Why am I still on Earth?
By the time Peter Grimwade’s “Mawdryn Undead” (Story Production Code 6F) airs in early 1983, Doctor Who has become fully serialized, in terms of viewer experience if not strictly such in a narrative sense. Aside from appearing twice a week, the show, under producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward, takes pains to link every story to past events, creating a continuity that appeals to consistent viewers while accepting that more casual observers may become a bit befuddled. It’s all one long tale at this point, punctuated, certainly, by formal story divisions but relying heavily on its history for much of its emotional and narrative weight. One consequence of this shift is the frequent presence of multiple plot lines, more than an individual story can reasonably sustain; taking the stories as isolated constructs, the screen feels crowded and the narrative threads remain underdeveloped, but looked at as a whole, much as in a soap opera, the fullness of the overarching story takes shape.
Such is the case here, with three separate strands running through this clever tale of time travel gone awry. Indeed, “Mawdryn Undead” stands as one of the few stories in Doctor Who to feature time travel as an integral complication to the narrative. For a show about time travel, there’s surprisingly little of it on display, usually employed to set the scene for the story on offer. One has to go back to “City of Death” for the last time various temporal states played a significant narrative role, and before that arguably all the way back to “Day of the Daleks.” It’s a shame, then, that the overcrowding of the story, in order to establish a three story mini-arc dredging up yet another moldy villain from the past, the Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall), gets in the way of the far more welcome return of another familiar figure, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney).
More precisely, there are two Brigadiers in “Mawdryn Undead,” one from 1977 shortly after his retirement from UNIT (that dating completely upending prior UNIT story chronologies) and one from 1983, bereft of a mustache as well as all memory of the Doctor. The loving care with which Grimwade, Nathan-Turner, Saward, and director Peter Moffat—a potent Doctor Who production team to be sure—delicately intertwine the story between the two time frames and finally unite the temporally bifurcated Brigadiers, explosively, forms the beating heart of this tale and stands as a real accomplishment, proving that callbacks to Doctor Who‘s history can work, when treated with respect and a deft touch.
When the TARDIS is yanked out of its trajectory by a spaceship on an infinitely fixed orbit in time and space, the Fifth Doctor makes an emergency materialization inside the interloping vessel, where he, Nyssa, and Tegan discover an empty docking port for another series staple, a transmat capsule, locked onto coordinates on Earth that just happen to be right up the hill from the boarding school where the Brigadier teaches (in both 1977 and the “present” day of 1983). Also at the boarding school is a mysterious orphan, Turlough (Mark Strickson), who has never quite fit in. An ill-advised joyride in the Brigadier’s prized car (in 1983) sees him thrown from the vehicle, near death, saved only by an offer from a mysterious stranger…
Last seen thoroughly defeated (and quite perturbed) in “The Armageddon Factor,” when the Fourth Doctor foiled his plans to acquire the Key to Time, the Black Guardian has finally tracked down the Doctor to make good his revenge. As ever, the Black Guardian does not seem to have any actual ability to affect events on his own, here enlisting the fledgling Turlough to destroy the Doctor in exchange not just for his life but for an escape from Earth. Combined with Turlough’s easy facility with transmat technology and his mysterious benefactor who pays the bills, Grimwade strongly suggests, though never quite states, that Turlough comes from another planet. It’s an interesting mystery, certainly, but too many coincidences and happenstances pile up in “Mawdryn Undead” without any resolution. Did the Black Guardian set events in motion, somehow ensuring that the TARDIS winds up encountering the starship with a transmat connection to the very spot the Doctor’s old friend now works, which also happens to play host to an alien with an attitude problem? Or is he simply taking advantage of an unprecedented alignment of cosmic chance? If Grimwade even knows, he’s not telling, at least not in the four episodes of this story.
In order to leave the apparently abandoned spaceship, which is on an eternal journey locked in a “warp ellipse,” the Doctor must break the transmat connection from its source on Earth, where the capsule has been hidden for the past six years (yes, since 1977). Turlough, meanwhile, brings the silver spherical capsule (which is dimensionally transcendent, like the TARDIS) back to the ship at the urging of the Black Guardian, who has the ability to manifest in Turlough’s mind and can be called upon by use of a small crystal that lights up.
The Doctor seems scarcely surprised at Turlough’s presence, even though he has wandered into the TARDIS and begun to play with the controls; Nyssa and Tegan, conversely, don’t trust this interloper in the slightest, even though Tegan began her own travels with the Doctor thanks to an uninvited reece in the blue box. Rather than probing his back story, the Fifth Doctor brings Turlough with him in the capsule back to 1983 Earth to break the transmat connection, setting the TARDIS, with Nyssa and Tegan aboard, to automatically follow once the jamming has ceased. Turlough doesn’t help so much as try to kill the Doctor with a big rock, but the transmat connection beacon fortuitously explodes, sending the obviously styrofoam rock hurtling along with both Davison and Strickson.
