18 November, 2020

Excavating Battlefield

Doctor Who: The Collection - Season 26 blu-ray set was released in January 2020. I was commissioned to write the production information text for the season's opening story, Battlefield.

Battlefield was my eleventh set of production info text, and the third for ‘The Collection’ blu-ray boxed sets. My previous blu-ray work included Earthshock and The Trial of a Time Lord. The latter was a collaboration with another writer on all 14 episodes that consumed a great deal of time throughout the first quarter of 2019. Following that experience, I welcomed the prospect of working on a story with fewer episodes and comparatively untroubled production development. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to continue to do this work without having to venture beyond my home in Auckland, New Zealand.

Battlefield holds a special place in my memories. I first saw the story one Saturday afternoon in early October 1989 in the company of a small group of fan friends. An off-air VHS recording of all four episodes had arrived that morning via airmail from the UK (ten days after it was broadcast). During the preceding two years I had been watching VHS recordings of Doctor Who that had yet to screen in New Zealand but always by borrowing the tapes from friends after they had already watched them. Battlefield marked the first time that all of us watched Doctor Who for the first time together.

Whereas the last time I’d seen Battlefield was in 2008 when it was released on DVD. In early April 2019 when I started work on Battlefield, I hadn’t watched the story in over a decade. I was therefore coming to it with relatively fresh eyes. On my first run through in preparation for writing the info text, I made notes on anything I spotted that might be worth covering in the subtitles.

The story is loaded with references to Arthurian legends of course, which would all need to be explained, but there are also numerous call-backs to the series’ own mythology with the return of UNIT, Bessie, and Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart.

While I needed to explain the numerous bits of Arthurian lore that crop up in Battlefield, I didn’t want to spend more time than was necessary on researching this complex topic, especially given the relatively limited space available to me in the info text. My university degree in the 1980s had included a paper on early English history which gave me a basic understanding of the subject, but I needed to read up on the details. 

There are many contradictory versions of the legends of Arthur. Battlefield doesn’t follow one text but rather borrows bits and pieces from a wide variety of different sources. I was delighted to find in the stacks at my local library a copy of The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, edited by Norris J. Lacy, which documents the origins of the various fragments of the legend, helpfully arranged by topic. This was invaluable as Battlefield scriptwriter Ben Aaronovitch was on record as having used Lacy’s book for research. The library’s copy was a revised and updated edition from the 1990s. Curiously, one of the additions is a write-up about Battlefield in a section about the depiction of Arthurian legend in television series. (The authors seem to have been unaware that one of Aaronovitch’s sources was close to home.)

The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, edited by Norris J. Lacy (1996).


During my initial watch-through something that caught my attention was a scene in the first episode where Elizabeth Rowlinson (played by June Bland) is sitting in the bar of the Gore Crow hotel reading a book written in braille. Thanks to the improved picture definition, it was possible to make out sections of the braille text. My expectation was that it was just a random publication that the BBC happened to have in their prop stores. What was the book? I couldn’t find anything about Battlefield that answered this question. The script’s directions simply note that Elizabeth is reading ‘a braille book’.

Despite being able to make out parts of the braille text I didn’t have any success trying to decipher it using translation websites. I then sent an email to the Blind Foundation of New Zealand asking for help. I promptly received a reply from Maria Stevens, the Foundation’s Accessible Formats Manager. Maria examined the screenshots I sent her and was able to interpret a few short fragmentary phrases from the text (for example: “…high in a stone of marble…”; “… this, he blessed him and said, …”). These were enough to positively identify the text. Remarkably, it wasn't just some random braille book but Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D'Arthur and had therefore been specially selected to fit the story’s subject. It’s the discovery of brand new, hitherto undocumented facts like this that is for me the single most exciting aspect of the job.

Elizabeth Rowlinson (June Bland) reads the opening sentences of Book IV, Chapter VIII  of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur.

Having researched many 1980s episodes there was something slightly poignant about getting to write about the last on-screen appearance of the 1983-89 version of the TARDIS console room. In doing so, I got to debunk a commonly repeated misconception about this scene. It is often suggested in articles about the story that the room is in darkness to help disguise the fact that the usually rigid walls have been replaced with a cloth cyclorama, but in fact this lighting effect is specified in the script.

