Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Grab Bag Reviews: "Enlightenment"

Ah, so this one is a little late. It just took a little while to get through a lot of the DVD extras... and I have to say that this release is really packed with a number of extras which add to the flavor of the story.

"Enlightenment" is a bit of an odd story in a couple of ways. For one thing, despite the fact that Doctor Who began under a woman producer and those early days and points thereafter saw several women directors, the show didn't have a script written by a woman until this serial in 1983. For another thing, the show's script editor at the time, Eric Saward, had expressed a preference for stories which were more firmly science fiction rather than science fantasy and "Enlightenment" would prove to be almost entirely fantasy and allegory.

There was quite a bit going on for Doctor Who when Barbara Clegg's initial script idea came in. Producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner (yep, it's J N-T time again!) and Saward had been recently mining the history of the show for story ideas and they had hit upon bringing back the White and Black Guardians from the Tom Baker years, choosing to have the Black Guardian finally seeking his revenge against the Doctor. To cement the plot they even had the original actors reprise their roles -- Cyril Luckham as the White Guardian and Valentine Dyall as the Black Guardian. At the same time, J N-T had come to the conclusion that the character of Nyssa (played by actress Sarah Sutton) had run her course and wanted to replace her with a new companion during the 1982-1983 season.

Back when the character of Adric was being developed for Tom Baker's last season the idea was to create a character who was an "Artful Dodger" type -- a charming thief with a bit of the con artist to him as well. That changed before the character was finally brought to the page but J N-T never quite let go of the idea of having a companion who was less than pure as the driven snow.

In the 1982-1983 season J N-T finally got his wish. Enter Turlough.

Turlough was to be a young alien who had been exiled to Earth for reasons which remained mysterious up until the character's swan song. While still not the "Artful Dodger" type Turlough was definitely not the usual fare for the Doctor's companions. A weasel who tended to blame others for his own mistakes and was perfectly willing to rat people out in order to save his own skin. Young actor Mark Strickson was hired for the role and while he had a certain amount of leeway in the interpretation of the character the broad strokes were already set. J N-T and Saward also tied the character directly in with the Black Guardian.

As the season started to draw to a close in the spring of 1983 it was decided to wrap up the Black Guardian story arc and wrap up Turlough's character arc at the same time. This resulted in three serials which have collectively become known as "The Black Guardian Trilogy". The arc began with "Mawdryn Undead", continued in "Terminus" and then Barbara Clegg was asked to wrap everything up with her story "Enlightement". This meant that she had to add extra elements to her original story idea.

With all of this, did Clegg's story rise to the challenge of fitting in all of the required elements and telling a good story at the same time? Let's take a look....

The Plot: The Doctor, sent on a cryptic mission by the White Guardian, lands the TARDIS on an Edwardian era racing yacht. All is not as it seems, however, as the yacht is one of several boats from different time periods all racing... though space! The race proves to be a contest of powerful, immortal beings known as Eternals. The Eternals, however, lack original thought and imagination and so have picked up Earthlings to crew the ships. Their minds clouded and drugged the Eternals are free to plunder the humans' imaginations to give themsleves life and shape.

Every race has a prize though and in the case that prize is "enlightenment" -- ultimate knowledge. The Doctor must make sure that no eternal wins the race and claims the prize because ultimate knowledge combined with the Eternals' near-limitless power would spell disaster. But how can the Doctor hobble a race that is happening in space? And how does sone beat immortal beings which can read even a Time Lord's thoughts?

As if that were not enough, the Doctor's compaions have their own struggles. Tegan finds herself the recipient of unwanted and unwelcome attention from one of the Eternals and Turlough learns that, when dealing with the Black Guardian, failure can be fatal.

Only one thing is certain in this game... there will be triumph and loss and the losses may be very grave indeed.

My Take: "Enlightenment" is a very deceptive story. Reading the synopsis above it sounds as thought there is a lot involved here and yet, while watching the story, nothing ever seems really confusing. The plot sweeps you up and carries you along with the tide... the solar tide in this case.
Barbara Clegg's script really brings back something that had begun to disappear from the stories around this time period... magic. The scripts had lost a lot of that soaring sense of wonder which captured fans' hearts in the first place. "Enlightenment" gives viewers back that amazement and does so in a story that breaks many of the established "rules" for the series.

For one thing, the Eternals are pretty much literally magical beings. Oh sure, the script never calls them that and there are some off-hand remarks about the Eternals being cosmic entities but the truth is quite clear... we're pretty much dealing with gods here in the mythical sense.

Then there is the fact that the Eternals are not your typical villains for Doctor Who. Captain Striker and Marriner of the Edwaardian racing yacht are creepy, yes, but overall hospitable and even helpful to the Doctor and his companions... when it suits them. The closest thing to a normal villain is the pirate ship's captain -- Wrack. Even at that her motivations are simple and eerily immature. Unlike other villains who have appeared on the series she does not seek to conquer Earth or part of the universe or the galaxy. She doesn't want to rule over people, nor does she hate other beings and want to see them destroyed or assimilated. She does not want to colonize other worlds either. Instead, all she wants is to relieve her boredom. All she wants is the power to entertain herself. It is the Eternal's lack of scale and context, their inability to understand compassion, and their superiority which make them dangerous. They seem less "evil" and more like a three year old with a potentially loaded handgun... only on a cosmic scale.

