Doctor Who – Mawdryn Undead (The Black Guardian Trilogy Part 1)

Doctor Who Story 125 – Mawdryn Undead

Written by

Peter Grimwade

What’s It About?

A young school boy named Turlough becomes the target of the Black Guardian, who wishes to use him as a pawn in his attempt to kill the Doctor. Nyssa, Tegan, and the Doctor materialize on a mysterious ship that appears uninhabited. And for some reason, this ship’s transport is set to coordinates on Earth . . . to the edge of the property of Brendon Public School where the Brigadier now teaches math.

Fools who tried to become Time Lords

Mawdryn poses as the DoctorOne theme that I have noticed running through The Black Guardian Trilogy is one of mortality and death. These elements are first introduced in this story with a group of scientist/thieves who had stolen Time Lord technology in an attempt to become immortal just as the Time Lords are immortal. While they achieved some degree of success with regeneration, they learned quickly that they had not mastered the technology. So, instead of regenerating completely, they are unable to die. They are flesh animated for eternity, a consciousness trapped in unending existence—an existence where pain and decay is still possible and felt every second of every moment. The theological implications are compelling in that their attempt to be gods bound them to unending torment, unable to become free through death. They are self-condemned.

And so “Mawdryn Undead” is a brilliant beginning to this trio of stories, linked in part by the Black-Guardian-using-Turlough plot explicitly and explorations of mortality implicitly. By comparing “Mawdryn Undead” and “Enlightenment” directly, both seem to indicate eternal existence as more of a curse than a blessing, eternal pain according to the former, eternal boredom according to the latter. Not to reveal my hand too soon, but I enjoyed all three of these serials immensely.

But perhaps one of the most controversial elements of “Mawdryn Undead” is the use of the Brigadier. It is well-known that the original choice for the returning-past-companion in this story was Ian Chesterton, which would have been wonderful. In the end, Nicholas Courtney was the available actor, so we are now given a post-UNIT Brigadier and all kinds of issues in dating the UNIT stories. My thoughts on these, in reverse order, are “Who cares?” and “Intriguing.” Yes, I am familiar with the issues surrounding the UNIT dating controversy. I heard voices in the back of my head as I watched this story. I remembered what Sarah Jane said about when she was from. I’m quite happy to dismiss this as a production gaffe. Besides, a series like Doctor Who, in which the rules of reality are not entirely systematized, is open for interpretation. If we can move through time and space, is it any more of a leap to say we can move in reality? How many potential continuities have come into existence, ever-so briefly, only to die out soon after. Potentiality, to me, is written and re-written around regeneration. It is too late, at this point in the game, to insist too strongly on any given “fact” of the Doctor Who universe.

While I would have loved to see Ian once more, I think there is a rich idea behind the Brigadier leaving UNIT because it all became too much. War and combat destroy the psyche. Add to the mix the reality-shattering experiences of a Cybermen invasion, alien visitations, and astral entities trying to control the consciousness of humanity, and I think anyone will crack under the pressure. There is nothing wrong with the Brigadier leaving UNIT nor is there anything wrong with showing him capable of weakness. Too often in the West we celebrate success, ignoring stories of failure and struggle. (Unless, of course, those stories end in success. Then we contextualize it as paying our dues.) As Doctor Who fans, we don’t even like seeing the Doctor fail, hence some of the dislike of the Tennant Doctor’s stories. But failure is a part of life, and stories of failure help us to navigate our own struggles. Seeing the Brigadier in weakness makes him a more fully realized character, even if the role was not initially intended for him.

My Rating

4/5

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Doctor Who – Snakedance

Doctor Who Story 124 – Snakdedance

Written by

Christopher Bailey

What’s It About?

The TARDIS materializes on the planet Manussa, but no one remembers setting the coordinates. The Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan discover that Manussa is preparing for a celebration of the epic battle in which the Mara was destroyed. But Tegan has been having dreams about a snake skull, and the Doctor soon suspects that the Mara was not truly defeated on Deva Loka.

Fear is the only poison

Tegan inside the Mara's mouthFor the most part, “Snakedance” is more accomplished than its predecessor “Kinda.” The parallels with Buddhism in the previous story were interesting, but in “Snakedance” they seem more fully formed. Fear and the darkness in the human heart are more concretely emphasized in this story, and they tie more directly into the story’s resolution. While I think the mirrors in “Kinda” worked as a metaphor, I’m far more satisfied with “Snakedance,” in which the Doctor recognizes that banishing fear from his mind is a far more effective weapon against the Mara.

