Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden

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It’s fair to say that this Doctor Who serial is not going to be anyone’s top pick of “best story of all time.” The making of this instalment was fraught with all sorts of problems, and they’re all right up there on the screen for all to see and cringe over.

To add to the collapse in budgets to the point of infeasibility in 1979, and the ever-present threat of industrial action from militant unions that year, was added the disastrous mis-selection of a totally inappropriate director. Alan Bromly was a semi-retired member of the old school style of directing, with no interest in science fiction and totally overwhelmed by the show’s growing technical complexity. As he floundered around more and more out of his depth, relations with the principal actors collapsed and led to on-set shouting matches with both Lalla Ward (playing Romana) and Tom Baker (the Doctor) – something that never happened in TV production at that time. Finally, the studio session went for a tea break – and Bromly never came back. Whether he walked out or was fired is a matter of conjecture.

Given this back story it’s amazing that the show ever made it to air at all, but it did and all the problems and repercussions of the situation are much too evident – starting with the set, which is not so much designed to be a “luxury cruise liner” as simply assembled out of whatever they had to hand in the scenery department, with the “ship’s bridge” looking like a store cupboard. Tatty flats are augmented by anything that 1970s glam rock had to offer as looking remotely futuristic, and it’s all held together by black and yellow striped tape making it look like a health and safety crime scene gone berserk – appropriately as it turns out, since the doors wobble when closing and the stairs visibly collapse under foot as the Doctor gives chase.

Where just months earlier the lauded serial “City of Death” was given three days of FX recording on film at Bray Studios (scenes that still look decent today), here they were told to produce far more involved model shots on video tape shot in three hours at Television Centre after a full day’s shooting. They look pretty amateurish as a result, but finding out the circumstances of their creation makes it amazing that they were ever accomplished at all. Laser blaster effects are painted in electronically and careless inattention leads to gaffes such as one character being shot in the head but the actor gripping her stomach. The lack of time and resources also explains why so many fluffed lines are left in, probably more than at any time since the “filmed as-live” days in the early 60s which resulted in the many famous “Billy fluffs” by then-star William Hartnell.

Someone thinks that it’s appropriate to dress Lalla Ward in the most ghastly billowing grey maternity smock ever seen on TV; the cruise liner passengers are dressed in bacofoil and goggles; and the excise police are saddled with neo-Nazi stormtrooper costumes augmented with glitter that makes them look impossibly camp, as they blunder around the story looking like a cross between the Village People and the Keystone Kops. As for the monsters that The Sun had earlier predicted would be “the most terrifying ever seen in Doctor Who“, the poor Mandrels look like they’re wearing flares and furry capes, while the nether-regions of the costume visibly split and rip apart as the filming progresses. Small wonder that overall they look pathetic and rather adorable instead of terrifying to any objective observer.

Worst of all is that the lack of a coherent directorial vision at the heart of this mess means that the performances are wildly all over the place. Some actors like Jennifer Lonsdale (Della), Geoffrey Bateman (Dymond) and Barry Andrews (Stott) are playing dead straight; the aforementioned excise officers Fisk and Costa have that tongue-in-cheek feel that makes them seem as though they should be in ‘Allo ‘Allo; but that’s nothing compared to Lewis Fiander as Tryst, whose comedy German accent and bizarre demeanour has to be seen to be believed. Among the regulars, David Brierley gets the role of K-9 painfully wrong in the absence of regular voice artist John Leeson, and Lalla Ward is decent but seems to be working from a script written for her predecessor Mary Tamm in the role of Romana, requiring her to be utterly literal, dead-pan and humourless rather than the lighter, more playful incarnation introduced at the start of season 17.

Watching the just-released DVD version (probably the first time I’ve seen the story in a couple of decades) I did have cause to revaluate a couple of the performances. Tom Baker is actually quite restrained (perhaps because of the on-set tension) at least right up until the notoriously bad post-dubbed “oh my arms, my legs, my everything!” embarrassment; and David Daker as Captain Rigg is far more nuanced, versatile and reigned-in than I’d remembered. Perhaps that had been because my pre-teen self was simply unfamiliar with the tropes of drug use and I didn’t understand what his portrayal of wild mood swings was supposed to be doing, much like I found Simon Rouse’s role of mental illness as Hindle in the later “Kinda” off-putting at the time but quite brilliant in adult hindsight.

There’s also evidence of the script being hacked around quite badly during shooting – the sort of thing that a modern TV show would never allow to happen. You feel sorry listening to writer Bob Baker on the DVD extras as it’s clear he only found out about many of these changes (such as Fiander’s embarrassing re-interpretation of the role of Tryst) practically when the show aired. This unprofessional hacking about of the scripts also explains some obvious gaffes in the story continuity, such as the surprise shown by one character at the mention of the drug Vraxoin in episode 2 when they’d previously discussed it in episode 1 – the addition of the earlier mention having been a late in-rehearsal change that wasn’t properly followed through.

