Wow. This series is so inconsistent right now. It seems to be lurching wildly between all-time-greats and absolute stinkers, with very little in the way of middle ground. This serial was firmly in the former camp, and consequently this trilogy is a shit sandwich, but made with some absolutely world-class bread.
I was gripped from the start, with a first episode that contained all the best elements from both Carnival of Monsters (the creepy sailing ship where everything’s slightly off but you can’t figure out why) and The War Games (the oblivious humans plucked from their own time to be used as playthings for powerful aliens). It’s not derivative, it’s just tapping into the same themes, and it’s a very rich source.
It’s a gripping plot that unfurls, and the Eternals are superb baddies. They literally do not give a fuck about anything, with the exception of Marriner, who’s a creepy old perv towards Tegan. But right towards the end, I really felt for him following his reaction to Tegan’s reaction to thinking The Doctor was dead; it nearly brought a tear to my eye. There seems to be a running theme of immortality and how it’s not what it’s cracked up to be, which I’m aware will pay off in the forthcoming special.
Marriner and his fellow Eternal, Striker, were the highlights of a brilliant and star-studded guest cast, which included Roy Evans from off of Eastenders, Nurse Gladys Emmanuel (thankfully not singing this time), and Leee John, bizarrely. Not entirely sure why Nurse Gladys spoke directly to camera at the end of Part Three. This isn’t Come Outside.
Much like with Mawdryn Undead, the main plot would have easily been enough for a classic story, but you’ve also got the culmination of all the Turlough/Black Guardian stuff, and it’s great. Mark Strickson’s performance is utterly insane at times here, but it’s compelling. He seems to share Tom Baker’s knack of making an alien character feel alien, although that could be down to the thinness of his eyebrows.
You were never sure what side Turlough was on throughout the story, and I’m not sure he was either. I loved The Doctor silently judging him every time he flip-flopped in an increasingly desperate attempt to save his own skin. He keeps his cards close to his chest throughout, with Davison playing it extremely subtly as he makes his feelings known in a quiet yet firm manner.
Turlough’s torment ramped up and up until holy fuck he actually tried to kill himself. Man, this is dark, and I love it. There was a high death count in this story, with whole crews being wiped out at a time. But I liked how – perhaps due to the need to contrast the ephemerals’ reactions with the Eternals’ – the TARDIS crew aren’t so blase about death as they have been at times. This was all about pointing out the consequences when those in power play their games.
This continued into the final Guardian-off, which acted as a satisfying conclusion to both the story and the trilogy. With Turlough free of his tormentor, I’m looking forward to seeing what he’s like as a normal companion. I hope there’s still some moral ambiguity, because I’m enjoying the change in dynamic, but his enlightenment experience does give the production a clean slate if they choose to use it.
I still can’t get over how much the quality is varying these days. It makes the failures more frustrating when you know how good the show can be, but it does make me feel better about heading further and further into the murky depths of JNT’s 80s era to know that every now and then he struck gold.