But “Snakedance” also shines in its world building. “Kinda” had a vaguely colonial India feel to it. “Snakedance” feels more like a thought-out culture, a continuation of an empire that was most-likely of Earthly origin (they have Punch and Judy shows, after all), but have developed their own flourishes and culture. I love when science fiction acknowledges the ancient (because I love archaeology) and “Snakedance” punches those buttons for me. I also really enjoyed the interplay between the approach to religion from academia and the approach to religion from the Doctor, who is actually arguing for the mythology in this case rather than against it. And who can fault Martin Clunes who give a marvelous performance (despite a horrible costume in episode 4) as a bored aristocratic youth who flirts with the devil just because he has nothing better to do. This story touches on ideas from authors like Arthur Machen or Henry Blackwood in its interplay between the spiritual and the secular and the society that has forgotten its mythology, but now that mythology has returned to destroy it.

All of the companions are utilized here. Janet Fielding gives a wonderful, creepy performance as Tegan. Nyssa gets to do more than stand around in the TARDIS or wait for the Doctor to tell her what to do. Stories like this make the Davison era shine and make me excited to see what Big Finish has brought to the era.

My Rating

4.5/5

Doctor Who – Arc of Infinity

Doctor Who Story 123 – Arc of Infinity

Written by

Johnny Byrne

What’s It About?

A tourist goes missing in Amsterdam, captured by a horrific looking creature living in a crypt; someone on has gained access to the Doctor’s biodata, an act that could only be done by a high-ranking Time Lord; and a mysterious entity is attempting to manifest in our galaxy.

You put things off for a day and next thing you know, it’s a hundred years later.
Omega
Source: BBCi.co.uk

With “Arc of Infinity” I begin Doctor Who’s 20th season. This is a huge accomplishment for the show. And to celebrate the beginning of this milestone, we have the return of Omega, last seen in “The Three Doctors.”

I will start off by saying I enjoyed this story. I know fan opinion is generally against it (or so I have heard), but this story isn’t really all that bad from an escapist perspective. It has a good pace and it can be entertaining. That said, it is an odd story because the individual elements don’t all hang together. While I can generally get behind the crisis on Gallifrey and the biodata/Omega storyline, the Amsterdam storyline feels rather arbitrarily chosen, almost as if it was the real initial script and the Gallifrey/Omega stuff needed to be added in because it’s the 20th year of the show. There are a few lines in the story about why Amsterdam is important (the techno-babblish arc of infinity), but there is no real reason for this and it doesn’t naturally connect to the rest of the story.

With regard to Omega, there is a tragedy of the character that is hinted at but not fully manifest. Part of what works in “The Three Doctors” (and there is a lot that doesn’t work there, but . . . oh look! Previous Doctors!) is that Omega is a tragic villain. He was abandoned by his people, by his partners. He was the soul that was crushed for the progress of Gallifreyan technology. He became a madman, yes, but you felt so sorry for him. In “Arc,” we get a small glimpse of that, but it should be more. Our hearts should break for him.

Then there is Teagan. I liked her quite a bit in this story, but I’m still not entirely sure why we had the cliffhanger where she was left behind in “Time-Flight.” It didn’t seem to serve any purpose, and, so far, I don’t see that there is much fallout from that cliffhanger. If this is not followed up with, I think it is a sorely missed opportunity.

While I have been critical of this story, make no mistake—I really enjoyed it. I liked the designs. I enjoyed the pace. I thought the story was interesting in its own way. I enjoyed seeing Peter Davison try his hand at a dual-role story, a Doctor Who trope that recurs throughout the series. It isn’t a perfect story, but it is still quite enjoyable.

My Rating

3/5

Doctor Who – Time-Flight

Doctor Who Story 122 – Time-Flight

Written by

Peter Grimwade

What’s It About?

On its final descent to Heathrow Airport, a Concord vanishes. The Doctor, Nyssa, and Teagan investigate by trying to recreate the conditions under which the plane vanished. The Doctor’s theory: the plane flew through a time warp.

