Interfered with by both the White Guardian and the Black Guardian, the Doctor lands in the hold of an Edwardian yacht called the Shadow. The human crew don’t know where they are or how they got there, but believe they are in a race. The Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough discover that the ship and other historical vessels are in a solar-sail race through the solar system. The officers are Eternals and the crew Ephemerals. The Eternals live in the wastes of eternity and rely on Ephemerals for their thoughts. The race is run by the Guardians and the prize is Enlightenment. The Eternals have made the TARDIS vanish, so the Doctor and his companions are trapped on board.
Some of the vessels are destroyed by explosions. The Doctor thinks the crew of the Buccaneer—a 17th Century pirate ship—are responsible. Turlough, trying to escape the Black Guardian, throws himself overboard and ends up aboard the pirate ship, where he meets Captain Wrack (a gloriously flamboyant Lynda Baron), who is also controlled by the Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall). Turlough finds equipment that may have caused the explosions and hears the Black Guardian’s voice. Wrack invites the Edwardian officers to a reception, at which Turlough shows the Doctor what he has found. Wrack hypnotizes Tegan and gives her a tiara set with a red crystal. Afterwards, the Doctor sees the Buccaneer encroaching upon the Shadow and destroys the tiara, realizing it is a destructive energy focus.
The solar winds dissipate, and the Buccaneer pulls ahead. The Eternals return the TARDIS to the Doctor allowing him to travel to the pirate ship. He is captured and Wrack’s first mate Mansell (Leee John—spelled that way) suggests both the Doctor and Turlough be thrown overboard. From the Shadow, Tegan and the others watch in horror as two bodies are ejected just before the Buccaneer crosses the finish line.
The ships and the human crews are returned to Earth and the Guardians dismiss the Eternals. We learn that it was Wrack and Mansell that were jettisoned and that the Doctor has won the race. He refuses the prize of Enlightenment, but Turlough is entitled to a portion of the winnings. The Black Guardian tells Turlough he can have the fabulously valuable diamond prize, the power of Enlightenment, and the TARDIS if he kills the Doctor. Turlough hurls the diamond—full of brilliant light—at the Black Guardian and he screams and vanishes in flames. The Doctor suggests that Enlightenment was not the diamond but the choice Turlough made. Turlough asks to be taken to his home planet.
The story was written by Barbara Clegg and directed by Fiona Cumming. As such, it was the first Doctor Who story to be both written and directed by women. This did not happen again until the Witchfinders story, when the 13th Doctor was also a woman—Jodie Whittaker. Clegg based the Eternals on wealthy relatives of hers who stayed too long and demanded constant entertainment. The production was impacted by an industrial action taken by electricians and finished three months behind schedule. Several actors were no longer available and had to be replaced, but the story received generally positive reviews from critics. The story was described as epic, and the two Captains, particularly, were praised as perfect foils for each other. Lynda Baron, so wonderfully over-the-top as the pirate Captain, had sung the “Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon” song in the First Doctor story The Gunfighters.
Janet Fielding, in her gorgeous low-cut Edwardian gown, was constantly threatened with wardrobe malfunctions. The Doctor, of course, hardly noticed. The newspaper he found on shipboard was a reprint of The Times from September 1901. The food and drink were real. Mark Strickson was injured vaulting over the rail and walked with difficulty for weeks. The filming was so late that composer Malcolm Clarke had one week to create the music. The ships were based on models and illustrations in the Nautical Maritime Museum. In the later version particularly, with enhanced special effects, the great ships under full sail in space gave the story a magical quality. Doctor who has always stepped from science-fiction into fantasy and back again with hardly a stumble. Star Wars, on the other hand, is full fantasy with a science-fiction edge, and Star Trek’s science-fiction credentials are impeccable, only sometimes straying into fantasy. In my opinion.