After a very unnatural and forced conversation in which shouty Tegan might as well have turned to the camera and gone “Previously, on Doctor Who…”, Peter Davison, looking as though he’s thinking “right, home by half ten, don’t think too hard about this” speaks some technobabble and the TARDIS is caught in between two opposing Time Zones – neither of which make much sense. 1983, clearly because well, contemporary works, doesn’t it, and, em, 1977, just before the Brigadier joined UNIT, sees him retired from, er, UNIT, and working in a, um, School For Boys as a Maths teacher. Meanwhile a group of aliens with Welsh names (or maybe Latin, it’s hard to tell) have managed to evade Capitol Guards, break through the Transduction Barriers and swipe some regeneration technology from the Time Lords. Ok then. You keeping up… so, we have, a school boy – who’s really an alien trapped on Earth, employed by the Black Guardian to off the Doctor with a rock or something, TWO versions of a confused looking Brigadier wandering around the set for Every Second Counts and the TARDIS crew caught in the middle. Add to this the alien crew, who regenerate into paper-chain wearing, spag-bol headed floaty likes and you have an absolute mess of a story.
It doesn’t hold up in the slightest. The plot is pointless and makes no sense, the Time Zones are off by so much it’s criminal that any of the production team didn’t clock it, Turlough – played by Mark Strickson who goes on to have a jolly old laugh about it all – is OTT, hammy and thoroughly unbelievable and Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding look like their characters have suddenly taken stupid pills. Add to this a Nicholas Courtney who really does himself, or the Brigadier no favours with lots of “pondering” and this is a difficult story to recommend. It’s good for curiousity value, if nothing else, and Peter Davison is always very good value, but don’t expect a coherent story. Direction is flat and all a bit meh, lighting is awful – but curiously shows how it COULD have been – and the cast are clearly going through the motions, with the exception of Strickson who is really trying a bit too hard. Mawdryn Undead, for that is what it is called, is not a classic Who tale by any means, in fact the whole thing comes across as a production crew going “Ach, that’ll do…”
Following this is Terminus and this is, to be fair, an adventure with more a coherent thread that the previous one. Sets though look like they’ve been dragged out from A Nightmare on Eden and again the lighting department and costume lets it down. “Space Pirates” with blown up condoms for helmets and the “terrifying” Garm clearly aren’t what was in Stephen Gallaghers mind when writing it and, of course, there’s what to do with murderous Turlough. Em, look him under the floor… This is a better story that Mawdryn Undead, but is bonkers at times too – slow motion fighting, the Garm, Nyssa’s sudden cleavage-showing and shedding-of-clothes and sudden decision to stay. Modern Who is criticised a lot for its “soapy” way of ridding the Doctor of a companion, but I’d rather have the emotions of Donna or Rose than the bland “last minute” decisions of the older companions.
Completing the trilogy is Enlightenment, and it is the best of the bunch. A wonderful concept – Eternals, bored and listless in a race through the stars – and some fabulous design, it makes one frustrated as to why the previous two stories weren’t given so much attention to detail. With the exception Leee John and Lynda Baron as the pirates, ooo aaaar, the cast is uniformly good, and the denouemnent makes perfect sense for once. In a story where costume is everything, however, the Black and White Guardians bird-headpieces are just plain daft.
The boxset itself is excellent value. Packed with commentaries, little featurettes and three substantial documentaries, it shows the cast and crew were really up against it during the filming of these stories, both under the constant interference (?) of JNT, budget, time and a script editor who’d clearly gone “fuck it, that’ll do…”. Another rewrite or two, some discussion with the lighting and costume designerrs and these stories might have worked better. The cast make a wonderfully witty and self-afacing commentary too, and show that, like us, it helps not to take this too seriously. My only gripe is the narrator of the documentaries – kids favourite and SJA guest star Floella Benjamin OBE – who seems to be speaking with a constant smile on her face, puts weird emphasis on certain words, punctuates oddly and who, as my own personal bugbear, pronounces “Dalek” and “Dalik” and Cyberman and “Cybermn” as though they were Jewish.
Despite my moaning, this is a decent boxset and worth it for Enlightenment – and an oddity of a Special Edition re-edited/new effects version too – and the extras alone. Just, when you watch Mawdryn Undead, just don’t pay too much attention…