Sympathy for the Devil: the Aldbourne Experience

2D3BDE23-597A-4020-BA10-44A88CC70027Image Credit: Stephen Broome (All Rights Reserved)

Image Description: St Michael’s Church, Aldbourne

Mark Learey, Matthew Kilburn and Ian Bayley consider just why The Dæmons and Aldbourne hold the affections of Doctor Who fandom

The Dæmons possesses that rare status of a story able to command its own convention, and it’s worth considering just why this should be. Certainly, the extensive use of location shooting in and around Aldbourne, Wiltshire, lends the production an air of immediacy, realism and expense distinct from contemporary studio-heavy stories. If the original location footage still existed we could today be enjoying a stunning high definition Blu-ray release. Rather ironically, however, the cult appreciation of this story owes much to its turbulent archival history.

Video archaeology

Though difficult to imagine now that all surviving stories are commercially available, The Dæmons was one of the many victims of BBC videotape wipings during the 1970s. Only episode four was retained on its original colour videotape but copies of all the episodes had fortunately been made for overseas sales, albeit on black and white film. These received a new appreciation after two decades of languishing in the archives, courtesy of satellite broadcaster UK Gold, and episode five (in its black and white form) was made available in March 1992 as part of the home video release The Pertwee Years. Then, within months, an amazing thing happened. The fledgling Doctor Who Restoration Team, a group of technical wizards and fans of the show, took a colour Betamax off-air recording of an old US broadcast and cleverly married its colour signal with the surviving black and white films. The Dæmons soon blazed its way back to prominence, thanks to a BBC2 repeat in late 1992, and subsequent VHS release in March 1993. With the benefit of hindsight, the 1990s burst of nostalgia must also owe something to the lack of new Doctor Who on television at the time. The ‘resurrection’ of The Dæmons quickly (re)established it in the hearts and minds of millions.

Top of the polls

The colour restoration of The Dæmons transformed the already high reputation the serial had earned in Doctor Who fandom even before most fans had access to video copies. This must in part be a consequence of the remarkable novelization of the story. Published in October 1974, it is Barry Letts’s only contribution to the Target range, and illuminates his understanding of the characters he guided across television screens for between three and five years as producer of the series, as well as those he devised for The Dæmons alone. There are asides about the Master’s wish that the Doctor would join him in ruling the cosmos and stop being abominably good, and another which surprised one ten-year-old reader at least with just how young Miss Hawthorne was—thirty-eight!—as well as observations on how the UNIT team cope stranded in village life.

The cast’s fond memories of the two weeks they spent on location at Aldbourne were among the first which they recalled at Doctor Who conventions as these began to be held in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was little surprise that it emerged as the overall winner in the Doctor Who Appreciation Society’s favourite story poll in 1983. Doctor Who Magazine readers have consistently ranked The Dæmons highly, placing it second only to Inferno among Third Doctor stories in 2009’s The Mighty 200 Poll, and fourth after InfernoSpearhead from Space and The Green Death in 2014’s The First Fifty Years.

Fans were making group visits to Aldbourne by the 1980s and in the 1990s the growing professionalized cottage industry which had emerged in fandom began to organize conventions there. In the next few days we will post other articles reflecting on the Aldbourne experience of 2019, fourteen years into the series’ revival, and that of 1996, on the eve of the transmission of the TV Movie and a few weeks before the death of Jon Pertwee.

This article was first published in The Tides of Time Special Edition Summer 2019

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