Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Serial 107: The Nightmare of Eden

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companions: Romana II, K-9

Writtten by: Bob Baker
Directed by: Alan Bromly

Background & Significance: Just so you know, the title is a drug reference.

"The Nightmare of Eden" is something of an odd bird if you ask me. By all rights I shouldn't really like this story. It's written by one half of the team that has brought me so much pain in Classic Doctor Who, it's in Graham Williams's final season, Douglas Adams's only season, is done on the remarkable cheap, and features an appearance by David Brierly, also known as "The Imposter K-9".

And yet, I think it's actually rather good.

That's not to say the story didn't have everything going against it. Director Alan Bromly was last seen directing The Doctor in the very excellent "The Time Warrior" and was pulled out of retirement based on his perceived interest in the subject matter. Unfortunately, Bromly himself came from a different era of TV direction, in which a director was allowed an authoritarian level of control over his set and vision of the story. Sure, this worked well for Jon Pertwee some six or seven years earlier. But this is a different time. Yes yes. Of course, Bromly's vision brought him straight into conflict with Doctor Who primadonna Tom Baker, who was used to getting his way on the programme and what have you.

So naturally, there was conflict.

Between that and Lalla Ward (and plenty of other peoples) wanting to make sure the drugs in the story were never portrayed as anything even remotely close to positive, it's... quite the gauntlet this story has to run to get made. But strangely, I really think it's stronger for it, regardless of the behind the scenes stuff, which apparently erupted into on-set shouting matches between Tom Baker and the director, culminating in Bromly walking off the project on the final day during the supper break and Graham Williams being forced to step in to complete work on the production and post-production of the serial, which in turn led to Graham Williams's last straw and his departure from the programme at the end of the year...

Which... kinda makes this a turning point really sorta. Kinda. Sorta.

Anyways. It's time to get talking about some drug running.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

Know what it is about this story? It’s got layers.

I don’t know why all of a sudden Bob Baker decided to add layers to his stories, but it… well it really helps, now doesn’t it? It might be Douglas Adams; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. Because the basis idea for this story is one about drug runners and all that. But there’s… there’s so much more to this story, especially in this initial part, where the drug is only really an afterthought, backseated in favour of the other major pressing matter of the story. I mean, it’s The Doctor’s pet project within this, but it is tangented in favour of the other big major thing.

Which is, of course, an interstellar, space cruiser collision.

Now alone, this is an awesome, super simple concept I haven’t seen in this show before. I mean, it’s shown up in Futurama, but that’s a bit more comical because there, ships are just like cars so it’s not really that big a deal. Here, though, it’s treated with real maturity and there’s something about seeing these two interstellar ships (one of which is a BIG ol’ cruiser, which is some fantastic model work on the part of the Doctor Who visual effects department; so big, big props to them) collide and become fused because of a miscalculation of hyperspace or whatever.

So what we’re left with in this episode is The Doctor and Romana attempting to uncouple these two ships.

Alone, that’s an interesting story. Throw in some drama in that and you have a nice short story. Something with missing passengers and a quantum slipstream (copyright Star Trek: Voyager) and you’re set to go. But suddenly The Doctor’s discovering that there’s drugs on board, which have an effect that matches the co-pilot’s behavior at the top of the episode and you have yourself a big ol’ mystery. Not only that, but the co-pilot’s behavior is left COMPLETELY open to you putting the pieces together, which is… that’s awesome. You have to love when Doctor Who treats you like a smart human person.

Oh, and a Mandrel attacks at the end of the episode.

Seriously, this is just… it’s so well done. It’s building on itself and I love that, especially because the first part is usually the one lacking the energy generally found later as the story starts to ramp up, but instead of making it about the Mandrels or the drugs, Baker chooses to focus on the interstellar collision, which is a totally strong point of focus and distracts from the fact that they’re setting up a whole lot of other things. And as a result, part one really stands out on its own as a big strong thing that is strong. Which I love.

And I haven’t even started talking about the people yet.

