‘Simple isn’t it, just like most killings.’ In between plotting that gracelessly lurches from one scene to the next, there’s something very good here that suggests the show is groping towards the kind of ongoing character arcs beloved of 1990s telefantasy. For instance it’s rare for the series to call back to character moments from earlier episodes, but Mordred’s challenge to the Doctor – ‘look me in the eye end my life’ – makes it obvious that Cartmel isn’t just trying to get something in front of the cameras from week to week but wants to do something more ambitious.
Its reach exceeds its grasp, but I think it’s hard not to admire what Battlefield is trying to do. At a point when the Doctor has started to look like he could be too in control he’s confounded at every stage: Mordred stares him down, the Brigadier bashes him over the head to play the hero, and he has to rely on his own future self to tell him how to finish the story. And yet he’s not useless: he still wins by confronting Morgaine with the reality of her own vengeance, looking her in the eye and challenging her to end a child’s life.
Some of this is wonderful. I go back and forth on whether the Brigadier’s story should have ended here, with that brilliant final exchange: ‘Can this world do no better than you as its champion?’; ‘Probably. I just do the best I can.’ It would have fit the theme of letting the past go, but on balance I’m glad he makes it out and retires gracefully rather than having to go out in a blaze of glory. It’s nice enough that after 24 years he’s reunited with Jean Marsh, who’s excellent in this as she curls her lip at the Destroyer, pleads with Mordred, and eulogises Arthur.
Battlefield works best as a collection of moments, as the story doesn’t really come together. But the moments are great, some of them are moving, some of them are just very entertaining (the Doctor striding through the middle of a sword fight), and I’d be very much on board for more stories with this near-future backdrop (why hasn’t Big Finish done some?). After Season 25, it’s a stumble, but not a fall.
Next episode: Ghost Light