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The 10 best Doctor Who Adventures (and the worst)

The 10 best Doctor Who Adventures (and the worst)

Michael Wisher as Davros in Genesis of the Daleks.

The original Davros in Genesis of the Daleks

Doctor Who is back, and it’s being a bit of a questionable year. I’ve yet to make my mind up about Let’s Kill Hitler, which has got to have one of the most iffy premises (in terms of taste) of any episode ever made. On the other hand, The Doctor’s Wife was pure gold, demonstrating that getting the likes of Neil Gaiman in to write episodes can really do a lot for the series.

After a long conversation with a marvellous film director, who is connected by one removed to the current series, I offer for your contemplation what I believe to be the best, and the worst Doctor Whos ever made.

A note on the selection — I’ve only included TV episodes since 1970 when colour production began. Watching older Doctor Who’s in black and white is somewhat akin to peering at them through a telescope the wrong way round. It would not be fair to number any of them among the worst, but neither do I think any of them qualify for the best. Your view may differ. Likewise, radio episodes, books, graphic novels and fanfic are also excluded.

The Best

#10 The Pirate Planet

Coming in at number 10, Douglas Adams’s The Pirate Planet, series 2 in the 1978-79 Season 16, was the second of the somewhat variable but overall good Key to Time season, where the Doctor (Tom Baker) and his first ever Time Lord (Lady) companion, Romana (Mary Tamm), were set the task of piecing together the Key to Time. As well as incorporating moments of wicked humour, as you would expect from Adams, this story has got everything: bizarre religions (always a Doctor Who staple), psionics, hyper-space, the threat of a black-hole, sonic-screwdriver resistant doors, and a duel between K9 and a mechanical parrot.

#9 The Sea Devils

A completely different kind of series was the Sea Devils, starring Jon Pertwee, which has all the hallmarks of the Pertwee years Hitchockian and horror roots. It plays heavily on the fear of drowning and of things creeping up from the deep, as well as one of the most chilling turns by the Master in his original incarnation of Roger Delgado. The Royal Navy provided a lot of assistance in this series which was set in the (then) present, giving it a level of authenticity which CGI can never replace. It also contains a cameo by The Clangers.

#8 Full Circle

One of the last ‘real-science’ series, Full Circle is a DNA-driven evolution story which, despite introducing the (according to some) annoying character of Adric, and replacing Mary Tamm’s Romana with Lalla Ward, really doesn’t put a foot wrong from the beginning to the devastating plot twist close to the end. I won’t give it away, but it’s a real-science twist which requires a good deal of attention paid by alert viewers, though it does get spelled out a little later. This is the first series in the E-space trilogy.

#7 Death to the Daleks

Doctor Who script-writers have been scratching their heads about ways to make the Daleks scary again ever since the death of Terry Nation. They could do well to go back to this masterpiece. How to make the Daleks really scary? Put them in the way of something even scarier. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who arrives with Sarah-Jane Smith on the planet Exxilon where a living city is able suppress the energy of the Daleks, their ship, the Tardis, and pretty much everything else. Add into the mix another primitive religion (the Exillons try to sacrifice Sarah-Jane) and the presence of Earth Marines trying to acquire the same element, Parrinium, which the Daleks are searching for in order to cure a galactic plague, and then introduce a green, repulsive alien who turns out to be the good guy, and you have a superb set-up. When the Doctor and the alien get inside the maze-like city, the whole thing really kicks off.

Doctor Who writers like mazes — the Horns of Nimon, the Five Doctors, the Invasion of Time, and others exploit their power to disorient viewers (as well as making ridiculously cheap set changes), but Death to the Daleks is the best of all of them.

#6 The Doctor’s Wife

Matt Smith’s finest hour, at least so far, has to be when he is marooned outside the universe (go with it) and meets the TARDIS as a woman, who immediately kisses him, and then tries to bite him. This is a Neil Gaiman penned episode, and the brilliant comic-book like gothic scenery makes the most of the potential of CGI, while wisely keeping all of the proximate bits to real scenery. The character of the TARDIS and her back-chat with the doctor is brilliant, but the best bit has to be the complete reinterpretation of the story of how the Doctor stole the TARDIS in the first place. In the introduction to the book Stardust, Neil Gaiman happily acknowledges his debt to CS Lewis, and The Doctor’s Wife shows strong echoes of The Horse and His Boy.

