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Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
1979
Studio: 
2 Entertain
Genre: 
Sci-Fi
Format: 
DVD
Region: 
2 PAL
Aspect Ratio: 
1.33:1
Directed by: 
Alan Bromly
Graham Williams (Uncredited)
Cast: 
Tom Baker
Lalla Ward
David Brierley (voice of K-9)
David Daker
Lewis Fiander
Movie: 
3
Extras: 
3
Bottom Line: 
3

 A hugely troubled production from the middle of a particularly controversial era in DOCTOR WHO’s diverse history, “Nightmare of Eden” tends to get a proper pummelling just about any time its name gets so much as even mentioned in public. It actually comes as little surprise to learn (from various supplementary materials included with this DVD release) that the end of the shoot was marked by some celebratory T-shirts being handing out amongst all the participating crew, specially printed with the legend ‘I’m Relieved the Nightmare is Over’ (a line from Bob Baker’s script) stamped on them in shiny gold lettering!  No one gives this story a harder time it seems, than the people who actually had to film it! Stringent budget cuts during the inflation-and-industrial-action-beset late-seventies made producing DOCTOR WHO at this time more an exercise in bean counting, usually while attempting to tread on some very union-conscious eggshells, during what were several unusually tough years of crisis management for Graham Williams; the producer was constantly forced to find ways of cutting corners or spend his time attempting to come up with (often pretty drastic) ideas to try and prune down the already threadbare budgets a little bit more.

One of these cost-cutting ideas was to have all the monsters made by the costume department rather than the special effects team, thus often rendering them rather less than convincing artefacts made out of flimsy rubber, sequins and fur; another idea was for the models to be shot on video in three hours using the (at the time) fancy and new Quantel image processing technique, instead of on film in a proper film studio over the course of three days, as had always been normal beforehand; both decisions result in the sort of tacky and shambolic results that helped cement the show’s reputation in later years for its supposedly rubbish monsters, flimsy wobbling sets and poor special effects. This was also the era in which Tom Baker started getting a bit itchy behind the scenes, and his rehearsal room additions to the scripts could threaten to tip proceedings over the edge into over-ripe parody on occasion. Williams seemed to find it hard to keep a check on the actor’s increasingly rampant ego, leading to a sometimes variable performance from the great curly-haired, scarf-adorned one.

Now, although all these faults are very much in evidence on “Nightmare of Eden”, most of this kind of criticism is fairly evenly applicable to all the other stories of season 17 as well. Script editor Douglas Adams is known to have been unhappy with the quality of scripts in general during his time on the show and his own story contribution, “Shada”, was abandoned midway through production due to industrial strike action. Fandom has always tended to divide itself straight down the middle ever since when it comes to the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide author’s stint on the show, into the half who prefer the more serious and supposedly ‘hard science’ approach that came later once John Nathan-Turner took over as producer, axing the overtly kiddie friendly elements such as K-9 from the series; and those who rightly see Adams as an imaginative genius whose contribution to this great BBC institution should be celebrated rather than denigrated just because he dared to bring (gasp!) a sense of humour to the show. The Douglas Adams influence is keenly felt, I feel, in the current incarnation of the series … but then of course, there are those WHO fans who truly despise the current incarnation of the series, so the debate goes on.

Actually, though, “Nightmare of Eden” -- which is a contribution from veteran (and now Oscar winning) writer Bob Baker, and, as it turned out, his last submission for the show – still stands up as quite a strong story, with some diverse ideas running parallel for most of it that potentially complement each other and slot together particularly well. The story demonstrates the strengths and the unique qualities that Douglas Adams’ involvement brought to the series, but also how the many inherent weaknesses of this cash-strapped era often threatened to torpedo the aims of that distinctive voice altogether. When it succeeded, it resulted in stories such as “City of Death” (the one generally accepted ‘classic’ from Adams’ time as script editor); but when it went wrong, you ended up with atrocities like “The Horns of Nimon”. “Nightmare of Eden” sits uncomfortably between these two extremes, sometimes, it seems, swinging between twin poles of brilliance and inanity in the merest blink of an eye: one minute Tom Baker is indulging in what can only be described as painful panto/music-hall shtick, while seconds later he’s suddenly buzzing with scary intensity; the guest actors here essay a range of acting styles frequently at odds with one and other, between them encompassing the dead straight performance  to the camply parodic. But even so,  this is by no means the worst story from this season, and there are times when the juxtaposition of -- or flip between --  general silliness and deadly earnestness make Tom Baker’s performance in particular feel as alien and electric as it ever was.

