A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2012
There’s something seriously awry with the laws of physics out on the west side of the Milky Way. Things just don’t move in the way you’d expect. The mighty space liner Empress, for example, instead of gliding on a steady trajectory through space, just kind of… wafts about the place. The cargo ship Hecate, heading in the opposite direction, takes a similarly non-traditional approach to kinetics. Newton never framed a law for this kind of motion, nor Einstein an equation. Both vessels are orbiting the blue-green holiday planet of Azure, which spins silently beneath them. Well, I say ‘spins’. It turns in a series of hesitant twitches, which must have grave consequences when it comes to the conservation of momentum, and render life down on the surface entirely vexing; what with crockery flying everywhere, and the water forever slopping out of one’s bath. And I say ‘silently’. Musician Dudley Simpson – realising that all this interstellar spectacle might appear to be no more than a couple of crudely animated and chromakeyed models – is trying to makes things feel suitably solid and stately by bellowing “Fortissimo, cobbers! Fortissimo!” at his brass section. With a suitably blaring and adventurous main theme, Dudley almost saves the day.
Given how randomly the spaceships bob around out here, accidents must happen. Nightmare of Eden opens with a doozy. The Empress, in a partially materialised form, whacks into the smaller ship and solidifies around it, leaving the little red Hecate sticking out of its side like a tranquilising dart in a hippopotamus. This is all far-out sci-fi fun, but when we step aboard the Empress, life feels far more familiar. Indeed, if we excuse how flimsy the interior of the ship appears at points – and if we can accept that there might ever be a time when it will be considered acceptable for a middle-aged man in a position of authority to wear a glittery lycra top outside of his own home – then Nightmare of Eden will surely prove to be Doctor Who’s most accurate prediction of the future of space travel. It’s all so believably mundane. The Empress flies “the milk run”, we’re told. “Station 9 to Azure. Azure to Station 9.” Given the giddy excitement of the passengers in cattle class, this is a clearly a holiday package tour, probably run by a future version of one of today’s low-cost airlines; EasyWarp, perhaps, or RyanSpace. On booking, our passengers would have been miffed to discover additional charges for loan of protective overalls and glasses. This is clearly exploitation, because none of the crew have to wear them. Later, when Dymond, the aggrieved owner of the Hecate, arrives on board to remonstrate with Captain Rigg, the talk is not of science, but of blame and claim. “We’re fully covered comprehensive on all third party damage,” says Rigg. “The company will compensate you.” When the Doctor and Romana join in, they pose as insurance agents, which is great fun. It’s a bit of whimsy, of course, but so fresh and clever and neat, it kicks the story off with great vigour; an energy it maintains across all four episodes.
As the Doctor sets about separating the ships, Romana heads to the Empress’s first class lounge, where she meets a xenozoologist called Tryst and his dreary assistant Della. Tryst speaks with a thick, slurred accent that might be Dutch, German, or the result of a serious stroke. Either way, he could make a name for himself as the Low Countries’ leading Liza Minnelli impersonator. But Tryst is a busy man, on a mission to catalogue “effry speches in da galaxy”. That’s an awful lot of speches, so Tryst is clearly a man of no small ambition. He hopes to meet “a sponshur on Ashur” – something which one hopes will be easier done than said. He’s the inventor of the Continuous Event Transmuter, a machine which can hoover up and compress a chunk of a planet’s surface, and all “der floura und der fawna”, into a crystal, with this miniaturised microcosm then available for viewing on a screen. The Doctor calls it “an electric zoo”, but what Tryst has actually invented is surely the ideal medium for the broadcast of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. It would allow a jungle full of the likes of Gillian McKeith, Paul Burrell and Coronation Street’s Antony Cotton to be captured in a single crystal that could then be easily and conveniently stepped on. Most of the planets offered by the CET Machine – Vij, Zil, Lvan, Darp – sound like brands of oven cleaner you’d find in a pound shop, so it’s no surprise that Romana’s attention is drawn to Eden. When she dials up the projection the camera slowly tracks in, and shadows in the foliage resolve into the shape of a face peering right back at us. It’s a spine-tingling moment. A lovely Doctor Who scare.
