Enlightenment was the third serial in the Guardian trilogy which formed a major part of the twentieth (1983) season of Doctor Who. The trilogy had begun with the excellent Mawdryn Undead and continued with the reasonably good Terminus.
By his time the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) was down to just two companions, Tegan and Turlough.
Enlightenment was writer Barbara Clegg’s only Doctor Who script which is rather a pity since it combines some interesting science fictional ideas with an oddly moving storyline.
The Doctor has received a rather garbled message from the White Guardian. All he knows is that he has to stop someone from winning a race. The Tardis arrives on board an Edwardian racing yacht. The atmosphere on board is subtly disconcerting. None of the crew members can remember coming aboard. The officers are scrupulously polite but seem rather distant and emotionless. The First Mate takes quite a shine to Tegan but his attentions towards her are slightly disturbing. It’s not so much that he doesn’t seem to know how to communicate with a woman - it’s more that he seems unsure how to communicate with a human being. He just doesn’t seem to comprehend emotions.
Pretty soon things become much stranger. The yacht is not a sailing ship - it’s a spaceship. It’s engaged in a race with other spaceships, all of which have the appearance of sailing ships but from a bewildering variety of different time periods. Although they are spaceships they behave like sailing ships. The crews are sent aloft to set the sails.
This serial’s other great strength is the concept of sailing ships in space. It’s a concept that has been used before (and since) but it’s never been handled quite as cleverly as this.
This serial is also notable for its visual style. Instead of the uniform overlit very flat style that is so familiar in TV programs of its era Enlightenment is full of shadows and low-key lighting. Director Fiona Cumming was anxious to shoot it this way and to her surprise and delight she found that Fred Wright, the man in charge of the studio lighting, was happy to experiment with moody low-key lighting approaches. Apart from being wonderfully atmospheric and considerable enhancing the story it also gives this serial a rather modern look.
The support cast is mostly very strong, with Keith Barron being particularly good as the icily courteous but slightly creepy captain of of the yacht and Christopher Brown being even more disturbing as First Mate Marriner. Lynda Baron perhaps goes too far over-the-top as the captain of The Buccaneer.
Mark Strickson as Turlough gets to do a bit of actual acting while Janet Fielding as Tegan underplays her performance nicely. This is one serial in which Tegan comes across as a very sympathetic and rather likeable character. Peter Davison is as solid as ever.
Enlightenment is included in the Guardian Trilogy DVD boxed set and the BBC really went to town with the extras on this release. Apart from some good featurettes and an excellent audio commentary by Peter Davison, Mark Strickson, director Fiona Cumming and writer Barbara Clegg we also get (on a second disc) a completely re-edited feature film-length version of Enlightenment with new CGI special effects.
The idea of trying to re-edit an 80s Doctor Who serial to appeal to modern audiences is not however an entirely bad idea (although not to my personal taste) and the result is certainly infinitely superior to any of the episodes of the horrible 21st century Doctor Who series.
The original four-part Enlightenment serial is well-written, well-made, well-acted and visually pleasing and includes some excellent ideas. An impressive example of 1980s Doctor Who at its best. Highly recommended.