A time of frivolity and madness for the show, season seventeen is notoriously unpopular but is one of the periods in the shows history that I most frequently rewatch because I find it so much fun! The Doctor, Romana and K.9 face the Daleks locked in battle with the Movellans, the splintered last of the Jagaroth, Erato the giant plant creature, the homicidal Mandrels with a secret of their own, the Nimon offering fools gold to the people of Skonnos and finally the Gallifreyan war criminal Salyavin!
The regulars -
Destiny of the Daleks written by Terry Nation and directed by Ken Grieve
Teeth and Curls: There is a wonderful moment of pure slapstick at the climax to Destiny of the Daleks that wonderfully illustrates the potential of Douglas Adams approach to Doctor Who. The Daleks are close to the Movellan ship, strapped with explosives and Davros has the destruct button ready to detonate. All very tense. And then the Doctor throws his hat over the eyestalk of his Dalek guard which is naturally disorientated and whilst the barmy Time Lord pushes it this way and that Davros is screaming out directions for it to follow. ‘To your left! To your right!’ it screams... and I was chuckling. But it was when he had the nerve to scream "This way!" when I was wetting myself. The Doctor sticks an explosive to its side and throws it down a corridor with the glorious parting riposte "Bye bye!" before it explodes. He turns on Davros with a mad glint in his eye and for that one moment you can see perfectly why this hyperactive, verbally uncontrollable nutter is feared by all manner of baddies. Grinning with a frightening amount of teeth he pulls back Davros' hand and forces the detonation and the Daleks explode in a dazzling display of pyrotechnics that are so powerful bits of a Dalek casing take over ten seconds to even start floating to the ground! I thought it was divine, somebody was finally recognising that the Doctor Who universe is a place of incredible fun and even having some laughs with the Doctor and the Daleks! Adams had a wonderful vision of how Doctor Who should be played, humorously but with a very serious core and this story, in particular that 'loony Doctor' climax expresses that in its purest form.
This is quite responsible characterisation of the Doctor considering its abominable reputation. He shows appropriate amounts of seriousness in the first episode, even underplaying the much-insulted regeneration scene. I loved his small comment that he could never sleep at night if he left and never knew where they had been. He scoffs at factual books that claim knowledge that he knows is untrue, I can just imagine him whiling away many an evening with the Encyclopaedia Britannica and furious scribbling in the margins arguing with the facts it possesses. Suddenly Baker is deathly serious when he stumbles on Romana’s grave, revealing the Doctor’s true feelings underneath all the bluster as he frenziedly pulls away the rocks. It is interesting to compare the Doctor and Davros’ interaction from his first and penultimate seasons, Genesis’ scenes were powerfully dramatic but now he pretty much takes the piss out of him with a few moments of genius lunacy. The one major difference is that in Genesis he bottled out of killing Davros and in Destiny, clearly learning from his mistakes and activating his sonic screwdriver to detonate the bomb. His reaction to the logical impasse, sheer delight that the ultimate equation for peace has been discovered is delightful.
Lovely Lalla: What can I say about the regeneration scene that hasn’t been analysed, insulted, discussed, dissected and put everybody in a big grump. It’s a bit of a laugh, isn’t it? What makes me giggle more than the silly scene itself is the reaction to it as though the writers of the show aren’t allowed to muck about with continuity because fandom (I use the word loosely in a hope that it doesn’t apply to you) like it set in stone. Besides which look at what we could have ended up with instead of luscious Lalla? Imagine the Doctor travelling the universe with that buxom babe? Its sweet that she saw a body that she liked and nicked the template. So long as they are galaxies apart and neither ends up a celebrity (what’s that? President of Gallifrey…?) where’s the harm? Lalla’s body is warm, sensible and wears well (ahem). Look at how hard Lalla works to make these Daleks seem scary, what a trooper! Romana’s plan to escape the Daleks by faking her death is genius and an excellent use of her Time Lord skills, which no other companion could have achieved. We get to experience a taster of Tom and Lalla’s marriage when they have their mock fight in front of the Movellans. Sorry Tom, Lalla is scarier. I know this wasn’t her first story as Romana (and you can see that in Creature from the Pit) but Ward has already put her stamp on the show and she looks fantastic.
