Sometimes things just don’t go according to plan. There are some Doctor Who stories that are so overshadowed by what might have been that it becomes difficult not to watch them without a sense of disappointment. In the 20th anniversary year we are building up to probably the ultimate example of that, with a story called The Five Doctors that lacks two of the original actors, but Mawdryn Undead is no less of a disappointment because it was supposed to feature the return of Ian Chesterton. That’s why the Brigadier has become a school teacher. It’s not exactly out of character, but it doesn’t seem the natural progression for the Brigadier that we would later see in Battlefield. Luckily it still works well. It’s a different kind of story, but it works.
With Ian unavailable, the choice of the Brigadier is a sensible one, because it cuts through some of the exposition about regeneration. The Brig has already met the first four Doctors (albeit one just on a screen), so when he can’t bring the Doctor to mind it is immediately obvious that something is very wrong that goes further than another change of appearance confusing him. The two time zones are a fascinating idea, and it’s the first time anything like this has been central to a Doctor Who story. Classic Who was almost never timey wimey in the way that the Moffat era became, so this feels hugely ahead of its time, and it is to the credit of both the writing and acting skills that the two Brigadiers are convincingly different characters. Without knowing the reason for the older Brig’s amnesia until the end of the story, it feels very much like an examination of post traumatic stress. We might not know the details until the end, but he has clearly had a breakdown for some reason due to the Doctor’s influence in his life, which (a) raises interesting questions about the impact the Doctor has on the lives of his friends, (b) makes us want to find out the full details and keeps us interested in the story, and (c) raises the stakes massively, because it feels like it would take a major catastrophe to have that kind of effect on the normally unshakeable Brigadier.
The other bit of excellent characterisation in the story is Turlough, who is immediately set up as somebody very different and interesting when he steals the Brigadier’s car. Turlough might not be the most likeable companion we have ever seen, but he is by far the most interesting. Apart from some half-hearted attempts to make Adric a bit unreliable, we have never seen anything like this and, good grief! He actually has some character development over the course of the next couple of stories. Again, this is all miles ahead of its time. We will get plenty of companions we might like a whole lot more, but we won’t get one so interesting until Clara turns up. It seems odd that the Doctor would have anything to do with him, but there is a reasonable impression of him playing along to find out what Turlough’s motivations actually are, while probably realising all along that there is something amiss. The original idea was for the Doctor to accept Turlough because he misses Adric, which is an unfortunate loss from the script, because having his judgement clouded by lingering guilt and grief would have made a bit more sense of what is happening here.
Turlough is the lowest of three tiers of villains, the others being Mawdryn and the Black Guardian. Like Turlough, Mawdryn isn’t a straightforward villain, because he is motivated by wanting to escape his fate rather than any cruel intentions, although he is not too bothered about the consequences of his actions. The Black Guardian on the other hand is a pretty tedious comic book villain, whose convoluted idiocy in trying to use Turlough as a murder weapon makes little sense unless you interpret that checkerboard realm as symbolic of the Guardian being locked in some kind of interdimensional chess game, only able to move pieces rather than actually embody a piece in some way himself. He is most effective in the sequence with Turlough and the non-headmaster, which chillingly makes the point that he is capable of being anywhere or anyone, and there really is no escape for Turlough now he has done the deal.
So the Doctor is faced with enemies on all sides, with his new friend trying to kill him and being manipulated by the most powerful enemy the Doctor has ever faced, and a twisted parallel of himself trying to steal all his remaining lives. The stakes are raised so high that ultimately he has to lose, and needs his old friend to inadvertently save him. How very Fifth Doctor: the heroic victim.
(As a postscript, lots of websites lazily repeat the “fact” that “mawdryn” is Welsh for “undead”, raising the rather amusing possibility that this story is called Undead Undead. It’s not. And it’s nothing to do with a “mortuary” either. The closest is marw [dead], combined with dyn [man], although Welsh doesn’t work like that – the two halves are back to front.) RP
The view from across the pond:
Right around 1980, when I was 8, Tom Baker hooked me on Doctor Who but it was based on a very limited run that channel 9 (WOR) ran on a loop. It ran roughly from Robot to around The Face of Evil. Eventually WOR stopped showing it but I remained a fan, such was the impact it had on me. Then one day around 1985, while I was in 7th grade, I received a phone call from my then-best friend late one Saturday night. He told me to put on channel 50. These were the days before cable, so I had no idea what channel 50 was. There was a turn-dial for channels that went from 2-13 and there was a U between the 13 and the 2 that had never done anything as far as I could tell. It was like a Pandora’s box once I’d figured it out. Anyway, he said he was certain that Doctor Who was on but he did not see the Doctor anywhere. I should point out that this was before I knew about regeneration. I flicked to channel 50 and there I became familiar with a new Doctor, and companions Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough. I also recognized an old friend from a couple Tom Baker episodes with the Brigadier. And there was this creature whose brain appeared to be poking through the top of his head. Add to the mix, a time paradox and I was hooked like I had never been before.