With the connection broken, the TARDIS materializes in the same spot, but in the wrong year. The Doctor failed to account for the temporal displacement caused by the warp ellipse, so Nyssa and Tegan find themselves in 1977. Checking the capsule, they see a burned figure, whom they immediately assume is the Doctor despite the fact he looks nothing like him and is wearing a loincloth. After dragging the body into the TARDIS, Tegan runs to get help, finding the Brigadier. Her outlandish story leads the Brigadier to realize she’s with the Doctor, and he and his mustache accompany her back to the TARDIS, where the figure has now recovered somewhat and claims to be the Doctor, newly regenerated and, alas, with his brains on the wrong side of his skull.
It’s not really a regeneration gone wrong but Mawdryn (David Collings), who travelled from the spaceship as the original passenger of the capsule in 1977. Yet by the time he makes his appearance as the cliffhanger of the second episode, fully half the story has elapsed, most of it setting up Turlough, the Black Guardian, and the Brigadier’s dual presences, with a long (and admittedly pleasant) sequence devoted to the Fifth Doctor attempting to rekindle the ’83 Brigadier’s blocked memory by means of an extended sequence of sepia-toned clips of monsters from prior stories involving UNIT and all the prior Doctors. There’s just scant time left to really tell the story of Mawdryn and how he came to be undead, another example of a fascinating premise cut short by too many narrative strands, a problem very much in evidence in Grimwade’s last script, “Time-Flight,” as well.
Once the Doctor realizes that Tegan and Nyssa were in 1977 with the Brigadier (specifically on June 7th, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee), he sets about reconfiguring the transmat capsule to return to the ship, using the TARDIS homing device Tegan left with the Brigadier in 1977 as a substitute for the transmat beacon destroyed earlier. The Doctor is careful to ensure that the Brigadier didn’t go with Nyssa, Tegan, and the stranger back in 1977, though, due to the potential for a massive conflagration should the same individual from two different times meet (the Blinovich Limitation Effect, obviously, first invoked in “Day of the Daleks“) and the ’83 Brigadier assures him he did no such thing.
He did, in fact, do such thing. While pretending to be the Doctor, Mawdryn browbeats Nyssa into taking the TARDIS back to the spaceship, and the ’77 Brigadier, who proudly notes that he knows a thing or two about regenerations, agrees that this could indeed be the Doctor and insists on tagging along to help. Once the real Doctor, Turlough, and ’83 Brigadier arrive on the spaceship via the hot-wired transmat capsule, a somewhat tame rendition of Benny Hill ensues, with the two Brigadiers almost crossing paths again and again; both the Doctor and, for some reason, the Black Guardian become quite apprehensive about the two ever meeting, with each of them ordering Turlough to prevent it from happening.
As for Mawdryn, the putative reason for the story in the first place, some very fast exposition reveals that he and seven compatriots, exiled to this ship for their crimes, stole technology from Gallifrey countless years in the past in an ironically successful attempt to gain access to eternal life. By means of a metamorphic symbiosis regenerator, used to stabilize Time Lords undergoing acute regeneration crises, Mawdryn and his fellows induced a condition of undeath in themselves, a mutated state of everlasting torment that can only be reversed by taking the life energy of a Time Lord with regenerations to spare. There are eight of them and, coincidentally, eight regenerations left of twelve total for the Fifth Doctor.
The Doctor’s dilemma, then, becomes moral and existential rather than violent and sharp, a welcome continuation of the elevated discourse in the series over the past several stories. But between the dwindling time available for any rumination on the Doctor’s obligations to these individuals facing the consequences of their actions, albeit with the technology of his own people (as in “Underworld,” as well, where the plot, such as it was, centered on the eternal mission of a ship made possible by Gallifreyan regeneration technology) and a sense that Grimwade, Nathan-Turner, and Saward just don’t want to go there, the Doctor doesn’t even think about it, hightailing it off the ship with Nyssa, Tegan, and ’83 Brigadier in tow. And he would have made it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids.
Nyssa and Tegan carry the mutation, having been infected somehow when they aided Mawdryn after his injuries. Because the regenerative mutation causes extreme agony when exposed to time travel, the Doctor cannot take them away from the ship. He tries to “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow,” but that results in Nyssa and Tegan de-aging, their younger selves played convincingly by Lucy Benjamin (young Nyssa) and Sian Pattenden (young Tegan). To save them, he must sacrifice his remaining regenerations. He will no longer be a Time Lord. Almost entirely wordlessly, he agrees, hooking himself up to the machine along with Mawdryn, the other exiles, Nyssa, and Tegan. ’83 Brigadier operates the controls, but just as the moment of life energy transfer arrives, ’77 Brigadier stumbles in, having outwitted Turlough’s machinations. The two Lethbridge-Stewarts bridge the gap, and the massive temporal energy displacement turns the screen white—and also provides all the energy needed to cure the regenerative mutation.