Easily the most compelling character in this episode is Tryst because he’s… well he’s so unique. He’s like a classy, not-seedy version of Vorg from “Carnival of Monsters” and he reminds me of Elton John if only because of the glasses, the accent, and the square jaw (none of which may remind you of Elton, but I’m going more for feel than actual specifics) (also not to mention his slight femininity just because he seems so prissy). But yeah. I love Tryst, especially because he’s so underplayed here if you ask me. Sure, he appears to show off the CET (which is planted here and paid off in the next episode and throughout the rest of the story), but he grows in role later. But here he’s all understated and stuff. Which is awesome and I approve.

And then… I guess there’s The Doctor and Romana….

Tom Baker is fine here, no complaints. He’s about as good as he always is. But Romana… I dunno. What is she wearing? Not a fan. And I like Romana most of the time (although she’s here to answer the stupid questions and help bounce explosition rather than just ask the stupid, exposition-advancing question, so girls are moving up in the world of Doctor Who. Good for them. And stuff).

I’m sure I’ll have more on them later. Also imposter K-9. Because… um…. Screw that guy.

Part 2:

Structurally, I’m loving this.

Not that there’s not other things to love, but structurally, this is total fantastic. Seriously. I never thought I would say that about this story, but… there it is. Because that which is established is expanded, expounded upon, and developed. And it’s… it’s wonderful. The search for the drug runners continues and goes on, with The Doctor becoming the prime suspect by the episode’s end, forcing him to flee into the CTE crystal projection of Eden, which is…. I dunno. That’s just exactly where this story needs to go.

And it’s not like that which has already been established is suddenly and inexplicably tossed aside. The Doctor and Romana are still actively attempting to uncouple the collided ships. Only now they have to deal with added pressures or whatever.

And the complications also lead to a ton of other fun, exciting things. The sudden appearance of the weird dude in the sunglasses and the silver track suit leads The Doctor on a big, fun, exciting foot race up and down the corridors of this massive ship which is just… it’s so much fun. There’s an elevator and a staircase and the same set of passenger cabins to play with but at the same time there’s… it’s just so clever and well done if you ask me. So much fun.

For that, I would like to blame Alan Bromly.

Now I know I talked a lot about Bromly in the opening, but… for all his supposedly authoritarian shtick, I can’t say that he’s not incredibly talented as a director and his want for his vision is certainly warranted. For one thing, this is really well shot. It’s very energetic and exciting and dashing. Somehow he captures the monotony of the spaceship without making it feel boring. Maybe it’s by taking a different view of different floors. Like when the runner lands on a different floor, it just feels like a different floor. It’s… I dunno. Maybe it’s because Bromly had to keep shooting things differently cuz he wasn’t used to shooting all scenes in one location at once.

Anyways… what else…

I think Tom Baker’s quite good in this. As good as he ever is, if you ask me. Not that he’s not good usually, but I find he really has a good propensity for this material, more anxious to prove himself to do it his way because he hates his director. Maybe that’s it. But it’s… it’s just well done to me. I like his performance and the way he bounces off Romana without coming off like [too much of] a dick. It’s just… It’s nice, especially in this era when he’s literally fearless. You get the feeling that The Doctor is a bit miffed by this whole thing but he’s trying not to let it get to him. He knows he’ll get out of it… But… More than that is not exactly a guarantee.

Oh, and spiking the captain’s drink is a stroke of genius if you ask me. All of a sudden one of the Doctor’s staunchest allies is now being all drugged out and stuff…

And I’d hate to call Joss Whedon an idea ripper-offer (and I doubt he is, but the similarities are so striking) but this “Vrax” stuff is awfully similar sounding to the “Pax” from Serenity, which is all about what’s it called… Making people lucid and carefree until their world whittles away to a nub of nothing. It’s nice to see it here and to see it handled both comically and also fairly seriously. Suddenly, the comic silly thing becomes dangerous when you realize its implications, which is a great, mature touch and outlook on things. I applaud etc.


Part 3:

I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy this as much as I am.

If anything, part three is where the story slows slightly, and so it does here. Granted, it’s not a total standstill. It’s more of a slight hiccup in the grand scheme of things.

