Doctor Who: The Horns of Nimon

Doctor Who Story 108 – The Horns of Nimon

Written By

Anthony Read

What’s It About

Pilots from the Skonnan Empire experience technical difficulties as they transport captives from Aneth. These captives are to be sacrificed to the Nimon, a creature who promises scientific knowledge which will restore the Skonnan Empire to its former glory. Unfortunately, Romana is condemned to join the Aneth captives as tribute to the Nimon.

Come on, old girl. There’s quite a few millennia left in you yet.
The Nimon grandstands.
Source: The Digital Fix Films.

In many ways, a television is a TARDIS—it is a small box, but it has the potential to transport the viewer to new worlds; it can help the viewer to experience new ideas and perspectives. Doctor Who, therefore, is a metaphor for television. Not only has the show existed long enough to trace the development of television production, it plays in numerous genres: science fiction, action/adventures, mystery, horror, romance, and historical drama. Sometimes the show is aware of its meta-fictional potential: The Savages gives us a race that has watched The Doctor’s adventures and been inspired by them, Vengeance on Varos and Bad Wolf comment on reality shows. And so, this line from the final exchange between the Doctor and Romana becomes a meta-commentary when one follows the metaphor: Come on, old girl. There’s quite a few millennia left in you yet. Don’t lose hope; this show still has a lot of life in it.

And what a line to close out The Horns of Nimon, one of the lesser-regarded stories in the Doctor Who canon. The production quality is not good. The acting is extremely hammy, Tom Baker and Graham Crowden seeming to see who can go further over the top. The Horns of Nimon is the Graham Williams era’s second attempt at retelling a Greek myth, and it is the better attempt, in my opinion, because this story is hilarious. That was probably not Anthony Read’s intention, but if you watch Nimon as you would one of those horrible Syfy channel movies, it provides good entertainment.

But I also think that Nimon hint at some interesting ideas—unfortunately, it only hints. At the end of the story, The Doctor implies that the events of this story, which are based on the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, had happened before, specifically, that history has repeated itself. Given that this is the second Greek myth to be reinterpreted by the Williams era, a theme of the cyclical nature of history is developing. This episode marks the final statement on that, however, as this is the final episode of Graham Williams tenure. A strike halted the filming of Shada, the intended finale to the era, leaving Nimon as the premature finale. In a way, this is a fitting ending to Williams’ era—circumstances beyond his control trumped his plans and what aired is thrown together as competently as possible. But with the exception of Lalla Ward, none of the leads seem to be taking the story seriously. The era fades away, maligned and ridiculed; the saving grace is a few moments of humor.

I like The Horns of Nimon. Unlike Underworld, this story is watchable. It is entertaining, even if it isn’t entertaining for the reasons Anthony Read intended. But the story also makes me sad. It epitomizes the Williams era—the best of intentions, but ultimate failure because those who cared about the show were not supported.

My Rating

3/5

Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden

Doctor Who Story 107 – Nightmare of Eden

Written By

Bob Baker

What’s It About

When two spaceships materialize in the same airspace, they become fused. This causes a drug smuggling ring to be exposed, but where are the drugs coming from, and who is responsible for their transfer?

Their worse than idiots, they’re bureaucrats
This image foreshadows that Doctor Who is about to enter the 80s.
This image foreshadows that Doctor Who is about to enter the 80s.

