“Their minds are empty, used up. They need ideas from us. They’re desperate for them.”
Doctor Who becomes increasingly adrift in the 80s under Eric Saward; confused as to its identity, schizophrenic in tone. A publicity-chasing producer, a clear lack of strong scripts, engaged directors, appropriate cast – they all conspire to make the show tonally erratic. Over the course of the Fifth Doctor’s era Doctor Who takes in slow-burn psychological horror such as Kinda and Snakedance; macho shoot-em-ups such as Earthshock, Resurrection of the Daleks, Warriors of the Deep and Caves of Androzani; quasi historicals such as Black Orchid, The Visitation and The Awakening, and ‘hard’ sci-fi such as Frontios and Terminus. Although the lack of a touchstone to return to arguably leaves the series rootless, it’s nothing if not eclectic.
There’s another sub-genre the show returns to from time-to-time, however. There are occasional sidesteps into the esoteric, such as Christopher Bailey’s two Mara tales and Christopher H Bidmead’s own Castrovalva. And although it shares some similar notes with these stories and can be roughly lumped in with them, there’s another story that’s unique in the era: frankly it’s unique in Doctor Who’s 50-year run. It is Enlightenment.
That title alone tells us a lot. In a 50-year history of Horrors and Terrors, not to mention ‘Of Deaths’ there are very few enigmatic story titles, those that are tend to be fictional names or places, but Enlightenment? It’s heavy with suggestion but vague too – it’s no real surprise in a way that it ranks so lowly, it’s too hard to pigeonhole. Barbara Clegg’s sole contribution to the series is very much under the radar, ranking a lowly 75 in Doctor Who Magazine’s latest fan survey. You never hear Moffat or RTD discussing Enlightenment in glowing tones, it’s never mentioned as someone’s favourite story, nor has it ever really been referenced again in the series or (to my knowledge) in spin-off media. It floats around in the Doctor Who canon set slightly apart from everything else.
Enlightenment centres around a novel but slight concept – a race among the stars in ancient sailing vessels. But amid that idea it’s story of dualities: black and white; light and dark; Doctor and Turlough; Eternals and Ephemerals; Wrack and Striker; Tegan and Marriner. The story, such as it is, exists largely as a framework on which to hang these concepts and relationships for four episodes until, rather abruptly it all ends. There is very little plot and The Doctor essentially triumphs by being The Doctor – winning over Turlough, who he seems to understand has been tasked with killing him, by doing exactly what he would have been doing in the first place. While it’s beautifully written in places, what carries Enlightenment to the heights it reaches is very much in the concept and its realisation: beautiful production values, Fiona Cumming’s eye for character, a sensual score by Malcolm Clarke and fine cast.
Keith Barron, largely spotted on television around this time in terrible sitcoms, despite his fine pedigree, is a revelation as the Eternal Captain of one of the race favourites, the Shadow. Having recently seen cuddly Peter Sallis as the unpleasant Bontine in The Pallisers, that also strikes me as a fine piece of casting, however Barron’s Striker is the most magnetic presence on the screen in Enlightenment. It’s a performance of the calibre and commitment rarely seen in Doctor Who at this time – literally an unblinking and unfliching portrayal of stillness; of a celestial creature taking human form and never quite figuring out how to make it work. Like an Auton facsimile, Striker may resemble a human but he’s clearly nothing of the sort.
The Doctor initially jousts with Striker as a potential antagonist before becoming openly adversarial and then simply giving up, unable to fathom him. For Striker, even a incredible being such as the Doctor is simply another ephemeral, another pawn in the game to provide a modicum of entertainment. The Doctor simply has nothing to go on and, denied an enemy to play against, is essentially neutered. This reaches amusing proportions when Striker cuts the Doctor off even as he opens his mouth to question the desires that Enlightenment will fulfil.
“Do not ask me what it is,” orders Striker, turning away. “I will not tell you.”
