Monday, September 24, 2012

Serial 125: Mawdryn Undead - The Black Guardian Trilogy Part I

Doctor: Peter Davison (5th Doctor)
Companion: Nyssa, Tegan, Turlough

Written by: Peter Grimwade
Directed by: Peter Moffat

Background & Significance: For Doctor Who's twentieth season, producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner had the idea to bring back a bunch of The Doctor's old villains in an effort to tie every story to the legacy of the show. The kick off story ("Arc of Infinity") featured the return of the "anniversary villain" Omega and the next story ("Snakedance") featured the return of the previous season's "Mara". There were plans for The Master to return ("The King's Demons") and plans were made for the Daleks' return at the end of the season in "The Return" (which fell through and became "Resurrection of the Daleks").

But the middle of the season featured a trilogy of stories that featured The Black Guardian as something of a background running villain. It allowed the story to do new and interesting things with new and exciting villains while still retaining the "returning villain" mandate.

This is widely referred to as "The Black Guardian Trilogy". Indeed, it's even boxed and sold that way on DVD as a trilogy of 5th stories. And yet, that's not quite accurate. See, the Black Guardian (as we find out here) is just a means to an end to finish replacing Adric. It's here that we get the introduction of a new companion: Turlough. As originally conceived, Turlough was somewhat duplicitous and (for lack of better phrase) "The Evil Companion". As an idea, this was one that captured the imagination of script editor Eric Saward, who was always looking at new ways to shake things up. They would roll out this character over the course of this "Black Guardian Trilogy" and once it was all said and done they could decide whether or not they wanted to keep him around as a permanent companion.

So what I'm saying is this trilogy should be called "Vislor Turlough, or How I Learned To Stop Hating The Doctor and Join The TARDIS crew".

Written by Peter Grimwade, who was trying his hand again at writing after the disaster of "Time-Flight", focusing away from directing after having a run of phenomenal stories. Fortunately, this time around he's much more successful. It's also the return of Peter Moffat to the directing chair. But perhaps most importantly, it's the return of Nicholas Courtney as The Brigadier. Ironically, last week we talked about him in his last appearance til this one, so much like The Brigadier here, we're jumping from one story to the next with no cover over inbetween. Granted, it was SUPPOSED to be William Russell as Ian Chesterton, but he wasn't available. Nor was Ian Marter (Harry), Nathan-Turner's second choice. Which left Nick Courtney to return.

And oh what a wonderful bendy return it is.

So let's get to it!



Commentary!:

Part 1:

One of the things that’s remarkable about this story is the way that it’s totally jarring. Coming back to this story for a second time (and thusly knowing how it all works out) I’m struck by the way in which Grimwade layers all the relevant elements in a way that is intriguing yet slightly overwhelming.

It’s this confidence that really cements him as one of my favorite creative forces in the Davison era. Everything here is deftly constructed and put together like a large and remarkable puzzle. It’s not so different from “Snakedance” in that scenes are short and clipped. Now apparently this was down to Saward, who, after “Earthshock”, really implemented a much faster-moving aesthetic so people wouldn’t get bored. The thing about it here is the whole episode is so tightly and deftly structured, cross-cutting across different settings as effortlessly as anything else. The result is less confusing than it is confident: keep up because this train is moving.

That’s not the sorta thing you’d see regularly, I think. Sure, most audiences back in the day weren’t treated like they were morons (not like they are today anyways), but it’s reassuring now that Steven Moffat wasn’t the only one who did that. Indeed, if Moffat cited this as a personal favorite I wouldn’t be surprised (but we’ll get there).

