|Red velvet lines the black box…|
It’s February 1st, 1983. Men at Work are at number one with “Down Under,” remaining there all story. Kajagoogoo, U2, and Echo and the Bunnymen also chart, which starts to look like one of the best charts we’ve seen until you look a the second week when it’s Joe Cocker, Wham, and Fleetwood Mac charting. Bauhaus, however, are in the lower reaches of the chart, and a post-breakup rerelease series means that The Jam occupy fifteen spots of the top hundred. So that’s nice.
In real news, unemployment in the UK reaches its record peak. The Australian parliament is dissolved in preparation for elections. Klaus Barbie is actually charged with war crimes. And that’s about it, I’m afraid.
On to television, then. Mawdryn Undead is another one of those stories that I was unaware was controversial and not widely liked until well after I’d seen it, and where I am thus unable to quite dislodge the way in which I was initially taken by it. I quite liked this story on the VHS tape, and was gutted that the back two parts of the Black Guardian arc had been taped over with a track and field meet by my parents, leaving me unable to watch them for a good two years or so after becoming a Doctor Who fan. Rewatching it, as with most classic Doctor Who, its flaws are evident, but as with much of the Davison era its virtues are evident as well, with the embryonic forms of what Doctor Who could and would become on plain display throughout the story.
Let me first say that I am mostly going to set Turlough aside until Enlightenment. I have a lot to say about the character, but I don’t think it’s going to be well-served by being split among three entries or by treating the early scenes of his character without reference to the later ones.
Second, let me deal very efficiently with the Brigadier. He’s obviously not the right character for this story, but in this story’s defense, he’s also the third choice character. The correct character is, obviously, Ian. They wanted to do the story for Ian. But William Russell wasn’t available and they had to do fallbacks, and ended up with the Brigadier. Nicholas Courtney is, of course, wonderful, but the fact of the matter is that this is to the story’s detriment and that very little about the story is meaningfully about the Brigadier. He is serving here as a stand-in for “generic past companion” and I’m mostly going to treat him that way, especially since there actually is a story in the future that deals with the Brigadier as the Brigadier and that, furthermore, is just as much a work of flawed genius as this one, so I’ll just hold all of that for Battlefield. (As for UNIT dating, I don’t really have anything to add to what I said on the subject in The Invasion.)
Those set aside, then, let’s start with Peter Grimwade, a strong contender for the most underrated writer in Doctor Who’s history. There are reasons for this – he only has three stories, none of which are exceptionally strong and one of which is Time-Flight. But his CV is deceptive here. All three of the stories he wrote were nightmare briefs in which Nathan-Turner saddled him with a metric ton of things to shoehorn in. Any scriptwriter is going to suffer from this. Just look at how Johnny Byrne was snowed under two stories earlier. Byrne is not a great writer, and it turns out that his best story, The Keeper of Traken, was heavily rewritten by Bidmead, but he’s still a better writer than Arc of Infinity made him look. Even Robert Holmes finds himself staggering under the weight of The Two Doctors.
Given that, it’s surprising just how well Grimwade’s work survives the seeming onslaught of requirements. I mean, we’ll never really know what “pure” Grimwade would have looked like. But on the evidence he was a reasonably deft writer. First of all, let’s point out that he’s surprisingly deft at characterization. That’s on particular display in this story, where he manages the non-trivial feat of having the two versions of the Brigadier tangibly feel like different characters. (And a hat-tip to Tat Wood for pointing out some of the subtler ways I’d have missed, such as the 1983 Brigadier using post-Falklands slang) But it’s true even in Time-Flight, where even if the actors disappointed painfully all of the various characters, even those with similar jobs and stations in life, sounded and acted visibly different
The other thing he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for is the fact that he, better than any other writer in the Davison era, gets the soap opera structure. Miles compares the structure of this story to how The Amazing Spider-Man typically works, and he’s spot-on. The biggest weakness Mawdryn Undead has is, as with much of Doctor Who, being sold as a TV Movie instead of as four parts of a serial. If this had been the Hartnell era and stories had been going out under individual episodes instead of pretending this was a uniform and monolithic block of story its reputation would rise almost immediately. Grimwade is remarkably deft at a structure whereby every episode introduces a new complication and moves the characters to a slightly new situation.
