Black Guardian Trilogy
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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
fter the Doctor tussled with the Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall) back in “The Key to Time” season, the god-like entity vowed to eventually catch up with the Time Lord and destroy him. Over the course of these three stories, the Black Guardian attempts to make good on his threat, although his instrument of doom is a rather peculiar weapon: a teenage alien posing as a British schoolboy. His name is Turlough (Mark Strickson) and he makes a pact with the Guardian that he will kill the Doctor if the deity will take him away from Earth once and for all. Over the course of these three stories he’s bullied, prodded, and talked down to by the Black Guardian at every turn, and it’s a huge shame that early on he doesn’t just say to the Doctor, “Hey, this creepy guy with a dead bird on his head wants me to off you, but it looks like you’ve got some pretty awesome hardware at your disposal, so why I don’t I just hitch a ride with you instead?” Clearly, Turlough wasn’t thinking straight, and if he had managed to double-cross the Guardian so early on, these three tales wouldn’t have their linking thread, which is actually one of the more interesting propositions the series ever offered up: What if the Doctor’s companion was actively engaged in trying to kill him?
The trilogy kicks off with “Mawdryn Undead,” a truly twisty-turny tale of time and space. Indeed, for a TV series which so often uses time travel as its jumping off point, “Doctor Who” rarely offers up time conundrums and problems as central to the conflict of its stories. Of course, there are only so many ways you can go back in time and step on a butterfly, so this is understandable in regards to the series. And yet, when “Who” does pull out a story where time travel plays an important role, it’s always great fun to just kick back and let the McFlyness of it all wash over you. “Mawdryn” takes place in two time zones – 1983 and 1977 – and in each of those periods exists a different version of the Doctor’s old friend, the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), only the ’83 version doesn’t recognize the Doctor or recall any of their adventures together. It also takes place up in space, on a mysterious space vessel which houses an alien scientist named Mawdryn (David Collings), who, along with seven cohorts, attempted to harness the power of immortality. Their experiments failed, and now the eight pathetic creatures are stuck in an endless and painful loop of time and torment. All they really want to do is die, and since the Doctor has eight regenerations remaining, he might be able to help them, but it would come at a serious cost to the Time Lord.
That’s just the tip of the “Mawdryn” storyline, and it only became apparent when I sat down to describe it how much stuff is actually going on this story. Nicholas Courtney, in fact, says he “never understood it,” which is too bad for him because it’s not particularly dense. It’s just that there’s an awful lot going on, and it’s all balanced pretty slickly, even if the resolution smacks of convenience. I didn’t even get around to Turlough, even though he obviously plays a central role. The Black Guardian, despite this box set being named after him, spends most of these three stories lurking, and only appearing to Turlough when the boy’s alone. But the idea of the lurking Guardian and the plotting Turlough does something else: It allows the show to do three full stories in which the TARDIS crew is thrust into situations that don’t have traditional villains with evil plans. Since the Doctor isn’t even aware that he’s being plotted against (even though the viewer does) these three tales get to concentrate on other sci-fi matters, which makes for a refreshing change of pace. For instance, this story’s other villain, Mawdryn, isn’t really a villain at all; the guy just wants to die. How many villains have that plan?
The middle story is “Terminus,” which is the stinker of this set. Not actually bad per se, its biggest problems lie in the grass growing and paint drying department: “Terminus” is, unfortunately, incredibly dull, although based on its first episode, it looks to be a classic. Turlough, at this point having joined the TARDIS crew, sabotages the time machine, and the damn thing starts pulling apart and ends up fusing with another spaceship. Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) finds herself alone on the ship and separated from her friends, and before long the Doctor discovers that the ship, Terminus, is actually a giant leper colony, housing people suffering from Lazar’s Disease. Two space pirates looking as though they just escaped from a Duran Duran concert show up and one of them knows all about Lazar’s. Then there are the Vanir, a group of gloomy-looking souls who are the slave labor of Terminus, and forced to work for the serum that keeps them alive. Oh, and then there’s the Garm, a creature who may or may not be an agent of evil, but the guy just looks so damn cuddly that most children would love having him preside over their birthday party. And to top all of that off, the Big Bang even plays a role.
