Monday, 23 May 2011

Rolling the Boulder

It's JN-T Day!  In honour of the late and much-maligned Mr Nathan-Turner - who rescued Who from the stylistic doldrums, produced a slew of stone classics and stuck around longer than he wanted to because he knew his departure would mean the end of the show - here is my Timelash II stuff on the stories usually called the 'Black Guardian Trilogy'.  Much undervalued, all three of them.

For John Nathan-Turner.

'Mawdryn Undead'

Once you get past the Billy Bunter bibble of the opening (and even that is pleasingly unexpected) this develops into a highly satisfactory bit of concept-driven sci-fi, cleverly using time travel (never a major concern of the old-style show) as part of a complex but admirably clear plot, aware of itself as myth-reiteration (immortality as curse, the Flying Dutchman, etc.) and with a submerged political sense in its depiction of crime, power, unscrupulousness and luxury.

It engages with the Who mythos without being enslaved to it, using concepts from the show's backstory to create a genuinely dramatic conflict situation in the characters' here and now.

You can see everyone's point of view here, even if you don't like the way they're behaving. There are no clear goodies or baddies except for the jarringly satanic Black Guardian, but even he works as a figure on the sidelines trying to manipulate and influence events through his conflicted avatar Turlough, who constitutes a bravura bit of experimentation: the companion who is unsure whether he's bad or not!

The production design is superlative... with the mutants' ship, the obelisk, the transmat capsule, the crystal, the stolen gallifreyan machine, the hall of portraits, etc., all impressing and lingering in the memory.

The acting is very good, with David Collings giving it the full RSC and Nick Courtney very carefully and skillfully delineating the differences between the alternate versions of the Brig. Davison is never better than when called upon to play the Doctor as thinking through events and figuring out his situation... and this story plays to that strength... also allowing him to bring an almost suave air of intelligence, particularly when he tosses the crystal back to Turlough with a look of sardonic calculation.

And you have to admire the sheer off-the-wall combinations. A public school comedy that develops into a story about time travelling mutants on a luxury cruise liner, featuring an alien teenager (though obviously played by a grown man) and one of his teachers being split into two personas... well, we've come a long way from stomping monsters invading Southern England every week.

It may not be as spectacular as some of the other stories from this era, but if this is the 80s show chugging along as normal then they're obviously doing something very right.

I make no apologies; I love ‘Terminus’.

It’s almost relentlessly cold, austere, alienating, unsympathetic, brutal and nihilistic, set in an explicitly godless universe which is depicted as teeming with sickness, decay, cowardice, failure, pettiness, selfishness and great crashing waves of existential boredom.

There’s hardly anyone or anything to cheer for. This is no morality tale. There is no clear Good or Bad anywhere (even the Doctor is being a survivor rather than a moral force). There are just loads of people trying to make do and survive in a hostile world not of their own making; people subject to all the frailties of the flesh and of the intellect and of the spirit.

In this way, it's a very realistic story.

Like so much Who it’s obsessed with entropy, everything is decaying, from Terminus’ engines to Kari’s power pack to Nyssa’s body. Like so much of this season, it’s obsessed with the crushing tedium of immortality, with how eternity becomes nullity.

If ‘Warrior’s Gate’ was about bursting out of the nightmarish continuum of history, Steve Gallagher’s second story is about how sometimes history just seems to judder to a halt, leaving people stranded in a seemingly eternal Now.

The Garm is stranded by the control box, unable to leave or stay and do what he wants to do. The Vanir are stranded by their ignorance and their sickly addiction (hydromel is clearly a drug rather than a medicine), unable to leave or stay and be humane. The raiders are stranded, unable to raid or escape. Moreover, these people are stranded by their own ideas and assigned roles… that’s why the story makes such a fuss over people (from Olvir to Valguard to the Garm) renegotiating their roles and changing their ideas. The lazars are stranded, apparently dependant upon a crudest form of make-or-break treatment before they get shipped who-knows-where by the company. Even Terminus Inc. is stranded in its crazy vicious circle of shipping slaves and lepers about the universe. It isn’t just an ‘evil corporation’ like the Usurians; it’s an expression of the futility of moving in circles without getting anywhere.

