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.
In Season 20 the Doctor Who production team decided that the Doctor would face off against a returning foe in each adventure, originally intending that the season would conclude with an adventure entitled “The Return” – which was delayed until Season 21 as Resurrection of the Daleks, leaving viewers instead with the lamentable King’s Demons as an unworthy substitute! While the season opened with the return of Omega in Arc of Infinity, and the Mara in Snakedance, the season’s three middle stories were covered by a loose trilogy featuring the Black Guardian, last seen cursing the Fourth Doctor in The Armageddon Factor.
This loose trilogy comes to a close in Englightenment, a spooky and exceedingly clever adventure seemingly set aboard an Edwardian sailing vessel, revealed at the end of episode one to in fact be a sophisticated spaceship, racing through space itself. At the head of the ship are ‘Eternals’ – beings who despite their ageless existence have lived for so long that they rely upon humans for ideas, form, and substance. The prize for their sailing race is therefore the titular ‘Englightment’ – the ability to know all things.
In the midst of all of this, Turlough is haunted by the deal he made with the Black Guardian in Mawdryn Undead – to kill the Doctor. The Doctor meanwhile is suspicious that a fellow racer is resorting to sabotage to ensure that they are successful, a suspicion proven well founded when it is discovered that the malevolent Captain Wrack is in league with the Black Guardian! The story, and indeed the trilogy comes to a thrilling crescendo, as the Doctor and Turlough find themselves at Wrack’s mercy, with Wrack seemingly about to win the race and claim her prize.
Much of what makes this adventure enjoyable stems from the meeting of space-era technology and the classical setting of an Edwardian sailing vessel. It is also a deeply haunting adventure, and the role the Doctor plays to both Tegan and Turlough could have been lifted from a contemporary season of Doctor Who, as Tegan wrestles with the Eternals incapacity to fathom human emotions such as love, and Turlough agonises over freedom, choice, and consequences. All the while, the race between the Eternal’s ships ensures that the plot proceeds at a strong and intriguing pace!
I did not expect to enjoy this adventure as much as I did when I rewatched the VHS adventures at university. But Englightement was a superb and fitting end to the Black Guardian Trilogy, displaying Peter Davison’s Doctor at level only paralleled by his incredible swansong in The Caves of Androzani. Clever without confusing, human without being cheesy, and able to sensitively investigate some of life’s biggest questions, it is a superb piece of television, never mind a superb episode of Doctor Who!
Next Time: You’re caught in a classic space time paradox! You did it yourselves!
All together now: “He’s got a deaaaaaaaaad birrrrrrrd! On his head!”
Ahem. Let us skip past the elephant in the room of why the supreme being of all darkness in the universe wears a hat with a stuffed raven, and instead ask why the Black Guardian is a pretty bad-ass recuring bad-guy. In actual fact, I would say that 99% of why he made such a grim and threatening spectre was due to the excellent portral of the character by Valentine Dyall. He had exactly the voice you would want for a powerful force of darkness, evil and chaos – a voice that will not only leave you behind the sofa, but trembling in fear that he’s someone still behind you.
And this isn’t bad given that he only appears in the final ten minutes of The Armageddon Factor for his introduction, but the testimony to his character is that he undoubtedly makes his presence felt. So much so that when he makes his reappearance in Mawdryn Undead your skin crawls any time the music changes into a menacing key and his Guardianess makes an unholy apprearance. So much of this is due to excellent acting and that voice.
I emphasise this, because actually the rest of the Guardian is a bit of a let-down. I think he was much better realised in The Armageddon Factor when the producers cunningly dressed Dyall in white, and then inverted the negatives to produce the ‘Black’ Guardian – it is a deeply disturbing effect, and therefore very effective! The resultant drab attire he is given for Season 20 just doesn’t cut it somehow, nor the protestations that he cannot be seen to be acting in determining to dispose of the Doctor.
The Daleks get a bit of a bad rep for being all shout and no substance. The Black Guardian could equally be accused of being all scare and no senseless. Which is why it would be great to bring him (and his equally etheral friend the White Guardian) back in a future series of Doctor Who. Christopher Lee would be an obvious choice but for his advancing years – but then he if he would be up for it, oh what a Black Guardian he would make …
I am well aware that the concluding story in the Key to Time arc is not highly regarded in Doctor Who fandom. But I unashamedly include The Armageddon Factor in my top 100 (albeit it at the bottom end) as a story I manage to get great enjoyment from. I grant you that as with The Ribos Operation and The Power of Kroll, it would probably be less enjoyable were it not for the overall story arc for Season 16. But the fact is, it is the concluding episode of the season long story-arc, and a very satisfying conclusion at that.
In reality, there are three different stories at play here – two warring planets; the Doctor trying to find the last segment of the Key to Time; and an agent of the Black Guardian, the mysterious Shadow attempting to steal it. There are some nice twists at play too – the planet Atrios is on its last legs under the command of a mad military office the Marshal, whereas the planet Zeos is effectively run by a battle-computer. The Shadow lives on a planet hidden between the two planets, manipulating both sides (although it isn’t actually clear why he needs to do this) and plans to use the Doctor to track down the last segment of the Key to Time – which turns out to be none other than Astra, Princess of Atrios!
Okay, so at six parts it is rather long. The love story between Astra and Merak is rather poorly done, and the Shadow’s methods seem haphazard at best – but you still find yourself enjoying it! There is something rather awesome about the Doctor manufacturing an ersatz sixth segment in order to stop Atrios and Zeos blowing each other up (if ever there was a metaphor for the Cold War …), and the final scene where the Doctor faces off against a disguised Black Guardian is genuinely spine tingling. We also get a brief glimpse into the chemistry to follow in coming seasons, with Lalla Ward appearing as Astra. Just one story later she would replace Mary Tamm as the newly regenerated Romana – although it again is a regret that we never get to see Romana regenerate properly.
As the end to Season 16, The Armageddon Factor is entirely worthy and I greatly enjoy it. As a standalone story however, it is rather obvious why it’s not in the top 50 …