Arc of InfinityBookmark and Share

Monday, 11 December 2006 - Reviewed by Robert Tymec

In comparison to the other stories involving the Doctor on Gallifrey, this one is the weakest of them all. And that's probably what causes it to leave such a bitter taste in most of fandomn's mouth. But if we view this story on its own merits, it's really not so bad. 

It's got a decent little plot structure to it. Two different events at very different locations eventually entwine in a somewhat clever way. Very stereotypical Davison era-type stuff. It's got an old villain coming back with a new twist to him. It's even got a nice foreign location that doesn't actually slow down the plot too much in order to show off that the crew went to a foreign location (sorry folks, but some of those scenes in "City Of Death" of walking and/or running through Paris could've stood a bit of trimming!). It's got quite a few nice things going for it. So why, then, does "Arc of Infinity" get panned as much as it does? 

For me, the biggest problem of this story is the techno-babble. There's just a bit too much of it, really. With barely enough explanation given to what all the babble actually means. For instance, we have all these vague references to molecular bonding with the Doctor. It almost sort of happens in Part One. It's what keeps the Doctor alive through Part Three. But then, suddenly, in Part Four, Omega just seems to do it all on his own. How exactly does that work? I suppose, with a bit of imagination, one could theorise that the bonding process needs the Doctor alive as a sort of "master copy" for Omega to work from. But it's never properly explained. And, though there have been some other stories where ideas where not given full explanations (ie: "Warriors Gate" or "Ghost Light"), this seems to come across more as lazy writing than creative effort. Now add to this seven or eight other "techno-babblic" ideas being thrown out all over the place and we really find ourselves wondering if perhaps Johnny Byrne just didn't feel like getting bogged down with too much of a real plot. And that, everytime he got stuck, he just came up with a pseudo-science of some sort in order to work around the problem. The "pulse loop" in episode four being a great example of this. We get the vaguest idea of how it works. But it really should have just been called "A piece of techno-babble I made up in order to get the Doctor off Gallifrey without Omega knowing". It would have been just as effective of a name. 

This problem persists throughout the story. No proper explanations get offered anywhere, really. How exactly did Omega gain control of the Matrix? Or the Arc of Infinity, for that matter? How was Hedin able to use Borussa's code to get the Doctor's bio-data extract? Again, we can fill in the gaps using our imaginations but when I find myself doing that as much as I do in this story, I can't help but think that maybe the writing is a bit weak instead. And this remains my biggest problem with this tale. 

Some weaker, more "niggly" negative points would be Gallifrey's new sense of interior design. Personally, I loved the way things looked in "Deadly Assassin" and "Invasion of Time" and though I can appreciate a need to "re-vamp" things slightly, they went a bit too far and made the interiors look far too radically different from what they used to look like. It's a minor point, I know. But it always "puts me off a bit" when I watch this story. 

My other minor complaint would be Borussa. In this incarnation, he doesn't seem at all like any of his predecessors or his successor. Is this the fault of the writing or the directing or the acting? I can't be sure. But, to me, this just doesn't seem like the Borussa we've seen before or after. Might have been better to just have an entirely different Lord President and have Borussa still on council. I know this could work to the detriment of "The Five Doctors" but it would have made it a bit easier, I think, for the fans to digest in this story. This just doesn't seem like the Borussa we know. Although, at least, his harsh decision to kill the Doctor heralds his growing sense of corruption. So, it's a bit of foreshadowing, I suppose. Mind you, I doubt this was done intentionally. 

Now, before I go too far into the criticism, there are some things about this story I like. Part Four is an especially strong episode. Yes, the chase scenes are somewhat gratuitous and show off the Amsterdam scenery quite a bit. But, at least, it remains an interesting chase. Different things happen along the way to keep us involved. Had it just been shot after shot of Omega running down a street and then the Doctor and his companions running down the same street a moment later, I would feel entirely different on the matter. But with all the different incidents happening along the way, the sequence seems justified. And even quite enjoyable. And, of course, Omega's stop at the organ grinder is very touching. Much praise has been given already to Davison for his portrayal of this moment, I'll heap on some more. It really seems as though this is not the same man we see chasing along after himself a moment later. And, though Doctor Five is not quite my favourite, I do consider Peter Davison to be probably the most talented actor to have taken on the role. And this moment is one of the more shining examples of his talent. Though there are many more...

