Doctor Who Project: The King’s Demons

Arise, Sir Doctor.

The TARDIS, according to the founding mythology of Doctor Who, was to be a vehicle with which to teach history; the Doctor, two schoolteachers, and a precocious teenage student were to travel in time to various historical settings, educating and exciting viewers in equal measure. The Daleks aside, the first several seasons bear out that emphasis, but eventually the “historical” became a rarely used device, as monsters and mayhem came to predominate. Why have mad Nero fiddling when you can have the Dalek emperor exploding? Under producer John Nathan-Turner, the historical begins to make something of a comeback during Peter Davison’s run as the Fifth Doctor, exemplified by Terence Dudley’s “The King’s Demons” (Story Production Code 6J) a two-episode story that serves as an A-level refresher course in British history, focusing as it does on a day in the life of King John (Gerald Flood).

Gerald Flood as King John

Materializing suddenly during a joust between King John’s champion, Sir Gilles, and Hugh (Christopher Villiers) the impetuous son of Ranulf Fitzwilliam (Frank Windsor), the TARDIS causes horses to rear and peasants to fear, but the King greets this “blue engine” with surprising equanimity, welcoming the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough as his “demons” and providing them seats beside him to witness the resumption of the trial by combat. The French knight with the dodgy accent and even more dodgy facial makeup vanquishes his young foe, and only the Doctor’s pleas to the king spare Hugh’s life, after which everyone returns to Ranulf’s castle for a feast in honor of his highness.

Mark Strickson, Peter Davison, and Janet Fielding as Turlough, the Fifth Doctor, and Tegan

Director Tony Virgo and the production staff raid the BBC’s costume and props stocks, creating an effective medieval atmosphere, with lingering shots of feasting tables piled high with roast beast, extended lute jam sessions, and panoramas of castle walls and crenelations. With only two episodes to work with, though, this scene-setting takes time perhaps better served by plot development—except that, to a real extent, the setting is the narrative, to a degree not seen since, well, “The Crusade” some eighteen years prior. The date of the story plays a significant role: March 4, 1215, the day King John took the Crusader’s oath and three months before he agreed to Magna Carta.

The Fifth Doctor and Tegan enjoying a light medieval feast

The Doctor, then, knows that King John should be in London on this day, not antagonizing a rural lord’s household for more money and men for the Crusades. Tegan doesn’t seem moved, even though she knows the basic story of King John’s life, but her seeming indifference points out just how beholden this story is on a thorough understanding of King John, specifically his reputation as something of a villain, who, along with his brothers, Henry II and Richard I, was scurrilously claimed to have been beholden to devils and demons. Contemporary viewers were expected to fill in the gaps in the narrative here and realize the significance of King John offering a seat at his table to those he himself calls “demons,” though Dudley, ostensibly with the aid of script editor Eric Saward, make sure to sketch in a few details for those not steeped in Angevin lore.

Sir Gilles, aka the Master, aka Anthony Ainley

Quite quickly, given the short runtime of this story, the Doctor figures out that this king seems off somehow, with the arrival of Ranulf’s cousin, Geoffrey (Michael J. Jackson) from London where he just took the Crusader’s oath with King John confirming that an impostor stalks Fitzwilliam castle. After a duel of honor with Sir Gilles, in which the Doctor displays quite effective swordsmanship, the French knight is revealed to be, yes, Anthony Ainley in thick makeup, to absolutely no one’s surprise. The Master’s real revelation comes later, when the Doctor discovers the truth behind bad King John…

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Doctor Who Project: Enlightenment

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.

Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor

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.

The Fifth Doctor and Turlough barge into a room full of British sailors

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.

The Eternals' fleet, about to round Venus

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.

Captain Striker (Keith Barron) and First Mate Marriner (Christopher Brown)

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…

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Doctor Who Project: Terminus

Oh, is that her name?

Never let it be said that Doctor Who is afraid of tackling the big cosmological questions, like the very origin of the universe. Unfortunately, sometimes the show’s answer to that question comes in a form like Steve Gallagher’s “Terminus” (Story Production Code 6G), an overstuffed confection that aspires to great heights but, like his prior story, “Warriors’ Gate,” collapses under the weight of its unwieldy plot. Unlike most of the Fifth Doctor’s stories to date, though, “Terminus” suffers not from continuity-related meta-narratives foisted upon the tale by producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward but from the dense and tangled world building—sufficient for six or eight episodes—that Gallagher tries to cram into a mere four episodes.

The Fifth Doctor, Turlough, and Tegan gaze upon the dimensional instability

With Turlough still under the influence of the Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall), his supposed freedom at the end of “Mawdryn Undead” being but a ruse, he surreptitiously removes the “space-time element” from the TARDIS console, causing a dimensional instability that allows the outer universe to permeate the theoretically inviolable time machine. This breach centers on Nyssa’s room, and she can only escape into another spaceship that the TARDIS has sought out as a protection against such a “breakup,” a newly introduced safety feature that the Doctor insists has always been there but just hasn’t ever worked before, if only because no plot has yet required its services. The connection between the TARDIS and the other ship is itself dimensionally unstable, phasing in and out of existence, a handy means of trapping the entire TARDIS team on the other ship.

The Fifth Doctor crawls through a door connecting the TARDIS with a mysterious spaceship

The ship in question appears at first to be deserted, with the Doctor and Nyssa, after they find each other, discovering an automated control room. They soon have guests in the form of pirates, Kari (Liza Goddard) and Olivr (Dominic Guard), intent on purloining the cargo, expected to be quite valuable given that the ship hails from a wealthy sector of space. To everyone’s dismay, however, the cargo consists of individuals afflicted with the highly contagious Lazar’s Disease, the ship itself en route to a enormous sanatorium at the very center of the universe known as Terminus.

