Here’s the first thing to understand about Battlefield: it was now highly-successful novelist Ben Aaronovitch’s second televised episode of Doctor Who. His first, Remembrance of the Daleks, was simply extraordinary, opening Doctor Who’s 25th season with an enormous bang, the Daleks in spectacular form, a return to Coal Hill School and Totter’s Lane, where the events of the very first episode of Doctor Who in 1963 took place. It gave us a great new cast of characters in what would later be known at Big Finish Productions as the Countermeasures team, and was threaded through, seemingly effortlessly, with a cultural comparison between those cuddly racial purity freaks, the Daleks, and our own society in Britain in the Sixties.
The amazing thing about Remembrance of the Daleks was that when Ben Aaronovitch then came to write the novelization of his own debut story, he only went and made it better! That amount of skill in one writer is allllmost annoying, but it’s true. The novelization took a slightly Dune-style approach, including extracts from future histories of the Daleks and inserting them here and there to break up the real-time action, building a much bigger universe in which the Daleks lived than the course of the televised version of the story – not to mention the budget and the conventions of TV storytelling – would allow for.
Now, Battlefield, the second Aaronovitch story, didn’t have the Daleks to pep up the script, but took the conventions of Arthurian legend, shifted them to a sideways dimension where magic was their version of science, and brought perennial favourite Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart out of retirement for one last stand in mainstream Doctor Who (while getting him married in the process).
It also introduced a NEW Brigadier (Winifred Bambera, played by Angela Bruce), and introduced a gloriously time-twisted idea, where the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) had to deal at his point in life with events that were in his personal future, performed by a future incarnation of the Doctor, but which were long in the past of the knights in armour from another dimension.
Still with us? Good, because while the script was absolutely sound – and remains a firm favourite of lots of Who-fans – it had a couple of issues that occasionally showed the joins of Eighties Who production budgets. But that’s really all you can take issue with about the televised version of Battlefield – there’s a plasticky cheapness about the suits of armour, and a little naffness about the fight choreography, and if we’re being really uncharitable, one actor’s hammy evil laugh into a cliff-hanger kind of breaks the believability, but that’s it. Otherwise, it’s pretty perfect Eighties Who.
But the crucial thing is that, like Aaronovitch’s first Doctor Who script, in Battlefield, you can sense the bigger, wider universe that informs what you see on screen.
But when it came time to novelize the story, Aaronovitch either passed on the gig or wasn’t available – so there was always the chance that whoever took the job would do a Terrance Dicks and simply transfer what appeared on screen into a print form, keeping the essence of the work, but never going into any of the broader world of the story, as Aaronovitch had done for Remembrance of the Daleks.
Never fear – as it turns out, it was Marc Platt who stepped up to the plate to novelise Battlefield.
For those just joining us, Marc Platt wrote Ghost Light, the story that immediately followed Battlefield on screen. He also went on to write Lungbarrow, one of the most controversial, deeply-loved and now, extremely hard-to-find New Adventures novels once Doctor Who went off-air, and subsequently, to add richness and depth to the Doctor Who universe in audio – especially writing a solid handful of Companion Chronicle stories. The whole point of those was to add to the mainstream world of Doctor Who, so Platt was an excellent choice of author to deliver the wider world of Battlefield.
And here’s the great news: Platt delivers in the kind of spades you’d expect from Aaronovitch himself.
Where some writers might find themselves nervous to wade into both something as arcane as Arthurian legend, and something as generally well-regarded as Battlefield’s on screen story, Marc Platt understands the complexities of the job perfectly, and squares up to the task with the kind of imaginative flourish that hardcore fans would expect of the writer of Lungbarrow.
Giving us a brand new opening set in the sideways dimension, he shows us how Excalibur – yes, that Excalibur – comes to be on Earth in the first place, drawing us a version of the Arthurian legends with a more Dune-like feeling – technology assisting the ancient codes of chivalry. There are scenes in the book with the future Doctor (slightly pudgy, and famously redheaded) talking to Arthur in the guise of ‘Merlin,’ scenes where the fair knight Ancelyn Ap Gwalchmai reviews the dating history of some of his fellow knights, and a very different take on the story’s most impressive creature-effect – The Destroyer.