The character of Omega, himself, is another really great strength to this story. Changing his appearance was not just good for plot expediency, it was very symbolic of who he had become. The ranting maniac of "The Three Doctors" was still buried deep within the character. But the tragic element of his tragic hero personality was played up one hundred percent. We almost can't really call him a villain. He's just a man who has become consumed with trying to get back home. And the obcession has made him so unreasonable that he's willing to abandon any morals he may have once had. The "poor unfortunate wretch" dialogue that's spoken after he passes on is truly befitting of our sentiment for him. We're glad to see the world saved but sad to see how the man threatening it was sacrificed. An excellent sense of pathos. I loved it. 

Overall, this story rises just a bit above mediocre - but not much. Which is another thing that works so much against it when you view it in context of the rest of this series. Not only is the weakest of all the "Gallifrey-bound" stories, but it was also the opener for the 20th anniversary season. And it causes the season to start off with a fizzle rather than a bang. Still, as I said before, view it on its own merits and it's not so bad. Even quite good, in places!

FILTER: - Television - Series 20 - Fifth Doctor

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.

FILTER: - Television - Series 20 - Fifth Doctor

Arc of InfinityBookmark and Share

Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Jason Wilson

Not one of the more popular Davison tales, this one. Having re-watched it recently, though, I'm not quite sure why it gets panned as much as it does. Certainly it brings back Omega without adding much to his character or pathos, and it's part of the much derided old-monster-fest-instead-of-fresh-ideas phase of the series but it is, nonetheless, quite a solid story. 

Admittedly, the bringing back back to gallifrey in criminal mode only to become a hero bit feels at first like an inferior retread of the Deadly Assassin especially when the game of who's-the-traitor starts (for Hedin read Goth), but there is a different spin on it here- and the detective work by Tegan in Amsterdam keeps things fresh and gives her character a chance to shine. Davison and Nyssa make a good opening team and Nyssa's battles (with tongue and gun!) give her some strong stuff also. The unravelling of the aborted termination of the Doctor makes for an intrgiuing third episode and the Doctor-Omega finale is solid. Yes, the chase basically shows off the location, but so does some stuff in City of Death and that doesn't get hauled over the coals for it. 

It the story lacks anything it's really directorial flair- Something often happening in this 20th season alas. Ron Jones does a competent job, but he had yet to really find his feet- his work on Frontios and Vengeance on Varos would outstrip this by miles. Davison's acting often lends a flair and pace that the direction simply lacks, as if compensating- though having said that the darkly-lit Omega scenes in parts one and two look very impressive. 

Was bringing Omega back worth it? maybe, maybe not- Rassilon might have been a better story subject as we know a lot less about him bar what the New Adventures and Big Finish audios have filled in, and good as they often are, I don't know whether non-TV stuff can really be canonical as the TV series reserves a perfect right to disregard it as it did with The Ancestor Cells' Gallifrey demise. (OK, so I know as far as they knew at he time there never would another TV series, but now there is!We could say canonical till proven otherwise?) Nonetheless they could have picked a worst subject. As part of season 20 this pales beside Snakedance, or Enlightnment, or Mawdryn Undead, but compared with Terminus, Kings Demons, the preceding Time Flight's really not so bad. Yes, a steal from ASSASSIN in places, but a lot of WHO plots are recycled- and this does enough of its own stuff to stay fresh. An entertaining and underrated story.

FILTER: - Television - Series 20 - Fifth Doctor

SnakedanceBookmark and Share

Thursday, 9 March 2006 - Reviewed by Adam Kintopf

With ‘Snakedance,’ the done thing seems to be to say that it’s good, but not as good or smart as ‘Kinda.’ Now, whether one Doctor Who story is truly *better* than another is always going to be a matter of subjectivity, but I think it’s worth pointing out that ‘Snakedance’ stands up extremely well on its own, and is certainly smart. It’s true that writer Christopher Bailey does employ a more conventional storytelling style here than he did in the rich, strange stew that was ‘Kinda,’ but it no less intelligent, and in fact focuses on questions the earlier story ignores (or, at least, doesn’t get around to asking).