It’s a shame such violence has been done to the script, because Baker has actually written quite an interesting story in his only solo contribution to the series (he’d previously written with Dave Martin, and in one of those stories created the character of K-9 which probably explains why the Doctor’s best tin friend gets the final word in this outing.) Outside of the stories directly written by script editor Douglas Adams, season 17 had been painfully devoid of original ideas: from the clichéd “Destiny of the Daleks” premise of two machine races unable to outwit each other because of a logic impasse (how very Star Trek); to “The Creature from the Pit’s” obvious and unfeasible set up of one planet consisting of all foliage and no metals, the other all metals and no foliage; and “The Horns of Nimon” once again dipping into Greek and classic mythology for story inspiration, which had meant we’d had two versions of the legend of the Minotaur already.

“Nightmare of Eden” on the other hand has some genuinely interesting concepts. For one thing it tackles drug abuse and smuggling in an unusually direct and non-allegorical way; then there’s the collision and fusion of two ships jumping out of hyperspace at the same point; and the idea of the Continual Event Transmuter machine and the ethics of Tryst’s cultivation of a personal zoo. Even some of the throwaway lines (Romana mentioning that Russian dolls make a good working model of the nature of the universe) are unusually insightful for the period. Best of all, all these strands cohere into a single narrative. Somewhat rarely for a classic Doctor Who serial of the time, this four-parter has more plot than you could easily compact into a single 40-minute modern manic-paced production, so much so that it must have been rather head-scratchingly difficult to understand in a once-off viewing in 1979.

True, some of this hard-to-understand complexity is because the production itself pretty much undermines everything that the script is trying to do. The visual FX give no sense of the nature of the hyperspace collision that much of the rest of the story hinges upon, while the CET machine’s display of the jungle of Eden never had any sense of a ‘boundary’ and always looks like it’s just a open gap onto a second set just waiting for the actors to step into, which rather undermines the dramatic moment of the episode 2 cliffhanger. The vital ‘clue’ to this is supposed to be a butterfly that crosses out of the jungle and bites Romana on the neck, but a cost-saving measure means that the butterfly becomes a huge white electronic dot instead that is just baffling and incoherent to the viewers.

Even the editing is incompetent. Countless scenes start too early, so that you can see the actors initially motionless and then spring into action once cued. Other scenes are left to run on too long. Even knowing the behind-the-scenes issues that the production team were facing, it’s hard to forgive such appalling lack of basic professionalism on so many different levels by what was supposed to be at the time one of the foremost television production companies in the world.

And yet for all this, it’s actually hard not to have some sympathy for them, knowing what they were up against. Producer Graham Williams and the rest of the team knew that they were just inches away from disaster at all times – and this was comprehensively proved just weeks later when production on the tentpole six-parter intended to finish the season, Douglas Adams’ “Shada”, ended up having the plug pulled in mid-production because of the industrial action finally being invoked. Everything that the series had done in 1979 had lived under the same shadow, and the final score of five serials made to just one lost is in the circumstances quite a triumph.

Certainly for me there was something at the heart of “Nightmare of Eden” in 1979 that made me interested enough to stick around for season 18. If there hadn’t been, I wonder whether I’d still be a fan of the show now. Maybe that’s why I feel slightly more appreciative and well-disposed towards this serial than its actual execution deserves.

I found it rather irksome that so many of the extras on the DVD revolved around knocking every aspect of the serial. Would it have been so hard to find someone to speak well of it? Only poor old Bob Baker is left flying the flag for his script, and even he’s embarrassed by what became of it. The extras themselves are a strangely muted collection, with just some hastily assembled talking head interviews instead of a proper ‘making of’ documentary despite the unprecedented situation with the director. The longest feature is a chat between three star fans of the show, shot in the attic set for The Sarah Jane Adventures. In some ways it’s the same sort of improvised, grab-what’s-to-hand, “Oh, that’ll do” feel that permeates “Nightmare of Eden” itself, as through the DVD production team doesn’t really expect anyone to buy this one except for die-hard completists and so it’s not worth troubling themselves with any longer than necessary – although the picture restoration is exemplary, which remains the most important thing.

It’s a shame about the extras: 2|entertain have done more with lesser serials. In a 2009 Doctor Who Monthly poll, “Nightmare of Eden rated 167th out of 200; not great, but still rated above the likes of “The Armageddon Factor”, “Four to Doomsday”, “Silver Nemesis” and “Dragonfire” to name just a few. Considering its defects it’s surprising that this story isn’t down there with the justifiably worst-rated stories of all, “Timelash” and “The Twin Dilemma” – and the fact that it isn’t speaks much to the interesting ideas struggling to overcome the production crises surrounding it.

If anyone felt like remaking a classic serial, perhaps “Nightmare of Eden” is the one that would benefit the most in accentuating the positives and repairing all the copious negatives.

2 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden

    […] Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden (takingtheshortview.wordpress.com) […]

    […] Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden (takingtheshortview.wordpress.com) […]

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