Terminus itself is stranded at the centre of the universe (which must be a metaphysical position since it obviously can’t mean anything spatially) and at a nonsensical everywhen. It must be eternal (even its construction can’t really be said to be its beginning, if you think about it) and that’s why it seems so still and silent; it is bereft of history, of the passing of time. Everybody there gets stuck in the stillness and the silence… and the boredom of eternally rolling the boulder up the hill.

This is why the reworking of the Norse myth works so well, because those myths are obsessed with people guarding things forever… and endings are always just smotherings and silencings rather than real conclusions.

It’s quite wrong of the writers of About Time vol. 5 to say that this should’ve been done as Wagnerian opera… it’s not about heroism or villainy or anything grand. It’s about the alienation of working for a cause that you don't control, for masters you don't see, in ways you don't choose. It's about the drabness and tedium and smothering silence of stopped time, of neverending routine and mindless circularity… which is mirrored by the mindless circularity of the paradox at the heart of the story. The universe itself is the endlessly circulating trap in which people get stuck.

Of course, you can break out of loops, as the raiders do, as Valguard does, as the Garm does… but, in this story, it’s hard. What Biroc does heroically and comparatively easily in ‘Warrior’s Gate’, the people in ‘Terminus’ have to do slowly and painfully and reluctantly. It’s a gruelling learning process for them, and for Nyssa, who volunteers to be stranded at the end… but only so she can break out of her own loop and help others break out of theirs.

Does it make for friendly, accessible, thrilling, inclusive family viewing? Nope, I couldn’t claim that it does. Did it alienate viewers? Dunno; maybe.

Do I care? In a pig’s arse.


Gorgeous, unexpected, sophisticated, ambiguous, textured, flowing, poetic, witty....

Easily one of my all-time favourites. It's a quality production, with some great guest actors (who really *get* it), lovely music, lovely production design, lovely model work, lovely costumes, lovely dialogue... it's almost too lovely, actually. The tone is opulent, louche and semi-comic... at times, almost farcical. It’s a panto [oh no it isn’t], but a very rich and strange one...

‘Enlightenment’ is an entirely fitting finale to the ‘Black Guardian Trilogy’ because it brings the running themes of existential tedium, immortality-as-curse and stopped-time to a head with its depiction of the Eternals as semi-tragic, atemporal, bored sociopaths… but it also seems like another of those occasional, thematically-linked stories about the nightmare of history as we know it… the history in question being the history of hierarchy and exploitation.

The Eternals almost seem to embody the various ruling classes that have plagued humanity. All through the history of class society, the priests and administrators and warlords and kings have controlled the means and technology of production, and have hoarded the surplus wealth that people produced through those means… a bit like the captain of a ship who keeps the prize when the ship was powered by the labour of the crew!

Such rulers have always felt more real than the little people (when the exact opposite was usually the case) and more entitled to be amused and pampered and served. They’ve always built temples to themselves, greedily hoarded knowledge (enlightenment) and always convinced themselves that they were immortal, little gods on Earth… and sometimes their immense power made that effectively true, but it also left them contemptible (though our own equally class-ridden culture tends to fawn over their memory).

All through the history of class society, Power has always used and abused the little people. The Eternals masquerade as a selection of ruling class and/or criminal bullies, employers and slavedrivers from Earth history. The very bosses who used the people as commodities to be owned and used. The party, with its congregation of the various overlords from every era (“the masters of sail”) always reminds me of the opening of Chapter One of The Communist Manifesto, with its litany of struggling classes. I suppose it's questionable how Wrack's pirate vibe fits in with this picture... but what were pirates (indeed, what is all organised crime) but the mirror image of all 'legitimate' mercantile capitalist enterprise? The pirates that Wrack copies were the outlawed cousins-under-the-skin of the imperialist navies that hunted them... though they were ultimately responsible for much less violence and theft than the official fleets of empire, or the seagoing mercantile thugs of international trade.