After a few seasons of scripts by Bob Baker and Dave Martin that didn’t work, it is pleasant to see one of them turn in a script which does, by and large work. Baker’s “Nightmare of Eden” is probably his strongest effort since “The Claws of Axos.” From the start, he creates a concept that is realized fairly well on a BBC budget: two ships, a luxury liner and a transport ship, become fused when they attempt to materialize at the same coordinates in space. And it is from this crisis that the drama unfolds. The drug smugglers in this story had a good racket, but this one mistake was the catalyst that revealed their actions and led to their downfall. This is what I enjoy about the story, it is a fairly good mystery (although, it isn’t too hard to work out who the smugglers are), and the accident is what shed light on the mystery. Like many mysteries, it is the one mistake which trips everyone up. So, Baker has crafted a story which blends the sci-fi, monster aspect of Doctor Who with a mystery (drug running rather than murder). And his big, conceptual ideas become the backdrop rather than the main idea of the show. While there are a number of big ideas in this story, they all service the mystery and fit together, interlocking quite well. Even the Continual Event Transmuter fits the idea of spaces fused together, and creates three interlocking locations: the Empress, the Hectate, and Eden. In a way, this foreshadows the conclusion of the story.

This is a confident script, and, overall, it works. It is a solid effort. The production lets it down in a few places, but that is hardly Baker’s fault (well, unless you criticize him for not realizing the ability of the production to service his ideas). But there is a completeness and competence to “Nightmare” that other stories in this season lacked. “City of Death” is still the highlight of the season, but “Nightmare” is clearly the second-place story. And, as I said, this is probably Baker’s best work since “Axos.”

My Rating

3.5/5

Doctor Who: The Creature from the Pit

Doctor Who Story 106 – The Creature from the Pit

Written By

David Fisher

What’s It About

The Doctor and Romana arrive on the planet Chloris. It does not take them long to be captured by the power-hungry Lady Adrastra, who controls the metal-mining industry on the planet. A mysterious shell in the forest has captured her attention, and she demands the Doctor’s help in studying it. But the Doctor soon discovers that the shell is connected to a creature that is in a pit, a creature that eats those who cross Lady Adrastra.

She tipped the ambassador into a pit and threw astrologers at him

creature I’ll go ahead and state outright that I don’t really care for this story, and, apart from a few funny lines of dialogue, I was largely bored by it. It is obvious Lala Ward is trying to refine her portrayal of Romana (as this was her first filmed story). Eratu, while getting points for not being a humanoid creation, is rather odd and hard to take seriously in some of its more phallic moments. And the pace is a bit of a mish-mash. Christopher Barry, while generally a good director (at least, I like him in the First and Second Doctor eras), doesn’t seem to find a good pace for this one. Part four especially seems uneven.

These things aside, there is an interesting idea at the center of this story. The first time I watched it, I largely read it as a “the monster is really quite civilized and the humans are really not” story. We’ve had this in Doctor Who in the past, “Galaxy 4” being a notable example. But what struck me about the story this time around was that the savages, characters who the Doctor would often ally himself with in other stories, were no better than the oppressive regime of Adrastra. Fisher is subverting a Doctor Who trope here, and when the obvious villain has been defeated, the savages and an advisor quickly attempt to fill the power vacuum. And so, this story isn’t really about a misunderstood monster; it is about power structures—in this case, economic since the entire conflict was initiated by an attempted trade agreement. Eratu was attempting to offer the people of Chloris a mutually-beneficial trade agreement that would bring prosperity to both planets. It just happens to upset the balance of power on Chloris. So, “The Creature from the Pit” is actually high-concept science fiction, and it is certainly a theme worth exploring.

And yet, for me, it is hard to watch. The story certainly looks good in many places: the costumes are great, the sets are well-realized. But the pace and directing don’t really emphasize the ideas in this script, and much of the silliness, while helping to maintain interest in the story, doesn’t really bring attention to the ideas lurking beneath the surface of the story. For me, this story was an ambitious failure, which is a shame because I normally enjoy David Fisher stories. But while I may not enjoy the execution, I admire the ambition.

On the whole, and I may have more to say about this in a future post, I feel sorry for the Graham Williams era. Sure, there are some great stories in it, but I feel that this era of the show is one of identity crisis. Doctor Who is trying to find its place in a post-Star Wars world. Williams had the unenviable position of producer when these films came out. He was producer when Doctor Who had to move from gothic horror to light-hearted science fiction. Season seventeen is the season where this identity crisis comes to a head—the very first scene is Romana trying on different regenerations, searching for a new identity. And “Creature” fails to find its voice, unable to find the balance between the high concepts in Fisher’s script, the silliness of Tom Baker and Douglas Adams, and the directing of Christopher Barry.