Dominic Guard and Olvir and Liza Goddard as Kari, wearing what all the best dressed pirates wear

Even at the time of airing in 1983, this cavalier use of leprosy as a plot device drew condemnation, and indeed, Olvir specifically links Lazar’s Disease to leprosy in the first episode cliffhanger when, as the patients begin shambling out of their cabins, he screams out, “We’re on a leper ship. We’re all going to die!” Scenes of the Doctor and Nyssa recoiling from their touch reinforce the negative stereotypes, with Nyssa herself becoming infected after she has cut her thumb and brushes against one of the Lazars. But not to worry, though, because despite Olvir’s insistence that Terminus is where Lazars come to die, help is at hand, with a cure on offer from a very different kind of doctor…

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Doctor Who Project: Mawdryn Undead

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.

A crowded screen with Nyssa, Tegan, and the Fifth Doctor

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).

Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), 1977 style

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.

Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor and Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, 1983 style

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…

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Doctor Who Project: Snakedance

Tell me about the legend.

Surely a papier-mâché serpent would top the list of least-likely villains to return to Doctor Who, but after Omega’s less-than-star return in the prior story, one is hard pressed to be nonplussed at the return of the Mara in Christopher Bailey’s “Snakedance” (Story Production Code 6D), a direct sequel to the psychological slitherer’s first appearance in “Kinda” last season. If producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward are willing to scrounge around in the archives to find a long-lost character with no connection to the current regeneration, why not draw from the Fifth Doctor’s own, more recent past? The real shock comes in seeing how well Bailey and director Fiona Cumming, last entrusted with “Castrovalva,” handle this reptilian reprise.

The ritual representation of the Mara

Unlike other “blasts from the past” in the Fifth Doctor’s run to date, this conclusion to the Mara story stands well on its own, the prior events on the Kinda homeworld that saw Tegan posessed by this malevolent entity being efficiently alluded to without requiring either cryptic asides or elaborate explanations. In short order, the TARDIS lands on Manussa, guided there unwittingly by Tegan, who has been having nightmares about a serpent-mouthed cave entrance. Some quick exposition reveals that very cave to be the site where, precisely five hundred years earlier, the nascent Manussan Federation defeated (sort of) the Mara, under whose thrall the highly-advanced Sumaran Empire fell into degeneracy and decay. The original Federator put paid to the beast by means of the cobalt blue Great Crystal, and his descendants continue to rule Manussa to the present day, with the title soon to fall to the layabout Lon (Martin Clunes), who considers the Mara myth to be a bunch of discredited superstition that is interrupting his nap.

Martin Clunes as Lon

Aware that the Mara is both quite real and very much not destroyed, despite the best efforts of the ancient Federation—and his own swing-and-a-miss with the help of the Kinda—the Doctor whips up a device not unlike an early portable transistor radio to block out external sensations, theoretically allowing Tegan the mental concentration needed to keep control against the remnant of the creature that still lurks in her subconscious mind. But when he drags her and Nyssa out to find the cave, the resulting disorientation causes Tegan to flee. A friendly fortune teller helps her and removes the device in order to converse with her, allowing the Mara to emerge, its presence announced in a crystal ball…

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Doctor Who Project: Arc of Infinity

Not the most welcoming return.

Recurring foes have been a staple of Doctor Who since the Daleks first returned to invade Earth. Typically, though, the Doctor’s repeat nemeses share a certain simplicity of purpose—conquest, domination, revenge—that makes sense even to viewers who have never seen an Ogron or a Sontaran before, their power coming from their present menace as much as their past misdeeds. Not so with Johnny Byrne’s Season Twenty opener, “Arc of Infinity” (Story Production Code 6E), which digs deep into the archives to resurface a complicated villain who took not one but three different Doctors, at the same time, to defeat: Omega.

The Mighty Omega, anti-matter man!

Curiously, Byrne, producer John Nathan-Turner, and script editor Eric Saward never bother to clue viewers in to Omega’s backstory as the most tragic figure in Time Lord history, the ancient solar engineer who became trapped in an anti-matter dimension after triggering the supernova that powers all Gallifreyan time travel. His plans to wreak vengeance upon the Time Lords for abandoning him for millennia required the services of the First, Second, and Third Doctor to defeat, an effort that, supposedly, resulted in his final destruction in a second supernova (with which the Time Lords refilled their time travel tanks for another several thousand years). Without such knowledge, from “The Three Doctors,” which aired some ten years earlier in late 1972 and early 1973—albeit with a rare repeat in late 1981—much of the story of “Arc of Infinity” lacks significance or importance, rendering Omega (Ian Collier) just another in a long line of megalomaniacal madmen in an ill-fitting latex costume and with a litany of ill-defined greivances.

Councillor Hedin (Michael Gough)

Lacking this understanding of Omega’s role in the annals of the Time Lords, it becomes difficult to comprehend why Councillor Hedin (Michael Gough), a member of the High Council of the Time Lords and an old friend of the Doctor, would offer up the Doctor’s “bio-data extract” to Omega, knowing full well that the following chain of events would put the Doctor in great danger. Though Hedin, who wears the orange of the Doctor’s own Prydonian Chapter of Time Lords, exclaims to Omega, “What we are, we owe to you,” such reverence offers thin justification for the acts of treachery he carries out in order to help Omega transfer his being from a state of anti-matter to matter, even if one recalls the minutia of “The Three Doctors.”

Byrne never fleshes out this motivation on Hedin’s part, but he does find time to intercut this taut, tense tale of Time Lord treason with the drawn-out travails of two hitchhikers, Robin Stuart (Andrew Boxer) and Colin Frazer (Alastair Cumming) who decide to sleep rough in an Amsterdam crypt…

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