Review [DW]: “Mawdryn Undead”

20×3. Mawdryn Undead
Writer: Peter Grimwade
Director: Peter Moffatt
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: While the Black Guardian attempts to manipulate the alien schoolboy-impostor Turlough into killing the Doctor, the TARDIS crew become embroiled in a crisis involving two separate time periods, a group of alien criminals whose theft of Gallifreyan technology has backfired and left them in a state of eternal mutation, and retired Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, now teaching mathematics at a local school and initially unable to remember the Doctor.

Review: “Mawdryn Undead” is probably the best serial yet of the Davison era, weaving together a labyrinthine but logical time travel plot with the right mix of suspense, solid characterization, and occasional humor. While it has its missteps, this is a story that proves sufficiently engaging that most viewers will enjoy the ride even though it takes a few questionable turns.

The Brigadier is back for the first time since “Terror of the Zygons,” and while it’s a bit unusual to see him outside of a UNIT story, Doctor Who could certainly do worse than to drop in on his post-military career. He may no longer be commanding a clandestine international organization, but his intelligence and take-charge manner are on display in both timelines, and the Doctor is clearly pleased to see him, greeting him with an exuberant, “Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart!” Giving him partial amnesia could have backfired, if only because it’s such a worn-out plot device in fiction. Here, however, it works for a couple of reasons: (1) it doesn’t linger for very long, with the Doctor helping him recover his memories shortly after encountering him at the school; and (2) it ties into the serial’s twisting plot, with his younger and older selves accidentally crossing paths towards the end and thus presumably inducing his younger self’s memory loss due to shock.

“Mawdryn Undead” also manages to work without a clear villain driving most of the story – the Black Guardian shows up, but that’s as much a pretext for introducing Turlough as anything else. Instead, what we have are competing priorities and viewpoints. Mawdryn and his colleagues on the ship are not trying to regain the power they once had, or acquire a mutation-free form of immortality, or exploit Earth – rather, they want to be allowed to die a natural death. Their methods are certainly manipulative and dishonest at times, but for the most part, they don’t deliberately set out to harm anyone else. Turlough, meanwhile, is introduced as an intelligent but somewhat amoral character: he’s self-centered, certainly, and initially willing to kill the Doctor if it will get him off of Earth (which he claims to hate), but he starts to have second thoughts when he realizes that the Black Guardian was lying when he claimed that the Doctor was some sort of evil and dangerous person. And the Brigadier, for that matter, made his mark as an ally of the Doctor who isn’t always on the same page with him, and we see some of tht here too. His younger self rather chauvinistically suggests that the “girls” (Nyssa and Tegan) let him handle things, at which they rightly bristle, and one gets the sense that he is among the more traditionally-minded, disciplinarian teachers at the school. There is, however, one scene in which he threatens Mawdryn that seems a bit over the top – maybe it was a bluff, but even so, it felt like it might have been thrown in to create context for Mawdryn’s subsequent expository dialogue. Tegan and Nyssa, meanwhile, are at first unsure whether to believe Mawdryn’s ruse of pretending to be the Doctor’s latest regeneration after a supposed transmat capsule accident, not realizing that they have traveled back to 1977.

A story like “Mawdryn Undead” is naturally going to play a bit fast and loose with science, and ironically the final episode offers clear examples of both the right way and the wrong way to do this. It turns out that the only way to free Mawdryn and his colleagues from their state of immortal mutation is for the Doctor to interface with the equipment on their ship in a way that will use up his remaining eight regenerations. He actually refuses at first, agreeing only after it emerges that Tegan and Nyssa have somehow been “infected” by the condition that afflicts Mawdryn and the others and now cannot leave the ship. All this is probably about 1% “sci” and 99% “fi,” and the script never acknowledges the fact that, with Tegan and Nyssa in the equation, the procedure ought to cost the Doctor ten regenerations (which he doesn’t have) rather than eight. And yet it works because it requires the Doctor to make a meaningful choice and demonstrate just how much he is willing to sacrifice, and for whom. The one aspect of this that could have been improved would have been to elaborate on exactly why the Doctor refuses until Tegan and Nyssa are endangered. I can think of several reasons why he might – their dishonest and deceptive methods, the fact that their own crimes are what caused their predicament, a general distrust of anyone who tries to manipulate nature to achieve immortality – but it’s never spelled out, and for a character who does tend to be relatively selfless, it could have used some explanation.

