Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Mawdryn Undead written by Peter Grimwade and directed by Peter Moffatt

This story in a nutshell: There’s a new boy in the TARDIS and he’s trying to kill the Doctor…

Fair Fellow: Back in the day when I used to review Doctor Who stories for the Doctor Who Ratings Guide (I think I was one of the sites most prolific reviewers but looking back at them now makes me cringe…I simply did not know how to string a sentence together and used to get terribly excited about things which would result in copious amounts of BOLD LETTERS and !!!!!’s) I used to try and convince the world how bland Peter Davison was as the Doctor. Yep I was one of those sorts of fans who thought he knew better than everyone else and went out of his way to try and convince you otherwise. In fact reviews used to bat back and forth between me and few others like a critical version of The Big Questions where we would debate the pros and cons of this incarnation (why we weren’t all off out enjoying the world and making love to beautiful men and women is beyond me). In the intervening years of DWRG and starting my own blog I found Big Finish and fell in love a brand new version of the fifth Doctor on audio and the skill that Davison (now a much older man) could bring to the role. It forced me to go back and see if I had missed anything on television and to my surprise I saw plenty more to enjoy that I had not spotted before. His charming naiveté in Castrovalva, how he was portrayed as a raving fool in Snakedance, his blazing eyed fury in Enlightenment and especially his definitive ‘old man in a young mans body’ performance in The Visitation and Frontios. However whilst I did find these moments scattered about throughout his run (his moral cowardice in Ressurection is another fantastic moment) there are an equal amount of stories where he is either utterly unmemorable (Four to Doomsday, The King’s Demons, The Awakening, Planet of Fire) or eaten up by the complex plot mechanics (Time-Flight, Arc of Infinity, Terminus). Mawdryn Undead is possibly the only story where he suffers the indignity of both. It should be a great story for the Doctor as portrayed by anybody because he gets to enjoy a reunion with the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney can usually develop chemistry with any actor in the titular role) and face a moral dilemma that any actor worth his salt would get his teeth into. In both of these instances Davison lets the side down; his reaction to the Brigadier’s amnesia is one of mild annoyance (the focus on these scenes is almost entirely on the Brigadier) where some passion might have knocked the memories back into him and he emotes the end of episode three (‘It would mean the end of me as a Time Lord!’) like he is telling a kid what is on the menu tonight (replace with ‘it would mean a finger fingers and chips for tea tonight’ and you’ll see what I mean). There’s no passion in his performance, nothing to grab hold of. It’s a superb actor giving 50% and falling in between the cracks. It’s a shame because as I have said there are wonderful moments to be had for this Doctor during his run but unfortunately you wont find any of them in Mawdryn Undead. For this story at least, Turlough is ten times the character the Doctor is in terms of interest and the main difference between me reporting this now and me reporting this ten years ago is that I take no pleasure in it now. Come episode four there is so much plot to be resolved (the handicap of juggling lots of strong ideas) the Doctor becomes little more than a walking plot device trying to explain and tie the narrative up before the end. All of this would be fine and it’s a role he has played before many times but there is no personality here to make him anything more than a walking plot solver. Even when he walks out of the TARDIS to his death sacrificing himself for his companions (which is an incredible act) Davison looks a bit bored by the whole affair. I wanted to see a man with the weight of his future lives about to stolen from him not an actor wondering when the coffee break is going to be. Davison was not happy with the scripts for season 20 and these are the moments when it shows. Compared with the complexities that Nicholas Courtney is working into his performance, Davison's is sadly deficient.

Alien Orphan: Sarah Sutton struggles gamely with the line ‘he could have been atomised!’ but anybody trying to say that with a straight face is doomed to failiure. Poor Sarah Sutton is so used to hanging around in the TARDIS by now whilst everybody else is having fun (she suffers the indignity of it in The Visitation, Earthshock and Mawdryn Undead) that she makes it look as if she really enjoys it. Give the poor girl something to do or write her out. Oh she’s off in the next story, you say? It does seem odd introducing new companions when the old ones are getting a pretty short shrift.

