Friday, 29 November 2013

Terminus written by Stephen Gallagher and directed by Mary Ridge

This story in a nutshell: The Big Bang explained and the Big Crunch averted…

Fair Fellow: You have got to give Peter Davison his due he is a very perceptive fellow. When he decided enough was enough after his second year and that his third would be his last it was because of the dearth of decent material he was given in season 20. Snakedance and Enlightenment aside he is pretty much sidelined, ignored or used as a device to channel plot exposition through. Very rarely is he written as a character in his own right, perpetuating stories. In Terminus the Doctor is not given any moments of charm or humour and as a result he is an unrelentingly dull person to be around. All he does is explain the plot (something Davison does very well to his credit, I was never lost) and reel off technobabble. It’s such a waste of an actor of his calibre. He has to suffer a number of particularly inept fight scenes also, directed without much thought under terrible time constraints. In the DVD documentary Davison admits this was a particularly fraught production and he didn't really enjoy it and that comes across on screen. This is not the work of an actor in love with his part. The one moment he shined was during Nyssa’s explanation for why she wanted to leave; his gentle acceptance is very touching and there is a brief rekindle of that special connection between the two characters. As Big Finish have shown, it could have been so much more.

Narky Aussie: In Terminus Tegan manages to be suspicious, rude, accusatory, unwelcoming, judgmental and shout when she can’t get her own way…and that’s just in the first scene. Turlough describes her approach to things as sledgehammer tactics – I always said he was a perceptible sort of fellow. Tegan is groped all over by nasty Lazar hands so I find it a little odd that it’s Nyssa that contracts the illness. If she had to save a friend or defend herself she might consider killing somebody. How funny is it when she has to try and stop the ship from disengaging and when she fails she simply screams ‘shut up!’ to the computer. A rare talent, this one. Her reaction to Nyssa’s departure is, surprisingly, quiet and very sweet.

Alien Orphan: I’ve always liked Nyssa because even though she wasn’t always given the best material in the programme Sarah Sutton was by far the most reliable and convincing of performers in the early Davison era. It's great to see her leave in a story that plays to all of her strengths and weaknesses. If synthesizing and enzyme is Nyssa’s idea of a good night in I imagine she will be single for a long time. Why can't these geeky characters be seen to kick back in their spare time and have some fun? Nyssa is always reading books on maths and tinkering with sonic vibrators. It’s fabulous to have Nyssa alone and afraid in a creepy location, she really has earned this screen time. There is a sudden close up on her face as she explores the Lazar ship which really managed to put the wind up me. Although he doesn’t really deserve the attention Nyssa sticks up for wimpy Olvir. It makes sense for one of the regulars to catch the disease and what could be more horrifying than to subject sweet innocent Nyssa to such filth and degradation? Nyssa slips out of her skirt and parades around in her underwear - the lads punch the air with delight and the ladies step up their women’s lib campaign in protest (fronted by Janet Fielding, of course). ‘Are you Doctors?’ ‘Baggage handlers’ – I really like that exchange because it sums up exactly the sort of people Nyssa is dealing with. And will be dealing with for some time. She slaps Valguard around a bit and later tackles Olvir and jumps his bones, it is great that when the occasion arrives Nyssa is always seen to be able to take care of herself physically. She is a compassionate woman and begs for the more ill victims to be cured before her. She really comes into her own in the last episode, realising that the cure works but it isn’t controlled and than are just trading one killer for another. ‘The Company isn’t interested’ ‘Are you though?’ Who would have guessed that Nyssa would wind up as a drug peddler for a leper colony? I know it isn't as simple as that but that is what it essentially boils down to. Her decision to stay is sensitively handled, she has loved her time on the TARDIS but on Terminus she has a chance to put her skills into practice and really help people. Nyssa chokes back tears and kisses the Doctor goodbye…it's one of the more understated goodbyes and yet one of the more touching examples because of it. I will miss her and I don't say that about many eighties companions.