By splitting up the story, but introducing it very “typically”, Grimwade is able to subvert our expectations as the story goes along, so just when we think we’ve got a handle on what’s up, the story veers one way and we’re suddenly scrambling to keep up. Because look, the way that stories work is we assume things to be taking place in a linear pattern. We start with Turlough, we cut to The Doctor, we cut back to Turlough. Those scenes (we assume) take place contemporaneously. While Turlough is being returned to the school we get the first scene in the TARDIS. It presents a nice fluid motion of time moving forward

But halfway through we get a huge twist that you aren’t really expecting: that the narrative timeline involving the TARDIS crew is actually taking place some six years into the future relative to Turlough’s narrative timeline. It’s only when Turlough gets into the Transmat Sphere that he joins up with their timestream.

These hints give insight to Grimwade’s confidence. The second you introduce time-travel into a story you have to be meticulously plotted and completely rigid in your structure. We’ll see hints of this more in the next episode, but really that dials back to what I was saying here. Grimwade can pull this story off because he knows (or rather HAS to know) what’s going on at any given moment at any given point in the narrative or it all falls apart. And it hasn’t so far (nor will it moving forward) which is inspiring from a plot perspective.

He goes further. The character work in this is really great. It’s clear from the get-go that Turlough is a trouble maker and removed from the other boys and Grimwade does a lot of work to portray Turlough as a real person/character. His self-interest colors him as a strong character (strong characters require wants and needs and initiative to accomplish them) and the trickster qualities he displays at the beginning (he’s quick to trick his “friend” Ibbotson into stealing the car with him) shade him into the role of mischievous rather than outrightly evil. And sure enough, it means that the Black Guardian’s hold over him is instant (Turlough is a coward) and certain (again, mischievous). What’s crazy too is seeing him interact with the world knowing all this. He moves methodically and surely (and yet deviating when he sees an opportunity) and it makes him impossibly enticing right from the get go.

And then you have the Brigadier, who is… I won’t say harsh, but he comes off different than he did back in the day. He’s more brash and insulting than you’d expect him to be.

Also no mustache.

But go further. The key moment in this is the way Nick Courtney absolutely sells the line “nothing can just vanish into thin air” (it’s a paraphrase but go with it). Clearly he knows about the TARDIS. He’s seen it vanish dozens of times. And yet there’s an ambiguity to it that sounds like he truly believes what it is he’s saying, despite the fact that surely that can’t be true. Why would it be true? This is The Brigadier. Sure he has no mustache, but why would he forget the TARDIS. Musta made an impact on him. And yet the ambiguity persists and layers yet another question into this whole thing: “what is going on with the Brigadier”?

Then we have The Doctor and Tegan and Nyssa. They’re the rock. The thing that makes this whole thing make sense. With Turlough we have a story that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything (but it does have The Black Guardian) set in a boarding school.

The TARDIS crew, though… they’re investigating an ornate, empty spaceship. And I have to throw the production team a bone here because this design is marvelous and sumptuous to look at. It goes far beyond what you would normally see in the average Doctor Who story and feels lived in and exotic in ways few other places don’t. Even Moffat’s direction (which is workmanlike more than anything else) can’t avoid making the spaceship look absolutely stunning. It stands out and feels remarkably alien to the TARDIS crew, and watching The Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa explore is quintessential Doctor Who. There’s nothing like an investigation.

And there’s also nothing like the other revelation (again, buried in the details) that this spaceship has been empty for the past six years, when its crew bailed for places unknown.

All of this make a fantastic first episode of something that uses classic elements (The Doctor and his crew exploring an abandoned spaceship and even the cliffhanger is quintessential Doctor Who) and blends them with stuff that’s new and exciting (Turlough, the six year time difference) to make something truly exciting and fresh. Seeing the mashup of the typical British boarding school with the exotic and empty alien spaceship is absolutely Doctor Who and the trans-temporal storytelling is remarkably effective in its freshness. It hints at quality, at confidence, at a promise it’ll pay off in the coming episodes.

In short: it’s got me absolutely wanting to stay tuned.

Part 2:

So the first episode comes out of the gate with tons of ideas and intrigue and excitement. Grimwade zags when you expect him to zig. And so too does he do that with this episode. Because this episode wasn’t that. And that’s not bad, it’s just not what you expect.

