18 – Mawdryn Undead

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.

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25 – Enlightenment

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!

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Englightment can be bought as part of the Black Guardian Trilogy DVD Boxset on Amazon

Next Time: You’re caught in a classic space time paradox! You did it yourselves!

90 – Snakedance

This serial from Peter Davison’s second season as the Fifth Doctor is forever going to be associated with the rather ridiculous get-up Martin Clunes’ character Lon ends up wearing in episode 4. But it is unkind and undeserved, for Clunes plays a good straight performance and I would argue that Snakedance is even more effective than Kinda at exploring the nature of true evil.

For season 20 producer John Nathan Turner wanted to have a returning enemy in every story – but he cheated on an epic scale. The three stories following this one were covered by the return of the Black Guardian, regardless of his own involvement in the story, while the Mara had only appeared in the previous season. Not quite the same as rolling out the Daleks and the Cybermen in Tom Baker’s first season. We can forgive him somewhat however, in that the Mara is a genuinely unsettling villain, and one that could assuredly be used more. Thankfully for Snakedance, the special effects of the snake creature have improved enormously – it helps create the aura of malevolence and evil needed to make the character believable.

I was pleasantly surprised when I viewed the DVD, not having hugely fond memories of the VHS – probably because of Clunes’ costume! While not a gripping story by any means, the gentle narrative pace allows the tension to ratchet up notch by notch – you instead wait for the breaking point that you know must come soon. In simple form – the Doctor arrives with Tegan and Nyssa on the planet Manussa – once the focus of the Mara’s power, which subsequently reawakens within Tegan. While the Mara possesses Tegan and Lon, and manipulates them to bring about its rebirth, the Doctor traces local folklore to discover how to repel the monster – and does so. Not complicated – therefore a simple and enjoyable story. I am not at all inclined to ridicule this story for its 1980s production values – rather I feel these are the kind of stories we needed more of in the 1980s.

And it is definitely worth repeating – please please please Mister Moffat – bring back the Mara!

103 – Arc of Infinity

Season 20 of Doctor Who was intended to commemorate 20 years of the show – culminating in the anniversary special The Five Doctors. As part of the commemoration, the showrunners determined that each episode of the season would feature a returning villain from the show’s history – although they rather neatly circumvented the spirit of this by making the Black Guardian the notional villain for three of the six serials! For the opening serial the showrunners returned to the story and villain used ten years previously in The Three Doctors by resurrecting the character of Omega.

This story is noteworthy on several fronts – not least that the man soon to be appointed the Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, appears as Commander Maxil of the Chancellery Guard, and gains notoriety by shooting the Doctor at the end of episode one (as it transpires, only stunning him). It did give way to a raft of humour that Baker got the role of Doctor by shooting the incumbent, but Baker does a perfectly believable job of playing an over zealous officer of the law – it was due to appearing on this serial that he eventually ended up invited to a party, ended up cracking endless jokes, and persuading showrunner John Nathan Turner that he should be the next Doctor. As many wise heads observed, it was perhaps not the most astute decision to base a major character casting on such limited criteria …

It is also noteworthy as the first of JNT’s overseas experiments. The gateway on Earth for the Arc is in Amsterdam, for no major plot reason other than to give the producers the excuse to do location shooting there. The aim was probably to live up to the excellent Parisian scenes of City of Death, and in fairness it works moderately well here, in contrast to later efforts in Planet of Fire and The Two Doctors (Lanzarotte and Spain respectively) – goodness knows what would have happened if JNT succeeded in producing the originally intended Season 23 and had filmed Yellow Fever and How to Cure It in Singapore.

And then there is the plot twist that Tegan was supposed to have left the TARDIS crew at the end of preceding serial Time-Flight (despite her three season contract) – but this was nothing more than a clever ruse to bring her back midway through this serial. As Tegan doesn’t reappear until Episode Three, the first two episodes give an excellent glimpse of what life might have been like if Nyssa had been the only companion in Season 19 – and I must admit I think it would have been more enjoyable than the overcrowded TARDIS (and to judge by Davison’s reaction to Tegan rejoining them, I think he shares the opinion!) Sarah Sutton is also thankfully rid of her traditional Traken costume and the more conventional outfit makes the story feel more like Doctor Who as usual.

And then we turn to the story itself. Omega is not dead (much like the way the Daleks, Cybermen, Master and Loch Ness Monster are never conclusively killed off) but trapped in a facet of the anti-matter universe. By connecting with the biological data of a Timelord (the Doctor) Omega plans to rejoin the matter universe – aided and abetted by a traitorous member of the High-Council. As you would expect, there is the usual twist of misdirections, characters who seem unpleasant but act with best intentions (and vice versa) and all the fun of Timelord politics. While Omega does escape into this universe, the Doctor tracks him to Amsterdam and uses a matter dispersal gun to banish him back into the anti-matter universe.

