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Posts Tagged ‘Season 17’

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.

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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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Terry Nation is a writer who I’ve been considering writing about for ages. He remains an interesting figure; high profile (as TV scriptwriters go) and divisive – no less a figure than Stephen Fry has praised Nation’s mastery of a certain type of storytelling, while on the other hand Sue Perryman’s catchphrase (‘Terry ****ing Nation!’) more than adequately encapsulates the views of those people who find his scripts rather hard work.

I find Nation’s work to be rather exasperating: while he wrote several really important Doctor Who stories, only one of them is genuinely great, and much of the rest of the time his scripts feel like they’ve been phoned in (there’s a funny interview on one of the DVDs where Barry Letts recalls pointing out to Nation his tendency to try and sell them the same script year after year). Outside of Doctor Who, the two key Nation series are surely Survivors and Blake’s 7 – now, I like both these shows a great deal, but I also find that their quality significantly spikes once Nation himself cuts back on his creative involvement. One would be tempted to peg him as an ideas man with no real facility for actual plotting, were it not for the dearth of actual imagination in so many of the Dalek stories.

On the other hand… well, I’ve been watching Destiny of the Daleks again, Nation’s 1979 contribution and quite possibly the first thing by the writer I ever saw. On paper this looks like it should have ‘classic’ written all over it: the most iconic Doctor taking on his most iconic enemies, with a script handled by arguably the two biggest names ever to write for 20th century Doctor Who, Terry Nation and Douglas Adams.

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Having recently equipped the TARDIS with a device which can make it land somewhere entirely random at the start of each new adventure, the Doctor quite naturally finds himself on a planet he has already visited on three previous occasions: the unhappy planet Skaro, birthplace of the Daleks (though he doesn’t realise this for a bit). With his newly-regenerated companion Romana he sets about poking about on the ruined planet, intrigued by signs of drilling operations and the presence of not just a slave labour force but a starship crewed by the enigmatic Movellans. Why are all these people, not to mention the Daleks themselves, here on Skaro?

Destiny of the Daleks is not a story which enjoys a stellar reputation. I seem to recall that even Terry Nation himself was not exactly enthused by the realisation of his scripts, nor the rewrites Adams performed on them (‘Adams added a lot of silly jokes’, according to John Peel). And I suppose it’s easy to see why: the Daleks themselves are not exactly in great form, with the prop casings themselves clearly in frightfully bad nick, and Nation’s grasp of continuity (never his strong point) hits a new low. Never mind that the story seems to have forgotten that Davros’ bunker was located several miles from the old Kaled city (who knows, the Daleks may have moved the body – it certainly doesn’t look like the same place), but it pretty much explicitly states that the Daleks at this point are wholly robotic – ‘the Daleks have encountered another race of robots!’ exclaims Davros at one point (my emphasis). Quite when this final mechanisation occurred, or why Davros isn’t more surprised by it, is never addressed.

Personally I’m the sort of person who tends to treat shaky continuity as an engaging problem to be solved, rather a deadly flaw in a story. Certainly there seems to be almost a tendency in fourth Doctor stories for previously-cyborg creatures to become wholly synthetic in nature: the Cybermen are also described as ‘total machine creatures’ on their return appearance. We know from other stories that different factions of Daleks have shown a tendency to evolve in different directions (observe the biological and technical differences between the Imperial and Renegade factions a few stories down the line, not to mention the physical differences between Dalek mutants in the 20th and 21st century series), so it’s not entirely impossible that this particular group have uploaded their consciousnesses into fully robotic casings.

This does present the problem of explaining the manner of the Movellans’ ultimate victory over the Daleks, which was, we are told, based on the Movellans’ exploiting the Daleks’ biological nature by deploying a virus against them. Possibly the Daleks broke the logical impasse with the Movellans by reverting to a partially-biological state of existence, thus giving the Movellans an opening which they exploited.

