Friday, August 14, 2009


DVD Taster: The Black Guardian Trilogy

I’m rather late with this week’s Doctor Who DVD release, but there’s plenty of it: The Black Guardian Trilogy Box Set from 1983 (and how very 1983) stars Peter Davison as the Doctor across three stories and a new ‘Special Edition’ of the finale. It’s an intriguing set, though not an upbeat one – all three stories evoke the Flying Dutchman and hint at vampirism, though they do so in very different styles. Mawdryn Undead opens the set as rock opera, elegiac, flawed but compelling; the closing Enlightenment is captivating, inspired and beautiful; but Terminus in the middle is… Drab.

Back in 1978-9, the series was given over to the rather fabulous quest for the Key To Time, six linked stories which ended with the Doctor apparently turning his back on both the White Guardian (God – or is he?) and the Black Guardian (the Devil – or is he?), with the latter – if, indeed, there was ever any difference between them – vowing vengeance on him. In 1983, the Black Guardian returned for three linked stories (four episodes to each) in which he enlisted a young man, Turlough, to kill the Doctor. Turlough, then, becomes a rather refreshing change to most of the Doctor’s companions, having something of an ulterior motive when he joins the TARDIS crew. These three stories are rather more Turlough’s than the Black Guardian’s, though both are pictured with the Doctor on the rather nice DVD box set cover, and despite being a sequel to The Key To Time, you don’t need to have watched it first. In fact, this Trilogy’s probably best not watched back-to-back with the ’70s stories. Despite both storylines sailing as close to fantasy and magic as Doctor Who ever does, the ’80s set has a very different feel, not least in that the Guardians are no longer mysterious presences each scary in their own right, and possibly both the same person – subtlety has left the production office and strict Manichean dualism is in, with the Black Guardian now very definitely evil and having enormous fun cackling to prove it, while the once cold and frightening White Guardian eventually appears as now a rather ineffectual but nice old gent whom the Doctor regards as thoroughly trustworthy rather than a bullying sky git. Remarkably, while the overarching characters are comparatively crass, the scripts themselves are rather subtle, leading to an intriguing mix of moods in which the Black Guardian himself often stands out like a sore duck, though his ostentatious villainy’s always hugely entertaining.

If you want more of the Guardians, incidentally, Big Finish this year released The Key 2 Time, another set of three linked stories (plus prequel The Prisoner’s Dilemma), also rather good, which as the name implies follow on not only from The Black Guardian Trilogy but from the events of The Key To Time – and for these CDs, you are better off watching the TV stories first. The Judgement of Isskar, The Destroyer of Delights and The Chaos Pool all again star Peter Davison, with some rather fine work by actors such as David Troughton, Lalla Ward and Being Human’s Jason Watkins in some occasionally surprising roles…

Mawdryn Undead

Given any set of stories, usually the one I’d pick as ‘the best’ and ‘my favourite’ would be the same. Occasionally, though, while one story appeals to my head as clearly of superior quality, another will win my heart even when it fails. In this set, Enlightenment is clearly the best story, but there’s something fascinating about Mawdryn Undead, even though other bits are curiously disappointing (and I’ll cross Terminus when I come to it). I love the mournful intelligence of this story, but it’s not exactly all pulling in the same direction: a gently haunting morality tale with the overblown look and sound of a rock opera, scripted so every fifth line is incomprehensible jargon. But many of the other four lines are gorgeous.