So … it’s not bad! It’s a clever plot, and if you ignore the utter superfluity of several plot aspects and characters it is an enjoyable storyline. I guess that is rather the point though – where this stories suffers is the degree to which you have to suspend disbelief, and at times have to work out exactly whom is doing what, and for what purpose. But in contrast to Time-Flight, the serial accompanying this story in the DVD boxset, Arc of Infinity is much more coherent and enjoyable – and in contrast to my attempted enjoyment watching the serial as a child on VHS, I found the DVD much easier to follow!

121 – Terminus

This story is infamously remembered for the moment when Nyssa decided to take her clothes off for no readily apparent reason. For those wondering how this escaped the watershed, I should perhaps point out that she was still wearing an underlayer that by present standards is moderately modest, but it says a lot about the rest of the serial that this is the talking point most fans take away. (For the record, as Sarah Sutton knew it was her last story and had heard of complaints from fans that she’d been too well covered up, this was her response. Misogyny is sadly timeless)

Which is a pity – because episode one sets up the story fantastically well. Turlough, having joined the TARDIS crew in the previous serial Mawdryn Undead is urged by the Black Guardian to sabotage the TARDIS and bring about the death of the Doctor.  Instead of which, the ship ends up attaching itself to a space freighter travelling to Terminus, a space station at the very centre of the universe. The sets and music for Terminus are eerily unsettling, and knowing that you cannot be sure of Turlough’s character or intentions adds to the unfolding drama. You then discover that the shop is transporting humans infected with Lazars’ disease – a kind of plague if you will, with the name making an obvious play-on-words of Leprosy.

I didn’t enjoy it when I watched the VHS, but warmed to it a little when watching the DVD. What changed? Well, I think the second time around I resolved to enjoy the story for what it was, and rather liked what they were trying to do. The execution was indeed somewhat flawed – not least because Tegan and Turlough spend most of the story trapped in an airduct making no contribution to proceedings. There is also sufficient padding that one suspects this would have been a much better story in the modern series, running at a fast paced 45 minutes rather than the slow run of four 25 minute episodes. Nyssa’s farewell is also genuinely poignant and one of the best executed character farewells in the show’s history.

Terminus isn’t bad, but you might well fall asleep during it! It ought to have been gripping from start to finish; Turlough deserved more than one opportunity to kill the Doctor, and a much better wrestling with his conscience than chatting to Tegan in an airduct; there didn’t appear to be any need for the space pirates who serve no other purpose than to replace Tegan and Turlough and explain what Lazar’s disease is; and Valentine Dyall is shamefully underused as the Black Guardian. That is the difference between the Terminus being ranked 121, and the higher rank it otherwise would have richly deserved.

124 – The King’s Demons

I promised that the reviews would be less negative very quickly – and behold I keep my promise! When I finally watched the King’s Demons I was very pleasantly surprised by the story, having read dire warnings against it on fan sites. The story is a semi-historical adventure – the Doctor appears to land in the court of King John – only it turns out that the man presenting himself as the King is not even a man, much less the King! He is in fact Kamelion – a shape shifting robot (hence the name – ingenious eh?)

Of course the problem that everyone highlights with the story is that the plot is incredibly silly. Kamelion’s controller is none other than the Master, who indulges his usual penchant for pointless disguises and names by parading as French nobleman Gilles Estram – rather like vampires, the Master seems incapable of donning an alias that doesn’t reference his own name. His aim is to prevent King John signing the Magna Carta and to return England to the Dark Ages … which even allowing for the dubious historiography, is a plot so lamentably lame that even Davison’s Doctor feels compelled to observe: “a bit meagre by your standards surely?”

Let us lay that to one side however and embrace the positive – I genuinely enjoyed the story. I grant you that Tegan and Turlough scarcely get a look in, but Gerald Flood is excellent as King John – not least for the lute playing scene in episode one. As a historical piece it is on a par with some of the scenes shot for The Day of the Doctor or The Time Warrior – it bears up reasonably well. It is a pity in that regard that the story is so silly – as a four parter with a better disguised Master and a threat of genuine peril, I think The Kings Demons could have been quite entertaining.

At this point you may well be wondering why it is rated so far down my list if I enjoyed it? Aside of the obvious point that enjoyment is relative, and referring to how I have rated the stories, there is one important thing to consider. I enjoyed this story mostly because I did not have high expectations of it – I was able to appreciate it basically by disengaging my brain and accepting it at face value. When calmly considered in the light of the full list of episodes, I had to admit “actually, it’s not that great to be honest!” So while I enjoyed the DVD – and in actual fact will probably rewatch it in the near future inspired by this blog – it only just escapes the bottom ten on my list!

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You can buy The King’s Demons as part of the Kamelion Tales boxset