Doctor Who: The Black Guardian Trilogy Review
For Peter Davison's second season as the Doctor, the twentieth anniversary of the show, producer John Nathan Turner decided that each story should have a recurring element from the past. This was originally to have culminated in the return of the Daleks but strike action meant that Eric Saward's story - originally called Warhead but later renamed to Resurrection of the Daleks - was held over to the next season. The centrepiece of the season was a trilogy featuring the Black Guardian, played by Valentine Dyall, who first appeared in the culmination of the Key To Time season. The Black Guardian and his counterpart the White Guardian are opposing forces who, rather vaguely, hold the universe in balance. However, the Black Guardian holds a particular grudge against the Doctor for his refusal to hand over the Key To Time at the end of The Armageddon Factor.
The major problem with Mawdryn Undead is that it tries to do too much and consequently fails to fully satisfy in virtually all respects. It has to introduce a new companion, reintroduce an old one, integrate a returning villain into the storyline and tell an extremely complex story involving two time zones, an alien spacecraft and a plot against the Doctor.
To accentuate the positive, the area in which the show works very well is in the use of the Brigadier to hold the narrative together. This is partly because his role is well written; Peter Grimwade has perfectly caught the combination of military bluster and childlike curiosity which made him such a great character in the first place. It’s also because Nicholas Courtney’s performance is so wonderful, picking up the character so precisely that it’s as if he had only stopped playing him the day before. Unfortunately, even the decision to use the two versions of the Brigadier proves problematic since it has opened up a vein of continuity problems which are still controversial twenty six years later. To put matters as simply as possible, Peter Grimwade has the Brigadier leaving UNIT in the mid-seventies and newly arrived as a teacher in 1977. However, the production team who created the character intended his stories to take place some years in the future – probably around the turn of the decade between seventies and eighties. So immediately we have a paradox, one which divides fan opinion to this day. Some fans point to the calendar dates used in the Pertwee UNIT stories and the surrounding technology which is very much of the era in which the shows were made. Others direct our attention to Sarah Jane Smith’s unambiguous statement in Pyramids of Mars that “I come from 1980.” So it goes on.
The introduction of the new companion, Turlough – played very well by Mark Strickson – is unsatisfactory. He’s a good character, certainly more interesting than some of the previous male incumbents of the TARDIS, but the plot device of using him as an agent of the Black Guardian is, as the actor has acknowledged several times, a difficulty for writers. If Turlough is constantly trying to kill the Doctor then there’s not much to do with him except lock him up. It’s not until the two find a rapport in Enlightenment that the character is allowed to develop.
Not that the use of Turlough makes much sense, since the Black Guardian is meant to be all-powerful and surely doesn’t need a surly public-school boy to do his killing for him. Valentine Dyall is a powerful presence as this bad guy but the character is diminished by taking such a ludicrously long time to achieve his ends. If the White Guardian can threaten the Doctor with eternal nothingness, as he does in The Ribos Operation, doesn’t it make sense that the Black Guardian has similar powers. Not to mention the fact that is seems peculiarly human and rather banal for him to conduct a petty campaign of revenge against one single Time Lord. It seems to me that in these shows, the Black Guardian is simply being used as a substitute for the Master since it was felt that Anthony Ainley had been overused in the previous season.
Meanwhile, an insanely complex story is being told about the desire of a race, cursed with immortality, to die and their need, for some reason, to use the Fifth Doctor’s remaining regenerations to do so. If this sounds vague, that’s because I’m still a little hazy on some of the plot points, even after three viewings. What I do know is that David Collings gives a splendid performance as Mawdryn, totally unphased by some of the worst alien spaceship interior design in the history of the series.
Whatever its faults, at least something happens in Mawdryn Undead. The overwhelming impression left by Terminus is of an hundred minutes spent wandering around a spacecraft, enlivened by occasional encounters with a giant dog. Admittedly, that’s a bit unfair to writer Steve Gallagher whose script contains some commendably big SF ideas, but the execution is just woeful and commits the cardinal sin of being boring – something that is relatively rare in Doctor Who.
The story involves the TARDIS latching onto a spaceship while under the sabotaging influence of Turlough. The Doctor and Nyssa investigate the ship and discover that it has docked with a huge space station called Terminus which is a base offering a cure for lazar disease. Meanwhile, Turlough and Tegan become lost inside the spaceship.
When I say ‘lost’, I mean lost because Tegan and Turlough are given virtually nothing to do for the whole story. This has the advantage of avoiding Turlough making an attempt on the Doctor’s life every five minutes but unfortunately also means that every cut back to them is a trial on the viewer’s patience. The Doctor and Nyssa have to carry the bulk of the plot, although the Doctor is also assisted by a space pirate called Kari, played by the unavoidably horsy Liza Goddard who looks as if she’d be much happier in a pair of jodhpurs than in her silly spacesuit and frizzy hairdo. Nyssa, as everyone surely knows by now, ends up removing most of her clothing and decides that it must surely be better to spend her days caring for Lazar sufferers than putting up with any more stories like this.