Is there anything the Blinovich Limitation Effect can’t do? With a too-tidy bow, the Doctor keeps all his regenerations; Mawdryn and chums finally kick the bucket; the ’77 Brigadier falls unconscious (with the TARDIS homing device safely tucked in his pocket to keep the timeline proper) and develops a mental block that prevents him from remembering what just happened; and the ’83 Brigadier, reinvigorated by one last (?) adventure, gets a proper goodbye with his old friend. The energy also seems to have severed the connection between the Black Guardian and Turlough, who stows away on the TARDIS not unlike Adric before him, looking for an escape from Earth and the Guardian. The Doctor, if not Nyssa and Tegan, warmly welcomes him aboard.
As ever, playing a double role leads to decent lines on Doctor Who, and Nicholas Courtney cashes in, scarcely missing a beat since his last appearance in “Terror of the Zygons” over seven years earlier. He’s still the same irascible military man, upright (and uptight) but also loyal and willing to confront the unknown with a healthy dose of stiff upper lip. Of all his appearances throughout the years, his character receives more focus here than when he was in charge of a secretive armed wing of the United Nations, and Courtney takes advantage. There’s an obvious pleasure in his performance, and while the Brigadier might have been a bit dismissive of Nyssa and Tegan, it feels like Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding, to say nothing of Peter Davison, quite enjoy having him around.
Valentine Dyall, reprising the Black Guardian from his sole prior appearance in “The Armageddon Factor,” by contrast, does what he can with the script, which contains enough bluster and braggadocio to make even Anthony Ainley blush. The character is, definitionally, one dimensional, and though the lore posits the Guardians with untold power, it’s hard to take seriously someone who can only affect events by means of a petulant youth who communicates with him via a cheap tea candle holder.
Said reprobate, Turlough, similarly comes across as an unfinished, unpolished artifact. Grimwade does Mark Strickson few favors in his debut as a companion, the scenes where he begs to be released from the Black Guardian’s control in particular coming across poorly. Combined with the fact that the audience sees Turlough as an antagonist, a veritable threat to the Doctor, the character is hard to like, despite Strickson obvious charm and comfortable manner—at least when not dealing with deity-level foes. The mystery behind his origins provides a long-missing sense of wonder to the show; with Nathan-Turner and Saward doing their best to explain away every question that die-hard fans had about Gallifrey, Time Lords, and the like, it’s good to have a new thread of suspense in the works. But, again, the tie to the Black Guardian jumbles everything up.
More than in most stories, Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding get lumped together, as Nyssa and Tegan operate pretty much as an inseparable team in “Mawdryn Undead.” With so many speaking parts, and Turlough and the Brigadier taking up quite a bit of script time that would fall in the “companion” range, they have to share scenes, and Grimwade doesn’t play to either of their strengths. Nyssa in particular comes across as a bit naive, being fooled by Mawdryn in possibly the worst Doctor cosplay ever; with the character’s departure just a story ahead, Sutton seems to be sidelined on purpose here, to ease Nyssa out of the picture.
With the multiple narrative strands, Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor doesn’t get the lion’s share of lines here, but he imbues the character with an incredible, wordless depth when confronting the need to sacrifice his regenerations in order to save Nyssa and Tegan. It’s a well the writers have gone to frequently with the Fifth Doctor—he risked death just one story past to free Tegan from the Mara—and it threatens to become over-tapped, but for now Davison continues to keep the experience fresh. There’s a nobility to his acceptance, one that helps define the Fifth Doctor and one that comes directly from Davison’s portrayal.
The Key to Time arc that comprises Season Sixteen works because each story focuses explicitly on the Fourth Doctor and Romana looking for the segments to the Key; the stories themselves are self-contained while still in service to the larger narrative, and though they vary in quality, none suffer for the very mild scaffolding required to move the overarching plot forward. “Mawdryn Undead” collapses under the weight of that armature.
But it is hard to be dismissive of “Mawdryn Undead,” if only because the Brigadier returns, and the split time-line idea shows a certain conceptual daring that Doctor Who has seldom risked despite literally being about a time traveller. Too, the ethical dilemma the Doctor confronts as regards the stolen Gallifreyan technology—to say nothing of the value of a regeneration versus the value of a life—resonates deeply, and Mawdryn’s turn as a cunning but ultimately non-violent opponent makes for compelling storytelling. If that were the sum total of “Mawdryn Undead,” it would stand as a classic, one of the finest stories in the series’ entire run. Alas, the Black Guardian sub-plot, indeed, the entire “Guardian Trilogy” that will, sadly, stretch through the next two stories, “Terminus” and “Enlightenment,” comes across like gold leaf on a perfectly balanced banana split, just too much for the sake of too much.
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Post 130 of the Doctor Who Project