Nightmare of Eden
One of the more maligned stories in a much-maligned era of Doctor Who, Nightmare of Eden nevertheless has its staunch advocates. Outpost Gallifrey’s Shaun Lyon for one, who professed it his “favourite Doctor Who story ever”. It doesn’t quite reach that pinnacle for me, but I’m absolutely on the same page with regard to it being a gem. Tat Wood was also on side in About Time 4, at a stage where the critiques were increasingly divided into Lawrence Miles prosecutions and Wood defences (switching lanes with the subsequent era). For me, it’s one of the series’ very best scripts – even those loathing the finished production begrudgingly tend to admit it has a few good ideas knocking about – and one of the most entertaining realisations thereof.
David Owen (for In Vision) had it right when he suggested of the CET (Continual Event Transmuter), the “warp smash” and the drug/monster angle that “Each element by itself would have been the basis of an excellent script. In combining them so productively, the writer creates what would make an excellent science fiction novel”. True, he goes on to complain of the “flaws which would strain the credulity of even the most enthusiastic fourteen-year-old”. I was an enthusiastic seven-year-old when the season was first screened, and obviously, I see it slightly different now (closer to the “great fun” he charitably concludes on). But I found the ideas – the CET in particular, which continued the vein of inspired strangeness previously seen in City of Death’s fractured clock face faces and would feed into Bidmead’s subsequent gateways and recursions – entrancing, and the Mandrels, “among the least frightening monsters ever to have graced the series”, yes, scary (I was not only an enthusiastic, but also an impressionable seven-year-old).
The Mandrels are commonly singled out for derision, sporting flared legs and unflatteringly floodlit rampaging down corridors, but I genuinely like the design. I agree with Wood when he suggests “In certain shots the Mandrels are intensely effective” (in the Eden set, their eyes glowing a sickly green). Yes, the first appearance, flailing out of a vent at the Episode One climax, is a disaster, but they’re generally used pretty well.
Indeed, for all the stories of production woes, the story has a lot of zip and pep to it. Despite Alan Bromly – returning after The Time Warrior was a trial for all concerned, albeit cherishably bringing David Daker with him – getting on everyone’s tits, such that Graham Williams had to handle the last couple of studio days. It seems it was an experience – as a novice director – that proved the last straw in his relationship with the show and set him on a path to escape it, There’s nothing especially stylistically inventive here, and the corridors may be the “most wretched shade of yellow you’ve ever seen”, but Nightmare of Eden also delivers that wonderful Episode Two chase sequence (the Doctor takes the stairs, while Stott – Barry Andrews of Blood on Satan’s Claw – opts for the lift), taking in a “succession” of passenger lounges, the very definition of economical shooting. And there’s a highly effective under-lit jungle, which may be out of necessity, but is more atmospheric as a result than the more expensive The Creature from the Pit one and miles more convincing that the later Meglos flora.
The Making Of documentary on the DVD is evidently one of those “We can’t bothered to put a lot of effort into rehabilitating this one or even post-mortem-ing it”, as the star attraction is effects-guy Colin Mapson bemoaning how it was a very good story but the end result was a “disaster”. He forwards the usual culprits, but inevitably fixates on his area of expertise. It needed to be shot on film but had to be done on video, and he disagreed with Williams’ memo that final effects were better and quicker. Honestly, they may not be in a field apart, but they stand happily next to Terror of the Vervoids seven years later (a similar specimen in all but quality) or other Mapson efforts (The Invasion of Time, The Pirate Planet, Time and the Rani – better effects, but also, well…) He didn’t like the results because they “looked like models”. They always do, Colin. “I’m relieved the nightmare is over” t-shirts were distributed at the end of the shoot.
Romana: He doesn't care about anything anymore. He just laughs and giggles the whole time, sick grin on his face.
The Doctor: Well, that doesn't sound like drunkenness to me.