#5 The Caves of Androzani

Peter Davison’s final series as the Doctor is also by far his best. Set in a complex of caves, this series brings together the long-standing Doctor Who hostility to corporate greed, and features a compellingly complex hero/anti-hero in the disfigured roboticist Sharaz Jek, and the wonderfully named villain Trai Morgus. The series explores some of the android territory picked up original in The Robots of Death and The Androids of Tara. I was tempted to put The Robots of Death here instead, but the Caves of Androzani has much more to its plot and more complex characters.

#4 Turn Left

Although the BBC Wales Doctor Who doesn’t do hard science very well (or very much), it did reintroduce the paradox elements of Time Travel which were largely ignored after the early Jon Pertwee series Inferno. Tom Baker’s otherwise exemplary Doctor Who seems to be more interested in explaining away potential paradoxes than he is about exploiting them. In Turn Left, the surprisingly brilliant Catherine Tate as Donna (I wasn’t that impressed with her original appearance in the Christmas Star) takes a right turn rather than a left turn, which means she never meets the Doctor. A string of calamities follows — Donna fails to rescue te Doctor, who dies and is unable to rescue Earth (several times, a rather knowing breaking of the fourth wall). This series takes Doctor Who right back to its Cold War roots, with the ever wonderful Bernard Cribbins as Donna’s grandfather realising that the so-called Labour Camps are no different from the concentration camps of the Second World War. During the course of the episode almost every companion we’ve seen in recent series dies, and it is finally up to Billie Piper’s Rose to guide Donna back to mainstream reality and the time stream we all now.

This is a uniquely poignant and powerful episode. I watched it four times in the end, and couldn’t believe on any occasion that it was only 45 minutes.

#3 The whole of Season 10 (1972-73)

I’m cheating on this one, because I want to put the whole story arc of the Jon Pertwee Season 10 in the number three slot. Beginning with The Three Doctors, the first (and terrifying best) attempt to put more than one doctor together is followed by the even more frightening terror-fest Carnival of Monsters (my sister had nightmares about it for months, as did Doctor Who companion Jo Grant, played by Katy Manning). Carnival of Monsters might just seem like a monster-of-the-week fest, until you see it in context of the next series, Frontier in Space, where someone is manipulating the terror of the humans and the Draconians to cause an all-out galactic war. The someone is The Master, in Roger Delgado’s final appearance. This segues directly into Planet of the Daleks, which is also the direct sequel to the very first Dalek series (recaptured in the first Doctor Who feature film). This was the first Terry Nation commission since 1965, and with characteristic skill he manages to ramp up the Dalek menace, this time by making them invisible. This is, by the way, the first Dalek adventure where they conquer the problem of stairs (actually a shaft, but they’re still changing vertical orientation). It begins with the Doctor in a coma, and half-way through we’re on the point of losing the TARDIS.

The final series in Season 10 would have captured the number 3 spot on its own. The Green Death is a terrifying exploration of the dangers of pollution with a virulent green slime causing maggots to grow to gigantic size. I was terrified of maggots for years afterwards as a result, and also hated macaroni cheese for the same reason. This is a real science episode with the work of the scientist given centre stage, and highlighted the threat of ecological disaster long before the rest of popular culture got interested in it. This was Katy Manning’s final episode as Jo Grant (she returns briefly in the Sarah Jane Smith Adventures), and draws the threads of her character together.

#2 Blink

The gem of the 21st century Doctor Whos, Blink is so cleverly written that it could have been made in 1966 using only techniques available then. Exploiting the vocabulary of television, especially the normally (and rightly) avoided jump-cuts, Steven Moffat also goes back to the Hitchcockian and time-travel roots of Doctor Who to deliver a magnificent tour de force which had the nation talking about it for weeks afterwards. In terms of a straight time-travel paradox story, this is not just the best the best of the Doctor Whos, it’s probably the best ever seen on big or small screen.

#1 Genesis of the Daleks

What is so good that it can keep Blink off the top spot? Only something with Doom, Dystopia and Daleks, and the hitherto unknown ingredient, Davros, the Dalek’s creator. Add to that numerous Deceptions and the ultimate moral Decision, along with Tom Baker as the Doctor and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, and the cocktail is potent even before the plot is introduced.