Mouth on Legs: For once Tegan’s suspicious nature is right on the nail…why would a 20th century schoolboy step into a transmat capsule and then into a blue police box with a spaceship interior and be so indifferent about it all? Its so odd to see Tegan not approach somebody with her usual bad attitude and filthy mouth but I guess even Janet Fielding couldn’t bring herself to throw her weight around in the presence of a living legend like the Nicholas Courtney. She saves all of her bile for Mawdryn and in some hastily scripted scenes comes across as a right old cow (if this really was the Doctor I’d toss her out at the first opportunity) more than ever. I don’t care if she’s right to suspect Mawdryn becuase this woman’s bad attitude stretches my patience to its limits. It's not even that she is saying anything implausible, it's just the effort she puts into not being a very nice person. Its wearying. Rather wonderfully the one person she cannot brow beat is the Brigadier and he casually (almost perversely) throws as much sexism her way as possible. Although Tegan (or probably Janet Fielding) has to have the last word and quietly mutters ‘chauvinist’ when he is out of sight. It makes me wonder if that for all her objections to the contrary if Tegan is the sort of self punishing individual that would subconsciously seek out a chauvinist to marry. Brace yourselves because I am going to finish this section with something nice to say about Tegan…the quiet moment where she thanks the Doctor for the sacrifice he was going to make is gorgeous. Why can’t she be that subtle and warm all the time?

New Boy: I wont beat around the bush – I think that Turlough was the finest innovation to the show in the eighties. You can keep Ace and her horrendous eighties slang and angst and Kamelion who was so good he only hung around for two stories. Turlough was a genuinely fresh idea; an awkward, mistrustful youth who skips into the TARDIS on a promise to murder its pilot. That’s a fantastic character spec in my eyes (although Peter Davison and Janet Fielding seem to have a bit of a problem with it but just nod and smile at them…you often have to placate the stars) and paired with the inspired casting choice of Mark Strickson (who is on top form in his introductory story) and you have something that looked to be very special indeed. It would have taken a pretty inept script editor to waste a character as strong as this. Now I come here not to bury Eric Saward (he does that an awful lot himself in the DVD documentaries) but even he admits that he had a terrific actor in Strickson and a terrific character in Turlough and he failed to give him anything to do after his initial arc of three stories. But what comes next is not for this review…if you want to see how the strongest companion since Romana was treated like an irrelevance then check out my reviews for The King’s Demons, Warriors of the Deep, The Awakening and Resurrection of the Daleks to come. Everything that we see in Mawdryn Undead is very strong and it promises to be an incredible ride with this new companion. With Strickson epitomising shiftiness, a mysterious back story that we aren’t acquainted with and a dark deal made with an ominous force, Turlough can only be considered a success in his first story at whetting our appetite for more. The sad truth is that the 80s was a year where all kinds of fruit loop series were commissioned and one about an alien boy that wound up in a boarding school in England sounds exactly like the sort that would take off. With Mark Strickson, Nicholas Courtney and Peter Halliday fronting it it might have been pretty good too. Turlough calls Hippo ‘fat, ugly and dull’ in a parody of a school bully and yet Turlough clearly enjoys hanging around with Ibbetson because he makes him look better. It rather accentuates what a coward Turlough is, hiding in other peoples shadows (as he would go on to do with the Doctor) and then mock them for standing on their own two feet. The look on his face when he sees the transmat pod is one of pure joy. You can very believe that he thought that he would never see sophisticated technology ever again. In the latter episodes of Mawdryn Undead Turlough is reduced to wandering around corridors aimlessly but Strickson is so good at looking shifty I always wanted to see what he was getting up to.

