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Mawdryn Undead

story 126 | season 20 | serial 6f
Ed Martin

Peter Grimwade’s three scripts for Doctor Who are all commendably ambitious. He was always a better director than he was a writer though and it’s only really on Mawdryn Undead that this ambition actually translates into a coherent story, even if it’s only coherent relative to stories like Time-Flight, which is a bit like watching a rabbit trip over its own ears. On the whole, while never quite escaping his tendency to overreach himself, Grimwade serves up a very enjoyable story in Mawdryn Undead.

Some things are notable right from the start, such as the sheer anachronism of the school, presenting us with the kind of peculiar kids you could imagine say things like “yah” and have names like Chipper Jones and Tubby McGee. I’m not sure if they actually do wear straw boater hats or if my memory is just playing tricks on me, but it’s that sort of thing. With this and a reference to the cane, it’s easy to forget that this is supposed to take place in 1983 and I wonder if contemporary audiences found this is odd as I do. It does provide us with Turlough though, possibly the best companion of the 1980s after Romana, since Mark Strickson has the enviable talent of presenting ham in a credible manner, the kind that Anthony Ainley could only dream about. It’s amusing how the producer jettisoned portraying him being of schoolboy age more or less from the instant he leaves the school, and it’s also an innovative idea to have a companion spend three stories secretly plotting to kill the Doctor.

Without knowing anything about the character at this early stage though, the episode gets off to a rather less than likeable start with Paddy Kingsland’s ridiculous score and Peter Moffatt’s purely functional direction, but the crash soon comes along to make things more interesting – even if it is shot as a comedy scene, with the car veering off screen to an accompanying sound-effect. It introduces Valentine Dyall, who excels in more or less the only role available to him. He’s restricted as an actor since his booming voice is only really suitable for quasi-deities, but he works very well within his limited range.

The fact that he’s here at all does raise the issue of continuity, but I can say that I saw this story years before I saw anything of season 16 and I never had a problem with it. If continuity is a problem in this story, it’s more through sheer quantity than anything else. The story certainly wears its continuity on its sleeves, with references to the previous story Snakedance (I know it only transmitted a week earlier, but is all the technobabble really necessary?), the Guardians, the Zero Room, UNIT and the Brigadier, copious ex-companions, Time Lord mythology – and of course the flashback scene, which I’ll come to in due course. It just about manages to succeed through keeping most of these references fairly unobtrusive (apart from the Brigadier, but he’s well known enough for it not to matter); it’s only in Arc Of Infinity that continuity is actually seriously detrimental at any point this season.

Episode one concerns itself with atmosphere through imagery such as the obelisk, the communicator device and the transmat capsule. With this, the large amount of location shooting and the pleasantly-designed spaceship, this is one of the better looking stories of the period. Once the TARDIS lands there the mystery starts to build, with the three-millennia journey and mysteriously missing capsule, but the enigmatic idea starts to falter as the Doctor’s investigations are largely reduced to pushing buttons and going “a-ha!”. It’s still enjoyable though, and there are plenty of gruesome ideas present about the dangers of transmat capsules. The cliffhanger to the first episode is serviceable enough, but the kind of thing that would get rather tired after three stories where writers had to continually come up with reasons for Turlough not to kill the Doctor.

The Brigadier’s amnesia serves as an excuse for the fannish-but-sweet flashbacks, and I have to acknowledge enjoying seeing clips from The Web Of Fear, Terror Of The Zygons et al for a moment. This episode is where the plot really begins to take off now, as two different strands set six years apart advance the story in tandem; it’s an awesome context and considering how complex it is there are remarkably few plot holes – apart from the infamous controversy over the dates, but it’s not so bad if you judge the episode on its own terms instead of comparing it to something said in an episode dated ten years previously, and to put things in perspective there are no disembodies heads stuck in paving stones anywhere to be seen in this story. Another feature of the plot is that it requires so much concentration that it distracts from some of the story’s slight weaknesses, such as the way the plot comes at the expense of just about everything else – the opposite problem to the new series, where it’s characterisation that takes away from the plot.

Mawdryn’s blackened and charred body is about as graphic and grisly as Doctor Who ever got, and his make-up is also impressive; it would all count for naught if David Collings wasn’t a great actor, but as The Robots Of Death proved there’s nothing to worry about on that front. There’s a less obtrusive nod to the past having him wear Tom Baker’s coat, and the cliffhanger where we see his true form for the first time is genuinely startling.

