What happens when two great British institutions–Doctor Who and King Arthur–finally meet?
Why, you get a darn good late-80s serial (first serial of the IMHO criminally-underrated season 26), with heaping helpings of mytharc for both sides, AND simply loads of women. Two of them are even women of color!
Some aspects of the story are problematic, true. As wonderful as it is to see Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart again, UNIT’s decision to recall him to active duty in order to deal with the events of this story feels like a slap in the face to his successor, Brigadier Winifred Bambera. (Yes, she threw the Doctor and Ace out on their asses. That was the correct decision given what she knew at the time.) Now, you may argue that Lethbridge-Stewart was the person best equipped to deal with the person claiming to be the Doctor, given their shared history, but it’s still a usurpation of Bambera’s command. She did not ask for him, or even for help; she asks only for information on the Doctor. Both in-universe and in terms of the story, having Lethbridge-Stewart around puts Bambera in the uncomfortable position of being technically in command but being expected to defer to someone else. Nor is it really warranted–there being no indication that Bambera poofed into existence ex nihilo on Lethbridge-Stewart’s retirement, she presumably got to her position by rising through the UNIT ranks, which means she’s been a few rounds at the Rodeo of Weird that is UNIT life, and shown herself equal to it. UNIT should have realized that Lethbridge-Stewart won’t always be around to run interference between UNIT and the Doctor, and trusted Bambera to work out a solution. UNIT’s treatment of Bambera, IMHO, edges uncomfortably close to what TV Tropes calls “Quickly Demoted Woman“.
Interestingly, the story’s villain is also a woman: Morgaine. Despite, y’know, the evil, she’s a surprisingly nuanced character. Her titles–The Sunkiller, Dominator of the Thirteen Worlds, and Battle Queen of the S’rax–establish her as a formidable warrior, and that’s the role she occupies for most of the serial. But she’s also a mother; and her breakdown in part 4 when she learns of Arthur’s death makes it clear that she loved him deeply.
Morgaine also has her own notions of honor and honorable combat. That connects her to Ancelyn, the knight… and, not coincidentally, to the UNIT soldiers as well, all of whom embody the highest chivalric traditions of honor and duty. (Compare that to their much more ambiguous portrayal in the new series.) The serial even advances the idea that UNIT is superior to Ancelyn’s forces: Ancelyn has an important lesson to learn in humility (another important chivalric virtue) when he brushes Bambera off as a “peasant” and promptly gets his ass kicked; Bambera needs no such lesson herself.
Finally, there’s Ace and Shou Yuing, the footsoldiers. Ace gets a lot to do in this serial–including, awesomely, emerging from the lake bearing Excalibur aloft–and it’s her self-awareness that saves both herself and Shou Yuing from Morgaine’s trap. But Shou Yuing, as a character, is barely sketched in. We know she and Ace share an interest in explosives. We can see that she’s smart and brave. But that’s about it.
Really, though, there are too many secondary characters around to really flesh out any of them. The rest of the supporting cast–crusty archaeologist Peter Warmsly, psychic innkeeper Elizabeth Rowlinson and her husband Pat Rowlinson–get evacuated halfway through and are never heard from again. And it’s a shame, because all of them (and especially Shou Yuing) are fun characters, and we could have gotten to know them a lot better.
But there are moments of great win, as well. The Doctor’s declaration that Ace is much more important than any old alien artifact is breathtakingly sweet. It’ll be undermined over the course of season 26 (and even further in the New Adventures), but it’s lovely to hear the Doctor say something he needs to say a lot more often, and Sylvester McCoy’s performance is perfect.
It’s also terrific to see Bambera and Ancelyn’s relationship evolve. Ancelyn tries to write off Bambera when he first shows up, but after Bambera kicks his ass in combat… Ancelyn, to his great credit, responds with maturity and grace, and thereafter the relationship between the two warriors is one of deep mutual respect.
Finally, there’s a little grace note at the very end: the Doctor, the Brig, and Ancelyn are staying at the Lethbridge-Stewart house to clean up and cook supper, and none of them seem particularly bothered by this; meanwhile Bambera, Mrs. Lethbridge-Stewart, Shou Yuing, and Ace are going into town to have some fun. It’s nice to see the “men get to play after the adventure’s done, but women still have to do chores” thing subverted– especially fitting in a serial that has a lot of great women.