No, this episode is about The Brigadier. Turlough is pushed to the background (and C-story really) while the story splits time between the two different time zones of The Brigadier. It’s a start to the unraveling of the mystery of what’s going on. Like why DOESN’T The Brigadier remember The Doctor in the midst of all this madness? It leads to some really great unraveling and untangling that ends in a great, cathartic montage of past Brigadier moments. And to add to the magic of that we have Peter Davison doing a fantastic job of building in the relationship with The Brigadier in a way that no Doctor really… speaks to the legacy of the character. He greets him like an old friend and is… giddy to see him. It’s honestly a wonder there’s no embrace.

This is one of those great situations where the answer to the question (why does The Brigadier not recognize The Doctor?) only spawns more questions. Grimwade introduces more wrinkles. Sure The Doctor meets The Brigadier in 1983 (which is Turlough’s timeframe, I was mistaken), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Turns out The Brigadier met Tegan in 1977 and something crazy went down in 1977 that made him forget some stuff. He has to pull it out like yarn from a labyrinth, the memories coming back only as he pulls on them. It’s subtly ominous, especially because Grimwade (very keenly) puts in the bit that The ‘77 Brigadier remembers The Doctor immediately. Nay. He recognizes the TARDIS by name. So what changed? Why is this difference? And how in the bloody world are they going to fix this whole mess of a situation?

What I like about this is it’s not played for “WHAT IS HAPPENING”. There’s a casualness about this that I rather like. Compare it to something like Moffat’s run, where Moffat does his “usual thing” every time he writes an episode and plays it like it’s the most insanely unique and genius thing you’ve ever seen.

But here it’s played straight. It’s quiet and subdued and doesn’t… showboat.  I find that makes it even charminger. What Grimwade’s doing here is WAY ahead of its time. Hell, we don’t see anything like this until Moffat does “Girl in the Fireplace” (or “Blink”, take your pick). And yet if you watch this episode you’d half expect Classic Doctor Who to do something this bendy all the time. That’s great. And it means you don’t have time to marvel at how clever it is. Grimwade’s focus is on the characters, dealing with The Brigadier and his burgeoning memories as well as the way Turlough is dealing with the Black Guardian.

The narrative complexity of it is also so… smooth. Look at the way Grimwade and Moffat cut between the two Brigadier scenes. Both take place in the same locale and yet they cut between the two time zones, with the mustache-less Brigadier finishing a sentence or an action started in the ’77 timeline.

And then there’s the person Nyssa and Tegan assume is “The Doctor”. We find out very slowly over the course of the episode that it isn’t him. But what’s interesting is the way in which Grimwade convinces you that it is. He explains that this fellow has “regenerated” (which is not a lie), which leads them to believe that this is The Doctor reincarnated in a new body. And that’s fine. Hell, the first time you watch it you believe it because why not? Anything can happen and there’s a sense of unease because of the time-shifting. This story can be going in any direction and why not this? There’s probably a way to undo it anyways, isn’t there?

Except we get to the end and we realize that what we thought MIGHT have been The Doctor isn’t. No. It’s someone scary and subjected to real body horror. The shock reveal at the end is not what we’re expecting and it’s all the more thrilling for it. It’s all in that bloody scalp piece. What is that?

So there is still a sense of “what’s going on”, but it’s logical enough if you follow it. Grimwade isn’t exactly breaking the bank with insanity, he’s merely doling it out in chunks of intrigue. At two episodes in I can’t stop watching and I’m impossibly thrilled to see what they’re going to throw at me next. And that’s… well… ringing AND endorsement, isn’t it? It’s fresh, it’s exciting, and an instant classic. And we’re only halfway through.

Part 3:

It takes a talented writer to build to something. It takes an even more talent to build to something slowly and effectively such that you don’t realize that something HAS been building.

