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Saturday, 29 October 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

I can’t help but feel a sense of achievement when I watch Enlightenment; by the time I decided to go out and buy the video it had already been pulled out of circulation, and I spent at least six years trying to track it down (at a price I could afford) before finally having the initiative to look on Amazon Marketplace, their second-hand section; in the time between 1998 and 2004 it built up almost mythic status in my mind, a bit like a missing episode. A peculiar by-product of this is that I cannot now hear the name Clegg without associating it with pirates, which makes watching Last Of The Summer Wine very difficult. I dread to think what will happen if I ever meet anyone with that name. Anyway, back to the point – did it meet my expectations of it? Fortunately it came at a period where I was trying to ignore overly inflated reputations, but on the whole, yes it did. This is one of a tiny handful of episodes to be written by a woman and, like Rona Munro did in Survival, Barbara Clegg gives us an astonishingly original story that’s quite unlike any other episode. 

I was impressed immediately with the opening TARDIS scene, always a sore point in Davison stories where three or four regulars struggle to act naturally while they wait for the plot to begin. Here however something is happening: the power is disappearing (those dimmed lights look very nice, by the way), and a mysterious voice is echoing through the air. Actually that voice is a bit of a problem as it’s just someone repeating a word three times, making him sound like a backing singer; the Guardian is enigmatic when he appears though, even if the effects are slightly dodgy. In any other story I’d be napalming the continuity around now but it’s really not a problem because new viewers would be as familiar as they’d need to be with the Black Guardian from the previous two stories, so a White Guardian is simply a logical extension of that. Remember too that when he first appears in The Ribos Operation the Doctor knows of him already there too.

The sets of the ship are really very good, with a pleasant yet slightly claustrophobic design and subdued lighting. The score is luscious (from Malcolm Clarke no less, who made a complete mess of The Twin Dilemma and Attack Of The Cybermen) but too intrusive and there’s always the problem of trying to match an electronic score with a period setting, which of all the original Doctor Who composers only Mark Ayres has ever been able to do convincingly; remember that this story is effectively a pseudo-historical up until the first cliffhanger. Marriner’s appearance on the TARDIS scanner is actually quite spooky in a slightly funny way, but I don’t see any reason for him falling down unless it was to tempt Tegan outside: as we later learn, Eternals don’t think like that. Anyway, she does leave the TARDIS eventually and talk to him…and Christopher Brown is an actor I really can’t make my mind up about: his slightly strange accent is all very well but his flat, stilted movements would be being ripped apart ordinarily. They are so totally appropriate to the character though that I can’t decide if he’s a brilliant actor who is pitching his performance absolutely perfectly, or a terrible actor who just got really lucky in the casting. Then again we get to see some pretty terrible actors later on so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I get my mystery fix from the human crew who have been below decks for two days and can’t remember coming aboard. This scene also sketches in some good period detail and, although I’m a bit of a snob about diction really, it is refreshing to hear working-class dialects in Doctor Who that don’t sound completely fake and patronising to the people being caricatured. And all this four years before Sophie “who are you calling young lady, bog brain?” Aldred.

The officer’s dining room is a wonderful set although the intricacy of the table only highlights that they’re in a studio (not that anything moves when the “boat” does lurch anyway). Tegan asks how the Doctor knows they’re on a sailing ship, which sounds ironic in that context. Out the door however, Tegan sees some anachronistic wet suits…I do love a mysterious first episode, I have to say.

If we’re talking about mystery, then how about that cliffhanger? The idea of sailing ships flying through space, when not given any explanation (that comes in the next episode), has to be up there with regeneration as one of the most mind-boggling concepts the programme ever did. It’s let down a bit by the conventional electronics on display (some weird and random objects, preferably glowing, would be better) and the Doctor’s frankly stupid line of “this isn’t a boat, it’s a ship”. One benefit of the reprise though is that we get to see those gorgeous special effects an extra time; I was absolutely dreading what those ships would look like before I saw the story, and I was blown away by those beautiful film-recorded models. I can feel in my bones however that when this comes out on DVD there are going to be new CGI affairs – not because this story needs them particularly, but simply because those boats floating sedately through the void are the kind of things that lend themselves to CGI effects.

There’s still more mystery yet to come with the Greek Captain’s jewel and Tegan’s room: so far this story can best be described as largely an embarrassment of riches. The Eternals, sad pathetic creatures who have to feed off the minds of “Ephemerals” just in order to stay sane, are very well thought out: cruel, callous, but not intrinsically evil.

