An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

August 13, 2020

Barber: The Daemons

Matt Barber, The Daemons, The Black Archive, 26. Edinburgh: Obverse Books, 2018.

Reviewed by Stephen Basdeo (

Doctor Who scarcely needs any introduction. He is the person with two hearts who flies around space and time in a battered old police box that is bigger on the inside than on the outside, and the subject of one of the most popular sci-fi television series in the UK and USA with a cult following. Obverse Books have in the last couple of years commissioned brief book length examinations of each Doctor Who story, and it was a pleasure to read a companion to one of my favourite serials, titled The Daemons (which aired in May–June 1971), written by Matt Barber.

Perhaps, however, ‘companion’ is the wrong word. Yes, at the beginning of the book there are the usual production notes. We know who the director and producers of the serial were, who were the minor uncredited actors, but the really special thing about this book is that the main part of it is actually an analysis of the story itself. To my knowledge, Obverse’s series of books represent the first attempt to analyse the narratives of this popular five part Doctor Who story which, so Barber points out, garnered an average of nearly 9 million viewers per episode and remains among the top 20 ‘greatest ever’ Doctor Who stories according to fans.

Most Doctor Who stories from the 1960s and 1970s, when all is said, were produced on the cheap and suffered routinely from bad acting. The outer space stories of the William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton era featured flimsy sets and were melodramatic. It was only with John Pertwee’s Doctor era, with the Doctor deprived of the TARDIS by the Time Lords and exiled to earth, that the show’s writers began producing more thoughtful stories. Inferno was one highlight of the Hartnell era and The Daemons was another. The latter was particularly innovative because, as Barber points out, it is less sci-fi and more a gothic folk horror (p. 13). And as he further argues, The Daemons, by its very title, immediately cements its gothic credentials by using an archaic spelling of the word ‘demon’ (p. 16). The incantations spoken by a coven of witches on screen are of course always in Latin—a peculiarly ‘medievalist’ trope that filmmakers seem obliged to include in tales of the supernatural (the devil, of course, being the master of no other language save Latin).

The Daemons is an occult story. Barber, who completed a PhD in the study of historical texts of witchcraft, therefore gives a helpful overview of the meaning of ‘occult’:

The history of the occult is the history of a collision, sometimes a complex cooperation, between high and low culture. It’s the conflict between kings and peasants; mainstream and populist academics; high brow authors and pot boiling hacks; genre cinema and arthouse … But it isn’t just about binary oppositions. The occult is often a fusion or a reconciliation of the culturally high and low; of the politically left and right; of science and magic. It’s what occupies the liminal space between the elite and the popular; colonising the vacuum that remains when the rational tendencies of society erodes the religious structures (pp. 16–17).

Viewed in this manner The Daemons truly does represent the occult—that it to say that it represents the clash between the scientific and the supernatural—because it is the Doctor’s adversary The Master who attempts to use science to summon the devil in order to gain supernatural powers for himself. Barber then goes on to give a brief, though not overbearing, review of the occult in literature, referencing plays such as Ben Jonson’s The Witch of Edmonton (1621), the works of M.R. James, the academic research of Margaret Allen Murray, along with Hammer Horror films and other movies such as The Wicker Man (1973).

Interestingly, The Daemons was written and aired at a time when there was growing concern in the press and among politicians in Britain over the rise of Wicca—one of the stranger, if relatively benign, forms of modern medievalism/early modernism in Britain today (it takes its name from an Anglo-Saxon word, although some of its adherents do claim a longer lineage dating back to the Druids). As Peter Harvey noted in the Guardian in 1970:

Police and Churches are concerned at the growing popularity of black magic and witchcraft. Memberships of cults and covens particularly in the Home Counties, the Cotswolds, and the West Country are increasing (p. 20).

The Anglican vicar, Reverend Ronald Adkins, had the year before also been unmasked as a ‘black magician’ (p. 47). Barber, in fact, points to a number of high profile features on occultists in the 1960s and early 1970s. There seems to have been a short-lived moral panic; the Labour MP Gwilym Roberts calling for a ban on Wicca. Its adherents, too, seemed to be fairly affluent middle-class people living in the south of England. Witchcraft also became a topic of interest to modern academics at this point, for one year after The Daemons aired Keith Thomas’s classic Religion and the Decline of Magic was published. Barber points out that Thomas was not the only academic to capitalise on the growing interest in witchcraft. Among other texts published in this period were Christina Larner’s Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland (1981), Alan Macfarlane’s Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (1970) and Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1968). 

Thus, when Barry Letts and Robert Sloman put pen to paper and began writing a story that would become The Daemons, it made sense to set a story of the supernatural in a remote fictionalised small village in southern England, in accordance with the Guardian’s reporting of the rise of Wicca in the Cotswolds and Home Counties. Letts’s and Sloman’s serial would also feature a female “white witch” character named Olivia Hawthorne, much like the real-life white witch Eleanor Bone who was interviewed by the Guardian. The Master’s character in the serial also recalls the real-life Alex Sanders, who made headlines in the 1970s by proclaiming himself as ‘King of the Witches’, and founder of modern British Wicca (also interviewed by the BBC in 1970).

Letts and Sloman originally wanted to push Doctor Who’s boundaries when they first started writing for the show. The unfavourable reaction to The Daemons in the press indicates that they were successful in this endeavour.

The Daemons is also unusual among Doctor Who stories because

it does not feature military or scientific institutions, labs or bases. It doesn’t even feature the TARDIS or time travel. Somehow, despite all this it has become a reference point for a particular era (p. 103).

Barber’s book about this defining serial of the Pertwee era is a fairly short and easy read but it is packed with information. Footnotes guide the reader to Barber’s primary and secondary sources—an unusual feature in a book of this scope. There is much that will please the medievalist and Doctor Who fan in Barber’s book (indeed, most medievalists I know are fans of the show, to varying degrees). Barber has historicised the serial, pointing out the contemporary news stories which influenced its creation. I would have liked—and this is by no means intended to be read as a criticism (for the book had a limited remit)—Barber to expand a bit more on the “Anti-Pertwee Backlash” that apparently occurred among the “Whovian” fandom in the 1980s; Barber’s passing remark on this made me want to learn more through various internet searches. As a post-2005 fan I had always assumed that Pertwee was one of the better Doctors so it surprised me to learn that it was not always so. This book will also appeal to those interested in the history of witchcraft and its portrayals in modern popular culture; prior to reading this book I had no idea that The Daemons was inspired by the moral panic over the rise of Wicca.

Stephen Basdeo 

Richmond: The American International University in London