There’s a fantastic moment in the David Tennant story, Gridlock, when the Macra appear.
For 75% of the viewers, they are just cool looking CGI crabs living at the bottom of the traffic jam, but for the other 25% it was a wonderful nostalgic cameo that brought back one of the lesser known 1960s monsters.
So it worked both ways.
If the story had in some way been written so that the events of the Macra Terror were significant to the plot, it wouldn’t have been nearly half as good.
That’s the thing about writing – it has to make sense and work for everyone watching.
The John Nathan Turner era of Doctor Who, and particularly Season 20, struggles with this. It’s too focused on what came before. Already we’ve seen Omega come back without any real purpose, followed by a story that would fly over the head of people who hadn’t seen Kinda.
Perhaps worse of the lot is Mawdryn Undead though, a story that relies upon knowledge of the Jon Pertwee era, The Deadly Assassin and episode six of The Armageddon Factor.
All in an era without access to video repeats…
Doctor Who – Mawdryn Undead Review: What’s This One About
An alien living as a schoolboy is asked to kill the Doctor, The Brigadier is suddenly a maths teacher and the TARDIS crew accidentally end up in different time zones.
Thoughts – Does Paddy Kingsland Understand What Incidental Music Is?
As I’ve mentioned in these reviews a fair amount of times – especially since JNT took over – incidental music is supposed to fit into the background. By its very nature, it’s supposed to be incidental to what’s going on on the screen.
And yet I don’t think Paddy Kingsland gets that.
His work for the series so far has included Meglos, Full Circle, State of Decay, Logopolis, Castrovalva and The Visitation. Sometimes it’s been good (Meglos, State of Decay and the regeneration jingle from Logopolis stand out), sometimes it’s
been bad (the rest of the music from Logopolis and Full Circle were overbearing), but every time the music has been significant.
And it shouldn’t be.
The fact that I’m bringing this up now before I even focus on the plot of Mawdryn Undead shows how significant it is in this story.
Kingsland seems to just be taking the piss now.
From the first scene where Turlough and his miscast mate take the car for a ride all the way through to the very end, the music is about as in your face and incongruous as it could possibly get. It is rotten.
Listen to the incidental music at the start of Episode 4 where Turlough leaves the TARDIS. How does that ridiculous electric sounding music fit with what it happening on the screen? It doesn’t.
There’s plenty to be critical of Mawdryn Undead for, but the fact that the Incidental Music comes out on top shows just how bad it is.
Kingsland would only go on to do one more story for the show. That’s one story too many.
Over-Reliance On Continuity
Ok, so I’ve got that out of my system. Now to go back to my introductory point about continuity.
Watching it now as someone with an understanding of what Doctor Who is about and with access to old stories, I get it, but this was a story written at a time when there were precious few repeats and no home videos.
So stuff like the Doctor bringing up old adventures with a character who hasn’t been seen in 8 years, referencing idiotic canon about Time Lord regeneration, and bringing back The Black Guardian as if he’s someone every viewer should remember instantly is just daft.
Basically, Mawdryn Undead was written with a very small section of Doctor Who fandom in mind, and it shouldn’t have been.
It’s the sort of story that would barely work now when we have all the stories at our disposal. Back then? No chance.
I can only imagine that most of the stuff that we’re supposed to think is cool about this story just flew over the heads of a casual audience who probably couldn’t remember who the Brigadier was by this point.
And of course they get the biggest aspect of their continuity wrong. I don’t really care about the gaffe with the UNIT timeline, but considering this was made under the watch of a supposed continuity advisor, it’s a pretty big blunder to have the Brigadier ‘retired’ in a time before Sarah Jane Smith is meant to be from.
Turlough – Eh?
Another thing I take issue with about Mawdryn Undead is Turlough.
As a viewer, am I supposed to accept that an alien living in a school in 20th century London can be presented to me without any sort of explanation?
I guess I must, because that’s all we know about him. He’s not from Earth, he’s at a school in England, he doesn’t want to be there and there are “solicitors in London who deal with him”. Eh?
And it’s never touched upon again as far as I can see.
It’s not just that though; the Doctor just accepts him at face value too. At no point does he wonder how Turlough knows the things he does about technology or the like. It’s just accepted that he is who he is and that’s that.
