This story is a big deal for continuity geeks, because it introduces the Eternals. It's also a big deal for model ship fans, because most of it is a variety of model ships, from ancient Greek to Edwardian, sailing around with no distracting backgrounds. It also finishes off the Black Guardian arc, if anyone cares about that.
The Eternals are racing their sailing ships around Earth's solar system, and the winner gets enlightenment. The race is much like any episode of Jay Ward's 1960s parody cartoon Tom Slick, but without the knowing irony: a good guy tries to win by being good at racing, a bad guy tries to win by cheating, and everyone else is irrelevant and gets blown up by the bad guy. What is enlightenment? Fuck you, that's what. In the end, nobody wins, but at least the Black Guardian is gone, except that he'll be back whenever he wants to be.
The Eternals are incredibly bored aristocrats, having a race because they've got fuckall else to do. They are to the Doctor what the Doctor and the Monk are to the lesser species.
Not a bad concept, but nothing at all like the Eternals in any later story. Basically, Paul Cornell liked the name "Eternals", but liked Ghost Light more than this story, and all of the novels, comics, audios, and NuWho and Torchwood stories that use or reference Eternals all follow from him.
What is enlightenment? Eternal Striker tells us that it's the wisdom to know everything there is to know. OK, reasonable. Eternal Wrack says no, it's really a machine that makes real your heart's desire, and what she wants is to gain the inability to ever get bored. Much more interesting, but not enlightenment. Then the Enlighteners then say, no, it's this big-ass diamond, big enough to buy a galaxy. What? The Doctor finally says, no, enlightenment is actually the choice to accept the diamond or use it to blow up the Black Guardian.
The writer wants us to think this a really Buddhist idea of enlightenment, but it's not. Actually, she really wanted to write a different ending, which I suspect would have been better, but she had to alter it to conclude the Black Guardian Arc. Too bad that entirely defeats the point of her story.
Part One: An Intriguing BeginningEdit
The Doctor is trying to fix the TARDIS after Turlough's secret evil sabotage made the lights a little dim, while Turlough is being secretly evil by playing chess with Tegan. Whitey returns to tell the Doctor that there's a race on, and it will be a disaster if anyone wins, and meanwhile, there's a double-agent about the TARDIS, and it's not Tegan, it's--but before he can say who it is, he gets cut off by call waiting, when Blacky shows up to gloat over how the Doctor will never figure out the danger he's in.
So the Doctor decides to leave Turlough in the TARDIS in case Whitey calls back to tell them who the traitor is, while he and Tegan go visit one of the sailing ships to investigate. Blacky shows up to gloat that Turlough will never accomplish his mission and he'll be stuck on the TARDIS forever, which really doesn't seem like a good way to achieve his goal of getting Turlough to kill the Doctor, and, sure enough, Turlough gets so depressed that he decides to jump out of the TARDIS into empty space. But he gets picked up by a different ship in Part Three.
Part Two: Meet the EternalsEdit
The Doctor and Tegan end up on an Edwardian yacht, with good-ish guys Striker and Marriner, who are super-excited about talking to the Doctor and Tegan because they aren't robotic zombies (although Marriner may also be excited about Tegan's boobs). You'd think they would have figured out that they could leave a couple of regular humans around that they aren't tapping for ideas and then they'd have someone to talk to, but Eternals are stupid.
Also, Striker vanishes the TARDIS, because it doesn't belong in the race.
Part Three: Ruin the Eternals with Camp MelodramaEdit
Turlough ends up on a pirate ship with Wrack and her first mate Mansell. She wants to torture Turlough then kill him, but he explains that he's secretly evil and secretly wanted to see how evil she is, and this actually works.
Wrack's plan is to get a focus gem onto each ship and them blow it up with her invisible laser. She's only gotten one so far, so she invites all the other captains to a dinner party so she can gem up the rest. Striker refuses, because there's no such word as dinner party in auto racing, Marigold, but the rest of them come, and the Doctor and Tegan go in Striker's place, which is good enough, because Tegan gets gemmed.