The Eternals quite clearly depend upon us, on the little people... though they get unusually animated when fiercely denying this. Their exploitation of the ephemerals for their imaginative abilities is analogous to the way ruling classes have exploited the labour (physical and mental) of ordinary people for the surplus it creates… always brandishing their stolen power as proof of their putative superiority, always angrily claiming that they are the ‘wealth creators’, not the helots or serfs or working classes who actually make and do everything real.

None of this is a moral question about villains and their dastardly deeds. It’s about history and the forces of production… well, I’d love to get deeper into historical materialism, but we’d be here all day. Suffice it to say that it works beautifully that the Eternals are just cogs in an impersonal machinery of usage rather than villains, with even Wrack being best described as a cat toying with mice. Even the Guardians seem more like the balancing counterweights in a system, despite Dyall’s “nyah ha ha!” moments.

This story presents itself as a straightforward morality tale, of a fairytale of Good vs. Evil. The chess board at the start points the way... but chess is also about something else. It's about social classes. Kings, priests, knights (i.e. titled thugs and enforcers) and pawns.  And its about usage. It's about the powerful gameplayers who use the pawns as... well, as pawns in their game. Just like the Guardians. Just like the Eternals. This isn't really a fable about Good and Evil so much as a meditation on history and class and exploitation and usage... about how there is a system that runs on these things, almost impersonally, and which can lead to great Enlightenment if the game is played out... but what’s Enlightenment? It’s the end of the game... and the opt-out clause from the system. It’s the choice to not buy power with someone else’s life, to not be a king sacrificing a pawn, to not buy "whatever you wish" by trading in another's life, to not treat another living person as a commodity.

The style is postmodern (which is simply to say pop-modernist), concealing some very sophisticated thematic machinery under an outer shell of pastiche, eclecticism and pseudo-cod moral philosophy. Even the inner cogs and wheels don’t really add up to any kind of complete or conscious Marxist parable (which would have to involve the ephemerals shaking off their chains and collectively freeing themselves). But all the same….

Sadly, it marks the end of another of those great little runs of consistently excellent/interesting stories. 'Snakedance' to 'Enlightenment' is a kind of mini-return to the great form of 'Full Circle' to 'Kinda'. It's over now though. But what a way to close!

All in all, it's astonishing how well these three stories form a thematically consistent whole, each of them meditating on immortality as a curse, on time as a trap, on the boredom of alienated existence, on stranded people, on the nightmares of history and on people used as commodities... themes that resound through all the better stories of this era, and even some of the worse ones.  Stuff this thoughtful doesn't come along too often.  If we (i.e. fans) had more sense, we'd be prouder of it.


  1. Great review, Jack. Now I shall have to go and watch these again.

    Happy JN-T day

    IO-HE-VO-HE Azal!

  2. Great review, particularly the conclusion-really got me seeing these stories in a new light, as your reviews often do

    What I find really interesting is Song of the Space Whale by Pat Mills was originally intended for the Mawdryn Undead slot. (I don't whether you've heard the Big Finish version)
    And in that story there are again these same themes of the curse of immortality, stranded people, and in this case the whale's life as a commodity.

    Oh and here's to JNT! For several wonderful and wonderfully different eras

  3. Thanks JS - that's really interesting. I'm not familiar with 'Song of the Space Whale', though I've heard of it. I'll have to look it up.

    It's interesting how the same themes keep popping up in 80s Who. They submerge and then resurface, shift and realign, but they're oddly consistent.

    I'm resistant to the idea that certain themes keep reoccuring in particular places and moments because of underlying social/political circumstances... it strikes me as a rather reductionist approach to culture... but sometimes the idea of coincidence seems even less plausible.

    Of course, JNT and Saward probably didn't set out to make the Black Guardian Trilogy thematically consistent... but they hired talented people who were, somehow, tuning into the same cultural frequencies and expressed them in diverse but complementary ways.