Chap With Wings: It’s a fact that the Brigadier was an 11th hour replacement for Ian Chesterton who should have appeared in this story. Thank goodness it didn’t work out because it would have crapped all over my assertion that he and Barbara got married and went on to have a long and happy life together. To think of Ian living in that little shed having forgotten his old life and Barbara fills me with horror. When it comes to the Brigadier it is a very different story and this is a pleasingly melancholic stepping stone between his career in UNIT and his marriage with Doris. We have often wondered what happened to companions after the Doctor has left them and the Brigadier is a very singular case because he and the Doctor shared something very special (especially in the latter stages of the Pertwee era) and he was a large part of Alistair’s life for some time. The thought that whilst the fourth Doctor headed off and started enjoying adventures in time and space the Brigadier was trapped in a less than fortunate existence, amnesiac and alone is crushingly sad. What I especially love about Mawdryn Undead is how it reveals the Brig’s seven year depression and breaks it within the same story. It means we get to experience his emotional crisis (and one which lasts some time so it isn’t handled unrealistically) and have a happy ending which smacks of having your cake and eating it but where the Brig is concerned I wouldn’t have had it any other way than to end on a positive note. It's really nice to see Nicholas Courtney given some tough personal material and he more than rises to the challenge. It has been so long since Terror of the Zygons that the meeting between the Doctor and the Brigadier feels like a massive event and I love the way they play the game of him not recognising the Time Lord because he has changed his identity…and yet when it comes to it the Brig doesn’t know who the Doctor is at all. With a sinking feeling you realise something is very wrong. The Brig catches us up with what has happened to the UNIT family since we left the Earth; Benton left the army in 1979 and sells second hand cars and Harry was seconded to NATO where he is doing some very hush hush work. Clips of past adventures are tenapenny these days (Logopolis, Earthshock…) but the black and white montage that the Brigadier experiences really means something because he is reclaiming all those wonderful, terrifying memories (it's also a great example of Peter Moffatt’s visual storytelling, focussing squarely on the actor and allowing the music and the clips to guide us to the conclusion without ever telling us that he has these memories back). How can you not have the same sort of fuzzy feeling that a cuddle with your partner gives you on a winters morning when you see all those UNIT adventures squeezed together? If Nicholas Courtney was awkward at having to take the Brigadier to some emotionally unbalanced places (‘Treatment? There’s nothing wrong with me Doctor!’) then so much the better because that is expressed in his performance and it makes the moment all the more destabilising for those of us who know and love the character. Like a lot of people in the same situation he scoffs at the idea of a breakdown despite the clear indications that he has suffered some kind of trauma. It's nice that even in these less fortunate days of his life he has found a career in teaching that he rather enjoys. When the Brigadier marches into the TARDIS and says he knows how to handle it he does have a good point – who on the Earth has experienced it twice before?

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Who are they?’ ‘Fools who tried to turn themselves in Time Lords!’
‘What you want is murder eight times over!’ ‘No what we desire is our own death…’  – when you are dealing with dialogue like that we have gone well beyond the usual JNT snazzy set piece storytelling into something a bit deeper.
‘Sometimes you have to live with the consequences of your actions’ is the Doctor’s harsh judgement on Mawdryn and his fellows. I just wish Peter Davison said it with more passion.

