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Posts Tagged ‘Nightmare of Eden’

One thing you quickly get quite good at as a fan of 20th century Doctor Who, if you’re going to have any longevity to speak of in the role, is overlooking dodgy production values and visual effects. Without wishing to labour what’s usually a relatively unimportant point, the fact remains is that this is a TV series usually made in a multiple-camera videotape format, and it’s the moments when the visuals on the show are unexpectedly good that are the shocking ones, not those when everything goes horribly wrong.

As I say, this is usually a relatively unimportant point: the real achievement of 20th century Doctor Who is to be a landmark, classic, legendary TV series largely on the basis of its scripts, direction and performances (not that the production values are consistently awful by any means, but they rarely exceed the ‘good enough’ level). On the other hand, this isn’t to say that there aren’t a few stories where a potentially decent script is sabotaged by its realisation.

I’m not necessarily talking about wild overambition, although one of the guarantees of getting a ropey slice of Who is the reluctance of a script-editor to sling out a script concerning, say, Concorde crash-landing on prehistoric Earth, especially when it’s earmarked for an end-of-season the-money’s-run-out slot. Subtler things can be just as pernicious, which brings me to Nightmare of Eden, from the back end of 1979.

The plot runs thusly. Disaster strikes the spacelanes over the planet Azure when two spaceships come out of hyperspace at the same co-ordinates: the luxury liner Empress and the much smaller Hecate. As luck would have it, the Doctor and Romana turn up on the scene to find the two ships partly fused together, with distorted interface areas all over both vessels. The Doctor naturally comes up with a plan to separate the two ships, but is distracted from this, firstly by the discovery that the Empress is being used to smuggle the lethally addictive drug vraxoin, and secondly by the fact that savage alien beasts known as Mandrels are running amok on the ship. One of the passengers on the Empress is a scientist who has used something called a CET machine to make four-dimensional recordings of the planets he has visited – and the dimensional disruption caused by the hyperspace accident is allowing the Mandrels to escape from the recording of the planet Eden…

When you properly sit down and think about it, there are a couple of problems with Nightmare of Eden – why is it only animals from the Eden recording that escape? Is the Eden projection left running continuously throughout the story? And, if the projection is only rendered permeable by the accident, how is the villain planning to use it to smuggle vraxoin? But I don’t think either of these is fatal to the plot; other, better regarded stories have significantly worse plot holes. This story has a couple of big, bright ideas, plenty of incident, some strong cliffhangers, and an interesting theme – yet, the last time anyone checked, it came in at number 190 on the all-time list.

I think this is at least partly due to the sheer look of the thing. This is a story which came out at the very end of the 1970s, after all, when the concept of what a space-set story could look like was being comprehensively reimagined by films like Star Wars and Alien. Where films and TV shows had previously tried to create convincing futures through exotic visuals and gleaming technology, the genius of George Lucas in particular was to realise that future technology and clothing is most likely to look just as shabby and nondescript as its present-day equivalents. The weird thing about these films is that they are convincing in their otherworldiness largely because they are, on one level, so ordinary.

Compare this with Nightmare of Eden, where everything looks brand new, bright colours are a key element of many of the designs, and practically every guest costume features an element of spangles, spandex, or bacofoil. This is a story still trying to make its vision of the future convincing by making it look very, very different from today, and it doesn’t work: it just looks silly and superficial. The closest it comes to being authentic is in the cramped and metallic interior of the Hecate‘s shuttlecraft: everything else just looks like a collection of studio sets. Imagine, if you can, a version of this story which has been designed with the vision of a story like Robots of Death, and where the Eden jungle looks more like the one in Planet of Evil, and perhaps you’ll get a sense of what I mean when I say it’s the designs that make a major contribution to killing this story as serious drama.

This is not to say that Bob Baker’s script doesn’t commit a few heinous crimes against credibility, of course. This is the Doctor Who story that tackles themes of drug-dealing and addiction head on – something it’s difficult to imagine the modern series doing – and this is, I would argue, a brave and interesting choice on the part of the programme-makers. It wouldn’t be realistic to expect anything too complex in its handling of this theme, but what ends up on screen is simplistic to the point of being embarrassing. Taking vraxoin turns people into idiots, pretty much: we’re never given any insight into why Secker, for instance, got started on the drug. There’s never really any doubt that it’s Tryst who’s the main villain – there aren’t exactly many candidates – nor is there much of an attempt to make him a rounded character. If he had been presented in a remotely sympathetic manner earlier in the story, it might have made the justly noted moment when the Doctor blankly refuses to acknowledge his attempts at self-justification even more powerful.

eden

As it is, perhaps it’s the need for the story to be absolutely clear in its morality that results in the fourth Doctor being on unusually on-the-nose form in this story, repeatedly denouncing the evils of vraxoin. For all this, it is the Doctor’s dismissal of Tryst – utterly detached, not looking at him, barely even speaking – which is the most striking, coming as it does from a character normally so dynamic in his self-expression.

Perhaps this is just the result of trying to tackling a difficult real-world issue like drugs in a Saturday teatime show. Even so, there’s nothing that excuses the way that virtually every authority figure the Doctor and Romana encounter is presented as an idiot – self-serving, easily-duped, actually moronic at times.

How many of this story’s dud performances are a result of the well-documented problems the production encountered it’s difficult to know. In the end it was probably a combination of the the directorial meltdown, some serious scripting missteps, and the badly mishandled production designs that resulted in what could have been a memorably different story being reduced to something which Tom Baker himself only recalls as being ‘very funny’. If this really is the story that led to Graham Williams deciding to quit the show, it’s not really surprising.

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The Semi-Obligatory When’s-It-Set Discussion

On the face of it, this looks pretty straightforward. The Doctor claims to be an agent of a company which actually went bust in 2096 – ‘twenty years ago!’ according to Rigg. This seems to date the story squarely to 2116 or so. Or, to put it another way, a little over a century in the future (at the time of writing, anyway).

Given that Doctor Who has occasionally suggested Earth colonies will be going concerns by the early 21st century, dating Nightmare of Eden – with its indications of interstellar tourism, a history of interplanetary drug dealing, and so on – to the early 22nd century is not entirely ridiculous. But given the modern show has dated the first (failed) Martian colony to 2059, it does seem very improbable that this sort of interstellar network could develop in less than 60 years.

Technology levels seem to rise and fall in Who-world on a fairly regular basis – ray guns and machine pistols seem to go in and out of style several times, for instance – and so I am inclined to suggest that, whatever calendar Rigg and the Empress are using, it can’t be AD (or CE, if you prefer). I don’t see any insuperable problems with placing Nightmare of Eden a few (or even many) centuries further into the future than initially appears to be the case.

 

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