Going into the third episode, there’s a huge amount of exposition. This isn’t necessarily a problem as generally it’s well done and interesting enough to remain engaging, although lines like “activate sequential regression” do show up the weaker elements of the script. There is a “reverse the polarity” in-joke to be found, which does add a welcome lighter touch. It has all the elements of a bad story – but the sheer imagination of the central concept elevates it to a far higher level. The concept of the two Brigadiers meeting briefly sees the Doctor and the Black Guardian working towards the same ends, which brings home the seriousness of the problem.

The concept of immortality is extremely evocative, but the cliffhanger is let down because Peter Davison struggles with high drama and because so little actually happens in this episode that there’s little to say about it. You just have to keep concentrating on it.

There’s more running about in the fourth episode, which never causes the episode to really sink – but Grimwade does fall into the usual trap of getting tangled in the complexities of what he’s writing. This is contrasted shockingly with some gruesome make-up for Tegan and Nyssa’s ageing scene, which seriously freaked me out as a kid. The Doctor is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for them, which is consistent with his characterisation; his willingness to help the innocent victims throws his refusal to help the mutants into relief. The resolution is a bit contrived, but the Doctor’s comment about the level of coincidence in events (a reference to the Black Guardian) takes the edge off it.

Considering that it’s little more than a great slab of exposition with a dollop of continuity on top, Mawdryn Undead does remarkably well for itself. As usual for Peter Grimwade there’s a feeling that it could be much more if it didn’t aim too high for its own good, but its sheer imagination and verve takes what is fundamentally an average story and elevates it.

David Osbiston

Having re-watched this recently after a couple of years, it is a cracking way to introduce Turlough, bring back the Brigadier and encompass all the plots/ subplots in a good story.

Although the story has some weaknesses including the bizarre costumes for Mawdryn and the gang plus all the time line nonsense, which mucks up continuity, the pluses outweigh the negatives.

Turlough is extremely well acted by Mark Strickson and is a shame that the potential in this story isn’t really enlarged upon until his final story. Peter Davison too excels as the Doctor with breathless enthusiasm – espiecially in parts three and four where he is willing to give up his remaining lives to save his friends.

Although Nyssa and Tegan are bound by the TARDIS, they are effective in their roles and helpful as a plot device in the Doctor’s decision to help Mawdryn.

And then there is Nicholas Courtney who is brilliant as the Brigadier and nice to see him mellowing as a schoolteacher and not as the baffoon he did during the later Pertwee stories.

Peter Grimwade does write a very complicated story, which is very different to most of the stories surrounding it. It is a million times better than his last story (Time-Flight). However you do just think the Black Guardian is pure evil and can kill and destroy if he wants. So why doesn’t he just kill the Doctor himself?

This is on the other hand a minor detail and does not really deter from a really good story, which is sometimes a forgotten gem in Davison’s era. 8/10

Kim Arrowsmith

Mawdryn Undead has long been one of the most popular stories of the Davison era of Dr. Who. Its success lies partly in the way that it takes themes and characters that are very familiar to anyone who has watched the series for a number of years, and combines them with some fairly radical departures from the norms of the series plotting and characterization.

One of the most obviously familiar elements of the story is the presence of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. It seems very natural, that in a story made for the series 20th anniversary season, a character who has played such a big role in the programme’s history should return, and it is a return to form as well. This Brig is very clearly the intelligent military man of the early Pertwee stories, not the frankly daft blunderer of The Three Doctors (what were you thinking of Bob and David?). That said, this is no return to UNIT’s glory days, as we discover the Brig teaching maths in a school, and suffering from amnesia brought on by some kind of nervous breakdown. Courtney plays both versions of the Brig very well here, and his vulnerability over his missing memories is very touchingly played, reminding us that any display of emotionalism must be hard for this old soldier. Some have said that the inclusion of the Silver Jubilee crates a problem with dating the UNIT stories. I have always assumed that they were contemporary, and so, to my mind, this doesn’t present a problem.

