Sometimes a genre is not as cut-and-dried as it is commonly perceived to be. A case in point would be horror stories set within what is ostensibly a science-fiction context, such as IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958), PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965), and, perhaps the ultimate example, ALIEN (1979), which some astute observer (whose name I forget at the moment; possibly Stephen King?) rightly described as "Lovecraft in Space." And one of the favorite tropes of the sci-fi/horror mashup is the explaining away of our myths and legends as being based on ancient contact with or interference from extra-terrestrial life forms, some of which bear forms only tangentially related to what primitive man could comprehend, thus their translation into myth and legend as animal hybrids or demons/devils and suchlike. Though primarily defined as a science-fiction series, Britain's venerable DOCTOR WHO television franchise — fifty-one years and going stronger than ever — has gone to the well of explaining mythic and legendary creatures and figures with scientific logic on numerous occasions, as well as veering such science-fictional myth-busting straight into the realm of outright horror, an aspect for the which the show became a cultural institution in the U.K. back in the days. Many are the tales of Britons of a certain age watching DOCTOR WHO "from behind the settee," and with installments like "The Dæmons," it's easy to understand why.
The Master, having exhausted damned near every other kind of evil shenanigans, inevitably goes straight to the source.
When a mildly-psychic neo-pagan witch in the ominously-named village of Devil's End predicts that an archaeological dig at the town's Devil's Hump area will unleash great evil and set free a gigantic horned creature — read "the Devil" — her warnings are of course ignored by the media that's covering the event for the BBC. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) — an extra-terrestrial, quasi-immortal time/space-traveling genius who at the time worked as scientific advisor to a United Nations-related military task force — sees the broadcast and finds truth in the dismissed witch's claims, so he and his assistant, Jo Grant (Katey Manning), head out to investigate. Upon arriving at Devil's End, the pair encounters a community steeped in "the old ways" and swiftly discovers that the new local vicar is none other than the Doctor's opposite number, the Master (Roger Delgado), who is conducting what are basically Satanic rituals in a cavern conveniently located beneath the town's church.
"Pleased to meet you...Hope you guess my name!"
Said robed and pentagram-motifed ceremonies seek to summon up Azal, an all-powerful entity from the planet Dæmos that entered our collective consciousness as, well, the Devil, and the Master covets the power over humanity that this baleful presence can grant him. Supported by gullible community members who are convinced they will benefit from his rise to dominance via the occult, along with the lethal Bok, a stone gargoyle brought to life by Azal and gifted with dis-integrator powers, the Master seems to hold the winning hand and things look quite bleak for the Doctor and the fate of our world...
The Doctor encounters Bok.
Though once-notorious for its low-budget and rather shonky special effects, DOCTOR WHO of the series' classic era often more than not compensated for its deficiencies with solid acting and scripts rife with ideas and rampant creep-factor. The atmosphere generated by its stories wove a tapestry that read like THE HITCH-HIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY gene-spliced with THE MONSTER MANUAL, or in this case a copy of Russell Hope Robbins's THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WITCHCRAFT AND DEMONOLOGY, and that serial dipping into the bestiary of the imagination would seem to have prepared the TV audience of 1971 for a teatime kids' show taking a hard left into the diabolical. By the time DOCTOR WHO had reached its eighth year, the youngsters for whom the series was originally created had grown up with the show, reaching adolescence and beyond, and the program's material and ideas matured along with them, so a story like "The Dæmons" is perhaps not as much of a stretch for perceived children's entertainment in Britain as one might think. Though not outright scary to grownup eyes, "The Dæmons" solidly works on a adult level when one takes the time to mull over its concepts. Extra-terrestrial demons approaching mankind as an experiment to be influenced, modern rural society only slightly removed from its pagan traditions (some of which are not at all genteel), an animated gargoyle that disintegrates people without a second thought (if it is even capable of what we consider to be actual thought processes), Azal's variable scale depending on where he is during the cycle of his three summonings (the image of his gigantic hoof prints on the countryside as seen from a helicopter is memorably foreboding), the seamless overlap of "magick" and science, all a lot heavier than the expected mere kiddie fare.
"The Dæmons" can lazily be summed up as THE WICKER MAN for kids, with heavy lashings of
THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (with the Doctor in the Christopher Lee role) and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT thrown in for good measure, but it all somehow manages to coalesce into the unique flavor that was classic-era DOCTOR WHO in such a way that it's easy to completely overlook the other, better-known works with which it shares similarities. Leisurely-paced at five half-hour chapters, "The Dæmons" is very much recommended, especially for those who only know DOCTOR WHO as of its wildly popular 2005 reboot. The differences in approach between old and new WHO are numerous, and this story serves as a strong and offbeat example of just how much TV storytelling has evolved — or de-evolved, if you ask me — when it comes to this specific franchise.