Enlightenment

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.

RATING: 10

Terminus

Oh. Bye then, Nyssa. I still don’t feel like I really know who she is, so I can’t say I’m devastated to see her go. She was never annoying or unlikeable, it’s just that she’s a bit of a blank canvas, designed to fill whatever function the writer needs for each particular plot. She’s like plain rice; perfectly nice to have, but not something you’d want on its own, and not as good as chips.

Sarah Sutton always did her best to inject some sort of life into the character, and she puts in a good final performance here. It was nice that they tried to give her more to do than normal, and the parting scene was as emotional as it could be for a character you don’t really care about. Quite baffling and distracting for her to spend most of the adventure running around in just her undies, though.

This serial had a really promising first part, and Turlough continued to impress. You can’t help but be on his side, even when he’s sabotaging the TARDIS and plotting to kill The Doctor. After a good supporting role in his debut, he’s the best thing about this one, along with the Black Guardian’s continued campaign of terror. You don’t know what either of them are going to do next, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it all concludes.

Unfortunately, this intriguing first part was then followed by three episodes of people wandering around and getting up to not very much. As soon as our heroes get separated into smaller groups, there’s no coherency and no emotional attachment; it feels like they’re all taking part in separate small stories, none of which are weighty enough to make you care. And how’s Turlough supposed to carry out his mission when he spends three episodes mostly hiding under the floor, while The Doctor’s busy swanning around with Liza Goddard?

The lack of coherency spreads to the storytelling, as a series of seemingly random events take place with little to no sense of how they’re supposed to be relevant. When Nyssa’s been rounded up and sent to a leper colony, why should I care about a tedious power struggle within the people who sent her there? Then all of a sudden a giant robot dog turns up, and nobody seems to bat an eyelid. I didn’t know whether to admire it for being ambitious and out there, or deride it for being incongruous nonsense. I’m leaning towards the latter.

Then all of a sudden the entire universe is at stake, but it doesn’t seem earned, or particularly convincing. The journey to get me to this point bored me so much that there was no tension – I just wanted them to solve it asap so that we could move on to the next story. It’s a shame. There’s a good Doctor Who story to be told about a corrupt leper colony at the centre of the universe, but this wasn’t it.

At least Nyssa was given a good reason to leave, and her departure won’t cause too many ripples. And it’s encouraging that the most successful bits were the glimpses at the relationship between the two remaining companions. Putting newbie Turlough in opposition to faithful Tegan is supposed to turn you off him, but actually she can be pretty brash and slightly annoying, so it makes you empathise with him more. I just hope he’s more central to the plot in the conclusion to the trilogy – it should be a story about The Black Guardian and Turlough, not just featuring them.

RATING: 5

Mawdryn Undead

Oh my God. That was incredible, for so many reasons. Right from the very first establishing shot of the school, I was utterly amazed. THAT’S MY OLD UNIVERSITY! Trent Park, Enfield, Middlesex. Absolutely unmistakably the place where I spent three of the happiest years I’ll ever spend. I became a Doctor Who fan while I was at a place where Doctor Who was filmed… and this is literally the first I’ve ever heard of it. I often go on about how difficult it is to avoid spoilers, but this was a very personal headfuck that I had no idea was coming.

I was fully aware, however, of who’d be returning in this serial, but that the lack of surprise didn’t matter in the slightest. God, I love the Brigadier so much. His greatest hits flashback put the biggest grin on my face, and the long list of names The Doctor reels off made me realise just how much affection I’ve got for the UNIT era. It was a product of a unique set of circumstances and it had its downsides, but you can’t help but feel a warm, nostalgic glow whenever it’s invoked.

Nostalgia aside, Nicholas Courtney is absolutely fantastic here, even after a seven year break from playing the character. The Brigadier looks equally at home alongside Davison’s Doctor as he did against any of his predecessors, and it was tremendous fun to see him transposed into the current set-up. All the same characteristics of loyalty and bravery are still there, with an added vulnerability thanks to the disconcerting hints of his suppressed memories. The humourous streak was still there too – I laughed both times I heard the line “I know all about regeneration, I’ve seen it twice before”.

Also in the mix is the return of the Black Guardian, which I initially greeted with an element of “meh”. Prior to this project, I’d always assumed that he was a huge figure in the mythology of Who, but in fact he gets his own tasty little trilogy based on nothing more than one prior appearance and some long since abandoned foreshadowing. Then he turns up here with a dead crow on his head, on the set of Bad Influence.

But actually, he was great. He instantly seems more powerful and impressive than he did at the conclusion of The Key To Time, and he’s unashamedly evil. It’s always that little bit scarier when the villain is specifically targetting The Doctor, rather than him turning up to a pre-existing situation by chance. His utter control of Turlough was terrifying, as indeed was Turlough himself. He’s fantastic – we’ve got a companion who’s completely bonkers, both in terms of their mannerisms and being actually mentally ill.