The Good Stuff: I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed this considering I have never forced myself through more than half of episode three since I have owned the DVD. How formidable does the TARDIS look in that outcrop of rocks and for once we have the ruins of a city that look like the ruins of a city! The first episode is pretty eerie overall, the lack of music, the rock burial, the slowly descending ship burying into the ground (a typical example of imaginative tech in the Williams era), the explosions in the sand that chase the Doctor and Romana (as good as anything we saw in Androzani)… That’s the best damn looking Dalek control room we have ever seen with those fantastically menacing ceilings, pulsating interrogative globes and all manner of freaky sound effects. The mine scenes are great because they look authentic (real ruins, real ceilings and real mines!) but also because they stress the reach of the Dalek Empire with prisoners from a hundred worlds. The camera is often at ground level pointing upwards and the Daleks look especially good (despite their careworn shells) looming over the sand dunes. The brutal logic of the Daleks is to murder their hostages to get the Doctor to hand over Davros, the callous bastards! They know exactly how to play the Doctor after all this time and his reaction is haunting. I love the two Daleks who hold hands to detonate the bomb and save Davros, bless them. Look at that smoking Dalek – imagine marketing that as a joss stick style feature…Dalek mutant scented smoke for every occasion! The story is layered so there is a lovely big budget backstory to the small budget action-taking place but the latter is pivotal to the former (two awesome battle fleets trapped in an impasse of logic and the Doctor and Davros two opposing, defining elements to ignite the flame of war). Awww those poor suicidal Daleks who are so proud to show of their bling bombs and press against the Movellan ship and blast the shit out of them! Davros strokes his bomb activation switch like you would caress a lovers face, he really does love being in control, doesn’t he? Even though the concept is a bit daft I love the depth of the shot of the Daleks on three levels heading towards the Movellan ship. Wow, Romana really gets down’n’dirty when she chases after Laan and his Nova Device, it gets really muddy and violent and love how she kicks his arm off! Episode four is full of excitement and tension; the Romana trapped with the Nova Device, the Doctor a Dalek hostage, a bloody great battle and some spectacular Dalek explosions!
The Bad Stuff: Trouble is there is almost an equal amount of elements that the story gets wrong. How can a robot catch laryngitis? The ‘Psychic?’ ‘Like it’ interplay is trying to be funny but surely with the geniuses at work here (Baker, Ward, Adams, Nation) they could have thought up something wittier than this. Surely whoever designed the Movellans was taking the piss, both in the production and within the story? I have seen the Daleks make some pretty impressive entrances in my time; rising out of water, coughing out of sand, Babs screaming from their POV and even invisible but tearing through a thin shiny layer of black cling film does not rank up their as one of the best. Tyssan has all the personality of plaster of Paris. The Doctor states that this plan is too fantastic even for the Daleks, what, drilling a hole and digging up a body? To keep the universal balance correct whereas the Dalek control room looks fantastic the Dalek city corridors are horrendous, the budget stretching to nothing more than a black cloth and some weird looking supermarket cage holding rubble. Davros has an extreme floppy wristed awakening, after all those years of slumber he feels the need to camp it up straight away. Both the Michael Wisher and David Gooderson Davros’ are written in the same way and the latter lacks the icy precision and lust for power that Wisher brought to the role. Gooderson’s Davros is literally a raving megalomaniac. Shoving Davros down the corridors to that boppitedy Simpson music is exactly how I would imagine a Little Britain sketch of Doctor Who would be like, its pretty farcical. What is up with Davros’ mouth? It looks as though it has been smeared with something nasty. The pace seems to stutter with the music missing, it really does glue the scenes together and add some drama. That goo is a very cheap substitute for a Dalek mutant! What is this surrealist mime, the Dance of the Movellans when their power packs are unclipped (surely they should have been internal?). Davros is such a camp git; firstly he decks out those Daleks in bling and then gets his glowing disco ball out! Wouldn’t the logical impasse be a better plot device for the emotionless Cybermen than the ‘toys out of the pram’ Daleks?
