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Doctor Who: The Black Guardian Trilogy

BBC Worldwide // Unrated // November 3, 2009
List Price: $59.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted February 10, 2010 | E-mail the Author
The Show:
What's better than a new Doctor Who release?  A boxed set release!  The BBC has recently released The Black Guardian Trilogy, a set of three Doctor Who adventures staring Peter Davison in the lead role that tell one larger story.  This story revolves around the Black Guardian, who was last seen in the Key of Time saga, and his attempt to have the Doctor killed by one of his companions.  This is a great set, with two very good stories (okay, the middle one is a stinker) that features the introduction of a new companion and the departure of another. 

Mawdryn Undead (4 parts): 
When the Tardis breaks down (again) in mid-flight, its emergency circuits case it to materialize aboard a luxurious space ship.  One that is totally abandoned. 

Meanwhile on Earth a school boy named Turlough is in a car accident.  While unconscious he talks to the Black Guardian (last seen in the Key of Time Saga from Tom Baker's ear).  Turlough hates his life and wants to leave Earth, the first clue that he's not originally from the planet, and the Guardian makes him a deal:  He'll get him away from Earth if the young boy performs a simple task:  kill the Doctor.
Turlough reluctantly agrees and gains consciousness.  Eventually the Guardian shows him the location of a hidden Transmat pod, and Turlough uses it and arrives on the same luxury liner where the Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa are trapped.  The Doctor surmises that the Transmat homing beacon on Earth is causing the Tardis problems, so he programs to Tardis to travel to Earth, 1983, and leaves Tegan and Nyssa to guide it while he and Turlough get rid of the interference.

The problem is, it doesn't work.  Sure the Doctor turns the beacon off, but when he does the Tardis arrives at the predetermined place, but in 1977.  Tegan and Nyssa go looking for the Doctor while the Doctor and Turlough search for the girls.  They both find Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, though one is six years older than the other, and both parties take him back to the mysterious space ship.  It's not quite abandoned however, and one of the ships occupants badly disfigured by a trip in the Transmat capsule, convinces Tegan and Nyssa that he's really the Doctor going through a regeneration.  But what do the occupants of the ship want, and why have they been travelling the universe for 3000 years?
This was good story.  I always enjoy seeing companions join (or leave) the Doctor, and Turlough has the added advantage of being mysterious.  It's never explained in this introductory show just who he is or where he's from or why he's on Earth.  All that's known is that he's an alien who desperately wants to get back to his people.

The story itself has been done before, the Doctor trying to find his Tardis, but the added mystery of Mawdryn and the ghost luxury space ship helped make this a good show.  In addition they gave long-time fans a lot to cheer about.  This story saw the return of the Brigadier, only for this adventure, but they gave the old soldier a hefty role this time and made him integral to the plot.  It was nice to see this former supporting character once again.  They story also told more about the mysterious Time Lords, and how they punished criminals.  They imposed a cruel but ironically just punishment on a group of scientists looking doing research on a forbidden subject.  All in all this was a great start to a good story arc.  
Terminus (4 parts):   
Still working for the Black Guardian, Turlough tries to disable the Tardis at the beginning of this saga.  He changes the position of some switches behind a panel and then tries to disconnect a vital circuit from the underside of the control panel.  He can't get it out but he has done enough damage so that part of the outside universe starts merging with the Doctor's ship. Nyssa is in her room doing experiments when it starts to dissolve, turning into static.  Luckily, the Tardis starts to merge with another space vessel.  A door appears and Nyssa runs through it.

The Doctor follows, ordering Turlough and Tegan to stay behind.  Needless to say they don't.  They eventually board the ship but after they do the door that they passed through disappears.  Trying to find the Doctor, they get lost.
Nyssa and the Doctor discover that they are on a ship transporting people suffering from the contagious Lazar's Disease to the futuristic equivalent of a leper colony:  Terminus.  They have been told that they will be cured on Terminus, but no one has ever returned from there and even the few guards, called the Vanir, have ever seen a cured Lazar.  Thing get worse when Nyssa comes down with the dreaded disease and is captured by the Vanir, and the Doctor finds out what Terminus really is, and that it is scheduled to destroy the entire universe.   

This was a very messy show, and at the end there were still a lot of things that were never explained:  who was the Garm?  How did he get on Terminus?  Why was he controlled by they box?  What happens to Kari and Olvir?  What became of the Lazars who were cured?  What about the ones who died?  That's not to mention problems going forward, like how Terminus would get supplies in the future.  Why did the door connecting the shuttle to the Tardis keep disappearing?  If Turlough damaged the Tardis, how did it get fixed?  For heaven's sake why did Nyssa take off her skirt?  And on and on....
Even if you ignore all that, the story was a bit below average.  There was a fair amount of mystery, but it was hard to get too involved in any one story because they fractured the party into several groups and each one had their own story to tell.  That made it hard to get very interested in any one plot line.  Another thing that bothered me was that the Doctor didn't really have much to do in this adventure.  Yes, he saves the Universe by preventing the something from happening, but that had nothing to do with the main plot and seemed like padding (though it was the most interesting part of the saga... which is another deficit.  A minor subplot should never eclipse the main story.)   