Genesis of the Daleks is probably the most adult of all the pre-2000 Doctor Whos, in the sense of being mature and grown up, rather than being about sex. It goes right to the heart of the Doctor Who Cold War preoccupations, pinions the Doctor on the horns of a moral dilemma for the first (and, arguably, the most successful) time, gives us the back-story to the Daleks, gives us, once again, something even scarier than the Daleks in the person of the malevolent but brilliant Davros.

Davros has been a staple of ‘ultimate’ Dalek stories ever since, but the Nazi-Soviet sinisterness has never really been reproduced in the same way. Likewise, the modern Davros figures are geniuses only to the extent that we are told they are geniuses, and are seen enacting complicated plans (which always go wrong). The original Davros comes across as brilliant right from the start, making connections and seizing on possibilities as fast as the Doctor does.

Genesis of the Daleks isn’t perfect — it’s a six parter that could have done with being edited down to four parts. Even so, this chilling conception of the dying days of Skaro’s final world war is unforgettable, and does not dim no matter how many times you rewatch it.

Honourable Mention

A lot of series almost made it onto the list. Some of the best — in no particular order — are:

Black Orchid

Aside from the fact that Peter Davison plays a game of cricket and bowls out the other side’s top batsman at the first attempt, this is a picture-perfect 1930s style country house mystery. There’s not much in the way of science-fiction going on here, but its a wonderful cameo of its world.

The Five Doctors

This would have made the list if it weren’t for Death to the Daleks, which pips it as the best maze series. The Five Doctors is really a series of cameos by three of the original actors, one replacement (for William Hartnell), and some unused footage of Tom Baker, who did not wish to participate. Very good twist at the end, though you might see it coming.

The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances

The chill of the child who has a gas-mask instead of a face drives this 21st century double episode forwards, and the evocation of the 1940s is much better than the rather lacklustre Victory of the Daleks and (in my view) misguided Let’s Kill Hitler. It doesn’t quite keep going to the end, though.

Battlefield

Sylvester McCoy was one of my favourite Doctors, but the material he had to work with was just not as good often as Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee had. Battlefield, though, is an ambitious and near-perfect story which brings back Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier. It gets really scary at the end, and it does a good job of putting together Doctor Who and Merlin in a package which is more than credible.

The Day of the Daleks

This is the first Doctor Who series I remember watching all the way through, and I was utterly captivated. It’s a great time-paradox story, introduces the Daleks’ nasty sidekicks the Ogrons and picks out the dystopian post-apocalyptic future which is one of the things that distinguished Doctor Who from Star Trek (the Americans believe that the future will only get better, we British know it will only get worse).

Utopia

Speaking of post-apocalyptic, Utopia gives us the ultimate post-apocalyptic of all time, the very final outpost of human civilisation in a dying universe. And it brings back… the Master.

The Ark in Space

The Ark in Space was absolutely terrifying when it first appeared. Sadly, the bubble-wrap maggot monsters don’t stand the test of time as well as other things.

Revenge of the Cybermen

The Ark in Space — Genesis of the Daleks — Revenge of the Cybermen sequence is based around a space station orbiting the Earth. The final section, giving us Cybermen just after we’ve seen Daleks, is as riveting as the other two. I would have bracketed the season together, except for the weakness of the intervening Sontaran Experiment.

Dalek

Dalek reintroduced Daleks to the 21st century audiences. In total contrast to the high-gloss nu-Daleks of Victory of the Daleks, which look like they were left over designs from the Renault Megane, Dalek makes the old enemy absolutely terrifying.

The Deadly Assassin

The first time we ever really get to find out what makes Time Lords tick is this series set on Gallifrey, which is also the first time the Doctor has been without an assistant for a long, long time. A strong plot is lifted in the second half by a conflict inside the matrix (a generation before the film of that name) between the Doctor and his unknown opponent across a World War I landscape.

The Doctor’s Daughter

Real life daughter of former Doctor Peter Davison, Georgia Moffett, is the eye-candy in this three-companions episode as female Doctor-clone Jenny, but its Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble who powers this very cleverly conceived and beautifully executed. Although it isn’t ‘real-science’, the resolution of the plot is heavily logic based, and it comes as a brilliant revelation when it does arrive — especially as its Donna, not the Doctor, who works it out.

The Robots of Death

I so wanted to put this one in the top ten. Its only weakness is the out-of-doors sandstorm scenes, which just don’t look very good (and didn’t, even by the standards of the day). Aside from that, the chilling expressionlessness of the robots, coupled with the warrior readiness of Leela, played by Louise Jameson makes this Agatha Christie style murder-in-a-confined-space mystery absolutely first rate. The robots were borrowed a little for the infinitely poorer Voyage of the Damned Christmas Special.