Mawdryn Undead also sees the return of Valentine Dyall as The Black Guardian. Dyall’s portrayal of the character is quite entertaining, but The Black Guardian is, essentially, a pantomime villain, spending much of his time snarling at Turlough and threatening death and destruction at every possible opportunity. I’m almost tempted to boo and hiss every time he appears on screen. The rather strange choice of costume (“this is an ex parrot”) doesn’t help. In the hands of a less charismatic actor, this would all be very embarrassing, but Dyall somehow rises above the limitations of role and apparel, to give a performance that is, at times anyway, quite scary. The much discussed issue of why The Black Guardian can not be seen to intervene directly to destroy The Doctor is one I can not attempt to answer definitively, but perhaps it would incur the wrath of The White Guardian.

Having dealt with the return of two previously seen characters, it’s time to talk about Turlough. Personally, I like the character, and I like Strickson’s performance. This is one of the areas where Mawdryn radically departs from the norms of the series. Of course, we’re used to seeing companions becoming caught up accidentally in the Doctor’s affairs, and deciding to stick around ( cf. Jamie, Sarah, Leela etc. , etc. ) , and companions who are kidnapped or unexpectedly removed from their own time ( Ian, Barbara, Tegan ) , but there has never been a companion who became involved with The Doctor because he was trying to kill him! He is also one of the few companions that it is hard to feel real affection for. Usually, the occupants of the Tardis are a pretty pleasant bunch. Strickson, in the opening moments of this serial, establishes Turlough as a sneaky, cowardly, cold young man, and, although his time with The Doctor mellows him a little, these essential traits remain in place until he leaves, under something of a cloud really, at the end of Planet of Fire. During this serial, Strickson starts the process of taking turlough from his starting point as a quite unpleasant individual to someone who begins to appreciate the values and actions of someone like The Doctor. Stickson’s performance is one of the joys of Mawdryn Undead. Of course, it was this dwelling on the interaction of characters in the Tardis crew that lead Andrew Cartmel to describe this era of the show as “Neighbours with roundels”, which I can’t help feeling not only ignores one of the things that made the early Hartnell series so compelling, but also seems a bit hypocritical from the man who gave us the Grange Hill with explosives character of Ace. At least in the Davison years, character development wasn’t done with a sledgehammer.

The plot of Mawdryn Undead also deals with a theme that is very familiar to long time fans of the series, that of scientists using their knowledge for questionable ends. We can see this theme in evidence in stories such as The War Games, The Brain of Morbius, Robot, Invasion of the Dinosaurs etc., etc. . . . Here, immortality is the goal sought by Mawdryn and co., and this is the first of two occasions in season 20 that immortality is seen as something craved by villains, the other occasion being, of course, The Five Doctors. However, Mawdryn is not a straightforward villain, and, rather like Omega in Arc of Infinity, we do feel some sympathy for him. This traditional bad scientist plot is given a twist by a quite surprising use of The Doctor’s ability to time travel. Tegan and Nyssa become stranded in 1977, while The Doctor is in 1983, both parties encounter The Brigadier, and it the eventual meeting of these two versions of The Brigadier that causes the release of energy that provides the plot’s resolution. This makes time travel central to the plot, rather than simply being the device by which The doctor and his crew enter the story. There have, of course, been stories where time travel has played a role in the plot ( The Chase, Earthshock, Pyramids of Mars, etc. ) , but in Mawdryn it plays a very central role, explaining The Brigadier’s breakdown, and providing the resolution. Given the unpredictability of The Tardis when piloted by the Fifth Doctor, it also raises the possibility of The Doctor being separated from his companions permanently, especially as it went with them and not him!

Any mention of time in this story will inevitably lead into the long standing argument over whether this story plays fast and loose with the UNIT continuity by showing a Brigadier who has retired from the organization by Summer1977 at the latest. I have to say, I don’t think this argument can ever be resolved, as, when it comes to dating the UNIT stories, there is a lot of contradictory evidence in the series as a whole ( not least of all Sarah’s claim in Pyramids of Mars that she comes from 1980 ) . I am content to accept that the majority of the evidence tends to suggest that the UNIT stories were more or less contemporary, and that Mawdryn Undead doesn’t really present a problem in continuity terms.

All in all, this is one of the best stories of the Davison era, and I would be very surprised if it doesn’t remain a firm favorite with fans for many years to come.

