The Nimon’s hyperspace portal has transported Romana to the Crinoth (the previous planet occupied by the Nimons) where she meets Sezom (John Bailey). Bailey adds an instant touch of class to proceedings: after some of the exuberant performances seen during the last few episodes he essays something which was much more subtle and grounded in reality
Needless to say, after what we’ve witnessed recently it’s somewhat jarring to have a decent spot of acting but never mind, this first scene brings into sharp focus the Nimon’s planet hopping and destructive capabilities. Sezom, like Soldeed, foolishly believed the Nimon’s promises.
SEZOM: But I have caused the deaths of so many others. The total destruction of our planet and all its people. I am to blame.
ROMANA: Why? What did you do?
SEZOM: I allowed the Nimons to come here. I worked for them, became their creature. They promised us technology, peace, prosperity. It ….
ROMANA: Go on.
SEZOM: It seemed so easy. Such a small price.
ROMANA: Did you have to provide them with some sort of tribute?
SEZOM: How did you know that?
ROMANA: I’ve seen something similar.
SEZOM: There was only one of them to start with. I never knew what was to come. I swear, I never knew what was to come. It seemed such a small price to pay.
ROMANA: It always does.
It’s something of an egregious info-dump it has to be said. Romana just happens to stumble straight into the path of someone who can put the final pieces of the plot together, but no matter – at least now we know the fate that awaits Skonnos.
Elsewhere, the Doctor has a friendly chat with the Nimons, which features one of my favourite exchanges of the story.
NIMON 2: Later you will be questioned, tortured and killed.
DOCTOR: Well I hope you get it in the right order.
The other main point of interest is Soldeed’s death scene which has to be seen to be believed. And even then, I don’t quite believe it …
To be fair to Crowden, it does appear that he believed they were only rehearsing rather than going for a take, but as the clock was probably ticking round to 10 pm (when the plugs would be pulled) it presumably was felt to be “good enough”. Which rather sums up the end of season feel of the story (even if Nimon was never intended to finish S17). By this point it seems that time, money and inspiration had rather run dry.
The Horns of Nimon is certainly fun if you’re in the right mood – Tom Baker, Lalla Ward and Graham Crowden are always worth watching – but it also has a definite end of an era feeling. Change was coming and for many it wasn’t a moment too soon.
Anthony Read once admitted that The Horns of Nimon was written as a somewhat tongue in cheek story, but he’d hoped it would have been played in a slightly more serious manner. Although if you script scenes like the opening one of this episode – the Doctor uses a red handkerchief to indulge in a spot of impromptu bull-fighting with the Nimon – then you can’t really be surprised if things turn out the way they did.
After being absent from the main action for the last episode or so, the Doctor is back in the thick of things after meeting up with Romana, Seth, Teka and the remainder of the Anethans (who remain – as befits non-speaking extras – mute). He starts to wonder exactly what the Nimon are up to, whilst also highlighting Soldeed’s clueless nature (whatever the Nimon are planning, Soldeed seems to be kept in total ignorance).
Sorak has begun to question why the Nimon has decided to aid them in their quest to once again become the dominant force in the galaxy. “Soldeed, it sometimes occurs to me to wonder exactly why the Nimon is doing this for us. I mean, to be blunt, what’s in it for him?” It’s a reasonable question, which you’d have assumed someone would have asked before. Possibly Skonnos is a totalitarian state which brooks no free will from any of its subjects or maybe Read’s script was just rather ill-defined on this point. Skonnos is pretty much represented by two individuals only – Soldeed and Sorak – which means that it never comes alive as a real, functioning society.
This isn’t a problem isolated to just this one story, since Doctor Who often struggled to create well-rounded civilisations. Some writers – such as Robert Holmes – were skilled at using dialogue to put meat onto the bones (think of The Ribos Operation which builds up a fairly vivid portrait of its planet – complete with changing seasons and a strong air of religious dogma) but this isn’t something that Read attempts here.
The major revelation in this instalment is that the Nimon isn’t a single creature as Soldeed thinks. There are many, many others and they all plan to use their newly built hyperspace tunnel to travel to Skonnos and take over the planet. As far as invasion plans go it’s rather long-winded – couldn’t they have found a planet closer to home to colonise?
This leads into a rather nice piece of dialogue, with Teka declaring that the Nimon’s invasion is going to take quite a while, considering they’ve only got the one transmat machine.
DOCTOR: Yes, it happens all the time. When a race runs out of space or destroys its home, it has to find somewhere else to live.
SETH: But it’s already inhabited.
TEKA: Then how many more are coming?
ROMANA: To make all this worthwhile, there must be thousands.
TEKA: What, two at a time?
As Romana is accidentally transported in the hyperspace capsule to who knows where, Soldeed once again pops up to menace the Doctor ….
Episode Two opens with an ambitious effects sequence, which sees the TARDIS deliberately placed in the path of a spinning asteroid. The Doctor succinctly sums this up. “Oh, you know, K9, sometimes I think I’m wasted just rushing around the universe saving planets from destruction. With a talent like mine, I might have been a great slow bowler.”
With the Doctor and K9 stuck in the TARDIS, this leaves Romana, still onboard the ship, free to quiz Seth and Teka. She learns that the Nimon lives in the Power Complex (“that fits”) one of a number of witty lines which possibly may have gone a little unnoticed due to the broad performances elsewhere.
We meet the Nimon. Season 17 really wasn’t a vintage year for monsters, was it? Following Erato and the Mandrels, the Nimon are another disappointment. With a combination of stack heels, an obviously stuck-on head and weird movement, it’s hard to see the Nimon striking fear into anybody. It’s interesting to learn that the Nimon heads were supposed to look artificial (with their real faces being visible beneath) but this isn’t something that ever comes across during the story – they just look like cheap, ill-fitting masks.
Whilst Romana, Seth, Teka and the others are delivered up to the Nimon, the Doctor eventually arrives on Skonnos and has a chat with Soldeed.
DOCTOR: Having a little trouble with the neutrino converter?
SOLDEED: Neutrino converter?
DOCTOR: Neutrino converter.
SOLDEED: What do you know about such matters?
DOCTOR: Oh, I’ve seen similar things here and there.
SOLDEED: Oh, come now, Doctor. This is my invention.
DOCTOR: How very odd, how very extraordinary, then, you don’t know what a neutrino conversion is. Did you know that someone’s building a black hole on your doorstep?
It’s remarkable for Tom Baker to come up against a fellow actor who makes him look fairly normal, but Crowden’s idiosyncratic performance left Baker with two options – either attempt to match him or play it straight. Tom decides to play it straight, which was a wise move (leaving the field open for Crowden to indulge himself). Soldeed’s manic cackling as the Doctor enters the Power Complex is a joy to behold, a weird joy, but a joy nonetheless.
What’s interesting about this scene is the way it shines a light on Soldeed’s self delusion. He later claims to Sorak that making the Doctor venture into the Power Complex was all part of his great plan, when it was plainly nothing of the sort. Soldeed might nominally be the power on Skonnos, but he’s continually buffeted by events outside of his control (with the result that every time something unexpected happens, he desperately attempts to reconcile it into his worldview). This character trait makes Soldeed a much more interesting character than if he’d simply been just another single-minded maniac, utterly convinced of his own omnipotence. Soldeed’s increasing self-doubt is a nice touch.
Before the Doctor enters the Power Complex, he dashes about desperately looking for an alternative. This gives rise to one of my favourite moments in the story, as he spies a group of councillors standing about. “Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I’d like to say one thing and let me make it perfectly clear, I stand before you desperate to find the exit. Can anybody help me?” A wonderful Tom moment.