The main reason words like ‘disastrous’ get thrown around by the cast and crew involved in the making of this serial so often, comes down to the fact that as well as all the perennial late-‘70s production problems mentioned above, it also proved to be a particularly explosive shoot thanks to personality clashes and various other problems behind the scenes, which resulted in such general dissatisfaction and dissent breaking out over director Alan Bromly’s alleged mishandling of the studio sessions (a dissent that was most vocally expressed, of course, by a rampaging and ‘mutinous’ Tom Baker) that the director ended up either being sacked by producer Graham Williams (who then took over as director himself) or simply resigning – though the actual accounts of exactly what went on vary. In any case, when the crew reassembled after a BBC tea-break one day, to continue shooting in the tense atmosphere which had predominated throughout, they found their director was no longer there.

All this backstage drama means that the commentary and text production notes accompanying this adventure’s debut on DVD are rather more ‘juicy’ than is the norm for the range, filled with tales of Baker’s baiting of the embattled director and the various grievances from many of the other members of the crew, whose memories of Bromly’s unsuitability for the job lead them to view the on-screen antics, one suspects, in an especially harsher light than usual.

The truth is, though, there is a great deal going on in “Nightmare of Eden” that’s all good. For one thing, Bob Baker’s style of storytelling fits Douglas Adams’ approach to the series like a hand fits a glove, leading to some of the wittiest of exchanges from any DOCTOR WHO story of any era. It’s often difficult to tell where Bob Baker’s imaginative, humorous scenarios begin -- with their unlikely satirical digs at the car insurance industry and lots of Adams-like humour directed at petty, officious bureaucrats transplanted into a science fiction setting -- and where Douglas Adams’ actual finessing of the script ends; even the actors who are playing it all for laughs get some good moments, such as  Lewis Fiander as the oddball Germanic zoologist Tryst, who sums up his partnership with his former colleague Professor Stein (whom the Doctor claims to have once met) with the deadpan line: ‘we worked together until he died … then we stopped!’ Furthermore, this story has the chutzpah to take on the subject of drug trafficking and addiction alongside the more obviously humorous stuff.

Yes, that’s right: drugs. In a child-friendly, teatime telly slot! And not hid behind the usual metaphors or allegories either. Here you have the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Lalla Ward), brazenly talking about drug use and drug smuggling while great big cuddly swamp monsters that look like they should be in “Sesame Street” roam the corridors of an interstellar cruise liner, and intergalactic Customs and Excise men in weirdly camp sparkly uniforms haggle over space permits and try to bust the Doctor for possession!

Well, Tom Baker does look like the one Doctor you’d always assumed might be carrying I s’pose …

 How all these elements get fitted together proves the basis for a perfectly entertaining set of episodes which start with the Doctor posing as an agent from the Galactic Salvage and Insurance Company, who’s investigating an accident in the region of the planetary holiday destination Azure. An interstellar Cruise liner, the Empress, has collided with a smaller cargo ship, the Hecate, leading to the two vessels emerging from hyperspace joined together in an unstable way. But soon, great shaggy monsters called Mandrels, with glowing green eyes and who also appear to be wearing massive flares, are spotted roaming the corridors of the liner, having emerged from space-time points on the ship that are in flux from being rendered unstable in the accident. When the creatures begin mauling and killing all the Empress’ passengers, the captain of the ill-fated ship, Captain Rigg (David Daker), is strangely unconcerned (‘they’re only economy class. What’s all the fuss about?’), as he appears to have become hopelessly addicted to the deadly drug Vraxoin after someone spiked a drink from the ship’s vending machine with it. It’s a substance considered so lethal that ‘Vrax’ (as it’s known) has in the past been held responsible for the collapse of whole planets and entire civilisations according to the Doctor. Someone on-board the liner is evidently smuggling and dealing in the drug, yet the only known source was destroyed years ago. During the course of their investigations the Doctor, his companion Romana and robotic dog K-9 (voiced by David Brierley) must avoid capture by the over-zealous Customs men from Azure Fisk and Costa (Geoffrey Hinsliff and Peter Craze), as they attempt to work out a way of separating the two ships  while  not getting clawed by marauding Mandrels.

But even so, the main concerns remain: where are these Mandrels coming from; where is the newly discovered source of the Vraxoin located; and how is it being smuggled on-board the ship undetected? And who is the mysterious silver-suited figure in dark shades that seems able to appear and disappears about the Empress corridors at will?

