Companion: Tegan, Turlough
Written by: Barbara Clegg
Directed by: Fiona Cumming
Background & Significance: With "Terminus" in the rearview mirror, the Doctor Who production team set about looking for a story that would wrap up this "Black Guardian Trilogy" that was the centerpiece of season twenty. To write it, Eric Saward brought in Barbara Clegg, whom he knew from his time working in radio. To direct, Nathan-Turner brought back returning stalwart Fiona Cumming, who had just come off directing the phenomenal "Snakedance".
What's remarkable is that Nathan-Turner even managed to produce it. The story itself ran afoul of a labour strike (don't they always) and Nathan-Turner sacrificed what eventually became "Resurrection of the Daleks" to make it happen. Clearly this pained Nathan-Turner, who was a big proponent for The Daleks returning because, hey, ratings! But that sacrifice led to one of the true high points of the era and one of the best Classic stories, as far as I'm concerned. It's a personal favourite of mine, and as we round the corner towards the last three months of this blog, I love that I'm finally able to talk about it.
So let's get to it!
There’s a thing about stories. They transport you to a different world, a different place in time. It’s places like these that you don’t want to leave. Hogwarts is a magical place full of wonder and mystery. You can only be there while you are delving into the pages of the book or watching the movie on the big screen. Once they’re over you have to leave. And you don’t want to jump back into your real world where Hogwarts isn’t real and the world has a little less magic in it. But equally as important as Hogwarts (and I’d argue, even MORE important) are the characters who populate that world. Good characters are the people you want to hang with. Without the characters you’re just a tourist taking pictures. With the characters you’re bonding over experiences.
But when The Doctor and Turlough enter the barracks the story kicks into high gear. Clegg does a fantastic job of making all of the different crew members who talk stick out in different ways, and paints a fantastic picture (in the span of just a few exchanges of dialogue) of what it’s like living on this ship. There’s a charmingness to it. It’s in the way the sailors all play cards or have a rowdy sense of humor. It fits right into the Edwardian aesthetic that is so integral to the subversion at the end of the episode, but it also paints a world that I want to spend a lot of time in. Already I’m grasping everything I can because I know that in another hour and a half I’ll be completely done with it. It’s a great problem to have, and yet I’d still consider it a problem.
So Clegg sets up a fantastic world infested with mysteries around every corner and Fiona Cumming does a great job of building off of that. Sure, Clegg is the one who probably wrote the bit about the First Officer looking directly into the scanner, but it’s Cumming who brings that image to life in all its insanely unsettling glory. It’s images like this that (and many others) that make Clegg so effective in her Doctor Who writing. To be perfectly honest, the fact that she’s not written for Doctor Who before (and was just a fan when she wrote this) leaves her script to come up with anything she wants to do. It’s surrealist and abstract in the way that the first episode of “The Mind Robber” is surrealist and abstract and it does so in a way that I don’t think Classic Who had done since then. Hell, if I had to compare it to anything, the closest would probably be the opening episode to “Carnival of Monsters”. And that’s not a bad thing at all.
But when they all head to the wheel room the reveals are relentless. You have the reveal of “wetsuits” in an Edwardian context (which makes no sense) and the reveal of the race map having not marker buoys but large round objects instead that look a lot like… something and then finally reveal of electronic panels(!!!) leading up the breathtaking reveal that we’re not just on an Edwardian sailing ship, we’re actually on a spaceship and while in space there’s a whole bunch of other spaceships that all look like sailing ships.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best cliffhangers of the Davison era, and with good reason. If you don’t know it’s coming it’s one of those great cliffhangers that make you scream and demand the next episode RIGHT NOW.
At the heart of all this is Peter Davison as The Doctor. I love the way he’s constantly thinking and putting the pieces together and it’s really a phenomenal showcase for him (and he’s not even the centerpiece of the table). I love his cool, calm, and collectedness and the way he’s casually investigating the situation. He’s put off by everything that happens, but even he’s left guessing right up until the end. Also not to be slouched off is Janet Fielding taking what Clegg is doing with the character and pushing it to the place. Much as I’m reluctant to say that I really like a companion being a damsel, I must confess that seeing Tegan relegated to that position is deeply unsettling. What happened to the firebrand and the brash? This First Officer is really putting her off and Tegan being scared makes us scared.
It’s a phenomenal opening episode, and what’s crazy? It’s only going to get better.
