We have covered in other reviews the stories that comprised Doctor Who’s 20th season. Resolved to celebrate the series’ history, producer John Nathan Turner brought back a returning nemesis for each adventure. In the middle of the season was a loosely linked trilogy featuring the Black Guardian, last seen swearing painful death to the Doctor in The Armageddon Factor. This powerful being, the embodiment of darkness, chaos, and destruction, finally succeeded in tracking the Doctor down, and decided to enlist a helper to aid his cause.
The story therefore begins from the perspective of this helper, an alien named Turlough who is exiled to a public school on earth. In perhaps the strongest debut story ever for a TARDIS companion, Turlough makes a pact with the Black Guardian; the Guardian will return Turlough to his home world, and in exchange Turlough must kill the Doctor! The entire story plays out with Turlough wrestling with his conscience, playin a much more pragmatic and calculating companion than has ever travelled in the TARDIS before. Credit is also due to the existing TARDIS crew; Nyssa playing the role of the person who wants to believe the best of Turlough, Tegan the one who (it turns out wisely!) is adamant he should not be trusted, and the Doctor giving the impression that he knows full well what Turlough is facing and is not afraid to play the game.
All of this is well and to the good, but the tour de force is the story itself, which would be a superb stand-alone adventure even without the background of Turlough and the Black Guardian. Landing on a ship trapped in a Warp Elipse, the TARDIS crew discover that everything in the ship is trapped within this permanent status – as it turns out, this includes the TARDIS! What follows is a case of mistaken identity on several counts – there is one escape capsule on board, which the Doctor uses to travel to the location of the beacon holding the ship in permanent stasis. He travels to Earth 1984, and to the school Turlough is trapped at, but to his great astonishment encounters an old friend teaching at the school – Brigadier Alastair Gordon Leighbridge-Stewart! To his greater astonishment, the Brigadier has no memory of the Doctor!
Nyssa and Tegan meanwhile travel in the TARDIS to earth 1977 (conveniently positioned by the Queen’s Silver Jubilee) to discover a badly burned man in the capsule they had seen the Doctor depart in. They naturally jump to the conclusion that this man is the Doctor, newly regenerated after a malfunction in the capsule. They also encounter the Brigadier, who seven years prior to the Doctor’s arrival perfectly remembers who the Doctor is. The man in the capsule, who is in fact the titular Mawdryn, does little to disabuse the Doctor’s friends of their error, instead using it to win their assistance in returning to the ship.
What follows is an incredibly clever and intricate story that no summary could do justice to. Mawdryn turns out to be one of a group of seven scientists who stole the concept of regeneration from the Time Lords, but achieved “regeneration without renewal”, and now seek death – which can only be made possible by the Doctor relinquishing his remaining seven regenerations! The Doctor is determined to rescue Tegan and Nyssa from Mawdryn’s clutches. The Brigadier is slowly regaining his memories, blissfully unaware that there are now two of him in the same place, creating the possibility of a universe destroying quantum paradox. And just for good measure, Turlough is hounded by the Black Guardian, determined in equal measure either to fulfil his bargain, or else to escape by his own means. The conclusion of the tale is so brilliant that one is left in admiration for the story-teller weaving a complicated tale with a simple and understandable resolution (Steven Moffat – take note!).
Some interesting challenges occur along the way – this story has been the catalyst of the great ‘UNIT dating paradox’ – previous adventures had dated the Brigadier and UNIT (and especially the Pertwee and Baker eras) as taking place in the late 70s and early 80s. By dating the Brigadier’s retirement to 1977, this dated earlier stories like The Web of Fear to the time they were broadcast. The debate still rumbles along unresolved – even in the 50th Anniversary the writers included a tongue in cheek reference to the “dating convention” used for UNIT’s files! One also feels the Brigadier deserved better than being retired to a school, but the role had been written with the intention that Ian Chesterton would return. William Russell was not available to return, and while there is a certain degree of imagining ‘if only …’ one also has to say that if it couldn’t be Ian, at least it was the Brig!
Mawdryn Undead is deservedly the highlight of Season 20, and Turlough’s struggle with the Black Guardian comes to a satisfying climax in Enlightment (via a less satisfying interlude in Terminus). You will need to watch it twice to get the full enjoyment of this adventure – but the delivery is absolutely worth the wait.
Next time: The debut of a memorable foe, and a favourite companion …