Meanwhile Romana and others come face to face with the terrifying Nimon. Roarrrrrr!!!!!
I have an affection for many of Doctor Who‘s also-rans, those stories which sit unloved and unappreciated at the bottom of every favourite story poll. You could argue that this is because I have absolutely no taste at all, but I prefer to believe that it’s more about appreciating what does work, rather than criticising what doesn’t.
There’s certainly plenty wrong with Horns of Nimon, but it also entertains (and sometimes intentionally). The first scene offers an impressive info dump, as we learn that Skonnos was once a mighty planet of warriors which has now fallen on hard times. No matter though, as the mysterious Nimon will make them great again (provided they deliver the final cargo – which turns out to be a collection of young people dressed in yellow jumpsuits).
The co-pilot (played by Malcolm Terris) has a limited line in insults (“weakling scum”) which he freely uses on several occassions to taunt the cargo. Terris possibly wasn’t best served by the two Doctor Who stories he appeared in (The Dominators being the other) but still manages to make something out of this unpromising material. The co-pilot, like most of his fellow Skonnons, is a weak man, full of bluster and desperately clinging onto the hope that Skonnos will rise once more to become feared throughout the galaxy. Is there a faint touch of satire here? For Skonnos, read Britain, which back in the late 1970’s had also fallen on hard times. I wonder.
Two of the cargo have speaking parts – Seth (Simon Gipps-Kent) and Teka (Janet Ellis). Seth and Teka are young and earnest (especially Teka, who hangs on Seth’s every word). Like most of the other roles across these four episodes, their characters are only lightly sketched, so both Ellis and Gipps-Kent have to work hard to make Seth and Teka come to life.
Meanwhile, the Doctor’s tinkering with the TARDIS. This is a scene which allows Tom Baker to freewheel as we see the Doctor carry out some slapdash repairs. If you view Tom’s performance during this era as somewhat self-indulgent then this probably isn’t the story for you – since the tone for Nimon is firmly set right from the start (it should come as no surprise to learn that the Doctor’s mouth to mouth resuscitation with K9 was unscripted).
But what we do have is a nice contrast between the increasingly erratic Doctor and the long-suffering Romana (as has often been observed, throughout the story Romana – complete with her own sonic screwdriver – acts more like the Doctor than the Doctor does).
We then jaunt to Skonnos to meet Soldeed (Graham Crowden) and Sorak (Michael Osborne). Plenty has been written about Crowden’s performance over the years and I can’t add much to what’s gone before, except to wonder what would have happened had Crowden been cast as the fourth Doctor in 1975. Given how exuberant he is as Soldeed, one can only imagine how his Doctor would have ended up by 1979. In contrast, Osborne looks faintly embarrassed, but then he is encased inside a somewhat bizarre costume, courtesy of June Hudson.
The Doctor, noticing the Skonnos ship in distress, naturally can’t resist popping over to help. He doesn’t take to the gun waving co-pilot, but is more concerned about the shivering cargo, which he learns are “sacrifices”. The Doctor agrees to help, but the co-pilot, more concerned about his cargo and his reputation, leaves the Doctor and K9 stranded in the TARDIS once the ship is operational again …
Stott seems a little surprised when the Doctor tells him that Tryst is behind the drug smuggling. Eh? Considering that Stott is a Major in the Intelligence section of the Space Corps and joined Tryst’s expedition in order to find out who was responsible for the smuggling, surely he must have considered the possibility? And anyway, how did the Space Corps know that Tryst’s expedition was involved in the first place?
Tryst’s personality tends to change from scene to scene. When he’s alone with Dymond (Geoffrey Bateman), the pilot of the other ship and his co-conspirator, he’s cold and ruthless. But when Della confronts him, he’s somewhat apologetic about his involvement.
DELLA: You! You’re smuggling the Vrax.
TRYST: Della, I, er …
DELLA: Yes is the word you’re looking for.
TRYST: No, it started just as a little thing, just to help me over a slight financial difficulty. The cost of the expedition, that was bankrupting me!
DELLA: But Vrax is destroying people by the millions!
TRYST: I had to continue my research! Without me, many of those creatures would have become extinct!
DELLA: I think a few million people becoming extinct is rather more serious.
TRYST: Ah, but they had a choice. It was their own fault that they became addicted.
Did Tryst really smuggle the Vraxoin because he wanted to continue to fund his expeditions or is he simply a cold-hearted criminal? It’s an intriguing question, but one which I doubt many audience members were too concerned about – by now I’ve a feeling that Fiander’s interesting performance choices had rather alienated them.
The Mandrels continue to wave their arms about in a windmilling fashion which makes me wonder why nobody in the gallery or on the floor told them it might be slightly better if they didn’t do that. Anyway, the Doctor leads them into the Eden projection and (off-screen) utters this immortal line. “Oh, my fingers, my arms, my legs! Ah! My everything! Argh!”
Tom does get a chance for a moment of more restrained acting a few minutes later, after Tryst attempts to justify his actions to the Doctor. “Doctor! Doctor, I didn’t want to be involved in all this. Tell them. Tell them that I only did it for the sake of funding my research. You understand all this. You’re a scientist.” The Doctor’s cold, whispered “go away” is very effective.
Nightmare of Eden is something of a mess then, but it tries hard and with a different roll of the dice (a more sympathetic director, a bigger budget) things might have been quite different. But there’s still plenty of things that work, albeit balanced out by those that don’t.
There’s a lengthy reprise at the start of this episode, which allows us to once again marvel at the ineptitude of Fisk and Costa. The moment when Fisk angrily hits the door locked by the Doctor is also noteworthy – mainly because of how wobbly it looks. One good punch would no doubt have caused it to collapse.
The jungle landscape of Eden is very dimly lit. This not only helps to create a forbidding atmosphere but was probably also done in order to disguise the limitations of the set dressing. As mentioned earlier, the Mandrels look very impressive in this environment – the sight of one such creature, eyes glowing green, looming in the shadows is a striking image.
Back on the ship they don’t look quite so good. Although it’s interesting that the lighting levels on the Empress seem to be a little lower than in the first two episodes (was this the point that Graham Williams had taken over directing duties from Alan Bromley?) even this can’t disguise how silly the Mandrels look in the cold studio light of day. Another infamous moment occurs when they kill a hapless passenger. What’s particularly silly about this scene is the fact that all the Mandrels were in a lift – are we to assume they piled in and then pressed the appropriate button? Well, maybe they did – perhaps they’re cleverer than we give them credit for.
The shots of rampaging Mandrels no doubt amused the audience at home and this seems to be acknowledged within the fiction of the programme and we then cut to a hysterically laughing Rigg, who’s watching similar events on a monitor. A nice post-modern touch, although pointing out the limitations of your production is a dangerous game.
Whilst in the Eden projection, the Doctor gets to tangle with a nasty plant and is forced to bite into it. “You know, that didn’t taste at all bad” he deadpans. All in a day’s work …
The identity of the Doctor’s mysterious assailant from the previous episode is established – it was Stott (Barry Lonsdale), a member of Tryst’s crew who apparently died on Eden. But now we learn he didn’t die, instead he’s been trapped inside the Eden projection ever since. This’ll bring the colour back to Della’s cheeks as she and Stott were something of an item. There’s another surprisingly adult moment in the script when Stott tells the Doctor and Romana of his despair about being trapped inside the CET. “There were a few times when I felt like blowing my brains out.”
In possibly one of the least surprising plot-twists ever, it’s revealed that Tryst is one of the people behind the Vraxoin smuggling. Well fancy that.