First off, one of the best things this story does is capture the Manussan culture itself. It’s always hard to suggest a realistic alien society in what amounts to a mere handful of scenes, and that’s why Doctor Who stories are historically populated by invaders from other worlds who have conveniently lost their home cultures. But the depiction of the Manussans is different – we get a clear picture of a society grown so remote from its own historical origins over half a millennium that its people have largely forgotten them. The account of a terrifying force that once dominated this world has been happily mythologized into ‘safe’ rituals like the ones at the anniversary festival (snake parade, ‘attendant demons,’ children’s Punch and Judy show, etc.). The Manussan people themselves are depicted as cheerfully cynical from the lowest social rank (the fraudulent showman and fortuneteller) up to the highest (Lon seems to question whether the Mara story even happened at all). But the viewer knows better – having seen ‘Kinda,’ *we* know that the Mara’s threat is frightening and real, and this even more than usual puts us on the side of the Doctor – who, in an amusing irony, is as squeaky and ineffective here as at probably any other time in his history (“I do not want more blankets, I want to get out of here!”). To see the Doctor scrambling to get the amiable Manussans to believe him is funny, but it also creates real suspense as we watch the Mara move towards its goal with complete ease.

But ‘Snakedance’ doesn’t simply tell a tense story set in a believable culture – it has real observations to make about reading the past, and somewhat odd ones at that, at least in the context of this series. For in ‘Snakedance’ we see that, for once, it’s the superstitious characters who are in the right, and the skeptical ones who are shown up as fools. This comes into focus in the fascinating character of Ambril, a tunnel-visioned academic with the authority of a government behind him (frightening thing). While the character’s earnestness and archaeological zeal is respectable, even admirable – he’s anything but a mad scientist – he is nevertheless so wrapped up in his own way of viewing the past that he can’t see new history being made around him. He scoffs at the Doctor (who, as I said, is quite a wonderful cracked young man in this story), but we can only suspect he’d act the same way even if the warnings about the Mara came from a more credible source. Ambril likes the past the way it is – frozen in time, preserved for posterity under museum glass. And Bailey’s script does a marvelous job of communicating the character’s smallness (the ‘sixth head’ joke is perhaps a little obvious, but it brings the point to the fore well enough).

The other caste of skeptical character here, of course, is the hereditary ruling elite, represented by bored Lon and his mother Tanha. Both characters are basic upper-class stereotypes, but they become quite full-blooded in the hands of the capable actors; more than that, they function well in the story, both in terms of their service to the plot and their symbolic resonance (as decadent skeptics so modern that they *laugh* at the Mara stories, despite being descended from the family who originally destroyed it!).

So who are the heroes of ‘Snakedance’? The obvious guess is Dojjen, Ambril’s counterpart and philosophical opposite, a scholar who takes such a hands-on approach to his subject that he becomes a true believer, and renounces his shallow culture for a mystic’s life in the wilderness. But the script’s real hero might actually be mild-mannered Chela, a kind of reverse skeptic – a student of science who is nevertheless able to imagine a reality outside his own experience, who begins to question the secular norm he has always known. He is a man with imagination, and Bailey seems to value that more highly than any devotion to science and reason; in fact, it’s implied that the search for knowledge is what created the Mara in the first place. (One senses that Barry Letts would have *loved* a script like this, and I like to think that the blue crystals were included in the plot as a conscious tribute to ‘Planet of the Spiders.’)

As for the aesthetics of the story, the absurd Manussan costumes are always good for a laugh (Lon does look like a refugee from a particularly wild Duran Duran video), and some of the snake effects are a bit sad, but by and large it has the look of classic eighties Doctor Who. Janet Fielding gives a good performance, and she is helped by the sound technicians (her ‘Exorcist’-like sudden voice change – “NO!” – is very effective); and Peter Davison is as wonderful as usual. As is so often the case, Sarah Sutton isn’t given anything to do, but as I can’t stand Nyssa anyway, I don’t mind. Director Fiona Cummings has some good ideas, and helps to make Lon and Tanha into more believable characters than they perhaps are on paper. (When Tanha stands with her back to her son - and the camera – it conveys her hurt better than words or acting ever could). The ending is a little sudden, but for once this abruptness works perfectly – I much prefer an ‘open’ ending like this to a hasty, well-let’s-sum-it-all-up-and-say-goodbye scene like the ones we so often get in this series.

