Retro ‘Doctor Who’ Reviews – Vol. 5.4
The three serials reviewed in this edition make up the ‘Black Guardian’ trilogy that sees the return of the deadly enemy first encountered by the Fourth Doctor.
First thing worth noting about the episode is the design of the villain. It is, without a doubt, the most grotesque creature to date. Mawdryn is essentially a decaying corpse with an exposed brain. The special effects boys must’ve gotten a touch carried away because they added some gadget to make the exposed brain pulsate. It’s…unpleasant.
The story begins at Brendon Public School in England with a boy named Turlough. He’s a trouble maker who introduces his character by stealing the car of a teacher. Turlough, is not, however, human. Rather he’s an alien Trion posing as a human while stranded on Earth. Turlough is contacted by the Black Guardian, still seeking revenge on the Doctor after the events which concluded the Key to Time saga, offering him passage off Earth in exchange for killing the Doctor.
On the TARDIS the Doctor and his two companions are caught up in the warp stream of a starliner, forcing them to materialise on the deserted vessel. On board they find a transmit capsule causing the interference, and through this meet Turlough. The Doctor and Turlough travel to Earth to find the other end of the transmat, leaving Tegan and Nyssa with the TARDIS, who also head to Earth. They wind up landing in the same place, but a decade apart. What links them through time is a chance meeting with the Doctor’s old ally Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who works at the school as a Maths teacher.
The stranded starliner, the companions and the Doctor being separated across time and the transmat are all tired together in the mystery behind the missing crew of the starliner. Rather than being missing they are actually hidden, and they soon reveal themselves. They are in actual fact scientists who sought out Time Lord regeneration technology for their own use. Having obtained what they were looking for something went aware and they were left in a state of immortality, decaying but unable to die.
Not an easy episode to sum up but a great one. Turlough doesn’t get an easy introduction for someone who would continue to adventure with the Doctor for some time. Not only is he coming at the Doctor as a villain but as a lackey of the Black Guardian. He doesn’t manage to go through with his mission but by the end of the serial he has joined the crew of the TARDIS with the intention of trying again.
The notion of humans having tried to steal the technology of the Time Lords is a fantastic one to explore, and the awful state that they have found themselves in is testimony to the power that the people of Gallifrey hold. The situation that the Doctor finds himself in when trying to deal with them is a difficult one. In order to give them the death that they seek the Doctor must give up his ability to regenerate. Initially he is unwilling to make this sacrifice (especially as their leader, Mawdryn, tried to impersonate him in order to manipulate his companions) but things are further complicated when Nyssa and Tegan contract the same condition. The way that the dilemma is resolved is a touch dues ex machina, but it is born out of the divided timelines used earlier in the serial so it work out. Seeing the Brig return to form is a bonus.
Still under the thrall of the Black Guardian the newest member of the TARDIS crew, Turlough, sabotages the ship. Fields of instability plague the ship with the doors from another ship appearing in Nyssa’s room. With no choice but to go through the door, followed by the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough. They run afoul of a pair of raiders, criminals looking to salvage the ship. When the raiders (Kari and Olvir) get left behind by the rest of their crew the group discover that they’re trapped on a plague ship transporting sufferers of ‘lazars’ to a space station called Terminus where they will receive their treatment.
Terminus, as the Doctor discovers, is located in the exact centre of the universe. The staff of the station are clad in armour and are kept addicted to a drug by the company that they work for, and the treatment that they dish out is so unreliable that it’s essentially a death sentence. Nyssa, who contracts lazars, is taken by a dog-like humanoid to receive a dose of radiation that cures her. In the meanwhile the Doctor tries to prevent an unstable fuel cell from exploding and destroying the universe.
Unlike the previous episode, that also juggled many different elements, this one tends to let things flap around without a purpose. The plot concerning the centre of the universe and the Big Bang operates only tangentially to the narrative thread about Nyssa and lazars. With Kari and Olvir paired with the Doctor it feels like he doesn’t interact with his companions much at all, which is a shame considering that it’s Nyssa’s final appearance. Nyssa elects to remain behind and help perfect the cure for lazars in the closing scenes of the final episode.
Turlough continues his plot arc of trying to kill the Doctor on behalf of the Black Guardian, yet his determination begins to show the cracks as he begins to form a bond with the Time Lord. In spite of some good visuals this is not an especially strong episode.
Sometimes the concept of a story is enough to carry a serial, and when the rest of the serial successfully builds upon the concept you have a slice of fried gold. The concluding part of the ‘Black Guardian Trilogy’ sees Turlough face up to his manipulator and the Doctor participate in a visually stunning race. At first the crew of the TARDIS believe that they have dematerialised in Edwardian England on board a racing yacht but it isn’t long before they begin to notice problems with the crew. They all suffer from a bout of amnesia concerning how they came to be on the ship and have little knowledge of the officers in the top decks.
Further investigation reveals pressurised suits and a grog concoction that some claim is being used to control the crew. The Doctor discovers that the boat is actually in space, being propelled by solar winds. It is partaking in a race against other ships from different eras of Earth history, each one crewed by a group of abductees from the relevant period of history. The officers are members of a race of immortals who have grown bored with their eternal life and are participating in the race in order to receive the ultimate prize: enlightenment.
At the races end the prize is held by the White and Black Guardians. The Black Guardian is still attempting to manipulate Turlough into killing the Doctor on his behalf, but has gone from making the alien boy promises and has begun tormenting him with threats. The concluding story of Turlough and the Black Guardian is the strongest of the three with Turlough becoming sympathetic for the first time. He reaches a breaking point and throws himself off the ship at one point, with the climatic scene becoming a difficult choice for him. With his introduction on the show not endearing him to viewers it’s good to see the character come full circle.
As to the rest of the episode it is packed with colourful characters and a visually rich setting. The sight of the ships travelling through the solar system is one that stands out among the serials from the season and the captains of each ship are memorable characters. While it comes down to being Turlough’s story the Doctor and Tegan are not left in the background and all their character paths come together in a satisfying manner. An excellent story.