My Rating

1.5/5

Doctor Who – The Stones of Blood

Doctor Who Story 100 – The Stones of Blood

Who Write It?

David Fisher

What’s It About?

In their continuing search for the Key to Time, the Doctor and Romana arrive on Earth and investigate a Bronze Age stone circle that holds the fascination of a local archaeologist and a neo-Druidic cult that worships an ancient Celtic goddess.

Erase memory banks concerning tennis.
The Cailleach
Source: BBC Website

With The Stones of Blood we have a return to the gothic horror that has been a defining feature of the Tom Baker era. Graham Williams has touched upon this genre a couple times before with Horror of Fang Rock and Image of The Fendahl. Horror isn’t a defining feature of Williams’s era, but it is interesting to see how he approaches it when it does come up. In fact, I would say that the gothic horror of Graham Williams is more in line with the supernatural horror genre defined by writers like Poe, Lovecraft, Stoker, Crowley, and so on than Hinchcliffe and Holmes. Sure, H&H did the gothic horror, but they geared more toward gothic-horror-adventure. The horror of the Graham Williams era deals more with tension, fear, suspense, and cosmic dread. The Stones of Blood is occult gothic horror with a twist, namely that it successfully switches genres halfway through. Parts one and two are excellent suspense pieces, while parts three and four are fascinating, and hilarious, sci-fi pieces.

The Doctor and Romana arrive at Boscombe Moor in Cornwall. They trace the third segment of the Key to Time to a stone circle called the Nine Travelers. They meet Professor Amelia Rumford, an archaeologist, and her assistant Vivien Fay. In conversation with the two women, The Doctor and Romana learn about a local cult that imitates Druidic rituals. Naturally the Doctor must investigate. Of course, it seems the Doctor’s coming had been foretold by the Cailleach, the Druidic goddess of war and magic. Plans are made to sacrifice the Doctor at the Nine Travelers. And as the story progresses, we learn that blood awakens the stones, which are really stone creatures called Ogri, Vivien Fay is an alien criminal, and just out-of-phase in hyperspace is a prison ship that has been shipwrecked for a few thousand years. The way in which David Fisher handles these elements is magnificent. He plays fairly with the gothic horror tropes and completely subverts them as we move to the prison ship. This story keeps the viewer guessing and that is a wonderful thing. The ominous tone soon gives way to humor as the Doctor is put on trial by the Megara, justice machines which operate a judge, jury, and executioner, for a rather trivial offense.

The Key to Time season has been a wonderful journey so far. We have had three very different stories, each blending a variety of genres (Ribos—historical fiction/sci-fi/caper; Pirate Planet—sci-fi/pirate adventure; Stones of Blood—supernatural, occult horror/sci-fi legal drama/comedy). This season has been a genre blender which has deftly handled everything it has set out to do. The overarching plot is somewhat inconsequential (the Doctor doesn’t really need a reason to travel), but neither does it get in the way of the storytelling. The only complaint I have about this particular installment is the resolution, which is much too quick. The resolution isn’t allowed to breathe, which is too bad. But the journey was excellent and the script is excellent, so I can live with a rushed ending.

My Rating

5/5

Doctor Who – The Pirate Planet

Doctor Who Story 099 – The Pirate Planet

Who Wrote It?

Douglas Adams

What’s It About?

The second segment of the Key to Time is on the planet Calufrax. Unfortunately, Calufrax is missing. Instead, the TARDIS arrives on Zanak, a planet whose inhabitants are so wealthy that precious jewels litter the streets. They celebrate their beloved Captain, who has seen them to a life of prosperity. But a group of exiled psychics know something deadly lies beneath the wealth of Zanak.

