1. Mawdryn Undead
The Black Guardian Trilogy
A Story Arc
|Dates||Feb. 1, 1983 -
Mar. 9, 1983
With Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton,
Mark Strickson, Nicolas Courtney,
with Valentine Dyall as "The Black Guardian".
Produced by John Nathan-Turner.
|Synopsis: A young man named Turlough has been recruited for a special mission... kill the Doctor.|
Recipe for a Black Guardian Trilogy by Matthew Brenner 25/10/99
To prepare. You will need:
One TARDIS, two Guardians: one black and one white, one English Public School boy with a piece of rock candy stuck to his hand, two female companions, one Brigadier, two dead birds (with feather on), and one Doctor.
Garnish with celery stalk. Serves one well-fed but under-nourished television producer.
Sinking the boat by Thomas Cookson 24/7/13
Despite being dominated by an interconnected trilogy arc telling an ongoing story, Season 20 overall still feels ultimately flat and aimless.
Perhaps it'd be different if Resurrection of the Daleks was finished and done as the climactic season finale, delivering an endgame for the Doctor's long battle with the Daleks, and being a nice semi-detached neighbor to The Five Doctors' anniversary parade of Cybermen. Alternatively, maybe they should have lost The King's Demons to the strike too, letting Enlightenment be the season finale.
But let's just compare this trilogy with the original Key to Time season. It took until the fifth Key To Time story for the quest's momentum to completely evaporate. I'd thoroughly enjoyed the first four stories, but after Power of Kroll I seriously felt deflated and bored, and I stopped caring.
With this trilogy, the momentum never starts. Perhaps because Mawdryn Undead's already the third story of a season that had a crippling false start in Arc of Infinity. Perhaps it's more than that. The Ribos Operation started with the Doctor approached by a visionary and given his quest and introduced to his new companion immediately. The mission statement was asserted swiftly.
Mawdryn Undead doesn't start us on any adventurous note. It's an Earthbound affair, centered around a boarding school and the Brigadier's retirement. Like Logopolis, this tries to juggle being the beginning of the Black Guardian's revenge arc, the introduction of Turlough, a Brigadier-centric character piece (which inspired several NAs), and the plight of Mawdryn's people. Each element is cumbersomely done and neither gets enough of a satisfying focus.
Revisiting the Brigadier here seems odd. It'd make more sense happening later in the trilogy when the quest is already established and underway. In fact, he'll be appearing again in The Five Doctors later that year. So he has two comeback stories in a short space of time, and either could exist happily without the other. Of course, originally this was meant to be Ian Chesterton's return, but William Russell was unavailable. So the Brigadier was the logical fill-in character. But this ends up being more a vague reprieve than a full-blooded, upbeat goodbye to the Brigadier, and it's overshadowed by Turlough's introduction, which adds to the sense of too many elements, not enough incident and no real tight resolution or satisfying finality. Frankly, the season is accumulating tired, dead weight.
The real problem is Turlough. There's a core problem with having a companion who's secretly planning to kill the Doctor. By the show's very nature, he's obviously not going to succeed, so any suspense that can be drawn from that isn't going to be maintained over twelve episodes of the amateur assassin procrastinating over will he or won't he go through with it. This was a typical daft gimmicky JNT idea that may have sounded good in a pub discussion but can't possibly carry a series.
Sure the Master was introduced with the purpose of frequently trying to assassinate the Doctor, but he was determined and frighteningly adept at murder and setting death traps, at least at first. Turlough, however, can't do anything overt or blatant to kill the Doctor because he's required to fool the Doctor into buying his innocence. And he's also indecisive. His heart isn't in it, and that's a poor set-up for a threat to the Doctor.
Making a trilogy out of Turlough is problematic. And unfortunately it's not the E-Space trilogy used as the model for this tent-pole trilogy (which actually did give Season 18 a needed burst of direction and momentum after the previous two false starts), but the Master Returns trilogy. A season based on one man's vengeful determination to kill the Doctor. The difference is, that was a rather split trilogy with a hiatus before its concluding part, whereas this has even less momentum. Secondly, something actually came of the villain's quest in the game-changing second story as the Master actually succeeded in killing the Doctor, which allowed the last story to be about the Doctor's comeback and finally beating his foe. There were shifting stakes at work. There are no such shifting stakes through this trilogy and no sense that the Doctor is coming any closer to death. Nor is he coming closer to his prize as in Season 16.
An arc should involve the characters going through a personal journey. The Key To Time arc was about the Doctor's hero's journey and quest for personal wisdom and enlightenment, which was somewhat undermined by Tom's rather too-knowing performance throughout, making his enlightened decision to discard the key come off flippantly. The E-Space trilogy saw the Doctor lost into the unknown and having to deal with an unfamiliar, colder universe, and there is a sense he's humbled by it in the end. However, if you were to look at it as Romana's journey, then its resolution is unforgivably sloppy. Trial of a Time Lord is a very personal arc for the Doctor, replete with guilt, existential crises and a reassertion of his mission statement. Sadly rendered inconsequential by a cop-out ending.
But the Black Guardian trilogy just feels like filler in a season of nothing but. All the Doctor really has to do here is stay alive, which is nothing unusual, and there's nothing here that presents any real threat to him. There are even chances for Turlough to make a critical situation worse for the Doctor, such as when he's already about to sacrifice his remaining regenerations for Mawdryn and his fellow crones, thus subverting an extra edge of danger to a typical Doctor Who adventure. But the opportunity isn't taken. Turlough doesn't evolve beyond an intermittent cliffhanger villain who you know will fail and hide his intentions again by the next resolution.
