“Mawdryn Undead” S20 / E9-12
- B- Community Grade
"Mawdryn Undead" (season 20, episodes 9-12. Originally aired Feb. 1-9, 1983)
"Mawdryn Undead" tries to do a lot. Too much, really. It's ambitiously overstuffed with plot ideas: The nostalgic return of an old co-star, a retelling of the Flying Dutchman myth with a Doctor Who twist, a nonchronological story structure split between two timelines, the return of a well-known old villain, and most importantly the introduction of a new companion, Turlough, who joins the Doctor with orders to kill him. But while there's a lot of moments to enjoy here, that's too much to work into a single story. And to be fair, "Mawdryn" is not meant to be a single story, but the first part of a larger arc, with a fairly self-contained story intertwined with material that spins into the subsequent episodes. The problem is that the parts meant to be self-contained to this story wind up feeling thinly resolved and rushed, while the part that's by far the most compelling—Turlough's dilemma—isn't actually resolved at all, by design.
And that's only a problem if you're not planning to watch the rest of Season 20 of Doctor Who the way you would probably watch, say, 2011's Series Seven—in broadcast order from start to finish. It's commonplace now to give audiences a season-long arc that draws you back for every episode. In 1983, though, it was a fairly big change for Doctor Who, which is a big reason that all three of the Fifth Doctor stories I've covered so far for TV Club were from Peter Davison's first season in the role: They're much easier to look at as individual stories.
Of course, in some ways Doctor Who was far more invested in the idea of ongoing storylines than was typical for its time—other than soap operas and one-off miniseries like V or Shogun, it's hard to think of another show so insistent on its viewers returning four or six or even 12 weeks in a row to see how the story ended. But most Doctor Who serials are more or less self-contained: Given some basic knowledge about the concept of the show and who was in the cast at the time, you could pick up a DVD from almost anywhere during its first couple of decades and not feel hopelessly lost, and also be assured that the story you're watching will come to a definitive conclusion. If you want to continue on past "Brain of Morbius" or "The Mind Robber," you can, but you don't have to. There had been an experiment with a season-long storyline in 1978 with the six-part quest for the Key To Time, but in practice it was loosely organized enough that a viewer could drop in anytime and pick up what was happening.
That began to change when producer John Nathan-Turner took over the show, and by season 20, his third year as showrunner, that combination of longer arcs and fan-friendly but newbie-unfriendly nostalgia meant you needed to stay tuned every week to keep up—which was fairly groundbreaking, considering that other sci-fi shows didn't make that common practice for about another decade or so. Nathan-Turner even hired a fan adviser named Ian Levine to help develop story ideas that linked to older eras of the show. Season 19 included revisitations by the Master and the Cybermen, and to mark the show's anniversary in season 20, every story strongly featured the return of one of the Doctor's old enemies or friends.
The good thing about this approach is that it takes full advantage of the fact that a show that's been around for 20 years has built up a lot of history and nostalgic goodwill which is worth showcasing. The bad thing about it is also a reason why superhero comics sell to an increasingly insular audience these days: Nostalgia can sometimes cover up for a lack of new ideas, and can even prevent new ideas from being properly developed. That's clearly one of the problems in "Mawdryn Undead."
Nathan-Turner was not himself a writer, but as the producer he was an important conceptual force, and instead of writing scripts directly, he often came up with characters and plot twists that he would hand off to the the writing staff. This goes some way toward explaining why "Mawdryn" feels so disjointed. Writer Peter Grimwade's original notion for the story was limited largely to the section featuring Mawdryn and his fellow immortals—a Whovian update of the Flying Dutchman fable, in which an undying, damned sailor is doomed to wander the seas forever. (Pirates Of The Caribbean also used this concept for the Black Pearl.) To this, he added a JNT-conceived new companion, Turlough, and two nostalgia-driven returns: Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, the nominal boss and long-suffering friend of the Third Doctor, and the Black Guardian, a sneering and near-godlike villain who was the ultimate foe of the Key To Time season. Grimwade also added an unusually experimental plot structure in which the characters were split into two timelines separated by six years, with each group's actions affecting the others and one character, the Brig, showing up separately in both, with his older version suffering traumatic amnesia that suggested some mysterious tragedy was soon to happen to his younger self.