Really, not much happens in this part. There’s a bit more running around than there was in previous stories, lots of running in place and a distinct lack of progression, but it’s aided by learning some new things. Baker chooses now to throw in the new team of Excise Men (who are in charge of security on the ship and to make sure that everything’s running; I like to call them The Bureaucracy Brigade) and the introduction of the undercover agent trapped in Eden.

Honestly, these are good choices, both of which help gear up for the end of the story. It allows them room to set up what happens next. Which is… I dunno, structurally, I find that great.

Also, I really think that Bob Baker does a good job of writing clever, silly dialogue. There’s tons of single lines that Tom Baker excels at. Not just him, but Tryst and the Bureaucracy Bureau and The Captain of the Empress as well. And it’s funny, because those were almost certainly in the other Baker/Martin stories. But by putting them here where the story’s good, they don’t feel so eye rolly, which is nice. I hate rolling my eyes at quippy lines.

More than that, I’m not exactly sure what to say about this episode. The Mandrels start attacking, which is totally cool and adds some stakes to the proceedings, especially considering that the death of one causes The Doctor to discover something important.

The rest is all… things happening, I suppose. Things are building and going. The Doctor manages to unstick the two ships, which is cool and solves the problem posited earlier. But there’s still the issue of what to do about the drug runners or the Mandrels themselves. And WHO ARE THE DRUG RUNNERS. Well, I suppose this episode kinda tips the hand, which is… interesting. Especially because for me they’ve done a decent job of playing it close to the vest (literally).

And then they tip their hand with one careless act? Strange. That’s strange to me. Ah well.

As one final point of contention: The Doctor has spent so much of this story moralizing about the creatures in the CET and all that, talking about how it’s raping civilizations and not even keeping them as a zoo but eviscerating entire segments of biodome with the end result of having the crystalized environments eventually wither and die. Which is all well and good. It’s exactly the same attitude he took in "Carnival of Monsters" and it’s the one he should take and the one he WOULD take. So in that I have little to no problems with it.

And yet he uses K-9 to shoot and kill Mandrels? For a guy who’s all about the persistence of life throughout the cosmos, it seems a little hypocritical for him to endorse this attitude. But… I suppose that’s par for the course with this era. Tom Baker’s Doctor is very often close to this sort of rationale. His Doctor hits the sort of place where he’s able to just out and out allow for the death of the “evil aliens” simply because they’re threatening. I have trouble rationalizing that. It’s… I dunno. The Doctor doesn’t kill. I’m sorry. Not my Doctor. I even have trouble with it in a self-defense capacity. And yet here’s The Doctor ordering K-9 to shoot and kill the Mandrel.

I’m sorry, I just… I have a problem with that.

Part 4:

And then it ends.

I have a problem with Doctor Who stories that just… end. I think it’s probably because I expect a big old conclusion that synthesizes anything and everything that’s gone so far in the story. But then you get a story that just kinda ends. And it’s not bad. It’s smart and well done. We see The Doctor turn Tryst’s own trap against him, which is clever and awesome (despite its simplicity but also awesome with a great shot/reveal that I totally loved). And I just… I really like it. The reveal of Tryst is well done and… Yeah… But the best Tryst moment is easily when he appeals to The Doctor for help and The Doctor just tells him to [basically] "F*ck off." It's a fantastic moment for Tom Baker, I think. He's totally great at it and the righteous indignation comes off him in spades, especially knowing how much he hates what Tryst has been participating in.

Honestly, I don’t have a super lot to say about this one.... But I will perservere!

I love that the space collision is solved in the previous episode and that storyline is (seemingly) wrapped up. All that’s left is for Dymond to take off. But he doesn’t cuz he has to go  back for Tryst, his business partner…

Which is interesting. It’s pretty standard, I suppose. Not exactly a surprise because the bad guy needs to return to the scene of the crime. But…. I dunno. I won’t complain too much. It’s not really that complainable. If anything, there’s an issue with The Doctor getting back to the Empress after being on the Hecate. But… yeah. I can almost go with it.

You also have a totally fun sequence where The Doctor helps to lure the Mandrels back into Eden, which is… well it’s cute. And better because you don’t have a bunch of dudes shooting at them and stuff.

