22/5/10 “Mawdryn Undead”
“It’s dull and fat and ugly, just like you, Hippo.” –Turlough
The Black Guardian trilogy has fared badly in my viewing since until recently I had only ever seen “Enlightenment.” I did actually rather like that story, partially because of all the costuming, partially out of respect that it was written and directed by women, as we know, a comparative rarity in Doctor Who. None of the stories are particularly highly regarded, and it’s easy to see why. I found “Mawdryn Undead,” despite its unusual title, to be fairly incoherent (though it didn’t help I had Jamie whispering Black Guardian/Turlough double entendres to me the whole time). Nicholas Courtney is the only saving grace here—the wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff might have worked on paper, but it’s incredibly confusing, and the ending deus ex machina is terribly convenient.
I admire Paddy Kingsland’s music from stories such as “Full Circle” and “Logopolis,” but in “Mawdryn Undead,” he seems to have gone berserk and taken a page out of Malcolm Clarke’s book. The result is wince-inducingly painful to listen to and doesn’t help the lightweight action on screen at all. The action opens in an English public school, very much out of Chariots of Fire with straw skimmers for the boys. I’ve seen enough of the alleged vices of such places in Broome Stages and “Human Nature” to feel quite uneasy about the relationship between Turlough and his “friend” Hippo (Ibbotson). It’s not much of a friendship, is it? I really feel quite sorry for Hippo if the only friend he can get in school is one who deceives and bullies him, gets him in trouble, and has the makings of a sociopath. Too harsh? We got a glimpse of how interesting (and indeed, almost likeable) Turlough can be in Paul Magrs Ringpullworld, so it’s a disappointment to me to find him so self-serving and petty-minded here. To be fair, this is Turlough’s introductory story and we know by the end of “Enlightenment” that he’s gone on a story arc that, presumably, makes him a better person, due to the Doctor’s influence. Turlough is not one of the most sympathetic of the companions, but he does create an interesting dynamic (presumably why I’ve included him, peripherally, in a couple of my own fan fics!).
In the story, Turlough decides to “borrow” what turns out to be the Brigadier’s vintage car and forces Hippo to go along with him. They crash (with the Brigadier, conveniently), and during a moment of concussion, Turlough goes into a very unconvincingly brightly-colored background where he is contacted by the Black Guardian (last seen in the Key to Time), who recruits him to kill the Doctor. Of course, Turlough doesn’t know who the Doctor is, nor is he entirely sure of this strange encounter—it’s full of enough double entendres for anyone to exploit. Turlough, despite appearances, isn’t a human—stuck in this public school far away from home for some reason, parents dead, arrangements made through a “strange solicitor in London” (Great Expectations?). He wants so badly to get away he is certainly willing to listen to the Black Guardian (Turlough a precursor to Harry Potter?). The school’s Headmaster is somewhat kindly toward the misbehaving pupil (evidently feeling sorry for him), but the Brigadier, who is a teacher at this school (!), thinks “you’ve got a rotten one there.”
On board the TARDIS, Tegan is still worried about the aftermath of “Snakedance,” complaining to the Doctor of her “terrible dreams.” The Doctor isn’t all that sympathetic to what she’s going through, though he is willing to try to get her back to Earth—“I want to be surrounded by familiar things.” Nyssa has changed into a completely new costume, one that makes her look much more grown up (the fanboys drool). The three of them get caught up in a “warp ellipse” and get on board a beautifully furnished starliner (it made me think of the endless hallways in Beauty by Robin McKinley). Turlough also appears aboard, having been exhorted by the Black Guardian into a transmit that is shaped like an obelisk (cue double entendres—“Waking or sleeping, I will be with you!” “You will obey me in all things!”, etc). Part one ends with Turlough about to smash the Doctor’s head with a rock (shades of “10,000 BC”?).