The Shallow Bit: Somehow, somehow they managed to replace Mary Tamm with somebody even more beautiful.
Result: Beneath all the trappings there is a sound science fiction story at work here and clearly Douglas Adams has had a huge impact on Terry Nation’s original script. There is a moribund first episode, which is slow paced but dripping with atmosphere and an exciting, visually impressive conclusion that ends the story on a good note but it’s the humdrum middle episodes that really let this story down. How can any story be this dynamic (fantastic camerawork, effects and action) and this dreary (the majority of the performances, the plodding script) at the same time? Destiny of the Daleks has a bottom of the barrel reputation and it is no where near as bad as people make it out to be but at the same time it isn’t the Dalek spectacular that should have opened the season. Completely unrepresentative of the William’s era, Destiny trades wit and imagination for flashy visuals and set pieces and it also has one of the best DVD covers too. Flawed but fun, all told: 6/10
City of Death written by David Agnew and directed by Michael Hayes
TO BE REVIEWED...
The Creature from the Pit written by David Fisher and directed by Christopher Barry
This story in a nutshell: There is a big green blob down a very black hole and its eating people…
Teeth and Curls: How can you not love the Doctor of season seventeen? This is the Doctor at his most delightfully irreverent and frivolous, seeking diversions, fun and adventures. Gone is the patronising, pious previous Doctor or even the brooding wild-eyed portent of doom from his early years, this is one period of his life where he simply seems content. Look at how he proudly talks about his old adventures but turns his nose up at dull old Gallifreyan technology because he finds calls and summons to Gallifrey such a bore! He enjoys reading Peter Rabbit with K.9. Go watch how Tom Baker plays the scene where he first touches the shell and declares it alive, this is an unpredictable actor at his best. They really sweat him up in the jungle, he looks hot and uncomfortable. The Doctor is quite handy in his manacles, bonking people on the head during the ambush and to escape from Adastra’s clutches. He has a teaspoon and an open mind so naturally he learnt more about the egg than Adastra’s scientists. Look at his recklessness at the end of part one, selflessly throwing himself down the pit to discover more about the creature. Teehee – Teach Yourself Tibetan, I am the perfect audience for this lame undergraduate humour! Born under the sign of cross computers (the maternity sign on Gallifrey). If you can get past the look of the creature then the Doctor attempts to communicate show him at his best; sweet, understanding, intelligent and complimentary. Tom Baker plays those potentially catastrophic scenes with some skill (although blowing down the creatures protuberance might be the rudest thing I have ever seen the Doctor do!). I was cracking up at the Doctor’s reaction to Adastra’s threat to kill Orgenon: ‘Goodbye old man.’
Aristocratic Adventurer: She is the Doctor’s commander. As Lalla Ward points out this is still very much characterised in the Mary Tamm fashion of talking down to people but she plays it with such bossy conviction I wont complain! Watching her dominate the bandits and is worth the admission price alone! She becomes something of a wet drip when K.9 is surrounded by wolf weeds which I thought rang false. I really like the exchange where Romana lips back to Adastra and she gets a slap round the face for his cheek, its quite tense. She thinks she is improving but she is shockingly flippant towards the creature when they are looking for answers.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Stupid expression. Stands to reason. Why doesn’t it lie down to reason? Its much easier to reason lying down.’
‘The future foretold, the past explained, the present…apologised for!’
‘Here’s another six inches to add to your collection old man!’ – that’s a really nasty line considering she has just stabbed Torvin in the back!