In earlier drafts of the script, Peter Warmsly is accompanied by a large, slobbering dog. The animal, written out before production commenced, was called Cerebus. At first glance, the name looked to be a typographical error. In Greek mythology, the dog ‘Cerberus’ guards the entrance to the underworld, whereas ‘Cerebus’ is an aardvark from the titular comic strip. If this was a typographical error it was a remarkably consistent one, as the name remained the same throughout the scripts. I decided that as with other instances in the story (Avallion for Avalon, for example), the name was likely intended as a variation on a commonly accepted spelling. Curiously, Marc Platt’s novelisation reinstates the dog and names him Cerberus, so perhaps it was a misspelling after all.

Another head-scratching moment comes when the Doctor orders a drink of water from the hotel bar. There’s an unscripted moment of business when Sylvester McCoy holds up his glass and scrutinizes its contents before taking a drink. My initial interpretation was that it is a response to a line earlier in the same scene about the hotel’s beer getting an entry in the CAMRA guide. McCoy is making a visual joke out of treating the water with the same level of appraisal that might be accorded to Arthur’s Ale. My editor suggested an entirely different take on this, however, proposing that it was instead a topical reference to concerns over contamination of drinking water which was a major issue in 1989. Fortunately, there was enough time on screen at this point to offer both explanations.

The Doctor scrutinizes his drink.

A criticism frequently levelled at the story is the sequence where the armoured Ancelyn is blown straight up in the air by a grenade and crashes through the wall of the hotel’s barn. This looks absurd, but an examination of the scripts reveals that this would have made sense if the script directions had been followed. As written, the knights including Ancelyn were envisioned as wearing technologically advanced armour, perhaps not unlike that of Iron Man. On screen the knights are instead dressed in traditional medieval-style armour. If Ancelyn had been wearing powered armour that gave him the ability to fly, then the oft-mocked sequence makes a great deal more sense. A remnant of this original intention makes it into the finished story’s dialogue when Ace asks, “Is it an android?” when first sighting Ancelyn in his armour.

The knight Ancelyn (Marcus Gilbert) in his decidedly not technologically-advanced-looking armour.

Another example of a lack of attention paid to script directions comes in the sequence when Mordred (Christopher Bowen) conducts the ritual to summon Morgaine (Jean Marsh) from another dimension. He lights up an eight-sided shape on the ground. This was meant to have been an octagram, an eight-pointed star sometimes used to invoke magic. Due to an apparent misreading, the shape was instead realised as an octagon!

Octagram, not octagon!

Part of the brief for the info text is to cover the career highlights of key cast members. Researching the cast for this story yielded some interesting details, such as the fact that two of its actors later auditioned for the role of the Eighth Doctor, and another went on to a prestigious directing career working on such programmes as Luther, Being Human, and Fear the Walking Dead. It was a sobering moment while researching the career of Dorota Rae, the Polish actress who plays the UNIT helicopter pilot Lavel, to discover that she had died mere months earlier.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I like to slip a mention of New Zealand into the subtitles. Obviously, there needs to be a justifiable, legitimate reason for doing so. Battlefield is the third story in which I’ve managed to do this. According to the script, Ace was to have disparagingly referred to the Brigadier as “Colonel Blimp”, which allowed me to explain that the 1930s cartoon character was the creation of New Zealander David Low, for London’s Evening Standard.

The Doctor’s speech about the horrors of nuclear war presented an opportunity to do something creative with the subtitles. The scene features shots of a countdown display showing the seconds remaining until destruction. In an early edit of the recorded material, McCoy's speech was reduced in length, removing around 13 seconds. The cut meant however that the counter was no longer in synch. 

Watching the clock!

The production documentation shows that this had not escaped the attention of producer John Nathan-Turner, who wrote to director Michael Kerrigan advising that this was something that needed to be fixed. “Whenever we have countdowns on Doctor Who, our younger viewers tend to count with the clock,” Nathan-Turner wrote. “If the little horrors are counting then they should reach number 1 at the same time as our visuals.” Kerrigan fixed this by replacing the shots of the counter. Inspired by Nathan-Turner’s words, my subtitles invite viewers to count along. Is the countdown timed correctly though? Try it and find out!

An earlier version of this article was first published in issue 510 of Celestial Toyroom, the fanzine of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society.