This Thing Is Smaller on the Inside Than on the Outside
The Doctor and the Master do an equipment hand-off.
Source: Wikipedia

What did I just watch?

Like most of this season, this was my first viewing of “Time-Flight.” In general, I try to avoid fan opinion going in to stories. I want to decide for myself, especially after watching a few stories that are not well-regarded by fans that I actually enjoyed. More and more my interests in Doctor Who are rooted in the 1960s, and while I like pockets of Doctor Who from the 1970s – present, I can’t say that I love ALL Doctor Who. This is probably why I divide the show in to producer-defined or script editor-defined eras rather than Doctor-defined eras. I can’t say that I love the Tom Baker era, but I can say that I largely enjoyed the Hinchcliff era. I like Bidmead’s era, but not so much the Douglas Adams era.

But seasons like this one are hard. From story to story my opinion has varied widely. After Christopher H. Bidmead successfully redefined Doctor Who in the previous season, this season failed to really take that definition and build on it. In fact, once Eric Saward fully stepped in to script editing the show, he and JNT started looking backward, reversing course. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but what we had just seen was so interesting, so compelling. And so season nineteen has tripped, stumbled, occasionally danced, and now it staggers across the finish line with “Time-Flight,” a story that really isn’t very good. Not. At. All.

This is a huge disappointment because I like Peter Grimwade. But apparently I only like him as a director. Granted, it isn’t fair to judge him on a single story. In television and film, the name attributed to the script can be misleading. Changes could have been made by script editors, producers, or directors. The script could have been commissioned to include specific elements, giving the writer a list of elements to include, thus putting restrictions on the story that may be absurd.

“Time-Flight” has absurdity in spades: the Master’s plan, the Master’s disguise, the exceedingly dull final episode, the attempt to re-fit the Concord with parts from the other plane in a matter of hours. But “Time-Flight” does have some things that work. Captain Stapley and his crew are a joy. I get the impression that Stapley had the time of his life on this adventure. His enthusiasm made him a compelling character, and I would have loved to see him join the TARDIS crew. Similarly, the Arabian mystic idea is interesting (so long at the racist undertones are removed). A compelling story was set up, but then abandoned for a far less interesting story. And, of course, I love how the Doctor gets involved in this story. Who needs psychic paper when you can just say, “Call UNIT. Tell them the Doctor is here.”

At the end, all I can really say in defense of “Time-Flight” is that it has a lot of interesting ideas thrown in to it. They never really go anywhere, which makes them deeply unsatisfying, but they are creative.

My Rating

.5/5

Doctor Who – Earthshock

Doctor Who Story 121 – Earthshock

Written by

Eric Saward

What’s It About?

An archeological team disappears in a recently exposed network of caves. A military investigation looks for answers and finds the Doctor, Nyssa, Teagan, and Adric, who have materialized in the cave after the Doctor and Adric had an argument over whether or not it was possible to return to E-Space. The team falls under attack by two mysterious androids who are guarding something alien.

Eating a Well-Prepared Meal

adricI’m trying to decide what I think of the title “Earthshock.” While I suppose it works to refer to the shock wave from the collision of the freighter and the earth which this story posits is the reason for the extinction of the dinosaurs, it more accurately seems to refer to the two major shocks in this story, both of which are rather muted due to modern marketing and information-obsessed internet culture.

At the time, the two shocking moments in this story were the return of the Cybermen at the end of episode one and the death of Adric at the end of the story. Neither of these was revealed to the press ahead of time. Neither was used for marketing. And so, the shock was very real and unexpected. However, any copy of “Earthshock” on DVD or VHS has a Cyberman on the cover, thus negating the first shock, and any casual research into Doctor Who story developments or companions reveal that Adric died. There is no shock.

But is the death of Adric really so shocking? Sure, from the standpoint of character death in a fairly light show which has not had a major character death since the 1960s, yes, it would be shocking. But was Adric liked enough to elicit a moment of genuine surprise? As the story stands, I think Adric’s death is nothing more than trivia about the show; why is “Earthshock” important? Because Adric died. But Adric has not been an interesting character since season eighteen. This could be due to the current production team and script editor. This could be due to having too many companions in the TARDIS. Regardless, Adric’s death is not very meaningful (he had a way out), and many fans of the show didn’t like him anyway. His death is now marked by the question of whether people cry or cheer. But is it Adric’s fault that his character hasn’t been written well for this entire era? Is it Matthew Waterhouse’s fault that there were too many companions that the writers didn’t really have a way to handle them well? None of the companions at this point are interesting. They have potential, but that potential is never achieved, but the hate falls disproportionately on Adric, I think, because falls into the child-identification trope and because stories about Waterhouse on the set painted him in a bad light.