Excuse me, are you sure this planet’s meant to be here?

The Doctor and The CaptainI was filled with dismay when, after two episodes, I had failed to get in to this story. I have seen The Pirate Planet quite a few times. I know what to expect. The jokes aren’t funny to me anymore. But starting with episode three, I was enthralled. And when I look back on it, episode three is when the plot starts to pay off what the first two episodes had set up. The tone shifted from frivolity to complicated concepts punctuated by humor. The Captain has shifted from a bombastic blowhard to a tortured slave; a story of genocidal greed turned into a story about resurrection. This story was positively bursting with wonderful ideas, and the four episodes are struggling to contain them. In the end, everything becomes a bit rushed and confusing.

As for criticisms, as noted earlier, I think the beginning is slow. Given how rushed the ending was, I wonder if the material could have been spread out a bit more so that the early episodes pulled more weight. Also, Zanak did not seem like a populated world. The crowd scene in episode one had just enough people to fill an elevator. This hardly constitutes a crowd. A few more extras would have helped this story out. The budget, however, was well spent on the pirate bridge. The set looked amazing. I also enjoyed the nods to pirate tropes: the Captain’s electronic eye patch, the mechanical parrot, the plank the Doctor walks in episode three, and the mechanical arm (rather than a peg leg). And who couldn’t smile when K-9 chases the Polyphase Avatron? A mechanical dog is still a dog.

::Edit 3.16.2012::

When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t get Star Wars out of my head. I was thinking about Obi-Wan, and I had a vague impression that I had a dream about Qui-Gon. But after a few minutes of trying to figure out why Star Wars was stuck in my head like a bad song, I realized that The Pirate Planet contains quite a few ideas that were also present in George Lucas’s original trilogy:

  • a celestial body that destroys planets (the Death Star/Zanak)
  • a group of exiled mystics (the Jedi—particularly Obi-Wan and Yoda/the Mentiads)
  • a strong psychic pain when a planet is destroyed (Obi-Wan feeling the death of Alderaan/Pralix)
  • a villain who is part machine, part man (Darth Vader/the Captain)
  • this villain is good at heart, a pawn of an evil tyrant (Vader’s relationship to the Emperor/the Captain’s relationship to Xanxia

Now, to be clear, I don’t believe Douglas Adams (or Anthony Read, who reportedly did major revisions on the script) cribbed a bunch of ideas from Star Wars. Some of these ideas that are a part of Star Wars came about years later. I believe that Adams, Read, and Lucas tapped into similar ideas. There is nothing in The Pirate Planet that suggests it was added just to reference Star Wars; all the above elements are actually central to the overall plot. Additionally, The Pirate Planet is closer to plausible science than Star Wars ever attempts. (The release of psychic energy from a destroyed planet applies Einsteinian principles to fictional energy, thus giving it the ring of truth—something midichlorians never had.)

What does this mean? I’m not entirely sure. I have always been fascinated when ideas, conceived in relative isolation (as much isolation as one can get, at any rate), turn out to be similar: Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine, Millennium and Profiler. We are media savvy these days; we expect that any successful story will spawn imitators. When two, unrelated but similar stories appear at the same time, we are tempted to cry copycat. All we see is the end product, however; we are never privy to the cross-pollination of the behind-the-scenes creative process. And when similar elements start to reappear, I start to wonder if these elements betray something deeper: An observation about society? A fear held by the creator? A necessary solution to a problem that arose during production?

One final note: On the TARDIS Eruditorum blog, Philip Sandifer writes, “First Holmes knocks down the idea of binary oppositions . . . then Douglas Adams knocks down the idea of “balance” as a fundamental moral good by reminding us of the existence of atrocity.” While I don’t take issue with this, per se, I do find it interesting that, when looking at The Pirate Planet and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we have a binary opposition. In The Pirate Planet we see a hollow planet that materializes around other planets and destroys them. In H2G2 we see a hollow planet that creates new planets. Between the two stories, we have equilibrium: a planet that destroys and a planet that creates.