Although The Doctor still does order K-9 to shoot a Mandrel dead, so…

It’s interesting, though. I love the basic ideas floated in this story. That the Mandrels are the source of the drug itself is a great way to bury the conceit of the story. Tryst can smuggle the Mandrels under a "Carnival of Monsters" pretext and then use them to sell the drug. Which is… that’s just really good. A normal idea would be to stash the drugs in a safe spot within the crystal, but smuggling the cargo as the aliens designed for study is just…. I dunno. I really like that. It’s rather clever.

Also clever is Tryst himself, with his rationale for this being just… fantastic. The lassiez-faire attitude of it all is… I dunno, it’s cool and a nice commentary.

Shrug face. I really love Tryst even if he does wear that silly suit.

There’s also his assistant, whom I haven’t talked about much. It’s not that she does anything special either. She’s just a solid guest performer, who does the work and gives her lines well and ends up being betrayed by Tryst, we find out she’s really good in the end. Which is awesome, right? I dunno, I think it’s awesome. Seriously I’m out of things to say at this point. Can’t we just give me a break?

Final Thoughts?: It's both a blessing and a curse that this story is so solid.

For one thing, it's really one of the stronger stories of this era if you ask me, especially towards the end of this Graham Williams era under Douglas Adams, which (for the record) I've been avoiding like the plague.

But this serial subverts all that, I think. It comes really close to Graham Williams's mission statement of just telling exciting, quality stories that are fun and adventurey without having to descend to any sort of particular trope (specifically horror). It's just a fantastical little jaunt into that "world of fantasy and wonder" that Williams sought to capture so much. And it's... it's good. It's definitely made on the incredible cheap, but unlike something like "The Horns of Nimon" (which looks, feels, and acts like it's dirt cheap), this serial actually attempts for excitement and to make it feel like it's got an "average budget" (whereas all the other stories in this season have either ALL THE BUDGET EVER or NO BUDGET WHATSOEVER).

And a lot of what makes this serial good comes from a really strong story by Bob Baker. I really feel that Baker's lack of writing partner forced him to push himself to prove that he wasn't just one-half of a dissolved (and failed) writing team.

So what we're left with is something that's totally a Doctor Who story written by a long-time Doctor Who writer who just wanted to tell a good, fresh story. And it's good and jam-packed with ideas, structured very well so that it's exciting and fun. It's funny. It's clever. It's got great moments and memorable characters, and it does a really interesting sort of drug angle that I really rather enjoyed a lot. Which is... awesome.

Also, I can't not mention Alan Bromly again, who did a totally fantastic job shooting and putting together this story. He really pulled out some nice performances and shot the story extremely well.

So ummm... I guess I was wrong about this era? Not really, but it does show you that even in the end there can be gems in the stuff you dismiss because it doesn't really resonate with you. Probably my favourite story of this season after "City of Death" (not like that's hard), but... definitely one that's a fun little watch on a slow afternoon. Fun to see Romana and The Doctor running around despite myself. I mean... I like Romana in theory but not in practice (see JNT's issue with the unbeatable TARDIS team, which I subscribe to), but I don't like this imposter K-9. Is it too hard to ask for John Leeson to come back and re-dub all this over again? Cuz he should.

Solid stuff.

Next Time!: 1st Doctor! The original TARDIS crew! Deserts! History! A long-term story! And some excellent dialogue from John Lucarotti! "Marco Polo"!

But First!!!: NO DOCTOR! (Say whaaaaaaaaaat) and Daleks. A prologue to a story we already talked about! A very special Classical Gallifrey discussion of "Mission to the Unknown!", marking the halfway point in discussing Classic Who! Coming This Thursday!


  1. So, is 'your Doctor' one that isn't onscreen? 'Cause here's the thing: The Doctor does kill. There's no reason for people to think he doesn't. He doesn't kill NEEDLESSLY, and only in self-defense... but he does. So, where's this pacifist Doctor people are always talking about from? :-)

    1. Um... where does he kill?

  2. No offense intended- I just see that notation on quite a few different stories where the Doctor does kill, so I'm wondering where all of the evidence to form this viewpoint that contradicts the evidence comes from. :-)