And the worst

Some Doctor Who episodes went wrong when the monster was finally revealed, some had plot flaws that should have been spotted early on, some seemed to be more like wish-fulfilment on the part of the script-writers, and some just didn’t really have anything which should have made them worth making. Those are the bottom half of the table of the worst. The top half are all those things.

#10 Terror of the Zygons

Shaping up like The Sea Devils, Terror of the Zygons builds to the devastating climax of the revelation of the Loch Ness Monster. Unfortunately, the monster is about 1/4 the size you’d expect, totally unconvincing, and seems more like the kind of thing that Lisa Simpson would take pity on than a monster you’d run from.

#9 Midnight

Midnight isn’t what you’d get if you got Harold Pinter to write a Doctor Who episode. Rather, it’s what you get if you got someone who’d watched The Birthday Party far too often to write it. It has lots and lots of intense acting, but there’s never enough plot and definitely not enough explanation to make it plausible, let alone persuasive.

#8 Love & Monsters

Oh dear. This wish-fulfilment episode aimed at the fans who secretly believe that Doctor Who is real would have been bad enough without persuading one of the Harry Potter actors to play a part which is virtually identical to the Moaning Myrtle character she plays in the Potter films.

#7 Demons Run

The finale of the Donna series, Journey’s End, brought together many of the old companions. This was not a good idea, but there was enough in the episode to make it ok. Demons Run/A Good Man Goes to War, which was the 2011 mid-season finale, doesn’t have anything like the plot qualities of Journey’s End, but it still tries to bring together as many recent figures as possible. The problem is, we never got attached to Churchill’s fighter pilots, the crew of the pirate ship, or any of the others in the way we had with the real companions. That’s in addition to the ‘level in badass’ which Rory seemed to have taken when he faced out an entire Cyberman fleet.

#6 The Horns of Nimon

This was a weak, slow series at the end of a season which had just never got going. Although City of Death had a lot of gloss to it (it was the first ever to be made on location outside the UK, and also featured a John Cleese cameo), the Creature from the Pit was boring and predictable, and the Mandrels in Nightmare of Eden were just laughable. The Horns of Nimon capped this with an utterly unexceptional maze story and a monster which just didn’t work. The series went through a substantial facelift in the next series. Although the Leisure Hive and Meglos were eminently forgettable, the third episode, Full Circle, was a classic.

#5 Logopolis

Boring, incomprehensible, far-fetched and strangely unfrightening, and further ruined by the appearance of the Master who appeared to have lost most of his sinisterness and his touch since his last appearance (at the end of the Deadly Assassin).

#4 The Happiness Patrol

I was totally baffled that they ever thought making a monster which was quite evidently constructed from oversized Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts (I’m told that there was a lawsuit, but I haven’t been able to reference it) was ever a good idea. The series was supposed to be a comment on Thatcherism. In reality it became a comment on the collapse of Doctor Who.

#3 The Aliens of London

Speaking of unconvincing enemies, the Slytheen, whose main weapon appears to be flatulence, have to be the silliest, especially as they return several times in Doctor and the Sarah Jane Smith adventures. The series wasn’t helped by the seeming inability of the director to decide whether it was being played for thrills or for laughs.

#2 A Christmas Carol

Fun-loving diminutive Kylie Minogue has previous on appearing on TV: as well as Voyage of the Damned she also played in The Vicar of Dibley. Catherine Tate, despite a rather ropey Christmas special appearance, became a compelling companion two series later. Both these ‘famous people in Christmas special’ appearances were saved by not having Minogue appear as a pop star, or Tate as a comedian. If only the BBC could have remembered this simple rule and not put opera singer Katherine Jenkins on the screen as a singer. However, if you’re going to do this, don’t do it in a cheesy remake of the most frequently remade cheese of all time, A Christmas Carol. A Christmas Carol was mawkish when it was first written. Every remake apart from Black Adder’s has just made it worse. However, if you’re going to do that, don’t make Michael Gambon the Scrooge character. Finally, if you intend to do all of that, don’t do it with flying sharks who respond to the power of music.

Seriously, I ask you!

This, of course, means that Steven Moffat as writer comes in with the second best (Blink) and second worst Doctor Who stories of all time. Steven — don’t assign yourself the big budget episodes any more. Go minimalistic.

