The BBC is releasing the next wave of Doctor Who stories on DVD, including The King's Demon, a short but sweet two-part story that wrapped up Peter Davison's second season as the Doctor. Taking place in 13th Century England, it follows on the heels of the Black Guardian Trilogy (read my review of that release here) and has some interesting parts (including the addition of a new companion, sort of). When all is said and done however, this is a minor story that's quickly forgotten.
Days before he is going to sign the Magna Carta, King John is visiting one of his Barons, Ranulf Fitzwilliam, asking for more money for the Crusades. The Baron has already given his whole treasury to the King and has nothing left, but that's not good enough. Acting insulted at his rejection, the King has his champion Sir Gilles Estram, goad Fitzwilliam's son Hugh into accepting a challenge.
The next morning the Hugh and Estram face off on a field, jousting in front of the King. In the middle of the event a mysterious blue box appears, and out pops the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough. Greated as 'demons' by an unfazed King John, the trio sits next to the monarch and watches the rest of the duel, with the Doctor interceding when Hugh is easily bested and convinces the king to spare the young man's life.
Back in the castle, the elder Fitzwilliam thanks the Doctor and confides that the king seems different. On his part, the Doctor is perplexed that the monarch is not in
[Spoiler warning] It turns out that Sir Gilles Estram is actually the Master (Estram is an anagram of Master) and King John is actually Kamelion, a living robot that is able to mimic any humanoid. Kamelion has a personality and thoughts of his own, but he's easily influenced by psychic commands, which is how The Master is controlling him. [End spoilers]
This story was intended to be the penultimate adventure in season 20. It was originally going to end on a cliffhanger which would segue into the final story of the year involving the Daleks. A strike by the electrician's union delayed production on this and the previous story and by the time that was settled the final story had to be dropped. That's a shame, because this adventure was intended to be a breather between the Black Guardian Trilogy and a big Dalek saga. It's main purpose is to introduce the main villain of the piece and his new toy, something that was going to be used a lot in the next season, or so they planned.
The tale, as it stands, is slight. By the time it introduces the characters, sets up the premise, and reveals the villain it's time to wrap things up. Just as the story gets rolling it's over, which is too bad because it has a lot of promise. The sets are very good, especially the hall where the banquets are held, and it's always fun to see the Doctor in our own past fighting to keep things right.
It's also one of those stories that if you think about it too much (any at all really) it starts to fall apart. [More spoilers] The main problem is the fact that the Master is concerning himself with something as trivial as the signing of the Magna Carta. He's a villain on a galactic scale, and now he wants to muck up one moment in British history?? And what was his ultimate plan? The King is going to sign in
Then there's Kamelion. This creation, a real world robot, was a nice touch. It was supposed to be able to synch it's movements to an audio tape and actually act. Producer John Nathan-Turner was wowed by a demonstration (where he was told that eventually the machine would be able to walk on its own) and decided to make the robot a new companion. Unfortunately the thing didn't work very well at all and it was neither impressive nor convincing. Heck the animatronics at Disney's "It's a Small World" ride are more extraordinary. Basically it looks like a mannequin that they sat on a chair or propped against a wall. I can't fathom why they didn't just use a guy in a suit when they discovered the problems that the machine caused. [End spoilers]
Having complained about all that, there's still a lot to like in this adventure. Since it's so short there's not padding; no extended scenes of a companion complaining or some sub-plot that adds little to the action. It's a short and sweet romp in the past.
The mono soundtrack is very good. It's clean and clear with no hiss or background noise to take away from the story. The dialog is easy to discern and the background music and effects are never overpowering. Being a mono track, there's really not much more to say about it.
The full frame video has been cleaned up by the Restoration Team and looks fine though not stunning. There's only so much you can do with 27 year old video tape. Some scenes are a bit soft, but generally the image is clean and the colors are fine. There is a section where guards with red capes enter a room, and the bright red blooms pretty noticeably. That was the biggest defect however. If you've seen the other restored Davison era stories, then you'll know what to expect.
Even with a (arguably) minor two-part story, the BBC has come up with some nice extras. Honestly, no one would have blamed them if they had released this as a bare bones disc, but I'm really glad they went the extra mile to create some added content. First off are two commentary tracks, one with Peter Davison, Isla Blair (Isabella) and the script editor Eric Saward and the other (on episode one only) with director Tony Virgo. The first is the more interesting of the two, though it is a more laid back commentary than some of Davison's. There are some nice anecdotes about the filming (though Davison admits he doesn't remember a lot aside from the cold conditions when they shot the exterior scenes) and especially about the robot Kamelion.
That's followed by a pair of featuettes. Kamelion - Metal Man looks at the robot companion who never quite worked as well as they had hoped. This 14 minute documentary interviews the robot's co-creator Chris Padmore as well as Peter Davison (who said that he was never in favor of using the machine), script editor Eric Saward, and others. It's a nice look behind the scenes at an idea that just didn't quite work. The other bonus featurette is Magna Carta, a 22 minute look at the historic document, how it came about, and what its impact has been on western civilization. It was informative and unambiguously contradicts the Doctor in this story. (He said King John was all for signing the agreement, but he wasn't and quickly tried to get out of it.) The only problem is that they thought it would be cleaver to present the scenes from the story in blurry black and white (cropped to 16 X 9 too). That made it hard to watch the otherwise nice feature.
The story also comes with an optional pop up trivia tracks that's filled with information. Some of it is minutia, the date the episodes were filmed and ever the time that the shoots wrapped, but also background info on the supporting and incidental characters and it points out on screen gaffs. These are wonderful. There's also a photo gallery, the Radio Times listings (in .pdf format) and an isolated music track.
While there are a few plot holes, this is still a fun story. I just wish it had lasted a bit longer. Presented at a budget price, this is a nice offering with a couple of solid video featurettes (especially the one on Kamelion). Give this disc a spin. Recommended.