This is a rare example of the third episode of a Doctor Who story improving on the first two. Mainly, it’s because the stately pace of the first half, which allowed David Fisher to set up some of the plot convolutions and characters, all begins to coalesce here, and what might have been final-episode pay-offs, like Madam Lamia’s death, instead become part of events spiralling out of Grendel’s control.
The episode built around a series of confrontations between the Doctor, who’s now a declared King’s man, and Grendel. The first, in the coronation room, and the second, in the pavilion, are narrow victories for the Doctor, whose refusal to fit into the neat hierarchy of Tara or to act as might be reasonably expected baffles and confounds Grendel, but allows him to get some measure of his opponent. Their third, at the climax of the episode, is a Grendel win: the King’s android, on which all the royal party’s hopes rest, seems a write off, and Romana, who earlier staged a daring escape from Castle Gracht, is back in Grendel’s clutches. What I really like about these scenes is that as the stakes raise, Grendel becomes increasingly civil to the Doctor. He starts off demanding to know who the devil the Doctor is and ends up offering him the throne.
In a season that’s not short of great villains, Grendel might well be the best. He’s both charmingly roguish and thoroughly rotten. The way he treats Lamia is pretty grisly. It’s an open secret that she’s ‘Count Grendel’s woman’, a fact that the Count plays on to try and bluff the Doctor into a trap. Predictably, Lamia herself is the victim – although she’s been trapped by Grendel for a long time, used for her talents, but always kept in her place. Tragically, she knows it:
GRENDEL: What should I do without you?
LAMIA: Find another peasant who understands androids, no doubt.
GRENDEL: True, but I should not find one who pleased me so much.
The way Grendel parades the murderous android Romana (or Robomana as I call her) in front of Lamia and declares, ‘If only she were real I’d marry her’ is horrible – although not quite as nasty as the implication at the end of the scene as he escorts the robot away, arm in arm.
The tragedy of Madam Lamia plays out as a sideshow to the main, comic storyline of the Doctor building a better King and running rings round Grendel. The swashbuckling element of the story is working out really well, with some nice touches – like Romana’s ability to learn lockpicking and horse-riding on the fly, and Neville Jason’s easily overlooked but brilliantly subtle performance (the way he makes the android suddenly stir into life, and play its different energy levels). And the cliffhanger is a real upset, with no obvious way out.
Next episode: The Androids of Tara – Part Four