The Good Stuff: Shot on film, arcing with curtains of steam and lush with fauna and flora, Chloris is without a doubt the finest jungle set built and filmed in Doctor Who. The sound effects fill it with verdant life. The opening is unusually silent. I find the wolf weeds an enjoyable idea, something a bit different and nutty. Eileen Way is scary without even trying because there is something sinister in those lazy psychotic eyes and her casual bloodlust makes my skin crawl. The design of Adastra’s soldiers is rich and visually appealing, red wine coloured tunics, leather masks and ceremonial swords. Christopher Barry makes some attempts to make the creature menacing before we are exposed to its design, an unseen glowing green threat. Nothing could quite have prepared me for the thickest green penis of death! Yeah the creature is insanely designed and realised but much like every monster in season seventeen it is conceptually a bit different and interesting and I always applaud a non-humanoid monster no matter how rude it looks! Organon delights (I love the ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Oh beyond the stars’ ‘So I was right then?’ exchange) and Geoffrey Bayldon is another character actor of such calibre that you know must have appeared in Doctor Who at some point (like Graeme Crowden and Peter Jeffrey). The long shot of the Doctor and Organon approaching the full size creature is fearsome and gives some idea of what they were trying to achieve. Weaving the walls, that’s novel! It’s interesting to see a villain screaming with horror at the end of an episode. The Doctor walking through the shell wall is so unexpected it is laugh out loud funny (it gets me every time!). The communicator stealing people’s voices is a wonderful idea. Much like the rest of season seventeen the last episode is very satisfying and what the collaboration of Douglas Adams and David Fisher achieves here is to take a slothenly monster tale and turn it into something cleverer. I especially love how the creature uses Adastra’s voice to expose her wickedness! A mutually beneficial trade between two worlds. Adastra’s death is very satisfying and nasty. The egg is revealed to be part of the creatures ship and the photon drive is concealed in pieces hidden in the pit. Typhonians live for 40,000 years so the creature’s 15-year imprisonment is like taking a nap. A neutron star is plunging towards Chloris’ sun and Erato manages to spin a web around it! The creature looks awesome bulging into the doors and windows of Adastra’s palace. Organon’s ‘Something terrible is going to happen’ and then bop! A draft contract for a trade agreement hints at good times ahead for both planets.
The Bad Stuff: David Brieley’s K.9 voice sounds irritatingly middle class and camp! The sudden cut to pantomimesque Torvin inspecting his metal sees a sudden dip in quality and the video and film footage contrasts sharply. A lot of people cite her as the best thing about this story but I find Myra Francis’ Adastra painfully wooden. I don’t get any sense that anything is going on beneath her thin characterisation. How odd for a director who brought to life some of the best known Troughton stories to turn up years later in a bit part. Torvin actually lies down when K.9 shoots him! The cliffhanger to episode two lacks any finesse.
Result: Creature from the Pit plays like a pantomime complete with an ice queen, comedy bandits, a monster and a moral. If you cut away one episode and the bandits this would be a much sharper piece and probably enjoy a better reputation. Tom Baker is enticingly good but Lalla Ward has yet to perfect her snugly brain box Romana. With old school actors such as Eileen Way and Geoffrey Bayldon present the story feels a lot more stylish than it has any right to be but I do love how the script suddenly pulls itself together in the last episode and surprises. This story is best watched at Christmas with young children, a teaspoon and an open mind: 6/10
The Nightmare of Eden written Bob Baker and directed Alan Bromley
This story in a nutshell: Ships in bottles, monster drugs, economy class passengers slaughtered horribly – all in a days work for the Doctor!