Unlike “Mawdryn” before it, the elements here simply aren’t gelling all that well, and that’s likely the reason “Terminus” is known mostly for the fact that Sarah Sutton spends a great deal of the story wandering around in only a silky blouse that showcases her cleavage and, below that, only a slip. (No, I’m not making any of that up.) Keep an eye out for a couple really good dialogue scenes between Janet Fielding and Strickson, assuming you’re not too distracted by Sutton wandering around in her skivvies.
Finally, there’s “Enlightenment,” by which point the Guardian is pretty pissed off at Turlough for his continued failure to just kill this Doctor. A presence is trying to enter the TARDIS, and it’s the White Guardian (Cyril Luckham) attempting to get the Doctor a message about “winner takes all.” Long before the new series did boats in space in “Voyage of the Damned”, this story offered up a far more intriguing spin on the idea. The TARDIS materializes onboard an Edwardian yacht that just so happens to be drifting through space! It’s in a race with other similar vessels designed to look like different sailing ships from Earth’s history. They’re trying to reach Enlightenment, which is the prize. The ships are commanded by a race known as the Eternals, which are exactly what you’d expect them to be, and while they aren’t intrinsically evil or good, they do not see human (or “Ephemeral”) life as being even remotely important; it’s simply too fleeting to matter. Here’s a story that I used to have very little patience for, but seeing it on this box set, I found that my own age and realization of mortality have helped me to appreciate it. It’s a pretty fascinating meditation on immortality vs. mortality, and as such makes a fine bookend to the “Mawdryn” storyline that opens the trilogy.
One of the highlights is the B-plot of one of the Eternals falling for Tegan (Fielding), and his failure to understand what it means to be human. It’s the kind of stuff classic “Who” rarely does, and yet here it’s done really well. “Enlightenment” is in fact the only “Who” story ever (I believe) to be both written and directed by women, and it shows, as this just simply isn’t quite like any other story the series ever unveiled. It still isn’t perfect, most notably due to the hammy performance from Lynda Baron, who brings down some of the classy credibility of the last half of the story with her over-the-top theatrics, and yet she’s in no way enough to destroy it completely.
So how do events wind up for Turlough and the Black Guardian? Well, that would be telling, but you can probably guess that Turlough doesn’t succeed in his mission. Strickson went on to play Turlough up until Peter Davison’s penultimate story, although there always seemed to be issues of trust between him and the Doctor, which in and of itself made for a potentially fascinating character, even if Strickson was only on a couple more occasions given meaty material with which to work.
Special Features: The major highlight here is an all new feature-length edit of “Enlightenment” on Disc Four (in addition to the original serialized version on Disc Three). The story has been edited into one 75-minute story, which means that probably 15 or so minutes has actually been excised. The fat is trimmed, and the story is given a CGI overhaul on its effects work, and even some new music has been added in to accompany the new grandeur of the CGI work. It’s even been cropped and reformatted for 16x9, which sounds a dubious proposition for material composed in a 3:4 aspect ratio, and yet you’d never know watching it that it wasn’t the original aspect ratio. The project was overseen by the story’s original director, Fiona Cumming, and it’s a wonderful bit of revisionism and it’s recommend that you watch this version before checking out the original. Further, both “Mawdryn Undead” and “Terminus” also have optional CGI that, in both cases, is an improvement, particularly in the case of “Terminus,” which is helped immensely by the new effects work. There are also commentaries for each story, featuring Davison, Sutton, Strickson, Nick Courtney and writer Stephen Gallagher and Barbara Clegg, script editor Eric Saward and director Fiona Cumming. There are 20+ minute making ofs for each story, in addition to probably another dozen or so featurettes. Plenty of deleted and extended scenes, continuity announcements, unused model shots, isolated scores, storyboards, and all the other usual stuff you expect to find on a “Who” DVD.