The secret is to focus on something specific in each episode. For example, episode two of “Spearhead From Space” is about nothing but The Autons moving around. Episode three is about their guns. We have the same thing here. Episode one was all about the mystery of this ship and what the hell is going on. In this episode Clegg broadens the scope but does a phenomenal job of keeping it impossibly restrained in said scope. Specifically, this whole episode is about nothing more than the catharsis of stepping out onto the deck after learning a whole hell of a lot about the Eternals and how they interact with this world they’re in.
What makes Clegg such a brilliant writer is the way in which she takes that concept and blows it out into a full-fledged metaphor/allegory and twists it into such a way that it becomes a fascinating commentary and sci-fi concept that’s even relevant today. It’s a Marxist/classist argument about how “the haves” behave and how they relate to the “have-nots”. And she wraps it up in an Edwardian sailing yacht where the officers are the “haves” (and in Edwardian times, would have been) while the crew are the “have-nots” (as they would have been). Then she applies a sci-fi conceit to it where the crew are humans (or “Ephemerals”) and the officers are “Eternals” who walk in eternity. This yacht race is just for the Eternals’ entertainment. It is “to make eternity more bearable”.
And I love that Clegg takes this concept and runs with it. As an episode it’s never boring even once despite the fact that very little is actually happening, and that’s because of this… prism she holds in her hands. She forms it in the first episode and through the next bunch of episodes she slowly rotates it in the light, seeing how it bounces and shapes depending on the situation. You have Marriner who doesn’t care one bit for the “Ephemerals” on The Greek-- actually it’s more than that: he doesn’t even think about him. This is all just a game and the people are pawns, which is no different than war, really. You have the people who wage the war, and they’re in no way the people who have to die for the war. It’s a thought that horrifies Tegan and makes her sick to her stomach.
What surprises me even more is how adept Clegg is at making these characters work in a realistic context. Eternity is a long time and of course they would suffer boredom. So they play these games to pass the time and find excitement. It’s why the Striker is so intense on cutting it as close to Venus as he possibly can. It’s not JUST because he wants to win but also because the rush that maybe he might “die” keeps him alive and keeps him sane. These beings are so far removed from anything resembling “life” or “human experiences” that it’s a wonder they haven’t completely lost their minds. They’re nihilists. Were it not for “games” like this, who knows what they’d do.
Even more fascinating still is the fact that Turlough is in the midst of something of an existential crisis in the midst of all this madness happening. He has the opportunity to help one of the Ephemerals (Jackson) throw the rum overboard, thereby crippling the Eternals’ power over this crew. And yet when the chips are down Turlough betrays Jackson in order to gain favor with Striker etc. As a moment, it shows Turlough and his true colors. He’s a coward and it’s a moment that The Doctor looks down on him for. When the chips are down, Turlough will side with whoever has the most power that he might not incur their wrath later.
Yet, I’m not convinced it doesn’t affect him, and that’s what’s smart about it. Turlough is wracked with guilt, guilt at his continual betrayal of The Doctor (as he did in “Terminus” when he allowed the ship to be crashed into the Lazar convoy or his almost killing of The Doctor in “Mawdryn Undead”), at his cowardice.
Guilt is state of mind based on memory. It’s based on remorse and thought and insecurity. It is something The Eternals can never experience. They care not for the past, for they walk in eternity. They have no remorse, for they walk in eternity. And yet guilt makes us human. Guilt is one of those emotions or feelings that can actively shape your actions in the future. It affects change. The brunt of Turlough’s guilt manifests itself in The Black Guardian, a bully who torments and beats him up for the thoughts in his mind. It’s an anguish and a torment that he can’t bear to handle.
As a moment, it is an attempted suicide. It’s an existential crisis and an attempt to finally be rid of all the guilt and sin he carries with him constantly. And yet, this action is only possible because of complex thoughts. Jellyfish have no thoughts of suicide, nor do dogs (so far as we know). And yet, so too the Eternals have no thoughts of suicide either. Why would they? They walk in eternity, there is no point. But Turlough’s ability to feel that, to attempt it makes him better than they could ever be because on some deep level he understands how much it hurts to be human. He understands what it’s like to know this suffering or what have you. It’s something the Eternals could never understand because they don’t understand humanity.
The Doctor from a very early point in this episode aligns himself against them. They are the opposite of everything he stands for. They do not understand love or pain, they do not understand the people beneath them. They have neither care nor compassion. Hell, they don’t even have an imagination or ideas to better themselves. To make them even scarier, there are points where their powers seem limitless. They see all, they know all. And it makes me wonder how the hell The Doctor is going to defeat them or, hell, how he might even be able to beat them. The ship explosion didn’t kill the Eternal, just shifted him back to his higher plane of existence. And yeah, The Doctor can block their minds with momentary anger, but such actions are fleeting in the grand scheme of things. They can read his thoughts and steal the TARDIS. They can see conversations that happen behind their backs.
