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!