Teeth and Curls: Can you think of a better example of the fourth Doctor walking from the TARDIS and ingratiating himself in the situation with such confidence and enjoying himself immensely. With Romana and K.9 in tow it is one of those Doctor/companion combos (like the Doctor, Sarah and Harry) that makes me smile before they even do anything! They seem to have such fun just being together and stepping into impossible situations. Always interfere, its what he does best! Tom Baker is simply sublime in the role at this point, go and watch the scene where he smoothes his way in with Tryst before turning the tables and condemning the CET machine, his performance is so fluidic. K.9 isn’t just a mobile blowtorch you know, the Doctor admits he even beaten him at chess one (when he actually loses more often than not!). The Doctor has seen planets ravaged by Vraxion. He’s appalled at the idea that he might work for anybody and admits he is just having fun. I always giggle when he goes rushing through economy class and is accosted by a complaining passenger – does he offer advice, comfort? Nope – ‘Have a jelly baby and don’t forget to brush your teeth!’ His date of birth is sometime around now. When Stot starts talking about love the Doctor coughs and changes the subject, thank goodness he is around during the New Series as he would be running away from the sentiment more than he is saving the day! There’s a great scene where Tom Baker confidently points out all the immense and advanced technology in the engine rooms of the Empress and he is so confident in his delivery we don’t even need to see it. He really was an asset to the shows budget. How funny is it when he boots the Mandrel? I could just imagine Troughton having a right laugh playing the pied piper to the Mandrels and Tom Baker is just as good, hopping about with his whistle but once he leaps into the Eden projection there is rare moment of Doctor Who tipping over into farce. The Doctor coldly rebutting Tryst is a seminal moment, now all the hi-jinks and ship separating is over the Doctor cannot bring himself to face a man who would waste lives to make money.
Lovely Lalla: What on Earth was JNT on when he suggested that Romana and K.9 should go and Tegan and Adric should join? Did he genuinely think this was a better situation? There is a scene in Nightmare of Eden where the Doctor and Romana discuss the dangers of walking into unstable environments that manages to be informative and very funny – they are such engaging characters they make exposition fun. Go and watch Adric and Tegan rowing in Four to Doomsday, hideous performances and grotesque characterisation – it just doesn’t compare. Romana comforting Dellah in the last episode feels very right, as does her technical wizardry to capture Tryst and Dymond. She’s not just the Doctor’s assistance; at times he is hers and that is a great relationship.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Just in the same way a jam maker preserves raspberries!’
‘Its totally inexplicable1’ ‘Nothing’s inexplicable!’ ‘Then explain it!’ ‘…its inexplicable!’
‘The Empress has eaten your ship.’
‘Well they’re only economy class, what’s all the fuss about?’
‘The profits on human suffering…’
The Good Stuff: The two ships sticking into each other is a marvellous way to drag the audience into the story. The interfaces are a pretty decent effect for the time. Drug dealing in Doctor Who? The Doctor discovering the Vraxion is remarkably strong stuff for the series, especially during this period. Although we have already had the Scope in Carnival of Monsters, the CET machine is still an awesomely imaginative idea. Miniature environments on crystals that can be transmitted into actuality and the unstable energies of the ships merging allowing characters to walk in and out of them! The kids must have lapped it up. I don’t know what to make of Tryst’s accent, it’s clearly comically exaggerated but after a few scenes I got used to it and worse, started to enjoy it! When Romana studies the CET machine and we see all those trippy, wonderful alien worlds it is an encapsulation of the joyous exploration of the universe that Williams brought to the show. Love the face peering out from the Eden projection. Seka’s wounds are pretty nasty. The first episode is an intoxicating brew of ideas, drug dealing, magic machines, spaceships colliding, mysteries, intrigue and even a monster reveal! I really enjoy the moments of people working behind the scenes that the audience sees but the characters don’t – Doctor Who is usually so upfront so scenes of hands tipping Vrax into drinks are welcome. This story has great Dudley Simpson score; I especially like the piano score as the Doctor chases Stot down the stairs. David Daker always makes me smile as the drugged up Rigg (‘Lets talk about life…’) and his eventual comedown is pretty frightening for the timeslot, especially the violence towards Romana. I think the Mandrel heads are pretty good its just when they are in long shot that they look so cuddly and they look way better in the darkened Eden project. The end of episode two is unusual in that it isn’t a moment of peril but rather the promise of more excitement to come. When I first watched this story I was genuinely surprised by Dymond and Tryst’s…well tryst! Follow that up with the audacious surprise that the Mandrels are the Vraxion and you have a great third episode. I didn’t have a clue what was going on at the end of episode three but I was really excited! Tryst’s casual dismissive attitude towards the effects of his smuggling is very well written. The Doctor’s scheme to nab Tryst and Dymond in the CET machine is a priceless finishing touch to a very clever story.
