DOCTOR WHO: Now You See THE CRUSADE, Now You Don’t

“THE CRUSADE” – Season 2, Serial 6, Story 14 -Written by David Whitaker; Directed by Douglas Camfield – The First Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Vicki touch down in the middle of the Crusades. Barbara gets kidnapped, Ian gets knighted, the Doctor is almost executed, and Vicki pretends to be a boy. This is all pretty grim and it sorta makes me wonder why they even bothered to choose this setting. Because Time Traveling Is Less Fun In A Holy War.

THE CRUSADE doesn’t exist as a stand-alone DVD, but rather is included in the LOST IN TIME Collection. The serial is presented as two live-action episodes and two audio plays, which is sort of a drag, but certainly better than the random collection of episodes from incomplete serials that make up the rest of the disc. (Honestly, just cartoon these things, BBC.)

Of all the Hartnell serials I’ve watched, THE CRUSADE is the least fun. Which isn’t to say it’s the worst, because it’s not, but the historical setting robs the program of its escapism and makes it all a bit too grim.

Soon after landing in the Palestinian woods, they’re caught in an attack by the Saracens, who fail to kill them but succeed in kidnapping Barbara. Ian is even more disturbed than usual at Barbara’s disappearance; we’re told that he spends an hour looking for her before they decide to bring the injured British soldier the Doctor and Vicki have been caring for back to King Richard. They want Richard to help them get Barbara back, but the King is a bit of a pragmatic and childish prig and says no, and that she can rot in the Saladin’s cells for the rest of her life. Then he sticks out his tongue and says, “Nah nah nah. I’m the King. Everybody listen to me. Nah nah nah.”

The Doctor does his “elderly advisor” bit and convinces Richard it will embarrass the Saladin once he realizes Barbara really isn’t Joanna, so Ian gets knighted and sent to offer the hand of the King’s sister in marriage.

Didja catch that silly bit? No, not the part about embarrassing the powerful leader of your sworn enemy who holds your friends life in his hands. No no no, not the bit about sending the new guy you’ve only just met on the mission that’s supposed to end the frickin’ Crusades. I mean the part about the King trading off his sister to his mortal enemy. Did you catch that?

Richard wraps this selling of his sister in the “it’s the best solution” line, arguing it will save countless lives and that Joanna should do this for the good of the country, but it makes you hate the guy. (Did they include that bit in the Brit history books for schoolkids?)

In general, this Richard is the kind of guy you usually see the Doctor thwart, not join sides with, even if it’s out of circumstance as it is here. Saladin, in contrast, comes off a coolly political but not without some compassion. It’s the bandit El Akir who serves as the real villain of the piece.

It’s all pretty serious and dreadful in a way that’s decidedly unpleasant. THE CRUSADE isn’t a bad serial (have I mentioned that, yet?) but the history of the Crusades makes it a tough watch. Because of that, the danger here seems more real and more uncomfortable; if there were Cybermen (I know, they haven’t been invented, yet) at the heart of it, then Barbara being threatened with death and sacrificing herself to protect a young girl and hiding in a harem would keep a distance between what’s threatened and what might happen. We know (or strongly suspect) that Barbara is going to eventually get free, but we also know that many people in her situation (fighting in the Crusades, not being a time traveler) wouldn’t – and didn’t – make it out okay.

DOCTOR WHO has done plenty of other war stories, but they usually find some fanciful angle into them to help mitigate the gravity of war, but here there’s no Dalek hanging out behind the scenes, no creepy mystery at the heart of the story, no sense that only the Doctor can handle whatever this particular situation entails.

And that, really, is what robs THE CRUSADE of being in any way fun to watch – this isn’t a situation that calls for the Doctor’s particular skill set to solve; even in he historical dramas like THE AZTECS there’s usually something only his brain notices or figures out, but here? It’s a bit like dropping Sherlock Holmes in the middle of Endor or Indiana Jones down on Cybertron.

It’s all a bit too real in THE CRUSADE, and what hampers the story’s effectiveness is that it’s all presented in the now-standard format of a First Doctory/Ian/Barbara adventure, meaning we get the same kind of set-up and execution of story, but with a subject that would have been better served either done in a different way or not at all.

I applaud the fact that THE CRUSADE isn’t totally playing to formula and that it’s trying to vary things up, but it won’t be the first Hartnell serial I watch a second time.