In the end, the Brigadier and Mawdryn subplots are reduced to puzzle pieces that cancel each other out in a way that strikes me as overly mechanistic, just a way to wrap the story up quickly. But more than anything, "Mawdryn Undead" is about Turlough's debut, which is its saving grace. I've knocked Nathan-Turner before, but coming up with Turlough, the most audaciously conceived companion in series history, is a definite point in his favor. The traditional Doctor Who companion is basically jut a sidekick—an assistant who can ask the Doctor to explain things for the audience's benefit, and sometimes not much else. But the mysterious and reluctant assassin is uniquely interesting in his own right, because there's a genuine sense that even he doesn't know his own potential.
Actor Mark Strickson deserves credit for keeping Turlough's particular combination of hapless teenage petulance and nasty, conniving meanness from becoming off-putting. Unlike the previous boy companion, Adric, I found myself wondering not how long I'd have to suffer his character, but how he was going to get out of the situation he'd landed in. Turlough is a character very much in the spirit of the 1980s: An angry, lost, disaffected punk-rock antihero. He's just as petulant and self-pitying as Adric ever was, but the nature of his character also makes him far more interesting—like Steerpike in Gormenghast, it is not at all clear at first whether he should be pitied, respected, or feared, and whether his story will ultimately be tragic or heroic. The memory of Adric's surprising death in "Earthshock" was still pretty fresh, and Turlough's ambiguous character benefitted from that sense that anything could happen.
It's significant that he's introduced not as outright evil but just a juvenile delinquent whose "crimes" are fairly innocent—literally a schoolboy, although it's also revealed almost immediately that he's got an alien origin suggesting there's far more to his story. He badgers his nerdy friend into helping him take a teacher's car for an unauthorized joyride. It's pretty low-stakes stuff, and seems less like Doctor Who than one of those idyllically comforting slice-of-life British shows like Last Of The Summer Wine or All Creatures Great And Small. But it doesn't take long for things to get properly weird: Driving too fast, they crash the car, and Turlough has an out-of-body experience next to a grumpy, elderly drag queen with a dead raven tangled in his hair. This is the Black Guardian, who offers Turlough a devil's bargain: Kill the Doctor, and Turlough can leave Earth. Turlough immediately agrees, but he's not the killer he thinks he is, and spends the rest of the story changing his mind.
Turlough does his best to follow the Black Guardian's orders, but he's hampered by squeamishness and apparent incompetence. It's hard to fault him for his inability to kill the Doctor. The real question is why he was chosen in the first place. The Black Guardian's plan makes no apparent sense, even if Turlough does have a secret identity as something more than a normal English public-school delinquent. He's so hopeless at committing murder that his one good attempt is simply to try to hit the the Doctor with a big rock, and is so flustered when that fails that he actually calls for further instructions. I've never killed anybody—it's just one of so many things on my bucket list—but the next step seems pretty obvious: Pick the rock up again.
The Guardian himself is nearly one-dimensional, and less of a character than a plot device—he's evil, he likes to do evil things, and he likes to tell other people to be evil. Despite that and his regrettable and ridiculous costume, though, the Guardian is kind of magnetic anyway thanks to the talents of actor Valentine Dyall, also well-known as the sepulchral voice of the computer Deep Thought in the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy TV and radio series. Even though the Guardian basically just stands there and has the motivation of a cartoon, Dyall's mere presence makes him a damned effective bad guy by sheer force of his perpetual glower and his booming, evil growl.
But the Guardian's behavior also points to a major problem here: In a story where the main villain says things like "In the name of all that is evil, the Black Guardian orders you to destroy him now!", any hope for subtlety should probably just be abandoned. Too much of this story relies on the audience being forced to accept characters acting in ways that are, at best, thinly explained. The Black Guardian enlists Turlough to kill the Doctor—fine, but why Turlough? He's a sneaky little bastard, but not exactly assassin material. And this apparently godlike figure can't do the deed himself because "I may not be seen to act in this." Why not? Some other reason than writerly convenience?
Something similar happens when Turlough meets the angel to his devil: If the Black Guardian is simplistically evil, the Doctor here is almost simplistically good—a dichotomy highlighted, if not exactly excused, by the Guardian's declaration that "The Doctor's good is my evil," which simultaneously explains everything you need to know about their conflict, and is an empty, meaningless phrase.
The Doctor simply accepts Turlough at face value, and never once wonders how Turlough, seemingly a normal English schoolboy from 1983, possesses advanced knowledge of temporal physics. Perhaps this is all dealt with in the next few stories, but it's one thing to punt the answer to the question—"Mawdryn" punts the question itself. On the other hand, this uncritical attitude of the Doctor's is pretty clearly a deliberate attempt to mess with our minds and to heighten the "what the hell?" sense of dislocation caused by the story breaking up into two time periods—what they call "timey-wimey" these days. One of the tacit assumptions in almost any episode of Doctor Who is that the Doctor knows what he's doing, and there's something uncanny in the fact that he treats Turlough as someone he's known for a long time when Nyssa and Tegan are also clearly right to distrust him.