There’s a fantastically big idea at the heart of Steve Gallagher’s story and it’s almost enough to make the story worth watching – although his novelisation is actually far more worthy of your attention since it spends more time on the concepts and less time on the endless chasing around corridors. His idea is that Terminus was once able to travel in time and was responsible for the creation of the universe when it ejected fuel from its engines. Now this is open to various objections but it’s refreshing to see the show tackling ‘hard’ SF concepts within the confines of a chase adventure.
Unfortunately, the pacing of the show is deadly and it takes a good one and a half episodes before anything significant takes place. Mary Ridge had a nightmare time directing the show due to strikes and design problems but she could still surely have injected some tension and adrenaline into the proceedings. The design throughout is generally quite good – especially the design of the armour of the Vanir, the ship’s administrators – and even the canine Garm are quite engaging. The supporting cast shows promise, particularly Andrew Burt and the splendidly malevolent Martin Potter, and Sarah Sutton gets a lovely, poignant farewell scene. But the whole thing is so slow that it’s a struggle to stay with it.
In stark contrast to the other two stories in this trilogy, Enlightenment works very well on just about every level. If it’s not generally seen as a cracking good story, that’s for two possible reasons; firstly, it has a disappointing conclusion; and secondly, it’s just very low key and doesn’t call attention to itself in the manner of, say, Genesis of the Daleks or The Caves of Androzani.
The plot, beautifully worked out, centres around a race through the solar system organised by Eternals – powerful beings who exists outside time and fill their days by draining the emotions of their human crew, whom they call Ephemerals. The Black Guardian involves himself in the race by placing himself in the service of a competitor, Captain Wrack (Baron), while the Doctor and his companions land on the SS Shadow, a ship helmed by Captain Striker (Barron). The prize that is being competed for is Enlightenment, the exact nature of which remains vague for much of the story.
The first thing one notices about this story is how beautiful it looks, with the spaceships designed to look like Victorian sea vessels and the crews costumed in a similar period fashion. Fiona Cumming’s direction of the space scenes is flawless and she shows great attention to detail without ever forgetting the essential factors of pace and suspense. Barbara Clegg’s script is also a beauty with the idea of the Eternals – omnipotent beings within their own universe but cursed with a lack of human emotion which never ceases to trouble them – both intriguing and well developed.
The Black Guardian is finally given something concrete to do – albeit something fairly trivial in the grand scheme of things – and it’s good to see Cyril Luckham as the White Guardian again. Their square-off at the end promises much but it’s a bit of a damp squib and the Black Guardian’s inevitable defeat comes much too easily. It’s never made clear what is so important to them about Enlightenment – which is the knowledge of everything in the universe – since they are surely already omniscient anyway. Consequently, there doesn’t seem to be much at stake. Nor is it clear why the Guardians have taken to wearing dead birds as part of their headgear.
But there’s considerable entertainment value to be had for much of the story, particularly from Lynda Baron’s Captain Wrack who is a pantomime villain to relish. Her over the top performance wouldn’t work as well without the contrast of Keith Barron’s underplayed Striker and, particularly, Christopher Brown as Marriner, the Eternal who yearns to make a real connection with Tegan. Mark Strickson is also splendid in this story, finding a scary intensity which makes his final allegiance a matter of real doubt. There are also a couple of scenes where he simply chats to the Doctor and these help to develop him as a companion rather than simply a plot device.
Each story gets a DVD to itself with a new special edition of Enlightenment occupying the fourth. The quality of the transfers is, as we have come to expect from the Doctor Who Restoration Team, first rate with the film sequences looking particularly good. I didn't notice any problems at all and the clarity and colours make the shows look as if they were first transmitted yesterday. The mono soundtracks are also pristine with clear dialogue and strong music tracks. Each episode has a music-only option which is particularly worthwhile for Paddy Kingsland's superb Mawdryn Undead score.
There are numerous extra features which it's best to break down disc by disc. You can take as read that each DVD contains the usual ingredients - a photo gallery, continuities, excellent production subtitles and a Coming Soon trailer for The Twin Disaster, sorry, Dilemma. Each disc also contains PDF materials - Radio Times coverage for the stories - and some Easter Eggs which are easy to find and which I will not reveal. In addition, the first two stories have the option to view with a selection of newly created CGI effects.
Commentary - with actors Peter Davison, Mark Strickson and Nicholas Courtney, script editor Eric Saward
A superb commentary track which is lively, informative and very, very funny. Nick Courtney is an invaluable asset and Eric Saward is so entertaining that you wish he had been on more tracks from the Davison era. Peter Davison is his usual authoritative self and the lack of Janet Fielding means that a different feel to the track is created. Mark Strickson, making his second commentary appearance, after The Five Doctors is talkative and enlightening.
Who Wants to Live Forever?
A fairly standard making-of offering which seems rather short at under half an hour. A reasonable amount of ground is covered however and my only real misgiving is Floella Benjamin's somewhat saccharine narration. As for the inclusion of plastic surgeon Dr. Simon Withey, I can only ssay that I'd rather have had some archive footage of Peter Grimwade than another pontificating scientist.
