Monday, 21 October 2013

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 the mighty 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. I know a dearth of material ensured that The City of Death scored the highest ratings in the shows history but that doesn't explain why Destiny of the Daleks hit between 12-14 million for each episode, Creature between 9-11, Eden a steady 9m and Horns hitting an impressive 10 million in early January. It is about time somebody took apart that tatty old console and tried a little DIY and the scene where boggle-eyed number four tries to shove his scarf on the phutting, spark ridden piece of machinery made me howl. Personally I think the TARDIS enjoys being erratic and a bit naff. If you aim low you are always going to score high. He takes great umbrage to being call a space pirate. The Doctor 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. He doesn't like people assuming he is a God or using his visit to suit their purposes. 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 to camera. I 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. It's the red rag to an Ogri scene all over again and just as joyful. People often don’t know what he is talking about. A common theme in season seventeen is the Doctor’s quiet condemnation of the villains of the piece (he has dark words with Davros, Scaroth, Adastra and Tryst once all the frivolity is put to one side) and I like the cynicism 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 anymore. In the space of five stories Lalla Ward has gone from a tentative performer to one who practically owns the show. It comes from Tom Baker being willing to defer to her authority and being generous enough not to object to the amount of screen time and Doctor-like material she is getting. To be honest he has done all this schtick time and again over the past six years so it is probably quite nice to let somebody else do all the serious stuff whilst he gets on with having some fun. Romana has 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 if she goes it alone). 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 (coming from any other actress, possibly Louise Jameson aside, this would sink). Her kindness towards Sezom and her protection of the Athenian children proves that she is fully embodied woman in Doctor Who. She's able to be maternal without it weakening her character in the slightest. It makes me laugh that JNT commented that this is precisely the sort of character who doesn't belong in Doctor Who and had her written out and had Tegan brought in as a replacement when the Australian air stewardess rarely showed a thought for anybody but herself. Maybe he should have had less creative input. A meddlesome hussy (hahaha). She handles all the action scenes with great aplomb 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 one of the most enjoyable ‘producers runs’ in the whole bally series! Oddly enough the era I thought I would like the most bored me the most – the Hinchcliffe years - but only because once you get the joke, that they are homages of old hammer movies, there aren't that many surprises beyond 'this is really good'. With the Williams era there is a wealth of surprises to be unearthed;  some astonishing characterisation, an abundance of creative ideas, sparkling wit, towering performances and (to my surprise) even some accomplished productions and terrific effects work. One reason that I adore this era; one is that Williams sticks his finger up at continuity (far more so than Hinchcliffe) and carves his own niche of the Doctor Who universe out, whether you like it or not this is the most original era of the show. Big Finish take note. 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 quality of the stories taken as a whole are a step down from the Hinchcliffe era but that just means that the wins for this era score even higher (Fendhal, Ribos, Pirate, City). Oh and he introduced us to K.9. I love K.9 and the ten year old inside of me screaming for escape always will. I realise there is a selection of fandom that think he is much fun as having dinner with a hybrid of Gordon Brown and George Bush but you cannot argue with his longevity and enduring popularity. He has had two titular spin off shows (one that was unsuccessful, admittedly but the other 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 Good Stuff: Why is General Smythe working for the Skonnon Empire? I like the backstory of the war, the Athenian’s recalling a time when the Skonnon ships were the most feared in the sky before they started fighting amongst themselves. It gives the audience an instant reason to fear their (apparent) upcoming influx of technology from the Nimon. Check out the quirky music from Dudley Simpson in his final story, especially during the sequence when the TARDIS floats towards the ship in episode one. No matter how theatrical he can be, 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 that tunnel of light? It's bogglingly illogical and brilliant entertainment and that is what the last three years have been about. The underfunded 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 is wonderfully evocative. I really like the design of the Skonnon uniforms and architecture; everything 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, highlighting their sense of character against the grave blackness of the Skonnons. The set design is all butch, military straight lines. It might look like the kitty has been emptied at times but there are creative minds behind the aesthetics of this story, a production team that has examined the script and tried to translate it's ideas in the design. It doesn't take much to get a laugh out of me so the sight of K.9 coughing up tape and he and the Doctor lying on their sides whilst he extends his nose laser to make sure he is okay really tickled me. Using a slow motion technique to suggest the low gravity of the black holes influence is a simple but effective way of telling the story. I'm not sure what to make of the Nimon visually (conceptually, they are excellent) because they glide around balletically in their black body stockings and over sized heads but it is the contrast of their mincing gait and superb, menacing voices that makes them so distinctive. Not the best design by a long shot and it is true that they wouldn't look out of place in a Christmas pantomime, but I rather like them anyway simply because (and it is an abservation I have levelled at practically every story in season seventeen) they are so different. It is a shame that it wasn't kept for the Davison era given the theme of his fashion but you have to admire the madness of the Doctor attempting a cricket manouvere with the TARDIS, using it to ricochet off a chunk of asteroid and escape the gravity of a black hole. How nice to see the invasion of a planet that isn't the Earth and the deliciousness of this offensive is that by so insidiously dangling a carrot in front of the Skonnons, the Nimon have managed to entice them into invading themselves. The irony of a race that causes its own infringement by attempt to find the means of doing that to others is not lost on me. The council of war is the ultimate expression of their military theatre and reveals this world to be controlled by  impotent power-hungry men (‘Fire! Blood! Steel!). It means that somebody as na├»ve as Soldeed, who thinks the Nimon will lavish them with a new Empire just because he enjoy a little acquiescence, can realistically stand as this world's leader. You don't question his position because he is the epitome of what this planet stands for, selling their current reputation on past military glories. It is a simple brutal logic from a simple brutal race. Naturally then, he blames all of his problems on Romana, a woman, in the last episode instead of looking somewhere a little closer to home. She displays all the characteristics he could never understand; kind, caring and beautiful. These things mean nothing on Skonnos. The concept of a complex-sized printed circuit is crucial to the story's success and the reveal shows how big the ideas at work are. There are some really nice visuals that take you by surprise amongst all the relative cheapness; the crumbling ashen husk that disintegrates to the touch 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 build up of power. 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. The concept 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. Metaphor and science, hand in hand. Despite the lack of resources, Nimon has real scope. We visit two planets, two spaceships and the power complex. None of this 'base under siege' nonsense in the most ambitious of eras. The appearance of Edward Waterfieldtook me completely by surprise. What is it about these fabulous sixties actors turning up in bit part roles? (Jacqueline Hill, Eileen Way, Noel Coleman) It is very season seventeen to look at things differently and for the majority of this story Soldeed thinks that the Nimon is a single person rather than a race. it is essential to the dramatic twist that this is an invasion rather than a relationship. 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 completely overshadowed by Soldeed’s astonishing ‘You foooooools! You are doooomed! Doooooomeedddd!’ How can you not come away from this story with a beaming grin on your face?