While I wouldn’t have expected the serial to end with the Doctor actually losing the ability to regenerate, the script gets him out of this predicament with a bit of a cheat. After a series of near-misses between the two Brigadiers, they wind up in the control room together just as the procedure is about to take place. The older Brigadier, despite having been warned by the Doctor that they must prevent this from happening, reaches out to touch the h nd of his bewildered younger self, causing some sort of energy discharge that “shorts out the time differential” and cures Mawdryn and the others without the Doctor having to lose any regenerations. What had been a character-driven narrative in which the Doctor’s choice is the critical turning point becomes a technobabble-driven narrative in which the Doctor’s choice is rendered irrelevant by what amounts to dumb luck.

I object to this partly there has been an awful lot of this kind of plotting in recent serials, such as Nyssa just happening to be the spitting image of a human woman in the 1920s in “Black Orchid,” the Cybermen’s technology accidentally causing a ship to travel 65 million years back in time in “Earthshock,” pretty much the entire plot of “Time-Flight,” and the labored justification for the use of Amsterdam as Omega’s headquarters in “Arc of Infinity.” But perhaps more to the point, there could have been a much better (and still character-driven) ending even within the confines of this concept. If the two Brigadiers meeting really would have this effect, why not have the Doctor and/or Mawdryn deduce this and then let the Brigadier make the tough choice, accepting that he’ll suffer six years of partial amnesia in order to spare his friend an even greater sacrifice? I do think the Brigadier would do this, especially since he would know that he’ll eventually recover, and it would preserve what I did like about the ending, which was how it tied the Brigadier’s memory loss into the other intersections of the two timelines.

Other notes:

– Tegan seems the most skeptical of Mawdryn’s claim to be the Doctor, whereas Nyssa and the younger Brigadier are more open to the possibility. Perhaps they’re just more used to thinking outside the box given their past experiences (Nyssa as an alien who left her homeworld and the Brigadier as a UNIT veteran)?

– I’m not a believer in assisted suicide, and at times I was a bit uncomfortable as I wondered if the script meant to draw any parallels to that issue. On the other hand, Mawdryn and his colleagues have what might be considered the exact opposite of a terminal illness (since they can’t die), and ended up in this condition because they *weren’t* willing to let nature take its course.

– One thing that was left unclear to me was whether anyone – the Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa, or the Brigadier – became aware at any point that Turlough is an alien. He clearly demonstrates more knowledge of the technology at work than a British teenager would logically have, but it’s never addressed in the dialogue.

Rating: *** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “Snakedance”

20×2. Snakedance
Writer: Christopher Bailey
Director: Fiona Cumming
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Mara, having maintained a hidden presence within Tegan’s mind, begins to take control of her again, diverting the TARDIS to its original homeworld of Manussa, where it plans to use the legendary Great Crystal to effect its return. The Doctor and Nyssa have to contend not only with the Mara’s manipulations but with the skepticism of the local populace, many of whom now regard the Mara as a myth and are preparing a festival celebrating the story of its banishment.

Review: If “Kinda” straddled the line between science fiction and fantasy, “Snakedance” pretty much leaps across it. While there are traces of conventional Doctor Who pseudoscience (the Doctor invents a gadget to try to block the Mara from interacting with Tegan, and there’s a line positing the importance of the Great Crystal’s molecular structure), the Mara’s plan is essentially the performance of a magic ritual. The Mara itself also gets more of a backstory, having been created out of the negative emotions of a group of people who made an ill-advised attempt to harness the Great Crystal’s power hundreds of years ago. The Doctor defeats the Mara at the end not by using any sort of technology, but by finding the “still point” within himself and countering the negative psychic energy of the Mara, as advised by the Manussan ascetic Dojjen. This ending, incidentally, transformed a story that seemed like it might be out of place on Doctor Who into one that might *only* work on Doctor Who. The meeting with Dojjen, in which he and the Doctor communicate telepathically, is the most memorable scene in the serial, but the idea of the protagonist suddenly being able to understand all this and find his or her “still point” when there are just minutes left might seem like a stretch on most television shows. When the protagonist is the Doctor, however, I actually have no trouble buying into this idea.

Manussa doesn’t rank among the most interesting alien societies that we’ve seen on Doctor Who, but I did appreciate that the Doctor’s confict with the locals arises not because they mistakenly think he’s behind whatever evil scheme is under way, but because they don’t believe there’s an evil scheme at all. The Mara is apparently now regarded by the Manussan establishment as a myth, and those who still believe in it are seen as crackpots: Dojjen has been exiled, and the Doctor is seen more as a disruptive nuisance than anything else when he tries to warn everyone what’s happening. The Mara is able to operate partly by appealing to the vanity of Ambril, Manussa’s Director of Historical Research who sniffs at the Doctor’s lack of academic credentials and who is persuaded to retrieve the Great Crystal with the promise of getting credit for an archaeological discovery.