That's not to say this adventure had no redeeming qualities.  There was a very interesting tale hidden underneath the extraneous subplot and seemingly meaningless digressions.  With one more through rewrite it could have been an excellent adventure.  As it is, Terminus is only mediocre at best.
Enlightenment (4 episodes): 

Now we get back to the good stuff.  The White Guardian tries to contact the Doctor, but has trouble getting through.  (Why is it so difficult for the White Guardian while the Black Guardian seems to have no problems at all talking to Turlough whenever he wants?)  The fragmented message that gets through instructs the Doctor to travel to a certain location and that "winner takes all."

Going to the coordinates that he's received, the Doctor and his companions find themselves in what seems to the cargo hold of an ancient ship.  Exploring they discover that they are on an old ship, but one that's flying in space.  The ship was created by the Eternals, ancient beings of immense power.  There is a race between ships from different time periods, manned by humans, referred to as Ephemerals, but led by an Eternal captain and officers.  They are participating in this race to entertain themselves, but also for the prize:  The winner will gain Enlightenment - total knowledge of everything in the universe.
The race is tense, with the planets of the Solar System being used as marker buoys, but when one of the ships blows up while attempting to pass another, things start to look suspicious.  Most assume that the destroyed ship flew too close to a planet, but the Doctor has other ideas.

This adventure was grand in scale and a nice relief from the previous muddled story.  While it doesn't all succeed, they give it a good try and more things work than don't.  On the negative side, the obvious models flying is space look a bit hokey, the sign inside to airlock was really stupid, and Valentine Dyall played his role as the Black Guardian with a bit too much gusto and way too over-the-top. 
The Eternals, on the other hand, were very sedate and secure in their power, especially Captain Striker (Keith Barron), and I liked that.  They were also very interesting characters in that they were incredibly powerful yet they can't think for themselves and need the Ephemerals to give them both ideas and entertainment.  This idea of great power with great limitations was explored to a certain degree in the relationship between Tegan and Marriner.
Turlough also matures as a character as the affects of the Black Guardian's constant demands starts to pay a toll on the young man.  Mark Strickson plays the role well, making sure viewer's are never quite sure just where his loyalties lie and what he'll do to get what he wants.   

When all is said and done, this was a fitting ending to a very nice trilogy of stories.
The DVD:

These three adventures each come in their own standard keepase.  Each is contained on a single disc save for the last part which gets a pair of discs, one for the original story and one for a reedited version.  (See the extras section for more information.)  These three cases are housed in a nice slipcase.
The mono soundtrack (with the exception of the feature length edit of Enlightenment which comes with a 5.1 mix) is very good... clean and clear with no hiss or background noise to take away from the story.  Being a mono track, there's really not much more to say about it.
The full frame video has been cleaned up by the Restoration Team and looks fine though not stunning.  There's only so much you can do with 27 year old video tape.  Some scenes are a bit soft, but generally the image is clean and the colors are fine.  If you've seen the other restored Davison era stories, then you'll know what to expect.
The one thing I really, really enjoy about these BBC Doctor Who releases is that they come with a comprehensive collection of extras.  Even the one-disc adventures have a good amount of bonus features, and this set is no exception.
All three stories have commentary tracks with Peter Davison (the Doctor), Mark Strickson (Turlough).  They are joined by Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier) on Mawdryn Undead, Sarah Sutton (Nyssa) on Terminus, and on the track for Enlightenment writer Barbra Clegg and director Fiona Cumming are also on board.  I really like Peter Davison's commentary tracks.  He's honest and forthright and amusing.  Unlike a lot of commentary tracks of recent films where everyone pats the whole cast and crew on the back, Davison is willing to admit when monsters look horrible or when things went wrong.  These three tracks are all enjoyable.
If that doesn't give you enough information on the productions, all three stories come with an optional pop up trivia tracks that's filled with information.  Some of it is minutia, the date the episodes were filmed and ever the time that the shoots wrapped, but also background info on the supporting and incidental characters and it points out on screen gaffs.  These are wonderful. 

All of the discs also have the option of watching the show with new GCI special effects added, an isolated music score, photo galleries, Radio Times listings for the episodes, a making of documentary (these are not fluff pieces and run nearly half an hour) and Easter Eggs.  Sprinkled across the three discs are unused model shots, storyboard comparisons, deleted scenes, outtakes, and more.
The most impressive extra is the feature length cut of Enlightenment.  It's a reediting of the story (performed by the original director Fiona Cumming, with producer Brendan Sheppard) where they didn't have to worry about cliffhangers every 25 minutes.  They did a good job with it, not just adding in every scrap of film they could find.  This edit is actually shorter than the original episodes, running about 75 minutes, and has new CGI special effects, is reframed to 1.78:1, and includes a nice 5.1 audio track.  In a lot of ways I enjoyed this more than the original version.  Some of the padding that took place in episode three is cut out and the whole story seems to flow better.  The CGI effects only worked part of the time however.  The ships in space look much better, but when the camera shows the view from the main deck it's much less impressive.  Overall this was a very nice addition to the set.   

Final Thoughts:
This is a top-notch production and a good Doctor Who adventure.  Yes, Terminus isn't that great, but it's not painful to watch and the quality of the first and third parts of this trilogy more than make up for the weakness of the middle story.  The bountiful extras, including an excellent reedit of Enlightenment make this a collection that should be in every Doctor Who collection.  Highly Recommended.
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Highly Recommended

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