It all goes Julian and Sandy as the Doctor and Vicki spend the third week in a row mucking about with the punningly-named Ben Daheer. ‘Who’s your friend?’ Vicki sniggers as the merchant gives a fey wave. ‘A girl dressed as a boy,’ sighs the Chamberlain. ‘Is nothing understandable these days?’ However, things take a more serious turn when Princess Joanna approaches the Doctor, who she senses she can trust, to discover King Richard’s plans for her future. The Doctor and Vicki continue to be a winning combination – Vicki’s now so settled in the TARDIS that she sees it as the only home she’s got, and although their plot in The Crusade hardly sets the pulse racing (despite the Doctor’s vague promise that court intrigues could be ‘very, very dangerous’), they’re much more fun to watch than the Doctor and Susan ever were.
Meanwhile, Barbara has been rescued from the Saracens by Haroun, who wants her help in destroying El Akir. This is all quite dramatic, with sighing strings accompanying Haroun’s sad story of his daughter’s rape and his sons’ deaths at El Akir’s hand. Jacqueline Hill gets a lovely moment as she insists that ‘Life is better than this’ – but her words ring hollow in a world where men are slaughtered in the streets, girls are taken for the pleasure of the warlords, and kings barter their sisters like cattle.
The Doctor’s battle of wits with the ‘stupid butchers’ in the English court is exceptionally Shakespearean, pitting the Doctor’s eloquence against Leicester’s soldier’s mind. Leicester rightly sees that after the learned men chatter, they’ll send him and his troops out to execute their plans – and quite a lot of them will die in the attempt. There’s a hint of the Doctor’s antagonism with the Brigadier and other military types in the exchange.
Again, Whitaker counterpoints the Doctor’s feud with Leicester with a scene between Saladin and Saphadin. Saphadin sees the marriage offer as a path to peace – he only sees what has been put in front of him. But Saladin is more cynical, seeing it as the last roll of the dice by a war-weary English king. He’ll allow Saphadin to talk peace, but will prepare for war. Realpolitik triumphs again. Unless Joanna’s violent objection to it scuppers everything.
I like that this episode features women refusing to follow the path of men. Jean Marsh gets a fabulous barnstorming scene striding through a series of sets, raging against a pleading, cajoling, commanding King Richard, and finally trumps him with an appeal to a higher authority: the Pope, pointing out that to marry her off to an infidel is a violation of every principle of the Crusades. Elsewhere, Barbara sticks to her own principle that life is worth more than Haroun things, refusing to kill his daughter, and instead sacrificing her own freedom to keep her word and prevent the girl falling into El Akir’s hands. This leads to a particularly chilling cliffhanger as El Akir promises her that the only pleasure left to her will be death.
After seeming to run on the spot for a couple of episodes, The Wheel of Fortune delivers some of the intrigue that we’ve been promised. It’s light on action – with just a film insert of Ian (presumably William Russell was on holiday) providing fisticuffs – but the verbal sparring between the Doctor and Leicester, Saladin and Saphadin, Barbara and Haroun and Richard and Joanna make this fairly gripping.
Next episode: The Warlords