While it would have been quite amusing if, when startled, Turlough dropped the rock on his own head instead of throwing it off to the side, both the Doctor and Turlough escape injury back on Earth in 1983. Having lost the TARDIS, the Doctor meets 1983 Brigadier and is surprised to find him a teacher; “I happen to like teaching.” However, more surprising is the fact the Brigadier doesn’t seem to remember the Doctor. There is a lot of kerfuffle as 1983 Brigadier details the 1977 breakdown that, it appears, is the reason he’s forgotten about the Doctor. “Someone just walked over my grave.” “Maybe it was a Yeti.” Eventually they establish that in 1977 the Brigadier met Tegan in the TARDIS, so the Doctor tries to get the Brigadier to remember the events then so that they can work on them in the present.
Indeed, in 1977 Nyssa and Tegan leave the TARDIS to find in the transmat capsule a horribly burned man they assume, naturally enough, I suppose, to be the Doctor. Tegan runs outside to get help as Nyssa tries to make the “Doctor” more comfortable in the TARDIS—Tegan runs into 1977 Brigadier. They don’t seem to be too concerned about the Doctor as they trade anecdotes for awhile. The “Doctor” appears to regenerate within the TARDIS and becomes quite a startling creature with a pulsating brain (or spaghetti on his head, as you wish). A word now, I suppose, should be said about the costumes by Amy Roberts and Richard Croft. “Startling” is certainly the word for them—on one hand, I’m really impressed by the audacity in making something so alien. Mawdryn and his friends eventually shuffle around in big, impractical gowns with rainbow-colored crepe streamers, their brains protruding under plastic domes, in their red and sparkly starliner. It’s certainly bold, and such a story demands such excess (well, it was 1983 as well!).
Tegan, upon discovering the “Doctor” in this strange state, is quite skeptical that he is actually the Doctor. “We must give him the benefit of the doubt.” With the real Doctor and the 1983 Brigadier also aboard the starliner, the Doctor is worried that the two Brigadiers will meet up. “I could meet myself?” “Obviously.” Of course, never introduce a gun if you’re not going to use it, so when the two Brigadiers eventually meet up, it’s no surprise. However, that’s only achieved through a lot of getting lost in corridors, the Black Guardian shouting at Turlough through the little crystal and vice versa, and various comings and goings.
Mawdryn introduces himself as one of seven other alien scientists (it’s never made clear who or what they are) who tried to adapt Time Lord technology so they could live forever. Of course, it went terribly wrong, as they continue in a state of decay (see what I did there?), never dying. They have been trapped aboard their starliner for centuries, working on ways to end their lives. Hence the “undead” of the title, which brings up another point of comparison: the post-Anne Rice idea of vampires who were rather more cursed with their long “lives” than having gained anything by them, all stemming (at least in the world of Dracula 2000) from Dracula aka Judas, the first vampire as punished for his betrayal of Jesus (you could even stretch it to Satan in Paradise Lost, but let’s not go there). I’m not sure there’s anything to be gained from making this comparison, and I’m sure it never even occurred to Peter Grimwade—though the idea of eternal life as a punishment rather than a boon does seem like a reoccurring theme in the Fifth Doctor’s era (Borusa, of course). Mawdryn and the other scientists are certainly punished, and the only way they can see to end their suffering is for the Doctor to give his remaining Time Lord powers which would, of course, render him no longer one.
Throughout all this moral dilemma, the two Brigadiers are in a delicate ballet, the Black Guardian is snarling at Turlough, and Nyssa and Tegan have been infected (“not intentionally”) with the “mutative virus” (brings to mind Vincent O’Brien’s essay on Prometheus in The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who). It causes them first to mutate horribly (à la Mawdryn when he first appears) and then when the Doctor “reverses the polarity of the neutron flow,” they turn into children (think Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator). The Doctor, realizing he has no alternative, decides to get switched into the machine to give over his Time Lord powers. I was shocked at how blasé Tegan and Nyssa are about letting the Doctor make this sacrifice on their behalf. Never mind, it isn’t needed, as Turlough has failed to keep the two Brigs apart. “The two Brigadiers shorted out the time differential”—“Zap,” as Tegan says.
The aliens die, the Brigadiers are returned to their own time streams, and the Doctor trusts Turlough enough to let him travel with them. There are some interesting ideas in “Mawdryn Undead,” and the ambition of the plot is exceeded only by the design and costume work. However, it has difficulty coming together and instead of complexity, you end up with tedium. At least Nicholas Courtney rescued it from total boredom.