If the end of episode one was funny, then the start of the second episode is even funnier – mainly because the Mandrel gets to wave his arms about in a terribly expressive way. When seen in the shadows of their home planet, Eden (as stored on Tryst’s CET machine) they’re quite impressive – but in the harsh unforgiving light of the Empress’ corridors it’s a different matter entirely.
We don’t see too much of them in this episode thankfully, as the sight of the Mandrels stomping about tends to dissipate any tension which has been generated. And that’s a shame since there’s an interesting story unfolding. The problem with the two ships somewhat moves into the background once the Doctor realises that someone on board is smuggling a drug called Vraxion.
The Doctor tells us just how deadly it is. “I’ve seen whole communities, whole planets destroyed by this. It induces a kind of warm complacency and a total apathy. Until it wears off, that is, and soon you’re dead.” It’s more than a little unusual for the series to tackle drug abuse, even if it’s done in a fairly mild way. Whether the comedic aspect of the script worked against the drug message or actually helped to cushion the reality about the debilitating nature of Vraxoin is a rather moot point.
We get several opportunities to observe how deadly Vraxoin is, firstly after it affects Secker, Rigg’s co-pilot, and later when Rigg unwittingly takes a drink laced with the drug. This is a slightly perplexing moment – the drink was intended for Romana, but why would anybody wish to drug her? And just how long had this mystery person been waiting to drop the drug into the drink and how could they know that Romana would want a drink anyway?
The effect it has on Rigg is drastic as he goes from being a sober, responsible authority figure to a hysterical, twitchy mess. This is well-played by Daker, but unfortunately his role in the serial is coming to an end, something which is suggested as several new characters – Waterguard Fisk (Geoffrey Hinsliff) and Landing Officer Costa (Peter Craze) of the Azurian Excise – are introduced.
With their sparkly uniforms, Fisk and Costa are comedy authority figures who attempt to restrain the Doctor but fail hopelessly. The moment when the Doctor tells them to look over there whilst he hot-foots it in the opposite direction sums them up. Like Fiander, Hinsliff and Craze are playing it strictly for laughs and whilst they entertain, a little more genuine threat from them would have raised the stakes somewhat.
The Doctor’s spent part of the episode pursuing a mysterious man who clobbered him and took the Vraxoin he found in Secker’s locker. We’re no closer to solving that mystery, but the episode ends in an arresting way as the Doctor and Romana leap into the projected image of Eden ….
It’s possible to tell from the opening few minutes that this one is going to give us a something of a bumpy ride. The modelwork is shot on videotape, rather than film, which would become a more regular occurrence as the series moved into the eighties. Compared to the model shots from City of Death it looks much less impressive (something which Colin Mapson, the visual effects designer admitted to) but he had no choice in the matter. Money was tight and since it would take several hours to record these scenes on videotape compared to about four days on film, it was an obvious cost saving.
Our first sight of the interior of the Empress, a space cruise-liner, doesn’t offer many surprises. Like many spaceships down the years it appears to have been cobbled together with whatever was at hand (I’m sure many of the instrument panels had played sterling service in other Doctor Who’s and Blakes’ 7’s).
If the visual aspect is a little lacking, then there’s still a nice hard-SF concept at the heart of Bob Baker’s only solo script for the series. After emerging from hyperspace, two spaceships collide with each other, which is just the sort of problem the Doctor relishes ….
With a wobbly production, what you really need is a strong guest cast. Hmm. David Daker is his usual solid self as Rigg, the captain of the Empress, whilst Lewis Fiander’s turn as Tryst is somewhat hampered by his decision to employ a comedy Germanic accent. This means that he mangles various words in a way that is supposed to be amusing, but really isn’t. There are two points of view with Fiander – either he sabotaged the story by overacting or he breathed life into a fairly routine script. I tend to favour the former over the latter, but there’s some undeniable pleasure to be gained from his wonky performance.
Tryst is a zoologist who has gone from planet to planet with his invention, the CET machine (the Continuous Event Transmuter). It doesn’t just record what it sees though, it scoops up whole sections of planets and stores them as electromagnetic signals on an event crystal inside the machine. The Doctor’s less than impressed with this electronic zoo.
Tryst’s assistant is Della, played by Jennifer Lonsdale. It’s not really her fault, as Della’s rather underwritten, but Lonsdale doesn’t really put a great deal of life into her performance. But I guess anybody standing next to Tryst would tend to be overshadowed.
What we’re really waiting for is the reveal of the monster and it doesn’t disappoint. The episode one cliffhanger must be one of the funniest in the show’s history as a Mandrel pops his head through a hole in the wall (although I’m not sure that laughter was the intended effect). As seen below, in still shots they can look rather menacing, but when they’re called upon to move it’s more problematic ….
Now that the creature’s got his communicator back, the truth is finally revealed. His name is Erato and he responds sharply to the Doctor’s questions. “To skulk about in pits, as you so crudely put it, is not my normal habit. I most emphatically do not eat people. I live by ingesting chlorophyll and mineral salts. I would have you know that I am the Tythonian High Ambassador.”
Although Adrasta can see her authority draining away, she attempts to rally and tells the Doctor that she’ll kill Organon if K9 doesn’t destroy the creature. The Doctor’s response (and also Organon’s) is priceless – the Doctor looks a little downcast at the thought of Organon’s death, whilst the astrologer is more than a little shocked!
Is this just another gag moment or would the Doctor really have sacrificed Organon? It’s something we’ll never know as events take a different turn, but maybe it’s a brief glimpse of the earlier, more alien, Doctor seen during seasons twelve to fourteen. There he could blank out the deaths of people he’d been friendly with, such as Lawrence Scarman, by concentrating on the bigger picture. And he does mention that if the creature (Erato) dies then two planets could also perish …
It’s something I’ve touched on before, but even during the most comedic of stories during this era there’s still occasions when the Doctor drops the clowning and shows his true mettle. This exchange with Adrasta is one such moment and it’s all the more effective because his anger comes out of the blue.
ADRASTA: Huntsman, set the wolfweeds on the Doctor.
DOCTOR: No, wait. That’s all you’ve got on this planet, isn’t it? Weeds, weeds, forest and weeds. You scratch about for food wherever you can, but you can’t plough the land, can you? You can’t do anything until you’ve mastered the forests and the weeds. And you can’t do that without metal.
ADRASTA: Don’t listen to him. It’s just the ravings of a demented space tramp. Set the wolfweeds on him!
DOCTOR: Do that, and you will hurl this planet back into the dark ages. And for what? To satisfy the petty power cravings of that pathetic woman.
ADRASTA: Have a care, Doctor.
DOCTOR: Have a care yourself. Care for your people for a change.
Erato takes his revenge and kills Adrasta, but there’s still some way to go before the episode ends. This is where things slightly fall apart – namely the fact that there’s a neutron star on the way, requested by Erato, which will destroy all life on the planet. Firstly, how convenient that it’s due to arrive at this precise moment, just after Erato’s been released and can tell them all about and secondly, why did Erato decide to effectively commit suicide?
This means that the story finishes with something of a whimper as the sight of the Doctor in the TARDIS flicking switches doesn’t generate any tension. We’re told that the fate of the entire planet is at stake, but we never feel it.
