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
One 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.