This article previously appeared in the Who fan blog Cloister Bell as a guest post. Since that blog is no longer active, I’ve reproduced it here for completeness.
Season 17 of Doctor Who has to be one of the oddest, most split-personality seasons in the classic show’s history. On the one hand it contains one of the best and most beloved serials of all time, which itself also boasts the show’s largest-ever episode audience viewing figure (over 16m). And on the other hand, the series contains some of the series worst and laziest disappointments.
By the latter half of 1979, Doctor Who was frankly running on empty and looking tired. Tom Baker was bored and not taking it seriously anymore; producer Graham Williams had done his best in a job that had been foisted upon him against his will two years before, but his heart was no longer in it either. The show had the same theme music, title sequence, star, costume and incidental music that it had used for the last five years: it felt stuck in a time loop. Anyone coming back to test the waters of the show post-Star Wars after five years of not watching – which was pretty much my situation – would have been forgiven for thinking they were watching a period drama rather than a science-fiction show.
That year, the show was also fighting a losing battle against slashed budgets and increasing industrial unrest with the unions. Against this background Williams came up with a cunning plan to try and do the best he could with his shrinking resources: he would split the season into two, with one half being big, impressive tentpole productions and the other half being dross assembled out of whatever sticky-back plastic he could scrape together. It was a genuinely smart plan, and if it had worked then we might be hailing season 17 as one of the best. Unfortunately for Williams, circumstances conspired against him.
His first idea for a ‘tentpole’ production was the return of the Daleks after a five year absence following the acknowledged classic “Genesis of the Daleks.” What could possibly go wrong? It was a sure-fire winner with which to start the season. Unfortunately Dalek creator/writer Terry Nation was just as much in the grip of malaise as the rest of the show and indeed the rest of the country. He turned in a clichéd, charmless script for “Destiny of the Daleks” that lacked any creative imagination but simply fell back on the same tried old tropes that had looked dated even back in the 1960s. Add to that battered Daleks that looked as though they’d been brutalised in five years in a locked props cupboard, charmless new ‘arch-rivals” the Movellans, and an actor playing Davros saddled with an ill-fitting mask not even made for him, and you have some idea of how tired and disappointing this sure-fire ‘winner’ ended up being. In many ways, it perfectly personified the current state of the show as a whole and displayed all the problems facing the production team.
When production on a second ‘tentpole’ collapsed because of union strike action – “Shada” being perhaps the most mythologised story in all of Who fandom, and well worth getting Gareth Robert’s just-released novelisation of Douglas Adams’ scripts for this, or better yet getting the audiobook version narrated by series star Lalla Ward – it left “City of Death” as the season’s only successful aired prestige serial. And it really is excellent. A star cast (Julian Glover, Catherine Schell, even a cameo from John Cleese) and a truly innovative sci-fi idea (probably Douglas Adams’ best TV work of all time) coupled with the show’s first foreign location shooting and some great production values and FX. If “Destiny of the Daleks” and “Shada” had been anywhere near this level then series 17 would indeed have been a classic year.
But they weren’t, and instead “City of Death” finds itself the sole stand-out in a year otherwise populated by the sacrificial budget-saving time-filling dross of “The Creature from the Pit” and “The Horns of Nimon”. Between them, those two stories don’t have two decent original science fiction ideas to rub together; but the scripts manage to contain more gaps in logic than there are holes in a string vest. The production values are lamentable (although “Pit” does at least use number 1 tropical forest studio set from the prop store, which at least makes it look better than the dull corridor sets of “Nimon”) and the acting is extraordinarily bad from people who should know better (such as veterans Bill Fraser and Graham Crowden, the latter of whom provides one of the most spectacularly dreadful performances of a major guest star of all time. And to think, he was apparently offered the chance to play the fourth Doctor!)
And then there is “Nightmare of Eden”, which finally comes to DVD this week – one of the last Tom Baker-era serials to come to the format.
Now it’s a funny thing about “Eden”, because by rights it falls firmly in the “dross” category. It has the same faults as “Pit” and “Nimon”: some dreadfully overcooked acting (Lewis Flander’s Tryst would have been too absurd even for ‘Allo ‘Allo, Geoffrey Hinsliff looks like he’s auditioning for his later role in soap spoof Brass, while David Daker still thinks he’s playing Irongron from season 11’s medieval serial “The Time Warrior”); some laughably bad overlit generic-SF corridor sets; a monster that looks exactly like a man in a fur-lined rubber suit that comes complete with built-in 70s flares; FX that show a total lack of time and budget; sets that literally collapse underfoot but for which there is no time to mount reshoots.
But here’s the thing: I can’t help rather liking “Nightmare of Eden” for all that. Almost admire it, in fact. It’s clearly not one of the production team’s favourite sons of 1979, but it at least has the spirit and wits to try and fight on regardless.
For one thing, it presents an unusually overt tale of drug abuse at a time when television (let alone BBC family time TV) was very squeamish about even hinting at such things. There are some interesting science fiction concepts: the CET (Continual Event Transmuter) machine used for recording and transporting samples from explorations; the two ships stuck together phasing in and out of warp drive at the same spot; the secret of the origins of the drug in question. For the only time in series 17 in a non-Adams story, this is a show with more than one creative idea in its head at any given time, and not just that but ideas which actually weave together coherently without leaving vast gaps in the story logic. Despite Baker hamming it up dreadfully to keep his own spirits from flagging, the serial even manages to produce a half-decent sense of pace and danger at times.
I shouldn’t like “Nightmare of Eden”, then – but I do. I’d go so far as to say that if it hadn’t had a spark of life in it, some glimmer that the show didn’t have more to offer than the two stories that bookended it to either side, I might not have come back to watch series 18 at all and I would have dropped out of Who fandom for good this time.
Even so, it was clear to everyone involved that something – indeed, pretty much everything – had to change in Doctor Who for 1980. Williams finally got his parole and moved on, and the BBC hierarchy looked for anyone dumb enough or hungry enough to take on the poisoned chalice of one of the Corporation’s longest-running shows. They didn’t have to look far, and found the man they wanted in the Doctor Who office: production manager John Nathan-Turner. And it turned out he had a few ideas that meant that season 18 would be very different indeed, and season 17 soon became just a distant nightmare tucked away in a CET machine. Or DVD player, as we call it these days.