“Enlightenment was not the diamond. Enlightenment was the choice.” – The Doctor
This is considered by many to be the best of the trilogy so if I saw it in childhood then it’s surprising how little of it stayed with me on my first viewing. What I do vividly remember as a kid is the tension of Turlough’s choice between dark and light at the end. (Perhaps that’s all I saw of the episode?) Anyway, I have watched it several times as an adult and can thus appreciate it as a whole. The heady sci-fi concept of a race of eternal beings simply trying to fill a numbing existence by playing in the world of “ephemerals” like us is intriguing. That this translates into a regatta of ships mirroring those of Earth but sailing on the solar winds of space is absolutely grand. (My only complaint is that the cliffhanger reveal of this is not as breathtaking as it should be. It should have been filmed as a backward tracking shot from the window of the yacht, revealing to us that ship as well as several other racing across the backdrop of space.)
I am very glad that the story starts of with the appearance of the White Guardian. As the opposite balance of the Black Guardian, he seemed to be obviously missing from events to this point. (“While I exist, he exists also, until we are no longer needed.”) The symbolic chess game at the start is nice too. From a design standpoint, I also love the contrasting lighting of the power drained TARDIS which sets the atmosphere very well. Out in the ship, it’s funny that the sailing crew seems so very odd just for the fact of acting so entirely normally—totally unaware of their strange circumstances. It’s also amusing that the Doctor is apparently totally knowledgeable of all the etiquette of joining a ship as crewmember!
When we start to encounter the officers, we really know that something strange is going on. Their cold, emotionless demeanor make them stand out. The Captain is especially amazing for having his eyes almost soullessly flat no matter what the circumstances When their severe boredom as eternal beings is finally revealed, it makes total sense. (“This is the sort of excitement that makes eternity bearable.”) It’s also interesting to watch the Marriner’s arc of learning emotion from Tegan. His comments reveal the utter gulf in their understanding. He honestly can’t see the difference between the humans on the competitors’ ships dying in the explosions versus dying at their natural time because they are both so infinitely small to him. (“But ephemerals have such short lives in any case.”) Moreover, he cannot even empathize to understand why Tegan would be upset by his comments. It’s almost pathetic to watch him hang upon her like a puppy dog and think he understands humanity enough that by showing her something pretty all of her disgust will simply be forgotten.
On the other hand, it’s interesting to run into some other Eternals later and find their personalities and understanding are so markedly different. The Buccaneer revels in human emotion that drives killing and torture. She thus completely gets the motivations of lesser beings (or at least the negative ones) and enjoys them. It’s almost like the Eternals have taken on the Earth personas that best fit their own personalities or predilections—after all, as a pirate she can stay within ‘the rules’ and still cause death and mayhem. Despite their powers, the Eternals are apparently not as godlike as the Guardians. It’s extremely interesting that the evil of the Black Guardian can corrupt not just an ephemeral like Turlough but also an eternal like the Buccaneer. This is so surprising that each time I’ve watched the story I’ve forgotten that it’s his voice that Turlough hears muffled through the door.
The Doctor gets to do a lot figuring out and proactive guessing in this story. He is first challenged by the Eternal (“You are a Time Lord. A lord of time. Are there lords in such a small domain?”), but I love how he catches the captain in an instant of not being omniscient and this tells him everything he needs to know (“You didn’t know, though, just for a second. Interesting…”) I like how he realizes more and more that despite their seeming indifference the Eternals need humankind more than they admit. (“Without us they are empty nothings.”) Tegan meanwhile has a lot more social interaction to deal with in this story, from the attentions of Marriner to surprisingly being quite the social butterfly at the reception. Amusingly, even dressed the most regally we will ever see her, she still doesn’t get much respect from the Doctor!
The crux of this story is the evolution of Turlough. Even at the start, it’s interesting to the see that both the Doctor and Tegan explicitly don’t trust him yet accept him as their traveling companion and thus imply they see him as redeemable. His journey throughout the story is a bit uneven however—he seems to have clearly given up his allegiance to the Black Guardian and grown as a person at some points but then in others we’re supposed to assume that we still don’t really know which way his character is going to turn. It robs some of the moments of their significance and just makes them seem muddled. I do think it’s hugely significant that in the instant the thinks he’s going to die he switches from crying out for help to the Black Guardian to instead calling out for the Doctor. Moreover, his ending choice between sacrificing the Doctor to satisfy his greed or letting it all go is still a powerful scene.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
Other than having a companion clearly try to commit suicide, I guess the most unsettling moment comes when we see the crew cheerily rush upstairs and we hear a bloodcurdling scream without knowing why. All the more scary when the Marriner coolly replies of their going aloft: “They soon get used to it.”
Oh that the producers would have trusted the audience to understand the purpose and danger of the grid room. Then they wouldn’t have felt the need to put a stupid and ridiculously huge flashing sign saying “Vacuum Shield Off” on it!
I also regret that we never got the promised third encounter with the Black Guardian (yet?)