There’s a fine line with the Williams era, in that it’s easy – if you like it – to fall into the “Well, it’s larky, so it doesn’t matter if the production values aren’t all that”. But in some respects, that kind of reasoning does apply. A Magma Monster in Caves of Androzani is a bigger failing than a Mandrel in Nightmare of Eden. Particularly when you have David Daker laughing uproariously at them in a manner – given how self-referential this era could be – that is bordering on the meta. Of course, when Tom talks about recognising drunkenness, nothing could be more meta.
Tryst: What you see may seem to be just a mere projection, but it is in fact a matter transmutation.
Della: You see, when we've collected the specimens for study, they're converted into electromagnetic signals and stored on an event crystal in the machine.
Tryst: And they go on living and evolving.
Della: In the crystal.
Besides which, there are numerous stories in the era that don’t look at all shabby, and a few (this, The Invisible Enemy, Underworld, The Power of Kroll) that tend to get singled out. The objection is really that the staple hinges of the show previously – suspense, scares, monsters – are no longer foregrounded as crucial to its success. Instead, they’re set in perspective and often rudely toppled from their pedestal (and again, this doesn’t mean there isn’t internal, storytelling suspense or pace; indeed, this era stands the test of time far better in that regard than much of the classic era). As Lyon said, “we can’t see past the comedy, so we don’t notice how brilliantly clever the stories are”.
Romana: It doesn't just take recordings.
The Doctor: Oh no, the animals themselves are converted into magnetic signals, and their habitats.
Romana: So he's left bald patches on the planets he's visited?
The Doctor: Yes. The CET machine's just an electric zoo. For cages, read laser crystals.
The late Craig Hinton offered a Williams era retrospective (DWB 84, Dec 90) in which he summed up the feelings of many: “The sets are cardboard, the Mandrels laughable, the acting of the lowest standard I can remember in the programme. Although the script had a few notable ideas – warp smash, the CET machine – these were lost in four weeks of utter bilge”. That’s a common refrain: “there’s a half-decent story writhing to get out” said Miles.
Rigg: Yes, and I'd like to know just who you are.
The Doctor: Me?
The Doctor: Well, I told you. I'm from Galactic.
Rigg: Galactic went out of business twenty years ago.
The Doctor: I wondered why I hadn't been paid.
Rigg: Now that's not good enough.
The Doctor: That's what I thought.
Miles essentially objects to the form of the show at this point – “full of gags that don’t work and excruciating comedy characters that aren’t funny” – and opines that it might have been “a proper slab of drama”. Yes, one might imagine the Graeme Harper or Douglas Camfield Nightmare of Eden, but then we wouldn’t get to hoot at the Bromly/Williams one. Wood doubles down on justifying the seriousness (“Go away”), something The Discontinuity Guide also goes in for, but the story doesn’t need this kind of defence, that it’s “brave stuff for ‘family drama’”. Those things are definitely there – the CET machine is indeed “almost miraculous” – but it’s the blend, if you like, that makes Nightmare of Eden so good.
The Doctor: Vraxoin? I've seen whole communities, whole planets destroyed by this. It induces a kind of warm complacency and a total apathy. Until it wears off, that is, and soon you're dead.
Which is why focussing on the narcotics angle is to give it a spotlight at odds with the broader conceptual range. Sure, the show had the drop on Grange Hill by more than half a decade, with Baker boasting he utilised research for Target’s Big Elephant, but he didn’t exactly come up with the most convincing of drugs. At least, it would have been nice to have a clear breakdown of the “soon you’re dead” part of its properties, as if that was the case… Well, there aren’t many drugs where death is a guaranteed side effect (and its notable too that the only characters we see on it have been spiked; the script says Tryst engineered the accident, making Secker high, which relies on a lot of timing if his objective is the collision). Anyone would think it was an inoculation they were asking you to take.
Fisk: I can't think why you care so much about such ugly, disgusting things.
If you’re looking to vouch for the cautionary tale, well, neither character hooked on Vrax – unused suggested names were Zip or Xyp; Zip does sound a bit like speed – actually succumbs to it. Secker is mauled to death and Rigg shot. The stronger message relates to the profiteers, although we’ll come to that. Adams, along with Williams rather concerned about this territory, rewrote Baker in order to lessen the impact of the drug use (and Rigg attacking Romana). The consequence is that Nightmare of Evil’s warm complacency is summed up by Daker (in a very amusing out-of-it performance) exclaiming “Hey, it's really nice being arrested”. Secker (Stephen Jenn of Ultraworld) observing indolent indifference towards the ship’s crash imminent is also effective. As for the amazing disintegrating Mandrels, the notion of rolling one up and having a smoke is also… well, no small task. Does their hair become Vrax too?