I say this because just this morning I was watching an excellent, excellent two part episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. These two episodes (“Favor the Bold” and “Sacrifice of Angels”) are very methodical in the way they lay out their storylines. The first feeds into the second and the second builds off the groundwork of the first, but does so in such a way that well, for lack of better terminology, it slowly brings the pot to boil so you don’t notice it’s getting hotter. Anyone can throw Cybermen into a story and make it exciting, or perhaps more specifically throw vicious vaporizing kill robots into a situation and then transition into a big Cybermen reveal (see “Earthshock”). And that’s not saying “Earthshock” is bad, it’s just much more generic and easier to do.

Slowly bringing the pot to boil is much more difficult. “Favor the Bold” is an incredible episode of television because everything that happens in it just raises the tension by a hair up and up and up until you realize (by the end) that what you’ve watched was a clusterfuck of insanity and the pot’s boiling and you can’t even stand it.

That’s what’s great about this story. It’s a story that’s very quietly and very methodically sucking you in until it gets to a point in this episode where you realize that it’s rich with tension and madness. There’s nothing strange about the way The ’77 Brigadier enters the TARDIS in 1977, but then you get the revelation later in the episode that the mustache-less Brigadier never actually entered the TARDIS. So what does that mean for this? Is he breaking the laws of time? Is there something the Brigadier isn’t telling us? Is one an imposter while the other one isn’t? Or is this something much crazier and insanerer?

And then they complexify the narrative further by having both Brigadiers running around the alien spaceship with the distinct possibility of them running into each other, which would not be good. Clearly this was an idea that pre-dated Back to the Future Part II.

So we have The Brigadiers running around getting into possible trouble. We have Turlough being taunted and tormented by a somewhat-ambivalent Black Guardian. And we have the awakening of the six other exiles (Mawdryn?). All of these plots converge at the same time and feel like a rocket taking off. Suddenly we’re crosscutting between storylines and not even Moffat’s slow editing can break the momentum (seriously? Can he cut just a LITTLE bit faster? Jesus). This isn’t just thrown together at once. There’s a method and a structure to when these things happen. They’re like fireworks, all specifically timed to go off in rapid succession at key moments for maximum impact.

That’s not easy. That takes a lot of work and a lot of planning and it’s a wonder that Grimwade didn’t do it more effectively in “Time-Flight”. But here it’s really spectacular. I can’t get enough of this plot and the way it’s all piecing together.

What I also like is the subversion that Grimwade keeps throwing at us. Who are these Mawdryn? What are they doing? Where do they come from? Are they even really The Doctor? I love the way the lead Mawdryn feigns being The Doctor. It really does keep you second guessing yourself despite the fact that it’s rather obvious that it isn’t, in fact, The Doctor. And the revelation of the Time Lord stealing device (while fanwanky) is a really clever and interesting idea to have. I love seeing the “people who cannot die” played out in such a body horror manner, and it’s little touches like the way the exposed brain pulses that really make the design come to life.

Where the design falls apart is the design room, which is back to normal, bog standard Doctor Who sci-fi. And fine. I’ve seen way, way worse, but it’s odd to have Doctor Who have such a brilliant design (and with vases of dead flowers! Genius!) hampered by a “regeneration room” that looks like generic 80s Who.

Still, that’s a minor quibble. What’s important is that this is really great, isn’t it? It’s a great story that (yes) has a little bit TOO much running around. Me, I like it when things have a linear progression and we’re not so much running back and forth as we are running from new place to new place. There’s a distinct lack of that here, but it’s hardly noticeable. There’s only so many times you need to run to and from the regeneration room, isn’t there? Sure, it’s a little bit real life, but in a tight structure such as this one it comes off as a little wheel spinny and time wastey where it… shouldn’t have to.

And yes, the cliffhanger is melodramatic and a little bullshit, but you know what? Fine. Not all stories need cliffhangers. I know they’re going somewhere with it, but my point stands. The Doctor saying he has to die? Come on…

Part 4:

I guess it’s only meaningful if I wrap up at the end by saying that you know it’s a great story when the ending is surprising yet inevitable and comes with an elegance that you can’t really even question.

