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8x05. The Daemons
Writers: Barry Letts & Robert Sloman (as Guy Leopold)
Director: Christopher Barry
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Barry Letts

Synopsis: An archaeological dig at the town of Devil's End threatens to awaken an ancient alien race that has influenced human history and been mythologized as "demons" by various cultures. The Master, posing as a local vicar, has drawn some of the villagers into a secretive cult dedicated to Azal, one of the aliens, whom he hopes to summon and convince to grant him power over the world.

Review: "The Daemons" is proof that pedestrian plot mechanics can be redeemed by good characterization and some interesting underlying concepts. The characters spend much of the time simply running back and forth between different locations and being tossed around by various apocalyptic portents, but by drawing the Master into a Season 7-esque examination of human values and progress, the serial makes its mark as one of the better outings of the Pertwee era to date.

The idea that some sort of alien presence has been influencing humanity throughout history was not a new one even in 1971, and certainly the creators of "The Daemons" must have known that they were walking in the footsteps of Nigel Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit. Fortunately, they do it well enough to earn the right to a little borrowing, tackling some difficult ideas by deliberately associating traditional demonic imagery with an alien that the Doctor himself states is not really evil so much as simply amoral. Azal's race have been conducting an experiment that has driven many important developments, and their "demonic" appearance presumably found its way into the popular imagination through those who decry every new idea or innovation as "the work of the Devil," as somehow destructive of tradition and social order. Though she herself practices an unconventional religion, the white witch Olive Hawthorne in many ways reflects this point of view, insisting that it is evil to continue the archaeological dig and attributing the various disturbances to "magic."

The Doctor's chastisement of Azal for having given humanity the power to destroy itself caught me by surprise, but I don't think he's actually endorsing a negative view of human progress. He does, after all, refuse Azal's offer of power over the human race, and more importantly, he suggests that the human race should be allowed to "grow up" without further intervention. In the Doctor's view, the problem is not too much intellectual progress but insufficient ethical progress. (In other words, the question to ask is not whether we should turn back the clock and "trade in," say, smallpox vaccine for the absence of nuclear weapon technology, but rather how we can better ourselves so that we don't actually build and use nuclear weapons even if we know how to do so.) And while Azal's defeat does come off as pretty hokey -- in response to Jo's offer to sacrifice herself for the Doctor, he exclaims that this is "not rational" and simply disintegrates -- I actually kind of like the idea behind it, namely that there's something admirable in the human character that isn't part of Azal's experiment and that surpasses the formidable but morally vacuous power of this advanced alien race.

The Master and the Doctor are really having the same conflict in "The Daemons" that they've been having all season long -- the Master is trying to harness some sort of alien force to gain power, and the Doctor is trying to stop him. What's interesting about "The Daemons" is that it specifically repeats the "Colony in Space" scenario whereby the Doctor is also offered enormous power (by the Master in "Colony" and by Azal in this serial) and turns it down, once again showing that he'd rather help others achieve independence than be their ruler. The Master, true to his "rule or serve" philosophy, exploits fears of progress (witness his open sneering at the concepts of freedom and democracy) by offering his own absolute rule as the solution to his followers' uncertainty. After the events of "Colony," however, he is no longer interested in convincing the Doctor or winning his approval; this time, he simply wants his rival dead. Though he occasionally verges on camp, the Master has been a useful counterpoint to the Doctor as an intelligent but ruthless and morally bankrupt Time Lord, and it's fitting for the season to end with the two of them confronting one of the driving forces of human civilization and demonstrating their radically different attitudes towards it. The Master's capture by UNIT also serves as an appropriate coda, though its impact is somewhat muted for those of us who know that his nefarious schemes are hardly at an end.

The town of Devil's End proves to be an effective backdrop for the story; the mysterious "heat barrier" that keeps the Brigadier and his UNIT team from entering adds a sense of isolation, and on a more basic level, the extensive location work adds some variety and gets the show out of the laboratories and military offices that have become standard for the Pertwee era thus far. With the Brigadier away from the action, Benton and Yates assume more prominent roles than they have in the past. Benton proves up to the task; as always, he's a likeable and engaging character, and he gets a slightly comedic scene in which he helps the Doctor pose as a magician so as to scare off the Master's followers in Devil's End. Yates, unfortunately, turns out to be part of the serial's most glaring problem: the sense of urgency that should accompany an impending apocalypse is never quite there, and his casual manner (particularly when he seems amused at the failure of the Brigadier's weapons against the gargoyle creature) adds to the slightly phoned-in feel. Of course, the Doctor Who team may be partly the victims of their own previous success here. Having set the gold standard for apocalyptic horror in "Inferno," they face a tall order in trying to replicate a similar atmosphere of dread, and the occasional "heat waves" and attacks by the gargoyle just don't do the trick.

Jon Pertwee's second season has proven to be a mixed bag. The writers sacrificed some of the edgy, subversive approach of his first four serials, opting instead for a "safer" feel with a larger ensemble cast and antagonists who were frequently rather conventional. On the other hand, the Master, while sometimes a bit shallow, proved to be a worthy adversary for the Doctor, and serials like "The Mind of Evil" and now "The Daemons" showed that the new format could still lend itself to first-rate, intelligent storytelling.

Other notes:

- The Brigadier has one of the oddest lines I've heard on Doctor Who in quite a while when he complains that he's sitting around "like a spare lemon waiting for a squeezer."

Rating: ***1/2 (out of four)