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Doctor Who complete reviews: Mawdryn Undead


Peter Grimwade redeems himself with a welcome return of a Doctor Who favourite...

Mawdryn Undead

The early 2010s are not happy times. Especially if you don't like the Royal Family. Yes, in Spring 2011, it's street party and tacky memorabilia time as Kate and Wills get hitched to the tune of several million pounds and the out of tune of JLS and Take That, who will no doubt perform at some half-arsed concert presented by some fawning non-entity like Fearne Cotton. And then the following year, whasserface will celebrate yet another milestone jubilee. Heaven for the Royalists, a nightmare for those who are finding it a bit harder to make ends meet...

Pardon the crass soapboxing - it's just that it seems hard to get away from the hee-haw-ing Royals at the mo. At the time of writing, they're on telly, they're in the papers, and now to make matters worse, they've just mentioned the 1977 jubilee in Mawdryn Undead, one of the key season 20 stories in Doctor Who. Still, while a couple of rejects from Top Of The Pops are breaking out the Union Jack flags and bunting, at least Who fans can celebrate the return of two important characters. I speak of course, of the Black Guardian and the Brigadier.

The Black Guardian is at the centre of what's loosely known as the 'Guardian Trilogy', a term that's maybe overstating it a bit, since Big G only crops up here and there to bellow at Turlough. And it's only in Enlightenment that the White Guardian appears to deliver some ambiguous warning to The Doctor while impersonating a malfunctioning Digibox.

The Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall) with Turlough (Mark Strickson) in 'Mawrdryn Undead'Still at least the Black Guardian sets out his stall with complete clarity in Mawdryn Undead. He's got rid of the bathing cap, beard and negative tendencies, and is now strutting about in an over-fancy bin liner and a dead bird on his head. We never know why the Guardians are saddled with these feathered friends - maybe the birds are only sleeping and that in fact, the Guardians need a bit of company. It must get pretty lonely being stranded in a gaudy CBBC dartboard dreamscape with no one to bellow threats to. Good thing then that old Captain Intense himself, Turlough, just happens to cross BG's path, since the Black Guardian can finally achieve his plan of KILLING THE DOCT-OOOORRR (a phrase that's repeated many a time in the trilogy).

The problem is though is that while Valentine Dyall does his level best to inject some gravitas into the character, the Black Guardian is a one-man hokey cliche dispenser. Every sentence he comes up with is like some third-rate Ming The Merciless prattle. "IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS EVIL!!" he bellows at the end of part one to Turlough. "THE BLACK GUARDIAN ORDERS YOU TO DESTROY The Doctor NOW!!" And that's just a fraction of the dross that Dyall has to wade through in this story. The scene in which he confronts a sleeping Turlough is full of the stuff, to the point where if I listed all of the cliches in that scene alone, I'd still be writing this review in Christmas 2011.

Peter Grimwade's the man responsible for all these dialogue howlers, and while his script's generally of the highest standard, he's incapable of making the Black Guardian a convincing threat. It's also a bit of a damp squib to reduce BG to a couple of voiceovers and one or two lousy cameo talking-head appearances (during one of which, he gobs on himself for no good reason). All of which reduces the reputation of the once all-powerful Guardian to a hammy fool.

"With Nicholas Courtney's reliably strong performance and uniquely engaging take on The Brig, it's as if he's never been away"

The brig (Nicholas Courtney) and Tegan (Janet Fielding) in 'Mawdryn Undead'It's not all doom and gloom though for fans, since the reappearance of the Brigadier is a real masterstroke. It's great to have Nicholas Courtney back in the fold - with his reliably strong performance and uniquely engaging take on The Brig, it's as if he's never been away.

Mind you, there's all this business with UNIT continuity, which is enough to fry your brain to a charred lump. OK, I'll make this as quick as possible. On the one hand, it's impossible that The Brig could have been teaching at a school in 1977, since he was supposed to still be at UNIT. Some fans believe that the UNIT stories took place in the mid to late 70s/early 80s, thereby meaning that Mawdryn Undead is one great big goof. There are other fans, however, who place the UNIT stories in the late 60s and early 70s - check out the Discontinuity Guide, for example. My advice? Just try and ignore the date issues, otherwise you might go cross-eyed for good.

Mawdryn Undead allows greater scope for Nicholas Courtney's acting talents, since he's called to play two Brigs for the price of one. The 1977 model is very much in keeping with the familiar character of the Pertwee stories, all impeccable manners and old-fashioned values (he tells Teabag and Nyssa to stay in the TARDIS - naturally this leads Teabag to call him a "chauvinist"). However, the 1983 model is a shade more complex, and just that bit more vulnerable. He doesn't recognise The Doctor at first, on account of his amnesia from some unexplained trauma. Even when he takes the Fifth Doctor as gospel, he's still prone to angry outbursts and defiance against his mental state ("This one goes on till he drops"). It's all cleverly explained though at the end, as both Brigs happen to meet on Mawdryn's ship, causing the Blinovitch Limitation Effect - or to put it more simply, Zap!