The Bad Stuff: The opening scenes are outrageously camp with the jangly theme tune, sparkly dressed Captains and blinged up passengers. K.9 blasting the whole in the wall has clearly been set up for him to do so. The Mandrel reveal would be far better if its great spongy head didn’t get caught in the hole! Dymond dost complain too much to be an innocent. Everything is just on the right side of lunacy until the Excise Men show up and then its overdone bureaucracy and farcical performances. Was episode three underunning because the reprise is really long! The Mandrels attacking the passengers is really funny – as Rigg notices – but I don’t think that is the idea! The Mandrel jammed between the machinery is really funny! A guard actually does a pirouette before falling unconscious. The Doctor’s pantomime antics with the Mandrels are justly criticised.
Result: Wildly imaginative and intelligent but also cheap and farcical, The Nightmare of Eden will conflict its audience depending on what you are looking for from Doctor Who. I love it - Bob Baker’s only solo script for the series is a belter, loaded with great ideas, funny lines and held together with a very strong narrative. The drug-dealing angle gives the comedy some gravity and the performances, whilst sometimes veering over the top, keep the energy levels high. Sometimes you think that the director must have walked out throughout the story and then you discover that he did and it is astonishing that this bouncy bit of fun turned out as good as it does. Of all of classic Who this is one of the most entertaining: 8/10
The Horns of Nimon written by Anthony Read and directed by Kenny McBain
Teeth and Curls: Tom Baker is well and truly drunk on his own reputation (and lager) and is probably so bored with the part that made him famous he is practically improvising his scripts now and behaving in an entirely outrageous fashion. It should be embarrassing but this is Tom Baker we’re talking about so even when he is in full on nutty professor mode he is still marvellously watchable. Tennant aside, this is possibly the most mercantile moment in his life, where the actor is as famous as the character and the two together sell the show as much as the stories. It is about time one of the Doctors took apart that tatty old console and tried some repairs and the scene where boggle eyed number four tries to shove his scarf on the phutting, spark ridden piece of machinery made me howl (its almost as if the TARDIS enjoys being erratic and a bit naff!). He takes great umbrage to being call a space pirate, apparently he can adopt all manner of guises for why he has appeared out of no where but he has to be the one to decide what. I love how different the Doctor and Romana’s reactions are to the kids, he’s like your favourite Uncle handing out sweets and ruffling their hair and she’s the bossy matriarch, trying to save their lives and keep them safe. There really is something hypnotically watchable about his inane asides! We should be frowning at the boing boing exploding TARDIS console and the Doctor’s deadpan reaction but really I find it a guilty pleasure. He wonders if he has been wasting his time saving planets and that he might have made a slow bowler (that screams of Douglas Adams). Watch him casually baiting the bull-like Nimon with his hankie; he’s so effortlessly confident in his role in the series he can make the most ridiculous scenes look natural. People often don’t know what he is talking about. A common theme in season seventeen is the Doctor’s condemnation of the villains of the piece and I like the realism of his statement that he doesn’t think the Skonnon people will change at all under Zorak.
Lovely Lalla: Romana is as smoothly cool as the Doctor is irreverent and together they make an awesome team. What is very clear from Horns of Nimon is how Romana is more than capable of heading off and having her own adventures rather than simply hanging on the Doctor’s arm. She’s outgrown her need for him and yet she hangs around simply because she adores him so much (and those meddlesome Time Lords will probably be after her). Romana has made her own, far superior, sonic screwdriver of which the Doctor tries to trade with his without her noticing. Lalla Ward is terrifying when she is in full on bossy mood and she somehow makes the line ‘Despicable worm!’ sound like a genuine threat! Her kindness towards Sezom and her protection of the Athenian children proves that she is fully embodied woman in Doctor Who (it makes me laugh that JNT commented that this is precisely the sort of character who doesn’t belong in Doctor Who and writers her out and Tegan in! Maybe he should have had less creative input?). As a meddlesome hussy (hahaha!) she handles all the action scenes and still has a few centuries left in her yet.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What a curious thing to be!’
