Mawdryn Undead

Written by:
Peter Grimwade
Directed by: Peter Moffatt
Starring: Peter Davison
Year: 1983
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

Mawdryn Undead introduces my favourite of the 80s companions, Turlough. Mark Strickson can be as hammy as Hell, but always in a good and entertaining way. What's more, the character is absolutely first rate. Sadly, this is wasted after the unofficial Turlough/Black Guardian trilogy, whereafter he became just another Tardis resident - albeit one with higher intelligence and a scant regard for moral compunction.

There's a warm feeling of nostalgia I get with this one, and most of season twenty. Even though my Who childhood was over, at ten or so I still had an innocence when watching this. The opening scenes with Turlough and the caricature Hippo are fun, though were obviously shot on a cloudy day. Yet what's the Black Guardian's domain all about? It looks like set from Bullseye, recreated on a BBC micro. When he shows Turlough his dead body you keep expecting him to say "here's what you could have won." Tatty as f***, the sort of gaudy rot that gives the 80s such a bad name. Strickson saves it, though, delivering his "I hate Earth" line not with resentment, but with camp relish.

Six minutes in and it's Tardis time. I always feel sorry for Peter and he so deserves a big up for his performance as the Doctor. Bearing in mind this was the season where he was said to be bored, then he still gives a commanding central portrayal, and only in Enlightenment and The Five Doctors does he lack somewhat. But I feel sorry for him because, no matter how good he is (and what other thirty-year old would have that confidence in what was such an established part?) he's surrounded by companions who just aren't up to the job. Fielding isn't bad, her Mara speech a little stagy, but that's the fault of the writing here, not her. But Sarah Sutton - the way she delivers a line, the way she stands so clearly on her spot, the unnaturalistic body language… dear God save me. "It won't always be as painful as it is now." I know it won't - you're leaving next story, now shut yer shit. The way she and Peter bounce meaningless technobabble off each other is also troubling.

This is, of course, the "something from the past, blah blah blah…" season, which would be much better if they hadn't overdone it with the special featuring all those old gits at the end. In this not only do we have the BG, but we also get The Brigadier, strangely still being called Brigadier, despite now being a teacher. Not much is seen of him in this opening episode, so we'll leave that for now, save to say his rebuke of Hippo's "disgusting" body is unusually cruel. One thing that does strike me is that despite an overall impression of season twenty being tat, the individual stories aren't all that bad. Yes, The Five Doctors is tacky, but that's not officially part of the season. Arc of Infinity could have done with more cash thrown at it, but that's just one story. Mawdryn Undead doesn't have the most expensive sets in the history of Who, but it looks nice enough, and the red hues work well. In fact, the only real thing that gives this one the sense of the tack is…

Okay, I can't hold it any longer. This story has the worst incidental score out of any Doctor Who story. Ever. Yes, even Battlefield. Loud, brash and completely inappropriate, it threatens to totally override any plusses in what is a very entertaining story. Just listen to it. When Turlough's joyriding it sounds like the score to bawdy 70s sex comedy. When they see the ship on the Tardis scanner - it's Brian May taking a jizz over a rock guitar cranked up to 11. Even leaving the Tardis 19 minutes in has Paddy Kingsland seemingly trying to bang his wife through the headboard with stabs of visceral percussive cack. It corrodes any sense of atmosphere and involvement with the story itself, but it wouldn't be so bad if only it wasn't so LOUD. Like Ainsley Harriot giving his latest recipe, it's an artificial, manufactured personality enforcing itself upon you, with the only result being irritation.

Parts of this episode are a little stodgy - the Black Guardian bits mainly - but in general it's a very appealing and pacy adventure. Now, if only they did a DVD release with optional replacement soundtrack it'd be a whole lot better…
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No room to fit this bile in on the first bit, and I didn't want to get too negative as I do actually like this story, but Peter Moffatt ain't exactly the best director Who ever had either, is he? In fact, if Michael Kerrigan fell of a cliff tomorrow he'd have to be in for a chance at first prize.

