Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead - Review


Mawdryn Undead is a story that tries to do a lot, too much as its ambitiously overstuffed with plot ideas. The nostalgic return of an old friend, a retelling of the classic Flying Dutchman story, a nonchronological story structure, split into two timelines, the return of a well remembered villain and the introduction of a new companion in the form of Turlough. But he is a different companion to any other as he is only there to kill the Doctor. And while there is a lot to enjoy here, all those points are too much to put into one story. To be fair, Mawdryn Undead is part of a larger story spanning three adventures, but the points in this story which are meant to be self-contained just feel rushed and thinly resolved. And the most compelling part of the story - Turlough's dilemma isn't resolved at all.

And that's only a problem if you're planning to watch the story as part of series 20 from start to finish and while its common place for a television show to feature an overarching storyline nowadays, in 1983 it wasn't something done too often. And much of the time, Peter Davison's, Fifth Doctor adventures are much easier to look at individually.

In some ways, Doctor Who was far more concerned about ongoing storylines than many other television shows in the eighties and one finds it hard to imagine the audience of any other show in the eighties sticking with a overarching storyline for longer than a few weeks. Something along the lines of The Black Guardian Trilogy had been done before in The Key to Time series, but that series was made so that the casual viewer could drop in and out at anytime and still be able to follow what was going on.

All that changed when John Nathan Turner took over and by the time series twenty came around, the combination of longer arcs and fan-friendly but newbie-unfriendly nostalgia meant that you had to stick around for each week to keep up. And that was something ground-breaking at the time as science-fiction shows didn't pick this up until at least a decade later. Nathan Turner even went on to hire super-fan, Ian Levine, to help develop storylines that tied into previous adventures. And to mark the twentieth anniversary of the show, each story from series twenty was too feature an old enemy.

The particularly good thing about this kind of approach is that it takes full advantage of the previous twenty years worth of the show's history. And the bad thing about this kind of approach is also the reason why comic books are aimed at such a niche market these days - nostalgia can cover up a lack of new ideas and can prevent new ideas from being properly developed - and that is one of the problems in Mawdryn Undead.

Now, Nathan Turner wasn't a writer but as producer, he was one of the conceptual forces behind the show and instead of writing the episodes, he often just came up with the characters and plot twists that he would hand out to the writing staff. And that goes some way to explaining why Mawdryn Undead feels so disjointed. Writer, Peter Grimwade's original notion for the story was limited to Mawdryn and his fellow prisoners and the links to the Flying Dutchman fable. And to this, he added John Nathan Turner's companion, Turlough and two nostalgia driven returns - The Brigadier and the Black Guardian, a sneering god-like villain who was behind the whole search for the Key to Time. Grimwade then went on to add an unusual experimental plot structure in which two sets of characters are separated across time, in which each group of character's actions effect one another, with the Brigadier appearing with both. His older version suffered traumatic amnesia that suggested a mysterious tragedy was soon to happen to his younger self.

But in the end, the Mawdryn and Brigadier subplots are reduced to nothing more than puzzle pieces, that end up cancelling each other out, in a way that is overly mechanistic - just to wrap the story up quickly. But more than anything, Mawdryn Undead is about the introduction of Turlough, which is the story's saving grace. While people, including myself, may have knocked Nathan Turner for his time on Doctor Who, Turlough - the most audaciously conceived companion ever - is a point in his favour. The traditional Doctor Who companion is more of a sidekick, an assistant that asks the Doctor the questions the audience are asking and not much else. But the mysterious and reluctant assassin is interesting because he doesn't even know the full reach of his potential.

Mark Strickson deserves a great amount of credit for keeping Turlough's combination of helpless teenage petulance and nasty conniving meanness from getting annoying. And unlike the previous male companion, Adric, I wasn't wondering how long I would have to suffer him being around, but how the hell he was going to get out the situation he finds himself in. It also isn't clear to begin with whether he should be pitied, feared or applauded and whether his story would end either heroically or tragically. At the time of this story's original broadcast, the death of Adric would have been fresh in viewer's memories and that plays a big part into Turlough's appeal, anything could now happen.

It's significant that he's introduced not as an all out evil but just a juvenile who crimes are fairly innocent - he is literally a schoolboy, although he is revealed to be an alien - suggesting there is much more to his story. He wears down his nerdy friend into taking him for an unauthorised ride in a teachers car. It is a move that is a little less Doctor Who and a little more All Creatures Great and Small. Of course it doesn't take too long for things to get properly weird. The pair drive too fast, have an accident and Turlough has an out of body experience with a grumpy looking drag queen - who also happens to wear a dead bird as a hairpiece. This is of course the Black Guardian, who then offers Turlough the devils bargain - kill the Doctor and he can finally leave Earth. Of course, Turlough agrees but then spends the rest of the adventure trying to change his mind, he isn't that evil really.