We almost don’t want to spoiler that for you, because if you’ve seen Battlefield on screen, when The Destroyer arrives in the audiobook, it’ll whip your head sideways in surprise at quite how radically differently it makes its first appearance in the novel.
But there’s half a ton of extra material in here, and all of it really helps to expand the on screen story into a wider universe. We hear what Brigadier Bambera was doing before she got assigned a gig in rainy old England escorting a nuclear missile. We hear quite how Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart found himself hitched to the mysterious but impressive Doris. And we get to really appreciate, in a way that was impossible on screen, the effects of what happens in the story.
When the submerged Excalibur sends out its call to any technology that will hear it (including the Doctor’s Tardis), there’s some great writing on the effect it has on the Tardis. But more than that, there’s a world-broadening sense that the call of Excalibur, and the arrival of the knights from the sideways dimension, plays colossal havoc with the weather over the whole of the UK. These effects – which have a tendency to feel convenient and very contained within the on-screen version (as you’d expect when you have to keep the story moving forward at pace) – are allowed to settle in and give us some proper background to the whole final battle between Merlin and Morgaine (played on-screen by the peerless Jean Marsh) in the audiobook version.
So – in the audionovelisation of Battlefield, we get a whole heck of a lot more Battlefield for our money than ever could have hoped to make it to the screen. That makes it a lush, fully-rounded, well-explained world into which we’re dropping in. We even get some time inside the Seventh Doctor’s head here, as he comes to the realisation that if a future version of himself has set all this in motion, it means he personally – the Seventh version of the Doctor – will not only regenerate, but he will also, in that process, die in every meaningful sense but one. That’s a deft touch, and ties in with the very Aaronovitch ‘Dark Doctor’ vibe from Remembrance of the Daleks.
What of the reading, then? Toby Longworth is no stranger to Doctor Who in audio, having worked extensively with Big Finish Productions. It’s difficult to say particularly why he was chosen to read Battlefield, but that he makes a solid fist of the job is beyond dispute. He has a deep, rich, clear note as narrator, and is able to turn his voice to more-than-decent versions of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and the Seventh Doctor. His Ancelyn and his Mordred (son of immortal sorceress, Morgaine) tend to sound significantly more like two sides of the same coin than they did on screen, but that actually serves to add another level of subtlety to the play between them.
Where he’s less successful is in rendering the women of the piece – which is unfortunate, because Battlefield was ahead of its time (at least as far as Doctor Who was concerned) when it came to rendering strong women all along the line. In particular, Brigadier Bambera’s habit of muttering “Oh, shame!” as a kind of kiddie-friendly expletive comes out – perhaps more rationally – in Longworth’s reading as an eyebrow-raise of sarcasm than a pursed lip of frustration. And his rendering of Morgaine is tonally very different to the on screen version. Jean Marsh played the role across a broad palette, allowing amusement, mourning, sorrow, sing-song delight and snappy, imperious command to animate the sorceress. In Longworth’s reading, there’s a lot more snappy command and very little amusement or sing-song delight, leaving her significantly less multi-layered as a character than she appeared on screen.
But really, these are examples of nit-picking so petty as to be practically irrelevant. Toby Longworth has a vocal gravitas that allows the potentially-overblown source material of the Arthurian legends the scope they need to seem real, rather than pretentious, and brings his performance down to the here and now for the action sequences that need to carry us along.
There’s not a version of Battlefield that’s less than delightful. But in the novelisation – and now the audio novelisation – what you get is the bigger, 4k, movie-length version of the story that Eighties budgets rendered in an engaging but necessarily constrained way.
There are performances in the original that will never be topped – Jean Marsh as Morgaine, Nicholas Courtney as Lethbridge-Stewart, Angela Bruce as Bambera, and Dorota Rae as Flight Lieutenant “Only when I’m drunk, sir” Lavel.
But for everything that’s added here in terms of context, epic impact, previously unseen scenes, and even a broader emotional context to the battle between Morgaine and Arthur, there’s no-one who likes the original that will come away from the audiobook of Battlefield with anything but a giant grin on their face.Tony Fyler