‘He lives in the Power Complex.’ ‘That figures.’
‘Skonnos shall rule the heavens!’
‘Digging a black hole on my doorstep…’
‘Its their next victim planet.’
(I want to take this opportunity to express my love for Graeme Williams era. During my last Doctor Who marathon it was the period I was dreading the most (because I was expecting some duff productions) and low and behold it turned out to be the most enjoyable ‘producers run’ in the whole bally series! Oddly enough the era I thought I would like the most bored me the most – the Hinchcliffe years because once you get the joke, that they are homages of old hammer movies, there isn’t much content just visual delights. With the Williams stuff there is some astonishing characterisation throughout, an abundance of imagination, sparkling wit, towering performances and (to my surprise) even some accomplished productions. My two favourite things about his era are the fact that he pretty much sticks to fingers up at continuity and carves his own little niche of Doctor Who and that he managed to populate the universe with some fabulously memorable planets – Ribos, Xanak, Tara, Delta Magna, Atrios, Xeos, Chloris, Azure and of course Skonnos. His was an era of invention, of enjoyment and of confidence. I love it.)
The Good Stuff: Why is General Smythe working for the Skonnon Empire? I like the backstory of the war, the Athenian’s remembering when the Skonnon ships were the most feared in the sky before they started fighting amongst themselves. There is an enchanting sparkly theme courtesy of Dudley Simpson when the TARDIS floats towards the ship in episode one that sees him back on form in his last story. No matter how theatrical he is Graham Crowden is still a huge acting coup. Has there ever been a better visual definition of the fun that the fourth Doctor, Romana and K.9 have than of the three of them gliding down the tunnel of light? The Williams era used references and ideas to sell these stories far more effectively than they could ever realise them and the Doctor’s mention of a Sargasso Sea in space, an artifical black hole works beautifully. I really like the design of the Skonnon uniforms and architecture; everybody about it suggests a sense of theatrical might, the camp arrogance of a grandiose dictatorship. June Hudson’s costumes for the other characters are bleached in visually appealing primary colours. The set design is all butch, military straight lines. K.9 coughing out the brail tape made me chuckle and the scene of the Doctor and K.9 on their sides where he extends his eye sensor to give him a diagnosis is so cute (it doesn’t take much). The low gravity slow motion action is a simple but effective way of selling the idea. Are the balletic, camp Nimon one of the campest race of monsters ever? They are certainly (for good or for ill) one of the most visually distinctive and their sinister locust plague voices really set them apart from the crowd. Only Doctor Who would dare to attempt something as nutty as the TARDIS hitting the asteroid like a cricket ball notion. Its really nice to see an invasion of another planet (take note the current production team) and the fact that this done so insidiously by dangling a carrot in front of the Skonnon’s means that they are practically invading themselves. The irony of the means of a race that wants to invade the galaxy causes the invasion of their own world really appeals. Their council of war is the ultimate expression of their theatre and reveals this world to be control by (‘Fire! Blood! Steel!) impotent power hungry men! It means that somebody as naïve as Soldeed, who thinks the Nimon will lavish them with a new Empire just because he enjoys being fawned to, can realistically be the worlds leader, Its simple brutal logic from a simple brutal race. And naturally he blames all of his problems on Romana, a woman, in the last episode instead of looking somewhere a little closer to home. The printed circuit complex is poorly realised but superbly conceptualised. A giant positronic circuit! There are some really nice visuals that take you by surprise; the crumbling ashen husk that disintegrates and the Nimon larder which pleasingly echoes Tomb of the Cybermen and The Ark in Space, design wise. There is an efficacious use of throbbing red lighting to suggest a growing power build up. Tasty technobabble is another singular feature of the Williams era, not my-ears-are-bleeding Star Trek technical jargon but solid science wrapped in sparkling imagination and the idea of two black holes, one at either end of ‘the Great Journey of Life’ with a hyperspatial beam linking them and affording the Nimon instantaneous travel across the universe has a real piquancy. Despite the lack of resources, Nimon has real scope and we visit two planets, two spaceships and the power complex. The appearance of Edward Waterfield – what is it about these fabulous sixties actors turning up in bit part roles (ala Jacqueline Hill, Eileen Way, Noel Coleman, etc). I like how this story looks at things differently; Soldeed thinks that the Nimon is a person rather than a race. Crowden’s reaction when Soldeed learns otherwise has to be seen to be believed! There is a lovely climatic explosion but lets face it it is left in the dark compared to Soldeed’s ‘You foooooools! You are doooomed! Doooooomeedddd!’