So yes. This was all building in a specific way. The two Brigadiers converge at exactly the right moment to completely save The Doctor from making the ultimate sacrifice. Sure, the ultimate sacrifice was hardly necessary, but it at least makes sense in the context of the story. Honestly, though, this is probably why Peter Davison’s Doctor comes off as “too nice” or “not for everybody.” The Doctor sacrificing himself for these eight undead scientists is impossibly noble to the point of eye rolling. Hell, it’s hardly believable and it’s only because Peter Davison is such a damn fine actor that he manages to sell it at all.

Yeah, I get that he has to do this because there is no alternative. He can’t leave his companions behind or allow them to die (Grimwade really dials into the emotional ripples of the death of Adric in a way he really didn’t in “Time-Flight” where it would have been more awesome), but it’s still a bit rubbish.

That said, I find that it really does work in the end. It doesn’t matter because we KNOW The Doctor will come back next week. What’s interesting and worthwhile about it is seeing how The Doctor gets out of it, and he only gets out of it because The Brigadier is something of a rapscallion. For being a military man he doesn’t really quite follow any orders of any kind, does he? Everyone and their mother tries to get the two Brigadiers away from each other. The Mawdryn RACE to get The Brigadier away and into the safety of a capsule. The Doctor spends half his time in this keeping the Brigadier away. Hell, even The Black Guardian makes keeping The Brigadiers apart the key mission for Turlough all through this episode.

They all fail, of course, but like I said that’s all down to The Brigadier being a badass. He doesn’t listen to anyone, least of all some puissant boarding school boy.

What I find perhaps most charming about it all, though, is the way it speaks to the fundamentals of space exploration and the human condition. And yes, I went from getting really petty to blowing out the scope of the whole entry, but hear me out on this. The Brigadiers reaching out and touching hands is one of the key moments of this story for me. I mean, actually, honestly, if I were doing one of those minimalist posters for this episode, it would be of two same hands touching (or close to touching) each other. As an image it’s deeply iconic and really speaks to my emotions in a way I can’t really describe. There’s a poetry to it. An elegance. The two Brigadiers in this episode are mostly oblivious to the fact that there’s an older/younger version of themselves running around the place and that their meeting coujld be catastrophic.

It doesn’t really sink in with them. It doesn’t really resonate. They go about their business, but when they see something in the universe that is truly wonderous they stop and have a look. Nothing in the world captures their attention. The older Brigadier sees Nyssa and Tegan age and de-age rapidly before his eyes while the Younger Brigadier spends the better part of two episodes traipsing about some exotic alien spaceship. Transmats don’t phase them, nor does the technology or the fact that there’s some weird and crazy mutant shit going on around them. That he’s about to see The Doctor sacrifice himself in the name of these people or that he will witness someone burning through extant regenerations doesn’t seem to bother him either. This is The Brigadier. Nothing gets through his skin.

And yet, when faced with his own mortality, with his own reflection in a mirror, he stops. He sees himself. He has to touch it. That is quintessentially human. It’s that curiosity of the unknown. The desire to grab everything and every experience and assimilate it so it becomes something that we can describe. If you see yourself you have to make contact with your fingers. You have to understand the experience. And what is more alien than one’s own body? It’s the one thing that someone can’t actually ever completely come to terms with because we all live in our own skin bubbles and we’re never given a proper context for what we’re like from a third person perspective (barring really bad drug trips of course). But that need goes further. Suddenly you are able to see what your past looks like. Or your future. Depends on which version of you you are. And yet the point stands, it’s a completely atypical moment. It’s a moment when you are aware of your own mortality, your own you. It happens so quickly, but Nick Courtney sells the hell out of it, and from both sides. The Younger Brigadier is struck by the not knowing. He’s never done anything like this before. And the Older Brigadier has been through it but can’t help himself. It’s rather beautiful.

