Features Mawdryn Undead 2

Published on April 20th, 2013 | by Philip Bates

Introducing: Mawdryn Undead

As part of our 50th anniversary celebrations, we’re looking back at some of the pivotal tales of all of time and space, taking on one Doctor each month, running up to November – and An Unearthly Child

Time travel can’t be real. That’s the conclusion many have come to after pondering on the notion of playing with that tricky fourth dimension. And it’s this conclusion that Mawdryn Undead tackles, seeing fit to sneer at the problems of paradoxes and getting into fisticuffs with the argument over memory.

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The 1983 serial explores one of Doctor Who’s remits beautifully as we meet a new companion and a very familiar maths teacher. Twice. But it wasn’t always this way…

Whatever happened to Ian Chesterton and the Space Whale?

2010’s The Beast Below introduces the Star Whale, possibly the last of its kind, but plans were afoot to have a similar aquatic (but non-aquatic, right?) beastie pulsing through space nearly thirty years earlier.

Though it was initially pitched as a Fourth Doctor tale, Space Whale was adapted into a Fifth Doctor story, written by Pat Mills and John Wagner (who soon left the project), and also introduced new companion, Vislor Turlough. While Turlough’s inclusion was added to Mawdryn Undead , much of Mills’ story, renamed Song of the Space Whale, was lost. The story would’ve revolved around the Doctor encountering a group of working-class people living in said Space Whale and attempting to stop the creature from being slaughtered by a factory ship.

Mills and script editor, Eric Saward, disagreed on many points, however, and the story was held back in development for far too long – until finally Saward confirmed it had been dropped. But in 2010, Big Finish revived it as part of their Lost Stories audio range, this time featuring the Sixth Doctor and Peri, as The Song of the Megaptera.

The Song of the Megaptera

Nonetheless, Song of the Space Whale is filed under ‘stories that never were,’ a massive catalogue consisting of tantalising titles like First Doctor story, The Hidden Planet by Malcolm Hulke; Second Doctor tale, The Return of the Neanderthal; the Fourth Doctor’s The Sea of Fear and The Lost Legion; and Tenth Doctor stories like A Midwinter’s Tale and Tom MacRae’s Century House.

While Mawdryn Undead is perfectly understandable to relative newcomers (as long as you know the Doctor’s a bloke who traverses the universe with friends and can regenerate, you should be fine), fans of the Third Doctor era will take particular pleasure in watching the Brigadier being reunited with the universe’s favourite Time Lord.

But considering the plot examines the idea of bodily renewal perhaps more closely than any previous tale, it’s strange to note that the production team initially considered bringing back a character who had absolutely no experience of regeneration when he was part of the show. In fact, it hadn’t even been dreamed up. And that character is Ian Chesterton.

Friends Old and New

Played by William Russell from the series’ premiere in 1963 to 1965’s The Chase, Ian was set to return, after his fellow star, Jacqueline Hill – companion, Barbara Wright – had briefly returned to the series in Meglos (1980) – albeit playing a different character.

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(It’s recently been revealed that fellow 1960s ‘companion,’ Susan, was also set to return, but actress, Carole Ann Ford, turned it down after being told by producer, John Nathan-Turner, he didn’t want Susan to call the Doctor ‘Grandfather.’)

Ian was a science teacher, so the public school setting was perfect. Unfortunately, William Russell turned out to be unavailable for the tight dates set aside for filming due to theatre commitments – and Ian has never returned to the series (though Russell appears as a different character in the celebratory biopic, An Adventure in Space and Time later this year). Perhaps this is better though: it leaves Ian as a blissful 1960s memory, settling down with Barbara maybe and reminiscing about the time he led the Thals to usurp the Daleks and that time she was a Goddess to the Aztecs.

However, this did leave a sizeable gap in the story. Harry Sullivan, played wonderfully by Ian Marter, was briefly considered for return (he last appeared in Who in 1975’s The Android Invasion), but then John Nathan-Turner remembered the farewell party for Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker…

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Nicholas Courtney, who played Colonel and then Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart from 1968’s The Web of Fear, had told Doctor Who producer that he’d definitely be up for returning to the role – and the Brigadier was a perfect fit for Mawdryn Undead.

In fact, the whole season celebrates Doctor Who as a whole, bringing back elements from previous serials, including Omega, the Mara and the Master – leading up to the 20th anniversary celebration, The Five Doctors. But that doesn’t mean that the whole season was about looking back.

Mawdryn Undead bravely introduced a shocking new companion. In Vislor Turlough, the audience are presented with a character nearly as mysterious as the Doctor himself; one that threatened to kill the Time Lord. It was a bold move, and actor, Mark Strickson, was seemingly up against all odds to create someone millions of people would like and care about – despite potentially being a murderer.