Mawdryn UndeadAnd that's the real strength of Peter Grimwade's excellent script, which is poles apart from the lacklustre Time Flight. It's an oddity in many ways. For one thing, it's one of the few Doctor Who stories that revolves around time travel, and it's a clever move to set the action in two separate time zones. Grimwade manages to string out the mystery of the Brigadier's trauma and the mysterious Mawdryn because of this, and overall he handles the complicated plot well without making the story too contrived.

It's also unusual in that it makes the villain of the piece to not want to conquer or destroy the universe. In this case, the eponymous Mawdryn and his pizza-headed buddies just want the luxury of death. It's a nice touch to give the baddie a different motivation in what appears to be a comment on euthanasia. Mawdryn and the Mutants have no lives of their own, just unending existence, and furthermore, it's not as if they can go out and mingle with people, given that half their heads are missing. They'd be on the front pages of the red-top papers before you can shout Garry Bushell.

Mawdryn UndeadTalking of which, the make-up for Mawdryn is excellent, and actually quite grisly for kiddies who probably thought twice about eating their alphabet spaghetti for tea. The make-up for the badly burned Mawdryn is just as effectively grisly, although for some inexplicable reason, Nyssa and Teabag think that he's The Doctor, even though he looks and sounds nothing like the Time Lord. David Collings scores the hat-trick with another great Doctor Who cameo, adding both genuine malevolence and pity to the character of Mawdryn - even if again, he gets some really naff dialogue ("Spare me the endurance of eternity!") to contend with.

Another character to make an impact is of course, Turlough, the Black Guardian's rather unwilling accomplice. It's a refreshing change to make the new companion a potential danger - quite why The Doctor welcomes him aboard at the end is anybody's guess. Mark Strickson may not pass for a 15-year-old public schoolboy in a month of Sundays, but isn't it a relief to have a well-acted companion after the last couple of years? What's great about Strickson's performances is that he really goes for the part, and gives his all, even if sometimes he does go a bit OTT. "The Doctor isn't as you say-eee!!" he shrieks at his angry boss at one point, before giving a distinctly girly yelp. It's a hammy performance, but it's enjoyably hammy, and Strickson does the wide-eyed, borderline psychotic act very well. The character of Turlough nicely sets up a different style of friction in the TARDIS, especially when he comes to blows with the mistrustful Teabag.

This being a Peter Grimwade script, we do get another example of the Wailing Fifth Doctor Close-up at the end of part three. On this occasion, he's moaning about how it will be the end of him as a Time Lord - cue cliffhanger scream and credits, and a feeling of dissatisfaction at such a lame episode ending. It's not as if Mawdryn will actually succeed in taking all his remaining regenerations away in the first place, and again Davison never really seems at home with this boggle-eyed misplaced melodrama. Having said that, he's made the part of The Doctor his own, all energetic rushing around (which he does an awful lot of in this story), thoughtful wisdom and infinite compassion (even Teabag thanks him for offering to lay down his remaining lives in order to save her and Nyssa).

Mawdryn UndeadMawdryn Undead is boosted by some lavish production values. In particular, Stephen Scott's designs are outstanding. The interiors of Mawdryn's ship are particularly large-scale and detailed, and look more like a swanky cruise ship in space, a nice counterpoint to the usual white corridors that you get in sci-fi films and TV. The location filming is also well done, and the direction from Peter Moffatt is generally good. There are some memorable setpieces, including another flashback sequence (this time, The Brig remembers some sepia nostalgia), the cliffhanger revelation of Mawdryn's regeneration and the macabre scenes of Teabag and Nyssa ageing and then reverting back to young kids (played by journalist Sian Pattenden and EastEnders/Press Gang star Lucy Benjamin).

A fine start to the Guardian trilogy, Mawdryn Undead is a triumph of both style and substance. Peter Grimwade's script may contain its fair share of corny B-movie lines, but the plot is well worked out and pleasingly different. The direction and production are of a very high standard (including Paddy Kingsland doing his best Eric Clapton impersonation), and there are fabulous performances all round. A shameless nostalgia-fest, Mawdryn Undead perfectly captures the anniversary feel of the 20th season. Just leave the bunting at home, eh?


John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.

Check out John's previous Doctor Who review, Snakedance

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