This is how the Davison era should always have been working – a series of definable encounters that move characters from one point to another and that work meaningfully as serials within each encounter as well. This is consistently sandbagged by two problems. First, seemingly nobody but Grimwade gets how to write these sorts of stories. Second, the writers are largely incapable of communicating among each other. A scene about the Mara gets tacked onto the head of this to provide continuity, just as a scene about Adric got tacked onto the head of Time-Flight. But in both cases nobody bothered to give Grimwade “deal with the fallout of this” as part of his brief. The hanging plot threads are gone by the five minute mark. But it’s clear that Grimwade understands how to do this sort of thing because everything within the story points to a writer who gets that sort of structure.
But this gets at a line of criticism of this story – and, correspondingly, a line of praise for this story – that are both alarmingly wrong-headed. There’s a debate about this story that goes roughly like this. Critics of the story complain that it is small and boring and not enough happens. Then defenders come up with an elaborate reading of the story based on a theme of lost innocence and retro-nostalgia where the point is the collapse of the big exciting UNIT days into the petty and soul-deadening mundanity of the domestic.
The two sides of this debate share a problem, which is the assumption that the small scale is in some sense a problem for Doctor Who. We talked back in the Black Orchid entry about how, for the most part, Davison’s Doctor works very well on the small scale, and this is no exception. Particularly adroit is the choice of villains – a bunch of guys who just want to die. The Doctor’s life is never in danger as such – only his ability to regenerate. This means that the conflict is taken to the personal level, with Davison getting to play with the limits of the Doctor’s kindness, with his refusal to help being, in this case, an unwillingness to sacrifice his life for mere “fools who tried to become Time Lords” combined with a willingness to do so for Nyssa and Tegan. The smallness of the scale lets Davison actually have a story in which the Doctor has decisions to make and an opportunity for priorities, as opposed to one in which huge swaths of lives are at stake and the choices in front of him are straightforward.
But more troubling is the idea implicit in both ends of the discussion that the Brigadier’s life of domestic teaching in in some sense a falling off or lessening of the character. Setting aside my immediate antipathy for the idea that teaching is in some way a lesser profession than shooting things, and remembering that as originally conceived this was not a falling off of the Brigadier but a return to first principles for Ian, let’s get at the real issue here. There’s a shockingly cavalier judgment here about the inherent superiority of having adventures to having a normal life. One that, if we take the Brigadier’s role as “generic companion” here, treats everyone who has ever chosen to leave the Doctor as wrong or weak for doing so.
This is, admittedly, an issue that really does run through Doctor Who, and one that Russell T. Davies eventually plays with overtly via both Rose and Donna. But by any standards, this is a particularly nasty flare-up of it. I’ve been trying, for the most part, to avoid letting too much criticism of Ian Levine slip into the blog at this stage. There are a couple of reasons for this, among them being that Levine has publicly told me to go fuck myself and I am mindful of being perceived as having some sort of grudge. But more important is the fact that at the end of the day Levine is a fan with an only partially public role in the show and I think there’s something jarringly unfair about making him into the emblem of the show’s frailties. He’s not. He’s an emblem of fandom’s frailties, and that deserves a different sort of attention. So while there are two entries in the Colin Baker years in which I think it’s impossible to avoid Levine, I mostly want to leave him out of the Davison years.
That said, he’s too good an example here to pass up. Back around the 2010 general election there was a thread on whatever Outpost Gallifrey/Gallifrey Base was that year in which Levine explicitly discussed basing his vote entirely around the question of what party would be best for the BBC’s continued funding of Doctor Who. To say that this is deeply unfortunate is an understatement, but it’s exactly the sort of understatement I love, so let’s go with it. I bring this up, though, because I think it’s worth drawing a direct line from that moment to the treatment of the series’ past in 1983 and the reading of that past. Because the logic that says “exciting science fiction adventure is inherently superior to the domestic sphere” and the logic that says “having more money for Doctor Who is more important than the future of the NHS” are, in essence, identical.
And this is my rather stark problem with that defense of Mawdryn Undead. If it is in part an act of mourning for the program’s past in which the adventuring days of UNIT are preferred to the soul-crushing domesticity of a public school (American readers – please be aware that this term does not mean what you think it means) then in essence the past is being mourned because of its anesthetic qualities. The UNIT era is, in this reading, valorized for its rejection of worldly concerns. A cursory rereading of my posts from the late Troughton era and the Pertwee era will reveal how shocking a misreading I find this to be. This is exactly counter to what I view the fundamental purpose of Doctor Who as being – the claim that material social progress is the solution to alchemy, and, to my mind, borders on overt sociopathy.
