Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Mawdryn Undead - "In the name of all that is evil, the Black Guardian orders you to destroy him now! "

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Mawdryn Undead - Details

Season 20, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #126) | Previous - Next | Index

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There's a sizable contingent out there who make the case for "Kinda" and/or "Snakedance," but for my money "Mawdryn Undead" is the best Davison-era story yet in the original broadcast order -- and possibly the best until "Caves of Androzani". (Well, there's "The Five Doctors" along the way, too. But that's a special case.)  I've got several more to re-watch -- including old favorite "Terminus" -- so I reserve the right to change my mind. It's been thirty or so years since I watched a number of these; there's room to be surprised by something being better than I remember.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should confess I made use of the CGI replacement special effects while watching this one. I generally watch both the original and the new effects when the DVD release has them, but in this case I didn't feel like revisiting the old ones and remember well enough how 8-bit they looked. I'm glad they didn't redo any of the incidental music though, I'd forgotten how metal things got in spots. I'd also forgotten how cornball the tune playing when Turlough and Hippo were joyriding in the Brigadier's classic car is.

"Mawdryn" has quite a bit of the ol' wibbly-wobbly and handles it quite well. We meet 1976 and 1983 versions of the Brigadier, and they meet each other in a plot-significant flash of Blinovitch Limitation Effect. Lucky for the Doctor they did because he was about to the regenerations sucked out of him to save Nyssa and Tegan, and save/kill the Time Lord wannabes -- the ones with the brain-exposing skulls that pre-date the monkey entrees from Temple of Doom by a couple years. It's significant that Lethbridge-Stewart is retired in 1976 as that would seem to settle the debate about when the UNIT stories take place -- except it doesn't.

The hardest thing for fans to accept about the continuity is that mistakes were made. There is no master timeline that gets it all straight because the continuity is a hash. The best we can do is take whatever the latest story offers with regard to any question of when things happened as the new final word and treat whatever doesn't make sense as having happened in a branch timeline that either retroactively didn't happen, or didn't happen exactly when or in the same way we saw it happen before. There simply is no one pure reconciled timeline -- heroic efforts by encyclopedically knowledgeable fans notwithstanding.

Famously, this wasn't meant to be the return of the Brigadier. Had William Russell been available it would have Ian Chesterton (!) that would've been teaching math at the boys' school where we meet Turlough. Much as I am fond of the Brigadier, it would've made more sense, and been a much more effective bit of fan service, to see Ian again. That said, and despite Nicholas Courtney not being fond of the story, he does quite well here. The 1976 Brig and the 1983 are very different, and yet they are both recognizably our Brigadier. That's yeoman's work on Nicholas Courtney's part.

Turlough. Well, at least he's not Adric. Untrustworthy companions don't seem to work for me. Turlough, like Rose's pal Adam, is strictly in it for himself and therefore utterly unlikable. I get that's sort of the point. It's edgy and different and opens different dramatic possibilities. There may be a way to get the unlikable companion to work, it just hasn't been discovered yet. If I had to offer a suggestion beyond giving the character an arc that ends up redeeming him or her so they eventually become possible to like, I'd lean towards having that character end up becoming a something a darker version of Captain Jack or River Song, someone with a talent or power or knowledge that could make them an effective recurring foil for the Doctor, so they'd never be a proper companion at all, rather a baddie-in-waiting.

Part of the problem I have with Turlough is actually an extension of the problem I have with the Black Guardian, and the concept of the Guardians in general. I don't like them. It's not so much that they're never properly explained and the rules by which they interact with the universe are never clear, although that ambiguity doesn't seem clever to me -- it strikes me lazy -- the problem I have with them is they're supposedly so powerful and yet, when plotting to destroy the Doctor, the Black Guardian finds this whiny, overgrown schoolboy with insufferable narcissism to be the best available tool to accomplish his end. He also has a dumb bird thing in his hair that is probably supposed to be mythic and symbolic, but looks rubbish.

I was an atheist by age five or so because the character of God in the Biblical stories was self-evidently a monster and an idiot if he couldn't figure out better ways to do things than what the stories related. Likewise, I have no respect for the character of the Black Guardian. Credit frail, old Valentine Dyall for giving his all to lines like "In the name of all that is evil, the Black Guardian orders you to destroy him now!" I quoted for the title of this post because it is just so over-the-top dumb. He's clearly game. But, any villain that is simply pledged to all that is evil AND talks about himself in the third person is, by definition, dramatically uninteresting.

Leftover thoughts:

According to one of the DVD extras "mawdryn" is Welsh for "undead". Would the title of this translated into Welsh then be "Undead Mawdryn"? That's a puzzle for the TARDIS translation circuits to work out.

I should have been tagging episodes that use "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow" and reference "the Blinovitch Limitation Effect" all along. Add that to the list of things to do when I do rewrites to buff up all these posts.

References / Additional Recommended Reading:

Sandifer, P. Philip Sandifer: Writer: And He's Just Wiped Them Out (Mawdryn Undead) Sandifer, P. (2012). Philip Sandifer: Writer: And He's Just Wiped Them Out (Mawdryn Undead). Retrieved 8 June 2014, from The Doctor Who Transcripts - Mawdryn Undead,. (1983). The Doctor Who Transcripts - Mawdryn Undead. Retrieved 8 June 2014, from Doctor Who (Classic): “Mawdryn Undead”,. (2012). Doctor Who (Classic): “Mawdryn Undead”. Retrieved 8 June 2014, from A Brief History Of Time (Travel): Mawdryn Undead,. (1981). A Brief History Of Time (Travel): Mawdryn Undead. Retrieved 8 June 2014, from

Perryman, N. Mawdryn Undead Perryman, N. (2012). Mawdryn Undead. Retrieved 8 June 2014, from

Tardis Mawdryn Undead (TV story) Tardis,. (2014). Mawdryn Undead (TV story). Retrieved 8 June 2014, from
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