A warp ellipse draws the TARDIS off course. The Doctor’s companions are separated from him in space, but not time, and he has to deal with a treacherous schoolboy named Turlough. But why does the Doctor’s old friend, the Brigadier, not remember him at all?
Compared to Peter Grimwade’s previous writing contribution to the show, Time-Flight, Mawdryn Undead is a masterpiece. In terms of comparing it to Doctor Who, it is a pretty solid entry into Davison’s era of Doctor Who, bringing back a fan favourite character of the Brigadier and playing around with time. I really enjoyed Mawdryn Undead, even though it is flawed in places.
I think it’s safe to say that Peter Grimwade’s direction is more consistent than his writing, even though this is a better story that his previous effort. Mawdryn Undead‘s main strength lies in doing things that the show hadn’t tried before, such as combining the two time periods, and has possibly three of the best cliffhangers that I can think of. Whilst the first, where Turlough holds a rock over the Doctor’s head, seems to last forever, it is such a shocking image to see the Doctor’s new companion trying to kill him that it just about works in its execution. The second cliffhanger makes the audience think that not only has the Doctor regenerated again, but also into something that doesn’t look quite human, whilst the third is a fundamental threat to our hero’s existence and continued adventuring. The story is well paced, nicely spacing out the introduction of its ideas and concepts, starting out quite slowly by seeing Turlough and Ibbotson stealing what turns out to the Brigadier’s classic car for a joy ride, introduces both returning elements of the Brigadier and the Black Guardian before we even really see the TARDIS crew and works well from there. The direction from Peter Moffatt is predictably workmanlike, but excels in scenes like the one where the Brigadier recovers his memories, with the black and white montage making it absolutely clear what is happening without the need for unnecessary dialogue. Moffatt keeps the camera on Courtney’s face and the actor’s expression helps you understand what it is happening. That being said, the filming on sets struggles to convince that it is anything other than just another set at Television Centre, and to describe the musical score as incidental would be an understatement, but actually I quite enjoyed it!
Mawdryn is a great villain, and again, feels quite fresh and new. I can’t remember another villain in the original run attempting to gain immortality through stealing Time Lord technology, so it certainly felt like a fresh idea to me. I wanted a bit more backstory to Mawdryn and his fellow scientists, but this is a story in which so much is hinted at but not spoon fed to the audience – another example is the fact that Turlough’s origin and how he came to be on Earth is never told to us in this story. David Collings does such a good job of portraying the titular scientist, and when he is imitating the Doctor to trick the younger Brigadier along with Nyssa and Tegan, gives the character a plausibility that he could be a future incarnation. The audience never quite believes that he is as Peter Davison is running around in other scenes not looking close to regenerating, but having a being pose as the next incarnation whilst Turlough is attempting to assassinate him may well have sown some doubts in the audience at the time. Collings is great, and the make up team have excelled themselves, especially when Mawdryn first appears, his burnt body looking utterly terrifying. The ‘spaghetti’ brain has come in for some criticism, but I think the completed look works really well.
Well, bless my soul. So you’ve done it again, Doctor.The Brigadier
In this season where the show is celebrating the show’s past glories, it is strangely melancholic to see the return of the Brigadier here, arguably a shadow of his former self. He is somewhat diminished, almost an onscreen reminder that Doctor Who, despite its time travelling stories, can never really go back and revisit some of its more successful days. Despite some inconsistency, the Brigadier becoming a teacher does make sense and Nicholas Courtney does ensure differentiation between the 1977 and 1983 versions of the character. The older Brigadier’s speech patterns are much less clipped and, for want of a better term, Brigadier-like than his younger self, which is a subtle touch which does assist in differentiating the two versions of the character beyond the presence or lack of a moustache. Courtney made no bones about not understanding the plot but it is to his credit that he puts in a great performance here, and the scene in 1983 where he recovers his memories is beautifully acted by both him and Peter Davison. His lack of understanding possibly aids in playing the Brigadier, who is so perplexed by the kind of problems that the Doctor so frequently brings to his door, that genuinely not understanding what’s going on isn’t really a problem.