However, before that happens there’s a few scenes of interest as Adrasta’s right hand woman, Karela (Eileen Way), forms an unlikely alliance with the bandits, once she’s killed the unfortunate Torvin. Torvin’s death is played for laughs – after Karela knifes him, his dying words are “tempered steel. Is that really tempered steel?” – proving to the end that he’s obsessed with metal (the scarcity of metal on the planet being a major plot point). It might be a humorous moment, but it’s somewhat black humour. It’s always a pleasure to see Way (Old Mother from An Unearthly Child) or as Gary Gillatt so memory dubbed her, Truth, Justice and the Eileen Way.
Erato’s a problem and the plot rather meanders, but Creature is still a story that entertains. And once you’ve watched the DVD, then the brief clip from Animal Magic with a manic Tom telling the audience tall tales about some of the monsters he’s met during the years is a must watch.
Although I’ve a lot of time for Creature, it has to be said that the plot’s fairly linear. The first three episodes revolve around identifying exactly who or what the creature is, before episode four goes off on a different tangent completely. I guess that David Fisher didn’t believe he could eke out the mystery of the creature for all four episodes, which is fair enough.
This episode has the unforgettable sight of the Doctor attempting to communicate with the creature via various ways, some of which look rather rude. Why Christopher Barry let this through is anybody’s guess, although I sometimes picture him up in the gallery, rather punch-drunk from the way things have gone so far ….
Torvin and the others lead a raiding party on Adrasta’s palace. Whilst they continue to be positioned as comedy characters, especially Torvin, this sits rather uneasily with the way they casually kill Adrasta’s guards. There’s something of an edit in the final programme – which makes their knifing less explicit – but it’s still a surprise to see a recognisable weapon used to kill (remember that whilst Leela carried a knife, over time she wasn’t allowed to use it on humanoids).
Geoffrey Bayldon continues to mine (sorry) his role for maximum comic effect. Organon’s meeting with Adrasta isn’t terribly pleasant (she’s more than disappointed to find out that the creature hasn’t eaten him) whilst he’s less than impressed after she orders him to find out what’s happening with the creature. Adrasta has a convincing manner about her though. “If you don’t go, my friend, that guard standing behind you will cut your throat from ear to ear.”
It becomes clear that the raiding party existed for one reason only – to enable the bandits to pinch what turns out to be the creature’s communication device and then, via a mysterious compulsion, be forced to deliver it up to him. This leads into an unusual cliffhanger, which sees Adrasta react in terror to the creature.
ADRASTA: Don’t let it get me. You mustn’t let that thing get me! It’ll kill me!
DOCTOR: What? An evil thing, killing. Why should it want to kill you? It didn’t want to kill me, did you, old fellow? Do you know something? I believe he wants to kill you.
ADRASTA: Keep it away from me. It’s, it’s going to eat me.
DOCTOR: Oh, come on. You know it really doesn’t eat people, don’t you? But you know what it does eat and you haven’t been letting it get any, have you. No, you just stuck it in a pit and threw people at it.
If the episode had concluded seconds earlier, then it would have ended with Adrasta holding a knife to the Doctor’s throat. That would have been a more obvious cliffhanger, as showing the villain under threat is much more uncommon although not totally unheard of (for example, episode for of The Daemons finds the Master menaced by Azal).
At the end of episode one the Doctor decided to join Doran in the pit. This was rather unexpected, although it appears that he merely planned to hang about until everyone had left and then climb out. Quite why no-one could spot him from the pit entrance is a slight mystery, but no matter.
There then follows the (in)famous scene where the Doctor attempts to climb his way out of the pit with the aid of a book, Everest in Easy Stages. Unfortunately it’s in Tibetan so he then pulls out another handy book – Teach Yourself Tibetan. If you’re not a fan of the humour present in the series at this time then I don’t think this gag is going to impress.
With the Doctor apparently dead, Adrasta is keen to utilise Romana’s knowledge to destroy the creature. There’s a nice hard edge to Adrasta, which is demonstrated after she gives the wise-cracking Romana a swift slap. Ouch!
The Doctor, having fallen into the pit, then makes the acquaintance of Organon (Geoffrey Bayldon). Bayldon is simply delightful as the cowardly astrologer and is obviously one of the serial’s trump cards. He gets plenty of good lines (“Seer to princes and emperors. The future foretold, the past explained, the present apologised for”) and works excellently with Tom Baker. Tom always seemed to thrive when he had strong actors to bounce off against and Bayldon is a fine example of this.
And then the creature turns up. It’s not good (although the model shots don’t look too bad). What’s fairly astonishing is that none of the production team appear to have seen it before it was unveiled on the first studio day. You’d have assumed someone would have kept an eye on how things were going, but no. In the post-mortem that followed, Graham Williams put the blame firmly on the shoulders of the visual effects department, but this seems more than a little unfair. With a very limited budget, just how do you create a monster of almost unimaginable size?
That neither Williams or Douglas Adams ever stopped to ask whether such a creature could be effectively realised on Doctor Who’s budget is very perplexing. But whilst the monster doesn’t impress, the byplay between the Doctor and Organon does.
ORGANON: Ahem. What do we do when we find the monster? Have you thought of that?
DOCTOR: Shush. I don’t know.
ORGANON: You don’t know? What do you mean, you don’t know?
DOCTOR: I haven’t made up my mind yet.
ORGANON: Well, haven’t you got a plan?
DOCTOR: A plan? Oh yes, I’ve got a plan.
ORGANON: Well then?
DOCTOR: I just don’t know how to apply it, that’s all.
Watching episode one with no knowledge of the (very large) problematic monster to come, this is more than decent fare. The jungle filming at Ealing is glossy and well mounted (that Tom is made to look a little sweaty heightens the illusion that we’re in a lush, tropical environment).
Adrasta might be a rather one-note villain, but Myra Frances does her best with the material and the fact she’s rather easy on the eye doesn’t hurt. There’s also a gang of comedy bandits lurking about, led by Torvin (John Bryans). Torvin is the least subtle Jewish stereotype (“my lovely boys”) you’re ever likely to see, for all the world he seems to be playing Fagin from Oliver Twist.
I have to confess it was only recently that I connected him to his Blakes 7 roles (Bercol and Shrinker) which just goes to show what a beard and a broad accent can do. Romana is captured by Torvin and his associates, although she’s not terribly impressed by them. “I’m a traveller. I’m a Time Lord. And I am not used to being assaulted by a collection of hairy, grubby little men”. Few actresses could do haughty like Lalla Ward, it just seems to come naturally ….
As an actor, Terry Walsh was a great stuntman. Bless him. But it makes sense to give him a speaking part, since his character, Doran, would be the next victim to be thrown into the pit to be consumed by the mysterious creature. And the sight of Walsh’s terror stricken face as he spies something off-camera, glowing green, is another well-mounted moment. At present, with the creature still unseen, the imagination can work overtime to create an impression of what it could possibly look like.
I wonder if the reality will match our imaginations? Next time we’ll find out.
Both the Doctor and Scarlioni have one last encounter with the Countess, although Scarlioni’s is rather more deadly. The Doctor once again switches from playful joshing to a more serious persona in a (double) heartbeat. Tom’s in full pop-eyed form here. Whereas the Count once again gets to show his true features, which comes as something of a surprise to his wife ….
This is another of those odd moments. The Egyptian scroll depicting a splinter of Scaroth had white skin with a green blobby face – was this a touch of artistic licence, or are all Scaroth’s splinters like that? It would make undressing a little easier, as surely otherwise the Countess would have noticed that her husband was not as other men. There’s the possibility that they shared separate bedrooms, but the way that the Countess went on the hunt for the Count at the end of the first episode implies otherwise.
I also have another burning question – how did Scaroth manage to make face masks throughout time and why did he always use the same face? I’d have assumed he’d have wanted a touch of variety.