Turlough is just too peripheral and too defined by carrying a choice with an easy, obvious outcome, for his own character arc to mean anything.
The original Key to Time season had a consistent theme echoing through stories of how power corrupts, which echoed the arc's quest for a tool of ultimate power and allowed the umbrella theme to be felt without impeding on standalone stories.
Here I'm not sure there is a thematic arc. I'm not sure what connects the Brigadier's amnesia or the fate of Mawdryn with the Black Guardian's machinations or Turlough's choice. You could tenuously suggest they're about the burden of guilt and regret, and maybe saying something about the Black Guardian's own curse of immortality, but that's flimsy. Really, Turlough's presence here is purely for gimmickry's sake, and the Black Guardian and the Brigadier are here just to keep fans happy and to desperately convince the skeptical viewer that this is still the same Doctor Who as it was in the 70s.
The problem is, the Black Guardian is a concept being revisited by a production team that has nothing but blatant contempt for the original Key to Time season, and it's being pitched at a constituency in fandom that seriously rates Time-Flight as a better story than The Pirate Planet. And the worst trait of the Davison era asserts itself, of reversing and regressing the hero's journey, taking iconic characters from the Key to Time season but surgically removing the Doctor's capacity for personal growth. In fact, Davison feels utterly defeated here, as does the whole show. The story posits no hope for Mawdryn and his crones but a merciful death, that the Doctor has no choice but to surrender and grant. The Doctor's determined willingness to fight against the odds has been erased here, and the show is resultantly becoming unpleasant and degrading to watch. And there's nothing reassuring about the fact that the two Brigadiers meeting happens to bail Davison out by a lucky fluke.
This becomes a problem in Season 21, as Eric Saward, clearly tiring of convenient pat pantomime conclusions, decides to prefer everything going wrong and total bodycounts with the Doctor still defined as a puppeteered pawn in it. Only this time to the opposite end, being complicit in and aiding and abetting the massacres by his own deliberate, spiteful negligence, just to ensure the story ends that way.
I've developed a certain soft spot for Terminus. Amidst a sanitized era of uncompromisingly plastic branding and fan propaganda, this stands out as a work of stark, evocative and emotive art. The brainchild of the imaginative and the morbid. Even though there are many grounds on which it fails, it's clear this was the author's precious baby.
It's been argued that this is where the nasty Sawardiverse first takes full form. It's a cold story about a universe ruled by contempt. Even Olvir decides to abandon Nyssa and cut off her humanity when she becomes infected. A society of exploitation and denigration, where hopelessness and bureaucratic rules breed paralytic apathy. I've realized from reading the TARDIS Eruditorum blog what exactly marks Eric Saward's philosophy apart from Robert Holmes or Steven Gallagher. Holmes and Gallagher write from a cynical perspective that holds little faith in society's institutions, but they write because they actually care about the people caught up in these institutions. Saward's cynicism is more undeveloped and adolescent. He doesn't seem to care about people at all. He seems to despise people, treating them as meat puppets, placing more value on his characters' deaths, sufferings and wanton cruelties than anything else about them.
But with Gallagher's Terminus, we are supposed to be horrified by this, and by the coldness of the characters, but it assumes our empathy before anything. It's unflinching but it's not relishing in its honest, raw vision. The story of Terminus is the horror of how our society really could become like this and its effect on the human spirit. In a way, that's not so clumsy or absurdly melodramatic that it makes a mockery of the issue, as RTD did in Turn Left's tacky 'Nazism reborn in our time' scene.
However, despite being morbidly fascinating viewing, the momentum falls flat, and the many story tangents become serious obstacles to viewer involvement. The Doctor's neglect of Nyssa is inexcusable. The arc is so tenuous that Turlough has to be completely sidelined. Perhaps these religious ideas of the damned, the pariah lepers, and the seven gates of hell, is all revving us up for the tournament of the Gods. Once again, a lucky last-minute fluke saves the day and the resolution falls into everyone's lap. Nyssa's salvation even happens off screen, but that surprisingly works as an awakening from an illucid nightmare.
I've wondered if Enlightenment is where Doctor Who should have ended. After all, the show never got better than this. Taking this as read as a masterpiece, how does it wrap up the arc? With a jump start. Amidst an era that struggled to manage its overcrowded TARDIS team, this story uses every character to their best without a single wasted moment. It also explores one thrilling avenue of Turlough's arc. He's the kind of quisling who usually ends up dead, so there's a real tension over whether he may actually die here. And despite his choice being a pat, foregone conclusion, it honestly becomes a compelling, believable emotional moment. It's clear he's tempted in so many ways, but what wins out is his rage over being so long bullied and threatened by the Black Guardian. It's a real punch-the-air moment when he gets his revenge.
Unfortunately, Enlightenment still feels inescapably episodic, as the arc neuters it of any self-contained standalone power. Terrence Keenan suggested the story would be better without the Guardians' inclusion. For me, that final scene of the Doctor's choice fits perfectly with the themes of hedonistic eternals abusing their God-like powers. But by the scene's admission, it's no final reckoning. The Black Guardian isn't vanquished, his quest for vengeance remains unabated. So the arc feels unfulfilling and pointless, confirming that the Black Guardian was probably better left forgotten about after 1979 and that this trilogy was a non-starter all round.