If you’ve followed The Sarah Jane Adventures, you may find some of this story eerily familiar (or, to a lesser extent, if you’ve seen Doctor Who: School Reunion, while the Doctor and Turlough’s eyes meeting across the TARDIS console is very Time Crash). The Sarah Jane Adventures’ finest moment so far was the gripping, heartbreaking story Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane, and it’s safe to assume that author Gareth Roberts is more than familiar with Mawdryn Undead. The Trickster, a black-robed figure with mysterious powers who glories in chaos and destruction, not only looks and acts like a cross between the Black Guardian and his one-time servant the Shadow, but offers a remarkably similar bargain here (then last year, Gareth’s Secrets of the Stars shimmied around the copyright lawyers of The Masque of Mandragora in similarly stylish fashion). In a story set across two different time zones that feature younger and older aspects of our hero, someone is reckless with a schoolfriend and has a nasty accident – at which point, hanging between life and death, the mysterious black-clad figure appears and offers them a way out at the cost of someone else’s life. They’re given a squarish carved object which, when held in their hand, allows them to communicate with their dark ‘saviour’, who tells them that – yes, in the same words in both stories – “Waking or sleeping, I will be always with you…”
“Waking or sleeping, you can never escape me, Turlough.”
That Golden Moment

Half-way through Part Two, which involves the odd spoiler, and Turlough is gripped by a moral dilemma. It’s one thing to agree – while apparently injured and hallucinating, and under a lot of pressure – to kill someone who you’re assured is utterly evil, but he’s now met the Doctor and suspects he might actually be quite nice after all. Added to that, he’s not been given the ticket off Earth he was promised, and the Doctor looks as good a prospect for that as the mysterious man in black anyway. So with conscience, squeamishness and self-interest all pointing in a roughly similar direction, he no longer feels like going along with his bargain, and confides in his headmaster, a kindly figure in black robes looming over him. This may, in retrospect, be a clue (and, in keeping with the story’s theme of old glories going sour, the same actor once played in effect the Doctor’s headmaster in The Deadly Assassin).

More open-minded than many headmasters, he observes that “I must say, it’s a most remarkable story,” but takes everything Turlough tells him as the truth, making him the perfect sounding-board. It’s a superbly crafted argument over morality, Turlough asking “Haven’t I done enough?” and the other sympathising, “I can see, you’re in a most invidious position” but each time gently pointing Turlough towards the flaws in his trying to weasel out of it and towards making a final choice for himself. Initially, he seems just an inhumanly perfect arbiter, helping Turlough make up his own mind as if imagined by the young man to argue out his inner conflict – until the headmaster prompts him, “Are you absolutely sure?” and Turlough decides that, yes, he is going to abandon his deal… At which the headmaster turns on him, suddenly the Black Guardian. Turlough leaps from his sickbay bed in fright and tries to escape – but finds he’s left his body behind. That inhumanly perfect headmaster was indeed all inside his head, but not a figment of his own imagination, and there’s no getting away from the other guy who’s in there with him… In a story brimming with memorable moments, the confessor turned Devil is the most striking piece of imagery.

Something Else To Look Out For

Whenever Mawdryn Undead dwells on character, it’s an extraordinary success. Turlough’s inner demons, the Brigadier’s beautifully played double life and moment of revelation when confronted by the Doctor, Mawdryn’s torment and, especially, his final line – all of these are brilliant moments. I love the musical score, too, despite opinions being shall we say mixed; Tat Wood excoriates it in About Time 5 as the worst in the entire series, but though the opening scene’s relentlessly perky ‘driving’ music is a bit much, the eerie electric guitar chords for Mawdryn and his people add urgency to a thoughtful story – imagine how po-faced it would be with a portentous choir on the soundtrack – and Turlough’s ‘crystal’ theme perfectly suits his increasing hysteria. One of the story’s most gripping sequences is in Part One, as that theme rises slowly on Turlough, recovering from a car crash to realise his bargain wasn’t a dream, then power chords interrupt the Doctor’s wittering to signal that a ship is about to crash into them, before returning to Turlough as he becomes more desperate.

When Mawdryn Undead turns to plotting or explanations, it’s rather more uneven. There are intriguing mysteries and cleverly overlapping times and scenes, but an oddly thoughtful script has sudden grossly horrific moments thrown in as if at random to liven it up and a distracting flood of references to the series’ past, of which only the affecting portrayal of the Brigadier and the twist of someone using knowledge of regeneration as a bluff really work. The strong emotion, characterisation and moral dilemmas of the script keep being hamstrung by references only fans get and jargon nobody gets: how else could we be given the assertion that the Doctor will no longer be a Time Lord at the cliffhanger to Part Three, but only have explained how and why that’s a threat in the following episode? The design, too, is a mix. Mawdryn’s ship has a sinisterly funereal opulence, mixing luxury with death masks. There’s a richness to the design that’s also bloated and rotten – but then you get a control room that’s less stylish Art Deco than tacky games console, and what appears to be high drama with an exploding toaster. Twice.