John Cleese and Eleanor Bron pop up briefly and are excellent. But everybody knows that.
There’s a chance to luxuriate with Ian Scoones’ modelwork again as the story reaches its conclusion. Unlike the cut-price effects on, say, Nightmare of Eden, there’s no scrimping here – film, instead of videotape, was used and the difference is quality is startlingly obvious.
For once, Duggan’s propensity for hitting everything that moves turns out to be a good thing. It’s another gag moment, but it works – although the following brief scene (as Scarlioni returns to 1979) has always seemed to be something of a bodge. Possibly the clock was ticking ever closer to ten o’clock, which meant that something had to be cobbled together. What we have – a brief shot of Scaroth and Hermann, an even briefer explosion and then an abrupt jump cut to the Doctor and Romana saying farewell to Duggan – is a little disorientating.
DUGGAN: Where do you two come from?
DOCTOR: From? Well, I suppose the best way to find out where you’ve come from is to find out where you’re going and then work backwards.
DUGGAN: Where are you going?
DOCTOR: I don’t know.
They don’t make them like this anymore. Indeed, they didn’t really make them like this back then, which is all the more reason why City of Death should be savoured. Because it’s like a fine wine, with an attractive bouquet, etc, etc …
The Doctor jaunts back to 1505 in order to ask Leonardo Da Vinci why he painted so many copies of the Mona Lisa and runs into another mystery. A man – Captain Tancredi – who not only looks exactly like Scarlioni, but also has all of his memories ….
Peter Halliday is good fun as the harassed guard captain. Barely recognisable as the sadistic Packer from a decade earlier (maybe it was the hat) this is a character who’s no match for the wily Doctor. Even if Tom delivers one of the least convincing punches ever seen to knock him out. He should have taken lessons from Tom Chadbon.
Luckily for us, Tancredi is a very garrulous sort of chap who’s happy to stop and explain the plot (“the knowledge will be of little use to you, since you will shortly die”). This is something of a cop-out, but also a dramatic convention – how often does the villain not kill the hero, but instead chats to him about his wicked plans? Possibly Douglas Adams intended this to be an obviously groanworthy moment or it might just have been that the clock was ticking and he had to make an info-dump and quick.
Back in 1979, Romana and Duggan are too late to stop the Mona Lisa from being stolen. I haven’t mentioned how wonderful Lalla Ward’s Romana is yet, which is a terrible oversight. She’s wonderful. Whilst the debate about a female Doctor continues to rumble on, it’s plain that we pretty much had one right here – Romana as the Doctor with Duggan as her dim companion? Yep, I’d go for that.
The dialogue continues to sparkle as Romana propounds a theory. “Perhaps Scarlioni has discovered a way to travel in time. Yes, perhaps he went back in time, had a chat to Leonardo, got him to rustle up another six, came forward in time, stole the one in the Louvre, and now sells all seven at enormous profit. Sound reasonable?” To which poor Duggan can only respond that when he used to do divorce cases they were never like this!
Isolating the Doctor from pretty much all of the 1979 action during this episode obviously allowed Romana to take his place. She’s a more than adequate substitute, as seen when she dices with Scarlioni, but there’s still a hint of her inexperience (touched upon during the Key to Time season, where it was stated on more than one occasion that her knowledge lacked the Doctor’s practical edge). It’s hard to imagine the Doctor agreeing to build Scarlioni a time-field interface so readily, but since it needed to be done to advance the plot and also because Duggan was threatened it doesn’t make her seem too dim or easily duped.
One of my favourite moments of the entire story occurs right at the end of the episode. After Kerensky ages and dies before the horrified gaze of Romana and Duggan, the Count flashes them an amused stare. There’s something about Julian Glover’s coolness which appeals immensely.
The opening of this episode features some classic Tom Baker clowning (“what a wonderful butler, he’s so violent”) but back in 1979 many fans weren’t impressed. Browsing through the various fanzines which circulated during that era, it’s fascinating to take the pulse of Doctor Who fandom – for some it was pretty much a case of Tom Baker Must Go! The levels of humour during the Graham Williams era continues to be an issue which divides opinion – although this period of the programme has picked up in popularity somewhat in recent decades (this first occurred during the early nineties when JNT was firmly out of favour). That’s the nature of fandom, if someone’s out of fashion, like JNT, then that allows someone else (Williams) to be back in. Personally, I don’t have an issue with enjoying both Williams and JNT, but that’s a whole other debate ….
Let’s take a look at some of this Tom-foolery –
Doctor: Hello, I’m called the Doctor. That’s Romana, that’s Duggan. You must be the Countess Scarlioni and this is clearly a delightful Louis Quinze chair. May I sit in it? I say, haven’t they worn well? Thank you, Hermann, that’ll be all.
COUNTESS: Doctor, you’re being very pleasant with me.
DOCTOR: Well, I’m a very pleasant fellow.
COUNTESS: But I didn’t invite you here for social reasons.
DOCTOR: Yes, I could see that the moment you didn’t invite me to have a drink. Well, I will have a drink now you come to mention it. Yes, do come in, everybody.
DOCTOR: Romana, sit down over there. Duggan. Now, Duggan, you sit there. Do sit down if you want to, Count… Oh, all right. Now, isn’t this nice?
COUNTESS: The only reason you were brought here was to explain exactly why you stole my bracelet.
DOCTOR: Ah, well, it’s my job, you see. I’m a thief. And this is Romana, she’s my accomplice. And this is Duggan. He’s the detective who’s been kind enough to catch me. That’s his job. You see, our two lines of work dovetail beautifully.
The Doctor continues clowning as he, Romana and Duggan are escorted downstairs and locked into a small cell. It’s only then that his expression and manner changes and he becomes completely serious. This, for me, is key – I don’t have an issue with the Doctor mucking about if it’s made obvious (as here) that it’s just an act, designed to make his opponents underestimate him. So once Scarlioni’s gone, the Doctor reverts back to being business-like and focused.
I can’t see a great deal of difference between this style of performance and the clowning of Troughton’s Doctor (who could equally turn serious when it was required). In every Williams-era story that I can think of, the Doctor “earns” his right to clown, by demonstrating at various points that there’s much more to him than meets the eye.
The Doctor’s interaction with Kerensky is also interesting. Keresnsky tells him that although Scarlioni is a true philanthropist he doesn’t ask too many questions, to which the Doctor tells him that “a scientist’s job is to ask questions.” This harks back to similar exchanges in the past, such as with Sorenson in Planet of Evil, where the Doctor makes it quite plain that a scientist has definite obligations – not just to himself, but to the wider community.
Given the fact that the script was written at great speed (or re-written, depending on how many of David Fisher’s original concepts actually made the final cut) City of Death sparkles throughout. It would be easy enough to quote huge chunks of the script, but I’ll restrain myself to the odd choice selection, such as –
DOCTOR: What Paris has, it has an ethos, a life. It has …
ROMANA: A bouquet?
DOCTOR: A spirit all of its own. Like a wine, It has …
ROMANA: A bouquet.
DOCTOR: It has a bouquet. Yes. Like a good wine. You have to choose one of the vintage years, of course.
ROMANA: What year is this?
DOCTOR: Ah well, yes. It’s 1979 actually. More of a table wine, shall we say. Ha!
For the first time, the series had actually travelled abroad – which gave the production a considerable extra gloss. It was obviously something of a guerrilla operation though, as seen by the way that some members of the public appear to be a little dazed and confused as they pass through the various scenes (presumably Michael Hayes and the others just pitched up and started filming). This episode, as well as part four, certainly makes the most of the locations and – allied with Dudley’s music (the change of scenery seemed to have done him the world of good as well) – there’s a pleasing travelogue feel to these sections.