Here Clegg pushes out the scope even further. Not a few minutes into this episode Turlough is rescued by the pirate ship in the race, which is commanded by Captain Wrack and about half of this episode (possibly more) is spent on Wrack’s ship. Wrack herself (as Philip Sandifer already wrote up so elegantly) is a cornerstone to understanding the coding of the plight of Turlough dealing with being a homosexual on a family television programme. But because I’m not nearly as smart as Sandifer is and because he already covered it I’ll go in a different direction.
What we have is escalation, echoed by an expansion of the scope. Suddenly we’re privy to other Eternals and the stakes become higher because we know that Wrack has a weapon she can use to turn the odds in her favour. Now we don’t know what it is, but that doesn’t matter. The point of the end of this episode is that the threat is very real and Captain Wrack is a real, true villain whom our heroes should be very wary of. I mean… if the bit about telling Tegan to freeze doesn’t get you I don’t know what will.
If I might be shallow for a minute, the design on this is incredible. I mean, I know that we had a big in-depth last episode that didn’t involve me being shallow, but my god that’s all this is. All the sets are phenomenal and the set design and thoughts that go into everything is great. I love the life preservers and nets that they use to save Turlough and all of the scenes on all the ships are rich in their textures. It creates a world that we absolutely believe at every second of the way and perfectly blends a BBC costume drama with a huge sci-fi bent.
I never realized this, but this is really one of the best Turlough stories that’s ever been. Seriously. The dilemma he’s put in and the hole he keeps digging for himself is really rather excellent because it’s totally in character with who he is now, and it’s something that disappears after this story. Once this ends Turlough lacks the mystery and intrigue of this trilogy and becomes slightly more standard. But everything he does here has the ability to keep you guessing and wondering what’s happening. I love the way he goes back to the Grid Room at the bottom of the ship. What does he think he’ll accomplish by going down there? Turlough’s only allegiance is to himself and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just means that he’s got to live with those decisions (which he clearly seems incapable of doing).
This puts a strain on The Doctor and while he tries not to show it it’s obvious that it does get to him. What I love about it is that Davison’s Doctor is always thinking and juggling a number of things at once. It’s not hard for him to use Marriner to suss out Turlough’s location on Wrack’s ship once they arrive, nor is it too difficult for him to figure out what the Grid Room is used for, or at least, the actual mechanics of how it’s used rather than the purpose for its use. I love seeing him deal with Turlough and figuring out what’s going on (it’s useful for later) and I love the way that Turlough cries out for The Doctor in his moment of anguish when he’s tormented by The Black Guardian. Discussions of slash aside, it speaks greatly to Turlough’s need for a role model he can believe in, rather than leaning on the next source of power.
So we’re dealing with a Turlough story, which is only fitting for a trilogy that we're affectionately calling “Vislor Turlough, OR How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Trust The Doctor”.
And trust him Turlough better, because god knows that he and The Doctor were just captured by pirates. And Jesus god if that isn’t a great place to be regardless of going into a final episode or not.
So like I said, Clegg pulled back the scope in episode three to fill out what else she needed for this story. She introduces the character of Captain Wrack, who is Turlough’s greed and a direct counterpoint to The Doctor’s temperament as Turlough’s conscience. Interestingly, Clegg doesn’t increase the scope here, nor does she need to. Where the story focuses is perfect as is and she wisely doesn’t do what isn’t needed. All that matters in the moment is the moment when Turlough is forced to decide which way he wants to go. Will he side with Captain Wrack or will he side with The Doctor?
When telling a story, it’s important to get all the mileage you can out of a given concept. Don’t leave meat on the bone. Make it the best god damn use of your premise you possibly can. It’s one of my complaints about The Moffat era (especially in the episodes Moffat pens himself). Moffat is fine with introducing a bunch of crazy concepts but he never really goes anywhere with them. Zombie-Daleks? That’s awesome, but what the hell do they do besides menace a little bit. An Asylum of the Daleks? Awesome, but what makes it so god damn special that you need to call it “an asylum” when you’re not going to do anything significant with that premise?