Turlough really does his best to follow the Black Guardian's orders but he is really hampered by squeamishness and incompetence. It is hard to blame him for not wanting to kill the Doctor. The real question is this: why was he chosen? The Black Guardian's plan makes zero sense, even if Turlough's secret identity is something more than just a British School Boy. Indeed, he is so helpless when it comes to completing his task, Turlough at one stage, resorts to trying to bash the Doctor over the head with a rock! But when he fails, he is so flustered that he calls for further instructions.

The Black Guardian comes across as nothing more than a plot device rather than a living entity. He is evil, he likes to do evil things and get others to do equally evil things. Despite this and his horrid costume, the performance from Valentine Dyall is still transfixing. And even though he just stands there, Dyall's mere presence makes him a damn effective baddie by the sheer force of his perpetual power and low growl.

The Guardian's behaviour also points to another major problem. When you have a villain who shouts lines like, "In the name of all that is evil, the Black Guardian orders you, destroy him now!", then subtly goes right out the window. Far too much of this story relies on the audience excepting that this how a certain character acts. The Black Guardian enlists Turlough to kill the Doctor but why choose someone like Turlough? Sure, he is a sneaky little git but he isn't assassin material. And the baddie with the power of a god can't be seen to act in something like murder, but again, why? Is there another reason beyond writerly coincidence?

The Doctor also just accepts Turlough at face value and never once questions why a school boy from England in 1983, understands temporal physics. One of the most important things in this show is that the Doctor knows what he is doing, but there is something uncanny in the way he treats Turlough and Tegan and Nyssa are right to mistrust their new companion. And yet, while it is never convincing that the Doctor trusts Turlough straight off the bat, the dramatic tension surrounding this story is never about the Doctor but Turlough and what he will do next. The Doctor offers something of a clear contrast to the Black Guardian's evil in his fatherly, non-judgemental calm - while he doesn't offer Turlough any help for his problems here, nothing would have surprised me if Turlough had turned to him for help in his assassination attempts. And there is a sense that the Doctor is more in the know about Turlough's mission, than he is letting on. His bizarre behaviour does seem like it could be a strategic move in an attempt to save Turlough from the Guardian and the boy's own poor choices.

It is also worth noting that the Brigadier's return is along the same lines as Sarah Jane's in School Reunion. School Reunion is more successful than Mawdryn Undead in its handling of a returning companion, mainly because it resolves some issues the Doctor and Sarah had over her departure in The Hand of Fear. Instead, Mawdryn just features the Brigadier, rather than giving him a feeling that he is somehow inimical to the advancement of the plot. And while the idea that he would take on the job a school maths teacher isn't something that would be too out of character, it is odd that this is what he chose to do. Of course, there is a good reason behind this move. The initial idea was to bring back William Hartnell's companion, Ian Chesterton - played by William Russell - as this character was originally a teacher at Coal Hill School. But when the actor proved to be unavailable, the show turned to the Brigadier instead. And even though it is nice to see him again, the story would have worked just as well with someone like Ian or Harry Sullivan or someone else instead, just as well.

And Lethbridge Stewart fares a lot better than the titled villain. The creepy and immortal scientist, Mawdryn's part of the story is undeveloped and perfunctory. Visually he is striking with his exposed brain and there was potentially a great story there to be developed between him and the Doctor, he was a character who stole from the Time Lords and paid the ultimate price but Mawdryn just isn't interesting. And the split timeline also fizzles out to the point where I'm not sure where I would have taken it. But by resolving it by having the two Brigadiers wipe out the paradox when they touch, is nothing more than a contrivance, really it is as interesting as someone's finished crossword puzzle. It is Turlough's unresolved storyline is far more compelling.

So it is good to end the story with Turlough joining the TARDIS crew. While the story ends with him still being an enigma, he has grown as a character and is more sympathetic but still a mysterious figure who could still end up either good or evil. And whether he would end up as the Doctor's friend or foe, it is clear that he has to join the TARDIS crew. He isn't even human and feels like he doesn't belong on Earth. So when he asks the Doctor if he can join them, the Doctor's answer feels like the right one, "you already have,"...

Comments

  1. I also loved Turlough back when I first watched him the 1980s!

    (Just to give you a heads up so you can fix a few typos: then subtly [should be subtlety] goes right out the window. Far too much of this story relies on the audience excepting [should be accepting] ...... his fatherly, non-judgemental [should be spelled non-judgmental] calm...)

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  2. I like Turlough too, his turn with Big Finish has really forced me to re-evaluate his character! And thanks for pointing out those typos! I would have never spotted them otherwise!!

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