The problem with anything iconic is that it gradually becomes so familiar that you lose the sense of what actually made it iconic in the first place. This well- known and oft reminisced about Doctor Who story from 1971 once regularly topped polls of the fans’ favourite all time adventures yet after fifty years has now settled into the comfier status of series treasure. Its moves and dialogue are so familiar fans can quote them at will while it’s awkward ending only seems weaker the more often you watch it. It’s difficult as well to separate the cast’s fondness for the story based on the good time they had during the shoot with the quality of the end product. Yet there must be something about it. So in 2021 can we re-discover just what it was that made `The Daemons` a hugely popular story in the first place?
Doctor Who stories of this vintage can show their age but to look at `The Daemons` it still has a spring in its step. The opening episode in particular is terrifically atmospheric and exciting- every scene introduces some new element and considering all the budgetary limitations we always read about `The Daemons` manages large crowd scenes, plenty of effects and even a helicopter! The script creates a natural atmosphere with UNIT officers watching sport on tv or being unable to contact the Brigadier because he’s “gone on somewhere”. It was rare to see a pub in full effect in Doctor Who and The Cloven Hoof regulars provide an impression of a proper, busy hostelry. You get a sense that, despite their ridiculing of Miss Hawthorne, the locals are more than happy to exploit the area’s mythical reputation because it keeps the coffers full. Just look at the names of some of the other villages in the area on that spinning road sign. By modern standards of course the demonic tropes seem basic compared to what many series have since attempted. This is surely paint by numbers devil worship complete with bearded antagonist, cloven hoofed monster, a white witch, suspicious or malleable villagers, a sulphur filled cellar full of worshippers and other worldly blasts of ancient power. Yet it is a tremendously enjoyable watch and each of these `cliches` work rather well. It was a stretch in 1971 to believe that the BBC would transmit live coverage of an archeological dig on a national channel (the regional news might cover it) yet in an era when we now have the likes of Lambing Live, it seems less unlikely. I wonder if Alastair Fergus would fit into today’s BBC3 aesthetic?
Shot mostly over two weeks in and around the Wiltshire village of Aldbourne in April 1971, `The Daemons` benefits from far more location work than usual. Christopher Barry pulls all sorts of tricks to support the material even sometimes shooting from the perspective of the BBC3 tv cameras to track the story or having the camera lurch sideways to emphasise the power being unleashed. It is some of the best direction the show had in the Seventies. Each time a supernatural storm happens it is rendered with aplomb- the shadows and winds that whip around the village at night are especially effective. In the church cavern below Barry and the effects team conjure up enough smoke and sulphur to fill the vast set and an echo effect is used in here to emphasise that size. Outside the heat barrier noise and heat haze give the impression of something powerful. Viewed from afar Bok is a much better realised creation than Azal and seen only fleetingly as was intended looks convincingly stony enough. I hadn’t noticed before how he moves like a loyal pet or a chimp, busy and loyal to The Master. The story even involves night shooting which rarely happened in those days and only adds to the feeling of a prestige production. More than anything, aided by a great sound mix, the sense of some enormous ancient power is never far from the screen.
It’s not surprising that the story includes some of the best performances from the regulars. Roger Delgado is fiery and intense yet still showing a lighter touch. It’s a measure of how important he’d become to the show that episode three ends with a cliffhanger in which The Master is in peril. The actor throws all his talents into the story whether chanting in the cellar or prodding villager’s weaknesses. Jon Pertwee is at his dashing best even if the Doctor’s role in the story is not especially well defined. There is much more material than usual for both Richard Franklin and John Levene while Alec Linstead’s Sgt Osgood should have become a regular! Damaris Hayman’s Miss Hawthorne has little to do in the story but her presence adds a vibrant layer with her believing in the occult. Her scene with Benton and the tea is wonderful detail that no other series would bother with. Jo Grant remains as loveable a character as Doctor Who ever had. She was such inspired casting from the start and by now has settled into a rhythm for Jo whose wide eyed approach to the bizarre remains as fresh as the day it was broadcast. For me despite all this competition there is something tremendous about Nick Courtney's performance in this story. It definitely gave the character a catchphrase and the actor's timing in every scene he's in is so spot on.
