Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Serial 126: Terminus - The Black Guardian Trilogy Part II

Doctor: Peter Davison (5th Doctor)
Companion: Nyssa, Tegan Jovanka, Vislor Turlough

Written by: Stephen Gallagher
Directed by: Mary Ridge

Editor's Note: 'allo, chaps! Matt here stepping in to intro Cassandra's discussion of "Terminus". It's a mid-week thing because we're in the middle of a linked story (the things we do!) but I will be back in a  few days to discuss the fantastic "Enlightenment" so stay tuned for that. Also, appreciate the Cassandra because she's only got one more to go. Lucky her!

Background & Significance: "Terminus" is the second in a loose trilogy of stories featuring the introduction of new companion Turlough and the return of the Black Guardian from Key to Time.  As fate would had it, this story also served as a departure for Nyssa, who was supposed to fall ill and leave in the previous season, but managed to hold on til this story when JNT decided she'd truly run her course.

Granted, for all he brought to the show, I don't really agree with all of his decisions in a producer capacity, and this is one of them.  I personally love Nyssa, but she was never given the chance to grow as a character ever.  This really hurts her departure, because it pretty much comes out of nowhere (as we'll see); and even Davison himself was against the decision, believing Nyssa to be the best and most compatible companion for his Doctor (and he is not wrong).

Written by Steven "Warrior's Gate" Gallagher, you'd think this would be a much better outing with such a story under his belt.  I mean, he's already written a "suitable" companion departure for Romana, and "Warrior's Gate" was interesting and fairly cerebral, which I like in a Doctor Who story.  Unfortunately, I don't feel he lives up to the promise with this.

"Terminus" is the only Doctor Who story directed by Mary Ridge, who had a long-standing relationship with the BBC, but her stint as director for this story was so fraught with trouble and rushed (and it really shows), it ultimately resulted in a really icy and uncomfortable relationship/falling out with JNT, so she never returned.  Which is a shame, because there is some really good stuff buried in here, but...

Anyway, enough of all that.  Let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1

Wow, I definitely haven’t seen a Fifth Doctor story in quite a while, especially with this TARDIS crew in tow.  It’s a bit of a shock, really.

I think I honestly really do like Turlough, but goddamn if he is not portrayed as incredibly annoying here.  My first reaction to him in this probably shouldn’t be “shut up, Turlough,” though I guess if you go with the whole he's-supposed-to-be-killing-the-Doctor-thing-for-the-Black-Guardian, perhaps that is an appropriate response after all.  I dunno, he just goes through these weird turns where he’s extremely unlikeable and then I kind of love him.  Not sure if that’s the inconsistency of the writing/character portrayal or what, but it’ll irk me until I figure it out.

This story is so silly, though.  It really is.  I mean, Turlough’s meant to be talking to some incorporeal being in his mind, right, so why does it look like he’s talking to the Black Guardian who’s just off camera?  It makes me laugh so much.  Not a super great blocking choice, let’s be real.

And then Tegan shows up mid-sabotage and busts his ass, and what does he do?  He turns into a suave motherfucker and he starts flirting with her.  Turlough, you absolute charming cad.  (Great, I think I ship it now?)  But I like how he goes from absolutely jumpy and bordering on the edge of batshit insane to really suave and charming and trying to cover up his tracks, that’s a thing that I find pretty interesting about him.  Because he’s never quite what he seems, is he?  And he really keeps everything quite close to the chest for the remainder of his run, so it’s interesting to see that established so early on.

One thing I’m incredibly sad about is the fact that this is Nyssa’s last story.  I mean, she’s senior companion and all and everyone has to leave at some point, but I just think she’s a perfect counterpart to the Doctor, especially this incarnation of the Doctor; and I just wish people wrote her not as stale and one-dimensional all the time because I really do enjoy her quite a bit.  Like she’s doing science for fun, and to improve her skills, that’s great, but also incredibly… I don’t know.  Stale, I guess.  Yes, she’s an intellectual, but I don’t think anyone really got a good handle on her character, which is so sad, because so much potential!  It’s really wasted, I think, and it’s incredibly disappointing.
The oddest thing about this opening for me, though, is where on earth is the Doctor in all of this?  It’s odd, isn’t it?  Seeing the companions interacting with each other without the Doctor right off.  I mean, sure we will always get some of that later because of the inevitable Doctor/companion separation during the adventure that serves to sustain the story over 4 parts, but it’s odd seeing it right up front, at least for me. 