The Doctor closes his mouth and look away, exasperated. None of the Eternals show any self-awareness when discussing their true feelings; they’re all id, as embarrassed at discussing their emotions with Ephemerals as toddlers voicing to whatever occurs to them. Yet Striker clearly does not want to reveal what urges him on to win the race – what could it possibly be to this creature of limitless existence? The indulgence of the senses and emotions, like Marriner? Or the ultimate extensions of it – true life, or true death? That we cannot ever know makes the Eternals all the more intriguing. There can never be any exposition at the end of the story – even the Doctor, essentially even the author, is baffled by the Eternals.
Marriner is equally well drawn, played with a kind of blank ingenuousness by Christopher Brown. His desire to be near Tegan – to savour her emotions and experience them vicariously as he attempts to understand and gain existence – is one of the most unsettling storylines in Doctor Who’s history. Exactly what is the endpoint of this unusual courtship – and how to view Marriner’s clear relish at his violation of Tegan’s mind? The Eternal finds her finite existence darkly fascinating in ways that aren’t quite explained, but certainly alluded to. “They need ideas from us; they’re desperate for them.”
Tegan is clearly disturbed by the implications, but with the Doctor almost powerless to protect her falls into an uneasy codependency with Marriner – perhaps the only other being in the story who truly has her safety at heart, regardless of the motives why. Janet Fielding is superb in showing what’s really underneath Tegan’s brittle exterior. It’s no coincidence that this is the first story for a long time – excepting Christopher Bailey’s scripts – that treats the companions as functioning human beings, rather than catalysts for events. It’s perhaps not surprising that both writer and director are women; Enlightenment is far more interested in character, emotions and agency than most stories of the era. The fact that the Eternal crew of the Shadow are united in their unblinking performances – rarely deigning to face whomever they are addressing – cannot be a coincidence; it’s a good sign that writer and director have put some serious thought into their work.
Both Tegan and Turlough are thoroughly disturbed by what they experience on board the Shadow and both voice their desire to leave, despite a lack of obvious and imminent danger. Turlough is so terrified at the prospect of remaining on board that the Black Guardian threatens to strand him on the ship, rather than simply kill him. The schoolboy is even discomfited by the crew’s roughnecking in the fo’c’sle, despite the lack of any threat from them – he’s simply socially uncomfortable, which is thrown into sharp relief when he shows genuine amusement at the Doctor’s expense as the crew mistake the Time Lord for the ship’s cook.
What’s so good about this is that both companions are afforded their own agency. They have believable drives, fears and instincts beyond simply adventuring in time and space; the narrative imperative of the show and, for many companions, seemingly the only motivation required. In those scenes where we see the companions acting naturally – showing concern for one another, discussing their mutual discomfort and reacting with revulsion at the behaviour of the Eternals – and actively wanting to leave, we can believe in them as real people. This is, frankly, extremely rare in Doctor Who.
It’s become common for people to state that Wrack – played voluptuously by Lynda Baron – is the best thing in Enlightenment. In fact, Baron constitutes a rather jarring change to proceedings. From a sensuous psychological meditation, Enlightenment is pulled rather violently back into a world where Beryl Reed is a starship captain and The Master sends Concorde back to the Cretaceous simply because John Nathan-Turner thinks a photo of Peter Davison in front of a supersonic jet will guarantee a photo on page 18 of the Daily Mirror.
However, the scenes on board the piratical Buccaneer are interesting for the ongoing fascination the Eternals have for Tegan, now significantly clad in a revealing and ornate gown, to her obvious pleasure: Wrack’s ploy to remove Tegan to a secluded room to ‘show her something’, having already plied her with booze, is barely suggestive – it’s pretty much an overt date rape. It’s interesting that Turlough manages to just about hold his own, though the Eternals quickly tire of him too, another momentary distraction.