And yet even though it's never quite convincing that the Doctor seems to trust Turlough immediately, it kind of works anyway, the major dramatic tension in the episode isn't really about the Doctor at all, but Turlough and what he will choose to do. The Doctor offers a clear contrast for Turlough between the Guardian's badgering and his own kindly, fatherly, nonjudgmental calmness—although he doesn't offer Turlough any advice on his problem during the events of "Mawdryn," the possibility has now been set up that Turlough could turn to his own murder target for advice on how to avoid killing him. And since there's an implication floating here that the Doctor may be more aware of Turlough's story than he's letting on, this otherwise bizarrely complacent behavior seems like it might actually be a strategic move in a gambit to save Turlough from the Guardian and the boy's own bad choices. But to find that out, you'd have to stick around for the next story, "Terminus."
Picking up quickly on the other two story threads: First, it might be worth comparing the return of the Brigadier here to a similar event from new-series Doctor Who—the episode "School Reunion," which triumphantly brought back Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, and helped relaunch Sladen's starring role in her own spinoff. "School Reunion" is successful in a way "Mawdryn" isn't, I think, because the driving force of the story there is the unresolved issues from Sarah Jane's past relationship with the Doctor. "Mawdryn" merely features the Brigadier, and despite the namedropping of old friends and enemies both he and the Doctor knew, there's little feeling that the Brigadier himself is integral to the story. The idea that he'd take on a job as a math teacher post-retirement from the military isn't out of character exactly, but it's not something that seems like the sort of thing he'd do. And there's a good reason for that: In fact, the original idea was to bring back First Doctor companion Ian Chesterton, who actually was a teacher, but when the actor was unavailable the Brigadier got the nod instead—so if his life story takes an odd turn, it's because it's somebody else's life. In the end, though, it doesn't matter—even though it's nice to see the character again, and to find out what happened to him after he left UNIT, "Mawdryn Undead" would have worked just as well with Ian, or Harry Sullivan (who was also considered), or even some random stranger.
Lethbridge-Stewart fares better than the title villain, the creepy immortal scientist Mawdryn, whose section of the story is underdeveloped and perfunctory. He's visually striking with his repulsive exposed brain, and there's a potentially great story in matching the Doctor with a character who also stole from the Time Lords and paid a high price, not to mention what chaos a person who successfully impersonated the Doctor could cause, but in the end Mawdryn just isn't very interesting. (Nor does it help that the costume design fails again here: Mawdryn and his friends look like giant decorative candles.) [EDIT: This only occurred to me after the article published, but the candle motif isn't quite as outlandish as I'd thought at first: Given that they're immortal but cursed to regenerate eternally, the Mawdryn scientists are something like candlewax, soft and malleable and never keeping their shape, and maybe feeling like the top of their head is on fire. The costumes still look ridiculous, though.] The split timeline, with characters divided between 1977 and 1983, also fizzles out, at least for me—I'm not sure where I would have taken the story if I were writing it, but resolving things by having the two Brigadiers explode when they meet each other strikes me as just a contrivance, a bit of deus ex machina math that balances out the equation, and as satisfying to watch as somebody else's crossword puzzle. Turlough's dilemma, unresolved as it is, is far more compelling.
So it's good that the story does end with Turlough as he asks to join the TARDIS crew. He's still an enigma, but he's grown as a character—more sympathetic, but still a mystery figure who could end up good or evil. But whether he's fated to be the Doctor's friend or his killer, it's also clear that he must join the TARDIS crew: He's not even human, so he clearly doesn't belong on Earth. And so when he asks, "May I join you," the Doctor's mysterious answer feels like the right one: "You already have."
• The title "Mawdryn Undead" is a multilingual pun—"mawdryn" means "undead" in Welsh.
• Upcoming schedule: Two Sundays from now it's the Sixth Doctor in "Vengeance on Varos," then two weeks later the Seventh in "The Curse of Fenric." After that, we'll begin the cycle again with the First Doctor in "The Time Meddler," the Second in "The Seeds of Death," and the Third in "The Curse of Peladon." Then we'll hit the Davros-era Dalek tales in order, starting with "Genesis Of The Daleks," and on through "Destiny," "Resurrection," "Revelation," and "Remembrance"—interspersed with some TBA non-Dalek material as well.