Yes, there’s nothing much going on during the first few minutes, but we’re in Paris! In the Springtime! The same trick would be repeated later, for example when Peter Davison’s Doctor spent the last episode of Arc of Infinity running around Amsterdam in a similar way to Tom’s Paris sprinting here. But it was very much a case of diminishing returns. Once you’ve seen the Doctor rushing through the streets of one town, you’ve rather exhausted that avenue ….
If one were being picky, I’ve never understood why the artist who sketches Romana was sitting directly behind her. Since that meant he couldn’t see her face, it seems a little odd. It’s mentioned in the script (“I wonder what he thought I looked like?”) but it’s still a slightly strange piece of staging. And his sketch (“a crack in time”) makes for a nice visual moment but goes unexplained otherwise.
City of Death has two prime guest performances – Julian Glover as Scarlioni and Tom Chadbon as Duggan. Catherine Schell is also more than solid as the Countess, although her character does lie in the shadow of her husband throughout. David Graham’s Kerensky is amusing, although his comedy accent means that it’s impossible to take the character that seriously.
Glover just oozes class, charm and hard-edged villainy and without him the story would be much poorer. It’s possible to argue that he gives more of a James Bond style villain performance here than he did when he appeared in For Your Eyes Only.
There may be a few production missteps (tatty looking Daleks, David Gooderson squeezed into Michael Wisher’s old mask) and scenes which should have gone to a second take (“spack off!”) but the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Tom’s on fine form, switching from playful to serious in a heartbeat (for example, the moment when the Doctor learns he’s on Skaro). The Doctor might have plenty of gags, courtesy of Douglas Adams, but there’s also a pleasing somberness about him, especially in episode one as he and Romana explore the mysterious planet (the lack of incidental music increases this sense of unease).
Ken Grieve’s low-angled shooting favours the Daleks but it’s also used to good effect elsewhere. And these low angles make it clear that several sets, including the TARDIS, have ceilings – which is very unusual, especially during a period when the series was rather cash-strapped (you’d have assumed it was an extravagance the show could ill afford).
Lalla Ward is Romana. Within a few minutes any thoughts of Mary Tamm have been banished and although Romana II might be somewhat hysterical at times (especially when confronted by the Daleks) possibly we can put this down to post-regenerative trauma.
But her fear and panic during the Dalek interrogation scene does help to sell the notion that the Daleks are powerful and dangerous opponents, something which is rather negated as the story progresses. The nadir of this comes with the unforgettable sight of the sad suicide Daleks shuffling awkwardly across the Skaro plains.
Terry Nation ends as he began, with a trip to Skaro. Familiar Nation tropes are given a final outing – such as an obsession with radiation and the sight of the TARDIS made inaccessible. Although it’s a little bizarre that the radiation subplot goes nowhere (the Doctor warns Romana that they have to take radiation pills regularly, she’s then separated from the Doctor and the pills, but no matter since they’re never mentioned again). Also, it’s a little irritating that Nation seems to regard the Daleks as purely robotic, a far cry from David Whitaker’s devious schemers.
Holding back Davros until the end of episode two was a good move, since it gave the second half of the story fresh impetus. Although it does mean we have to consider the Davros problem.
It seems that poor David Gooderson has never been regarded with a great deal of affection by the majority of Doctor Who fandom, although in his defence he was dealt a pretty rough hand. His Davros doesn’t have any of the signature moments that Wisher enjoyed and this – together with the reused mask – ensured he was always going to come off second best. But he’s by no means bad and is certainly closer to the original than Terry Molloy’s frustrated Ena Sharples from Resurrection was.
It may be comfortable and rather predictable, as only a Terry Nation story could be, but there’s plenty to love across these four episodes. So long Terry and thanks for all the scripts.
If the previous story, State of Decay, could be said to depict Doctor Who at its most traditional, then Warriors’ Gate is certainly a trip into the unknown.
The inexperience of key members of the creative team is definitely a reason for this – as they didn’t necessarily know the rules then they didn’t realise when they broke them. For some, particularly director Paul Joyce, it was a bruising experience as he came up against inflexible BBC bureaucracy.
Script editor Christopher H. Bidmead was keen to get new writers onto the show and Steve Gallagher seemed to fit the bill. Gallagher had plenty of ideas but had no experience in television script-writing, but he had previously written radio plays and also had just seen his first novel published.
Bidmead was later to comment that Gallagher’s draft scripts did read like a novel, as they included many unnecessary descriptive passages. Bidmead, with some input from Joyce, set about the task of distilling Gallagher’s scripts into something workable. Along the way he included some ideas and concepts of his own, such as the I Ching.
Whilst Steve Gallagher was initially aghast at the treatment of his scripts he was later to appreciate the reasons for Bidmead’s ruthless rewrites and he would be better prepared when he came to write Terminus a few years later.
Like Gallagher, Paul Joyce was also very inexperienced in television terms, with only a single Play for Today on his cv. Joyce had hoped to direct this story in a filmic style but the reality was that this simply wasn’t achievable at this point in Doctor Who’s history.
Joyce’s preferred way of working was to shoot scenes a couple of times and then assemble everything in post-production. But as the recording time for each story was strictly limited this caused numerous delays and was very unpopular with the BBC technical staff.
Each Doctor Who story was allocated a number of studio sessions and all the material for the story had to be completed within that timescale. At the end of the recording day the sets would be removed as the next day another production or programme would need the space.
Overruns were extremely costly – at 10pm the lights went out whether everything had been completed or not – and even worse was the prospect of a remount, where another studio would have to be booked and the sets reassembled.
After day one, the production was behind schedule and it began to slip further behind as each day progressed. Joyce was sacked briefly and then re-instated and whilst everything was eventually completed there’s no doubt that tensions ran high throughout all the studio days. It’s worth reproducing this excerpt from the BBC Technical Manager’s report for the studio session which ran from the 24th – 26th of September 1980 –
The director lacks a working understanding of the methods used to make programmes in BBC television studios. His shooting ratio must be near the 10:1 level of a feature film production. He expects a 360 degree panorama to be continually available to the ‘hand held’ camera and the lighting and sound problems are endless.
If the BBC is really interested in quality and economy, no Technical Operations crew should be subjected to such self-indulgent incompetence.
It’s therefore no surprise to learn that Paul Joyce was never asked to direct another Doctor Who and it could be that this experience was one of the reasons why producer John Nathan-Turner tended to favour the likes of Peter Moffatt and Ron Jones in the future. They could best be described as “journeymen” directors and he could guarantee that they’d get the show made on time and on budget. Indeed, there wouldn’t be another Doctor Who story directed with such flair as this one until Graeme Harper helmed The Caves of Androzani in 1984.
But for all the production problems we are left with a story that is visually very arresting and although Joyce still bemoans that the final product is comprised, enough remains to mark this out as something very different.
The opening tracking shot, which takes us through the spaceship and up to the bridge, is a clear statement of intent. The hand-held camera work gives the shots a fluidity of movement which would have been impossible with the traditional rostrum cameras.
Whilst not all of Steve Gallagher’s concept and story made it to the screen he was very clear that Cocteau’s Orphee and Testament d’Orphee would be key texts that needed to be understood in order to visualise the story. Joyce certainly took this on board and the production design reflects these influences, for example in the stylised black and white deception of the world on the other side of the Gateway.