There’s just something about this era that intrigues me with its take on the companions.  Like, we see their rooms (that are full of personal items and knick-knacks, where do those even come from? Nobody really had time to pack for this AND YET), we get a glimpse of their “day-to-day” life as it were in the TARDIS.  No other era really does this.  They try so hard to establish the companions as real, independent, fully-fleshed out characters, but I think they tend to fall short more often than not.  I mean, there are glimmers of it occasionally, but it’s just… It’s so odd how they try so hard to establish this particular view of the life and people who travel with the Doctor in between adventures, but it just falls so flat.  It’s fascinating.

And then there’s an abrupt turn and we go from lovely domestic drama (I guess??) into giant pixels attacking and the Doctor rushing in from god-knows-where to help, and then it’s off to the generic space ship set.

I mean, I guess I like the ideas in here, they are pretty clever, what with the inter-dimensional portal from the TARDIS onto this ship and all of that, but.  I dunno.  It just feels incredibly generic to me.  Until the plague grabby hands attack Tegan (best scene in this entire episode, by the way, it’s a great moment of horror and mixes things up a bit), there’s not a whole lot that screams originality to me.  Granted, I do like some of the camera angles in this when Turlough and Tegan are exploring the ship, and the Doctor runs into Nyssa.  But there’s not a whole lot in this first episode that really sells it for me.

Until the end, though, like I said.  I really think that the abandoned ship full of plague people sent off to die is a really interesting idea.  I just wish it were somehow possible to bring that into the episode sooner, but I think it really makes a nice cliffhanger for this, too.  It’s almost like a bunch of zombies flooding the decks of this previously-deserted spaceship, I really like that imagery (which, zombies in space, has someone done that before?  That’d be awesome), especially the scene with Tegan and all the hands crawling all over her from behind the door.  What really almost shatters the moment for me, though, is that guy screeching poorly about how they’re all going to die, and then the super-close-up zoom on Davison’s face, it’s so camp I can’t get over it.  I mean, maybe they were going for some B-movie elements for this, I have no idea, but why ruin the moment?  It’s tense, it’s frightening, it’s everything we want in a cliffhanger without needlessly going over the top.

Sigh.  I hope this gets better, because I really want to like this story, and there are some things I quite enjoy about it, but man.  It’s kind of rough, isn’t it.

Part 2

Okay, you know what, I like trying to reserve judgment for as long as possible, but this story is really quite boring.  Which is infuriating, because both stories on either side of “Terminus” are quite excellent, and a lot of fun, “Enlightenment” being orgasmically good, and I just don’t know why this sucks so hard.

I really really wanted this to be good.  I really wanted to like this.  I watched it for the first time just under two years ago, and was pretty ambivalent about it.  To be fair, I wasn’t paying the most attention to it during that first viewing, so I wanted to give it another shot.  And I tried.  But man.

I mean, for a Doctor Who story, this is not a super excellent showing for the Doctor.  Not because he isn’t good, because he is—you can tell that Davison is doing his best to work with what he’s been given, but at this point, there’s been pretty much nothing.  There’s not a whole lot for him to do in this, is there?  I mean, he’s stuck running around with this chick with Helena Bonham Carter hair; it’s Nyssa’s last story and she’s not even around to spend it with the Doctor and her fellow companions.

I guess I like Turlough and Tegan stuck under the floor and having to work together, but it’s been a full episode and they still haven’t managed to escape?  Come on, seriously?  That’s just ridiculous wheel-spinning.  You can almost tell that they had no idea what to do with them and just stuck them somewhere.  Sigh.

And I guess I like some of the ideas in this.  Terminus, what little we know of it so far, seems to be pretty intriguing.  It’s kind of like a futuristic “bring out yer dead” sort of premise, which I guess is cool.  I mean, it’s interesting to look at societies in the future where plagues and stuff like this haven’t been cured yet, because you get a lot of the opposite happening in most sci-fi.  So that is cool, I suppose, but it’s really poorly executed in this.

Everything is just really generic.  From the set (especially the set, good lord), to the additional characters, it’s just… I wish it felt a lot more original.

And am I missing something, or where did the guys in the skeleton armor come from?  It’s not really communicated effectively.  It’s honestly pretty confusing, like, which ship are we even on?  The giant square hulking thing floating in space?  Or the smaller one?  I don’t even know anymore, there’s been so much pointless ship porn so far, it’s just… so standard 80s sci-fi.  Try harder, come on.