It’s a brilliant performance so far; one which takes care to leave the audience unsure of the degree to which he’s under the Black Guardian’s influence, and how much of it is down to him just being a bit of a shit anyway. If I hadn’t have known he was to become a companion, I would never have seen it coming, and it’s an incredibly interesting twist to the normal dynamic to have a companion that fundamentally can’t be trusted. Easily the most memorable debut for a long time.

And as well as all that going on, you’ve got a third antagonist in the eponymous Mawdryn, who’s part of a whole separate-but-parallel story. Him posing as The Doctor and successfully tricking his companions – including one of his longest serving friends – was deeply disturbing. Yet you can’t help feel sorry for him and his people in the end, despite what they put everyone through, because all they want is to find peace. These moral grey areas are what the show does best.

As is timey-wimey stuff, and this serial has some of the best timey-wimey stuff the show ever managed. It’s not just the two Brigadiers wandering around, or the fact that the same place is visited in two different time periods. It’s the way the story is told, whereby events that are taking place simultaneously unfold in parallel for the audience, thanks to The Brigadier slowly regaining his memory and filling in the story for The Doctor. It’s just so much fun.

There is an incredible amount of stuff packed in to this story. It’s an absolute whirlwind of immense satisfaction. I adored it.

RATING: 10

PS. I am aware that the new banner is shit. I’m guessing the lack of high-res publicity shots – or even half-decent screengrabs – of this particular combination of people means they won’t be together for very long…

The Armageddon Factor

Before I started watching this serial, I made the following note:

Expecting a similar structure to last season’s finale – four eps dealing with a regular story, then a big twist into a two part extra mini-story, presumably to do with the Key and The Guardians.

And for the first few episodes that seemed to be exactly what I was getting. It’s interesting to note that this is the last ever six-parter (although it wasn’t planned to be, but we’ll get on to that in around twenty days). They were the norm at times during the first three Doctors’ eras, but since they’ve been reduced to one a season, you’ve been able to tell that they’re not sure how best to tell a story at that pace. Not that the results haven’t sometimes been brilliant (obviously), but I’m not going to mourn their passing.

The initial storyline to this serial was a good one, providing as it did the brilliantly hammy Marshall, and the first appearance of Lalla Ward, who shone through despite the inherent weirdness of having what I saw as two Romanas on screen at the same time. It also gave us a genuinely emotional sequence where K-9 is on his way to a furnace, and it all turns into that scene in Toy Story 3. The way he pitifully calls for his master as he faces death. Oh man.

But then the format was broken, because they seemingly ran out of plot after three episodes, leaving Part 4 as one of the mostly blatantly padded-out-by-running-round-in-circles filler eps of all time. A shame, because they could have afforded to get on to all the stuff with The Shadow a lot sooner. He was a brilliant creepy villain, who seemed just as imposing and powerful as an agent of the feted Black Guardian should be. I was also a fan of Drax. I like the idea of The Doctor having an old schoolmate who’s a bit dodgy – the type of bloke who makes you despair every time they post on Facebook, but who you can’t bring yourself to unfriend.

The “two part extra mini-story” also gave K-9 another chance to shine – he’s such a loveable character that his odd behavior under external control was really disconcerting, and subtly done through minor variations to his normal voice and speech patterns. I’m worried that the character will suffer during John Leeson’s upcoming gap year, as his portryal is truly excellent.

Not sure what to make of the knowledge that this is Mary Tamm’s last episode. She’s been very good, and I always enjoy it when the companion is on a similar standing to The Doctor in terms of intelligence and capability. But Lalla Ward is clearly great also, so I’m sure the character is in good hands, and I’m looking forward to seeing if and how the dynamic is tailored.

The final episode was very tense, with all the various elements reaching their crescendo, along with the new dimension of making The Doctor and Drax tiny, and a great moral dilemma surrounding the identity of the sixth segment. But hold on. The Black Guardian turns up disguised as the White Guardian. Does this mean that it was the disguised Black Guardian who set this whole thing up in the first place, meaning that this whole season was one wild goose chase? Or: if the genuine White Guardian set the quest, then the Doctor dispersed the assembled Key before handing it over for the necessary universal re-balancing to take place, thus rendering this whole season pointless.

Either way, it’s not terribly satisfying. They slightly fumbled the ending to this season-long story arc, which is a shame – it was consistently good throughout and it felt like it was really building up to something, and a truly great ending would have tipped the balance. As it stands, The Key To Time fails to quite reach its potential to be really special, but remains a bold and worthwhile experiment.

RATING: 8

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 8

  • Seasons/Series watched: 16 of 35
  • Stories watched: 103 of 263
  • Individual episodes watched: 505 of 826

Very much looking forward to seeing where The Randomiser takes us, under the guidance as script editor of one of the greatest writers of all time…