It’s 1983, and Brandon Public School boy Turlough is causing trouble again, this time crashing the car belonging to their maths teacher, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. As he lies unconscious, Turlough is visited by the Black Guardian who commissions him to kill the Doctor. Turlough refuses–all he wants is to go home. Earth is not his native planet, and the life of a British schoolboy is no life for one with his intelligence. The Black Guardian makes an offer he can’t refuse: kill the Doctor, and he’ll return Turlough to his home planet. Meanwhile, the TARDIS is caught in the warp ellipse of a ship. To avoid crashing, the Doctor materializes on board. The TARDIS crew now find themselves on what appears to be an abandoned starliner–except it isn’t abandoned. Turlough is there. The Doctor will soon learn that the liner has a crew, scientists who have been experimenting on themselves to discover the Time Lord secret of regeneration. However, all they’ve managed to do is mutilate themselves into a painful but eternal existence. They want death, but the only way to achieve it is for the Doctor to give up his remaining regenerations…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
“Mawdryn Undead” is the first in what has come to be known as the “Black Guardian Trilogy,” since they all have the common story thread of the Black Guardian trying to kill the Doctor. Continuing the twentieth anniversary theme of returning characters, the Black Guardian was last seen in the Fourth Doctor’s “Key to Time” season in 1978, wherein the Doctor prevented him laying his hands on that powerful key. Clearly still bearing a grudge, the raven-hatted baddie is after deadly revenge, using a surrogate because he “mustn’t be seen to be involved.” That surrogate is a school boy named Turlough. Why Turlough? Perhaps because he was already a rotten egg, so he might be more amenable to the idea of murder? His attempts to resist give the impression he’s not all that bad, certainly not wanting the Doctor’s blood on his hands. Did the Guardian already know of Turlough’s compelling desire to return to his home planet? I’m not so sure. For much of the story, the Guardian appears to be improvising, as much as he accuses Turlough of not sticking to “the plan.” Whatever his reasons, the Guardian chooses Turlough, and exerts much mental persuasion to get him to comply to his wishes.
It’s not a bad story, though it comes off a bit fan-boyish, as if writer Peter Grimwade is deliberately trying to check all the True-Whovian boxes to keep the die-hards happy. Not only do you have the return of the Black Guardian and the Brigadier, but you have mention of old companions, flash-backs to previous stories, and even the Doctor using the line “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow”–an old favorite of the Third Doctor. The central theme of the serial is regeneration, and the fact that Mawdryn and his buddies had tried to become Time Lords through experimenting with the regeneration process. Now they are condemned to live forever in mutated form, and only a Time Lord’s regenerative power will give them sufficient energy to die. The Doctor reiterates the fact (since 1976’s “The Deadly Assassin” anyway) that a Time Lord can only regenerate twelve times. But he also states plainly for the first time that he has regenerated four times. As viewers, we regarded Davison’s incarnation as the Fifth Doctor, but the character himself only ever refers himself as “The Doctor,” leaving some ambiguity as to whether there might have been incarnations prior to the one we first encountered, William Hartnell. This story sets the record straight: Hartnell was the First, regardless of what previous stories might have suggested. Again, this would be the cause of much excitement and debate amongst Whovians, which is just the sort of thing you want in a celebratory year.
It does raise the existential question: Is being a Time Lord simply about being able to regenerate? Is regeneration the sole defining trait of a Time Lord, or simply one of many traits (including having two hearts, and a respiratory bypass system)? Does losing one’s ability to regenerate reduce a Time Lord to just another Gallifreyan, as the episode three cliffhanger would suggest? Before “The Invasion of Time” (1978), the only inhabitants of Gallifrey we had ever seen were the Time Lords. In that story, the Doctor’s companion Leela hooked up with a band of Gallifreyans who lived in the forests and wilderness surrounding the citadel. We don’t know much about these Gallifreyans other than, for some reason, they were not Time Lords. So there is a distinction. But could one become a Time Lord, and could one really cease to be a Time Lord? The show seems to leave both possibilities open. I’m not so sure, however, that merely losing the ability to regenerate makes all the difference. There seems to be much more to being a Time Lord, both physiologically, and in terms of education and social status.
It’s nice to see the Brigadier back, teaching mathematics at a public school (note for non-Brits, a British public school is actually a private school–think Eton, or Hogwarts). And not just one Brigadier, but two! One from 1977 and one from 1983. I thought the make-up for the younger Brig was quite well done. I can quite believe he’s six years younger.
As for Brandon Public School… I actually attended a British public school for seven years. A boarding school, no less, just like Brandon (though I didn’t board; I was a “day” pupil). From my experience, Brandon Public School is nothing like the average British public school in the early 1980s. It’s more of a parody of what a British public school would have been like in the 1920s! (See the Tenth Doctor two-part story “Human Nature”/”Family of Blood” for an idea of what that was like.) Surely someone on the production could have set them straight? I mean, the boater hats and “jolly wot-ho!” dialog? That was not the school I attended, I can tell you!
I’m a little confused with what exactly the Black Guardian’s plan is with regard to how Turlough should dispose of the Doctor. From the outset, it seems as if he’s given the young lad carte blanche to drop a rock on his head, or whatever it takes. But then as the Doctor gets tangled in the Mawdryn storyline, leading to where he will have to sacrifice his lives to save his friends, the Guardian acts as if that was his plan all along, and chides Turlough for not following it. Turlough might have been more cooperative if he’d been told about the ship, and what the mutated people wanted. Frankly, I think the Black Guardian’s totally winging this, and blaming Turlough when things go pear-shaped.
The story ends with the Brigadier saving the day. When he asks Nyssa what’s been going on, Nyssa replies, “The Doctor will explain later,” and a thousand Whovians chuckle (“I’ll explain later” was something the Doctor frequently said to his companions). And Turlough officially joins the TARDIS crew, though he is still under orders from the Black Guardian to kill the Doctor. It seems clear the Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan don’t suspect anything seriously amiss with Turlough, though they do seem guarded. And rightly so!
What do we make of Turlough as a companion? He’s very different from previous companions, which is a good thing. I like that he has a bit of a dark edge to him, even beyond his collusion with the Black Guardian. After all, he went joyriding in the Brig’s car before the Guardian ever got to him. If he’s going to work, Nyssa and Tegan are going to have to warm to him, and that doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon. Maybe as their adventures progress…
“Mawdryn Undead” is interesting, and as a Who celebration is fun. The story is a little convoluted, but not too much of a stretch if you pay attention. Certainly of interest, though not compelling. Worth watching, but not at all costs.