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Mawdryn Undead

1st february 1983 - 9th february 1983







Doctor Who’s twentieth anniversary season will be best remembered for the Black Guardian Trilogy that spanned more than half the season. The first – and by far the greatest – instalment was Peter Grimwade’s Mawdryn Undead, a hurriedly written piece of work loosely based on the legend of The Flying Dutchman.


Above: Nicholas Courtney in the "Who Wants To Live Forever?" documentary


It beggars belief that it took the series almost twenty years to do a story like this one, full of juicy paradoxes and time loops and indeed all manner of temporal shenanigans. Mawdryn Undead isn’t all head scratching science though – the story actually has a lot of heart, and it wears it on its sleeve. In order to lend his script a nostalgic flavour in keeping with the series’ twentieth anniversary celebrations, Grimwade decided to include one of the Doctor’s very first travelling companions in his story – stalwart schoolteacher Ian Chesterton. As things worked out though, William Russell’s lack of availability meant that after nearly a decade, Nicholas Courtney would return to the series in his stead as the universally cherished Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart.


But even with all its celebratory dressings stripped away, Mawdryn Undead is still an awesome story; the mechanics of the plot alone are fascinating. The serial is set in both 1977 and 1983, with Nyssa and Tegan meeting the retired Brigadier – now a teacher, conveniently – in the earlier time zone and the Doctor meeting him in the later one. I would have to write a sizeable dissertation to even begin to explain how the story works, but remarkably it does, and splendidly so.


Above: The Brigadier runs into his future self. Splendid chaps, both of him...


Visually, the producers did a tremendous job of making the two Lethbridge-Stewarts look dissimilar – the younger man still has his full head of dark hair and his trademark military moustache, whilst the older man is balding, grey and clean shaven. Courtney even plays them a little differently too – the older man is far less regimented in his manner, and even a little warmer.



“Someone walked over my grave…”


As the story progresses we learn that the older Lethbridge-Stewart has suffered a nervous breakdown, the cause of which we never really get to the bottom of (at least not on television – Paul Cornell later set things straight in his novels No Future and Happy Endings), though

it is heavily implied that the temporal catastrophe at the end of this serial leaves the younger Lethbridge-Stewart sort of ‘prone to it’. The upshot of this breakdown is that when the Doctor meets the older Lethbridge-Stewart in 1983, the trauma of his old ‘Blunder Days’ have been almost completely blocked out and he hasn’t a clue who his old friend is. This leads to a beautiful - albeit slightly indulgent – moment where Lethbridge-Stewart gets his memories back, and the viewer is treated to clips of Yeti, Cybermen, Daleks, and Zygons, not to mention the first four Doctors! Just imagine how a child watching that sequence in 1983 would have felt; with many households still without VCRs, the younger members of the audience would not have even seen some of the monsters on show, let alone some of the earlier Doctors!


However, as wonderful as it is to see the old Brigadier share an adventure with a new

Doctor, Mawdryn Undead would not be as good as it is without Vislor Turlough; surely one

of the series’ most underrated companions.


“I’m not that easy to get rid of… Doctor, may I join you?”


As the writers had hit a brick wall with Nyssa, Peter Davison was finally overruled and the decision to replace her was made. John Nathan-Turner came up with the idea of introducing an alien youth who, for reasons which were to be explained in a later story, would be mar-ooned on present-day Earth, boarding at a public school and being taught by the Brigadier. And, most importantly of all, as Nathan-Turner had come up with the character in house, he wouldn’t have to pay a writer any royalties…


Now I’ll be honest here – generally I’m not a huge fan of the Doctor having male companions. Fair dues, Jamie was exceptional and Captain Jack Harkness is a law unto himself, but Harry? Steven? Adric? Even on their best days they did not compare with the ladies. If Jo or Zoe was having a bad story, then there was still… something for the Dads there, if you see what I mean. Were it not for the decorative Katy Manning, I would never have been to sit through nigh on three hours of The Mutants, for instance. Shallow, and possibly even a little sexist, but true nonetheless. There is, of course, a way around this trouble – you make your male companion interesting. And if Turlough is anything, he’s certainly interesting…



