Tag Archives: Keith Barron

The Black Guardian Trilogy

19 Jul

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2009.

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The Black Guardian is, by a long chalk, Doctor Who’s most tedious and ineffectual villain. Don’t let the fact he hogs the title of this three-story box-set lead you to believe he’s the star character here, because he really isn’t. He’s a blustering old bore.

Unlike other Doctor Who scoundrels, the Black Guardian is immune to even the most basic psychoanalysis. His very name rules out any shades of grey. We know of old that he seeks to tilt the universe into chaos – not that it needs much help – while his colleague, the White Guardian, beavers away making things agreeable again. While their motivation remains a mystery, it’s clear the pair get along famously. When they come together at the close of this trilogy, it’s like Labour and Tory peers meeting at their Pall Mall club for some polite chitchat. Moreover, we must assume our Guardians catch up on a regular basis. How else can they plan their outfits? It’s a long-established rule of fantasy that the more powerful and ethereal a being is, the more freely he can indulge his latent transvestism. Gods, wizards and Time Lords eschew the practical trouser in favour of a roomy gown. The Guardians themselves dress like dowager aunts. With great power comes the right to let it all hang out; to let the time winds gust up your gusset. And what’s with those hats? The Black Guardian likes to don a suitably malign-looking carrion bird before embarking on a day’s evil-doing. Rook before you reap, as they say in Japan. Meanwhile, White opts for what we must assume to be a dove, the symbol of peace, love and holy spirit. Sadly, it looks more like a startled seagull. And you’d look startled too, if you had the Guardian of Light in Time jammed up your fundament.

Let’s consider these three adventures offered in the name of the Black Guardian. Mawdryn Undead, the first in this set, is adorable and rather brilliant in its quiet way. Doctor Who of old rarely told stories of time-travel trickery, but this circular tale is positively Moffatish. (Is that the right adjective? We’ll work on it.) The Doctor ends up in the same place as his chums Tegan and Nyssa, but separated by six years. Both meet a different version of the Brigadier. It’s a lovely idea, and in a suitably Moffaty manner, the problem becomes part of the solution, as the collision of the two Brigadiers ultimately saves the day. Adding further complication is alien interloper Mawdryn. Found by Tegan and Nyssa, he’s toasted skinless and writhing in agony, looking like one of those teenagers who, with their first wage, go crazy at the local tanning salon in a single-handed attempt to prove the theory of Natural Selection. Given Mawdryn’s parlous condition, Nyssa believes he might be the Doctor, badly injured and regenerating. It’s another neat idea; so neat in fact, it’s surprising Doctor Who hasn’t tried it again. Mawdryn – a sympathetic villain, just about – is well-played by David Collings beneath a deliciously disgusting make-up. His silly robes lessen the overall effect, but as he shares this look with his equally cursed shipmates, we must assume these merely look like robes, and actually grow as part of his body. That may sound absurd, but if you’re cursed with infinite mutation, then all possible variations must occur eventually. Mawdryn might wake one morning with the body of Katie Price and the head of stoat. Or worse, vice versa. Relatively speaking, we’ve caught him on a good day.

Mawdryn Undead is so ahead of its time from a plotting point of view, we now notice where its director misses a trick. With the Tardis team separated by time, but often standing in the same spot, it’s a shame the intercutting isn’t more playful. (Not that I’m suggesting someone re-edit it. That would be a crazy thing to do.) The set designer has done sterling work in styling the two versions of the Brigadier’s quarters – inside and out – to reflect his different states of mind, but you’ll have to watch the ‘film trims’ on the extras here to fully appreciate it, thanks to a nice direct cut between the Brig’s once well-tended, but later overgrown, garden.

As the Brigadier squared, Nicholas Courtney is the star of the show. This isn’t just fannish sentiment talking – Courtney is better than ever here, most notably playing the Brig’s funny turn following the suggestion that, in 1983, he’s not the full shilling. The way the Brigadier’s nervous breakdown lends a human element to this time travel story is, again, positively Moffataceous. The story wouldn’t work nearly so well with Ian Chesterton, as originally planned. The Brig has enjoyed a longer, deeper friendship with the Doctor; and in losing him, loses everything. That said, it’s fun to imagine how the flashback scene in part two might have run with Ian. “Marco Polo you’ll remember of course…” (“Marco Polo! Marco Polo!”) Then: “Something’s just walked over my grave…” “Perhaps it was a Mire Beast… Ian Chatterton!”

