Tuesday, 8 September 2015

FTA: Doctor Who Classic: Mawdryn Undead, Terminus and Enlightenment

This fourth volume of articles from Celebrate, Regenerate! covers the Black Guardian Trilogy. (See here for more on this project.)

Mawdryn Undead
(Main article.)

In 2003, channel UKTV Gold broadcast all of the Classic Series, in detail, to celebrate the show’s 40th Anniversary. At the time, I was around six or seven, and I lapped it up. One of the earliest stories I remember from those reruns was the fascinating Mawdryn Undead, a story whose checklist approach could have ended up badly but instead revealed a brilliantly twisting tale of treachery, deception and time-travel. Peter Grimwade’s way of apologising for writing the previous season’s Time-Flight, it was written with the prerequisite that it must introduce new companion Turlough, start the Black Guardian Trilogy and feature show-favourite Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.
     Turlough’s character was unfortunate in that his execution throughout the series didn’t live up to his premise. But what a great premise that was. Turlough was the first companion who had worked his way onto the TARDIS for nefarious purposes, and the first who actively tried to kill The Doctor. As a villain, Turlough wasn’t just cackling evil – he was also incredibly frightened, both of his own actions and of the wrath of The Black Guardian. It was his fear, as well as his origins as an exile of a corrupt society, that drove his actions and his villainy.
     The Brigadier’s return, despite throwing up all sorts of issues due to dating, is very welcome, with Nicholas Courtney arriving in the place of the planned return of Ian and Barbara, the Doctor’s first companions. Despite his last-second inclusion, Courtney is still excellent in the role, and subtlety alters the way he plays the character between the two time zones. The 80s Brigadier is older and wearier, while the 70s Brigadier is much more alert and to action. Although it would have been great to see those old companions again, The Brigadier is a welcome substitute and more than makes the role his.
     The story can possibly be best remembered for its use of the Two-Streams story technique, with Nyssa, Tegan and Mawdryn running around in 1977 and The Doctor and Turlough using The Brigadier’s memory in 1983. It’s something that wouldn’t be done again until the Moffat era, and it’s a great use of a time-based dynamic that was strangely rare within the Classic Series. Add that dynamic to the weirdness of the Mawdryn mutants, the wonderfully hammy performance of Valentine Dyal and the return of the Brigadier, and you’ve got a recipe for a bona fide Who classic.

Terminus

Apart from old stories like The Sensorites and The Web Planet, there is no Who story in my mind that gets as much flack for being “boring” than Terminus, the second part of the Black Guardian Trilogy. The same allegations, unfortunately, that go out against its companion focus, Nyssa of Traken, introduced in 1981 as a guest character who was then added to the companion roster for no apparent reason. However, I must make an admission here: I really got to like Nyssa when I first saw Five’s era, and so her departure in this serial had me in tears.
      And that’s all anyone seems to remember about it, really. Nyssa in this story does come under the shadow of the Fanservice monster, strutting about in a transparent nightgown that leaves very little to the imagination, but that I feel doesn’t end up detracting from the characterisation that goes on here. Nyssa, having spent a season and a half in the shadow of the Doctor’s louder companions, finally steps out and finds some purpose in her life. Unlike a lot of other companions in this era, she leaves The Doctor not because she’s found a better offer, because she’s upset with him or even because she had to. She left because she had the opportunity to help people, and because it was the right thing to do.
     There’s a lot more to this story, though, than the loss of Nyssa. Steven Gallagher returns as writer from Warrior’s Gate in Season 18, and the general tone of the story is deliciously thick; as atmospheric as a Jovian storm cloud and just as filled with jeopardy and paranoia. The use of the plague analogue is perfect, especially for me who finds stuff like that incredibly unsettling. (Let’s just say that I bought a few facemasks in the summer of 2009). There’s also the use of several Norse themes, which are fun, and the timely tradition of being of a Who story that can be struck into different metaphors. In the beginning, Terminus is the Barge on the River Styx, ferrying souls to the afterlife. By the end, the serial takes a turn for the positive, and Terminus becomes a wonderful metaphor for the NHS, with the Vanir (NHS staff) no longer slaves to Hydromel (money) and allowed to focus on healing their patients.
     I think the thing that makes so many dismiss Terminus is that not a lot of people liked Nyssa’s character and thus weren’t engaged with her story. Me? I think that it’s a wonderfully complex and thematic masterpiece, wherein both Nyssa’s and the Vanir’s fight for freedom and expression compliment one another, all the while set to a backdrop of The Doctor saving the Universe once more.

Enlightenment

Fans who’ve grown up on the standards of the new series are sometimes far too quick to attack the production values of the Classic Series, going on tirades about wobbly sets, tin-foil monsters and shoddy CSO. Whenever my friends say such things, I point them here, towards Enlightenment, one of the Classic Series’ most visually impressive stories. There are no wobbly sets here, and the highly conceptual script matches up to the brilliant visuals. Here we find a race more long-lived than the Time Lords; a race whose longevity has robbed them of all imagination and emotion, and who must parasitically live off us inferior “Ephemerals” in order to satiate their boredom. Unlike the end of the series’ other major arc up to that date, The Key To Time, this story also provides an excellent end for the experimental Black Guardian Trilogy.
    The entire first episode takes place below decks, leaving the ship’s true nature as a space-faring vessel for the episode’s cliffhanger. Indeed, this story has some quite good cliffhangers: the nature of the ship, Turlough diving off into the vacuum of space and Lynda Baron hypnotising Tegan into becoming her weapon. Baron’s performance as Captain Wrack always slightly weirds me out, because Baron was a big part of my childhood in her Come Outside series. Her performance then, for me, becomes strangely hypnotising; a kind of cackling evil that really says how much she was enjoying the role. The same is true of the celebrity cameo Leee John (not a typo) who is delightfully camp. 
     Turlough’s final introductory story sees him betray both The Doctor and The Black Guardian in various ways, as his fear and madness drive him to various different aims. One moment he’s desperate to get rid of the Black Guardian’s influence, until he concedes to him and tries to work his way into Captain Wrack’s affections. Like the rest of the script, the incredibly clever twist lies in the question of what Enlightenment really is – the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. It’s implied that immortality by its very nature encourages amorality, and that our short time on this Earth is the very reason why we should be nice to one another. With all of the modern fuss about dodgy morals in Doctor Who, I can’t think of a better one, more intelligently conveyed. Enlightenment, appropriate to its name, is one of the most cerebral stories in the entire JNT era, and is an absolute delight.

Thanks.

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