Turlough decides to be a quadruple-agent instead of a double-agent, so he tells the Doctor about Wrack's plan, but then tells Wrack the Doctor is a spy. The Doctor believes Turlough is staying on Wrack's ship to defeat her single-handed to prove how trustworthy he is, and decides to let him do it. Wrack doesn't trust Turlough and is going to kill him.
Part Four: Way Too Many Things, Few of Them InterestingEdit
Turlough tells Wrack he's working for the Black Guardian, and she uses her secret Eternal powers to read his mind and see that it's true. Which proves that Turlough really is a bad guy and the Doctor really is an idiot. Wrack blows up the other ships, and is catching up to Striker's. The Doctor figures out that the focus gem Turlough warned him about is the big new gem in Tegan's tiara, so he smashes it then tosses the bit overboard, but that puts extra wind in Wrack's sails. The Doctor tells Striker that if he had his TARDIS he could stop Wrack, and Striker tells him, silly Doctor, you had it all along, I just stuck it inside your brain.
So the Doctor whips it out and zips over to Wrack's ship. He tries to reason with her, and she laughs and orders her first mate and Turlough to throw the Doctor into space, he and Turlough are both tossed out to die. Tegan cries, and Marriner doesn't get why she's sad about her friends dying, but thinks she's sexy when she's sad. Wrack wins, and all the survivors are beamed aboard the Enlighteners' ship.
The Enlighteners are really the Whitey and Blacky. And the winners are not Wrack and her first mate, but the Doctor and Turlough. So, apparently, Turlough decided to become a quintuple-agent and murder himself some superhuman beings.
The Doctor doesn't want enlightenment, because he's not ready for the wisdom to know everything. But Turlough says fuck that, gimme, so I guess he just killed Wrack to steal the prize from her, or to kiss Blacky's ass better than her. Sextuple-agent!
Whitey sends the losers away. Marriner wants to stay with Tegan, but she doesn't like him anymore because he didn't understand her grief and console her properly. Or maybe it's because he only wanted her mind, not her body. Let that be a lesson: either only sensitive 80s guys can get with obnoxious chicks with bad Aussie accents, or only sexists can, but I'm not sure which.
So, they give Turlough the diamond, but now it's Let's Make a Deal time. Blacky says that if Turlough is willing to sacrifice both the diamond and the Doctor, he can have the Doctor's TARDIS. At this point, Blacky is just fucking with Turlough, and he finally gets it, and beans him with the diamond, which causes him to burst into flames and disintegrate. Septuple-agent!
Whitey announces that they've done the right thing, and their reward is having an evil god, who can come back from being disintegrated any time he wants, pissed off at them for all time. Yay! Then he fucks off to leave them on their own. So, the Doctor was right all along, and Turlough was a good guy. Except no, Turlough was evil the entire time, as Wrack confirmed. Getting cheesed off at Blacky for being a jackass doesn't count as being a good guy.
Anyway, having failed to commit suicide twice and having killed off multiple supernatural beings and gotten nothing for it, Turlough's real heart's desire is to go home. Which of course he doesn't get--the Doctor promises, but remember how many times he's promised to get Tegan back to Heathrow? So, yeah, he's stuck for another season.
For a season 20 story with Davison's least favorite TARDIS crew, it's not that bad. But it's not that good, either. At the end, you're left thinking that this should have been the perfect Fifth Doctor story, and it's frustrating how badly it failed.
A good director, great sets, good performances by Striker and Marriner, Mark Strickson at his best for the first half, an atmosphere that actually caters to Talky Five and makes him work, some big ideas, and an overall feel that's leisurely rather than boring. And then it slams into a camp villain with her cuecard-reading henchman, some of Tegan's worst lines ever, big logic gaps, and an ending that sacrifices all of the ideas to turn it into a conclusion to a pointless arc.
Still, until Erimem shows up in Big Finish Land, from this point on Five's mostly getting either pointless bores or overambitious failures like this one, and I'll take the latter any day.