Also, not really a fan of the skeleton armor design either, it’s a bit too on the nose for me.  I get that they deal with the near-dead on a regular basis, but really?  You have to go with that poorly-designed reaper imagery?  Perhaps because it’s supposed to be a futuristic plague story, so I understand wanting to introduce that imagery to tether this in that medieval plague sort of ethos, but…  I don’t know, I’m hard to please, I suppose.  Everything in this is falling absolutely flat for me, so far.

I guess I do like (or at least, can appreciate) the fact that Nyssa gets infected; it doesn’t really add to the stakes much, but it does provide a way into the inner workings of Terminus, and gives the Doctor and everyone else an excuse to go in and look for her and ask questions and such necessary for the story to go on.  Though… I get that she’s sick, but why on earth is it necessary for her to take off her skirt like that?  I literally do not understand what is going on anymore.

And what is that giant wolf thing, anyway?  And the cliffhanger to this part is ghastly.  GHASTLY.  Like, really?  Really?  That is what you’re going to do?  And it’s so poorly acted and completely ridiculous.  Obviously the Doctor isn’t going to die, so why even do that?  SO BAD.  You know how a cliffhanger is supposed to make you want to watch the next part really bad, and know what happens?

Yeah, this does the opposite.  It’s really that horrible.

Part 3

I am 500% done with this story, and we still have one part left.

I’m sorry, I really am.  I tried.  But oh my god, this is a clusterfuck.

First off we have the resolution to that cliffhanger, which is just so straight up awful.  Why is this guy strangling the Doctor?  Why does he choose to kill him instead of the girl?  No reason.  Absolutely no reason at all.  It’s false stakes and it falls incredibly flat, and I have no patience for it.  And then Helena Bonham Carter hair fires her weapon at some convenient metal rubble and it hits the guy in the head. Lucky lucky.

And we learn more about Terminus, or, at least, these guys that are working for them as “reapers” I’ll call them.  They are addicted to a drug called Hydromel, distributed only by the mysterious Company; I like this idea, it reminds me very much of the Jem’Hadar from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  I wish this aspect of these “reapers” were explored more fully though, because I really think it’s interesting, a whole bunch of people enslaved through dependency on a drug that is literally keeping them alive.  Alas, there’s just a bunch of random aggression and poor acting, which makes me even more disappointed.

The thing about this story that is the most aggravating/maddening/disappointing to me is the fact that there are some really interesting ideas and concepts buried in here, but it all goes to waste in the execution.  And then I feel like Gallagher had so many ideas he wanted to use that he just threw them together and hoped they all kinda flowed into each other.  Which is just lazy, in my opinion.  I get that you have a lot of ideas, but at least try a bit harder to make sure they all work instead of just abruptly left-turning at the end of the episode with one more to go.

Which leads me to my next point: good god I really dislike origin of the Earth/universe/whatever stories/explanations.  That’s my one quibble with “City of Death” when they did it there, and it gets a pass because the rest of that story is so good and it makes for a good paradox. 

But this, here…  It feels like it was meant to be led up to, like some sort of important climax or something, but that is just so, so lacking here.  It literally feels like they needed more stakes and something to build the fourth part on and around, so they just threw in a “oh no, the universe is in peril because of the engines!” and an explanation for the Big Bang.  I guess it’s a cool idea and reveal in theory, but it, again, really falls flat for me here in the final execution of it, just kind of thrown in without much effort or thought behind it.

Which is SUCH A SHAME, because I actually really enjoy the scene where the Doctor and Helena Bonham Carter hair come across that guy who went into the forbidden zone or whatever in the last episode that we haven’t seen again til now.  I think Davison does a great job in displaying the empathy of his character, and then they go sleuthing about, trying to figure out what’s going on; I really like all of this, but it’s too little too late for me.  Sigh.

And the stuff with Nyssa and her plague-friend, and that guy that abandoned her and then tried to rescue her from the giant wolf thing (the Garm, I guess, none of these names really pop out or stick with me, which is another problem), it seems like it’s all sidelined in favor of learning more about these reaper fellows and their anger issues and their drug addiction and the end of the known universe, and it makes me really bitter, because I really truly love Nyssa as a companion, but this is such a weak outing all around for everyone.  She’s being written so poorly, and she’s just being dragged from place to place, and I’m still really confused why she took off her skirt.  Like, was that really necessary?  I am so bitter about all of this.

So what are Turlough and Tegan up to, you ask?  How do they fit in all of this?