My Rating

3.5/5

Doctor Who – The Ribos Operation

Doctor Who Story 098 – The Ribos Operation

Who Wrote It?

Robert Holmes

What’s It About?

At the behest of the White Guardian, The Doctor and his new companion, Romana, begin their search for the segments of the Key to Time. Their first stop is Ribos, a feudal planet in the midst of a decades-long Icetime, where two con artists are pulling a one final con.

All right, call me Fred.
The Captain of the Guard, The Graff Vynda-K, and Sholakh
Source: Doctor Who Reviews

I can’t think of any season opening for Doctor Who as fun and well-written as “The Ribos Operation.” Robert Holmes has turned in what must be his most-perfect script; Tom is on fine form; Romana adds a great counter-point to the Doctor; the production looks great. We haven’t had a story as tight as this one since “Horror of Fang Rock.”

Season sixteen is the Key to Time season. Each story advances the overall arc, but each story is still somewhat episodic. The search for the Key to Time provides a reason for the adventures, and it bookends each story. It therefore imposes a structure on the adventures during this season. While I don’t have a problem with story arcs in general (I am a fan of Lost, Fringe, and Babylon 5, after all), I prefer to see a more controlling hand at work. Ideally, I want to see arcs that arise from character decisions and actions (seen in some of the plot points that linked story to story in the first season of Doctor Who), but if a show is going to have a grand mystery, then I want the episodes to seem somewhat relevant to that mystery. “The Ribos Operation” is good in spite of the arc, and if Holmes had written a different McGuffin the story would have worked just as well.

Being a part of the arc, however, does present some interesting thematic material. As Philip Sandifer points out in TARDIS Eruditorum, the Key to Time arc sets up a theme of dualism. This theme is indicated early in the story when the White Guardian coerces the Doctor into the quest. The White Guardian is an unambiguous stand-in for God. He is a force for order, and his opposing element, the Black Guardian, is a force for chaos. This leads to a strong problem, however, for if you developed stats for the Doctor in a role-playing game, his alignment would be chaotic good. Doctor Who has clearly indicated that the Doctor rejected the lawful good of his people in order to pursue his own path. In this regard, the Doctor is a very poor candidate to champion this quest—this Doctor, at least. Although, if the Time Lords are the only beings with the resources to enable them to find the segments, then the Doctor is not such a bad choice: he is more resourceful than his people and he far less likely to be corrupted by power. The Doctor is probably not the best choice to ally with order, but he is probably the safest. Romana, on the other hand, is completely inexperienced in adventuring. She is far more sensible and she understands order and commands. This makes her an ideal pawn for the White Guardian, should he determine the Doctor isn’t following the quest in the proper way.

Ribos is a fascinating planet for me. Its cycle of Icetime and Suntime reminded me of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The costume, prop, and set designs seemed inspired by pre-Romanov Russia. The Graff Vynda-K is almost Shakespearean in his growing insanity. And at the core of the story are Robert Holmes’s con men. Holmes plays with Graham Williams’s epic and cosmic ideas, but his real heart lies with the Garron and Unstoffe as they attempt to steal from the Graff.

Watching season sixteen is an exciting prospect. The Key to Time is the story that Graham Williams wanted to tell in the previous season but couldn’t due to budgetary problems. Similarly, season seventeen will also suffer from factors beyond Williams’s control (namely, a strike). Thus, the Key to Time season is the only season that fully represents Graham Williams’s vision for Doctor Who. And as it goes, it is off to a great start.

My Rating

5/5

Doctor Who – The Invasion of Time

Doctor Who Story 097 – The Invasion of Time

Who Wrote It?

David Agnew (Anthony Read and Graham Williams)

What’s It About?