Thank goodness for Turlough. Like an alternative Doctor as a reedy, amoral cowardly exile who needs the real Doctor to bring out the good in him, he not only livens up the TARDIS crew, but is interesting enough to save a trilogy where the Guardian/s’ former ambiguity becomes pedantic Manichean dualism. Even where Turlough’s concerned, though, the story has problems with consequences – here’s where he starts a running theme until the end of Enlightenment of repeatedly apparently breaking free of the Black Guardian’s bargain and apparently being utterly consumed by his purpose, only each time to revert to being somewhere in the middle without explanation. The other key figures in the story are not the Guardian but the Doctor’s old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, with what we were all told at the time were the ‘glory days’ of UNIT held up in a distorting mirror – he’s a broken shell of himself, and can’t abide the alien exile he’s stuck with, one who’s a cowardly liar prepared to commit murder in order to escape – and Mawdryn, who’s also desperate to escape but turns the vampire legend upside-down, as the tormented undead who wants to drain the Doctor’s life in order to die, not to ‘live’.

To many Doctor Who fans, all of this ‘story’ and ‘character’ nonsense doesn’t matter – the important thing about Mawdryn Undead is what it suggests for the years in which the Doctor’s previous adventures with the Brigadier were set. Production teams at the time regarded them as in the near future, but that meant variously one year, five years or ten years ahead, or as little as ‘the day after tomorrow’, sometimes all in the same story. As Mawdryn Undead clashes with much of that, implying Lethbridge-Stewart retired before he was promoted to Brigadier, my advice is to ignore the dates and just enjoy the story (anyway, the absurdly old-fashioned public school ambience clearly dates UNIT to the 1920s). So, if someone ever mentions “UNIT dating” to you with a gleam in their eye, back swiftly away – this will not involve sex (unless it’s Richard Franklin, in which case don’t back away, run).


This isn’t an actively bad story, more a disappointing one. Almost anything you can imagine going wrong does, from its gnawingly depressing design to a script that has many good ideas but finds them at odds with the direction and actors – and, unfortunately, needing a few more drafts to close up the gaping nonsenses in it. At the core of Terminus’ problems is that it raises an epic threat, but posed in such a tediously mundane way we don’t believe any of it – it’s not as if Doctor Who can’t pull off that sort of mix, but with irony, not this painfully earnest dullness. There’s an operatic ambition to the concepts, but (bubble-helmets and bubble-perms aside) everything’s played in such a drearily flat-lining way you’re just not interested, as if Wagner had written everything on one note for a Stylophone. The Black Guardian could have fitted in perfectly as the devil at the base of this medieval Hell, but instead is inserted jarringly to perk things up with a bit of shouty melodrama whenever the viewers are in danger of keeling over from sheer misery.

Meanwhile, this story’s Twenty-first Century Doctor Who connection is that Tegan and Turlough seem to be stuck in a dismal version of The Girl in the Fireplace: the new companion on his first TARDIS trip is left with the old one in a sinister ship with nasty robots, while the Doctor ignores them for a glamorous other woman. Thank goodness the 2006 story used colours more vibrant than grey and beige!
“Short-term memory’s the first to go…”
That Golden Moment

Half-way into Part Three, the Doctor comes across one of Terminus’ sinister armoured guards in the radiation-soaked Forbidden Zone. This one’s neither butch nor threatening, instead waiflike and both physically and mentally scarred by radiation poisoning. Similarly, he meanders both literally and conversationally, humming to himself and dragging oddments about in his cloak in an attempt to find something to block the leaks with. His mistakes have actually made things worse, but he’s also the one person who knows what’s really happening – and just how big a threat Terminus could be if it carries on going so catastrophically wrong. In a story where everyone’s depressed and depressing, being nasty to each other on badly designed sets in a badly assembled narrative, the wounded Bor is the unexpected heart of the story – both structurally, in that he’s escalated the problem but can explain it, and emotionally, in that amid all the grating macho clunkiness Peter Benson seizes the chance to make his character genuinely endearing. Endearing’s the last thing you expect in this story, and he wins you over at once.

