They’ve hoisted their moonrakers.
Every so often, Doctor Who gets back to the essence of what makes it such a special series. It’s not the monsters or the special effects or even the main character, as appealing as those elements often are; rather, it’s the sense of wonder that only a show unmoored in time and space (and often reality) can provide. Barbara Clegg’s “Enlightenment” (Story Production Code 6H) returns Doctor Who to what it does best, juxtaposing the familiar with the outlandish, the expected with the dissonant, and the commonplace with the clever, all wrapped up in a neat four-episode package. If viewers had to suffer the conflict between the Black Guardian and White Guardian being shoehorned into the past two stories, “Enlightenment” pays off the toil with one of the strongest outings of the Fifth Doctor’s run.
Producer John Nathan-Turner teams up new series writer Barbara Clegg—the first woman to write for the series in its nearly twenty year history—with veteran series director Fiona Cumming to provide a visually fascinating and narratively complex tale of boredom, eternity, creativity, and, um, pirates in space. After the Doctor receives a garbled warning from the White Guardian, the TARDIS lands of its own accord in the hold of a vessel that is, to all appearances, an Edwardian-era racing yacht, replete with a complement of jack tars slinging period-appropriate slang. The entirety of the first episode sets up the belief that the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough have travelled back in time, a reasonable assumption for the audience to make given the show’s typical modus operandi, with the BBC’s extensive historical costume wardrobe on full display to heighten the verisimilitude.
Only when our heroes have been rounded up by the apparently omniscent Captain Striker (Keith Barron) and First Mate Marriner (Christopher Brown) do Clegg and Cumming begin to peel back the veil; the ship, the SS Shadow, is indeed what it seems, a period-appropriate yacht crewed by humans from the early 1900s, engaged in a race with other ships. It just so happens that the race takes place around the planets in Earth’s solar system; the competitor vessels hail from all eras of human sailing history, captained by beings who call themselves Eternals.
It’s a delightfully clever confounding of viewer expectations, but the effort expended in selling the “reality” of the setting, to say nothing of the show’s proclivity to take the Doctor and companions into Earth’s history, provides an actual moment of frisson, a pleasing shock that makes the cliffhanger of sail-powered ships against a starry background, spinnakers at full billow, as stunning as any Dalek popping up on cue at the end of an episode. So much of Doctor Who under producer John Nathan-Turner has been dedicated to rewarding viewers who pay attention to the nuances and details; this use of the series’ coded patterns, its history as a narrative construct as opposed to its lore, to flip the proverbial script on the audience stands as a far better use of two decades of stories than any call back to a brief moment in a nearly-forgotten episode.
There’s little danger of “Enlightenment” being forgotten, particularly given the strength of the guest cast. Barron and Brown, playing the bored Eternals Striker and Marriner, imbue their roles with a wan disinterest, the peregrinations of the Ephemerals all around them, the Doctor included, but fleeting annoyances. In truth, as the Doctor and Tegan discover, the Eternals, who exist outside of time itself, require the thoughts of those who exist within time’s flow in order to fill an emptiness of meaning in themselves. They have limitless power but no fulcrum with which to lever it into motion. The race, carried out with a scrupulous adherence to rules of authenticity, seeks to resolve that dilemma by offering the victor nothing short of enlightenment, “The wisdom which knows all things and which will enable me to achieve what I desire most,” according to Striker. It is this prize the White Guardian (Cyril Luckham, reprising the role from Season Sixteen) has warned the Doctor about, leading to the Time Lord’s attempt to stop any of the participants from gaining this goal. It seems, however, that the Doctor has met his match, not in the Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall) but in Wrack (Lynda Baron), the Eternal captain of a pirate sloop who plays her role to the hilt…
This dedication to developing a rich setting does come at a narrative cost; Wrack, the putative villain of the piece, is only introduced in the third episode, though her machinations appear earlier when a rival’s ship explodes as her own vessel pulls alongside. The further revelation that she has been aided in her quest by the Black Guardian occurs with a scant fifteen minutes left in the final episode. Far more time, indeed, is spent on Marriner’s growing—and rather discomfiting—infatuation with Tegan, or more precisely her “fascinating” mind, riven as it is with fear, hope, and grief, all catnip to a feckless Eternal. It seems that the interplay between emotion, meaning, and growth, hallmarks of the Ephemeral mind to the Eternals, stands as the true central core of Clegg’s story, enlightenment being an outgrowth of time-bound existence.
But, in order to get an actual narrative in there, apparently both the Guardians have agreed to supply “Enlightenment”—here a garishly lit sphere with a diamond interior—as a prize for the winner of the race. As suggested in the Key to Time arc from Season Sixteen, the Guardians wage an endless conflict, neither being able to be defeated permanently as their existences are intertwined; the Black Guardian hopes a bored Eternal, Wrack most specifically, will use Enlightenment to give voice to her basest desires and wreak chaos through all of time and space, while the White Guardian trusts someone, namely the Doctor, will intercede, much as he did with the Key to Time, to keep Enlightenment from falling into anyone’s hands at all. It’s an odd and unwieldy arrangement, these exceedingly powerful beings having to operate through intercessors, functionally helpless without willing participants in their schemes, and there’s little wonder why we never see them, or their bird-festooned hats, again in the series. (Though a team-up between Anthony Ainley’s Master and Dyall’s Black Guardian feels like a missed opportunity…)
The action, such as it is in this story, all winds up being secondary to the concepts at play, and that’s not necessarily a problem; as shown by Cumming’s two prior stories,”Castrovalva” and “Snakedance,” a strong central conceit, combined with a confident visual sense and well-delivered performances, can paper over a thin plot. Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson, as Tegan and Turlough, both receive significant character development here, all related to this central notion of enlightenment.
