It has long been my naive personal belief that in the world of Doctor Who, adventures that occur in the future are always more interesting/entertaining than their historical counterparts. However, with the lineup of stories in Season 2 up to and including The Crusade, I am seriously beginning to question the validity of my own opinion.
I should clarify at this point that as a member of the new generation of Whovians (I became a fan during and because of the Tennant era), I’m still seriously lacking in my knowledge of the classic series. I’ve been watching along with this series of reviews as a means of playing some major catch-up before that sure-to-be-grand day in November 2013. Thus the below account of the First Doctor’s fourteenth televised adventure is a genuine first-watch reaction. On the same token, as an American barely schooled in my own country’s history, I have absolutely no background in the real events around which this story exists. Because of this, I won’t be commenting on the merits of the portrayal of any characters or events in a historical context; rather, I’ll be examining them as elements of the Doctor Who universe.
As is predictable from the title, this four-parter takes place during the time of the crusades, in 12th Century Palestine. The story begins by separating the TARDIS crew, just like what happens in about seventy-five million other episodes of this show. This time, Barbara is the first person to be swiped by some antagonists, and will spend the remainder of the story participating in a long game of cat-and-mouse. She is constantly being kidnapped, escaping, and being re-captured during this narrative, swapping her time between one Arab, the single-eyed El Akir (Walter Randall), and another, the Saracen leader Saladin (Bernard Kay), who as far as I can tell is not related to that guy from Androzani.
When the Doctor, Ian, and Vicki realize that Barbara is no longer with them, they stumble across someone who might know who has taken her: an English survivor of the same Saracen attack that saw Barbara abducted. They accompany him to the court of King Richard the Lionheart (Julian Glover). Richard knights Ian (much to the Doctor’s jealousy) and sends him on a journey to offer Saladin a chance to wed Richard’s sister, Joanna (Jean Marsh, more known for her later role as Sara Kingdom in The Daleks’ Master Plan), with a side mission of rescuing Barbara. He successfully completes both tasks, and when the four travelers have been reunited, they return to the TARDIS, but not before the Doctor’s head is almost chopped off by a sour grape from Richard’s court.
This story is proving much more difficult to summarize than most Doctor Who serials, and the reason why depends on how you look at it.
On the one hand, this story is much more dense and complex than most Doctor Who stories post-2005. With the companions separated as usual, there tend to be at least three different mini-arcs running at any given time in the story. The Doctor and Vicki spend much of their time getting to know King Richard and Joanna, and the Doctor makes enemies with the Earl of Leicester (John Bay). While this is happening, Ian is trying to outsmart the thief Ibrahim (Tutte Lemkow) who has tied him to a rock in the desert and demanded his money, and Barbara is taking refuge in the house of Haroun ed-Din (George Little), a not-so-wealthy-looking fellow whose family has been largely killed or captured by his and Barbara’s mutual enemy, El Akir.
On the other hand, many of these subplots don’t seem to bear too much consequence to the ultimate outcome of the story. The scene involving the Doctor stealing clothes (he couldn’t resist doing so even in his first incarnation), for example, was certainly entertaining, and its follow-up in the following episode in which the Doctor is accused of being a thief brought to mind many of the scenes from The Romans in which the Doctor was forced to convince Nero and others that he had musical tendencies without actually demonstrating as much. But if these scenes were cut, the story would have ended the same way. Likewise, the Doctor’s attempt to protect Vicki by having her pose as “Victor” didn’t have much of a point. Perhaps it was there as a means of shaking up Richard’s trust in the TARDISians, but did he ever really have a good reason to trust complete strangers who are only here because they were ambushed by his enemy? No, Vicki could have simply remained Vicki for the whole story, and Richard likely still would have accused the Doctor of spilling the beans to Joanna about her impending arranged marriage.
Speaking of the newest TARDIS companion, isn’t she just great? Ever since Maureen O’Brien’s Vicki joined the team, I’ve been breathing huge sighs of relief from her whiny, squealing predecessor (sorry, Susan fans). Some might say that Vicki is just like Miss Foreman, and in many ways they are correct. Vicki and Susan are both very young, relatively innocent, and from a world and/or time that is unlike anything we modern-day humans have ever experienced. In fact, for all we know at this point, Vicki might just be a regenerated version of Susan. At the very least, she’s a much-improved version. When both are placed in unpleasant situations, Susan tends to scream obnoxiously, while Vicki tends to remain calm and simply looks uncomfortable. And it appears that the Doctor and Vicki have already formed a much closer bond in four adventures than the Doctor and his own granddaughter Susan did in a lifetime.
The character development of William Hartnell’s Doctor is probably worth mentioning at this point too. No longer a grumpy old curmudgeon prone to accusing his own companions of sabotaging his TARDIS, the Doctor seems to have grown much more light-hearted, possibly as a result of increased comfort with his younger friends over time. That doesn’t mean he isn’t stern when he needs to be; just look at the way he snaps at the Earl of Leicester in Part 3 (The Wheel of Fortune). But he has already become a much more complex and multi-layered character than he was in his previous season. Just as it was for David Tennant and Matt Smith, William Hartnell’s second season is where his Doctor finds his proper rhythm.
Ian and Barbara’s personal journeys and character evolution have been discussed multiple times in previous reviews, and it’s more of the same here. Yet again, Ian ends up being the hero and Barbara finds herself as the damsel in distress. One particular scene, the one that sees Ian stranded in the desert with Ibrahim, nearly makes Mr. Chesterton the victim of this season’s Big Bad. No, not the Daleks. The Ants. (see also: Planet of Giants, The Web Planet)
As a side note, this is the first time I’ve ever watched a partially-missing Doctor Who story all the way through. I’ve skipped Marco Polo for the time being, and I only watched the surviving episodes from The Reign of Terror. In The Crusade, the only incomplete story from Season 2, the missing parts are the second and the fourth: The Knight of Jaffa and The Warlords. I was pleasantly surprised to find that watching a slideshow set to narration and a not-so-missing audio track actually does quite well at its job of telling a compelling story. Sure, I hope they find the actual footage someday, but what the team in charge of restoring episodes have constructed in the mean time is a good substitute.
So what we have here is a good solid story – an interesting, well-paced script; an as-always excellent performance from our leads and a believable and likeable supporting cast; and a satisfying resolution. As far as historicals go, it never slows to a crawl with lots of facts, nor does it swing to the opposite extreme of unrealistic silliness (*ahem* The Romans). This is the sort of drama that many of us wish Doctor Who would do a bit more of today. No sign of aliens, and not a smidge of self-contradicting timey-wimey conclusions. Just a nice history lesson featuring the Doctor being properly clever.