#1 The Unicorn and the Wasp

The thing about Agatha Christie mysteries is that they don’t rely on the supernatural, although the often suggest that the supernatural is the only explanation (until Poirrot or Marple take a hand). Making an episode about Agatha Christie’s real life disappearance is tacky enough, but relying on gigantic wasps and transfiguration really was not going to be a winner. I just could not believe I was watching, especially when the whole episode was revealed as an extended piece of fanfic at the end. It’s one thing for Star Trek: Voyager to bizarrely introduce Amelia Earhart as a character, but this is Britain, not America, and Doctor Who doesn’t need to take these kind of liberties with real people’s real lives.
This isn’t quite as tawdry as ‘Let’s kill Hitler’, which is rescued from this top ten because i) it’s too recent and ii) it’s actually quite fun in other respects. It holds its position as #1 because, unlike A Christmas Carol, it has no redeeming features of plot and lacks even the excuse of being a bit of Christmas fun.

The final score: who was the best Doctor?

There’s absolutely no point in picking a ‘best’ Doctor, so I’m going to pick one anyway. In terms of the number of really first rate series, I would have to give the prize to Tom Baker, whose series come in 1st, 8th and 10th on the best list, although he also has three of the worst. In Sarah Jane Smith and Leela he also had arguably the best two companions. On the other hand, in terms of the style of his character, Jon Pertwee is hard to beat. Sylvester McCoy was a sort of latter day Pertwee, though, sadly, he only had a short run and was not given the best material to work with. Of the 21st century Doctors, David Tennant is my top pick.
I said I was only going to include TV episodes, but it’s worth mentioning that Paul McGann, who was both the longest lived (in years of tenure) and shortest (in number of episodes) official Doctor has done some really excellent radio series.
Some more lists, for what it’s worth
Companions:
#1 Sarah Jane Smith
#2 Leela
#3 Jo Grant
#4 Donna
#5 Rose
#6 Ace
#7 Captain Jack
#8 Martha
#9 Amy
#10 Adric
Incidental Characters
#1 The Brigadier (most of the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker series set on Earth)
#2 Professor River Song (not quite yet a companion)
#3 Sally Sparrow (Blink; please, please bring her back!)
#4 The TARDIS (in the Doctor’s Wife)
#5 Sabalom Glitz (The Mysterious Planet, The Ultimate Foe, Dragonfire)
#6 Bellal (Death to the Daleks)
#7 Jenny (The Doctor’s Daughter)
#8 Lady Christina de Souza (Planet of the Dead, also deserves to be brought back)
#9 Bishop Octavian (Time of the Angels)
#10 Miss Evangelista (Silence in the Library)
As far as monsters and villains are concerned, my top list would be:
Villains
#1 Original Davros in Genesis of the Daleks
#2 The Master in the Sea Devils, the Daemons and Frontier in Space
#3 Morgus in The Caves of Androzani
#4 Morbius in The Brain of Morbius
#5 Goth in The Deadly Assassin
#6 Morgaine in Battlefield
#7 The Rani (but only in Time and the Rani)
#8 The Captain in The Pirate Planet
#9 Eldrad in The Hand of Fear (is Eldrad a villain? I can never work it out)
#10 The Black Guardian (but only in the Key to Time)
Monsters
#1 The Daleks (obviously — but best in Day of the Daleks, Genesis of the Daleks, Planet of the Daleks)
#2 The Cybermen in Revenge of the Cybermen
#3 The Wirren in Ark in Space (except they don’t stand up well thirty years later)
#4 The Robots in the Robots of Death
#5 The Fendahl (Image of the Fendahl)
#6 The Weeping Angels (would have been higher if just based on Blink)
#7 The Autons (In Spearhead from Space and Terror of the Autons, not in the 21st century series)
#8 Sontarans (always reliable, except in Demons Run)
#9 The Megara in The Stones of Blood
#10 The Sea Devils
Incidental peoples and creatures
#1 The Time Lords
#2 The Humans (have to get these two in the right order)
#3 The Ood
#4 The Thals
#5 The Exillons (Death to the Daleks)
#6 The Mentiads (Pirate Planet)
#7 The Sevateem (Face of Evil)
#8 Vogans (Revenge of the Cybermen)
#9 Tharils (Warriors’ Gate)
#10 The Kang (Paradise Towers)
The Staffordshire Hoard

The Staffordshire Hoard

Hilt Fitting Press quality photo Finds number ...