While the Davison era had yet to produce an absolute clunker (though “Time-Flight” perhaps came close), it’s hovered mostly in the average-to-pretty good range so far. “Snakedance” does take some chances by venturing further into mysticism and the supernatural than is typical for Doctor Who, but it also just barely gets away with it, and neither the underlying concepts nor the details of plot and characterization are strong enough to make it a top-notch serial.

Rating: *** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “Arc of Infinity”

20×1. Arc of Infinity
Writer: Johnny Byrne
Director: Ron Jones
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The insane Time Lord Omega plots his return to Gallifrey, setting up a power center underneath Amsterdam and using stolen bio-data on the Doctor to engineer the creation of a matter-based body that could exist in our universe. The Time Lords attempt to execute the Doctor to prevent Omega’s return, but Omega and his co-conspirator, the High Councillor Hedin, interfere, while Omega holds Tegan – who came to Amsterdam to meet her cousin – as a hostage to manipulate the Doctor.

Review: I’m starting to think that “less is more” might be a wise rule regarding visits to Gallifrey. While the Time Lords featured in two classic serials, “The War Games” and “The Deadly Assassin,” the former left their appearance until the very end and the latter was set up partly to illustrate that, despite the Time Lords’ power, Gallifrey could be just as corrupt and regressive as many of the other declining, aristocratic regimes seen on other alien worlds. But in “The Three Doctors,” “The Invasion of Time,” and now “Arc of Infinity,” the creative team have sometimes seemed to struggle with the sheer scope of any narrative involving such a powerful civilization.

For starters, there’s simply too much contrived plotting here. The reason for Omega using Amsterdam as a sort of headquarters is strained at best (it has something to do with the city’s below-sea-level location and some quirk of the Arc of Infinity, itself a purely fictitious concept), and Tegan apparently stumbles into the midst of this purely by coincidence. The science fiction elements underpinning the conspiracy on Gallifrey are only marginally better developed. There’s some pseudoscience invoked to explain how Omega is attempting to form a “bond” to the Doctor, why the Time Lords think killing the Doctor might be the only way to stop it, and how Omega and Hedin interrupt the execution while making it appear as if the Doctor has died. But it doesn’t amount to much more than a fancy way to say “because the script said so.” Meanwhile, a character is murdered at the very beginning without anyone acknowledging it until the third episode, when a line of dialogue implies that everyone knows that he’s dead. But didn’t anyone even notice him missing before that, and shouldn’t that have prompted an investigation of its own by the time the Doctor’s TARDIS is recalled to Gallifrey?

What makes this especially disappointing is that there actually could have been an interesting story here about conflict within Gallifrey’s political establishment. Some amount of contrived plotting is perhaps inevitable in a story dealing with hyperintelligent aliens and a being trying to cross over from an “antimatter universe,” and I’d be happy to just accept the premise for what it is if the characters’ reactions, and the decisions they face, were interesting and understandable. But Borusa, Thalia, and the Castellan rarely strike a pose other than cold, bureaucratic aloofness, and the Council is surprisingly slow to accept that there is a traitor within their ranks – surely they should be aware of their vulnerability after the events of the last two Gallifrey serials. Meanwhile, Hedin and Damon are introduced as friends of the Doctor even though we’ve never seen either of them before, while the Doctor’s actual allies from past Gallifrey serials are absent. Even if none of the previous actors and actresses were available, why couldn’t the producers just do what they did with Borusa in this serial and use regeneration as the pretext for recasting a second Time Lord character as well, such as Spandrell or Engin from “The Deadly Assassin”? Or why not at least show a stronger sense of regret or guilt from Borusa himself, who must feel something for his former pupil even if he thinks he can’t let it influence him as President? Instead we’re left trying to feel invested in the decisions and motivations of characters whom we mostly haven’t seen before and who don’t show much personality.

I don’t want to sound too negative about this serial, because the script does seem to engage with these issues at some level. While the fine points could have been better, the general sense of Gallifrey as a society not to be envied for its power is still present. Clearly all is not well when the Time Lords’ power can be manipulated from within to the point of threatening such a catastrophe that their leaders feel justified in executing an innocent man as a method of preventing it. Commander Maxil (played, interestingly enough, by Colin Baker) is the sort of hard-nosed authoritarian who flourishes in this sort of environment; as the Doctor points out, he may just be following orders, but he seems to find a bit of relish in them. The tragic aspect of Omega’s character also comes across more effectively here than it did in “The Three Doctors.” Hedin’s motivation for his betrayal – that Omega deserves to return to Gallifrey – nicely avoids simplistic villainy (though it would have been good to learn more about how he came into contact with Omega and decided on this course of action). Omega was originally trapped in the antimatter universe by accident and, as far as we can tell, had done nothing reckless or unethical leading up to this. It’s clear that the Doctor would have preferred to try to help Omega – just as he also would have preferred in “The Three Doctors” – if Omega weren’t so dangerously egocentric and unhinged.