All of these things are great and really get to the heart of this story’s premise. It’s thrilling to watch the 5th Doctor panic (he panics better than just about everyone) and then attempt to destroy the jewel before racing to throw it out. Cumming directs the hell out of the sequence and while I question their ability to get all the shattered pieces off the rug (it shattered into a lot of little pieces) it doesn’t really bother me because it’s so exhilarating. Hell, it even uses the Eternals’ own imagination against them: The Doctor is the only one who could save the ship because he was the only person with the imagination to throw the damn thing over board. Again, Clegg is remarkably skilled at her world building and mythologizing. The Eternals are folk who have captured my imagination since before I even saw this episode (thanks, Wikipedia). It’s so simple and elegant yet so narratively ingenious that I have to applaud Clegg for doing such a damn good job with her own creations.
But where it falls apart is in the lack of knowledge. The narrative shifts suddenly from the Buccaneer to the Shadow (and Stirker and Tegan and Marriner), where we witness two bodies ejected into the vacuum of space. We do not see the bodies but are meant to assume it’s The Doctor and Turlough. But it doesn’t make sense for them to be, and it’s an odd moment to limit the perspective of the narrative. Not only that, but we’re not privy to any of the action that goes down. It’s not The Doctor and Turlough of course, it’s Captain Wrack and her first mate, but the idea is that it’s Wrack who pulls into the finish first and it’s Wrack who will win Enlightenment.
It’s a feint. Somehow The Doctor and Turlough overpowered Captain Wrack and jettisoned her and her first mate off the ship. As a result The Doctor becomes ship captain and wins Enlightenment, leading to the fantastic climax of the story.
Now, here’s the problem with this, and here’s why it almost doesn’t work, and here’s why it does work. The climax of the story involves Turlough deciding once and for all if he will carry out The Black Guardian’s orders and kill The Doctor OR if he will abandon that and say “fuck you” and become a companion. That’s the crux the last twelve episodes have hinged upon: this decision. And up until the last minute the story does a good job of making it unclear about which way Turlough will go. And when we get to the ending bit it’s a Turlough battling himself over whether he will give into his greed or he sides with The Doctor and realizes there’s more to life than that. It’s a great character moment and is the cherry on top of this phenomenal story.
When the chips are down, though, he sided with The Doctor. He fought Wrack AND her first mate and chucked them overboard to allow The Doctor to win. Now not seeing that papers over the fact that this is what happened (and fine it’s not shown, but this feels like real extrapolation here; The Doctor’s outnumbered three to one, Turlough WOULD side with Captain Wrack) and leaves us with the great ending at the table with Turlough deciding whether or not he wants to accept the winnings of Enlightenment. But the fact remains that Turlough still chose The Doctor over Wrack and helped The Doctor win the sailing race.
And of course the ending is spectacular and really shows Turlough’s growth as a character. For the past twelve episodes The Black Guardian has coiled himself around Turlough’s mind like a snake, holding it in an iron grip. And that fear has taken him a long way in getting what he wants. And yet there’s something that’s much more powerful than fear: faith. It all comes back to faith. All through these episodes The Doctor has had faith in Turlough and right up to the end of this The Doctor absolutely believes in him one hundred percent. It’s been said before, but the look on Peter Davison’s face as Turlough decides is one of absolute confidence but without any smuggery.
That’s the thing that brings Turlough back from the edge. The Doctor’s faith in him means more than The Black Guardian’s threats. Why do you need to believe the threats when you have something like The Doctor’s faith in you on your side? It’s an aspiring quality, one of those “positive emotions” that is more effective than “negative ones”. And it’s the thing that ultimately saves Turlough and absolves him of his sins: The Doctor knows what Turlough’s done, he knows what’s been going on, and quite frankly, he doesn’t care because he knows that Turlough is worthy of forgiveness and redemption.
And yet those people probably still love “Enlightenment”, so what does that tell you?
Now, though, I have to pour one out for Barbara Clegg, who never got another Doctor Who story on the air. Sure, she pitched some (and thank god for Big Finish) but it's disheartening that the show went for more Johnny Byrne than they did for this. Why Eric Saward didn't love this to absolute pieces is why I will never be able to endorse his vision of Doctor Who. I mean... is this not everything? What is this missing? The answer is it isn't missing a god damn thing and that's wonderful. It discusses so much and discusses it so thoroughly that it's instantly one of my favorite Doctor Who stories ever, and easily my second favorite Davison story period. This is a story I could watch forever and I would eat it up with a spoon every single fucking time.
Ten out of ten, five stars, Easy A. I'm so sad it's over, I could watch it again right now.
Next Time!: 1st Doctor! Surrealist Nightmare Toyroom! Invisible Doctor! Hopscotch! And a whole lot of bickering! It's the last rubbish story we're going to cover for this blog so let's make it count: "The Celestial Toymaker!" Coming Next Tuesday!