Hilt fitting from the Staffordshire Hoard.

I went to see the Staffordshire Hoard at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery today. In case this one has passed you by, the Staffordshire Hoard with 4,000 items is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found in one location. It was discovered two years ago in South Staffordshire and registered through the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Thanks to many generous donations, it’s been saved for the nation, and is on display at Birmingham with a tour taking place around Lichfield and Tamworth.

It was twenty-five years ago that I studied Anglo-Saxon archaeology under Sonia Hawkes, but visiting the hoard brought it all back to me as vividly as if it were yesterday.

More on that in a moment, but first some remarks on the Hoard itself.
This is a unique collection — and it is a collection. It’s made up mainly of sword hilts and other martial items, all torn from the swords and other items to which they were fitted. Two gold crosses have been folded up, and various other things have been damaged or effectively destroyed. Among the gold is intricate cloisonné work with garnet, and detailed filigree work with strands of gold.
It’s an exceptionally unbalanced collection. When we look at Anglo-Saxon treasures, they are usually from graves, and the exact content of the grave tells us about the status of the original owner and their role in society. We don’t find collections of swords, and we don’t find collections in which the items were destroyed or damaged before interment. The exact contents were highly symbolic. In the Sutton Hoo burial, the most complete find in British Anglo-Saxon archaeology, there are forty gold pieces — and the number has been made exactly forty by substituting blanks for what was — we assume — a lack of genuine Roman gold coins.
Did I not mention Roman yet? Virtually all the gold in the Anglo-Saxon world was originally Roman. More exactly, it was Roman coins melted down. You can calculate the exact number of coins used by dividing the weight by the average weight of the coins. Generally speaking, gold items turn out to be from an exact number of coins.
The strangeness of this hoard is that it exists at all. For a start, there is essentially no context — it does not appear to be associated with any graves, ceremonial sites, buildings or anything else. Secondly, it is not a collection of ‘treasure’, it is a collection of only the kind of items that a man might take with him into battle. There are no ‘feminine’ items such as broaches or pendants.
On the other hand, the items have been dealt with very strangely for military items. One of the fascinations of reading Beowulf in the original is the number of different words for ‘sword’, and the reverence accorded to swords. Swords were valuable not because of the gold which adorned them (and, as often as not, didn’t adorn them), but because of the slow, intricate process of pattern welding by which they were constructed. Only the most exacting process of forging, beating and welding could turn the iron which had been known since 1,000 or so BC into the steel which made good blades legendary or even mythical. Get it wrong, and the blade either shatters, or is bendy. Both are attested in Icelandic literature which, though later, often relates to events of the period in which this hoard was assembled.
So who was it that assembled such a hoard of gold, but removed the sword blades that would have made it (potentially) ten times more valuable? Were the blades taken from the gold and remounted to be given as gifts or reused in battle? But, in that case, why not simply give them with the gold intact. Or were they given to a developing army where the king retained the gold — perhaps for later gift giving — but equipped his soldiers?
The hoard has been dated to around 700 AD or earlier, though this is tentative. As it contains two crosses and an inscription in (misspelled) Latin from the Bible, it is clear that the hoard comes from the period after Christianisation. The fact that both crosses have been damaged, though, one folded until it is almost unrecognisable, might suggest that the owner of the hoard had little respect for the cross. Does that mean he was pagan? Or merely short on reverence for gold items? But it is strange to find an Anglo-Saxon (in Mercia almost certainly an Anglian, rather than a Saxon) who has no reverence for the cross, and also no reverence for swords.
Was this hoard assembled over a long period of time, or after one gargantuan battle? The apparent carelessness with which the gold was torn from the sword hilts might suggest some degree of haste. But what battle in the Anglo-Saxon world would have resulted in the despoiling of 97 swords with gold pommel caps? The workmanship of much of the hoard is exquisite. Indications from the Sutton Hoo burial, the Taplow Barrow burial, and the large number of graves with grave-goods of common people suggest that only high status individuals would have swords (rather than spears), and only the very highest status individuals would have gold ornamented swords. A collection of swords this large and this grand would suggest a battle — if it were a single battle — of the scale and loss of Agincourt or the battle of Kortrijk.
We might prefer to assume that the finds were assembled over a long period of time. Perhaps the lifetime of a king, or even the lifetime of a dynasty. Actually, there is a way of getting a bit further than mere assumptions. Because Anglo-Saxon gold is generally made from Roman coinage, and because the minting of coin became increasingly debased in the northern European mints, it is possible to get an exact date for a single gold coin, even when no date is on the coin, simply by checking the purity of the gold against controlled samples. Although there is no way of knowing how long a particular gold coin was knocking around before it was melted for jewellery, and, indeed, no way of knowing how long a sword was in use before it came into this particular hoard, it would still be highly informative to get the relative ages of the gold of the items. If there is a relatively narrow spread, this would lead us in one direction, whereas a broader spread would take us in another.
Something else militates against the idea that this is the result of a single catastrophic battle. Although there are no feminine items, which suggests a military origin, there are also no non-precious military items. The gold has been pulled away from or broken off the less precious metals which it adorned. Spoils of war — we read in Beowulf and elsewhere in the old Germanic world — have a symbolic value which goes beyond their intrinsic worth. The provenance of a sword is as important as its condition. If this were the fruit of a single military cataclysm, not only would we expect there to be some record of it in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but we would also expect items of high symbolic value which are not gold to be included. They aren’t.
If new evidence bears out the notion that the hoard was assembled over a long period of time, then the other question is immediately raised: how did it come to be buried, and buried in this condition? A king might (if pagan, certainly would) have choice items buried with him. But this is not a burial. Who could have been powerful enough to assemble such a hoard, valued in today’s money at £3.5 million but beyond all price in the currency of its day, and yet be willing to bury it so unceremoniously?
Was this stolen gold? If so, the thief must have been exceptionally cunning and daring, because he would have raided the greatest treasure of the northern European world of his time. A thief, or perhaps a looter, might explain the haste with which crosses were damaged or folded up, but no thief would possibly dare to hang around and remove the fittings from almost a hundred swords, not to mention other items.
The size of this hoard also raises other questions. If it was owned by a king, why do we not read of his fabulous wealth? In Beowulf — and in other Germanic literature — the greatest hall of the heroic age was Heorot, “the foremost of halls under heaven”. It’s master was  Hroðgar, who appears not only in Beowulf but also Widsith and Norse sagas. But even in Beowulf, Hroðgar though wealthy is not described as having the kind of treasure that we see in this hoard. A treasure on this scale is more akin to Andvar’s hoard in Volsungasaga, or the dragon’s treasure at the end of Beowulf.
So, the final riddle which I left the museum today with was this: who could have been so wealthy and powerful enough to have owned this hoard, and yet unknown to history, and unable to buy with it the ability to defend it against all comers? How could such wealth, assembled through many military victories over many years, be abandoned by burial in a field far from any home or habitation?
I look forward to the answers to these questions as the research on the Hoard develops.
In the mean time, go see it for yourself, in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and also at the Potteries Museum in Stoke on Trent, and, for a limited time only, at Tamworth Castle.
Gough map reveals its secrets