The Doctor: Bad stuff? It's the worst. I've seen whole planets ravaged by it while the merchants made fortunes.
Miles makes some curiously off-beam comments in relation to the story, such as “it takes a hell of a lot care and attention to make ‘space’ a believable proposition”. I mean, I agree; just look at the difficulties NASA has. But why, of Doctor Who in general, he should single out Nightmare of Eden, which “doesn’t even try” is beyond me. This is at its most perplexing with the assertion that it “doesn’t bother turning any of its Big Concepts into anything dynamic”. But… but… that’s exactly what it does do, and very well. There’s relatively little in the way of the “usual tedious run-around of monsters and laser-guns” he claims. Bidmead, if anyone, is the guy one needs to point to for presenting his big concepts without the necessary dramatic context. How would the CET or warp smash be presented more dynamically than they are (you can argue the execution, if you must, but surely not the conceptual realisation)? The idea of the CET, of keeping a “real” world – “The flora and the fauna are actually in a crystal. I hope you can appreciate what a technical achievement that is" – within a crystal matrix, is after all, more virtual than virtual reality, and much more compelling than later mundane expressions of the same, regardless of how Romana cocks a snook (“A crude form of matter transfer by dimensional control”).
Rigg: Little ships in big ships. Ships in bottles. Russian dolls, that's what it's like. You remember those?
Romana: Yes, I do. I wonder if the people who made them realised they were making a model of the universe?
Indeed, Gary Gillatt in From A to Z (stupid title) notes New Scientist's Tim Robinson’s reviews of Doctor Who following Season Seventeen, where the show has “taken on a new lease of life” with a “mind-bending technical backcloth”, and Season Eighteen, wherein Malcolm Petu called it “awful… boring” and most damningly “The scientific jargon is too mundane. There are too many references to today’s technology… to make the futuristic tone believable”. Much as I love Season 18, this criticism isn’t wrong. Bidmead would surely have seethed with jealousy at hearing Romana’s Russian dolls comment. And then shrugged and started typing away furiously at Logopolis Episode One. Nightmare of Eden is also a story where the solution delivers that rare case of satisfying technobabble, because we can see the internal logic; it’s coherent to the properties of the invented science and it’s inventive.
Costa: Bridge here. Emergency. The passengers on pallet sixty-seven are under attack. All armed crewmembers proceed to pallet sixty-seven immediately! (to Rigg) I shall be charging you with gross neglect of duty. The passengers should be your first concern, yet I find you drunkenly looking on as they are attacked and killed! Well?
Rigg: They're only Economy Class. What's all the fuss about?
Nightmare of Eden is, of course, as I have stressed, enormous fun too. That’s equal parts down to writing and performance. Daker’s “They’re only economy class” is rightly extolled as an all-time classic, but I’d hazard Tom’s “Always do what you’re good at” is often attributed to other, “better” stories. The exchange regarding Galactic is beat-perfect (and true, Rigg really ought to have locked up the Doctor, caught in a lie, but it’s most refreshing that we don’t get any of that until Stott comes along). Jennifer Lonsdale is supremely plankish as Della, but Andrews is decent in the rugged hero part, Geoffrey Bateman braves a blonde perm in the Matt Berry in Garth Merenghi’s Dark Place role, while Geoffrey Hinsliff (Image of the Fendahl) comes on like a bureaucratic Norman Wisdom as Fisk.
Tryst: Professor Stein?
The Doctor: Yes.
Tryst: Oh, a dear friend. He was my mentor. We worked on this idea together before he died, of course. Then we stopped.