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Whilst the plot linking Turlough to the Black Guardian continued over Terminus and concluded in Enlightenment, his relationship with the Doctor evolves through his 33-episode tenure; however, his full story isn’t revealed until his final story, Planet of Fire (1984).

And though Strickson faced a tough role, Turlough remains a memorable and well-loved companion to the similarly-brilliant Fifth Doctor. In fact, they’re about as perfect a Doctor-companion team as you could hope for.

Knowing how many beans make five

Mawdryn Undead, despite being tasked with introducing a new companion and mixing in classic elements, isn’t just a box-ticking exercise. It’s a solid, clever and thought-provoking story that challenges some of the show’s main ideas. And the Brigadier and Turlough aren’t just shoe-horned in either. But how did this notion of a never-dying crew and a time twisting adventure first come about…?

Due to The Song of the Space Whale falling through, Enlightenment was meant to replace its slot – thankfully, it remained the final story in the so-called ‘Black Guardian Trilogy,’ which nicely wrapped up Turlough being blackmailed into killing the Doctor – but writer, Peter Grimwade, instead pitched an idea based on the story of the Flying Dutchman.

Albert Pinkham Ryder's 'The Flying Dutchman' (c. 1887)

Albert Pinkham Ryder’s ‘The Flying Dutchman’ (c. 1887)

The myth of the Flying Dutchman is thought to have originated in 17th Century folklore; a ghostly ship with a crew doomed to sail the sea forever, and similar to legends like the Loch Ness Monster, it’s a great source to mine for Doctor Who. Particularly as seeing the Flying Dutchman is said to be a portent of doom…

The ship was first written about in George Barrington’s A Voyage to Botany Bay (1795), in which it was described:

“In the night watch some of the people saw, or imagined they saw, a vessel standing for them under a press of sail, as though she would run them down: one in particular affirmed it was the ship that had foundered in the former gale, and that it must certainly be her, or the apparition of her; but on its clearing up, the object, a dark thick cloud, disappeared. Nothing could do away the idea of this phenomenon on the minds of the sailors; and, on their relating the circumstances when they arrived in port, the story spread like wild-fire, and the supposed phantom was called the Flying Dutchman.”

Since then, the phantom ship has been featured in many pieces of literature – and some real-life accounts, including that of King George V! The King’s former tutor (who took the Monarch and his brother, Prince Albert Victor of Wales, on a voyage) regaled the story:

“At 4 a.m. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there was no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her…”

Obviously, Doctor Who isn’t the only show to use the fabled ship as inspiration, cropping up in Spongebob Squarepants, the 1960’s Spider-Man cartoon, and 1976’s Land of the Lost, as well as films like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006).

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And the notion of a never-dying, cursed crew contrasts nicely with the ‘care-free’ Doctor… Or does it? The serial examines the possibility of living forever and sticks in the mind of the audience, making us question whether the Doctor’s long life is a blessing or a curse.

Mawdryn Undead is quintessential Doctor Who: riffing off legends; playing with expectations; looking to the past whilst promising an intriguing future.


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About the Author


When he’s not watching television, reading books ‘n’ Marvel comics, listening to The Killers, and obsessing over script ideas, Philip Bates pretends to be a freelance writer. He enjoys collecting everything.

14 Responses to Introducing: Mawdryn Undead

  1. avatar Anthony says:

    An underrated classic, packed with memorable scenes and imagery. And fans can be very grateful that it was another chance to see the Brig – splendid chaps, both of them!

  2. avatar Christopher Martin says:

    I’m sorry, but this tells us nothing about this particular story. Unless of course, it’s supposed to be the introduction to a proper analysis of it. Otherwise it’s a barely formed first draft that should never have been posted.

    • I look forward to receiving pitches from you, Christopher Martin. Especially if they can then be developed into better pieces than this.

      I doubt it, but you’re welcome to try. Then you might be in a position to criticise Phil’s work.

    • avatar Philip Bates says:

      Hi Christopher,

      Sorry you didn’t enjoy this.

      My Introduction articles aren’t supposed to be deep analyses of stories, merely introductions to key ideas and behind-the-scenes info, hopefully to encourage people to watch serials for the first time, or even rewatch with a little more understanding of what happened behind the curtain.

      I do endeavor to make each Intro article well-researched and detailed but not too much so as to make a deep analysis, as I think this might put some off. Generally, people turn to books for some analysis, rather than reading it online, as studies show that web copy simply doesn’t demand a reader’s attention so thoroughly.

      I’m quite happy with what I’ve covered, as I think many would be unaware of, say, the links to The Flying Dutchman, or some of the undeveloped tales.

