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Doctor Who: Enlightenment – Special Edition (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Enlightenment originally aired in 1983. It was the third and final instalment in the Black Guardian Trilogy.

Enlightenment is easily among the very best adventures to feature Peter Davison in the role of the Doctor. It helps that it has a story that seems to perfectly suit his version of the character, one that’s arguably more cerebral and fanciful than it is dark and horrific or adventurous and action-packed. Enlightenment features one of the most quintessentially British storylines in Doctor Who, capturing the quirky appeal of the series almost perfectly, with a boat race in space… with pirates! It’s fun, it’s clever and the special effects aren’t ground-breaking, but they’re stylish enough to pull it off.

No matter how you cut it, Enlightenment is a win.

Sailing into the sunset...

Sailing into the sunset…

I think it’s part of Davison’s Doctor’s character to be the underdog, to be the helpless victim at the centre of a plot he could easily foil if people only trusted him. So many of his stories see the character surrounded by death and destruction that he’s powerless to prevent because people in authority won’t listen to him. It’s a feature of stories like Earthshock, Snakedance, Warriors of the Deep, Frontios and The Caves of Androzani, to the point where it’s easy to imagine Davison’s Doctor as a character who is always out of his depth.

I think that’s why Enlightenment works so well, because it bucks that trend. Like Kinda, it feels like a story almost perfectly suited to the Fifth Doctor. Here, he never seems helpless. While never in a position of authority, he’s able to save the day and resolve the story’s central dilemma with an absolute minimum of fuss. Davison recognises that the script gives him the perfect opportunity to define his version of the character, and he does a tremendous job.

Ship shape...

Ship shape…

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Enlightenment working with any other Doctor. Doctor Who is a British television show, so class is one of the themes it handles fairly regularly. However, it’s hard to imagine any other version of the Doctor blending in so effortlessly with the upper-class “officers” on an Edwardian sailing yacht as smoothly as Davison’s Doctor. The Fifth Doctor, after all, is the version of the character most readily recognisable by his cricket uniform – a marker of a certain type of British upper-class nostalgia which feels right at home among the officers serving on an Edwardian yacht.

And elements of class seep through Enlightenment. The upper-class Eternals control the lower-class humans through their rum rations and the promise of payment. (“And we got a month’s wages in advance,” one crew member observes. “Not likely to forget that, now, would we?”) The Eternals wilfully risk and sacrifice the lives of their human crew in the pursuit of their objective. “This is the sort of excitement that makes eternity bearable,” Striker observes.

Suits you...

Suits you…

However, these petty competitions exact a toll in human lives. When Wrack targets an opponent, she assures Turlough that the Eternals on board will be safe. “We do not exist in time, therefore there is no moment of time that can see us cease to be. We are Eternals. They’ll survive, merely transfer.” It’s a wonderfully clever way of making this conflict relatable, and anchoring it in iconography that the audience can understand – using that imagery to suggest something more substantial and profound. It’s just well-constructed science-fiction.

Despite the risk facing the human crew members, it helps that the Doctor is never put under too much threat here. When the officers take Tegan away, Turlough is quick to point out, “Whatever else is going on here, no one’s threatened us.” There’s no threat of physical violence, and so Davison’s gentle Doctor isn’t physically overwhelmed or coerced into cooperation. This allows the threat to appear a bit more intellectual than usual, and plays to Peter Davison’s strengths in the role.

It's a pirate's life for him?

It’s a pirate’s life for him?

His confrontation with Striker is brilliant, drawing on the Fifth Doctor’s sense of justice with a force seldom seen, as he labels the Eternals as “parasites” with the same contempt he demonstrated towards the failed immortals in Mawdryn Undead. Of course, his frustration is much better explained here, and it’s a testament to the success of the story that it retroactively makes sense of earlier characterisation.

In a way, Enlightenment really feels like it should have been the template for Davison’s Doctor Who stories. Much like Tom Baker’s time in the role seems to evoke a particular “feel”, most often the aesthetics of the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era with “gothic horror and b-movie science-fiction” intermingling, this mood seems to suit Davison perfectly. Science-fantasy, high-concepts, issues of class and ethical debates. More than any other story in this somewhat troubled season, Enlightenment seems to offer a glimpse of what the Peter Davison era could have looked like.

Guardians of the universe?

Guardians of the universe?

It’s a damn shame that Barbara Clegg only ever wrote one story for Doctor Who, but at least it was a corker. The basic premise – that of a “race in space” – isn’t exactly original, but her approach to it fits the series perfectly. There’s something almost quaint about the Eternals and their “space ships” plucked from Earth’s nautical history and fitted for space flight, sailing on “solar winds” – I’m not sure that my suspension of believe even buys into that intentionally vague bit of “pseudo-science”, but let’s roll with it.