But stories are stories. In the commentary of “Earthshock,” the cast complains about Peter Grimwade’s directing, but the results of the directing show that Grimwade knew what he was doing. “Earthshock” is extremely well direct. From a production standpoint, “Earthshock” is nearly flawless. And I genuinely think that is what works in this story’s favor. The direction is great. The pace is perfect. This is Doctor Who at its action-packed, suspenseful best. But apart from these production points and the well-handled shocking moments, there isn’t really much to this story. If given to another director, this story would have fallen flat because there is nothing below the surface of the story. “Earthshock” is base-under-siege revisionism, putting it more firmly on the “Visitation” side of the season as opposed to the “Kinda” side of the season. “Earthshock” looks backward rather than looking forward.

For me, I really enjoy “Earthshock.” It is a lot of fun, although I admit that I now find Adric’s death a hindrance to the story. But when it comes to Doctor Who that fires my imagination or fills me with joy at having watched something brilliant, “Earthshock” doesn’t satisfy. It is fun, but it is consciously formulaic, attempting to connect with the distant past of the show in a way that feel superficial in a we-can-do-that-type-of-thing-better-than-they-did way.

My Rating

4/5

TV Review: Sleepy Hollow

Det. Mills and Ichabod Crane promo image.
Source: Fox.com/sleepy-hollow

The premise of Sleepy Hollow is pretty dumb: Ichabod Crane resurrects after 250 years. He had been a soldier in the American Revolution (on the side of the colonists, naturally) and had been in battle with the man who would become the Headless Horseman. They killed one another, but their blood mingled on the battlefield, tying them together in occult-magic-stuff. Now the Horseman is back, and it turns out he is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Crane and 2013-era cop Abbie Mills are chosen warriors in the coming apocalypse. High-brow, thoughtful drama this is not.

What it is, however, is charming and infectious. The creators of Sleepy Hollow know the absurdity of the premise, and in the pilot they fling the viewer head-first into this world, expecting us to just accept it. And we do because the show is well-produced and keeps smirk firmly in place throughout.

Instead, what we get is a deconstruction of mythic American types, something that probably could only happen in 2013 and succeed. The last show to really give something like this a try was The X-Files, which created United States mythology through conspiracy and UFO culture. (Okay, admittedly Fringe did the same thing but with corporate culture/scientific advancement, but these things were not distinctly American per se. Regardless, Fringe had its roots in The X-Files, owed its very existence to it. It was a hugely successful update of the formula, and Sleepy Hollow also tips its hat to these two shows.) But in a 2013 context we are arguing about the future of our nation and what our government needs to be. It makes sense, therefore, to look to the past, rooting our male lead at the major conflict that became the birth of our nation. History and the present, then, co-mingle. But it isn’t true history; it is a fantasy of history. It is mytho-history. It creates a fantasy out of national myths and horror. In no way does Sleepy Hollow pretend to be accurate, just as it never pretends to be serious. The show asks us to just chill out for a bit and enjoy ourselves. Don’t be so rational, it says. And it never demands rationality from you.

Structurally, Sleepy Hollow is a mixture of The X-Files (male protagonist who is a believer, female protagonist who is more skeptical, monster-of-the-week format with an ongoing internal mythology) and Elementary/Sherlock (super-intelligent British male [with slightly underdeveloped social skills] with a well-developed partner who is equal but different [primarily due to personality]). All these shows work and they are all distinctly different. And Sleepy Hollow has the supernatural investigation aspect, which keeps me highly engaged.

So far I have only seen the first three episodes. I wanted to hate it, but I just couldn’t. It is too much fun. So long as it maintains the pace and momentum of these first three episodes, I may be sticking with this show for some time. (Possibly seven years, if the internal timeline of the apocalypse is anything to go by.)

Doctor Who – Black Orchid

Doctor Who Story 120 – Black Orchid

Written by

Terrance Dudley

What’s It About?