The rounding of Venus is actually very dramatic as long as you don’t stop to think about how absurd it all is, and the exploding ship is another great effect. The death of the human crew, although none of them are characters in the story, is poignant due to the Eternals’ utter indifference. When the Black Guardian finally appears it comes as a bit of a surprise if I’m honest, as there doesn’t seem to be a place for him in the narrative (yet) – it makes you wonder where he’s going to come into play. Valentine Dyall is the ideal choice for the role, but his fake laugh is abominable. 

The film set of the deck is absolutely wonderful, and the sight of the other ships is breathtaking even with the wobble that comes of splicing two shots together. I must admit to getting a puerile snigger from Turlough’s line of “Are you sure? We will get off?”, and the cliffhanger is another good one that could be better (I always hate it when an episode closes on a melodramatic “Nooooo!”) – the slightly altered reprise next episode would have been more effective. Turlough floating in space, again, looks great but him being rescued by a lot of CSO is the real weak link in this story’s special effects. The first half of the story deals with this mystery and the amazing concept of the boats in space – a clear 5/5 job so far. All good things must come to an end, however, even though the second half is by its own standards extremely enjoyable.

There are more great sets on board the Buccaneer, but here’s where the deficiencies in the guest cast really begin to bite. Lynda Baron is too hammy for words, making Anthony Ainley look like the lord of understatement: going over the top can work, but these are the pantomime-derived, self-consciously camp screechings of a woman who blatantly doesn’t care about what she’s doing. Then, of course, there’s Leee John, the failed pop star (evidently his training in music was no better than his training in acting) destined only to be remembered by Doctor Who fans as “that bloke who was really naff in Enlightenment”. It is without doubt the strangest performance I’ve ever seen: not only is he a bad actor but he’s a bad actor with the ego of a pop-wannabe and the mannerisms of a Labrador puppy with ADHD which alter him from being merely terrible to being truly surreal. The dialogue is good, but is utterly mauled by them.

The asteroids look good even when they are being CSO’d onto the screen, and with more of the plot explained now things are starting to become more macabre than simply amazing. The futuristic ion chamber is a strange juxtaposition with the rest of the episode, but good and the subsequent revelation of Wrack’s power is great. 

The cliffhanger to part three though is truly dreadful. First things first: why does Wrack root through her crystals to find a specific one when they all do exactly the same thing? Secondly, and this is the bit that I was really referring to when I called the cliffhanger dreadful, is Wrack’s to-camera speech. Breaking the fourth wall very rarely works and here, with all brakes off, it sends the story so far into ridiculousness that when she says (addressing the Doctor, even though he isn’t there and she’s looking at the viewer) “you have lost” I half expect to hear a canned audience track yell out “oh no he isn’t!”.

“What is love? I want existence” gets the fourth part back on the right track though with a line that firstly shows up the Eternals for what they are and secondly puts an innovative twist on the old cliché. Also, and although I’m not the one who first noticed it, if Baron had been looking at John when she said “it’s the plank” I’d give this story maximum rating for that alone.

The Enlightenment…whatever it is floating in space looks great. I’m tired of doing nothing but praise the special effects, but they really are wonderful. The splitting of the crystal is a double edged sword really as it does lead to yet another great effect of Wrack’s face dividing up but it also brings the stupid and undignified scene of watching everyone scrabble about to pick all the shards up. The defeat of the villains – the Doctor and Turlough physically overpower two super beings and eject them into space – is so implausible (not to say out of character) that the only way to do it is not to let us see it, which is lame enough just on its own.

Then of course there’s the finale to the trilogy as well as just to the story. Striker and Marriner are banished back to Eternity – technically the story has a 0% mortality rate as the only people who die are only spoken of and are not actual characters, but in narrative terms banishment is the same thing but with a different name and looked at like that it rises to a still-small (for a Saward-era story) 44.4%. Pick whichever one you like. The whole “Enlightenment was the choice” business is downright cryptic, and although after wracking (no pun intended) my brains it just about works it doesn’t really make for a satisfying conclusion. Nevertheless, it remains a strong episode.

Despite slipping up quite severely in places in its second half Enlightenment is a strong story and easily gets an above-average rating through the strong writing, dazzling visuals and absolutely stunning special effects. It is the best story of its season after Snakedance and is easily in the top five Davison stories in general – it isn’t one of the Big Six (my half-dozen best stories of the 1980s), but it’s not a million miles away.

And I never even mentioned those dead birds.

FILTER: - Television - Series 20 - Fifth Doctor