(K.9! I love K.9 and the ten year old screaming for escape inside of me always will. I realise there is a selection of fandom that think he is much fun as having dinner with Gordon Brown and George Bush but you cannot argue with his longevity and continuing popularity. He has had two spin off shows after his name (one unsuccessful, K.9 and Company and one that is finding in its feet in Australia), appeared in The Five Doctors and School Reunion, camoed in Russell T Davies’ Queer as Folk – I love the line of one character, ‘I want one!’ and is now helping Sarah Jane to battle aliens in Ealing!)
The Bad Stuff: The (deliberately) wobbly spaceship and lame phutting explosions open this story with possibly the cheapest set piece ever. The Co-Pilot is gaudily annoying, as irritating as fleas nestling in your pubic hair. His pant splitting death is as awkward and undignifying as his life. Hah – those wobbling orange asteroids look like mutant skittles! None of the cliffhangers are worth much cop but this isn’t really a story of set pieces but of clever plot construction and creeping terrorising ideas (the tribute, the larder, locusts, the wasting of worlds). In sharp contrast to The Crusade (that I watched directly before this) there is no attempt to suggest there is more to the Skonnon Empire besides what we see. The lack of location work is very apparent at times. The TARDIS exterior looks really tatty! Seth and Teka are the wettest Athenian’s in town and would it have been too much to ask for the Nimon to murder the latter horribly and saved us from the agonising caterwauling of Murder on the dance floor? Soldeed is pretty worthless as a character (what exactly do we learn about him?) – he is more of a statement for this planets militaristic impotence. I hate it when a production team use fairy lights (ala Battlefield), it really highlights the lack of resources! Its hardly the most dynamic of final episodes as the Doctor and his kiddie chums skip through the glowing maze with the awkward ‘I need a poo’ stiff walking Nimon in pursuit!
The Shallow Bit: Romana looks breathtaking in her blood red jacket and gloves, am I the only person who wants her to boss me around just because (I’m sure some straight lads and lesbians could think of some better reasons!)? Seth is very sweet looking but is possibly a little too young to fancy! Is this the horniest Doctor Who adventure ever?
Result: The Horns of Nimon is a very clever piece of writing disguised as a comic pantomime and it offers much to those who want to laugh at Doctor Who and those who want to take it seriously. The gags and outrageous performances will make you chuckle but when it needs to be serious (the truth about the tribute, Romana’s trip to Crinoth) it becomes sedately earnest. It’s the last of old school Doctor Who where the show relied on strong storytelling and from here on in (including the new series) we are mostly treated to witty scripts and strong productions (with some standout exceptions). As such Nimon should be praised for its engaging use of ideas and dense plot construction rather than criticised for its lack of resources. On the odd occasion the story tips over into farce (hello Graeme Crowden) but collectively I found this story a huge dollop of fun with some unexpected statements on some very tired ideas: 8/10