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)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s