Blimey, us Who fans are getting spoiled!
After the recent ten episode epic that was The War Games, we've now been gifted the twelve episode trip into the Eighties that is The Black Guardian Trilogy. Okay, so it's not quite one story; it is, in fact, three stories but they all feature the return of, wait for it, The Black Guardian (last seen in the Key To Time season back in 1978/9).
Not only that, he's a got a dead bird on his head, but more of that later. The three story mini-arc also introduced the handsome (yet evil!) Turlough but also saw the end of Nyssa's time in the TARDIS. Add to that mix: The Brigadier, a rather duff 80s pop 'star', near naked companions, plus a couple of Eastenders - and you've got yourself a heady mix of excellence and one story you won't want to watch again (if you make through it the first time).
The trilogy kicks off with Mawdryn Undead, a continuity-breaking, 'fan'-infuriating tale that zaps between 1977 and 1983 where we find The Brigadier teaching (wha?). At his school we find another unearthly child, Turlough. His introduction comes courtesy of The Black Guardian who wants to exact revenge on The Doctor but needs some weird eye-browed, ginger schoolboy to do his bidding.
Turlough, expertly portrayed by Mark Strickson, is actually a very modern companion. Dressed like a schoolboy, he comes off in a very Noughties, post-Twilght, dare I say, ‘Emo' fashion, all scowls and petulant attitude but brimming with arrogance and confidence in equal measures. Though you may find yourselves smirking every time we see him framed either looking behind suspiciously or unbuttoning/buttoning his jacket.
Mawdryn zaps along with a great deal of pace and style, cutting between the time zones expertly. The titular character is a pretty horrific cove and his chums are an unpleasant, though not overtly threatening bunch, trying to feed off The Doctor's remaining regenerations. They have a fascinating backstory and are an interesting addition to the history of the Time Lords.
Adding to the folklore of the show is, of course, The Brigadier. Sadly, he's not used to much effect here (and Nicholas Courtney laments this in the extras) and the original choice of William Russell (who played teacher Ian Chesterton during the early part of William Hartnell's run as Gallifrey's finest) would have seemed much more appropriate. However, the plot involving The Brig's memory loss works and acts as an intriguing mystery.
Next up is Terminus. People often use the word 'clunker' (or 'stinker') to describe the below par Who tale and here we get a biggie. Actually, it starts off brilliantly with Turlough wandering the corridors of the TARDIS (chatting to his chum The Black Guardian) whilst the time machine then comes under attack from some force. And here the new computer-generated effects provide fantastic menace (compared with the Atari-esque graphics used in the original), filling out the TARDIS realistically in an engaging manner.
What follows in the remaining three episodes is, at best, a turgid mess. There's not one thing to blame: the performances from the guest cast are woeful (and I'm not just referring to Liza Goddard); the direction is mismatched and slow whilst the lighting is shockingly poor (even for the 80s); the script and, indeed, the story is risible. I shan't even mention the 'monster'.
It does have a touching scene at the end where Nyssa leaves and we are presented with some actual physical contact between The Doctor and his companion.They hug! Take that Davey T! Still, it hardly makes up for the time you've wasted on the preceding wreckage.
Concluding the trilogy is Enlightenment, a tale so polarized from its previous that you'll wonder if you're watching the same show.
This four-parter is, indeed, one of the best from the 80s and, in fact, stands proud in the 45 and a bit year history of Doctor Who as a 'nearly perfect' story (points deducted for the ‘subtle' Vacuum Shield Off sign and the Black Guardian's risible cackling). It's difficult to know where to start in handing out the plaudits as we are presented with an abundance of excellence in every department. The direction is truly sublime, creating a great deal of atmosphere on a ship sailing through the universe with a crew culled from Earth and piloted by the mysterious Eternals (mentioned in Army Of Ghosts, fact fans!).
Sticking with the production values, top marks to the set designers and lighting crew. For once during the 80s it is spot on; the film sequences on the deck of the ship work particularly well. As Petey D notes in the accompanying commentary, it's frustrating that this high standard couldn't have been maintained throughout whilst he was The Doctor.