Meanwhile, the Doctor’s investigation of the crash has him follow navigator Secker, who is not in a good way. We learn that he’s been using the drug Vraxion (also known by its street names of ‘Vrax’, ‘Moff’ and ‘Paddy Kingsland’s spunky backpack’, although I might have made some of those up). The Doctor knows Vrax to be dangerous and addictive: “I’ve seen whole communities, whole planets, destroyed by this.” It’s an astonishingly adult topic for Doctor Who to tackle at Saturday teatime – even the use of the word ‘communities’ is an interesting shading there – and one wonders if it would be countenanced today. The progressive effects of Vraxoin are played through the character of Rigg – a great, unsung performance by David Daker – whose drink is spiked with the stuff. The initial high seems similar to that of cannabis, in the sense that Rigg becomes a total bore. “Let’s talk about life,” he says with a giggle. Now, when someone sits down next to you at a party and suggests you might want to talk about life, it’s always best to find another seat; preferably another party. Even at this stage, Rigg should stand as a stark warning to the kids watching. “Don’t do drugs, guys, because they make you more interesting only to yourself.” Soon, the Captain is completely off his chump, and laughs as he watches his passengers murdered by rampaging monsters. “They’re only economy class!” he scoffs. “What’s all the fuss about?” It’s a black joke worthy of Robert Holmes. That’s a thought: how much darker and more satirical might the comedy in this story have been had the scripts passed through his hands? Soon after, Rigg’s comedown proves swift and brutal. “I must have something for this terrible feeling,” he wails at Romana. In a moment he’s screaming at her: “Let me have some or I’ll kill you!” And it’s clear he’s ready to do exactly that. He has her by the wrist, and raises his arm to strike. Rigg is shot before he can actually beat Romana to death, but the implication alone of what he’s about to do makes this a staggeringly brutal scene by Doctor Who standards.
Unfortunately, a couple of production missteps typical of the period take the edge off all this. Rigg is shot – killed, we must assume – by customs officer Fisk, whose official uniform makes him look like he’s on work placement from the Village People. And the monsters who excite Rigg’s mirth – the Mandrels – do, unfortunately, look ludicrous. But while the dressing of this storyline might seem absurd, we mustn’t lose track of what is happening here. To reiterate: a decent, honest man, who is secretly drugged by others, laughs at wholesale slaughter and then, desperate for another fix, tries to kill the Doctor’s companion. This innocent man is then shot in the back and goes unmourned. There has long been a view that the 17th year of Doctor Who is somehow less serious than others; that it is gaudy and whimsical. Well, phooey to that. Doctor Who doesn’t come darker than Nightmare of Eden.
However – yes – the Mandrels are silly. The problem is, they’re just too darn cute. If the Doctor Who title sequence were remodelled after that of The Muppet Show, a Mandrel – all fun-fur and googly eyes – would surely lead the stomp across the bottom row of that tiered colonnade, followed by the Garm and the Ergon. (Up above, the smallest arches would be filled by the Graske, a baby Fendahleen and a trio of friendly clams. The diamond logo would be winched down, and through the ‘O’ of ‘WHO’ the Bandril Ambassador would toot on a trumpet.) Normally it’s the feet that do for a Doctor Who monster, but while the Mandrels have the kind of legs that won’t be seen again until the closing number of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, it’s their arms that really let them down. They’re too long, and flail hopelessly about. With all the will in the world, from the moment a Mandrel comes windmilling in at the end of Part One, it must surely be impossible for anyone over the age of four to suspend their disbelief.
Happily, monsters alone do not a Doctor Who story make, and Nightmare of Eden delivers a steady stream of other pleasures. The electronic effects used to depict the hazy overlap of the two ships are outstanding, especially when accompanied by a clever soundtrack of distant creaks and clangs. The cliffhanger out of Part Two, when the Doctor takes Romana by the hand and they leap into the Eden projection – “We’ll get torn apart!” – is impossibly thilling. It’s easy to imagine how this scene would be reshot today. The projection would be CGI and the camera would sweep left to right with the Doctor to the edge of it, to make it clear that he’s jumping into a two-dimensional screen. There’d be a blup! as the image of Eden ripples and swallows him up. Here, however, the effect is achieved merely by placing the two sets side-by-side, and the thrill is delivered thanks to how well the script has sold the reality of this to us; by the performances; and by the perfect timing of that final cut to the credits. It’s both sublimely simple and devilishly clever.
That cliffhanger also serves to knit together the various strands of this story – the unstable overlap of the ships, Tryst’s CET machine, the Mandrels and the drug smuggling – in a wonderfully stylish way. While inside the Eden projection, our heroes meet Stott. He’s the owner of the face that peeped out at Romana, and with his bouncy perm and cheekbones he looks more like the Denys Fisher Tom Baker doll than Tom Baker ever did. Stott, a drugs officer with Space Corps, explains that he was left for dead on Eden while investigating Tryst’s operation, but was then caught up in the CET crystal. “There were a few times I felt like blowing my brains out,” he says. It’s another dark and adult moment that pulls you up sharp.
It’s been said – many times – that Lewis Fiander’s enthusiastic performance as Tryst, and that Amsterdam pot-dealer accent he deploys, is to the detriment of Nightmare of Eden, as it signposts too clearly that he is the villain. That’s an easy claim to make with hindsight, but if you can imagine not knowing this fact, then you can appreciate that Fiander is, intelligently, trying to make his character seem too silly to be the prime suspect. The problem is actually with the script and the wider casting, which fail to deliver any other suspects. We ought to think that Della could be responsible, but Jennifer Lonsdale’s performance is so flat, and her dialogue so basic – “It’s just that Eden brings back such terrible memories for me. That was where we lost the other crew member” – that she’s never a serious contender. Equally drably-written and played are customs officers Fisk and Costa, who you can’t believe have lived a single day before the events of the story, or will live a single day after. So it’s not that Fiander is too ‘out there’ for this story, it’s that the rest of the cast – David Daker aside – lack the wit and the material to allow them to deliver at the same level.
