Doctor Who: The Black Guardian Trilogy DVD box set, from BBC Video
The Black Guardian Trilogy is comprised of the stories Mawdryn Undead, Terminus, and Enlightenment. I was looking forward to picking this set up, as these were some of the first Doctor Who stories I ever saw on PBS (Channel 21, WLIW, to be exact) in the mid-1980s. Except for Enlightenment, which I later taped off TV in the early 90s, I hadn’t seen these in years.
The trilogy features the Fifth Doctor, portrayed by Peter Davison. Along with Tom Baker and Colin Baker, Davison is one of the Doctors I grew up watching. So I’m rather fond of his era, even if he didn’t always get the best stories.
In Mawdryn Undead, the Doctor’s old foe the Black Guardian returns. The Guardian wants to destroy the Doctor for preventing him from gaining the cosmic Key To Time years earlier. But, like the Biblical Devil, the Black Guardian cannot act directly. So he recruits an agent: Turlough, a teenage alien (human-looking, of course) who has been exiled to Earth and is stuck in a British boys school. Turlough is portrayed by actor Mark Strickson.
The Black Guardian makes a deal with Turlough: if he kills the Doctor, the Guardian will aid Turlough in escaping Earth. The Guardian convinces Turlough to go along by claiming that the Doctor is “one of the most evil creatures in the Universe.” Of course, once Turlough actually meets the Doctor, he realizes this is a lie. So, although Turlough is a selfish, shifty figure, he cannot go through with cold-blooded murder. The three stories see him struggle with his conscience and attempt to extricate himself as the Black Guardian relentlessly pushes him to fulfill the Faustian pact.
Re-watching these stories twenty plus years later, I realized something: the Doctor is actually more on top of events than I had realized. The Fifth Doctor was a pleasant, almost innocent figure (albeit one who could quickly become crotchety) who often got caught unawares. But he quickly figures out in Mawdryn Undead that things are seriously amiss. At one point the Doctor discovers a crystal-shaped object in Turlough’s room. This is the device the Black Guardian gave Turlough to communicate with him, which the teenager left behind, hoping to escape the Guardian’s influence. The Doctor’s thoughtful look shows that he realizes the crystal is significant. When he later finds Turlough, the Doctor tosses the crystal to him, casually commenting “Yours, I think.” The Doctor also comments to his old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart that the amazing level of coincidence surrounding events seems to indicate some sort of “cosmic influence” at work. So the Doctor realizes that something is up with Turlough, and that someone is manipulating events behind the scenes. When the Doctor allows Turlough to travel with him in the TARDIS at the story’s end, you get the feeling that it’s so the Doctor can keep an eye on him.
Indeed, two stories later, in Enlightenment, when the White Guardian (counterpart of the Black Guardian, his opposite number) attempts to contact the TARDIS, the Doctor doesn’t seem particularly surprised. Neither is he fazed when the Black Guardian finally makes himself known at the end and it all comes out about his bargain with Turlough. “I never wanted the agreement in the first place,” Turlough tries to explain, and the Doctor simply answers “I believe you.”
Mawdryn Undead sees an appearance by the Brigadier, now retired from the military. Due to the complex time travel events of the story, the Brigadier has lost his memory of the Doctor. Coaxing out the buried knowledge from Lethbridge-Stewart’s mind, the Doctor restores his old ally’s memory. As the Brigadier begins to recall his time with UNIT fighting alien menaces, there is an eerie sepia-toned montage of clips from 1960s and 70s stories, representing his returning memories. When I first saw this as a kid, I was excited. I knew Doctor Who had been on for a long time, but I had never seen any of those old stories. These were among my first glimpses of them. Even now, twenty-five years later, finally having viewed the majority of those classic episodes, I still got a nostalgic thrill from that sequence.
There is a bit of dodgy plotting in Mawdryn Undead, where a badly-burned Mawdryn, clad in a shredded blue loincloth, is mistaken as the Doctor by Nyssa and Tegan. The two women believe he is in the middle of regenerating. Even when Mawdryn transforms into a ghoulish, zombie-like figure with what looks like a heap of spaghetti on his head (actually intended to be his exposed brain), Nyssa still thinks it could be the Doctor. A very odd case of mistaken identity indeed!
The antagonists in the three stories are not your typical Doctor Who villains. In Mawdryn Undead, we have a group of aliens who, using stolen Time Lord technology, attempted to gain immortality. Instead, they became trapped in a ghastly undead state, unable to die. Their goal is simply to bring an end to their tortured existence.
In Terminus, the Vanir are the guardian of a massive plague hospital in space. They are not working there by choice; they’ve been exiled to the Terminus station. In the end, their only objectives are to break free of the corporation controlling them and survive.
Finally, in Enlightenment, the Doctor’s opponents are Eternals, immortal beings who exist outside of time, but who lack emotion and imagination. They need to latch on to the memories and feelings of mortal beings in order to have any sort of real existence. They are immensely powerful, yet at the same time very tragic entities.
The only conventional villain here is the Black Guardian himself. And he doesn’t even want to rule the universe. No, he wishes to plunge it into unending chaos. Likewise, his counterpart the White Guardian is not really a force for good, but for universal order. The White Guardian himself acknowledges that one cannot exist without the other.
The Black Guardian is portrayed with ruthless, sneering aplomb by Valentine Dyall. His deep, menacing voice and craggy countenance imbue the Black Guardian with pure malevolence. It is an unforgettable performance across all three stories.
Of the trilogy, Terminus is a bit of a weak link. The underlying plot by writer Stephen Gallagher is strong, a very intelligent and ambitious story. Unfortunately, the execution is lacking. This is due to a number of factors. First of all, Gallagher was stuck with too many characters. So, while the Doctor and Nyssa off exploring the mysteries of Terminus, poor Turlough and Tegan are sidelined on a space freighter for the majority of the four episodes. Watching the documentary on the making of the serial, you then see how much more was arrayed against it: miscommunication between the director and set designer, improper construction of the sets, some poorly thought out costume designs, strikes at the BBC, a power failure in the studio, and the usual shoestring budget. Bearing all this in mind, it’s something of a miracle that Terminus was even completed.
In the end, you can always regard Terminus as an example of typical Doctor Who, as you have four episodes of people running up and down lots and lots of corridors! But seriously, the serial has a quality script, decent acting, an ominous atmosphere, and a very moving, emotional departure for long-time companion Nyssa.
All three stories have the option of being viewed with brand new CGI effects. This was done most extensively on Enlightenment, which originally had a plethora of model shots. All of those new effects were addend under the supervision of the serial’s original director, Fiona Cumming. Oddly, with Enlightenment, the new effects are only on a separate edit that removes not only the episode breaks, but several minutes of studio footage. I’d rather have seen the new CGI work incorporated into a full version of the story. They cut a couple of good moments. Ah, well, at least the new effects look amazing.
All three stories have in-depth behind-the-scenes features with members of the cast & crew, as well as audio commentaries. So there are plenty of informative extras for fans of the show.
The Black Guardian Trilogy is not what I’d call a newcomer-friendly entry into Doctor Who. But if you are at least somewhat familiar with the show, and enjoy it, then this set is worth picking up.