The story also utilises this era’s excellent habit of reportage to help tell the story. The fictional broadcaster Alastair Fergus paints such a vivid picture of what is going on around the dig that adds a lot to the first couple of episodes and actor David Simeon is also able to give the character some light and shade as his Fergus’ off camera demeanour is altogether more prima donna fusspot than his smooth talking on screen approach. Meanwhile, producer Harry played by James Snell tries to keep him on track. You can tell the idea is that these two have worked together a long time and maybe are more than just production colleagues. Having such memorable characters even if they only appear for a handful of scenes is something the series seems to have stopped doing now, perhaps because there isn’t time. My favourite is Robert Wentworth’s Professor Horner whose sarcastic no nonsense approach even when on air on BBC3 adds a comedic element to part one. All the villagers with speaking roles add an authenticity to proceedings even if one of them shouts out “burn him!” when the Doctor is captured looking like he really would! That would have been a different story...
Penned by Barry Letts and Robert Sloman the story brings together their priorities to create a heady brew. While using those black magic touchstones everyone knows the script is careful to have the Doctor explain it all by way of science and reason, a strong message to send out in the time slot the series then occupied. So the story can have its cake and eat it manging to be suitably dark yet never overtly scary for younger viewers.
Yet while the production always looks and feels right and is an impressive watch, any analysis of the actual storyline reveals a certain amount of style over substance. We’ll gloss over how quickly The Master is able to establish himself as a horn rimmed pastor but what exactly is he up to? Summoning Azal- its unclear how he knew about the Deamons- in the hope the latter will hand over his power? With his hypnotic abilities why bother with trying to convince the villagers? The story also noticeably strains at the leash as it contrives to keep the Doctor and Master apart yet for much of the time they are literally a minutes’ walk from each other! In fact if you look at the detail after waking from his coma, the Doctor is kept busy driving vehicles, giving Sgt Osgood instructions, getting caught up by hostile May Day revellers or delivering a wholly unnecessary lecture (with slides!) because there is nothing for him to do till the last episode.
Why does Azal only have to appear three times anyway? If The Master has Bok at his disposal and controls most of the villagers why summon Azal that second time? Having done so and realised he can’t actually control the Daemon why then summon him again? And what is Jo Grant doing? She “has to go the cavern” for an unexplained reason that is unclear. The answer of course is so she is in place for part five. And why oh why would someone as intelligent as The Master go to the trouble of sacrificing a chicken to someone as equally intelligent as Azal? If the last of the Daemons is hungry perhaps a cooker would be a more useful piece of equipment to have in the cellar?
Azal is powerfully portrayed by a bellowing Stephen Thorne but as soon as he appears the cracks start to show. As a special effect his great height is too ambitious to realise -though the mask is excellent- and Azal’s motives are unclear. He knows he’s the last of the Daemons yet he is still following their protocol. The species seem intelligent yet their reasoning is easily influenced by flimsy arguments from first the Doctor and then The Master. Why would Azal bother to give either of them the power when there are also billions of other potential choices? Imagine if he’d boomed “I choose to give my power- to Bert the landlord!”
You can see what Messrs Letts and Sloman were attempting. A contrast between the innocence of Jo and the malevolence of Azal, a combustible clash that causes the latter to implode. However the way it’s played out allows no space for the subtler narrative that would be needed to put across this idea which you would be able to do if it was a novel. Instead it seems to make little sense that this all powerful figure has, firstly, never encountered anyone similar or even if he hasn’t that it would have such an effect. Of course the kids watching in 1971 probably missed a lot of this and just remembered the church exploding, an excellent special effect that perhaps made people forget the nonsense of the previous ten minutes. Imagine though if this story was made now- how Azal would be forced to stop and question his motives by Jo’s simple argument- and instead decides to stop The Master! Or maybe Azal doesn’t know he's the last of the Deamons and the Doctor informs him which causes him to “blow a fuse”.
Ironically after an unsatisfactory denouement the story does contain one of the best closing scenes the classic series ever had with a reflective Miss Hawthorne musing on new beginnings while the Brigadier and Yates eschew any seasonal dancing to go for a pint and the camera shot pulls further and further away. `The Deamons` was the key story in an early Nineties fan trend to criticise the Third Doctor period an opinion largely rolled back more recently. These stories were never intended to be rewatched and analysed so intently and if you had never seen The Daemons before and immersed yourself in its atmosphere it might seem perfect. Yet flaws and all I still love it!
Fan trips to Aldbourne have become regular occurrences and in 1993 some of the cast themselves returned for a nostalgic weekend. The results can be seen on the excellent Myth Makers release `Return to Devil's End`.