      Also, as part of our 50th anniversary celebrations, I wanted to cover some main themes of Doctor Who, and so this checks off regeneration and stories-that-never-were.

      If you’re looking for analysis or debate, however, might I direct you to my The World Behind: Frontier in Space (http://www.kasterborous.com/2013/01/the-world-behind-frontier-in-space/); Christian’s Spoilers: The Childish Destruction of Surprise (http://www.kasterborous.com/2012/12/spoilers-the-childish-destruction-of-surprise/) or Alasdair Shaw’s A Question of Colour (http://www.kasterborous.com/2012/06/a-question-of-colour/).

      Ah, my first critic. I feel like I’ve made it. ;P



  3. avatar Christopher Martin says:

    Hi Phil, thanks for your reply. On the whole I really like what is published on the site, but I just felt this didn’t really explain anything about the story and assumed far too much knowledge of it to be an introduction to it. It really needs a solid but precise explanation of the story at the start so the rest of what you say is in context…without it, all your discussion appears in a vacuum. Probably an editing issue rather than anything to do with the writing.

    Christian – don’t be so defensive. It’s a great site with a lot of interesting stuff on it (I’m particularly pleased to see the reviews of classic shows are back on line)…this just wasn’t one of them. As a reader I’m allowed to critically analyse articles I read. Which I did. Take it on board or don’t. It’s your choice.

    • Hi Christopher

      Thank you for your kind words. I felt your initial comment was a little harsh, to be honest. I’m more than happy to discuss the quality of articles by email but I don’t think in the comments is appropriate. You are more than welcome to offer criticisms on the article contents to me personally, but as you can see, doing so in the comments gets in the way of discussion about the subject :)

    • avatar Philip Bates says:

      Hey Christopher,

      That’s fair enough. It’s a tough line to tread; if I talked too much about certain plot points of Mawdryn Undead, it might be considered a spoiler to those who hadn’t seen it. Regardless, the regeneration thing, I feel, is important to cover.

      I did consider having a brief synopsis near the beginning, but the piece was getting far too long anyway, so scrapped the idea.

      Christian was just defending me, something which I’m grateful for. He’s a good editor, that one. :)

      I’ll definitely take your comments into consideration, especially in my next Intro article, due later this month.



    • avatar Philip Bates says:

      Also, my latest DW @ 50 review should be up soon, so please let me know what you think. :)

  4. avatar Christopher Martin says:

    Christian / Phil – thanks both for replying. Taking on board both sets of comments.

  5. avatar Bradondo says:

    I enjoyed the article immensely myself as I have your previous “Introducing…” articles. I think it’s a very good balance of information and analysis. I hadn’t watched this story for some 20+ years until recently and found it perhaps more satisfying than my memory of it. I’m working my way back through the Turlough stories and my opinion of the character has improved this time around. As an aside I met Mark Strickson at a convention back when he was still on the show and he was a splendid chap. Thanks as always for the great work! :)

    • avatar Philip Bates says:

      Thanks very much for your continued support. I really appreciate it, and I’m very glad you like my articles.

      Also: lucky chap! I’d like to meet Strickson, as he seems such a nice bloke and Turlough is great. :)

      • avatar Bradondo says:

        When I met him he was taking to a couple of fans about how Andrew Lloyd Webber nicked most of his melodies from other composers. I was a kid with no knowledge of ALW at the time, but later discovered this was true. Strickson seemed a very soft-spoken, down to earth person. I met a number of Who people back then (used to go to conventions in Philadelphia) including Terrance Dicks, but as I was only 12 or 13 I didn’t get much out of it aside from some autographs I no longer have.

      • avatar Bradondo says:

        In my recent revisiting of Turlough I’ve noticed something interesting–The Doctor never challenges him in those first three episodes, although it’s clear that he recognizes Turlough is either not from Earth or misplaced in time. The Doctor also seems to know from the get go that Turlough has an agenda about which he is ambivalent, yet he allows him the freedom to pursue that agenda. At the end of Enlightenment The Doctor has clearly been waiting for the confrontation with the Black Guardian and the choice Turlough must make. I believe The Doctor knew Turlough was an agent of the Black Guardian almost immediately (or at least from the point he saw the crystal communicator he obtrusively returned to Turlough with a casual “yours I believe”) but regognized that a)Turlough was not capable of murder and b)he would have to face the Black Guardian soon regardless. I love that all of this was implied with barely any dialogue and without any overt acknowledgement–a real testament to trusting the intelligence of your audience.

        • avatar Philip Bates says:

          Completely agree. This was a really great trilogy (and yes, I even enjoyed Terminus) and a really great TARDIS team!

          (Sorry it’s taken so long to reply!)

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