Joyce was able to recruit some quality actors, including Clifford Rose as Rorvik (best known at this time for Secret Army) and Kenneth Cope as Packard (a familiar face from Randall & Hopkirk). Rose likened Rorvik to Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army since he was the leader of a group of men who are less than competent and are never quite able to follow his orders out. By the end of the story, Rorvik has lost his grip on reality completely as seen in his final moments as he prepares to blast the Gateway, killing himself and all his crew in the process.
Given the denseness of the original script, it’s possibly not surprising that it doesn’t all make sense. Some sections are particularly inexplicable – the cliff-hanger ending to episode three looks wonderful as a horde of Gundan Robots attack the Doctor and the Tharils in the banqueting hall, but how only the Doctor manages to move in time from the past to the present isn’t clear at all.
Elsewhere, the answers are there, just buried deep in the text as this excerpt from episode two demonstrates –
GUNDAN: There were always slaves from the beginning of time. The masters descended out of the air riding the winds and took men as their prize, growing powerful on their stolen labours and their looted skills.
DOCTOR: Yes, well, look, look, I’m sure this is frightfully interesting. Could you get back on to the bit about the gateway, please?
GUNDAN: The masters created an empire, drained the life of the ordinary world.
DOCTOR: Your ordinary world. I’m from N-space.
GUNDAN: They came from the gateway.
DOCTOR: Ah ha.
GUNDAN: There are three physical gateways and the three are one.
GUNDAN: The whole of this domain, the ancient arch, the mirrors.
DOCTOR: The thing is, it’s not actually a physical gateway that I’m looking for.
GUNDAN: All the gateways are one.
DOCTOR: Ah. So it is here. The way out.
It later becomes clear that the Tharils were the enslavers that the Gundans spoke of and now ironically they find themselves enslaved by the likes of Rorvik. With the help of a Time Lord then can travel through E-Space releasing the Tharils held captive on other planets.
Although as it’s often been assumed that Rorvik and his crew came from N-Space and only ended up at the Gateway (the dividing line between N-Space and E-Space) by accident, who are holding the Tharils in captivity in the rest of E-Space?
Although sidelined a little, Tom Baker does have some nice moments, particularly when he faces off against Rorvik. This story is, of course, notable for featuring the departures of Romana and K9 Mk 2. It’s quite a hurried farewell (not quite as bad as Leela maybe, but close) but had Baker or Ward wanted to add anything they probably could have, so they must have been happy with it at the time.
Rorvik’s suicidal attempt to break free has destroyed his ship (and inexplicably freed the imprisoned Tharils and also sent the Doctor and Adric back into N-Space). But back in the old home universe, this Doctors days are looking distinctly numbered ….
In retrospect, State of Decay by Terrance Dicks looks totally out of place in S18. As already touched upon in my article on Full Circle, new script editor Christopher H. Bidmead was a man who wanted the Doctor Who stories he commissioned to have a strong scientific basis. If there’s one thing he disliked it was scripts which paid homage to/ripped off other films, books or television programmes.
Therefore it’s no surprise to learn that Bidmead didn’t commission the story, instead it was new producer John Nathan-Turner, who whilst leafing through a pile of unmade stories found a submission entitled The Vampire Mutations from a few years earlier.
So Bidmead and Dicks couldn’t have been further apart in their understanding of what made good Doctor Who. Dicks always shared the opinion of his friend Malcolm Hulke who once said that in order to write good science fiction you need: “a good original idea. It doesn’t have to be your original idea.”
Doctor Who had been borrowing from other sources for a long time, for example other Tom Baker scripts by Terrance Dicks include Robot (King Kong) and The Brain of Morbius (Frankenstein). Indeed, the only surprising thing about State of Decay is that Doctor Who hadn’t tackled a vampire story before.
Despite Bidmead’s misgivings (and he did attempt to crowbar some of his ideas into the story, much to Dicks’ chagrin) the story went into production. And if it wasn’t clear from the script that this was Doctor Who meets Dracula then the design and costume should have made it explicit.
To be honest, there’s no logical reason why the inhabitants of the Hydrax should have chosen to dress like they’ve just walked off the set of a Hammer film, just as there’s no logical reason why Morbius, one of the greatest scientists in the galaxy, should choose to live in a castle that looked just like Baron Frankenstein’s castle instead of working and living in a modern laboratory.
But it does work in a visual sense, so sometimes you have to accept that style has to win out over content.
If Terrance Dicks was unabashed about borrowing from other sources to create his story, then it’s fair to say that his other writing traits are also present and correct here.
For Dicks, the Doctor should always be central to the action. Other stories in S18, particularly the forthcoming Warrior’s Gate, depicted the Doctor as a passive figure, not much more than an observer who does little to resolve matters. This certainly isn’t the case in State of Decay where the Doctor has the lions share of the plot.
Terrance Dicks was also well-known for his opinion that the companion existed to get into trouble and be rescued by the Doctor. He has two here – Romana and Adric – to fulfill that function. Romana does seem a little underwritten by Dicks, for example when she’s held captive in the final episode there’s not much spark. It’s tempting to suppose that he wasn’t really writing for Romana – possibly more for a generic companion along the lines of Jo or Sarah.
The peasants aren’t particularly well drawn and they tend to conform to fairly common stereotypes – the weary head man of the village, the hotheaded rebel, etc.
The Three Who Rule are more fun though – particularly Aukon (Emrys James). James was an actor of some distinction, a former RSC player, and although he can’t resist laying on the ham it was probably difficult not to.
Zargo (William Lindsay) and Camilla (Rachel Davies) underplay a little more and are very effective. Particularly when Zargo confesses to Camilla that he is afraid. A small character beat, but quite a revealing one.
Although the Three Who Rule hold the majority of the villagers in a grip of fear, there are still a few who rebel. When the Doctor meets them in their base he is shocked to discover how far their society has regressed –
KALMAR: Some of us could still read. It’s forbidden, but the knowledge was passed on in secret.
DOCTOR: What? Reading forbidden?
KALMAR: All science, all knowledge is forbidden by the Lords. The penalty for knowledge is death.
ROMANA: No schools of any kind?
KALMAR: Children start in the fields as soon as they can walk, stay there till they grow up, grow old and die.
In 1979, John Pilger, David Munro and Eric Piper traveled to Cambodia in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Pol Pot. What they found there was shared with the world, first in a special issue of the Daily Mirror and later in an ITV documentary, Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia. Their discoveries were pretty much the same as the events described by Kalmar and this would have been clearly understood by the audience at the time. Doctor Who rarely commented on real-world events, so this is an interesting reference.
As previously mentioned, Tom Baker is in his element here. He has some wonderful material to play with, such as this –
DOCTOR: Do you know, it just occurs to me. There are vampire legends on almost every inhabited planet.
DOCTOR: Yes. Creatures that stalk in the night and feast on the blood of the living. Creatures that fear sunlight and running water and certain herbs. Creatures that are so strong they can only be killed by beheading, or a stake through the heart.
ROMANA: Or? Please, say something.
DOCTOR: Whatever it is, we want to find it, don’t we?
DOCTOR: Good. Come on then.
The only downside to the story is the reveal of the Great Vampire, which is something of a disappointment. It would have been better to leave him to the viewer’s imagination as the brief glimpse seen in the last episode fails to convince in every possible way.
This is only a minor niggle though and the Doctor’s solution to find a stake big enough to kill the Great Vampire is pretty ingenious.
With Tom Baker’s time on Doctor Who drawing to a close it was a nice touch to have a story that harked back to the Hammer Horror style of his early years. This probably wasn’t intentional though, as it seems that the script was pressed into service because stories were urgently needed.