Something Else To Look Out For

Kathy Burke. No, seriously, apparently she’s a leprous extra somewhere in here, and with DVD picture-sharpness I might at last be able to see where. Other than that, enjoy Mark Strickson as Turlough enlivening dull moments by deciding he may as well do some ‘acting’ even if it’s not written down. He starts fey, gets flirty, then patronising, then hopeful – and that’s all in just his first scene. With him trying so many different performances, did he still think he was auditioning? Mark, love, you’ve got the part, you can stop now!

Between the very ’80s British Empire stiff-upper-lip flavoured private school and sailing ship adventures either side, this could have been the story that went to the other very ’80s British filmmaking extreme and nailed social realism. The usual ‘sinister armoured guards’ are actually near-slaves not to an excitingly megalomaniac villain, but a faceless company, kept working by petty rivalries and drug addiction, doing a horrible job ‘looking after’ the sickest people in the galaxy, those who nobody cares about. But any thought that this is to be Doctor Who’s Boys From the Blackstuff was lost before even the designer and director stepped in, with the script editor at the time simply not ready to embrace naturalistic dialogue, as his infamous line change from “Do they think we’re stupid or something?” to the must-be-declaimed “They must think us fools!” demonstrates. And though the mixture of Norse mythology, NHS waiting lists and oppressed workers seems interesting on paper, the script still has a pile of problems – why does the radiation only affect the Lazars and Bor, rather than the Doctor and his friends? Why would an explosion in a void have exactly the same effect as one in a huge, expanded Universe? When it comes to the end of the story, avoiding spoilers, aren’t there some resource implications no-one’s thought through, or can you make anything you like from pseudo-lepers’ rags and a small aubergine?

We’re clearly meant to be scared by the guards’ ‘walking skeleton monster’ look, but not only does it look like a Halloween costume (even with a blanket knotted on its head for a cloak), the director doesn’t believe it either and blows the effect within seconds, as one opens his helmet. Add to that that they’re so huge, clanking and ‘symbolic’ that, taken with the ‘practical scaffolding’, you expect a spotlight to blaze down at any moment and Eirak to start singing an Andrew Lloyd-Webber knock-off while his underlings dance around on roller skates. Again, this isn’t Mike Leigh. Then the ‘real’ monster finally ambles up, and it’s a bored Muppet that’s one of the series’ naffest: again, the contrast with the monsterless stories either side makes you realise what a missed opportunity Terminus is (and these stories, surprisingly, are just about the least monster-packed since the series went into colour). Within this story, the contrast is with the OTT Black Guardian and the camp bubble-headed space raiders, but while they look like they’ve come to the wrong party, wouldn’t you rather go to their party than have such a relentlessly dismal time here?

As in Mawdryn Undead, there’s a Flying Dutchman / vampire vibe, this time where the oppressed workers trudge round in Hell lording it over the ghastly pale everyone-treats-as-dead people and live off a special fluid they appear to take directly into their hearts. It’s far more half-hearted, though, like the designer’s apparent decision to compensate for a ‘skull’ motif that might be ‘too scary’ by making every other set the dreariest possible ‘municipal offices in Dudley’ sort of corridors and ducts. Despite the presence of a fight arranger, you have to assume that some of the scenes were seriously short of rehearsal and filming time; Mark Pack writes today that, much as he enjoyed The War Games, the fight scenes were terrible, so perhaps he should avert his eyes from Olvir’s ‘ballet’ with Valgard while the monster picks up Nyssa, as well as its aftermath – the young man trying to help her can’t hear her scream from a couple of metres away, then on finally noticing she’s gone can’t spot her and the monster even though they’re still in the same shot as he is on screen. It’s impossible not to shout ‘Behind you!’