Impressing this reviewer greatly too was the cast. Who would've thunk that Keith "Duty Free" Barron could be so cold and chilling - a perfect 'villain'. Of course, whether or not the Eternals are actual villains is up for debate, though when Lynda "No Relation" Baron comes along you'll be slightly clearer about where her morals lie. Her character, Captain Wrack, is a tad more camp. And by 'tad' I mean a lot. She doesn't so much as 'break' the fourth wall as she goes to the toilet all over it, gets planning permission to demolish it and then film a documentary about said wall's destruction. But her pantomime exuberance neatly counterpoints the steely stoicism from her male counterparts. I guess eternity takes its toll in different ways.
Getting a chance to shine too is the always VFM Janet Fielding (sadly, absent from the commentaries, though. Bah!) who also gets to parade her beauty in a rather eye-catching outfit. Tegan is afforded the opportunity to embark on a relationship with Marriner (do you see what they did there?), another one of the Eternals. He is a fascinatingly childlike yet omnipotent character - naivety and horror rolled into one.
Like the denouement in The Key To Time, the Guardian resolution does not quite deliver but at least it's quick! Turlough chooses his side and continues his adventures with The Doctor, though sadly his potential is never fully realised (but that's for other reviews) during his time in the TARDIS.
As a trilogy the gambit pays off. If you ignore Terminus (which I hope never to watch again - unless with the highly amusing commentary) then you've got almost perfection as we say ‘hello' to a new companion, ‘Goodbye' to an 'old' companion and an ‘Uh-oh, not you again' to a semi-familiar 'baddie'.
I cannot stress this enough, The Black Guardian Trilogy is worth purchasing for the special features alone, truly the work of people who care a great deal for the world's greatest television show.
Mawdryn Undead and Terminus both come with the option to watch them with new spiffy CG work and damn good it is too, not intrusive and the new effects really do add to the stories in a meaningful way. Enlightenment gets a 'Special Edition' treatment which struck me as being a bit odd as, of all the stories from The Fifth Doctor's era, this one is probably one of the last I would have chosen for this sort of treatment - it's damn near perfect as it is!
But a good job is made of tightening it up into a 70 minute (or so) episode with new CG work. Some of the new computer effects work stoutly but some do not fare so well (such as the close-ups of the ships) and can be a little jarring, not to the detriment of the experience, however. With this 'New Who' take on the 'Classic' we get a taste of what could be some very interesting future projects. Next time, if I may be so bold, why not take a six-parter and tune it down. Anyway, as an experiment, it's a terrific start - more please!
As always with Peter Davison's commentaries, honesty is the dish of the day and it was nice to hear that Mark Strickson (Turlough) is also a fan of veracity. Channelling the much missed Fielding, these guys have no reverence (quite right too!) for their stories and are quite happy to rip performances/lighting/sets/fellow actors a collective new one. Highlights include: Davison's remarks on Nyssa's unusual undressing/bodily fluids in Terminus; various Eric Saward tales pertaining to JNT and Janet Fielding; and Strickson referring to New Who as, wait for it, "hammy." It's not all larfs, though, and we get some neat behind-the-scenes info, most notably the involvement of Peter "Wallace & Gromit" Salliss in Enlightenment before he had to pull out.
The documentaries on each of the episodes are extensive and of paramount interest but, even better, they're narrated by "Sir" Floella Benjamin. Good times! And whilst we're delving into nostalgia, Sir Patrick Moore even pops up to chat about the origins of the universe. Pity he couldn't explain why Terminus reeked so much. We're also treated to featurettes on Mark Strickson and Sarah Sutton, completing a very impressive array of informative reference materials.
For those who like their VAMs, there's also a charming one-off drama starring Nicholas Courtney as The Brigadier, an hilarious appearance by Davison and his then wife (the Doctor's Daughter's mother) on The Russell Harty Show, deleted scenes, out-takes and film 'trims' (including clapperboards and cast and crew setting up and performing various takes) all from Mawdryn Undead alone. Terminus also features unused model shots and original storyboards (as does Enlightenment). As you can see, a veritable boatload of special features and I haven't even mentioned the usual Continuity trails, Photo Galleries, Isolated Scores, Programme Subtitles or the Subtitle Production Notes. Oh, I just did.
As a complete package The Black Guardian Trilogy couldn't be better presented - two great stories with extras that will destroy an entire weekend for you. Purchase without a thought and indulge your Who to the extreme.
Episodes: Discs: The Black Guardian Trilogy is available now.