But whatever the reason it was made, State of Decay is an effective tale from the pen of one of its longest-serving contributors. It’s not brimming over with originality, but sometimes you just need to borrow – and if you do so then borrow from the best.
Change was most definitely in the air during the 18th season of Doctor Who. A new producer (John Nathan-Turner) and a new script-editor (Christopher H. Bidmead) were firmly in place, whilst an experienced old hand (Barry Letts) kept a watching brief as executive producer.
Those who have been around Doctor Who fandom for a long period will probably recall the time when S18 was highly rated. This was at exactly the same time that some of fandom intensely disliked S17.
The viewpoint at the time seemed to be –
Season 17 = Silly = Bad
Season 18 = Serious = Good
But as S17 came back into fashion this seemed to dent S18’s popularity a little. It was now seen by some as a little po-faced and science obsessed compared to the free-wheeling S17.
For me, both seasons have their merits and demerits and the dividing line between them can get a little blurred. Meglos, for example, could easily fit in to S17, whilst The Leisure Hive had originally been commissioned for S17.
By the time we get to Full Circle, the third transmitted story, we are seeing more of the pure vision of Bidmead though. Without a doubt this season, for good or bad, was created in his image. He once estimated that he wrote about 70% of S18 and Full Circle is a story that he had a great input into, as he considerably reworked Andrew Smith’s original scripts.
It doesn’t all work (there are some holes in the logic) but there’s a fine performance from Baker, particularly in episode three, and confident direction from Peter Grimwade which carries the story along.
Bidmead is quite a divisive figure. The DVDs have allowed him the space to clearly state his vision of what he believed Doctor Who should be – a series rooted in scientific fact and definitely not drawing on popular books or films to pastiche. One can only wonder how he would have got on with Robert Holmes, although we can probably guess by the somewhat strained relationship he had with Terrance Dicks, who didn’t care for his rewrites on State of Decay.
Bidmead’s extensive input across the season does mean that there’s a thematic unity unusual in Doctor Who at the time. The first six stories all portray civilisations that for one reason or another are stagnating.
The Argolins are sterile, Tigella is a planet held back by the superstitious nature of the Deons, the Three Who Rule have deliberately devolved the development of their planet, the Tharils once enslaved others but now they find themselves enslaved while the inhabitants of the Traken Union live in harmony for as long as the Keeper lives.
In the final story, the Logopolitans have been attempting to stave off the heat death of the universe by attempting to maintain stasis. But as the Doctor observes, entropy increases, and like the other stories of the season, change is inevitable.
In Full Circle, the Alzarians seek to deny the course of evolution by sealing themselves in the Starliner until the danger they believe exists has passed. Theirs is truly a stagnant society – with ineffectual leaders, the ironically named Deciders, who are unable to make any decisions except to maintain an existence based on continual procrastination.
Production-wise, this is an impressive Doctor Who directing debut from Peter Grimwade. The early episodes benefit from a generous amount of location filming and the location, Black Park, looks gorgeous in the sunshine. It looks so good that it’s surprising it wasn’t used more often in Doctor Who.
The production was fortunate to shoot in sunshine, which enhanced the shots, but there was also clearly some thought given about how to depict an alien landscape. Grimwade used coloured lamps from just off-screen to bathe parts of the landscape in an unearthly glow. It’s a simple trick, but effective.
Full Circle was, of course, the first transmitted story featuring Adric. In production terms Matthew Waterhouse had already recorded State of Decay, but as can be seen he’s still somewhat uncertain in the role.
Given his lack of acting experience this isn’t a surprise – although a more actor-friendly director may have helped to refine his performance. But anecdotal evidence suggests that Grimwade wasn’t an actors director, so Waterhouse had to make his own way.
He’s not noticeably worse than the rest of the Outlers though, who all have a whiff of the stage school about them. They’re fairly unrewarding parts but Richard Willis (Varsh), Bernard Padden (Tylos) and June Page (Keara) do the best they can. Although maybe it’s indicative of one re-write too many when Keara becomes suddenly intensely curious about everything in the last episode – possibly her lines were originally intended for Romana or Adric.
We’re on much firmer ground with the Deciders – James Bree (Nefred), Alan Rowe (Garif) and George Baker (Login). Bree had previously given a strange performance in The War Games, where every line was drawn out to the nth degree, but he’s far, far, better here. Bree plays it like many a politician or manager promoted way above their ability – he is able to project a calm outward exterior whilst having no original or helpful ideas of his own.
Alan Rowe, a familiar face from his guest appearance in Horror of Fang Rock a few years earlier, is equally indecisive as Garif. As previously mentioned, the title of Deciders is obviously intentionally ironic, but both of them are lucky to have a new Decider who knows his own mind in the form of George Baker.
Episode one establishes the planet and the mystery of the negative co-ordinates before ending on the emergence of the Marshmen. As monsters incapable of speaking, for a large part of the story the Marshmen are simply used as figures to menace the Alzarians. But the Marshchild shows that they are intelligent, reasoning creatures who have a closer relationship to the inhabitants of the Starliner than at first thought.
Episode two is where the story begins to kick into gear as the Doctor meets the Deciders and can begin to understand exactly what is happening on the planet.
In episode three the Marshchild dies and enough groundwork has been laid to ensure that we don’t regard it as just another monsters death. The Doctor’s link with the creature means he reacts with a fury that hasn’t been seen for a few years (since the conclusion of The Pirate Planet). It’s a wonderfully acted scene from Tom Baker.
DOCTOR: You Deciders allowed this to happen.
GARIF: The marsh creatures are mindless brutes. Animals!
DOCTOR: Yes. Easy enough to destroy. Have you ever tried creating one?
NEFRED: We were within our rights.
GARIF: One might argue that Dexeter was overzealous.
DOCTOR: Not an alibi, Deciders! You three are supposed to be leaders.
GARIF: Certainly we are. Though, of course, Nefred is, er, is now First Decider.
DOCTOR: Then Nefred is responsible.
NEFRED: For the community, yes.
DOCTOR: No, no! Perhaps they haven’t let you in on the secret, Login. Shall I tell him, gentlemen?
DOCTOR: Yes! And the fraud of perpetual movement. The endless tasks going round and round. The same old components being removed and replaced.
We haven’t yet discussed the other regulars. Lalla Ward gets an episode or so where she’s possessed by the Marshman. Although Sarah-Jane Smith used to get taken over on a regular basis it’s not something that has happened before to Romana, so it has a little more impact. Poor K9 finds himself decapitated half way through, which is a clear sign that his days are numbered.
The eventual solution to the mystery in episode four is something that may have been clearer in early drafts. The notion that the Marshman boarded the Starliner when it first landed, killed the occupants and then gradually evolved into the Alzarians is possibly not too explicit in the dialogue – so anybody watching for the first time might have missed this important plot twist.
And if the Starliner has been on the planet for 40,000 generations, how many generations passed until the Marshmen evolved into the humanoids we see today? It surely couldn’t have taken all of that time, so why have the Marshmen not been able, until now, to board the Starliner again?
Minor quibbles apart, this is a solid story. Attractive location filming, a decent monster, a great performance from Tom and some solid actors for him to react to all help to lift this above the norm. It’s only ranked 143rd out of the 241 stories in DWM’s 2014 poll and deserves to be higher (but then what has poor Meglos done to be ranked 231 out of 241? It’s not perfect but anything with Bill Fraser and Freddie Treves can’t be all bad, can it?)
After a slightly shaky start with The Leisure Hive and Meglos, S18 really started to gain momentum with Full Circle. And there was even better to come.