Finally, this story writes out Nyssa, one of the Doctor’s most innocent, suffering and (I’m afraid) unbearably priggish companions. I’ll not spoil how she goes but, famously, the ‘innocent fairy princess’ character spends most of the story shedding her clothes, at one point jumping on another character’s crotch in her underthings. As if to admonish any fans who obey the apparent on-screen direction to fancy Sarah Sutton, the cover of this DVD (each has its own separate packaging within the main box) appears to depict her breasts… Merging into a skull. Tasteful.


Ah, my friend, Enlightenment is not so easily found. You must meditate upon it.

Or, alternatively, I’m feeling really ill now and have stopped for a Lemsip and a lie-down, and will fill it in later.

Hmm, catching up again, I realise that one of the problems with writing this on and off for a few days while not being well is that I put a flurry of activity into one part at a time, rather than looking at the whole thing. So this has ended up a lot longer than my usual “DVD Tasters”. I may offer less detail on Enlightenment, then – which suits the story, as if you haven’t seen it, you’re very much better off knowing as little as possible about it before you start watching. Don’t watch the “Coming Soon” trailer on The War Games (which ruins a perfectly decent special effect by ‘ramping’ it anyway); don’t read the back blurb; don’t even read my “Golden Moment” below; skip the menus – just press play, and let it surprise and delight you.

The Doctor is charged with intervening in a race that no-one must win, and the threats to him and his friends are far more complicated and dangerous than facing the barrel of a gun. Finding out what’s going on, for a start – and a disturbingly askew take on a love story. These are subtle and emotional challenges, set amid extraordinary visual invention; you might like to know that it’s the first Doctor Who story from both a woman writer and a woman director. But what does it all mean?
“Do not ask what it is. I will not tell you.”
That Golden Moment

There’s a breathless sequence as the end of Part Two approaches, by which time both Tegan and Turlough have been seriously weirded out in quite different ways, and want off creepy Captain Striker’s racing yacht as fast as possible. The Doctor agrees to take them back to the TARDIS – only for the camera to cut away to Striker silently, sinisterly toasting himself, his complacent air justified when the Doctor and his friends discover the TARDIS missing. Confronting Striker, the Doctor – someone whose strength of will hardly ever breaks, and then only with a fight – is told that his very fear of losing the TARDIS made his mind easy to read not just without a fight, but from a distance. Striker’s coldness, his utter certainty, and his evident, underplayed power freak out Turlough as much as they do the audience, and he tries to bargain with a stolen key given to him in confidence – but even his betrayal’s of no use to him, as of course the officer knows about that, too. The only effect Turlough ratting his friend Jackson out has is to make the Doctor even less keen on him: “There’s no need to look at me like that,” says Turlough miserably, his cowardice breeding self-loathing that’ll be horribly evident by the end of the episode. The Doctor attempts to intervene with Striker:
“Will Jackson be punished?”
“For entertaining us? Superior beings do not punish inferiors. We use them. Kindly.”
As Tegan’s taken up on deck to see the night, Striker finds a use for his “inferior” the Doctor in assessing his competitors in the race, and gives the merest taste of what the prize involves, languid as ever then with sudden ferocity as he forestalls a question:
“Enlightenment. The wisdom which knows all things, and which will enable me to achieve what I desire most. Do not ask what it is. I will not tell you.”
Something Else To Look Out For

I can’t help but reveal spoilers here, for a beautiful but disquieting story that restores much-needed ambiguity and fascination to the series, so watch out. This is as much a fable as any Doctor Who, and – like Kinda – a remarkable example of the ‘arthouse’ style of storytelling for Peter Davison’s Doctor. It’s a lot of fun, too. The obvious “Golden Moment” would have been the end of Part One… But if you don’t already know what that is, I’m not going to spoil it for you. In fact, all three cliffhangers are cracking: a fantastic ‘what’s going on?’ moment; a companion’s very character threatening himself; and who can resist Lynda Barron enjoying herself so very much? Rather marvellous music throughout, too, from eerie tones to vibrant sailing tunes to a gorgeous South American dance rhythm.