Waking or sleeping, you can never escape me Turlough!The Black Guardian
The return of the Black Guardian works well too, with Valentine Dyall giving a great performance. I do struggle with the concept that the Black Guardian was so well received at the time that bringing him back in the anniversary year was seen to be necessary, but Dyall does give it his all and his full of menace. The dream sequence where Turlough thinks he is speaking to the Headmaster in the infirmary is really creepy, and Dyall’s limited screen presence works really effectively here. I do have an issue with the main thrust of the Black Guardian and Turlough’s plot line though – the Guardian is such a powerful being, attempting to use Turlough to assassinate the Doctor, however, why doesn’t he just do it himself? Equally, when Turlough seems to be utterly useless at getting the job done, he makes little to no effort to assist.
I think that Peter Davison gives a good performance here. Whilst I have seen some reviews criticising him for seeming a bit too bland, I think he is a good Doctor and his naivety in places actually aids the plot. For instance, his line about how Mawdryn’s plans to drain him of his remaining regenerations would be the “end of (him) as a Time Lord” could come across as glib from his predecessor, but here he gives it all the breathlessness energy to increase the tension and stakes going into the final part. The Doctor does seem to have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to Turlough, which Grimwade’s script probably intended to make this related to the loss of Adric in Earthshock, and I certainly have a fondness for Turlough – one of the first Fifth Doctor stories I saw was The Five Doctors – and Strickson certainly plays the arrogant and snivelling side of his character well here. The fundamental fault here is with the central premise of him getting onto the TARDIS when he is attempting to assassinate the Doctor, which limits the stories around him somewhat, and makes him seem somewhat incompetent. This is more of a writing problem than a problem with the portrayal though, and Strickson is very solid, especially when it is considered how much of this story he spends staring at a plastic prop. Tegan does very little other than look sceptical of Turlough for most of the story, and that’s more than Sarah Sutton gets to do as Nyssa, which is all the more a crying shame when considering that this is her penultimate story and Terminus is a bit of a wash-out.
Verdict: Mawdryn Undead is a good, if flawed story for the Fifth Doctor. It has enough interesting ideas to make it a higher rating, and the returning Brigadier and the performance of Collings make it work well. 8/10
Cast: Peter Davison (The Doctor), Janet Fielding (Tegan Jovanka), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa), Mark Strickson (Vislor Turlough), Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart), Valentine Dyall (The Black Guardian), Angus MacKay (Headmaster Mr. Sellick), Stephen Garlick (Ibbotson), Roger Hammond (Dr Runciman), Sheila Gill (Matron), David Collings (Mawdryn) & Peter Walmsley and Brian Darnley (Mutants).
Writer: Peter Grimwade
Director: Peter Moffatt
Behind the Scenes
- Like the other stories in Season 20, Mawdryn Undead sees the return of the Black Guardian from The Armageddon Factor and the Brigadier, a recurring character who debuted in The Web of Fear and was a staple of the Jon Pertwee era.
- This story takes the place of a long-delayed serial originally intended for the Fourth Doctor and in its final form was written for Season 22 under the title Song of the Space Whale. Turlough was a late addition to this script, which was written by Pat Mills and John Wagner, which was ultimately adapted for audio by Big Finish in their release The Song of Megaptera.
- The story was originally intended to feature the return of Ian Chesterton, played by William Russell, hence the story being set at a school. However, Russell proved to be unavailable. After some consideration of the story featuring Harry Sullivan instead, the decision was made to bring back the Brigadier.
- This story creates problems within the dating of the Doctor’s time at UNIT, as it unambiguously states the years in which this story is set – 1977 and 1983 – and stating that the Brigadier retired from UNIT in 1977 when Pyramids of Mars establishes that the Brigadier remains active into the 1980s. This is the crux of the UNIT dating controversy. Iain Levine, the show’s unofficial continuity advisor, did inform production that the time frame would break continuity, but was overruled.
- Angus Mackay had previously played Borusa in The Deadly Assassin.
- Roger Hammond previously played Francis Bacon in The Chase, and went on to appear in The Eternal Summer and Brand Management for Big Finish.
- David Collings had previously played Vorus in Revenge of the Cybermen and Poul in The Robots of Death. He would later reprise the latter role in the Big Finish series The Robots as well as playing an alternate version of the Doctor in Full Fathom Five.
The montage of clips shown of the Brigadier’s previous encounters with various Doctors and monsters as he regains his memories is a great scene.
Who are they?
Fools, who tried to become Time Lords.Tegan and the Fifth Doctor
Previous Fifth Doctor story: Snakedance