It only takes about six seconds for this story to wash away the foul taste of The Web Planet. We open in the 12th century, in the Holy Land, where King Richard the Lionheart (the ubiquitous Julian Glover) is falcon-hunting and engaging in witty banter with his courtiers, speaking largely in verse and occasionally in iambic pentameter. Glover turns in an incredible bi-polar performance, going from jovial to angry on a dime. Then the TARDIS crew arrives and are instantly attacked by Saracen warriors looking for Richard. Director Douglas Camfield, making his official Who debut (not counting his portion of Planet of Giants) gives us first-person POV sword-fighting, an even more impressive trick than the fights scenes directed by Waris Hussein way back in The Tribe of Gum. William Hartnell again gets to be physically violent, and then you realize that writer David Whitaker cleverly has the TARDIS team speaking in prose even while all the local characters are doing Shakespeare. The quality of this historical is evident so fast that you almost wonder why the production team would ever want to go back to battling monsters in outer space after this …
There are some flaws with The Crusade, namely that it’s a story about a multi-ethnic conflict in the Middle East where most of the roles are played by British character actors. Walter Randall, who played a henchman in The Aztecs, is now a low-rent bad guy, the evil warlord El-Akir, flatly delivering lines about “the Lion having no claws”. Gabor Baraker, who’d played a comedically obsequious Chinese innkeeper in Marco Polo, is back as a double-dealing Venetian merchant named Luigi Ferrigo. Reg Pritchard, who just passed away earlier this year, plays another comical merchant, Ben Daheer, around whom the Doctor repeatedly runs circles. This sort of casting was industry standard at the time, but plays very uncomfortably today.
In spite of that, The Crusade is energizing to watch, especially considering what’s come before; it’s the first story with gravitas since The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Julian Glover (who’s been in everything) is brilliant as Richard, to put it mildly. The Episode 1 cliffhanger is about his mood swings; after the Doctor, Ian and Vicki return to him one of his wounded knights, and then ask for assistance in locating the abducted Barbara, he turns on them with ferocity. As a cliffhanger carried by an actor’s emotional shifts, rather than by a monster reveal, a moment of mortal peril, or (as we’ve already had twice in Season 2), a growling feline, this is a moment of remarkable maturity for the series. The first 5 full minutes of Episode 2 continue directly on from the cliffhanger, featuring more of Glover’s grim poetry and mood swings, and ending with a direct-to-the-camera aside about an audacious plan for peace with Saladin.
Glover dominates Episodes 3 and 4, too. His peace plan, obviously, fails. While Saladin (of whom more shortly) is receptive to the idea, Richard’s sister Joanna is not. A dramatic confrontation in Episode 3 between Glover and Jean Marsh (formerly married to Jon Pertwee and soon to be a Doctor Who regularly herself, however briefly) upstages the regulars; Joanna refuses an arranged marriage with Saladin’s brother, and Richard’s stunned response, “Cannot?!”, is a moment of pure awesomeness. Richard takes his anger out on the Doctor and Vicki, banishing them from his court. However, by Episode 4 he has calmed down, and welcomes them back to his good graces with the line “We are unjust to you to serve the greater good.” He receives an emotional and pious exit; we know from the historical record that things won’t end well for him, but he concludes his role in this story with a moment of quietly desperate grace. This is a billion miles removed from the dramatic stylings of the Optera in the last story. Thank goodness.
Fortunately, The Crusade is not just about a heroic English monarch out to ethnically cleanse the Holy Land. David Whitaker, as is clear from his novelization, wanted to write a tale about a war in which both sides are, in their own way, in the right. While some of the casting choices in this story are unfortunate from today’s frame of reference (see above), Bernard Kay (in his second major role in five stories) plays Saladin, Richard’s opposite number, in a very interesting way. While Glover dominates his own screen time, Kay is much more generous; as Saladin, Kay is spare and terse, and while the standards of the time dictated that he wear blackface in the role, he still gives an intelligent performance even with that impediment. He, too, is given poetic lines (of a captured knight confined to his court, he says, “Let him have all liberty, except liberty itself”), and, although he never interacts with Richard or the TARDIS crew, is still allowed to address the camera and recite stirring sentiments.