Answer: they really don’t.  I mean, they’ve been crawling around the ship together, stuck under the floor, separated from everything and everyone “important” happening in this story.  I mean, they finally managed to get out of the floor, which is some progress, I suppose, but then they just kind of idly wander, trying to get back to the TARDIS?  Which is obviously not going to happen til like, the last part, so I don’t even know why they keep leading us on about it.

I get that this is strengthening their relationship, I guess, or at least trying to do that, considering how this story started out with them bickering and such, but it’s lacking.  I do, however, like the brief little scene where Turlough asks Tegan if she could be able to kill someone if she really had to.  It’s a nice little break that hints at some character for both, but it’s so short and just leaves me wanting more of the same, and then it’s back to the lame runaround and I am even more bitter about it.

Sigh.  On to part 4.

Part 4

Okay so I understand why you would be angry and upset at the “Company” for keeping you enslaved, but why on earth would you outright attack someone who you suspect works for them if there’s even the smallest possible chance they could survive the attack and report your ass back?  Like, what sense does that even make?  None.  If you think they’re “company spies” you kiss their ass so they report favorably, you don’t try to kill them.  Seriously.

And then there’s some exposition and we’re supposed to feel bad for this guy who’s tried to kill the Doctor and his badly-dressed friends already?  This just doesn’t. make. sense.

Everything about this part seems really rushed but I don’t understand how it could be because the last three parts were just wheel-spinning and wandering around two different space ships for the most part.  But you’ve got the thing with the Garm, and then Nyssa suddenly caring about all of this, and the skeleton guys and their drugs and deposing the leader guy in the red cape who looks kind of like a vampire, and then Nyssa’s leaving and the Doctor and Tegan head back into the TARDIS with Turlough.  Everything in this is so abrupt, nothing flows like it really should, it just jumps on to the next plot point and it’s really hectic and shoddy.  And everything is being wrapped up and I should care about any and/or all of this, but I really don’t.  You want me to sympathize with these Company skeleton thugs when all they’ve been doing the whole time is beating people up?  Please.  You should have built it all in gradually throughout instead of turning them about at the last minute.

And have I mentioned that pretty much everyone on the guest cast sucks at acting in this, it’s pretty horrible.

This is just not a good showing for anyone, really.

And then Nyssa realizes that the cure works and she suddenly wants to leave and help these people who have been terrible to her and her friends?  Like, I get that she’s compassionate and sympathetic with all of the plague people since she was infected and then the cure magically worked for her (which, there is so much fucking radiation in this, it’s obvious that no one fucking knows how radiation works because hot damn this is bad science) so she just gives up her life on the TARDIS to free the dudes from control of the Company and make it a better place?  Sigh.  That’s so weak, man.  I get that perhaps she felt like she was useless on the TARDIS; or not quite useless, but her skills and knowledge were atrophying, and she feels like she can do some good work and help some people out and whatever, and that’s admirable and all, but come on.  At least give her a better last story than this.  This is straight up fucking stupid bad as a last story.

Ugh.  Okay.  I’m done bitching.

Final Thoughts: In theory, I think "Terminus" is a rather good story.  Unfortunately, not the greatest in execution.

I'm not really sure how much of this comes down to the rushed and harried production, or the script.  But I think they kind of go hand in hand, because the production is not the greatest, so it leans more heavily on the script, which really fails to deliver at every possible turn.  There are exceptions, but those are so few and far between they can't really be counted on, and don't really save it for me.

Ultimately, I'm just really, really saddened and disappointed by this, because I really wanted to enjoy it.  It's just frustratingly impossible for me to do so at a critical level, however.  And it doesn't help that it's a really unfortunate last story for Nyssa, who is easily my favorite companion of this era. Sarah Sutton really deserved better than this, and it's terribly sad that she didn't get it.

And I still don't understand why she had to take off her skirt.

Next Time!: Fifth Doctor! Tegan and Turlough! More Black Guardian! Pirate ships in space! Immortals! Lots of great period costume! Someone's got a crush on Tegan! And will Turlough show his true colors after all? Friday, Matt wraps up our look at the Black Guardian Trilogy with his take on the lovely "Enlightement!"

1 comment:

  1. I laughed at the "Helena Bonham Carter hair." I was thinking she had "Bonnie Tyler" hair while dressed as Space Elvis. Like you, I wanted to like this, but it went back and forth from "boring" to "interesting idea that they need to push further."