Then again, the Movellans are a peculiar sort of creation in many ways. My natural instinct when it comes to one of John Peel’s elaborate Dalek-related retcons is to run a mile: his suggestion that the Movellans themselves are Dalek constructs and that this entire story is a bizarre put-up job designed to stop the real Skaro being destroyed is startling, to say the least. On the other hand, it does solve several of the hanging mysteries concerning the Movellans themselves. The Movellan civilisation is evidently quite capable of matching the Daleks when it comes to technological sophistication and ruthlessness, and yet we never hear of them outside of this particular story (the old FASA RPG makes a valiant attempt to boost them to the same level of major threat as the Daleks, Sontarans and Cybermen, but even here you can sense the writers’ hearts aren’t really in it). Even in the story itself, it’s indicated that the Movellans routinely attempt to conceal their robotic nature from others, although they’re quite happy to ‘resurrect’ dead soldiers no matter how odd this looks (and how does this work, exactly? We see no sign of the bodies of Lan and Agella being retrieved from the ruins prior to their reappearance, so are these just copies, rather like the Cylons in 21st century Battlestar Galactica?). What happens to them after they defeat the Daleks? Just who exactly are these guys, and how does their society work?

Well, it’s certainly somewhere with its own special ideas about fashion, anyway. The Movellans are interesting from a cultural viewpoint as they represent one of the very last examples of a certain kind of SF aesthetic in Doctor Who: the shiny-clean-exotic-camp look. Always more of a feature of bad pulp SF, this look was practically obliterated overnight by the appearance of the grimy-used-utilitarian aesthetic in the original Star Wars. The simple look of the Movellans is perhaps one reason why this story is not better regarded, along with (while we’re talking about bad pulp SF) such awkward plot devices as the convenient brains-on-belts idea (Sharrel’s arm also comes off improbably easily in his final struggle, too).

So the continuity is largely a mass of unanswered questions and the story itself is driven along by a collection of frequently-shaky plot devices. And yet this is still a story I have considerable affection for. Whatever the problems with the script, there’s not much wrong with the direction, particularly the steadicam work with the Daleks. And while episode one contains so many Nationisms you almost feel like flinging your arms around it and greeting it as an old friend, elsewhere in the story there are moments of genuine innovation and quality: the stand-off between the Doctor and the Daleks in episode three treats all involved with respect. The Daleks are properly ruthless and intelligent (as, for that matter, is the Doctor). And the central idea of the logical impasse is an intriguing one.

Then again, there’s always the question of how much of a Terry Nation script was actually written by Terry Nation himself. There are certainly enough stories in circulation where rueful script editors recall receiving ‘scripts’ on the backs of fag packets or envelopes and being left to expand these into a workable state while Nation zoomed off to the airport in his sportscar. The truth of this can surely be seen from looking at the four Dalek scripts with Nation’s name on them from the 1970s, for each one of them clearly bears the mark of the script editor involved: the ones overseen by Terrance Dicks are carefully plotted with solid characterisation, if not a lot of new ideas, while the script developed by Robert Holmes is morally sophisticated with a very strong villain (and, by the way, the Daleks are hardly in it). Here, with Douglas Adams as the script editor, we get a story with a very interesting central conceit, some good set pieces, but a slightly shaky grasp of plotting and continuity.

I didn’t really intend this to be a hatchet job on either Terry Nation or Destiny of the Daleks, and yet I find I have largely opted for not much more than faint praise and backhanded compliments. Perhaps this isn’t the greatest story Doctor Who ever told, and perhaps Nation’s talents as a writer were more limited than his reputation might indicate. But in their own way they are both great entertainers.

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

With Destiny of the Daleks we again run into the problem of the Dalek dating issue I talked about when I discussed Revelation of the Daleks, with the associated problem of the destruction of Skaro in Remembrance of the Daleks and its reappearance in the TV Movie and that silly story with the asylum. I am inclined to stick to my inclination to take on-screen events at face value: the Skaro that’s vapourised on screen is the same planet visited in this story and others, and we have to attribute its reappearance to Dalek meddling in the timelines at some subsequent point.

Given the Daleks are apparently not active in Earth’s galaxy for a millennium prior to the year 4000, and that it seems reasonable to assume that the resurrection of Davros (in this story) occurs towards the end of the Daleks’ pre-Time War history, I am going to go with the consensus on this story and suggest it occurs somewhere around the 45th century, ninety years before Resurrection of the Daleks and roughly a century or so before Revelation. If only all the associated continuity issues were so easy to resolve…

 

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