A final thought: after sitting through a sometimes unpleasantly flirtatious first season of Russell T. Davies’s new Who, I found it refreshing to see the classic, sexless Doctor -one who doesn’t even recognize that his pert companion is wearing a new dress!

FILTER: - Television - Fifth Doctor - Series 20

TerminusBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 15 November 2005 - Reviewed by Bill Albert

Never have so many people worked so hard to create so little as they have in Terminus. This story from the 20th season is certainly on of the most uneven stories of the Peter Davison era which excels on some points and dies badly on others.

I've gotten used to the occasional padding to fill the story and sometimes have enjoyed it. Smarter authors will fill the padding with bits of back story or character scenes but Steve Gallagher fails to come up with anything interesting or original to keep the story moving. In a story that has a full TARDIS crew, the Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough, plus two pirates, Kari and Olvir, and various guards, prisoners and the Black Guardian it should be a whirl wind adventure but it completely falls flat after the first ten minutes of the first episode. The Black Guardian has forced Turlough to damage the TARDIS and it crash lands on a ship just as it is being hit by raiders. The TARDIS crew is separated and have face various dangers. This is a real explosive start but then absolutely nothing happens until the third episode. It's just a bunch of one dimensional characters going through a predictable routine that doesn't add much to the story.

The raiding party is dressed with comical helmets, capes, and skin tight jump suits that make them look more like they are from a futuristic telling of "Babes In Toyland" and fails to give them any credibility. Olvir, who claims to have combat training, panics and hides in a corner after their first violent encounter. Later he barely manages to handle a worn and battered Valgard and still completely misses the Garn taking off with Nyssa just a few feet behind him. The character is so badly written I couldn't help but wonder if it was originally supposed to be Adric in the story but hastily rewritten and readjusted to fit a different character.

As a stark contrast from the look of the raiding party the Vanir, guards on Terminus, are amazingly catching in their styles. The skeletal like armour makes and odd clicking sound as they move and their masks give them a powerful presence when they enter the scenes.

Another odd pair of characters added after a few episodes are the Garm and Bor. The Garm is a huge creature with a dog like head and glowing eyes that has been forced to serve the Vanir. Unfortunately it only looks good but when it talks you can sadly see the thin veil meant to cover it's mouth and the face of the operator inside. Less would have been more with this character. On the other hand Bor is more of the average guy type character who just wants to stay loyal to his job and has paid for it with pain and suffering from radiation sickness. He's the most interesting character brought in during the story and gets all the best lines. "Am I dead?" he asks. "No? Well, good, cause I was hoping for something better on the other side."

Nyssa gets the worst writing of all the companions in this story. She's gone from an experienced space traveller with a high IQ to someone who, when hearing footsteps approach, cowers into a little ball and hopes for the best. Then she spends two episode screaming in fear and getting stripped down to her undies but manages to come back in the final episode as a genius scientist who is willing to brave out the rest of Terminus and stop the plague.

Tegan and Turlough go no where in this story. All they have to do is spend time together and scowl at each other to get them to do anything. There is so much that could have been done with the Black Guardian haunting Turlough in this story it's sad they way both of them are turned to one dimensional roles.

One of the strengths of this story, and there are very few of them, is the design of the ships and Terminus. That skull symbols on the doors are very powerful and give an uncomfortable feeling to the location. There is also enough dressing and changes in set dressing that you never get the "we've been down this corridor before" feeling.

So why was this story done? Apparently the idea had been rejected two years earlier but accepted for the anniversary season. As part two of the second Black Guardian trilogy the story fails to advance the Black Guardian plot in any way. The structure of a trilogy leads to the second act being a big cliffhanger but there is no advancement to the umbrella story here. The best bet is to just skip the story between the classic Mawdryn Undead and the creative Enlightenment and just make it Black Guardian two parter.

FILTER: - Television - Fifth Doctor - Series 20

EnlightenmentBookmark and Share

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