first aid kit and helps Lavel to escape; he was in the police force for 23 years before becoming the landlord of the Gore Crow (and Noel Collins, who played him on TV, played a police officer in Juliet Bravo for five years). Morgaine takes control of the UNIT officer and learns that she is ‘Francoise Eloise Lavel’ and that she grew up in Brittany. Morgaine enters Lavel’s mind to see a young Lavel running through a field, watching the birds and telling her mother she wants to fly ‘like a great arrow’. The Witch Queen says to her in French, ‘goodbye my little one. Now you are with me’, before turning her to ash.
Ancelyn was once a general in Morgaine’s army, but an ancient family oath compelled him to answer Arthur’s call and Morgaine branded him a traitor. Despite the switch in allegiances, Ancelyn refuses to share secrets with UNIT that might help them defeat Morgaine with dishonour.
The Doctor uses a dog whistle to summon Warmsly’s dog (recalling that the whistle would have once summoned K9). The Brigadier has never been allowed to use Bessie’s ‘superdrive facility’ before now. He recognises the Doctor’s term ‘interstitial’ from his encounter with ‘The Master with a Greek accent’ (the Doctor jokes ‘You should hear his French One!’, references to The Time Monster and The King’s Demons). Bambera is disappointed to discover ‘armour-piercing’ bullets have no effect on Mordred’s army, which is why she goes into battle with a sword.
The Destroyer arrives in a different form to how we see it on telly:
Out of the great shadow stepped a figure. A man of aristocratic bearing, impeccably attired in a twentieth-century business suit. He was handsome; so handsome, he was almost ugly. Every beautiful feature on his face was slightly exaggerated, like a near-perfect mask, to conceal something very terrible beneath. His skin had a metallic blue sheen. He moved with a casual, predatory grace and was over seven feet tall. Behind him, the horned shadow traced his every movement.
The Destroyer’s appearance changes slowly as its power builds; small bumps appear at its temples and Ace sees a ‘reptilian eye’ beneath its mask. Finally released from Morgaine’s control, it grows to a monstrous size:
Its shape altered and grew. The tailored suit split as great thorns spiked out across its body like the armour of all Hell’s legions. Its head lost all human features; its skin hardened into scales of metallic blue; its goat horns twisted and blackened in thick murderous spires. As it rose up, its eyes narrowed and darkened into green pits of burning evil.
It finishes up so large that the Brigadier is dwarfed by its hooves.
At the missile camp, Bambera shouts for Zbrigniev to bring her coffee and discovers he has been killed, just as Mordred captures her. Ancelyn finds two more UNIT soldiers slain on his return to the camp. His battle with Mordred is brought to an end by Bambera knocking Mordred unconscious with a rifle butt.
The Doctor taunts Morgaine by looping his umbrella over the blade of Excalibur. The material of the umbrella is shredded but by story end he fetches himself a new one (he also replaces his hat at one point). It will now be down to the Earth authorities to negotiate with Ancelyn’s world to decide the fate of Morgaine and Mordred. Back home, Doris asks the Doctor for help in arranging a reunion of old friends for Alistair; the Doctor suggests they meet at Christmas to give him time to collect everybody. Ace finds a bag of crusty jelly babies in Bessie’s glove compartment. Ancelyn presents Bambera with a crystal ring ‘inlaid with twining silver leaves, emblem of the House of Garde-Joyeuse’. The story concludes with the Brigadier telling the Doctor that he’s been offered a new job that he can’t turn down.
Cover: Alister Pearson combines the Brigadier, Morgaine, the Doctor and the Destroyer with deceptive simplicity. With this cover, he also steals a title from Andrew Skilleter as he becomes the only cover artist to provide the artwork for two complete seasons of stories. Including art for a reissue of Time and the Rani, he also painted artwork for every single Seventh Doctor story. A 2016 rerelease of Battlefield had cover art by Chris Achilleos that tried to mimic the style of his own 70s classics. A disappointing composition, it featured a fair likeness of Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, plus Morgaine, Excalibur and a strange, side-on pose for the Destroyer. The audiobook invited Alister Pearson back to create a revised version of his original art with new portraits of the principal elements.
Final Analysis: Full disclosure, I’ve never been a fan of Arthurian mythology, even less a fan of Arthurian science fiction. That this managed to keep my interest from beginning to end is a real credit to Marc Platt’s skill as a writer. It’s impossible to know how close this novel is to how Ben Aaronovich might have approached it, as Ben abandoned work on his version and handed everything over to Marc Platt. What we have though is a novel that immerses us in the legend and explains the backstory while drawing us towards the final confrontation in a war that has lasted for thousands of years. And the book makes it much clearer that none of this is actually what the story is about.
Once again, this is a beautifully executed adaptation, from the introduction to the Old King and his war with Morgaine to the quieter moments where the supporting characters get time to reflect on the various life-changing revelations they’ve been forced to accept: Warmsly is overwhelmed by the discovery that the mythology that he has spent his life researching is real, teary-eyed while saying to Ancelyn ‘I keep thinking you’re true, young man. I think I’d like that. It’s better than reality, isn’t it?’ The same for the Rawlinsons, having to deal with the inexplicable return of Elizabeth’s sight:
Pat squeezed Elizabeth’s hand. He was looking the other way. She had seen something he had missed. Now she had her own secrets again, not just what she was told.
It was too much to take in. She closed her eyes.
As we might often hope for a novelisation, this is far and away the best version of Battlefield. But the sword-and-sorcery aspect is just a distraction from where Platt really wants to go. Confronted with the possibility that a future Doctor is playing the role of Merlin, our current Doctor is reluctant to accept the evidence that at some future point, his own time as the Doctor will end. To build on the inevitability, Part 4, Chapter 1 is told partly from Mordred’s point of view, where his adversary is very clearly ‘Merlin’. Coming in between this incarnation’s last regular TV appearance and his consignment to the pages of the New Adventures novels (the first of which was published the month before this volume), it’s all rather poignant – and nicely foreshadows a later Doctor’s reluctance to let go. There are other changes coming behind the scenes; although there are some novelisations still to come, this is the last televised story to be novelised under WH Allen’s Target banner.
… but it’s not the last entry for this blog. We still have a few more to come, including a couple of surprises!