Adopting various nautical personas (pirates, officers, etc.), the Eternals are racing one another for the ultimate prize… “enlightenment” itself. It’s all suitably nebulous, but it works as a bit of a breather. There’s not too much convoluted technobabble, and we couldn’t be further from all that “scary men with big guns” who would come to dominate Davison’s final year in the role. Enlightenment feels suitably abstract (“enlightenment was not the diamond – enlightenment was the choice”) and almost like a breath of fresh air.

Sailing through the clouds...

Sailing through the clouds…

It is, at the most basic of levels, just a really entertaining serial that’s very well put together. In fact, the mystery leading up the the revelation that these are ships sailing in space is absolutely brilliant, as the Doctor and his companions begin to notice that things are very strange on board the ship. “Now wait a minute,” Tegan declares. “Wetsuits? What are wetsuits doing on an Edwardian sailing ship?”

There’s a wonderful unsettling feeling about the whole thing even before the nature of the officers and the sinister control they maintain over the crew is made clear. There’s something “not quite right” here, in the finest tradition of Doctor Who – taking something which looks familiar and normal and then twisting it into something which is far grander than it first appears. It’s the little pieces which don’t add up, where the explanation is so outlandship and impossible that it is brilliant.

Upper decks...

Upper decks…

The Eternals themselves are fascinating creations. It’s easy to see why they’ve become such an essential part of Doctor Who lore, with Russell T. Davies especially fond of name-dropping them in his scripts. Unlike monsters in make-up and silly costumes, there’s something conceptually creepy and ethereal about these aliens (“very strange” to quote Tegan) and their low opinions of “Ephemerals.” There’s something quite striking about the image of immortal aliens staving off boredom in “the endless wastes of eternity.”

Director Fiona Cumming is one of the great unsung heroes of this section of Doctor Who’s history. Discussion of her work as director does tend to get overshadowed by Graeme Harper, who did an absolutely stunning job with both The Caves of Androzani and Revelation of the Daleks. However, Cumming directed four Davison serials, cutting her teeth on the show from its early days. I’d argue that two of her four serials (Enlightenment and Snakedance) are classics, while the other two (Castrovalva and Planet of Fire) are much better than they could have been in the hands of another director.

Spaced out...

Spaced out…

Here, Cumming brings a stately air to things. The original version of the serial featured generally decent effects (save maybe some CSO with Turlough), but worked because they fit stylistically with the story. The story was about Edwardian sailing ships in space, raced by immortal and omnipotent beings, so the fact that the ships were clearly models wasn’t as big a deal – that’s undoubtedly how the Eternals saw them. Even the shiny port that housed “enlightenment” itself was remarkably tasteful in design, never seeming too gnarly or too much a product of its time.

I think that’s why the story works so well, even if its budget was as small as every other Davison serial, because it’s all done with remarkable elegance. Compare this to the cheap grotesque effects used during the Colin Baker era, and it’s easy to see why audiences began to drift away from the show. While Enlightenment hardly contains the most impressive of special effects, the have a certain beauty and charm to them, one that is far more pleasing to look at than any of the improvised nastiness of The Twin Dilemma.

A map to enlightenment...

A map to enlightenment…

Indeed, the “special edition” prepared by Cumming and the Doctor Who Restoration Team almost feels unnecessary. While I appreciate the CGI, I can’t honestly say that it adds much more than was already there. I can’t help but wonder if a CGI Mara for Snakedance might have been a better investment. After all, the CGI seems to falter at the came points that the model work did, especially with the aforementioned Turlough shot.

The only real benefit of the “special edition” is that it edits together the episodes, creating a more impressive and cohesive feel to things. Part of me almost wishes that more classic Doctor Who adventures were edited together in such a manner. I know that when the show aired on American television many of the Tom Baker stories were shown as “movies.” There’s just a nicer flow the show that way, particularly for adventures running to four episodes or less. The longer episodes tend to suffer from padding issues that are on exaggerated by watching them in one sitting.

Hats off to him...

Hats off to him…

Of course, Enlightenment is also the finalé of the Black Guardian trilogy. It’s something of a mixed blessing. On one hand, the Black Guardian subplot feels just a little bit superfluous here, and there’s a sense that Enlightenment might be a stronger episode without it. On the other hand, the involvement of the Black Guardian allows the show to skirt past John Nathan Turner’s crazy “only classic villains” mandate for the show’s twentieth anniversary. Given how Arc of Infinity and The King’s Demons turned out, that’s probably a good thing.