This ties into the allegory that Clegg was making in her story. At one point the Black Guardian says that the Eternals have no understanding of good and evil but that enlightenment will change that. This is obviously a metaphor for the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden from the biblical story in Genesis.

Clegg even goes farther -- painting them not just devoid of understanding of basic morality and compassion but also showing them to be completely devoid of original thought. They have lived so long and lost so much, or never had it to begin with, that they actually need Ephemerals so that they can raid their minds for new ideas and to give themselves shape, form, and something at feels at least a little like real life.

This theme also is highlighted in Tegan's character story with the Eternal, Marriner. She is disconcerted by his lack of humanity and disturbed by his ability to read minds but at the same time there is a kind of twisted romance to the plot. Marriner seems to woo Tegan with many of the words and forms which are usually used in romances but he does not understand love -- his focus is instead about living vicariously through Tegan's thoughts. Women have long been heard to say that they want a man who is interested in them for their minds but Clegg turns that into something literal here... and it comes off as cold and creepy and even more inhuman.

If there is a real villainous figure here it is the Black Guardian and his feature in Turlough's character arc also contains some religious/moral overtones. There are elements of Faust> in the tale as Turlough comes to regret his bargain as he realizes near death that evil simply doesn't care. This throws the Doctor into the position of the agent of good in offering rescue and forgiveness.

All is not perfect with the script, however. Despite the fact that Clegg says on the DVD extras that she was familiar with the character of Tegan her writing doesn't really capture that character well. The bold, spirited woman is really missing here and in her place is a character who is timid and unusually frightened in this situation.

There are a few other problems as well... mostly with the performances. Valentine Dyall's his first appearance as the character in 1979 lasted something less than five minutes so it was hard to see how he would have played the character back then. Reprising the role in 1983 he had a greater opportunity to flesh things out... and not always in a good way. To be fair, his rich, dark, voice was perfect for the character and he is obviously having a ball playing it but he's having a bit too much fun. Dyall overplays nearly every scene he's in. In point of fact on more than one occasion he actually laughs with one of the most staged, over-the-top, supervillain style laughs I've ever heard (and I grew up watching the Superfriends so that should tell you something). He actually goes "Nyaha-ha-ha-ha-ha". At that point you just can't help bursting out laughing and there goes every drop of menace the character is supposed to exhude out the window.

The other over-the-top perpetrator here is Mark Strickson. Overall, Stickson honestly did a good job with Turlough. Strickson's own long, thin face was perfect for conveying the character's weasely, cowardly nature and most of the time he perfectly pitched the character's superiority complex and snide nature. In his scenes with Dyall here, though, he not only dials the angst up to 11 he rips the knob off and blasts it into outer space. It really takes all of the steam out of the scenes.

A lot of people also like to complain about the character of Captain Wrack as played by Lynda Baron claiming that she, too is over the top. I suppose she is... a little... but I actually find her portrayal not that disconcerting. It is theatrical but it is also coming from a character which seems naturally theatrical -- someone who adores spectacle and who relishes playing to every trope and stereotype she can find.

There is some padding to the script as well but it isn't necessarily all that noticeable -- particularly thanks to the set designers and costumers who really went to town for this story. "Enlightenment" was entirely studio filmed -- no outside recording at all -- and yet you really don't notice it. Unlike other studio-bound stories this one never feels claustrophobic or like it's spinning it's wheels in the same corridors. The sets really make the audience feel like they are looking at the cabins and corridors of actual sailing ships. The costumes are equally authentic (well, mostly, and even when they aren't precisely authentic they are, at least, stylish) and both costumes and sets have weathered the passage of time well. The same can't be said of the special effects but even then the show was at least trying to push the limits of their special effects budget at the time and they aren't that bad.

But this brings us to the biggest and flashiest extra on this DVD set... A whole new cut of the story with updated special effects designed and envisioned by the original director of the story. Make no mistake about it, the new special effects really are spiffy (except a few which don't come off very well) and help flush out certain parts of the story. There are also a few new musical cues added which are appropriately grandiose and epic and add to the scale but there is another cost to this... there are scenes cut. Some of the scenes are quite rightly cut -- not really adding anything to the action -- but there are other scenes which actually detract from some of the color of the characters and even, in one case, character development. For example, a scene between the Doctor and Turlough which starts to show the idea that Turlough has changed enough that earning the Doctor's disapproval actually bothers him is cut in the special edition. Because of this both the original and the special editions have their positives and negatives but one cannot be said to be superior to the other. Watch and enjoy both.

And "Enlightenment" definitely goes on my list of "Doctor Who stories which everyone should see". It is filled with intriguing ideas and concepts, it breaks out of the standard mold for the series and it provides some nice character developments all told within a highly entertaining and imaginative story.

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