In the home straight, we learn that Tryst, in league with Dymond, is using the CET machine to smuggle the Mandrels – which are made of pure Vraxoin – from Eden, and is all set to transfer the contents of the Eden crystal over to the Hecate by laser link. So was this their plan all along? Did they merely intend to pull the two ships alongside for the short time it takes for the drop? In which case, are we to believe that the collision – plus the instability of the Eden projection, and no others – is just a honking great coincidence? And if this whole operation is designed to smuggle the Vrax past the super-sensitive shipboard scanner on the Empress, then how was Secker keeping some in a filing cabinet, and where was Tryst hiding the batch he used to dope poor Rigg?
One wishes there had been a final go at the script, which would have, I’m sure, made the accident deliberate, and vital to Tryst and Dymond’s plan. They would have needed the instability to make the Eden crystal accessible again. Secker would have been in their employ, and then drugged – like Rigg – to make it all seem like an accident. One small sample of Vrax would have been hidden in the Hecate, and brought over by Dymond. And maybe Della, who could have served the drugged drinks, would have been our prime suspect for a few episodes; imagined in league with her boyfriend, spotted lurking in the projection.
Doctor Who stories stand or fall by their scripts, I believe. Everything else is trivia; fuel for cheap jokes at the top of a DVD review. Special effects may fail, shots be missed and lines be fluffed due to time and money running out in the studio, that can’t be helped. But there’s less excuse for not finding the hours, days and weeks to polish storylines until they shine, and dialogue until it sings. Nightmare of Eden is a tremendous piece of work, but flawed. And it’s not the comical monsters and a comedy accent that are the problem, but a plot that fails to resolve properly, characters that fail to come fully to life, and a script that follows up every deft line with a clumsy one.
Nightmare cruises an erratic – and a joyously idiosyncratic – course; but one that’s plotted just a few degrees south of true greatness.
An interview with Romana actress Lalla Ward on an edition of Ask Aspel from 1980 provides a glimpse of lost age of starchy children’s TV. Ward is quite appallingly snooty about the whole thing; rolling her eyes and tossing her hair in response to Michael Aspel’s perfectly reasonable questions. A clip from a BBC Shakespeare production is cued by Aspel: “Here’s a snippet of Hamlet, where you play – guess who – Ophelia.” The seven-year-old viewers of Ask Aspel must have been puffing on their pipes and huffing impatiently: “Well yes, Ophelia of course.” Ward’s illustrations for the book Astrology For Dogs (and Owners) receive a nice plug. This inspirational work is doubtless now favourite bedtime reading of her husband Richard Dawkins, who loves all that astrology stuff.
The bafflingly-titled The Doctor’s Strange Love brings together writers Joseph Lidster and Simon Guerrier, plus comedian – it says here – Josie Long, for a chat about the hits and misses of Nightmare of Eden. “It’s too explicitly anti-drugs,” says Lidster – right on, dude! – which makes one wonder what kind of equivocation he was expecting from a family drama shown at 6pm on a Saturday in 1979. Guerrier wears an expression of such open and childlike delight in the cutaways, you feel there surely must be a particularly wobbly jelly being jiggled just out of shot.
The finest extra here, by a parsec, is Nicholas Pegg’s ‘info text’ subtitles. It’s a flood of facts and fun. And here’s a word of friendly advice on the subject. If you’re in the habit of watching these production notes while listening to the cast commentary, then try to resist the urge. Many insights and jokes in the subtitles bounce from cues in the scripted dialogue, and you’ll be missing a whole level of sly wit if you separate one from the other. The big behind-the-scenes story of Nightmare of Eden is of how a seething production team and cast rose up against the perceived shortcomings of director Alan Bromly – shortcomings that are not particularly evident on screen, it must be said – which led to his dismissal during the final day of studio recording. Pegg teases this tale up front, but then holds back the juicy details until Parts Three and Four, delivering a narrative every bit as intriguing and entertaining as Nightmare of Eden itself.
For some primary-source bitching, turn to The Nightmare of TV Centre, where thoroughly disconsolate visual effects designer Colin Mapson dismisses his spaceship shots as “a disaster, to be quite honest”, and blames the producer for insisting they be shot on videotape rather than film. But it’s the tales of Tom Baker chafing against the authority of Alan Bromly that again prove most fun. Tom’s studio backchat, at first audible only to his fellow actors but then bellowed at the gallery, make him sound quite wonderfully brattish; but he was furious only because he cared so much. And it’s clear that he was not alone in his anger. Floor manager Val McCrimmon suggests that Bromly’s assistant, sat beside him making notes on the script, would deliberately try to stab him with her pen. Whether she actually drew blood is not recorded, but surely on-the-job feedback to one’s line manager doesn’t get more direct than that.