The Good:
  • It has been mentioned before (most recently by Gareth Roberts in a hilarious article in DWM) that if you described the music in Mawdryn Undead as incidental that you would be arrested under the trades description act. It is attention grabbingly present in every scene it appears (that’s every scene) and it occasionally shits all over the action as Paddy Kingsland has a heart attack whilst attached to an electric guitar. However (and this is the rub) its actually one of my favourite Doctor Who scores because musically it is actually of an extremely high standard. Whilst it might have been better paired up with a more exciting story (it does seem to stress excitement in places where none is present…or maybe that was the idea?) it is still an atmospheric, aggressive, persistent and pacy soundtrack which when listened to independent of the story actually takes you to some very visual places. Some people still cry at the loss of Dudley Simpson when he was dropped at the start of the eighties (mostly when they are enduring aural torture at the hands of Roger Limb or Malcolm Clarke) but it's clear that bringing in the more melodic, less instrumental scores of the radiophonic workshop was a smart move and it gave the series a massive shot in the arm. Many people laud Peter Howell as the most innovative musician to have stepped up to the plate during this period (and I would never dream of arguing with them) but I also find Kingsland’s music a joy to listen to (in a way that only a sad Doctor Who fan like me can walking through the town with the Castrovalva music blaring in my ears…). Mawdryn Undead is perhaps his most controversial score but conversely it is the one time I would say that he approaches Howell in producing something truly memorable enough to be talked about today. The insane chords that strike when the TARDIS is about to strike the ship suggest we are going to see some fantastic Star Wars style effects as the cuboid TARDIS spins dramatically into a collision (actually the CGI on the DVD does give this whole scene much of the dynamism the music was hoping for!). Episode three is where the music is most needed because there is an awful lot of wandering around that spaceship and so Kingsland allows the different character themes to blend into each other as we cut from person to person. It makes the whole piece flow much more than it otherwise would. The upbeat score at the end of the story almost feels like a congratulatory pat on the back – we tied ourselves in knots with so many clever ideas and we managed unravel ourselves and tie them up satisfactorily! With the Brigadier back where he should be, Mawdryn given the peace he sought and a new TARDIS crew member that comes with a thrilling backstory it is exactly the sort of clap on the back uplifting music the show deserves to bow out on.
  • I do think there is something in the comment that other countries enjoy Doctor Who for its ‘Britishness.’ And what could be more of a metaphor for British stiff upper lippedness than a vintage car leaving a boarding school being driven by a boy in a boater? Who else could you drop into this environment but the Brigadier – the quintessential image of a British gentleman?
  • All credit to JNT for bringing back Valentine Dyall to play the Black Guardian again and it's wonderful to see him availing himself of one of the finer ideas of his predecessors run. I’m not sure about the logic of sticking a dead crow on his head (it does rather look like it fell out of tree and he couldn’t be arsed to remove it) but Dyall has a deliciously gruff and sinister voice that really brings the character to life vividly. There has been a change of Doctor, several changes of companion, script editor and producer since we last saw the Black Guardian but this is a very positive link to the past in a year full of them.
  • The cliffhangers in this story are all doing something different and that should be applauded. Episode one climaxes with the Doctor’s new companion trying to kill him (although to get full cliffhanger-worthiness out of the moment he picks up the biggest rock known to man and stands over the Doctor menacingly for what feels like the length of a bible) which is a very novel way of introducing a new regular to the line up. Episode two suggests that the Doctor has regenerated into something much more alien looking - an idea that has been discussed by fans before but never on screen and one that is explored through the next instalment. And episode three takes a far less visually dramatic cliffhanger route than usual and goes for a conceptual threat of the Doctor having to choose to give his lives to save Mawdryn and his friends. In each case these scenarios have never been explored before and Grimwade deserves credit for managing to find new, interesting avenues to explore when it comes to a cliffhanger.
  • Mawdryn could have so easily have been a forgettable character (when he doesn’t really threaten the Doctor and his friends in any other way beyond keeping them on the spaceship) but in the hands of David Collings (following his memorable performance in Robots of Death and his stratospheric performance in Revenge of the Cybermen) he becomes a much more interesting prospect. Collings plays him with just the right amount of acidity – he’s sympathetic but also rude, he’s obnoxious but has endured a terrible punishment. Because the Doctor is roaming about elsewhere in the story we never truly believe that this ever could have been him but its fascinating to see his companions (including the younger Brigadier) trying to get their heads around the fact that this abrasive man could be their new Doctor. Collings as the Doctor…don’t tempt me with such a delicious concept! The make up team deserve a massive round of applause because his scabrous burns look really nasty and you have to wonder what sort of pain you would have to endure to wind up as bruised as that. Although I’m not sure about the upside down spaghetti bolognaise on his head…wisely the director chooses to ignore that for the most part. With his no nonsense rude attitude and his unwillingness to suffer fools gladly (well he doesn’t suffer anybody really) Mawdryn almost plays out as a prototype sixth Doctor. Perhaps Eric Saward was taking notes of the things he liked about David Collings portrayal and saving them for the next incarnation. Whilst everybody else is wandering around the spaceship as though they are on a shopping trip Collings is using the space like a really good actor should, crawling across the floor and climbing the walls in desperation. The unusual balletic design of their robes gives the illusion that they these people are gliding across the sets – it's another oddity that works in this story’s favour. Death is always treated as something to fear on Doctor Who (including regeneration) so it is dipping its toes into some fresh waters when we close in on Mawdryn with a look of ecstasy on his face as he finally slips away. It's thoughtful moments like this that really elevate this story and it’s the only satisfying end to this terrific character. This is one of those stories that features a Saward massacre but to quote the Doctor from Caves of Androzani ‘it feels different this time…’
  • I love the dual timeline that Grimwade introduces so simply and yet so cleverly into the story. It’s the sort of thing that you imagine Doctor Who with its time travel abilities would have done plenty of times before but it has taken until its 20th season to make an attempt. It's one of those moments that really makes you sit up and pay attention to the story and one of the rare occasions when a second episode makes more of an impact than the first. There's another terrific make up job as well with the younger Brigadier looking for all the world as though the production team have a time machine and managed to sneak a younger version of Nicholas Courtney into the studio for a few days. The get out clause of both Brigadier’s heading for the spaceship sounds like it is a throwaway line (‘I remember I didn’t go with Nyssa and Tegan…I was standing near the transmitter when the TARDIS dematerialised…’) but this scenario does play out in episode four but after he has lost his memory. Clever stuff. This story has got quite a lot to answer for  (in a good way) when it comes to doppelganger stories in future series (and every science fiction show from Buffy to Farscape to Star Trek has a go at it). They build up the threat of the Brigadier meeting the Brigadier into something catastrophic that every time those any other show dabbles in the same concept I always think that something awful and Blinovitch Limitational is going to happen! 
  • For once Time Lord technology is not introduced simply to sound dramatic (the Demat Gun in The Invasion of Time, ‘Impulse laser?’ from Arc of Infinity) but to kick the story in a very different direction. The creatures suffering eternal life for dabbling in a science that they should never have been exposed to is poetic justice since they were trying to extend their lives. It goes to show just how dangerous Time Lord technology can be in the wrong hands. For once there is more than melodramatic sentiment in the title, the clue to their eternal torture is right there for the taking at the front of each episode. The image of the other seven creatures sitting in their thrones in complete silence as Turlough discovers them and barely able to react to his presence is haunting. This is the result of eternal life – eternal borderm and decrepitude. Between this and The Five Doctors, Doctor Who paints a pretty bleak picture of immortality.
  • Using time and his friends as a weapon against the Doctor is a far more insidious than simply pointing a gun in his face (ala Earthshock). Watching Nyssa and Tegan age to death (the make up looks disturbingly like they are severely battered housewives – that’s pretty destabilising for kids) and reduced to childhood is such a fascinating new angle of jeopardy I kind of wish they had made more of it. For Grimwade it is another captivating idea thrown into the melting pot that makes up this unusual story.
  • The way the uniting of the two Lethbridge Stewarts causes an explosion big enough for Mawdryn and his followers to exploit and finally commit suicide is so neat even Terrance Dicks (with his insistence on logical plot resolutions) would be applauding. I honestly couldn’t see how this was going to end satisfactorily – I thought the Doctor would whip up some indecipherable technobabble to kill Mawdryn and the Brigadier’s would never meet. What we get instead is far more satisfying. Its a script that has been running with two strong ideas only to bring them together in the climax and cancel each other out. Plus it kick starts the Brigadier’s breakdown and so effectively begins the story all over again. Very nicely done.
  • The parting shot of this show is a cremation in space. Stick the CGI on when you watch the DVD as it finally gives this poetic closing image justice.