In this new drama. Journalist Philip Clarke (Simon Ockenden) travels to Brendan School to interview Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart. It's a pleasant and well made but brief piece which might have been better had it been longer. To be honest, however, I don't like these rather "cutesy" features and would have preferred a straight, in-depth interview with Nick Courtney, surely one of the most important figures ever to have appeared in Classic Who.
Deleted and Extended Scenes
Various scenes from the location filming, none of which are essential and, as so often, it's easy to see why they were cut.
If the sight of a clapperboard makes you come over all emotional then prepare to enter Nirvana. Anyone else can safely skip this collection of bits and pieces from the filming.
Mostly Nick Courtney and Janet Fielding forgetting their lines.
Commentary - with actors Peter Davison, Mark Strickson and Sarah Sutton, writer Stephen Gallagher.
A lovely track this, largely because it allows Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton to show their obvious rapport without interruptions from Janet Fielding. Given more time than usual to speak, Sarah Sutton is a pleasure to listen to. Stephen Gallagher is also fascinating, although his enthusiasm for the story is obviously not shared by everyone present.
Another making-of featurette which alludes to the trouble that affected the story but doesn't quite dig the dirt as well as I'd have liked. Mary Ridge is no longer with us so she is referred to with some respect but one suspects that, were she alive, she'd have lot to say and much of it would be considerably more interesting than what gets said in the finished feature.
Origins of the Universe - Sir Patrick Moore and, Dr. John Mason take a look at the science behind the Big Bang and the origins of the universe.
Patrick Moore is always good value and this is a fairly interesting primer for those interested in the science behind the science-fiction. If you know anything already, however, the simplification may prove more irksome than anything else.
A particularly interesting feature in which storyboards for the spaceship scenes are compared to the finished article. The strength of the model work comes across very well here, as they do on a selection of Unused Model Shots.
Commentary - with actors Peter Davison and Mark Strickson, writer Barbara Clegg and director Fiona Cumming
A particularly pleasant track to listen to because it allows Fiona Cumming and Barbara Clegg, two relatively unfamiliar voices, to talk at some length about a show of which they are justifiably proud. Peter and Mark prompt them and provide some amusing asides of their own.
Winner Takes All
A final making-of piece which includes numeroues interviewees, including Alec Wheal who worked on a lot of Who episodes from this period as camera supervisor. Again, it's quite brief but provides useful background information.
Casting Off! - an actor's view of working on Doctor Who
Although very much based around Enlightenment, this indicates both the pleasures and hazards of working on such a notable show for the actors involved. Peter Davison comes across very well, as he always does, and Janet Fielding is interesting to listen to now that her negativity about the programme seems to have receded.
Single Write Female
A frustratingly short piece about Barbara Clegg who seems to be a delightful lady but gets little time to show it here. I didn't realise that she used to be an actress and was relatively late coming into writing.
The Story of the Guardians
An affectionate featurette about the White and Black Guardians and the actors who played them. The best thing here is the appearance of the respective children of Cyril Luckham and Valentine Dyall, although I also liked the revelation that Luckham was a bit of a naughty old man with the ladies.
This is a dual-angle feature, in which visual effects supervisor Mike Kelt uses the original storyboards to explain how he went about planning and shooting the model effects sequences for the show. It works very well and Mike Kelt is an interesting chap for those of us who don't know much about model effects. It would be nice to see more of this on other titles in the series.
Enlightenment - Special Edition
This fourth disc is a new edit of Enlightenment supervised by director Fiona Cumming; re-cut for pace and enhanced by new CGI effects. The effect is fascinating, removing many of the contemporary objections to some of the stately pacing in the original show and producing something which is akin to a kind of compromise between the Classic show and the style of New Who. Clearly, Cumming feels that this is her chance to do what she always wanted to do but was never able to achieve. Not one for purists, need I add, but it's a very interesting experiment. This version of the show is presented in an anamorphic 16:9 which looks a bit jarringly tight at times, especially in the TARDIS scenes, and has a remixed 5.1 soundtrack.
This is taken from video footage of the team discussing how they are going to embark upon the project. It's notable particularly for Fiona Cumming's erudition and enthusiasm, suggesting that Classic Who might have benefited from more female directors if she is anything to go by.
Original Edit Comparison
This compares the original opening of the third episode, from a timecoded copy, with the version which was eventually broadcast.
More fun for clapperboard addicts.
Finding Mark Strickson
This is a brief interview with Mark Strickson about his life prior to playing Turlough, his approach to the role and his subsequent career - working as a wildlife filmmaker. Very pleasant and not particularly exciting.
Finding Sarah Sutton
More of the same, this time for Sarah Sutton.
Russell Harty Christmas Party
An absolutely diabolical piece from Christmas 1982 which proves once and for all that British television was never all it was cracked up to be. If you've ever wanted to see Peter Davison and Sandra Dickinson dancing, this is your chance.
As I've explained, the quality of the stories in this boxset is highly variable. But it's still an excellent set which highlights the effort put into the Classic Who releases and is well worth a look, particularly for Enlightenment and parts of Mawdryn Undead. The transfer quality and the extras are both exemplary.