All these plot points come together with the help of a genius science fiction idea that actually feels so essentially Douglas Adamsy that it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t his invention: also aboard the Empress is a zoological team led by the eccentric botanist Tryst. He’s the co-inventor of a desktop machine called the Continuous Event Transmuter – a handy gadget which enables the zoologists to convert whole chunks of rare biosphere into digital information and store it on a crystal. This story was originally broadcast during a period when video recorders were still several years from becoming generic household items but nevertheless becoming better known. Combining the concept with that of digital conversion (Adams, certainly, was an early Apple Mac obsessive) produces the idea that if anything can be made digital then even whole chunks of reality could potentially be stored on a ‘hard disc’ in 1s and 0s and then replayed at will. Thus we have the CET machine recording and digitising various alien environments which can later be selected on a dial, allowing the zoologists to both conserve rare species in their natural habitat and transport them to anywhere in the Universe as information in crystal form at the same time.

It’s worth comparing the idea to an earlier, similar one seen in the Pertwee-era Robert Holmes story “Carnival of Monsters”. There, the creatures were being miniaturised and actually stored in a machine; in this case though, the information is all that actually exists on the CET’s crystal matrix until the machine converts it back into the chunk of biosphere that was originally recorded, which can then be accessed through a portal -- making it look and feel like walking into a picture frame. Many of us who remember this story from the time of broadcast remember it for precisely that detail: the image of the Doctor and Romana jumping into a large cinema screen and instantly being in a whole new jungle environment; and the idea that things could escape from this apparently fictional world into our reality: these were ideas that grabbed you and made you see past the flat studio lighting, the shimmery video fringing that rings the model effects scenes, the wayward performances of some of the guest actors, and the flimsy sets. The story’s pièce de résistance is the revelation that the drug smugglers are using the machine to store their source of Vraxoin, thus avoid scanning drug detection procedures. Furthermore, the source of the drug is actually the Mandrels themselves, who, when vaporised, turn into heaps of pure Vrax. On top of that, the story even anticipates the concept of ‘downloading’ since it turns out that the information on the CET can be copied and beamed onto another machine hidden on-board the Hecate.

The idea of drug addicts snorting the cremated remains of swamp monsters is macabre enough in itself to seem rather off-putting if dwelt on for too long, so perhaps its lucky that we’re distracted by Lewis Fiander’s comedic German accent, the cuddliness of the supposedly threatening Mandrels and Tom Baker’s comedic attempts to herd them using K-9’s dog whistle. The story even contains some early post-modern humour (something which became a hallmark of the series in later years, especially during Sylvester McCoy’s tenure as the seventh Doctor), which deliberately plays up the miniscule budget by making it crushingly obvious that the various passenger compartments of the ship that the Doctor is seen chasing a mysterious interloper through at one point, are actually the same set being repeated over and over again. Tryst may be a comedy villain – a scientist who turns to drug trafficking to fund his research during a Galactic recession -- but David Daker gives a perfectly respectable performance as the ill-fated Captain Rigg. The story’s sometimes unusual juggling of comedic and dramatic tone comes sharply into focus during a scene where the drug addicted Captain, believing Romana to be one of the drug suppliers, physically menaces her on the ship’s flight deck when he starts craving another hit of the Vrax he’s been doped with. There’s an undercurrent of violence to the sequence which feels out of step with the rest of proceedings. Other performances, from Barry Andrews as the undercover intelligence officer Stott, hiding out in the Eden projection while he attempts to expose the drug running operation; and Jennifer Lonsdale as Della, the innocent zoologist caught up in Tryst’s schemes; are also nicely understated, as is that of Geoffrey Bateman as Dymond, the ruthless drug runner employed to smuggle the Eden projection (and thus the Vrax supply) off the Empress. Baker and Ward also seem to be on good form most of the time as well, and are given some crisp dialogue by Bob Baker and Douglas Adams. So this story actually acquits itself pretty well overall, despite the traumas behind the scenes at the time and the general poor regard this season is held in by many fans.