The Bad:
  • Why did Saward feel the need to link each season with a mention at the beginning of each story with a summation of what the last one was about? If it has no place within the story you are telling then don’t include it. Ah but Tegan is still haunted by the Mara, I hear you say, it has a character purpose. Well, hardly. All it takes is for the Doctor to say ‘forget about it’ and she never mentions it again and gets on with the latest adventure. If this was something that truly got to her it would haunt her every thought…it strikes me of pretending to be character development rather than actually embracing what that actually means. It was even more apparent in Time-Flight in the wake of Adric’s death but just as sloppily handled here in a less showy way.
  • The console room has never felt more like a studio set than it does in the Davison era. The way everybody hangs around the console trying to look busy is painfully awkward. It's only when the TARDIS crew lands on the deserted spaceship which is packed full of lush detail that you realise what an embarrassingly empty space the TARDIS has become. It's even more apparent when Tegan and Nyssa drag some wicker furniture into the console room and sit down and then they look like two actresses left out of the action in front of some boring roundel flats. It is during these scenes that Moffatt’s point and shoot approach to telling a story really stumbles – it doesn’t matter so much on location when there is lush greenery to admire but in a set as drab as this his static camerawork really lets the side down.
  • ‘I want you to take the Brigadier back to the TARDIS – right to the centre!’ The TARDIS is an unending labyrinth. How long is that going to take? Maybe there’s room for the odd novel featuring the Brigadier and Nyssa wandering the TARDIS corridors? Hey I’ve seen books commissioned on less stable premise than that!