It’s terrible writing, but it’s what we’ve come to expect in this era of the show. That’s four companions in a row now who have become regular members of the TARDIS crew simply by walking in.
His motivation is decent in theory, and it works as a nice change to have a companion with a dark side, but it’s not expanded upon well at all. I mean, if the story had been written better, I could get into a situation where he is brainwashed into thinking the Doctor is a figure of hate, but when you’ve got the Black Guardian saying “In the name of all that is evil, the Black Guardian orders you to destroy him now”, that aspect of it is lost completely.
The one thing I like about Mawdryn Undead is the idea of the two Brigadiers working with the TARDIS crew in different timelines.
On paper again that works well, and for a short time in the story – i.e. when the Doctor is asking the older Brig what happened with Tegan and Nyssa – it moves the plot along well.
But again, the overall execution of it is found wanting. What the Brigadier remembers is too convenient. For example, he can’t remember much, but he does remember having a TARDIS locator, and it just so happens that’s exactly what they need to get back on board Mawdryn’s ship.
Also, while it does tie in with what we’ve seen, the result of the meeting of the two Brigadiers doesn’t make sense. For one, it’s supposed to be cataclysmic and is instead the thing that saves the Doctor, and for another thing, the results of it only seem to affect the younger Brig.
The Fifth Doctor Timeline
I notice I actually forgot about this in the Snakedance review.
So to go over both, Snakedance happens over the course of two days, and Mawdryn Undead seems to take place in an afternoon. So that’s another lengthy addition to the Fifth Doctor’s lifespan which – were it not for the break between seasons – would still have lasted less than three weeks by this point.
- From the file marked Spectacularly Miscast, we have Stephen Garlick as Hippo Ibbotson. Not only is Garlick a particularly old-looking 23-year-old in reality playing what I can only assume to be a 16 or 17-year-old boy, but he’s not even
fat. The character is reacted to as if he’s some sort of porcine mess, but he seems to be in decent shape.
- Garlick is also a terrible actor, playing the part with a high-pitched Just William like quality that nobody really wanted to see.
- Speaking of bad acting, what about the Matron? Her theatrical expressions when talking to the Head Master were more than deserving of the words “Cut! Let’s do that again” from the director.
- How can Nyssa and Tegan think Mawdryn is the Doctor? It’s quite clear that the burnt mess – the one that is supposed to be pre-regeneration no less – is David Collings with burnt makeup on. The hair isn’t even close to being similar.
- One line that really annoys me, and I mean really annoys me, is Tegan’s reply of “Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart of course”, when Nyssa asks who he is. Surely Nyssa should say “Why ‘Of Course?’ How the hell am I supposed to know that’s the Brigadier, and who exactly is the Brigadier anyway? I’ve never heard of him”. But she doesn’t. She – like the viewer – is expected to know the complete history of Doctor Who.
- This story was originally meant to have Ian Chesterton in it instead of the Brigadier. While that would have been far cooler, I’d love to have seen how they’d deal with the idea of regeneration with a character who had left the show long before it was even thought up.
- So the Brigadier is a teacher, eh? There’s so much you can say; not least you could wonder why he needed to become a teacher after he retired from what must have been a very well paid job, and why he doesn’t have his own house.
- I suppose the assumption also has to be made that there haven’t been any alien invasions since the Zygons either.
- Nyssa’s new outfit; talk about draining.
- Speaking of her outfit and indeed Tegan’s as well, how come they both shrink to fit the younger versions?
- And how come young Tegan isn’t Australian?
- As villains – if that is what they are supposed to be – Mawdryn and his pals are an insipid bunch.
- But they know how to decorate a spaceship.
- There was a maths teacher at my school who was pretty much exactly like the Black Guardian. That’s scary when you think about it now.
- DWM Mighty 200 Ranking: #102. Maybe a bit generous.
Doctor Who – Mawdryn Undead Review: Final Thoughts
Mawdryn Undead probably looked good on paper, and in fairness to it the plot moves at a decent pace and doesn’t drag.
But I think there are too many inconsistencies, too many things that don’t make sense and far too much onus on the 1983 viewer to remember details from the show’s past.
Therefore I’d consider it a watchable but overall a poor story.
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