And, to be fair, I do like that Turlough has a character arc. There’s a sense that the show is very slowly learning how to do what it wants to do. At the end of the Baker era and the start of the Davison era, there was a conscious attempt to introduce companions with more personality and back story. Adric had lost his brother and was an anti-social boy genius. Nyssa had watched the Master steal her father’s body and use it to wipe out her people.

An officer, but not quite a gentleman...

An officer, but not quite a gentleman…

The show had produced unique and memorable companions before. The original Doctor Who offered a much more diverse pool of companions than we’ve seen on the revived show, where the Doctor would routinely recruit savages and space pilots and aliens and Time Ladies to join him on his adventures through time and space. However, very few of these characters came with “baggage.” Some were orphans and survivors, but the show never made conscious effort to mine that interpersonal drama.

In contrast, the increased reliance on awkward scenes inside the TARDIS at the start of Davison’s early episodes suggests that the production wanted to make the dynamic inside the ship a bit more organic, to give the cast more personality. Of course, they failed miserably. Adric’s brother and Nyssa’s father were only ever fleetingly mentioned. It seemed like all the early crew of Davison’s TARDIS ever did was passive-aggressively whine at one another.

Hold steady...

Hold steady…

On the other hand, Turlough is an interesting character in his own right, and he remained an interesting character throughout his time in the TARDIS. He was, quite frankly, a coward. Although he attains some measure of redemption here for conspiring to kill the Doctor, he remains at least a little cowardly throughout his time on the TARDIS. He’s a cynic and and wry observer of human nature, and he exists in contrast to Davison’s trusting and optimistic Doctor.

Although his time with the Doctor mellows him out quite a bit, and sets him on the road to redemption, Turlough still never quite fits the mould of the perfect companion. At the same time, despite the fact that Turlough is always distinctly Turlough, he does have a very rough character arc from his first appearance in Mawdryn Undead to his departure in Planet of Fire. He arrives as a spineless coward and leaves as something of a leader.

Putting the "light" in enlightenment...

Putting the “light” in enlightenment…

To be fair, it is hardly the most graceful of character arcs. There isn’t really a logical and structured progression across the character’s time on the show. One senses that Planet of Fire could have directly followed Enlightenment and his arc would still make sense. However, it does mark a great improvement on the show’s earlier attempts instil companions with some measure of distinctive personality. I think Turlough works remarkably well, and is a demonstration that the show was making stops in the right direction.

Of course, you could argue that the eventual success of the “companion with issues” led to the decision to make Colin Baker “the Doctor with issues”, so perhaps this isn’t something we should be applauding. Still, Turlough remains perhaps the last truly ambitious attempt to break away from the archetypal “companion” in Doctor Who. He would be the last male companion on the classic show, and the last companion to travel with more than just the Doctor in the TARDIS.

Stars his destination...

Stars his destination…

Russell T. Davies would toy with both of these ideas during his first season on the show, introducing two male companions to share the TARDIS with the Doctor and Rose, but the revived show quickly settled into the routine of “Doctor and one female companion”, to the point where Rory’s presence in the TARDIS with the Doctor and Amy during the Eleventh Doctor’s second season feels somewhat anomalous. I am very fond of Turlough as a character, but I sense at least some of that is a fondness for what Turlough represents.

That said, I do like Mark Strickson’s deliciously hammy performance here. “Help me!” he screams, “Please!” “I heard the power that speaks to you. I heard it and I know the voice. He speaks to me as well. I serve him, as I wish to serve you.” I’d argue that Davison is probably (along with Eccleston and Troughton) the best actor to play the role of the Doctor, and a large amount of that came from his decision to underplay the role. However, it’s nice to have some glorious scenery chewing in Doctor Who, and Strickson provides that.

The Doctor can't quite get on board with this...

The Doctor can’t quite get on board with this…

Enlightenment is a gem. It is one of the best stories of Davison’s time in the lead role, and something which we really should have seen a lot more of. It’s great fun, well-constructed and a bit more compelling than some of Davison’s other adventures. It towers over the show’s celebratory twentieth season (with only the underrated Snakedance coming close), perhaps demonstrating that innovation and ingenuity are better ways to mark twenty years of Doctor Who than cheap nostalgia and continuity in-jokes.

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2 Responses

  1. “cheap grotesque effects of the Colin Baker era?” What, you mean the Space Station from Trial of a Time Lord? Or Season 22, which was watched by more people than Season 20 (including Enlightenment)? Yet another stuck up “fan” who likes to rubbish the mid-80s without any idea what they’re talking about.

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