From the banquet scene – which includes one of the finest pieces of incidental music in Doctor Who – things move quickly towards a rather slight resolution and the swift, if appropriately lyrical, conclusion of the Guardians Trilogy. Increasingly I find these three stories fascinating and their appeal grows every time I watch them. Turlough is, perhaps, the last interesting companion of the classic series, while Fielding and Strickson are among the best actors to play companions in the series’ run.
In all three stories, albeit to different degrees, we can see the Doctor effectively emasculated as a narrative force and a character. It’s not that he’s ineffectual as such, but much less the prime mover in events: in Enlightenment his net contribution is to save The Shadow from Wrack’s smuggled-aboard explosive, yet it’s only endangered because he and his companions make the journey to the Buccaneer in the first place. All of which makes the Fifth Doctor the more intriguing and perhaps more winning. He is the first time the Doctor has really been a relatable character; above all a reasonable, charming and vaguely blank man.
But it’s more than that. When he meets his other selves he seems embarrassed by them. He shows little overt sense of adventure – when he arrives amid a chain of events set in motion, his first instinct is frequently to leave. He is, fundamentally, a reluctant Doctor often finding himself in adventures because of others – the Master, Black Guardian, Time Lords or Daleks. In Enlightenment the Doctor defeats the Black Guardian by winning over Turlough; by essentially being nice.
The Fifth Doctor is the ultimate straight bat – in his own way he’s as nonplussed as the Eternals: disinterested, uninterested, diffident. All Doctors display a certain swagger, self-assuredness, self-possession, but with the Fifth Doctor it is simply not there. Whereas his predecessors and successors openly revel in being The Doctor – “it’s like a promise you make” – that never rings true of the Fifth. Perhaps he never really wanted to the Doctor at all.
It’s instructive that most of Peter Davison’s roles beyond Doctor Who have him as rather hapless, pathetic and emasculated – to cast him as The Doctor was, perhaps, John Nathan-Turner’s one stroke of genius. Davison brings something utterly different to the role and it’s tempting to see a lot of himself in his portrayal of the Doctor. Until fairly recently he seems to have enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with the show: respectful but with a slight air of puzzled diffidence. It’s perhaps significant that he enjoyed the most successful post-Who career out of everyone in the classic series. He played the part to the best of his ability – and then simply moved on. We can see this in his Doctor: present but passive. He has few of the ‘eccentric’ traits of those who came before him or followed him and little of their passion. In Davison’s Doctor we see a man, a Time Lord, who can take it or leave it. It’s the most daring interpretation of any of the actors who have tackled the role.
Enlightenment throws the Fifth Doctor into sharp relief. Halfway through the story he essentially gives up and he often seems curiously indifferent to what’s going on around him. He allows Tegan to be spirited away by Wrack, whom he knows to be dangerous, he listens without a flicker of interest to Marriner’s desire for her and barely acknowledges Turlough’s terror, having saved him from being sucked into space. Any plans he has are derailed by the Eternals and the resolution to the race – indeed the whole trilogy – appears to be down to luck more than judgement.
In Marriner’s sinister pursuit of Tegan, Turlough’s desperation to escape his deal with the devil, Striker’s dubious desires and the sybaritic pleasure of Eternals feasting on the emotions of humans, Enlightenment has perhaps the most adult of the series’ concepts. And yet, against these darkly febrile subtexts and subplots, The Doctor seems largely impassive, unaffected. It’s another rejection of a lot of assumptions about the show and its lead: there’s a note of mystery about the character again – perhaps even a suggestion of a Doctor who has tired of the role the universe has fashioned for him – and comparing the Time Lord to the humans on both ships, and then to the Eternals, is irresistible and vaguely troubling.
Enlightenment is an aberration is the Fifth Doctor’s era – in Doctor Who as a whole. Never before and never again is the programme as ethereal, in touch with emotions, nor as deliberately enigmatic. With it, the Fifth Doctor’s era shakes off its empty machismo and becomes something surreal and sensual.