The Doctor, allied with the mysterious Vardons, establishes himself as the President of Gallifrey and opens the door to invasion.

One grows tired of Jelly Babies, Castellan.

The Doctor speaks with K9
Source: The Doctor Who Site

Season fifteen saw Doctor Who opening in familiar territory: dark, atmospheric, and scary. Along the way, however, the season has had some significant growing pains as new producer Graham Williams and new script editor Anthony Read attempted to find their footing. The show was under intense political pressure to tone down the horror and violence and to stay on budget. Thus, this is a season of redefinition and rebirth. It is a season that attempted to redefine a show that was an undeniable success, and it had to move away from many of the elements that made the show successful. But rather than impress the audience with this new direction, season fifteen stumbled and fumbled its way to a resolution. There wasn’t the time and money to go with Williams’s Plan A (which we will get in season sixteen). Instead, this season was hindered by a desire to put something, anything, on the air. As a result, the season is weak, uncertain, and—at times—appalling. Viewers were left to wonder exactly what was happening to this show, and many viewers gave up on it.

The Invasion of Time closed out the season. Ironically, this story captures the uncertainty and fear a viewer has for Doctor Who as a show. We have a story in which the Doctor, like the show, is vaguely familiar but seems very different, and, in the case of the Doctor, possibly evil. We want to trust him, being the loyal viewers as Leela is the loyal companion, but it is hard to make sense of the decisions the he is making. In fact, the overall theme, using this analogy, is to wait and trust. Trust that the Doctor has not sold out Gallifrey; trust that Doctor Who is still a show worth watching.

As this season ends, Leela stays on Gallifrey, written out in an unsatisfying way. With her departure, the final remnant of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era is gone. Symbolically, the show is now free to find its new voice and move into this new era. But at the same time, Leela had become such an endearing character. Louise Jameson was a great actress that truly rose above the material she was given. She fashioned Leela into a compelling character, not because of the demeaning outfits, but because of her performance. Being written out at the last minute was a horrible end to the character (although, she DID get an exit, unlike Dodo). The character, throughout her portrayal, has never shown romantic inclination; this is no less true in this story. Leela leaving the Doctor to stay with Andred was not set up at all. I remember hearing on a podcast (I think it may have been Fantragic/MMM) that when Leela held out her hand in part six, anyone could have grabbed it and it would have made about as much sense. In fact, Leela and Rodan had more screen time together and suffered more together, but I doubt that implying a lesbian relationship would have been any more acceptable to Mary Whitehouse and others criticizing the show than the violence.

And yet, I enjoyed this story. I felt it suffered a bit in parts five and six, but I found the first four episodes to be engaging, witty, and clever. The scenes between the Doctor and Borusa are magnificent. Tom Baker successfully keeps the viewer uncertain. And I appreciate that the writers had the audacity to make us question the Doctor. Sure, we knew there was some point to the deception, but it was withheld long enough to make us uncomfortable. This was a daring move but extremely effective.

How does this story relate to The Deadly Assassin in its portrayal of the Time Lords? I was critical of the previous Time Lord story because I prefer the mysterious, mythic, godlike Time Lords to the academic, bureaucratic Time Lords. And while The Deadly Assassin rooted the Time Lords in a structured and defined civilization, they maintained a sense of power and scope that is lacking in The Invasion of Time. With this story, they are just an advanced society with all the same strengths and weaknesses of any other. The Time Lords are at their most human. Any vestiges of mystery have been removed from the Time Lords themselves and shifted to Rassilon. From this point on, the mysterious and mythic and godlike portrayal will exist in Time Lord history, the era of Rassilon and Omega, not in the relative present. Thus, Doctor Who is tipping an unconscious, symbolic hat to the idea that the magic is gone; it is in the past. Doctor Who has become nostalgic. It longs for an ethos that existed long, long ago.

My Rating

3/5