Paul Clarke

Unfairly remembered for buggering up UNIT dating, 'Mawdryn Undead' is really a rather good story. It has a very atypical plot for Doctor Who, which makes rare use of the fact that the series can exploit time travel as a plot device. In addition to this, after committing the heinous sin of scripting 'Time-Flight' Peter Grimwade proves surprisingly successful at juggling an old enemy, an old friend, and a new companion.

Firstly, the principle plot concerns Mawdryn, an unfortunate scientist who along with his companions once stole technology from the Time Lords in an attempt to emulate them. Having accidentally condemned themselves to an eternity of perpetual regeneration and mutation, they now seek to find a way of committing suicide, a difficult task for a group of immortals. This plot is used very well for a number of reasons; for one thing, it makes a refreshing change for a story to focus on an opponent of sorts for the Doctor who is not out to gain power, but who wants help to die. Perhaps wisely, the script side steps the moral issues of euthanasia by emphasizing the ghastly state of Mawdryn's existence, which further means that whilst he is suffering as a consequence of his own past actions, he is not an unsympathetic character. He clearly bears no malice towards the Doctor or his companions; he is motivated purely by his desperate search for help. David Collings, one of Doctor Who's finest occasional guest actors, conveys this beautifully, making Mawdryn seem desperate and pathetic, but never frightening, and also eliciting sympathy. The scenes in which he masquerades as the Doctor make for interesting viewing, and Tegan and Nyssa's uncertainty about him is made believable in part by some rather impressive burnt skin makeup. He clearly doesn't look that much like Peter Davison even then, but this gruesome makeup does make it easier to believe that they could mistake him for their friend. Mention of the Doctor brings up another notable element of the Mawdryn plotline, which is the Fifth Doctor's reaction to events. His initial refusal to help Mawdryn is interesting because whilst it's perfectly understandable given the cost, he clearly finds it enormously painful to reject Mawdryn's plea for aid. Even when asked to sacrifice his own life (or rather, future lives) to help someone whose predicament is entirely their own fault, he still finds it hard to turn them away. Davison brings out this facet of the Doctor's personality magnificently, and the Doctor's sympathy for Mawdryn when he first meets him speaks volumes about his character. When he finally agrees to sacrifice his future incarnations to save Tegan and Nyssa, it sums up this most compassionate of Doctors, as he visible struggles with the enormity of the situation that he is facing and still decides to put the lives of his friends before his own. There's also a certain irony inherent in his scenes with Mawdryn; Mawdryn is a thief who stole Gallifreyan technology and thus created his eternal torment. It's easy to condemn him for this and point out, as the Doctor does, that sometimes people need to accept the consequences of their own actions. The irony is that the Doctor also stole Gallifreyan technology, in the form of the TARDIS, and if he hadn't, he would probably have never met Mawdryn.

The second main plot thread concerns new companion Turlough, a companion totally unlike any seen before. Mark Strickson makes an immediate impression in the role, as Turlough proves initially to be selfish, bullying, cruel, and arrogant, as his scenes with Ibbotson attest. As if these unsavoury qualities were not unusual enough in a companion, he soon makes a deal with the Black Guardian to kill the Doctor, and spends the remainder of the story alternating between trying to kill or manipulate the Doctor and trying to weasel out of his agreement. As soon as he agrees to commit murder, he becomes arguably the single untrustworthiest companion to join the TARDIS crew, and as such he's a great character. The Doctor's quick acceptance of his new acquaintance means that he is soon treating Turlough like a trusted friend, which adds an extra edge to proceedings, as Turlough repeatedly turns to the Guardian for instructions. Whilst Turlough will remain in thrall to the Black Guardian for two more stories however, he begins his slow redemption early on; after his initial attempt to kill the Doctor, he realises that the Time Lord is not the creature of evil that his Guardian claimed, and his general dislike of violence soon means that he's looking for less drastic ways to satisfy the Guardian. Strickson is great in the role, playing the arrogant bully with ease in Episode One, and then switching to increasingly panic-stricken coward as he realises that he has (almost literally) made a deal with the devil. His joining of the TARDIS crew at the end holds great promise, as he proves adept at lying and deceit and calmly shakes hands with the Doctor; indeed, it is worth noting that however frantic Turlough gets about his predicament, he always manages to present a calm façade to the TARDIS crew. It's also interesting that Turlough's first appearance in the series involves attempted murder motivated by a selfish desire to escape his exile; lest we forget, in his first televised story, a certain Time Lord also intended to kill a man with a rock in an attempt to get back to his TARDIS…