I may not have followed this talk about giving up the Doctor’s remaining regenerations for Mawdryn and his crew, but that didn’t stop my enjoyment of the story. The setting on the star liner reminded me of a cruise ship and that was captivating. England looked amazing too. The very filming of the story was done in a way unlike anything I had seen before; it was like being there. Mawdryn himself was more alarming looking than what I was used to in Doctor Who because we were dealing with the uncanny valley – this guy looked like one of us… but not. His elongated eyebrows were disturbing and his missing skull cap was weird. Close observation proved that the brain gently pulsed too. I thought this creature was magnificent!
Mawdryn Undead brought me back to the series I had loved when I was younger only this time it was uncut by commercials and shown in each story’s entirety. And I utterly loved this story. This idea that the Brigadier could be in two times at once was the sort of mental candy a kid could really get hooked on. I love a time travel paradox but to see it unfold in such a way was amazing.
The Brigadier forgetting his old friend was another story altogether for me but in the context of the story, it made sense. When the flashback scene occurred, I loved it, even though I barely understood it on my first viewing. It wasn’t until years later that it all made sense to me but that added a nearly mythical quality to this story too; it had given me a glimmer of things that were both past and future; the shows past, but my future. Inadvertently it had created a time travel paradox for me that I would always love to go back to.
When I read the Target novelization, the whole flashback sequence was brought back to life and I could not wait to see it again. It was described this way (taken from the book written by Peter Grimwade):
Danger! Darkness and terrible danger… Abominable snowmen in the underground. Saved from the yeti by the most peculiar man with a flute…Who was this Doctor?
Promoted Brigadier. Seconded UNIT… enemy in the sewers, bionic monsters. Cybermen! Saved again by the Doctor.
Not the Doctor, this aging dandy with the crimped curls and the frill shirt. Can there be two of them? Regeneration? Impossible! But only one Doctor could destroy the Autons…
Exterminate! Exterminate! What are they Doctor? Daleks? No match for Unit’s scientific advisor…
Here we go again, Doctor. Is it really you? The clown? The licensed fool? Jelly Babies? Thank you but no. Where’s that police box gone to now?
Don’t worry, Doctor, we’ll deal with that robot. Strike command coming over in four minutes flat.
Alien planet? Don’t believe a word of it. That’s Cromer out there. Where are you Doctor? Doctor…
Mawdryn Undead also showed me something I had not encountered before: a companion that could potentially be an enemy. Things were not always perfect with the TARDIS crew, and certainly rarely were things what they appeared. There was tension between them, distrust and ulterior motives. For me, this was brand new. It added something that stuck and it was yet another aspect of this story that stood out to me.
This idea of the black and white Guardians also interested me, at a time when I was playing the classic video game Archon, a chess-like game dominated by Light and Dark. But Valentine Dyall I couldn’t get my head around; this was an old guy with the most wrinkled face I’d ever seen, scowling for the Doctor’s blood while wearing a dead parrot on his head. Perhaps it wasn’t a parrot, but it clearly wasn’t pining for the fjords either. And he had a different name for everything he wanted to do to the Doctor: the utter embarrassment of the Doctor, the supreme caught-with-your-pants-down moment of the Doctor, the supreme humiliation of the Doctor, the abject destruction of the Doctor… It was very melodramatic! Still, oddities aside, this was an amazingly enjoyable story and to this day one of my favorites of Davison’s era.
Mawdryn Undead was captivating and a perfect return to a show I had loved from years earlier. Peter Davison was going to be the first Doctor I’d see regenerate but for the time being, he was the Doctor, and the Guardian Trilogy was just beginning… ML