Traitorous Ginge: An assassin in the TARDIS posing as a companion is such an intriguing idea it’s a shame they didn’t keep it going a bit longer. Davison and Saward bemoan that the idea was already too protracted over 12 episodes but with a little imagination you could easily work an anti-hero into the TARDIS crew permanently. Imagine somebody with the moral scruples of Avon from Blake's 7 travelling with the Doctor? Mind you the fifth Doctor is so forgettable at this stage to put somebody that interesting by his side would reduce his meagre status even further. Perhaps that is why Turlough's role was reduced to nothing post-Enlightenment. He was too interesting and taking the limelight away from a rather wishy washy Doctor. Charm the way he uses it is to disagree agreeably. Tegan thinks he has the manners of a pig but I can only think she is talking about herself. I love his eye rolling sneakiness the moment anyone’s back is turned, Mark Strickson has perfected that look. The decision to kill the Doctor is clearly weighing heavily on Turlough’s mind. Without realising it he almost causes the end of the universe by accident. Way to go, Turlough.

The Good Stuff: Continuity is littered about Adric’s room; it’s a nice, subtle way for the audience to pick up on previous adventures if they have been loyal to the show. The first episode feels as though it belongs in the very first season, there are protracted character development scenes in the TARDIS, a slow build up of tension and a cheap but thrilling location. It could almost be The Daleks. The blackness invading the TARDIS and the skull face appearing in Nyssa’s room is bloody scary (the music, which I will slaughter elsewhere in this review, is extremely effective at this point). The sound effects on the Lazar ship generate far more tension than the direction. The shields come crashing down, the computer leaks information, the lepers emerge and fill the corridors with disease…the first episode is very well done. The first cliffhanger is easily laughed at but this story is supposed to be operatic, it isn't poor Olvir's fault that it is confined to a cramped BBC studio. Imagine thousands of lepers spilling into a vast, dank and decaying terminus and then play the scene again. The CGI Terminus is beautifully realised and it is another example of the DVD extras providing far more scope than the original model work could manage. There is a 360 degrees view with the sun providing a gorgeous backdrop and the ship docks with a greater degree of detail. Gallagher injects a pleasing amount of darkness into the script with talk of sterilisation, drug addiction, disease and corruption. I love the idea of a lift descending into Hell. A commercial company is running Terminus, making plenty of money and not going through the appropriate procedures to cure any of the victims. Sounds like a typical Eric Saward vision of the future to me, but a gripping one. The Company sends coloured water instead of the drug that the slave workers need to survive; you couldn’t pay anybody enough to volunteer to work at Terminus. Bor is a delightful character and played with childish glee (even when his face is covered with hideous radiation burns).  Eirak is one of those morally ambiguous characters that Doctor Who slips in every now and again to keep things interesting, sitting somewhere between ally and enemy. Terminus was once capable of time travel, it was a ship in flight with an enormous amount of unstable fuel, which was ejected into the void causing a chain reaction: the Big Bang. Putting aside the production problems, that is a pretty damn solid hard SF idea to build a Doctor Who story around. The pilot time jumped forward and the shockwaves caught up billions of years in the future and killed him and damaged the second engine. Whereas the first explosion created the universe, the second would destroy it. One of the few times the entire universe is put in jeopardy, what a shame that it couldn't have been executed with as much skill as it was written. I really like the uncertainty of the ending, which has no easy solutions and a lot of work ahead of them; it makes for a realistic conclusion.

