Doctor Who episode 299: The Dæmons – Episode One (22/5/1971)

This opens like one a BBC ghost story, with thunder, lightning and driving rain; leering gargoyles and startled animals, and a man struck down by fright by something offscreen. The tone is quite different from the hyperactive storytelling of Terror of the Autons and The Claws of Axos; this takes its time to create a sense of place and atmosphere, banking, rightly, on the audience enjoying the dichotomy of the Doctor’s unshakeable rationalism with the modish interest in ghostly curses, ‘unspeakable rites’ and ‘all that magic bit’.

The early 1970s were a golden age for these kind of stories, including Lawrence Gordon Clark’s annual M.R. James adaptations, series such as Dead of Night and the last season of Out of the Unknown, films including Blood on Satan’s Claw, and TV movies like The Stone Tape – which are all -pre-dated by The Dæmons. This fits right into the emerging trend of “folk horror”, which pits the modern world against some sort of lingering or unearthed pagan spirit of the countryside rather than Ruritanian vampires or Mitteleuropean mad scientists.

Professor Horner is the arch-sceptic, pompously dismissing Miss Hawthorn’s casting of the runes (an explicit M.R. James nod) and prying into the buried secrets of Devil’s End. His scepticism is shared by the fatuous young TV presenter Alastair Fergus, whose oily report on the caverns beneath the local church are a brilliant pastiche of reporting on the supernatural.

Daemons1

The Doctor initially seems to fall into the sceptic tank, but we’ve seen before in both Doctor Who and the Silurians and Inferno his aversion to digging into the Earth, and he seems to have exactly the same psychic shock when he learns about what Horner has planned. He’s obviously right to be concerned given the unsurprising presence of the Master in Devil’s End, disguised as a trendy CofE vicar. The end of the episode crescendo neatly mirrors its start, with the Doctor’s race to the barrow; Horner breaking through into the burial chamber, and the Master’s occult ceremony climaxing in a deadly storm.

It’s all quite spooky, although a possessed policeman’s averted attempt to brain Mis Hawthorn with a brick is the most horrible moment. Possibly conscious of the knuckle-rapping he got for Terror of the Autons co-writer Barry Letts mixes in quite a lot of humour, with the UNIT team getting slightly lighter material than normal; Pertwee and Manning doing some business with a map, and a very funny moment where one of the locals asks the Doctor about his costume and wig. However, none of this detracts from an episode with an unusually strong sense of internal coherence and momentum.

Next episode: The Dæmons – Episode Two

One comment

  1. Pingback: Doctor Who episode 298: Colony in Space – Episode Six (15/5/1971) | Next Episode...

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