Our second adventure, Terminus, is by any measure a step down from Mawdryn Undead. A step down? It takes the express lift to the basement of Doctor Who and then tunnels under the foundations.

It isn’t bad as such – it’s just boring. And you really have to push in all the stops to make Doctor Who boring.

The story sees the Doctor and companions trapped in a kind of brutal space hospital dedicated to the treatment of the disfiguring Lazars Disease. At some point, the management has decided to help raise morale by painting large skulls on the doors. How thoughtful. On screen, Lazars Disease is directly identified with leprosy; the production team presumably feeling safe to do so because they’d never met any sufferers of leprosy, or ever expected to. But to test how inappropriate this is, try substituting the name of another serious disease in the dialogue – perhaps one that has affected a friend or family member – and imagine how it might sound in a teatime sci-fi show on BBC1.

Issues of taste aside, Terminus is a headachy affair. The armoured Vanir – the warders of this hospital-cum-prison – rattle and clatter about. The soundtrack attempts to distract us with music so tuneless and evil it can only have been composed by the Black Guardian himself, pecking out random notes with his hat. The Doctor frowns his way through the din in the company of space pirate Kari, with actress Liza Goddard managing to generate precisely zero chemistry with Peter Davison. The Fifth Doctor always worked well when teamed with go-getting older women – Todd in Kinda, Jane in The Awakening – so there’s really no excuse for this drippy pairing. Kari’s young colleague, Olvir, is another charisma-free zone. He arrives whey-faced and sweating, blinking mascara from his eyes like he’s just been ejected from an all-night rave. There appears to be Burmese cat sleeping on his head. It’s lucky he doesn’t share any scenes with the Black Guardian, or there’d be feathers everywhere.

The Doctor ultimately reaches the centre of the story – the centre of the Universe, no less – where all creation is put at threat by a conveniently-timed short circuit. By this point, any sane viewer is long past caring, but blessed oblivion is cruelly snatched from us by the Garm, a giant dog monster who calmly resets the drama switch to its OFF position. At least the Garm offers some distraction to the enquiring mind. It may have the voice of a London cabbie – “I draw dur disease from ‘um” – but one wonders what dog-like behaviours it exhibits when unobserved. Does it lick itself clean? Can it scratch behind its ears with those teeny-tiny feet? One thing’s for sure: its home planet must really honk on rainy days.

Our final adventure here, Enlightenment, is another beast entirely. It’s spellbinding – one of Doctor Who’s finest serials – and weaves a mythic, fairytale atmosphere into a robust and rollicking tale of a yacht race in space. In another of those coincidences thrown up by the DVD release schedule, we now see it has much in common with The War Games. Again, ordinary men have been kidnapped from Earth, their memories suppressed. Their officers are cold-fish aliens, in this case Eternals, abusing human instinct and ingenuity for their own ends. The chilliest of these Eternals is also Enlightenment’s best character. Captain Striker’s dark stare is like the tinted windows of a limousine; he can see out, but we can’t see in. As Striker reads the Doctor’s mind, actor Keith Barron’s delivery of the line, “You are a lord of time. Are there lords in such a small domain?” is a master class in underplayed menace, a pitch-perfect performance.

‘Underplayed’ is not a word that can be applied to Striker’s rival, Captain Wrack, however. This is by no means a criticism of the sainted Lynda Baron. The two captains balance each other perfectly, so it’s a shame they never appear together on screen. And if anyone you know ever suggests that modern Doctor Who is somehow more camp than it used to be, then you should direct them to the end of part three of Enlightenment. This sees a highly sexual lady of a certain age – her heaving bosom like two bald toddlers wrestling in a taffeta sack – hissing threats direct to camera and cackling madly. Our closing shot is of a pretty tiara. ‘Camp’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.

It’s this wild blend – the sinister mystery of Striker’s ship, the roistering ebullience of Wrack’s – that helps make Enlightenment quintessential Doctor Who. It also benefits from an on-form Peter Davison – clearly cheered by the chance to play a decisive and heroic Doctor – a brilliant central conceit and some excellent dialogue. The best line goes to Mariner, the creepy Eternal with a crush on Tegan. “You’re not like any Ephemeral I’ve ever met before!” he wails to her locked bedroom door. Brilliant.