The Bad Stuff: The Doctor shoving the chair in the door is so lame. There’s more of Roger Limb’s tinny, tinnitus inducing music, which is such a shame because a spookier score could really have benefited this story. Liza Goddard turns up in a huge goldfish bowl and hideous eighties make up and the atmosphere drains like letting air out of a balloon. Why are these pirates dressed up like 80’s glam rockers? Bask in one of the worst robots ever to be committed to film (Until Kamelion comes along). It is supposed to be strong enough to drag victims to their treatment when in reality it looks as though a good sneeze could shove it over. ‘ADVANCE PARTY TO RAY-DAR, COME IN RAY-DAR, COME IN!’ – Goddard is both shockingly wooden and very funny (Simon walked in on that line when I last watched it and fell about laughing...I remember he was quoting this line for a good few weeks).  Proof if it was needed that three companions is too many, Tegan (yay!) and Turlough (boo!) are shoved into some service hatches for two episodes and given nothing to do. It's like the Nyssa in bed syndrome in Kinda all over again except more obvious because we keep cutting back to them not getting involved in the plot. Is Olvir the wimpiest transvestite of all time? ‘I’m supposed to be combat trained’ - you would think going around dressed like that he would have learnt how to look after himself.  Episode one spends a lot of time delaying the exposition to ramp up the atmosphere but come the second episode the slothenly pace really starts to harm the story. I really like the design of the Vanir but the costumes are made out of such cheap, clunking material that they serve to highlight the cheapness of this production. Pity the poor pot belied, bearded Garm. He wants so desperately to be treated as a serious performer but is mostly greeted with gales of laughter or a good pat on the head. The Terminus sets are so underdressed, featureless and unmemorable which might have been the idea but the result is there is nothing to feast your eyes on but empty blackness. And that gets boring very quickly. Crossing the line into the forbidden zone should be a terrifying prospect but in this Poundland funded production it turns out to be duct tape on the floor and a great hairy dog that has escaped from a kids entertainment party. Everything has fallen to pieces come episode three; the Doctor is fighting ineffectually with Valguard, Bor jumps in, the Garm waddles into view…it feels like it is being made up as it goes along. Terminus is shoehorned into the Black Guardian trilogy but the Doctor and Turlough are separated throughout so we are stuck with reminders at the beginning and the end of the story and several bizarre reminders in between that have nothing at all to do with the story. Terminus doesn’t advance Turlough's character arc at all. The conclusion is a big grey dog pushing a lever, its such a crushingly dull way to avert the destruction of the universe that you have to wonder why they bothered. 

Result: What surprised me when looking at Terminus with an objective eye rather than watching it merely for entertainment is that there is far more to enjoy than I previously thought. The script is actually very good and full of dark, seedy ideas and in particular first episode (even Kari and Olvir could have worked if they had been Valkyrie style space pirates that looked as though they might head butt you at any minute) is one of the strongest scene setters of the era. I have always thought that Terminus deserved a stronger director but having seen Mary Ridge's superb work over at Blake's 7 it seems obvious that the terrible time pressure and studio problems really dented her confidence. I would have loved to have seen her helm another Doctor Who because if she brought anywhere near as much drama to the series as she did in the B7 episodes Terminal and Blake we would have been in great shape. Listen to Fiona Cumming discuss her in the documentary and you get the impression that she was the consummate professional director capable of delivering much more than she does here. Take into consideration the madness that was happening behind the scenes and bask in the fact that it is as good as it is in places, or that it was made at all. Terminus is a horror story in space and needed far more atmosphere and a sober score to bring its creepy ideas to life; it needed the same sort of atmosphere that pervades David Maloney’s Planet of Evil. With clunking action scenes, dull sets and a distinct lack of sparkle you will probably lose interest in the later episodes which is a shame because there is some intelligent detail and realism in the script. Minus points for wasting Davison but plus points for letting Sarah Sutton go out on such a strong note. Whilst I would hardly call Terminus a success, it is one of my biggest surprises since starting this marathon (The Tenth Planet is still my biggest, followed by Mindwarp, followed by Terminus). Worth watching with the production nightmare in mind (see also Nightmare of Eden): 6/10


Anonymous said...

pardon for the off-topic but.-. are you gonna review The Five(ish) Doctors and The Night of the Doctor?? I'm absolutely looking forward to it!

David Pirtle said...

Well I watched it for entertainment, and I really wasn't very entertained. It's not the worst 5th Doctor story, but it might have the worst science of any of them. If JNT wanted to inject more science into the show, he probably should have at least read a text book.