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Mawdryn Undead

Review by Paul Scoones

Like the Brigadier, my memory of six years ago is not that good and seeing as that was when I last viewed that story, it was refreshing to catch all four episodes (a rare experience for me these days) when they rescreened on television recently.

This is the best of writer Peter Grimwade's three stories, shining out above the weak Time-Flight and uneven Planet of Fire for its multi-layered, complex script, containing enough in the way of plot devices to fill a five or even six part story.

Episode Two was easily the best of the four, as this contained a lot of clever crosscutting between the 1983 and 1977 time zones, and featured the real star of the show, the Brigadier, in some superb scenes with the Doctor as he struggles to remember the past. Things are at their most dramatic as it dawns on the Doctor that Tegan and the TARDIS are six years in the past.

The relationship between the Doctor and the Brigadier was one of old friends, once the soldier remembered the Time Lord. The Fifth Doctor/Brigadier partnering was an interesting one, as the Brigadier had aged considerably since his days at UNIT, whilst the Doctor was quite literally younger than ever, which put them on more of an equal footing. The verbal sparring that went on between the Brigadier and earlier Doctors was absent, perhaps due to the fact that the Brigadier was no longer representing the rigid 'military mind' to the non-conformist Time Lord.

Episode One might have been even more interesting if all the Doctor and Turlough's scenes on Earth were shifted forward to Episode Two, with the first episode continuing the 1977 scenes of Tegan and Nyssa discovering Mawdryn in the capsule. If the Doctor was not seen until Part Two we, the viewers, would be inclined to join Nyssa and Tegan in asking if the injured man really is the regenerated Doctor, at least on a first time viewing.

Continuity blunders are a facet of nearly every Doctor Who story and this has some interesting ones: the 1983 Brigadier has a homing device given to him in 1977 by Tegan as they walked up the hill to the TARDIS in Episode Two. However in Episode Four the 1979 Brigadier takes the homing device from the transmat capsule console and, after tossing it about a bit, drops it into his pocket - with the same homing device from six years earlier! This second version of the device isn't the one the 1983 Brigadier digs out for the Doctor in 1983 because he says, "Tegan gave it to me". We can only assume that the Doctor removed the device from the Brigadier's pocket before depositing him back on Earth. Incidentally, Grimwade noticed the error in time to correct it for his book version, in which the Brigadier leaves the device in the Transmat capsule.

Another blunder sees Mawdryn come to Earth by Transmat capsule in 1977 and then leave in the TARDIS. The capsule then remains there until 1983, by which time a Transmat beacon has been installed at the obelisk and the capsule has been rendered invisible. Who did this, as it certainly wasn't Mawdryn, whose movements we follow closely from the time of his arrival on Earth to the time of his dissolution.

On the subject of Mawdryn, David Collings gave an enigmatic performance in this role, one quite different from that of the time agent Silver in Sapphire and Steel. One thing that did irritate me about Mawdryn had nothing to do with Collings, but with the character's regeneration. He is indeed a most peculiar alien if he can regenerate robes as well as himself. The squirming pink toupee was also a little ridiculous.

Mawdryn's regenerative powers may have been handled badly, but the overall concept of regeneration as presented in this story was pleasing. The Doctor firmly established that he has only eight regenerations left (making nonsense of The Brain Of Morbius reference, but supporting The Three Doctors). A tantalising insight was given into what a regeneration actually is - from the way it is described in Mawdryn Undead, with the Doctor being able to pass them on it seems it is a sort of biological `explosive charge'. We also learn that a Time Lord is by definition someone with the ability to regenerate, as the Doctor states quite categorically that he would cease to be a Time Lord by giving up his remaining regenerations. So 'Time Lord' is not just a status on Gallifrey but also a biological distinction.

The Turlough - Black Guardian subplot was one of the weakest aspects of the story, despite a brilliant debut performance by Mark Strickson. Turlough is unable to do anything at all to change the Doctor's actions, and fails at almost every attempt to carry out the Guardian's instructions, despite being a desperate character, with his freedom at stake. The Black Guardian, re-enacted with suitable menace by the late Valentine Dyall tends to become almost comical as he continually and increasingly chastises Turlough for his constant failure like a schoolmaster might reprimand an errant schoolboy.

Another blunder arises from Turlough's desire to go home, although the error is not in this story, but in Grimwade's next tale, Planet of Fire. In that story, his mysterious background is revealed, and Turlough is extremely reluctant to contact his own people, as he is a political criminal, but in Mawdryn Undead he is begging to be allowed to return home! (This desire is also expressed in Enlightenment). It's a pity Peter Grimwade didn't research his own stories.

The story ended unsatisfactorily for me and I was left wanting more. The conclusion is a sly intentional reference to the end of the Peter Grimwade directed Earthshock, which has the male companion (Adric) die in the explosion of a spaceship - in this story, Turlough survives the explosion. However, I would have liked to see the Doctor go back out of the still open TARDIS doors and bid his old friend a proper farewell, as well as explain that Turlough would be going with him. It would have been nicer still if the Brigadier had been able to persuade the Doctor to stay on a bit longer, perhaps for a game of cricket, in keeping with the Time Lord's passion for this typically English sport.

In spite of all the room for improvement, I derived a great deal of pleasure from viewing Mawdryn Undead. It is one of the highlights in the generally excellent Fifth Doctor era.

This item appeared in TSV 13 (May 1989).

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