The Black Guardian sneers a catalogue of empty threats through all three of these stories. Perhaps he’s only chosen this moment to threaten the Doctor because he rightly suspects the Time Lord will soon interfere in his precious boat race. Come to think of it, describing Black as an old bore – which is where we started – might be a blind alley. These Guardians have tellingly juvenile obsessions; with shiny knick-knacks and complicated games. They once played hide-and-seek with the Key To Time, and here they have Eternals competing for a prize represented by another glittering gewgaw. The Guardians may appear long in tooth and jowl, but it’s easy to imagine them as the children of their race. The Black Guardian – explaining why he’s using Turlough as his agent to kill the Doctor – says, “I cannot be seen to act in this.” We’re never told who he’s worried about, but his long-suffering mother is the obvious candidate. He’s probably expecting Mrs Rose Guardian to rush in and tell him to stop playing with that dirty universe, glowering from under a stuffed flamingo that’s playing havoc with her perm.

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DVD EXTRAS

Coming with a fourth disc, this box-set also offers Enlightmentment: The Special Edition. Though exactly what’s special about it is up for debate.

The avowed intent is to offer a version of the story that might be judged ‘more modern’. Not including title sequences, this means around 10 minutes of material are cut for this feature-length presentation, which is ironic given how many years Doctor Who fans had to fight to stop the BBC from releasing videos in this format. In the main, it’s an opportunity to showcase some bland computer-generated effects. Again this is ironic, as there are few Doctor Who stories less in need of replacement effects than Enlightenment. The original model work is gorgeous, while this substitute material is crude and unsophisticated in comparison, and already looks dated. We now have a version of Enlightenment presented how it might have looked in 1998, which really is the height of pointlessness. In the most heinous crime of all, the story is cropped to a widescreen ratio, losing around a third of the height of the picture and a lot of important narrative detail, rendering a great story little more than a succession of blurry close-ups.

In happier news, these serials are well served by a strong three-part production documentary, delivering a wide range of interviewees. Most interesting are the normally unsung members of the production team – such as sound engineer Scott Talbot, who discusses the problems he had working on Terminus. This serial offers the most entertaining behind-the-scenes tales, as thanks to a BBC strike it proved a nightmarishly stressful production for all concerned.

These documentaries are narrated by Floella Benjamin – for reasons unclear – who delivers her script in a Madly! Enthusiastic! Style!, as if she’s trying to sell us something. It’s peculiar, but quite cheering in its way. An error of judgment has the Mawdryn Undead documentary make a sudden handbrake turn into an exploration of whether immortality – in real life that is, not within a Warp Ellipse – might one day be possible. “Soon you’ll be able to grow the basis of your own nose,” muses a leading plastic surgeon. “Maybe even most of it.” Golly. We have some way to go then. It that case, it’s lucky Mawdryn bumped into the Doctor while visiting Earth. If he’d returned to his spaceship saying “I return, my brothers. I bring the secret of… of growing the majority of a nose”, he would have been greeted with less enthusiasm by his shipmates, who are a dour bunch at the best of times.

Off-cuts from these documentaries form a number of shorter interview items spread across the discs, including some well-illustrated profiles of Mark Strickson (Turlough) and Sarah Sutton (Nyssa). Most welcome is an item on the Guardians, with the children of actors Valentine Dyall and Cyril Luckham offering some warm and welcome memories of their fathers.

Liberty Hall, a short drama featuring Nick Courtney as the Brigadier, is harmless enough. It lacks any real substance, however, as it’s no more than a contrived re-telling of the plot of Mawdryn Undead, with the Brigadier recounting things we already know to a journalist. He’s not much of a journalist, either. While pressing the Brig to reveal trivia, such as the odd way Turlough’s school fees were paid, he entirely misses the big scoop. DWM’s Jason Arnopp would have had the Brig fessing up the secret of the Loch Ness Monster, or dishing the dirt on Corporal Bell’s sordid double life.

Finally, there’s a generous collection of film off-cuts, outtakes and other odds and ends, covering all three stories. It’s all lovely to have, but Terminus: Unused Model Shots, for example, is not something you’ll be revisiting regularly. Though come to that, neither is Terminus.

All in all, the madness of that Special Edition aside, this box set delivers a generous and thorough selection of extras. Add in the entertaining commentaries and info texts, and there’s a good week’s viewing here. However, for this reviewer, his favourite new fact – well, new to him – comes from a bizarre TARDIS Information System item on Enlightenment. Apparently, according to the novel The Quantum Archangel, the fearsome Kronos from The Time Monster was the product of bedroom naughtiness involving a Chronovore and an Eternal. Who’d have thought! So how did that pillow talk go? “You’re not like any big, birdy, Time Vortex-dwelling creature I’ve ever met before.” Smooth moves, Mr Mariner. Get in there, my son.

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