“Battlefield” and the Woman Warrior

Shou Yuing, Brigadier Bambera, the Seventh Doctor, and Ace pose with the Whomobile.
A Black woman of middle years, wearing camouflage and a beret with the UNIT insignia, gazes forthrightly at the camera.

This is Brigadier Winifred Bambera. Your argument is invalid. (A Black woman of middle years, wearing camouflage and a beret with the UNIT insignia, gazes forthrightly at the camera.)

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.

Shou Yuing, Brigadier Bambera, the Seventh Doctor, and Ace pose with the Whomobile.

Shou Yuing, Brigadier Bambera, the Seventh Doctor, and Ace pose with the Whomobile.

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.

9 comments

  1. I love this story so much! Glad to see you cover it. I rewatched Battlefield a year ago just after the death of Nicholas Courtney and was delighted how well it held up as a story, and as an example of quite feminist Doctor Who.

    (my review is here: She Vanquished Me)

    At the time I thought it was significant that the Brig didn’t overtly take command and instead took the ‘advisor who judges you’ role that the Doctor used to fill, but I think your take on it is very important and clear.

    If you haven’t watched the DVD extras I can heartily recommend them – not only Jean Marsh reminiscing about her time in 60′s Who, but Angela Bruce talking about how cool it was to do all the fighting, gun holding, mad driving for Bambera, and how important (and rare) it was for a black woman to get a role like that in 1980′s British TV (or, like, at all).

    It’s also pretty cool that someone tough-talking like Winifred Bambera represents Guinevere in this Arthurian story, and that Ancelyn is so very delighted to be vanquished by her. Their romance is so sultry for 80′s Who! And very, very feminist.

    I also have a soft spot for Lavel, the Brig’s pilot, who is a calm and competent (and snarky) woman, in a minor role that could so easily have been cast male.

    You make me want to watch it again! Luckily my seven-year-old is on an Ace kick right now. Hooray!

    • Jennie says:

      OK, my /eight/ year old, but apart from that, just assume I wrote this comment.

      • Hee! Isn’t it amazing when the kids get into Doctor Who? I’ve been delighted by my girls loving New Who; never thought I’d get one to appreciate Classic Who.

        They actually fight over whether they get to watch a David Tennant or Matt Smith episode. And one of them is TWO.

        • Jennie says:

          My Holly loves Two/Jamie/Zoe. Her favourite is the Mind Robber, and she watched the War Games avidly, cried at the end, and then said she never wanted to see it again because the end was cruel. I never in a million years thought that a modern kid could get so into a black and white scratchy old TV show.

          But yeah, she loves Matt Smith and WORSHIPS Amy and River. Basically shes at the age I was when I fell in love with Colin LOL

          • My seven year old, Raeli, loved Matt Smith et. al. last year, and while she still does, she has gone back and watched Eccleston and Tennant and loudly proclaims that their vintage is superior, LIKE A HIPSTER (she doesn’t remember at all watching those episodes when they were live, because too young).

            She also has a taste for Pertwee and now Ace (though not especially the seventh Doctor). And yet refused to watch Sarah Jane Adventures for several years because she used to have complete Sontaran fear.

            (Commander Strax is responsible for her getting over her complete screaming panic response to even pictures of “Humpty Dumpty men”)

            Meanwhile, Jem at 2.5 is completely in love with Amy, and by extention, the whole Matt Smith crew. When she asks for Doctor Who she wants “AmyDoctorRiverRory”. Accept no substitutes.

            An old friend of mine has three boys aged between 4-8 and they are all Doctor Who obsessives too. It’s lovely to see these kids negotiate their own fandom amongst themselves. There have been FANZINES and cosplay and oh, the merchandise. Doctor Who not-Lego is the best thing that happened to them, apparently.

            When I was a kid it was homemade badges and the occasional battered book about monsters and that was IT!

          • James says:

            My son Seamus became a fan when the Eccleston series started and then started working his way back through the classic stuff. I remember when I first realised he’d become a fan. His mother and I had divorced and I was going to remarry and was slightly apprehensive about telling him. Anyway, I told him and he said yes , he’d like to come to the wedding. To be fair to him, he waited a good 15 seconds before moving on to what was really important. “Dad, is it true Christopher Eccleston’s going to die in Doctor Who and will he get shot by a Dalek or will he get Spectrox toxaemia like Peter Davison?”

          • Heh, James that’s awesome. Good to know Doctor Who was there to remind your son of his priorities.

            We were about halfway through the first David Tennant season when the announcement came that Greg of the Wiggles was leaving, and would be replaced by his understudy. This was big news in our family, because Raeli was two and my friend’s eldest child was three, and the sun rose and set with the Wiggles, as far as kids that age are concerned.

            My friend and I were discussing seriously how to break the news to them… and then we hit on the perfect solution, to tell them it was a regeneration just like in Doctor Who!

            Weirdly, for Miss Two and Master Three, that made it all seem much less traumatic.

  2. This is so great! Great review and now I am biting at the bit to get to it in my Classic Who watch..

  3. isme says:

    IIRC, the reason they had a black woman in charge of UNIT was because the writer was more or less from outside the BBC confines and didn’t quite realise that sort of thing wasn’t really done in BBC shows. It was also set “a few years into the future”, so he figured things would be more progressive, so more progressive characters would make sense.

    On the other hand, she gets jumped by Mordred and Morgaine and Ancelyn has a vengeful fight with Mordred. There’s also the bit when Mordred and Ancelyn are exchanging insults. Mordred reminds Ancelyn of a battle he ran away from, but, IIRC, that was nothing compared to Ancelyn’s comment about Mordred taking orders from a woman.

    (As an aside, I wonder where they locked up Morgaine and Mordred. Must be quite some prison.)

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