Another tale of travellers doomed to wander in an “echoing voyage,” the climax of The Black Guardian Trilogy underscores the ‘Flying Dutchman’ feel with wandering spirits, powerful but empty, with yet another dose of subtle vampirism from the parasitic aristocrats. The ships’ officers are the stars of this show, unsettling and soulless – and even the one who’s sold her soul to the devil is less disturbing than the one who appears to have no soul at all. Enticingly, the two principal lords-of-outside-time who look down on the Doctor are played by actors called Barron and Baron, sit-com stars Keith Barron and Lynda Baron each creating terrific performances entirely against the type of roles they’re usually known for – one dead-eyed and utterly cold, the other rejoicing in every variety of excess (Richard points out to me that, as embodiments of order and chaos, they’re rather better concepts of the White and Black Guardians than the Guardians themselves).

And yet the real one to look out for is cold Captain Striker’s first officer Mr Marriner, played by Christopher Brown with a disconcerting mix of blandness and hunger as Tegan’s upper-class, manipulative stalker. He seems genuinely otherwordly, and that old sci-fi cliché “What is love?” goes in quite a different direction to the one you usually find… Though his end is still more chilling than the rest of his scenes (the one bit of cold, hard light that recalls the original White Guardian), watch out particularly for Tegan’s moment of revenge on him, leaving him by claiming she has to see the Doctor, then just sitting down instead. It’s a calculated little piece of cruelty: she knows he reads her mind, so a deliberate and blatant lie is as good as a slap in the face.

Special Features

Uniquely so far for a multi-story set, all three of the Black Guardian Trilogy stories feature new CGI effects as an option on their DVDs, but Enlightenment boasts the most prominent set of changes. While you can go into the Special Features menus (as ever on Doctor Who menus, if you’ve not seen the story before, go through them very quickly for fear of spoilers) and set Mawdryn Undead and Terminus to play as normal with the occasional substituted effect, Enlightenment gets a second disc with a whole new edit of the tale on offer. Unlike the three previous Doctor Who stories released as DVD Special Editions, each of which added new footage as well as new effects, the re-edited Enlightenment is actually a lot shorter than the original – apparently, Peter Davison wanted one of his stories to have the same sort of pace and effects as one of the Twenty-first Century series, and this is the experiment (trimming about a quarter of it away in the process). Just how this new rapid pace will work on one of the series’ most dreamily arthouse stories will be interesting to find out. I had a go the other week at my own re-edit, using my own ultra-modern editing suite of some highly advanced wires connecting the old VHS to our DVD recorder and stabbing my thumb on the remote’s pause button until I got bored (about ten minutes), and found that while was surprisingly easy to find bits to cut out, it was a lot more difficult to ensure the narrative still flowed when scenes jump abruptly. Still, with a little judicious pruning the opening TARDIS scene as far as the Black Guardian’s cackling threat made quite an effective David Tennant-style pre-credits sequence. I wonder if they’ll do the same? And what they’ll pick for the new CGI in each? More exciting spaceship shots in Terminus, I suspect, and if the usual Doctor Who DVD house style holds, lots of pretty glowy effects that look exactly like all the other pretty glowy effects…

Of course, as this was released on Monday, you may well have a better idea of what the extras are like than I do, given that Richard has the DVDs delivered to his office and, being ill for much of the week, wasn’t at work to collect them. We’ve only just got our copy, and haven’t had a chance to watch any of it yet. I can add, though, that in addition to new effects each story has a full commentary, text notes, ‘Making of’ documentary, set of pdfs and photo gallery, as well as – hurrah! – the full isolated musical scores for each. I’m particularly looking forward to listening to two of them, though even here, Terminus sadly draws the short straw. There are plenty of other documentaries, too, ranging from writers to actors to astronomy, and even extended and deleted scenes for Mawdryn Undead. Wonder what we’ll be doing this weekend…?

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