A show like Doctor Who has a fine line to walk. Since the concepts in play often have little basis in realistic science and the main character is far more experienced and intelligent than anyone in the audience, we need to know what’s at stake for the characters – both literally and psychologically – even when we (and the writers) don’t entirely understand what they’re talking about. In other words, contrivances can be excused as long as the story isn’t primarily *about* the contrivances (or else you end up with another “Time-Flight”). “Arc of Infinity” gets part of the way there, but ultimately the guest cast isn’t strong enough to carry it through its more strained moments.

Other Notes:

– The absence of past Gallifrey characters is especially noticeable given that Leela is mentioned at one point. Again, I don’t know whether any consideration was given to having Louise Jamieson and/or Chris Tranchell (who played Andred in “Invasion of Time”) make a guest apperance, but it reinforces the sense that the writers are inventing new personal history for the Doctor rather than building on what we already know.

– I’m just as confused about why Tegan was left behind at the end of “Time-Flight” as I was at, well, the end of “Time-Flight.” The Doctor and Nyssa aren’t talking about going back for her when we catch up with them, but then she rejoins the crew after announcing that she’s lost her flight attendant job. So her only options are working as a flight attendant or going on an extended and frequently dangerous trip through space and time?

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)

Review [Doctor Who]: “Time-Flight”

19×7. Time-Flight
Writer: Peter Grimwade
Director: Ron Jones
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The TARDIS diverts to Heathrow Airport after encountering a spacetime anomaly, discovering that the Master has kidnapped the crew and passengers of a Concorde back to prehistoric Earth, where he is attempting to use the nucleus of an alien race known as the Xeraphim to power his TARDIS.

Review: I’ve long contended that fantasy and science fiction narratives usually need a set of rules. Since such narratives operate outside the boundaries of the real world, we need to have some sense of what exactly can and can’t happen if we’re meant to understand what’s at stake and feel invested in the characters’ choices. The biggest problem with “Time-Flight” is that it doesn’t have a clear set of rules, just a set of vague concepts about the Master’s TARDIS and the unruly collective consciousness of the Xeraphim. Once we arrive in the prehistoric Earth setting, the dialogue becomes bogged down in discussions of telepathic manifestations, quantum whatchamacallits, and temporal thingamajiggies while characters appear, disappear, and generally jump through random hoops.

Plot contrivances can be tolerable if at the service of some interesting character development or subtext, but characterization is fairly weak here as well. At one point I thought that we were getting glimpses of the fallible Doctor that has sometimes surfaced since Davison took on the role, in that he’s unable to keep Professor Hayter from being absorbed by the Xeraphim and later seems to have given up on freeing the Xeraphim. In fact he has a trick up his sleeve that involves somehow “intercepting” the Master’s TARDIS and sending it to the Xeraphim’s home planet where the Xeraphim might conceivably escape, but this is all accomplished through more of the borderline-incomprehensible pseudoscience. Later, Tegan is left behind at Heathrow in a scene so perfunctory that I honestly wasn’t sure what to make of it. Does the Doctor think she’s decided on her own to stay? Is he just avoiding the airport authorities and planning to come back for her later? I’m not sure, and certainly the departure of a companion deserves a better explanation than what we get here. As for the rest of the characters, only Captain Stapley and his crew made much of an impression – they’re able to wrap their minds around what’s happening and improvise ways to disrupt the Master’s plans. Professor Hayter rarely strikes a note other than aloof arrogance, and the Master himself spends the first two episodes in disguise as some sort of sorcerer and then abruptly drops the act, with no real reason supplied for why he gave up on it or why he was doing it in the first place.

“Time Flight” is not entirely without its merits. It does address the crew’s lingering grief over Adric’s death, with the Doctor insisting that he will not use time travel to undo what has happened even as he joins Tegan and Nyssa in mourning their lost companion. And the first episode carries some nostalgic value in showing the Doctor working with the British authorities to solve a problem, even invoking his UNIT credentials to get himself out of trouble. Arguably the most interesting as a concept is the Xeraphim’s collective intelligence, which isn’t actually their natural state but rather the form in which they were forced to preserve themselves. It is possible for individual personalities to emerge from the collective, and at the same time, the Master is able to disrupt the balance between Xeraphim of different moral orientations. Unfortunately, this is only briefly explored, and in general the script is more occupied with arbitrary plot machinations than with characters, ideas, or even any effective suspense.

Rating: ** (out of four)