Gough map reveals its secrets

 

 

The Gough Map, showing Chester

The Gough Map, showing Chester

Unravelling the mysteries of the medieval Gough map Do you love old maps? If so, you are in for a rare treat, as the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London has put on line the medieval Gough Map, revealing a fascinating and detailed picture of England, Scotland and Wales in the 1370s, a little before the heyday of Chaucer and of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

If you haven’t heard of it, the Gough map is the earliest known medieval map of Britain that actually looks like a recognisable picture of the nation. Britain is shown with the East at the top, as the map predates the convention for showing North at the top, though this also makes it convenient for display on a computer screen.

The map itself is immaculately designed, using methods remarkably similar to the way a Sat Nav displays information, with ikons for places supported by labels and geographical features — principally rivers. The digital interpretation takes you right down to a highly magnified level, or allows you to zoom out to see the whole thing. You can search it by modern place name or by ancient place name, which is useful, or browse. The one thing you can’t do is hover your mouse over a feature and get it to tell you what it is.

If you live somewhere vaguely historical (ie, not Telford or another new town), then it’s fascinating to see local places as depicted then. Coventry was a major centre, but, near me, Warwick, Stratford upon Avon and Alcester are all depicted. Oddly, another village north of the confluence of the Arrow and the Avon is shown. Is this Broom? An early but misplaced Bidford? There’s no way of telling, though neither Broom nor Bidford are on the searchable database.