The return of the Black Guardian is rather poorly explained given that he last appeared some years previously in the final scenes of the Key to Time season, but his presence does add an extra dimension to an already multi-layered story, without making it seem too cluttered. The lurking menace of the Guardian works well in conjunction with the use of his new pawn Turlough, and his quiet manipulation of events from behind the scenes is well handled. Despite inexplicably wearing a dead bird on his head, Valentine Dyall's utterly malevolent performance is superb, and he is one of only a few actors who can get away with uttering lines such as "In the name of all that is evil!" without sounding over the top. The Guardian's constant torment of Turlough makes for some great moments, his ability to appear to Turlough anywhere "waking or sleeping" emphasizing the nightmarish situation in which Turlough has placed himself.

The other old face to reappear in 'Mawdryn Undead' is the Brigadier. Whilst the production teams' original plan to bring back Ian Chesterton might have made more sense in light of the school setting, Courtney recaptures his old role with tremendous ease and the Brigadier is very well used. The idea of two temporal aspects of the Brigadier means that the plot makes good use of him, rather than just treating him as a gratuitous guest appearance, and makes for a satisfying addition to the already busy proceedings. Courtney brings to the role an air of dignity that draws on the Brigadier's characterisation in Season Seven, rather than the increasingly ludicrous buffoon that he became under Barry Letts' tenure as producer, and this is partly why he works so well here. Courtney also manages to make Lethbridge-Stewart seem vulnerable whilst maintaining his old character, and his performance in Episode Two as the Doctor tries to discover the cause of his breakdown six years previously is quite touching. The flashback scene as the Brigadier's memory is restored is rather gratuitous but nevertheless strangely satisfying, as the fan in me gets to see clips of old stories; more importantly, the entire scene serves as a reminder of just how strong a friendship developed between the Doctor and the Brigadier. I also hugely appreciate the fact that 'Mawdryn Undead' exploits the two time zone plotline, which is crucial to tying all the disparate elements of the story together in the final scene; with the Black Guardian having stacked the laws of probability against the Doctor, the coincidence of the two Briagdiers touching hands at exactly the right millisecond seems appropriate rather than contrived.

Of the regular cast, I've mentioned Davison already. Given the number of elements vying for screen time already in 'Mawdryn Undead', Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding get relatively little to do, but when they are used, Grimwade uses them well. By keeping them largely together their different personalities can be exploited; thus, they get to meet Mawdryn and the Brigadier as a pair, which means that Tegan's automatic distrust of Mawdryn contrasts with Nyssa's natural desire to help those in need, and at the same time Nyssa's scientific background is well used throughout the script. Her ability to chip in when the Doctor is spouting explanations results in three way conversations between the TARDIS crew members which makes it seem less obvious that Doctor is explaining the plot to the audience through his companions.

The production of 'Mawdryn Undead' is generally quite impressive; Peter Moffatt's direction is competent if unspectacular, but the location filming greatly benefits the story. The sets too are rather good; those for the school interior nicely match the exterior, and those used for Mawdryn's sets capture the cold grandeur suggested by the script. This contributes to an air of eeriness on board the ship that works particularly well in Episode One, and the incidental score helps. Paddy Kingsland's score is effective throughout, except for some silly music when Turlough is driving the Brigadier's car at the start of Episode One. The costumes used for the mutants are very effective, although exactly how Mawdryn obtains an outfit identical to those of his brethren having been carried into the TARDIS in charred rags is a question left unanswered… My only real criticism of 'Mawdryn Undead' is the propensity for technobabble, with talk of warp ellipses and Mawdryn's constant mutation little more than gibberish. The most obvious example if when Tegan and Nyssa become infected; the nature of their infection is very obviously glossed over, with even the Doctor explaining that he doesn't know why he and the Brigadier are immune. Poor explanations mean less technobabble, which is fine, but the fact that travel in the TARDIS seems to affect them differently to Mawdryn once they are infected remains niggling plot hole. But this is a trivial criticism; on the whole, 'Mawdryn Undead' is a rewarding story and one that is deserving of far greater appreciation than it usually gets.