The past wasn’t what it used to be: ‘Mawdryn Undead’

❉ A closer look at Doctor Who’s tale of two Brigadiers, originally broadcast on this day in 1983.

“A more serialised, character-oriented approach to linking discrete stories puts the Black Guardian Trilogy closer to 21st Century efforts such as the “Bad Wolf” strand. While the 2005 series’ untrustworthy companion Adam Mitchell wasn’t nearly as impactful on events as Turlough, in both cases the Doctor’s intuition of something sinister influencing events around him proved thoroughly accurate.”

Forty years since its original broadcast, Mawdryn Undead (TX: 01/02/1983 – 09/02/1983, BBC1) stands as a somewhat overlooked chapter of Peter Davison’s tenure on Doctor Who. The tenth of Davison’s twenty stories as the incumbent Doctor, its position halfway through his run is echoed by the serial’s rankings within Doctor Who Magazine’s various comprehensive polls of fans’ favourite stories. Receiving neither the acclaim bestowed upon The Caves of Androzani nor the derision directed at Time-Flight, the serial mainly seems to be remembered for its continuity implications rather than the actual story it told. A closer look reveals a story that, along with being one of the more successful evocations of the show’s past in 1983’s celebratory 20th anniversary season, prefigured some key aspects of the show’s future.

Like many significant parts of Doctor Who’s history, Mawdryn Undead came together through a mix of accident and design. The late Peter Grimwade, who had already scripted Time-Flight and directed Tom Baker’s final serial Logopolis, started developing the idea for a story taking place across different time periods with script editor Eric Saward in 1981. Parallel to this, Producer John Nathan-Turner wanted to address a perceived loose end from a few seasons earlier involving the villainous Black Guardian and use this as the means to introduce a new, decidedly untrustworthy companion. These two strands came together in the spring of 1982, when issues with another story – the long-gestating The Song of the Space Whale – left the production team in need of a replacement.

The combination of the work already done on Mawdryn Undead and his flexibility in incorporating the Master into Time-Flight at a late-stage made Peter Grimwade an obvious choice to step in with the substitute. Grimwade eventually acquired a reputation as the writer who had to contend with a laundry list of elements the producer wanted to feature. Whatever the underlying truth of that notion, Saward and Nathan-Turner trusted him, and he rewarded that faith by completing rehearsal scripts for Mawdryn Undead less than two months.

The trio of Mawdryn Undead, Terminus and Enlightenment are sometimes known as “the Black Guardian Trilogy”. However, in many respects, the heart of this sequence is not a returning villain’s desire for revenge but rather the choices made by both new and returning characters across the three stories. Foremost among them was the new companion, Vislor Turlough, whose unearthly background would remain a mystery until his eventual departure. After initially agreeing to act as the Black Guardian’s agent against the Doctor, Turlough struggles with his conscience, putting the Doctor and his other traveling companions in danger on multiple occasions before ultimately choosing to side with the Doctor.

This balance between discrete stories/episodes and ongoing plot and character threads became the default mode for Doctor Who in the 21st century but was relatively rare during the 1963-1989 run. The quest for the Key to Time in Season 16 and Trial of a Time Lord in Season 23 are the most obvious examples, though, the former had very little connective tissue between the individual serials and the latter narrative suffered from haphazard execution. Paradoxically, smaller scale “story arcs” that didn’t trumpet themselves as such, like the run of stories centred around Ace’s past in Season 26, tended to be more successful at walking this line.

A more serialised, character-oriented approach to linking its constituent stories puts the Black Guardian Trilogy in the latter camp and by extension closer to 21st Century efforts such as the “Bad Wolf” strand. While the 2005 series’ untrustworthy companion Adam Mitchell wasn’t nearly as impactful on events as Turlough, in both cases the Doctor’s intuition of something sinister influencing events around him proved thoroughly accurate. And just as echoes of “Bad Wolf” were felt in subsequent series, events from Mawdryn Undead influenced later stories in the original run – from Planet of Fire resolving the mystery of Turlough’s background or building on Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s character several years later in Battlefield.

The Brigadier’s return to the show, following a lengthy absence and his retirement from UNIT, is arguably the element fans like most about Mawdryn Undead but also points to a possible reason why the serial isn’t better regarded within fandom. Even as it brought back a popular character, the story upended many fans’ understanding of Doctor Who’s past. The production teams of the 1970s intended for stories involving UNIT to take place several years in the future. However, Grimwade’s script established that Lethbridge-Stewart retired in 1976, the year after his previous onscreen appearance first aired.

Ian Levine, the show’s unofficial continuity adviser in the mid 1980s, pointed out this discrepancy to both Eric Saward and John Nathan-Turner and lobbied for it to be changed. The producer ultimately decided that anchoring the story in a real world event – namely the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 – would work better for the audience at-large and outweighed any continuity issues. Considering how often John Nathan-Turner was criticized for letting continuity impede the general audience’s enjoyment during his tenure, his choice to put storytelling considerations first here stands out all the more. In addition to sparking the “UNIT dating controversy”, that decision may have contributed to the later schism between Levine and the producer…

Hypotheticals aside, Mawdryn Undead works on its own merits. The content may have been driven by Nathan-Turner’s desire to foreground Doctor Who’s history and address something he saw as a gap in continuity, but the end result had both emotional and thematic resonance. Mawdryn Undead is preoccupied with regeneration – not just the Doctor’s but also the Brigadier’s. By focusing on coming to terms with the past in order to move forward, the serial subverts nostalgia rather than merely embracing it. In this respect, it celebrated not just the show’s history but also its potential.

❉ ‘Mawdryn Undead’ was originally broadcast on BBC in four twice-weekly parts on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings from 1 – 9 February 1983 as part of the twentieth season of  ‘Doctor Who’. It can be found on BBC/2 entertain DVD box set ‘The Black Guardian Trilogy’ released in August 2009.

 Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture,  Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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