If you’re a medieval historian you already know about the Gough map. If you’re a generally interested non-specialist, though, a quick gander across to look at it will be a fascinating experience — and you may find yourself there for hours. To my mind, this is one of the finest uses of the internet, giving access to pristine experiential information which is markedly better than what you could see if you were actually looking at the document.

And, thanks to grants and support by research institutions, it’s free.

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Torchwood’s back — American style

Torchwood’s back — American style

Torchwood title sequence

Image via Wikipedia

Torchwood‘s back.

After ‘Children of Earth‘, where it lifted itself from being Doctor Who without the Doctor (swapped for a smattering of sex) to the most uncompromising BBC science fiction since Blakes 7, you would have been left with a real question of how much of Torchwood there would be left to have another series. Fortunately for lovers of continuity, Torchwood, now backed by Americans and made partly in the USA, picks up from the end of Children of Earth, rather than simply rebooting itself as if nothing had happened. Even more importantly, this isn’t an American remake with the original characters replaced (like the Office and Fawlty Towers).

However, Torchwood: Miracle Day has still gone through a transition to Americanisation (or Americanization, as I’m sure they would put it). If you remember the ill-fated Doctor Who film with Paul McGann (who nonetheless went on to make some rather good BBC 7 Doctor Who radio serials), you’ll remember that it was all much glossier, less laconic, more action-centric, less sciencey, and much, much less dystopian. The new Doctor Whos retained a bit of that, but still in a fairly British way. Torchwood wasn’t just British ‚ it wasn’t even just Welsh, it was Cardiff-centric in a way which must have strained the credulity of anyone who actually goes to Cardiff and looks around at the buildings which keep on getting blown up. BBC Wales certainly made the most of local venues.

Gwen Cooper

Gwen Cooper, now more sultry

So the shift from Cardiff to America is even more noticeable than Doctor Who’s arrival in the USA earlier in the year (complete with Stetson. Stetsons are cool). The most obvious change is the upgrade to Gwen Cooper‘s marksmanship skills. In the words of TVTropes.com, Gwen has ‘taken a level in badass’. When a helicopter (stop here if you haven’t watched the first episode, as we’re getting into spoilers — just imagine that everything I’ve said is true, and come back after you’ve watched it)… when a helicopter turns up and fires a bazooka straight through her house (injuring no-one), Gwen walks determinedly down the corridor to the window, and shoots with an automatic pistol, immediately killing the bazooka-firer on the helicopter, which is some distance away. Nobody on the Torchwood team before ever despatched anything or anyone that cleanly or that easily.

Contrast with the CIA operative who, a few minutes later, discharges several banana clips from a submachine gun at the same helicopter without hitting anything at all (thereby neatly showing A-Team heritage 1). But it’s ok, because Gwen Cooper, from the same moving LandRover, fires a single bazooka shot to destroy the self-same helicopter moments afterwards.

Of course, everything in America is going to be bigger and badder. This is a real problem after Children of Earth. How do you make anything bigger and badder than a compulsory tithe of all Earth’s children? Actually, the solution’s pretty good. What’s bigger and badder than ‘everybody dies’? Naturally, ‘nobody dies — at all, ever’. There’s a touch of genius in the way that the Torchwood team have made ‘nobody dies’ into something which is not just sinister, it’s downright horrific. The blown-up hitman who lives despite being little more than ashes is scarier than anything you ever saw on the X-files or CSI. When Captain Jack Harkness then suggests severing the head, we are forcibly reminded that this anti-hero who finished up the last series by killing his grandson 2 will not be softened or sugar-coated for the more delicate sensibilities of trans-Atlantic audiences.

Seriously, the new Torchwood does look brilliant, and despite some of the ‘s’s being turned to ‘z’s (that’s ‘zee’s, not ‘zed’s) and the ‘u’s removed, it is still British (more importantly, as Cooper points out, Welsh) to the core. This is clearest in the single continuity failure. The situation is that nobody in the entire world dies. Cooper and Harkness are surrounded by British armed policemen to facilitate an American rendition. What do they do? Naturally, despite the fact that nobody is now capable of death, they surrender anyway. That’s British. If it was American, the discontinuity would be some amazing and inadequately explained escape. Only British TV could come up with an unexplainable failure.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. What do you mean you never noticed that the A-Team never actually hit anyone, despite the tens of thousands of automatic fire rounds discharged
  2. Correction duly noted

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