Tobe Hadoke returns to moderate the latest cast commentary, which includes the delightfully waspish Lalla Ward, once again bemoaning the awful costume she’s been lumbered with here (it is pretty terrible and does look like a maternity dress!), along with model effects designer Colin Mapson, writer Bob Baker, makeup and hair stylist Joan Stribling and actor Peter Craze who played Customs man Costa. As expected Alan Bromly comes in for a fair old pasting during the course of this discussion, as just about everyone here agrees he wasn’t up to the job. Lalla Ward is probably the most sympathetic towards him out of the participants, claiming that the veteran director simply wasn’t suited to the science fiction medium and to the rushed pace of production. Apparently, Bromly would cause tension by issuing contradictory instructions to the cast and changing scenes at the last moment that had already been extensively rehearsed. We get plenty of accounts of Tom Baker’s rebellion on-set and, apparently, things got so bad and abusive between the two that the director took to taking a tape recorder to the camera rehearsals to keep a record of events (which would’ve made an extra and a half to be sure)! Tom Baker is of course, a major subject of discussion throughout; his relationship and subsequent short-lived marriage to his co-star Lalla Ward means that these were often strained times behind the scenes, and Ward has developed a reputation for pulling no punches in her assessment of the show during this era, while her loyalty to and friendship with the late Douglas Adams often sees her mounting spirited defences of his use of humour and wit. In fact she is often surprisingly defensive when it comes to Tom Baker’s performance here, pointing out that despite his harsh treatment of anyone he suspected of not pulling their weight, he could often be very supportive and compassionate towards anyone who was struggling, as long as they actually cared about the job they were doing. She admits that producer Graham Williams was far too nice a man to be able to keep Baker under control and that it was one of Douglas Adams’s strong points that he was able to ‘slap Tom down’ when he became too much or his ideas became too silly, although the two apparently remained good friends.

The documentary accounts of the making of the show are split into three short featurettes rather than the usual longer ‘making of’ overview feature. “Nightmare at Television Centre” (13 minutes) focuses on the work of model effects designer Colin Mapson and visual effects technician Mitch Mitchell, as they discuss the decision to shot the model spaceship effects on video at BBC Television Centre rather than on film at Bray Studios, and explain how director Alan Bromly paid no attention to the visual effects side of things at all, leaving them to get on with doing whatever they liked. While Mapson was very happy with his art deco-themed space cruiser design, he’s less than pleased with the results of the studio shoot. Meanwhile, assistant floor manager on the story Val McCrimmon, relates the dramas from the studio floor concerning Alan Bromly’s difficulties with his cast and technical crew, and she reveals her ‘Nightmare’ T-shirt from the end of the shoot, which could fetch a pretty penny for her on eBay no doubt, if she’s ever hard up for cash!

“Going Solo” (8 minutes) is a short piece about the writing career of Bob Baker, who started writing for DOCTOR WHO back in the early seventies with his writing partner Dave Martin. The two were known as the Bristol Boys by script editor at the time Terrence Dicks, and were considered inventive writers who, if anything, would try to squeeze too many ideas into their scripts. Here the writer looks back on his first solo writing job and considers how the reality didn’t live up to his original plan, especially when it came to the Mandrels, which were supposed to be menacing, mud-covered monsters from the swamps of Eden rather than the cuddly creatures that were realised by the BBC costumes department.

 “The Doctor’s Strange Love” (16 minutes) is a light-hearted discussion piece, for some reason taking place on the attic set of “The Sarah Jane Adventures”, in the company of writer Joe Lidster and comedienne Josie Long, hosted by Simon Guerrier, in which the trio discuss the various successes and failures of “Nightmare of Eden”. It’s probably the best extra on the disc as the participants affectionately poke fun at the production’s all too obvious failings and weirdly varied tone, while clearly enjoying the whole experience of watching this not-quite classic again.

A clip from the 1970s children’s interview show “Ask Aspel” is included, featuring Lalla Ward ‘in discussion’ with the famously stiff and charmless interviewer Michael Aspel. How Aspel ever managed to sustain such a lengthy career in British TV remains a mystery, since a person more lacking in charisma and enthusiasm it would be difficult to envisage. Here he’s reduced to relaying questions from young viewers, and he couldn’t look more bored with the job if he tried. Ward at least does her best to look bubbly and engaging but I bet she wishes she could excise from the public record the part of this interview in which she discusses her illustrations for some books about astrology for dogs and cats, especially given her husband’s famously barbed comments on the subject of this popular irrational pastime, still indulged by a great many people who should know better all over the world.

Finally, the usual DOCTOR WHO DVD mainstays are here once more: production stills gallery, Radio Times listings in PDF form and a production text commentary listing the exact time of day Tom Baker uttered his famous ‘psittacosis ‘retort to Alan Bromly’s repetitive instructions from the gallery (okay, not quite, but you get the picture: these text notes are absurdly detailed!) – all are present and correct along with a ‘coming soon’ trailer for the forthcoming ACE Box, featuring the stories “Dragonfire” and “The Happiness Patrol” from Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred’s two season partnership on the show.  

“Nightmare of Eden” is undoubtedly a bit of a mess; it’s all over the place tonally, and the production often looks shoddy. But a surprising number of people remember the story with affection and the clever ideas behind it come across extremely well despite all the embarrassing bits. This adventure deserves another chance now the DVD is finally here, and I maintain that Mandrel cuddly toys could still be a big seller, so how about it BBC Enterprises?  

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing But the Night!

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