Mainly, though, there is Lewis Fiander, and his “utterly astonishing performance as Tryst” (In Vision). Tom trying not to corpse whenever he’s sharing a scene with Fiander is half the joy of this story. It’s a supreme delight not only to see Tom being upstaged, but also revelling in it. Fiander’s inspiration has been debated, but I suspect part of it comes from his performance as Rudi Petroveyan (“Yays!”) in Not Now, Comrade three years earlier. Where the outrageousness was entirely deliberate and encouraged: as Lyon says “And yes Lewis Fiander’s accent is frighteningly silly, but would we want it any other way?”
The Doctor: Romana, you've got two minutes fifty-eight seconds to rebuild this machine.
Romana: What, this?
The Doctor: Yes.
The Doctor: Yes!
Romana: Are you joking?
The Doctor: Do I look as if I'm joking? Well?
Romana: Well, I'll need a screwdriver.
The regulars? Ward is on peak form throughout (Lalla in Season Seventeen and Eighteen is day and night for likeability). The deadpan of the screwdriver scene is perfect. K9 is at his merry campest in David Brierly’s version. I particularly like him sniffing Stott.
The Doctor: Oh, my fingers, my arms, my legs! Ah! My everything! Argh!
Tom? Well, yes, I do think the above is a step too far. Not because it’s silly, or because it breaks “the tension”, but because it falls flat as a routine. In contrast, his earlier, post-root squirting “You know, that didn't taste at all bad” is a great adlib, rescuing himself from an unflattering face full of green goo (as stepping into traps go, it beats Harry and the Clam by some distance). Tom by this point is still mostly more good than bad, but you do notice the intrusiveness of his “Shhh!” interjections. And “Quiet!” commands. And his hand in front of someone’s mouth mode; anything to hog the limelight. His “Go away!” is much celebrated, but I almost think it’s tonally too composed for the story. More effective is the philosophical “In one way, Tryst was right. Humans do have some kind of choice”, reflecting on the professor’s attempt at self-justification (that It was their own fault that they became addicted). On the face of it, it’s unexpected and provocative, but in offhand way.
Fisk: Trafficking in drugs is punishable by death on Azure.
Romana: Whereas bureaucratic murder is rewarded with promotion.
Fisk: I didn't invent the rules, I just enforce them.
Elizabeth Sandifer, always going for the jugular when it comes to the Bristol Boys, confesses “I mean, the writing isn’t award-winning genius. But it’s serviceable enough”. She has little else to offer, though – she fails to even single out Lewis Fiander! – other than trawling through their greatest demerits. I’m firmly of the view that, by and large, Baker and Martin’s work for the show improved as they went along, such that The Invisible Enemy, The Armageddon Factor and this are three of their strongest stories, and the latter two their strongest.
The Doctor: The Mandrels have a perfect right to exist. In one way, Tryst was right. Humans do have some kind of choice. Let's just hope that no one else discovers the secret.
Romana: I can only think of one animal who'd be comfortably at home in an electric zoo.
Della: Really? What's that?
Romana: I don't think we want to tell them, do we, K9?
K9: Negative, mistress.
Other bits and pieces of note. That the array of planetary environments in the projection come from Space:1999 entirely figures. This is set a hundred years-ish from now. The Episode Two cliffhanger leap into the projection is one of the all-time greatest episode endings, a tremendous conceptual/action juxtaposition. Somehow, Dymond fails to notice the Doctor only a foot away on his shuttle. Structurally, the story is perfectly judged; you don’t notice it sagging anywhere, and entering Eden in Episode Three occurs exactly when it’s needed. If Tryst as a villain may not be a huge surprise, given the possible suspects, it also wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he hadn’t been (that Stott rules him out is actually not that odd, given Tryst is a baffling character no matter how you cut him; his oatrayjows accent isn’t an act. And if this were a P&J script, the culprit might well have turned out to have been Della).
Is Nightmare of Eden “one of the most cleverly satirical stories”? I’m not sure I’d put it in quite those terms, because I don’t think it has one guiding theme (drugs are bad isn’t it, certainly). It simply has, as Owen attested, a great script, and it’s delivered in a way that is equally as valid and effective as trying to make it a hard-hitting, Saward-era piece. It’s got arms and legs and everything.