In 1920s England The Doctor is mistaken for a cricket player sent to join Lord Cranleigh’s team. After the game, the Doctor, Adric, Nyssa, and Teagan are invited to stay for a costume party at Cranleigh Hall. The festivities are short-lived, however, as a killer is hiding in the Hall and he has his eyes set on Lord Cranleigh’s fiancé, Ann—who is an exact look-alike of Nyssa.

Smutty!

The Doctor looks at a harlequin costume.“Black Orchid” is largely remembered and spoken of as the first straight historical since Patrick Troughton’s 1966 “The Highlanders.” It is somewhat telling that this is how fans talk about “Black Orchid,” implying that this is the only noteworthy thing about it. On the whole, I think DW fandom sees straight historicals as throwback to an era that has long since passed, which is a shame. I love the Hartnell-era historicals. I was very sad when this style of story was dropped. But I also acknowledge that it can be extremely difficult write one effectively. It is far easier to throw in an alien who threatens history or the status quo and portray the commonly believed stereotypes of the period. The best example of this is, I think, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” which is far more gaslight horror/adventure than historical. Even when the Hartnell-era historicals got the history inaccurate, there was still the attempt at accuracy. John Lucarotti took seriously the educational mandate of Doctor Who.

And so, while “Black Orchid” truly is a straight historical, it is not of the same quality as those of the Hartnell-era because it is more a series of tropes than it is an attempt to educate as well as entertain. It is a period drama, not a historical. Some of its influences are easy to identify: Wodehouse, with the portrayal of British gentry; Agatha Christie, with the murder mystery/parlor room scenes; and the mad woman in the attic trope which originated with Jane Eyre (although in this case, it is a man, not a woman). In fact, Jane Eyre seems to be a major influence on this story, even down to the climax which leads to a death as the Hall burns. As a result, this story is even less of a historical and more of a media-conversant period piece. If you identify the tropes, you know exactly where the story is going and what the ultimate mystery is. Sadly, I had this story figured out the moment Lord Cranleigh told the story about his brother.

Incidentally, “Black Orchid” has its new Who counterpart in “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” which is also media-conversant as it owes more to “Black Orchid” and BBC and ITV Agatha Christie adaptations than it does to Christie’s actual writing and life. Just replace the madman with a giant, alien wasp, in this case.

If the companions didn’t have much to do in a four part story, they will have even less in a two part story. Adric spends most of his time eating and being teased. Teagan dances a lot (allowing us to finally see her happy, which is nice). Interestingly, Sarah Sutton plays both Nyssa and Ann in this story, and the slight contrast between the characters provides a bit of characterization. A bit.

Davison shines once more as the Doctor, and I finally think I am getting a feel for him. He is a contrast to the Baker Doctor in that he is calm and more reserved. Hartnell, Troughton, and Baker portrayed the otherness of the Doctor (albeit Hartnell’s was an otherness shaped by crankiness). Pertwee was the British dandy. The Fifth Doctor is a British gentleman. This should be perfectly obvious due to his costume, but it took me until “Black Orchid” to finally see it. The Doctor fit in too perfectly at Cranleigh Hall. This isn’t a Doctor who would refuse an invitation to Christmas dinner. This isn’t a Doctor who would run away from socializing when the adventure is over. This is a Doctor who builds relationships (and the character moments have significantly increased throughout this season). This is a Doctor who will stick around and interact with people. He isn’t seeking his next adrenaline high. If I had to level some criticism at him, this is the Doctor at his most . . . bland. I don’t mean this as an insult or criticism. In his novel Timewyrm: Revelation, Paul Cornell explores the idea that each version of the Doctor is an aspect of the Time Lord’s overall Self. The Fifth Doctor is his moral core. He is the stable center of the Doctor’s Self. He is balance. And while balance brings comfort and stability, it is not always dramatically interesting. Hence, this Doctor is constantly at odds with the universe around him, a universe that just won’t seem to stabilize into peace and harmony.

So while “Black Orchid” isn’t the best historical Doctor Who has to offer, and it is extremely predictable if you know its literary influence, it is an interesting look into the psychology of the Fifth Doctor, even if this look is not explicit. This is the Doctor at peace after a few difficult stories. He is taking it easy with a relatively simple mystery.

This will not last.

My Rating

3/5