Is Nick Coutney's "Who are you?" line another Who gag? Never noticed that one before. There's a lot going on, plot-wise this episode, though, David Collings's love spuds vying for attention alongside the Doctor/Brigadier relationship. "I've lost my Tardis, you've lost your memory, I'd be surprised if the two events weren't connected." A nice line, showing the Doctor's intuition and detection skills. I'm in two minds about the Brigadier's involvement in this story. We all know that originally it was due to be Ian Chesterton, which is even more anorakky, but nowhere is it really explained for casual viewers who the Brigadier is. Yet it's such a cool story, plot-wise, and this is by far his best return appearance to the series. I don't count Terror of the Zygons as he'd only been in it the prior season, but here he'd not been on screen for eight years. Later the same year gave us a smug, unfunny take, as did the abysmal Battlefield. Here though he gives a straight rendition, and even though mentally he's the Doctor's bitch, he's no "come along Benton" nincompoop. That said, his "fit as a fiddle" shows his limitations as an actor, and while the sepia flashback clips are cool, they only serve to remind you how much more exciting the show was when not directed by Peter Moffatt.

I won't even get into the idea of UNIT dating - the Doctor's constantly changing time (see my theory in The Three Doctors) so the Brigadier having an interchangeable past history is not so hard with a bit of imagination. This is a story for fans, perhaps, involving an old foe, an old friend and two divergent timelines. Yet, like Davison's performance, it rocks like a Daddy. The whole concept of the story being advanced concurrently, yet six years apart, is superb, and something surprisingly not done more often (at all?) in the series.

Looking at this thing by instalments, then Turlough doesn't feature all that heavily in this particular episode, though when he does he puts in a performance so over the top it borders on genius. There's good ham and there's bad ham. For the latter, check out The Blimp in Trial of a Time Lord. But this is engaging, charismatic ham, playing it to the nines and loving it. A cider-soaked overplay of yelping theatrics. Thankfully, with so many different narrative strands, it also means we get to see less of Sarah Sutton, which can never be a bad thing. "Quickly, we've got to take off." Said with all the urgency of a wet fart.
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Peter does his "breathless" characterisation so much at the start of this one he's practically a panting dog. His portrayal is unvaried but always strong, and while such rigid parameters may not have appealed beyond three years, when he did have the role he was nearly always charming. Plus, his jagged sideburns are snazzy. God, I sound like I fancy him, don't I? I'd better say something crass and sexist about one of the women, quick. So… Janet Fielding. Considering she's wearing a boob tube then I'm not that keen on her norks in this one. Unless the time-space anomaly has made 'em land on her stomach - though they do get a good showing in Enlightenment, so we can look forward to that.

This is a good one actually. Kingsland's music's settled down into almost bearable, the plot is involving and none of the acting is so bad it harms the story. The sets are also large and expansive, revealing what must have been an above-average budget for the show. Sadly, the idea of the Doctor having to give up his regenerations is another example of the series beginning to trade too heavily on its own past, a great failing with the John Nation-Turner era.
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One thing I always feel with the Davison era is that it's always very "spacey". While the odd distended brain might disturb, it's largely glitterguns and eyeliner, with very little to scare the kids. This may be a step up in sophistication but it seems to be disregarding much of its core viewing audience.

With Mawdryn and his pals asking the Doctor to help them die, it suddenly becomes a euthanasia parable. Despite what I said earlier about Peter having a rigid characterisation, this is one of possibly just five stories where he gets to show a different aspect. Earthshock and Resurrection of the Daleks were the kick ass fifth Doctor, while Caves of Androzani was his heroic survival instinct. Then there's his mildly sadistic edge in Snakedance, and here he's selfish. His refusal to help others in need is an interesting slant to the usually altruistic fifth Doctor.

However, an indulgent joke about the crouton roe can't disguise the fact that this one is wrapped up by a mixture of meaningless technospeak and narrative contrivance. That the story, on reflection, feels so slim, makes the earlier innovation seem like gimmickry to dress up what is, in essence, a very simplistic plot. Still good, yet oddly unsatisfying somehow. And on a note of anal trivia, Turlough's "it's cracked" is the only time we hear a character's thoughts outside of the Troughton era.
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A vastly likeable story that always seem to add up to little when you reach the end. I do get a great deal of enjoyment out of it, but I can never quite give it the four-star rating I suspect it deserves. While some of the production and the continuity elements may raise eyebrows, only Sutton and Kingland's music really detract from a very strong entry into the series.
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