The Bad Stuff: The (deliberately) wobbly spaceship and lame phutting explosions open this story with possibly the cheapest set piece ever. Anybody who expects Doctor Who to look this cheap will have all their worst fears confirmed. The Co-Pilot is supposed to be as annoying as public lice but that doesn't make his presence any more welcome. At least he bows out in as undignified a method as he lived, being shot in gut and splitting his trousers open as he falls to his death. The 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 terrorising ideas (the tribute, the larder, locusts, the wasting of worlds). Irritatingly there is no attempt to suggest a wider world on Skonnos beyond what we see and require for the plot to make sense. The lack of location work is very apparent at times, you might come away from Nimon with the need to get out in the fresh air. I can't remember a time when the TARDIS interior looked this tatty before. 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, more of a statement for this planets militaristic impotence than a living, breathing individual in his own right. Resorting to fairy lights is the last recourse of a desperate production team. Bucking the trend of the season (and especially unfortunate given that due to circumstances outside of their control this was the final episode of the season), the last episode isn't the most dynamic of installments. It seems to consist of the Doctor and his kiddie chums skipping through a glowing maze like an excitable trip to a haunted house with the Nimon in pursuit, walking as if they really need a poo.

The Shallow Bit: Romana looks breathtaking in her blood red jacket and gloves. Seth and Teka make a sweet looking couple, even if they are a little too young to suggest this sort of thing. 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

1 comment:

David Pirtle said...

Wow. You really liked season 17. A 10, two 8s and two 6s. That has to be the most generous assessment I've ever seen online.