As our intrepid travelers in time and space wend their way through the universe, the TARDIS is affected by a sudden power surge. It seems the White Guardian is trying to make contact. Risking an overload of the TARDIS circuits, the Doctor boosts power in an attempt to stabilize contact with the Guardian. But all he gets are some coordinates, and a vague warning about danger and death, interrupted by a visit from the Black Guardian who tells the Doctor he’s doomed, then they both vanish. When the TARDIS lands, the Doctor and Turlough leave to investigate, while Tegan remains on board in case the White Guardian should attempt another contact. He does, and this time the message for the Doctor is “winner takes all.” Tegan leaves the TARDIS to tell the Doctor, and finds herself captured. The TARDIS has landed in what appears to be the hold of an Edwardian sailing vessel. The crew seem fairly cheerful and welcome the Doctor and Turlough. But there’s something up with the officers. One has taken a shine to Tegan in an odd, detached kind of way. Indeed, there’s something not quite right with the whole setup. As the TARDIS crew soon discovers, this Edwardian yacht is actually a ship–a space ship. And its crew are not from Earth, but are Eternals, using people from Earth in their game–a space race to Enlightenment, in which winner takes all. But at what cost to the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough?
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!
The finale of the “Black Guardian Trilogy” is probably the strongest of the three stories. Written by first-time Who writer, Barbara Clegg, who is also the first female Who writer (and probably one of the few women writing sci-fi for television in the early 80s), “Enlightenment” takes the TARDIS crew aboard an Edwardian sailing vessel that turns out to be a space ship styled like an Edwardian sailing vessel, crewed by Edwardian sailors, plucked from Earth and doomed to live and die on that vessel. The officers are “Eternals,” beings that live outside of time, who get their kicks playing with “Ephemerals,” like Edwardian sailors, and the TARDIS crew. As the story progresses it becomes clear that for all the power of these Eternals, their ability to manipulate reality, and read the minds of Ephemerals as if their thoughts were a Twitter feed, they have no real life of their own. They don’t know excitement, love, passion, joy, and have no imagination. So, while they seem to be superior beings, they, in fact, depend on Ephemerals to take the boredom out of their eternal existence. They need the Ephemerals far more than the Ephemerals need them.
And then there’s Marriner, an Eternal who has a creepy fascination with Tegan that becomes sort-of sweet but still a bit creepy. Unlike his fellow Eternals, he grows to care for her, and miss her when she’s not around. It’s not love–he doesn’t know what love is–but an enjoyment of her company, her energy, and her lively mind. It’s hard to avoid comparing his treatment of Tegan like a dog owner with his beloved pet, but it does seem a little more than that. He does seem to respect the fact that she’s a sentient creature with a mind of her own–which is one of the things he enjoys about her.
In short, Barbara Clegg has given us some interesting characters that have depth and nuance, which doesn’t always happen on Doctor Who. As much as we may want to like Marriner, he’s still an Eternal, and still treats the death of Ephemerals as of no consequence.
The story of the ship race for Enlightenment, which means so much to everyone involved, but is, in fact, a mere distraction for the Ephemerals, is a good idea that works. And Wrack’s plot to cheat through special crystals she gives as gifts to her competitors that turn out to be focal points for a devastating power source she transmits to them, is not too far-fetched for Who. And blowing up her rivals nearly wins for her, except the Doctor catches on to her plan and saves the day for their ship.
Unlike the previous two installments of the trilogy, the Black Guardian plot is actually relevant to the main story. Both “Mawdryn Undead” and “Terminus” could stand alone apart from the Black Guardian’s involvement. But here, the Black Guardian is the one behind Wrack and her schemes, almost delivering Turlough into her hands for his failure to kill the Doctor.
The performances are, on the whole, good, especially the Ephemerals on the Edwardian ship. However, the pirate ship is a little too pantomime–especially Leee John, who plays first mate to Lynda Baron’s captain. They both go a little over the top, at least for me, making it too much like a stage performance as opposed to being villainous bad guys.
The effects are pretty good for the time. In fact, the DVD comes with a special “director’s cut” movie-length version of the story, where the four parts have been pasted together, and new CGI effects added. In honesty, I think the original effects look as good, if not better.
At the end, Turlough accidentally outwits the Black Guardian, severing their contract. Turlough is free, though the Black Guardian might return. Someday. All Turlough wants to do is return to his home planet. Knowing the TARDIS, however, that might be easier said than done!
To sum up, “Enlightenment” is not must-see Who, but very good nonetheless, at least in terms of story and character. The acting is a bit hit-and-miss, but it’s still an enjoyable adventure. Definitely for the die-hard Whovian, and of interest to the casual viewer.