“I invade every particle of your being. You will never be free of me until our bond is honored.” – The Black Guardian to Turlough
Mawdryn Undead marks the start of a set of stories that hold a very strong connection for my childhood. Many of the themes and events in it and the episodes that follow solidified my love of Doctor Who and the kinds of sci-fi stories it could tell and made the Fifth Doctor one of my favorites. Beginning with Mawdryn, these three stories make up what now are referred to as the Black Guardian trilogy, episodes that introduce the new companion of Turlough who is recruited by the Black Guardian (last seen in the Baker era) to infiltrate the TARDIS. It was somewhat terrifying for me as a child to watch as Turlough’s soul seemed to be hovering above his body after his car crash while he is manipulated into a devil’s bargain to kill the Doctor. His exploitation by the Black Guardian is probably one of the most interesting introductions for a companion on the show since Romana when she was brought on board by the White Guardian.
Mawdryn Undead is a particularly great story because it makes use of the complexities of time travel in a way that is surprisingly underused in the show. Expecting to meet each other, the Doctor and his companions arrive at the same place but in different times and only slowly does it start to come together what has happened. Even we as the viewers have to figure it out as it is not clear at first why Nyssa and Tegan can’t see the Doctor in their view of the obelisk when we know he had just been standing there in the scene before. Having the Doctor piece it together by the 1983 Brigadier’s foggy memory of events from 1977 is a neat device. And even without the digital technology common today, they do a pretty good job of making the earlier Brigadier truly seem a younger version.
Being that this story is a key part of the 20th anniversary season of the show, there is lots of nostalgia. The re-introduction of the Brigadier after many years was huge, so I’m sure it was probably quite a shock for fans when he disbelieves Turlough’s story saying “Take it from me, boy, a solid object just can’t dematerialize.” The scene of his memory slowly coming back in whispers as the Doctor chips away at his mental block by mentioning names from the past is wonderful. They also do a great reel of clips from past shows which was probably landmark at the time. There are even more subtle nods to the past like the Brigadier driving an old roadster (a la Bessie) and Mawdryn being given the Fourth Doctor’s old burgundy coat.
As noted, it was quite interesting to be introduced to the character of Turlough and see his struggle against the Black Guardian grow. I do find it odd that they don’t make a bigger point out of the realization that he is not from Earth at all. I remember thinking as a kid that I must have missed part of the episode or something because surely the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa would have had some surprise that he was alien and ask him why he was hiding in a school on earth. Indeed, it’s very odd that this is not a point raised for his entire run on the show until the end. While that seemed a bit of mystery as a kid, I definitely got his Faustian struggle under the Black Guardian. Yes, they make sure you know he is a weasley guy by his shifting the blame to his friend. Still, you can help but feel for him in his growing desperation as he realizes he’s stepped into a deal that he can’t back away from. The Black Guardian corners him at every turn, foiling his attempts to assert his independence and inflicting what is meant to be unimaginable pain that anyone would bow to. (“You see, wretched, duplicitous child, I know your every innermost thought.”)
Meanwhile, I feel like we see Nyssa and Tegan as a very strong team here. Nyssa especially is a lot more serious and Tegan more focused. They thus work together well in dealing with the figure they find lying on the TARDIS floor even when they are totally at odds in their interpretation of events. In a way it’s a reversal of roles—Nyssa becomes quite emotional over the idea that it might be the Doctor such that it overcomes her usual dispassionate reasoning while Tegan stands firm and never enters hysterics. (But I could never quite figure out why either of them was so immediately convinced they were seeing the Doctor when it doesn’t look like him. I think we’re supposed to imagine that his charred and blackened face is even more unrecognizable than it seems to us.)
The tone of the story works well too. There are moments of mystery as to who Mawdryn and his compatriots eerily floating down the hallways are, moments that are almost horrific like seeing Tegan and Nyssa writhing in agony as their bodies degrade or the sudden reveal of Mawdryn’s grotesque head, and lighthearted moments that just work well like the double take the Doctor does when he walks in a stranger is calmly standing at the controls or the return to the Brigadier being the butt of the joke of how clueless he is about time travel as he asks the how long the trip will take when it is already done in that instant. (The look the Doctor and Turlough give each other is great.) I really like how the story comes together and the heady scifi concept of the agony of perpetual regeneration that Mawdryn and his crew have gotten themselves into in their thirst for power. Despite some design flaws, this is a great story to me.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
I didn’t care about the blocky computer background graphics as a child–Turlough’s out of body experience and forced choice to serve the Black Guardian scared me as a kid. Even more so, as the initially kind headmaster starts pushing with odder and more pointedly aggressive questions (“I take your point, but in your heart in your heart of hearts do you entirely feel you’ve completed your side of the bargain?), it gets super creepy—until the surprise that he is actually the Black Guardian invading even the safety of Turlough’s dreams.
One of the biggest things that irks me about this episode is that the transmat capsule seems bigger on the inside than out; it’s not a TARDIS people so it absolutely shouldn’t be! Also, it’s design so matches the interior of the larger ship that it’s easy to get confused as to which space they are actually in.