Other minor guest roles are also rewarding. Haroun, an Arabic merchant out for revenge against El-Akir, briefly shelters Barbara in Episode 3 and delivers a pretty impressive monologue about the ruin of his life. The Earl of Leicester, one of Richard’s warlords, is, shockingly, played by an American actor (John Bay), who at that point was a veteran of a series called “Richard the Lionheart”, and more than holds his own in a confrontation with Hartnell. The Doctor has lashed out at Leicester, calling him a “stupid butcher”, but Leicester is a rare character from this era of the show who delivers a solid counterpunch. His Shakespearan rejoinder (beginning “Some half-started morning, while you thinkers lie abed”) allows him to be one of the few characters in the show’s entire history who doesn’t lose a debate on morals with the Doctor.
Honestly, even if the ethnic portrayals and the meandering plot don’t engage your interest, just listening to the dialogue alone would be balm to your ears. One subplot involves Vicki disguising herself as a boy in order to gain access to Richard’s court. After Joanna finds her out, the princess orders Vicki re-dressed as a lady, remarking “The eye should have contentment where it rests” (this line was re-used over 40 years later in The Shakespeare Code, and with good reason). However, at the end of the story, there’s a joke about Sir Ian getting “a good knight’s sleep.” This line was almost certainly added by jocular script editor Dennis Spooner rather than by the more somber Whitaker…
Whitaker, by the way, penned the novelization hiself, re-titled Doctor Who and the Crusaders, in 1965; it was the last of the three original books published by Frederick Muller, and was later incorporated into the Target canon. The book is a lush expansion on the original scripts. A prologue, set in the TARDIS, features a lengthy philosophical conversation about changing history, and about the Doctor wishing to visit a conflict where both sides are justified.
Whitaker takes the opportunity to expand on televised dialogue and extend several scenes. Ferrigo, the Venetian merchant, is killed in the book as punishment for helping El-Akir abduct Barbara, even though he survived on TV. Although William Russell was on vacation for Episode 3 and never got to meet Saladin, they do meet in the book and have a meaty discussion about the true meaning of the phrase “The will of Allah”. The death of El-Akir and the rescue of his harem girls is also given more space. Ian and Barbara are in a full-on romantic relationship here, and even kiss after he rescues her from El-Akir. One interesting deletion, though, is Richard’s Episode 4 reconciliation with the Doctor; the removal of this scene, while less dramatically satisfying, is far more likely to have been the way it would have happened in real life – no happy ending.
Many of the Hartnell-era historicals have loose plots, and The Crusade is no exception. Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor & Vicki, all have separate adventures, which diverge early on and don’t come back together until the closing moments. Richard and Saladin, and in fact the TARDIS crew and Saladin, never meet up on screen, and the principal villain role (El-Akir) is less well inhabited than any other guest character. Vicki’s being outed as a woman in boy’s clothing (followed by the Chamberlain’s antiquated grumblings over having to re-dress her) is either shockingly progressive for its time, or represents David Whitaker scratching his head over the changing social mores of the 1960s.
But it’s the peripherals, not just the plot, that make The Crusade great: Hartnell’s righteous outrage at Leicester, Richard’s and Saladin’s soliloquies, the Shakespeare-inflected dialogue, and Ian’s being knighted (a scene that I sorely wish still existed). Joanna’s description of the Doctor is the best one we’ve been given in the series yet:
There’s something new in you, yet something older than the sky itself.
The Doctor surely has come a long way from the anti-hero of the first three serials; he hugs Vicki and beeps her nose in Episode 3, something you’d never have imagined him being able to do early in Season 1. Of course, when Sir Ian returns to save the Doctor from a planned execution at the hands of Leicester at the end of Episode 4, by saying that he intends to kill the Doctor himself, you can well believe, after all they’ve been through to this point, that Ian is deadly serious…