Turlough himself is offered Enlightenment (the gem, not the concept) as a reward at the end, after he helps the Doctor win the race by defeating Wrack and her First Mate, Mansell (Leee John) in an off-screen fight—and the fact that the climactic battle of the entire story is rendered without the audience present says much about Clegg and Cumming’s priorities. But when the troubled youth goes to claim it, he is reminded of his debt to the Black Guardian; he can have Enlightenment and the wealth and power it represents, if he sacrifices the Doctor for it; after an agonizing delay, he hurls the orb at his tormentor, setting the embodiment of evil ablaze. Enlightenment, as the Doctor pithily observes, is in the choice and not the object.
This rehabilitation of Turlough’s character comes after he sinks to craven and cowardly depths in this story. It’s something of a testament to Strickson’s skills as an actor that he can portray this young man at the absolute nadir—he tries to kill himself by leaping overboard into space and sells out the Doctor on multiple occasions—and yet still bring him back to a clean slate in a convincing manner. For unlike with Adric, who also toyed with the audience’s understanding of the character by seeming to turn against the Doctor quite frequently in his first few stories, there’s such a constant drumbeat of perfidious behavior on Turlough’s part that his return to the Doctor’s good graces is far from guaranteed. The intergalactic scamp’s eventual repudiation of the Black Guardian feels earned, in no small part thanks to Mark Strickson’s willingness to really inhabit the character through some traumatizing moments.
Despite the fact that she winds up hypnotized and drugged yet again, Janet Fielding receives a significant role in “Enlightenment,” as Tegan confronts a foe not yet really remarked upon in the series to date: the male gaze. Many a female companion has been the subject of attraction or cast in a plot role based solely on gender, but it’s scarcely a coincidence that the very first time a woman writes for a companion that this quite potent force is examined. Particularly after the soul-searching events of “Kinda” and “Snakedance,” Tegan is intensely attuned to Marriner’s attempt to possess her based on his needs with no recognition of her as an individual, as an entity with her own existence; the very thought is alien to an Eternal, who finds it well within his power, if not his rights, to rummage around in her mind to create a room based on her past and a gown in keeping with her love of costumes from the early 1900s, as seen in “Black Orchid.”
Fielding carries off the part with real deftness, as Clegg allows the Australian adventurer to define the boundaries of her own being, giving her the power to shut out Marriner’s unwanted mental intrusions at points. Tegan helps the Doctor discover just how much the Eternals need Ephemerals to function, to make anything happen at all, and though there’s an inherent kindness in the character, it’s a remarkably strong statement for Tegan to refuse to help Marriner escape his bounds as an Eternal at the end of the story when he and the rest of the Eternals are dismissed back to their unending sojourn by the Guardians. She is not willing to give up her life just because someone asks her to, an important point to make, particularly on the heels of Nyssa sacrificing the remainder of her life to help others.
As for the Fifth Doctor’s part in the proceedings, once more Peter Davison plays the catalyst rather than the action hero, an approach to the Time Lord that seems to suit both the actor and the character he is helping develop. Aside from the un-shown fracas with Wrack and the other pirates, the Fifth Doctor here moves things along by talking, by encouraging and observing. Even when he does take decisive action, by smashing the focus gem that Wrack hid on Tegan’s tiara, which would enable her to destroy Striker’s yacht, he winds up making a hash of things, the individual parts still as powerful as the whole, needing to be gathered up before being thrown overboard seconds before exploding. Clegg and Davison seem to be saying that enlightenment is as much in seeing as in doing.
“Enlightenment” is by no means a perfect story. As has been typical for years now, the first three-quarters of the narrative serves to set up a hurried resolution, which winds up being compressed to an absurd degree; in less than ten minutes, the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough defeat Striker, Marriner, Wrack, and the Black Guardian, neatly wrapping up not just this tale but the entire three-story “mini-arc” about the Black Guardian’s inept attempts to kill the Doctor, which somehow turned into a race between bored immortals when no one was looking. On the face of it, the resolution feels entirely unearned and certainly unexplored, suffering from that common malady of too many plot threads being woven into a single narrative garment.
And yet, just for the world building alone, for Cumming’s inventive and fresh camera work, for the bold special effects, and for Clegg’s willingness to subvert viewer expectations in a way but seldom seen since the Meddling Monk tried to give bazookas to Vikings, one is inclined to overlook the flaws in the plotting. Bravura turns by Lynda Baron, Janet Fielding, and Mark Strickson only add to the appeal. Taken as a whole, as an example of just what Doctor Who can achieve when it leans into the strengths of the series, “Enlightenment” stands with the best rides on which the TARDIS has ever taken the Doctor—and the viewers.
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(Next Story: The King’s Demons)
Post 132 of the Doctor Who Project