But crucially, I don’t actually think that’s what’s going on in Mawdryn Undead at all. I think it’s almost a complete 180 from the correct reading of the Brigadier’s emotional arc here, which is not about his fall from grace but rather about his recovery from the Doctor. Because everything about his amnesia is, at first, played as post-traumatic stress disorder. The implication isn’t some “you’ve grown up and can’t go to Neverland anymore” bit of fairy-tale. It’s that the Brigadier has blocked out the terrible and traumatic things that happened to him when the Doctor was around and now the Doctor has gone traipsing back into his life and upended it again. (In this regard it’s a return to the actual original version of the Brigadier – the Colonel who was left shell-shocked when his attack on the Yeti went disastrously and he lost his entire squad.)
Unlike the appalling “faded glory” interpretation, this interpretation has the benefit of integrating the various parts of the story. The Doctor finds himself facing down a narrative collapse that is averted by the Brigadier’s acceptance and reintegration of the past he’d rejected. The central antagonists have turned away from wanting to be Time Lords and now want only death as a result of how traumatic trying to be Time Lords was. The possibility of an endless life of adventure is treated with considerable anxiety throughout the story.
Taken in this light the story clearly isn’t about the faded glory of the Brigadier, it’s about the need to integrate the mythic realms of science fiction with the mundane and about the fact that they’re not antagonists at all. But this also gets at the thing I will concede is a problem with the story, which is the same thing that’s a problem with most of the drama in the Davison era – it’s not there. The story desperately needs a real confrontation between the Brigadier and the Doctor instead of a simulacrum of one about the Brigadier’s mental health. It needs the Brigadier to accuse the Doctor of being a danger to everyone around him so that the Doctor can successfully answer the charge and get the Brigadier to accept the moral validity of the Doctor. But these sorts of scenes in which the drama is actually pushed to a breaking point just don’t happen in 1983.
There’s a school of thought, of course, that says that this is a good thing and that contemporary drama likes to hammer home its moral point so as to shred any ambiguity. I’m not wild about this line of reasoning, mostly because I think that the “there’s so much depth to what’s implied” defense really amounts to “but if we imply it we don’t actually have to deal with the consequences of saying it out loud and confronting it.” But if you’re going to give a story a pass on grounds along those lines it’s tough to find a better candidate than Mawdryn Undead. Here we have a story where there’s meaningful emotional subtlety up and down the story – where even the villains aren’t straightforward moustache twirlers and where Mawdryn gets a sympathetic and tragic final line. In an environment like that, at least, there’s room for implication like this. It’s worth contrasting that to Tat Wood’s attempted praise of the Brigadier’s salute to the Doctor in The Three Doctors, in which he tries to suggest that it’s more powerful because it’s understated. Which is nonsense. I adore The Three Doctors, but nothing about a Baker and Martin script gestures towards understated and subtle emotional resonances.
But here at least there’s room for it. The story is so densely populated with concepts (an actual benefit of Grimwade getting the nightmare brief) that the idea that things are pushed into the subtext doesn’t jar. Especially because it’s a story that treats the audience with such genuine respect (some of the Black Guardian’s lines aside). This is a story playing with timey-wimey plotting a quarter century before Steven Moffat got around to it, and doing so almost casually and incidentally. It’s a story that has absolute faith that its audience is going to stick with it and wait to see how the disparate strands eventually entwine, and one that actually pays it all off as well. The degree to which it assumes that the audience will be primed to accept Turlough simply because he’s clearly an announced event and will thus be read straightforwardly as “the new and untrustworthy companion” from his first scene is a triumph of narrative efficiency – a fantastic example of how to use familiar structures as shorthands to tell stories. Yes, it would be better if it actually did something with its returning companion premise and foregrounded the emotion. But when the series is actually treating its audience with respect and assuming maturity in them it can at least get away with sublimating some of the emotional commentary, if not benefit from it. Indeed, the last time the series was regularly assuming an intelligent audience – the Williams era – was also the one in which it managed to build tremendous sexual chemistry between its two leads without putting a single moment of actual romance on the screen. Mawdryn Undead marks a return to that, and is one of the most overlooked gems of a Doctor Who story in the classic series.