Mawdryn UndeadBookmark and Share

Saturday, 9 December 2006 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Peter Grimwade’s three scripts for Doctor Who are all commendably ambitious. He was always a better director than he was a writer though and it’s only really on Mawdryn Undead that this ambition actually translates into a coherent story, even if it’s only coherent relative to stories like Time-Flight, which is a bit like watching a rabbit trip over its own ears. On the whole, while never quite escaping his tendency to overreach himself, Grimwade serves up a very enjoyable story in Mawdryn Undead.

Some things are notable right from the start, such as the sheer anachronism of the school, presenting us with the kind of peculiar kids you could imagine say things like “yah” and have names like Chipper Jones and Tubby McGee. I’m not sure if they actually do wear straw boater hats or if my memory is just playing tricks on me, but it’s that sort of thing. With this and a reference to the cane, it’s easy to forget that this is supposed to take place in 1983 and I wonder if contemporary audiences found this is odd as I do. It does provide us with Turlough though, possibly the best companion of the 1980s after Romana, since Mark Strickson has the enviable talent of presenting ham in a credible manner, the kind that Anthony Ainley could only dream about. It’s amusing how the producer jettisoned portraying him being of schoolboy age more or less from the instant he leaves the school, and it’s also an innovative idea to have a companion spend three stories secretly plotting to kill the Doctor.

Without knowing anything about the character at this early stage though, the episode gets off to a rather less than likeable start with Paddy Kingsland’s ridiculous score and Peter Moffatt’s purely functional direction, but the crash soon comes along to make things more interesting – even if it is shot as a comedy scene, with the car veering off screen to an accompanying sound-effect. It introduces Valentine Dyall, who excels in more or less the only role available to him. He’s restricted as an actor since his booming voice is only really suitable for quasi-deities, but he works very well within his limited range. 

The fact that he’s here at all does raise the issue of continuity, but I can say that I saw this story years before I saw anything of season 16 and I never had a problem with it. If continuity is a problem in this story, it’s more through sheer quantity than anything else. The story certainly wears its continuity on its sleeves, with references to the previous story Snakedance (I know it only transmitted a week earlier, but is all the technobabble really necessary?), the Guardians, the Zero Room, UNIT and the Brigadier, copious ex-companions, Time Lord mythology – and of course the flashback scene, which I’ll come to in due course. It just about manages to succeed through keeping most of these references fairly unobtrusive (apart from the Brigadier, but he’s well known enough for it not to matter); it’s only in Arc Of Infinity that continuity is actually seriously detrimental at any point this season.

Episode one concerns itself with atmosphere through imagery such as the obelisk, the communicator device and the transmat capsule. With this, the large amount of location shooting and the pleasantly-designed spaceship, this is one of the better looking stories of the period. Once the TARDIS lands there the mystery starts to build, with the three-millennia journey and mysteriously missing capsule, but the enigmatic idea starts to falter as the Doctor’s investigations are largely reduced to pushing buttons and going “a-ha!”. It’s still enjoyable though, and there are plenty of gruesome ideas present about the dangers of transmat capsules. The cliffhanger to the first episode is serviceable enough, but the kind of thing that would get rather tired after three stories where writers had to continually come up with reasons for Turlough not to kill the Doctor.

The Brigadier’s amnesia serves as an excuse for the fannish-but-sweet flashbacks, and I have to acknowledge enjoying seeing clips from The Web Of Fear, Terror Of The Zygons et al for a moment. This episode is where the plot really begins to take off now, as two different strands set six years apart advance the story in tandem; it’s an awesome context and considering how complex it is there are remarkably few plot holes – apart from the infamous controversy over the dates, but it’s not so bad if you judge the episode on its own terms instead of comparing it to something said in an episode dated ten years previously, and to put things in perspective there are no disembodies heads stuck in paving stones anywhere to be seen in this story. Another feature of the plot is that it requires so much concentration that it distracts from some of the story’s slight weaknesses, such as the way the plot comes at the expense of just about everything else – the opposite problem to the new series, where it’s characterisation that takes away from the plot.

Mawdryn’s blackened and charred body is about as graphic and grisly as Doctor Who ever got, and his make-up is also impressive; it would all count for naught if David Collings wasn’t a great actor, but as The Robots Of Death proved there’s nothing to worry about on that front. There’s a less obtrusive nod to the past having him wear Tom Baker’s coat, and the cliffhanger where we see his true form for the first time is genuinely startling.

Going into the third episode, there’s a huge amount of exposition. This isn’t necessarily a problem as generally it’s well done and interesting enough to remain engaging, although lines like “activate sequential regression” do show up the weaker elements of the script. There is a “reverse the polarity” in-joke to be found, which does add a welcome lighter touch. It has all the elements of a bad story – but the sheer imagination of the central concept elevates it to a far higher level. The concept of the two Brigadiers meeting briefly sees the Doctor and the Black Guardian working towards the same ends, which brings home the seriousness of the problem.

The concept of immortality is extremely evocative, but the cliffhanger is let down because Peter Davison struggles with high drama and because so little actually happens in this episode that there’s little to say about it. You just have to keep concentrating on it.

There’s more running about in the fourth episode, which never causes the episode to really sink – but Grimwade does fall into the usual trap of getting tangled in the complexities of what he’s writing. This is contrasted shockingly with some gruesome make-up for Tegan and Nyssa’s ageing scene, which seriously freaked me out as a kid. The Doctor is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for them, which is consistent with his characterisation; his willingness to help the innocent victims throws his refusal to help the mutants into relief. The resolution is a bit contrived, but the Doctor’s comment about the level of coincidence in events (a reference to the Black Guardian) takes the edge off it.

Considering that it’s little more than a great slab of exposition with a dollop of continuity on top, Mawdryn Undead does remarkably well for itself. As usual for Peter Grimwade there’s a feeling that it could be much more if it didn’t aim too high for its own good, but its sheer imagination and verve takes what is fundamentally an average story and elevates it.