13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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"Perpetual torment and despair!"
Buy this Dr Who DVD: UK US
OK. It's this simple. Either you like the nostalgic rehashing of Dr Who's past or you don't. And you can put us with the don'ts.
It's not that we don't enjoy seeing the Brig again. And we've certainly got no objection to a montage of shots from when the programme was good. We'll even let the dragging back of old props and stuff get past - after all, even the Fourth Doctor's coat is more of a proper Time Lord than the Fifth Doctor will ever be. But we say that a programme that relies on mining its glorious past to make an impact is a programme in trouble.
Which is not to say that Mawdryn Undead is all bad. While it still drags its feet in the manner of all Davison stories, it's by no means as smack-your-head-into-the-wall dull as many of its little Fifth Doctory friends. And that, from us, is high praise.
For a start, it's nice to see a story set in two different time zones, which considering that the thing's about a time traveller they certainly took their time in getting around to. This gives rise to a number of hideous paradoxes, of course, but never mind. Them's the breaks. The Brig not recognising the Doctor is an intriguing twist, and Nick Courtney does a sterling job, differentiating nicely between his two selves. And Nyssa and Tegan infected with the virus is a genuinely shocking moment.
Then there's David Collings, who as Mawdryn makes a lovely and engaging villain. When he first appeared, one of us was heard to remark "If Mr Spaghetti Head turns out to be the Master, I'm going to shoot myself", but hooray, he was some other dude altogether. We loved Collings as the nervy Poul in Robots Of Death, and he's just as good here, adding layers of thoughtfulness and complexity to what, if you stop and look at it, is actually a pretty thankless part. Go him.
The basic plot idea, of someone nicking machinery from the Time Lords only to have it blow up in their faces, has got a lot of potential. And a dastardly companion intent on offing the Doctor is an excellent wheeze. The trouble is, though, that the mass of unexplained stuff, inconsistencies and plot contrivances between them strip the story of much of its power.
Take Mawdryn, for instance. It's quite a tragic story, isn't it? These eight guys, doomed to stay alive for ever and ever (amen) with their brains squishing out of their heads. Nasty, not to mention a lesson for anyone pondering tea-leafing from the Time Lords. But it would have had a hell of a lot more impact if they'd bothered to tell us just who they are. Are they Gallifreyan? If not, how did they get their hands on the stuff? And why didn't the Time Lords do something about it? They say the ship's in orbit - around what? Yes, they look cool as they glide to and fro, but where exactly are they going, and why? How did the transmat beacony thing get to Earth in the first place? And if they're living a life of misery, why does Nyssa say the whole ship's been designed for pleasure?
And there's the whole Mawdryn/Doctor interaction thing. How, exactly, do you develop a virus as a side-effect? And why wasn't the Brig infected? Why did Nyssa and Tegan get all crusty and icky-looking going one way, and just young going the other? Where does the extra equipment come from to join the girls into the magic circle at the end? And isn't it incredibly coincidental that there are exactly enough of them to use up all the Doctor's remaining regenerations? Besides, are we supposed to feel sorry for them or what? They got themselves into this, didn't they? They can't have it both ways.
Then there's the Black Guardian subplot. Now, we won't hear a word said against Valentine Dyall, who shreds the scenery magnificently even with a chicken on his head. But if you were selecting an instrument of vengeance against a powerful Time Lord, would you pick the Ginger Whinger? Let's face it, as an assassin Turlough's unbelievably crap. He has one feeble attempt at smacking the Doctor in the head with a rock, and after that he doesn't as much as tie the Doctor's shoelaces together. Ooh, scary.
Turlough's further undercut by the writer having an each way bet with him - by the way he bullies Ibbotson and then unblinkingly shops him to the headmaster for his own crime, we know we're supposed to think Turlough's a weasel. But then they keep showing him staring cross-eyed into his tap and repeating the Black Guardian's words in a monotone until we're completely confused as to which bits are Evil Turlough and which are Poor Misunderstood Possessed Turlough. By the way, you'd think, wouldn't you, that someone as powerful as the Black Guardian would do his own dirty work, but no. Incredibly conveniently for the plot, he "can't be seen" to - although who's doing the seeing, we haven't a clue. And hello, Black Guardian - Time Lord? Meaning regenerates with boring reliability? So why try and kill him?
As for the girls, Nyssa, in a cute outfit but with tragic gold eyeshadow and too much eyeliner, is utterly wasted. We can't think of a single scene where she couldn't have been comfortably airbrushed out without affecting the plot. Although she does at least dilute Tegan, who starts off banging on in a whiny way about the Mara - get over it! - then is completely useless till her horrendously delivered thank-you speech to the Doctor at the end. He was squirming and so were we.
And the Doctor. Sigh. He's bland, he's clueless, he's pushed hither and thither by events and he's totally unable to get himself out of trouble. Forced to sacrifice himself for the girlies, his arse is saved only by a piece of technobabble, not by any Doctorly brilliance. Yes, we were probably supposed to wipe away a tear when he announced that it would be the end of him as a Time Lord, but all that got from us was a round of applause and an exhortation to get on with it. At the end, when he smugly asserts to Tegan "I am a Time Lord", someone was heard to mutter: "So you say..."
But hey. We made it through all four eps with our reason still intact. We've seen worse. On the Fifth Doctor scale, that means Mawdryn Undead qualifies as a masterpiece.
MORAL: Eternity. It's a lot longer than you might think.
Has this story got the highest quota of Carry On lines ever?
"Right, into bed with you, young man." "Ooh, matron..."
"Don't you think we should get him into a bed?"
"I think I'm pulling out.", etc etc.
The scene where Turlough picks up the rock is hysterical. He gives the game away first by flicking it up into his hands, then commences tottering across the landscape as if it weighs a ton. Laboriously hefting it up, he then moves it so it's behind his head, which if it was as heavy as he's trying to convey would have yanked him backwards off his feet.
What the hell's the matter with Tegan and Nyssa? Mawdryn is obviously not the Doctor! Not only does he look nothing like him, that loincloth thingy isn't remotely similar to the Doctor's outfit either. And that's all before they start discussing the possibility of regeneration.
IT'S THE THIRD TIME TODAY I'VE YOMPED UP THAT WRETCHED HILL
There's far too much pointless racing around from place to place, both on Earth and on the ship. Note to Peter Grimwade: movement and plot aren't the same thing.
Tegan and Nyssa yammer on about not wanting to leave Turlough in 1977. But why would they think he was there? The Doctor isn't, and they know Turlough was with him.
PASS THE WHEATGRASS. AND MAKE IT A DOUBLE
Where's the Doctor meant to get the extra life force from to de-virus the girls?
How, exactly, does the Blinovich Limitation Effect work? From the Doctor's description, it should come about just from the two Brigs meeting, yet afterwards he mumbles something about the TARDIS being involved. If the TARDIS can do it, why doesn't the Doctor think of this earlier instead of putting his neck on the line?
DOING THE VACUUMING
In space, no one can hear your ship explode. Wait a minute. Yes, they can. Oops.
HOW COULD WE TELL?
The Doctor blithers on about how if he uses up his regenerations on the Spaghetti People he won't be a Time Lord any more. But a Time Lord on his last regeneration is just that - not an ex-Time Lord.
Buy this Dr Who DVD: UK US