The Shallow Bit: The opening scene might be the gayest thing ever seen in Doctor Who (and this is a hotly contested category) with boarding school lads hanging around watching Turlough approvingly in their tight white T shirts and tiny sports shorts. The transmat capsule design looks oddly like the entrance to a particularly fruity 80s gay disco…perhaps JNT gave them some design tips? Janet Fielding hated her boob tube but it does make her look as cute as a button…some feat given her performance.

Result: It’s a JNT story written by Peter Grimwade and directed by Peter Moffatt and so naturally it is shite. If you thought that was what I was going to say you are wrong because I have a sneaky (as in it grows on me more every time I watch it) fondness for Mawdryn Undead with its atypical storytelling and generally attractive production. By far Grimwade’s strongest script for the series, it juggles a whole bunch of interesting ideas which include dual timelines, two Brigadiers, the Doctor regenerating into an alien, Nyssa and Tegan being infected by time and the Doctor sacrificing his remaining lives. Unlike Time-Flight (which is far too ambitious and complicated for its own good) and Planet of Fire (which is hampered by a shopping list of ingredients) Grimwade manages to tie all of these ideas into an engaging, well paced narrative that tosses aside the usual 80s lust for set pieces and tries to be a little more thoughtful. You’ve also got the introduction of the strongest companion we have seen on the show for some time and Mark Strickson proves to be an attention grabbing addition to the series. With his and Nick Courtney’s nuanced performances you can almost forgive how little the Doctor is given to do (beyond explain the plot) and how grumpy Tegan is in places (there’s nothing new in either of those observations and they’re a curse on the era) or how static the direction can be in the studio scenes. I’ve always found season 20 to be the weakest of the Davison seasons (any season that includes Arc of Infinity and The King’s Demons was never going to rank high on anybody’s list) but re-watching the stories out of order has surprised me with how innovative the story ideas are this year and how much intelligent science fiction Eric Saward was trying inject into the series whilst his producer was indulging in love letters to the past. Mawdryn Undead alone contains a number of really clever ideas (my favourite being the living death that Mawdryn and his cohorts are suffering – such a poetic consequence of their crime) but each story this year has one or two really engaging science fiction ideas at their core. Any story that can handle the Brigadier having a breakdown, reveal the dangers of misusing Time Lord technology and have the companion try and kill the Doctor and tie all three into a very clever climax is doing some quite special in my book. Add in an insane Paddy Kingsland score and some terrific design work and you have a mid eighties tale that is trying far harder than the series was given credit for at the time. Undervalued and well worth another watch: 8/10


rumblebars said...

You know, I never really noticed just how vanilla Peter's performance was here until you pointed it out. Good point on that.

I've always loved this story - it was the main reason I bought the Black Guardian Trilogy. A very logical story once it plays out but keeps you guessing til the end. I'd give this a 9/10, myself.


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Anthony Pirtle said...

It's pretty amazing to say that a story's only real weakness is the Doctor. Peter Davison does give some great performances in his tenure, but this one's so milk toast. It's this serial that sealed the deal on my opinion of the Fifth Doctor, and not for the better. Sometimes I think of David Tennant's Doctor as a sort of redo of Davison's, only done much better. They're the most compassionate, the most emotional, and the most 'human' Doctors, but imagining what Tennant would do with this script makes me a bit sad. It really is great, but it could have been amazing.

P.S. I think it says everything about my opinion of Five that my favorite of his companions is the one who's trying to murder him.