Then it ends, and it ends rather abruptly. The ’77 Brigadier is dropped off where they first picked him up and the prophecy of “I never got into the TARDIS” is fulfilled (the shock of the meeting musta fried his brain). The Mustache-less Brigadier feels fit as a fiddle and better than he had since before meeting Tegan. So that’s settled.

But it ends quickly. The TARDIS crew doesn’t stick around to bid either Brigadier much of a farewell and we’re left with Turlough on the TARDIS as a provisional member of the crew. Yes. It doesn’t quite work. Why bring Turlough along in the first place? We hardly know him. (I have a theory about this that we’ll go into later). And yet the handshake is not done quite with the note of finality you might expect from a Companion introduction. In fact, it doesn’t do a very good job in terms of actually wrapping everything with Turlough up. Yeah The Black Guardian went silent, but for how long? And there’s the look on his face that’s smug and hinting at the fact that he probably won’t be up to much good in the coming future.

It’s the unease that gets me. It leaves me tremendously cautious about the show moving forward and honestly I think it works better than the end of “Full Circle” which was much the same. “Full Circle” ended with The Doctor and Romana still stuck in E-Space. And that’s fine. That was shocking. But the thing about that one is we KNOW The Doctor and Romana are going to get out of E-Space. It’s just clear that that didn’t happen this week. What makes this more shocking here is the way in which it builds in a character with a big ol’ question mark over this. Yes, we know Turlough WILL be dealt with at some point, but there’s no telling which way that will go. With hindsight we know he goes on to be a permanent companion on the other side of this trilogy, but there’s still an unease. We don’t now HOW it will happen. We don’t know what surprises are coming up on the way. We don’t really even know where it’s going to go next.

So we end an exciting story with exciting possibilities. And that leaves me giddy for what’s right around the corner. Can’t ask for more than that.


Final Thoughts: So yeah, I really like this story.

The reason to this comes down almost entirely to the writing. Peter Grimwade is a surprisingly fantastic writer. He does a great job of putting together a really great story with a really excellent plot and structure. It's a story that benefits from repeat viewings so you can catch all the little touches everyone throws in.

What I also love about it is the way it's fan service but to a point. Eventually later you have fan service for the sake of fan service. And yet here you have fan service that really fits into the story. Yes you have the Brigadier in this story (hell, you have two), but you also have him being the key to solving the Mawdryn plight. Yes you have The Black Guardian, but all of his moves and methods they all push and test Turlough and develop his character. So not only can Grimwade put together a hell of a story, but he can also weave the laundry list of things he has to do into something that's coherent and exciting.

Then again, "Planet of Fire" was proof of that as well.

But seriously, this is really just ready-made Classic Who. It's a cracking good story and a wonderful thing for  people who are into time travel. It's aged remarkably well and it's a great use of every single member of the TARDIS crew. Davison is as good as he usually is and he even sells the insane plot of the Mawdryn, which is easily the dopiest part of this story. The design work is deeply memorable and it's a bloody shame that Stephen Scott never really designed anything else. Hell, even Peter Moffat's direction is its typical serviceable and he does a lot of interesting things with space and the distance between things. The wide shots get the scope of Scott's design and present a detached lonliness that feels tonally relevant to a script about incomplete selves (The Brigadier has both a past and future that are incomplete in his head; the Mawdryn live without dying, so their lives are incomplete). The tight claustrophobia of the regeneration chamber conveys how trapped everyone feels while on the ship.

It's a great setup story and a great story in its own right. It's a story I come back to again and again and one of my favorites of both the era and the season. It's a real classic and without ever being assuming or in-your-face clever. One of the most unappreciated gems of the Davison era. Bar none.


Next Time!: 5th Doctor! More Turlough! A leper colony in space! Tin can armor suits! A giant wolf beast! And the departure of Nyssa! Cassandra's stepping in to discuss "Terminus" as we continue our week long discussion of The Black Guardian Trilogy! Coming This Wednesday!

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