Mark Strickson carries much of this serial, if the truth be told. Despite starting off as a bit of

a bully, constantly tormenting his ‘friend’ Hippo and then pusillanimously lying his way out of trouble, Turlough has a puckish charm that quickly endears him to the viewer. However, he also has an edge – Turlough is not ‘a goodie’ by any stretch of the imagination. At least not yet. Mawdryn Undead sees him practically sell his soul to the Black Guardian just to book passage off Earth. As the Black Guardian “can’t be seen to interfere”, Turlough is contracted to kill the Doctor. And you really believe that he could do it.


So was there anything that I didn’t like about this story? Not really. I did wonder why Tegan and Nyssa automatically assumed that the burned man in the TARDIS was the Doctor, though I imagine that this was the fault of the BBC rather than the production team. Were this man burned beyond all recognition – a real crispy critter – then you could forgive the girls for assuming that he might have been the Doctor, but sadly the beeb would never let such shocking images be broadcast so early on a Tuesday evening. So a bit of a red and purple paint it is then…


Above: New CG effects show the Kastron Ship hurtling towards the TARDIS


The DVD release is a real triumph; it even manages to enhance some of the story’s more thrilling set pieces. Mawdryn Undead is full of truly electrifying moments right from the start – take the shots of Mawdryn’s ship on a collision course with the TARDIS, for example. And

on the DVD, these can now be viewed with brand new CG effects which really bring the production bang up to date without tarnishing its retro charm.


The rest of the DVD’s special features are just as impressive, producer Brendan Sheppard really having excelled himself here. The flagship documentary, the twenty-five minute Who Wants to Live Forever?, is narrated by Floella Benjamin (The Sarah Jane Adventures) and features most of the principal cast together with script editor Eric Saward and plastic surgeon Doctor Simon Withey. A fairly representative example of the Restoration Team’s extraordinary output, this feature is comprehensive and entertaining in equal measure.


Above: Nicholas Courtney and Steve Ockenden star in "Liberty Hall", exclusive to this DVD


Perhaps the most hotly anticipated feature though is Karen Davies’ Liberty Hall, a specially commissioned drama starring Nicholas Courtney and Simon Ockenden. A joyous seven-minute wallow in continuity and nostalgia, Davies’ script sees journalist Philip Clarke (Ockenden) interview the Brigadier of today on the grounds of Brendan School, where Mawdryn Undead is primarily set. It’s remarkable to hear the Brigadier speak of Kate and Gordy (Downtime), Doris (Battlefield), and Malebogia (Minuet in Hell) all in one breath; all these diverse aspects being lifted from almost every Doctor Who medium. Well, those that concur, in any event…


The disc also includes a cracking commentary featuring Davison, Strickson, Courtney, and Saward. It’s refreshing to hear Davison approach a story with something approaching esteem; apparently his younger children found Mawdryn Undead even scarier than the new series when they watched it with him recently. That said, the erstwhile Doctor does still manage to bring his distinctive brand of wry pragmatism to the proceedings, talking about how his initial high hopes for his tenure were “slowly crushed into ground” as the practical realities of production become evident.



The release is then rounded up with five minutes’ worth of deleted and extended scenes, which I found helped to illuminate a few cloudy moments in the transmitted version; some

film trims; out-takes; continuities; an isolated score; and a photo gallery. There’s even a vibrant trailer for The Twin Dilemma that makes it look passable.


And so as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, I am quite keen on Mawdryn Undead. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that it is one of my favourite 1980s Doctor Who serials. Gratefully the luxuriant DVD release matches the high standards of the story perfectly,

though going into Terminus I have the sneaking suspicion that this ratio won’t hold…


Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2007, 2009


E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

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