Friday, June 01, 2012

Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden DVD review

Some years ago I kicked off a “Destiny of the Daleks” DVD review with, “You’d think that a season of Doctor Who script-edited by Douglas Adams would be a high mark in the show’s long history, but you’d be wrong. Season 17…was Who at its campiest and most goofy.” Since writing that piece, two other Season 17 stories – “The Creature from the Pit” and “The Horns of Nimon” – have been released on DVD, and on both occasions I gave the stories relatively high marks. I was surprised, as both of those tales sort of crushed their horrible reputations by being not nearly as bad as many had claimed over the years. Of course, none of these revelations really change my initial assertions. Season 17 is often campy and goofy, and, “City of Death” aside, it isn’t a Who high point. All that said, I’ve a renewed appreciation for Season 17 these days…well, most of it anyway.

Unfortunately, the story you’ve come here to read about – “Nightmare of Eden” - is almost the low point of the season. I say almost only because the derailed production of “Shada” sort of automatically wins it the lowest point status, on principle alone. At least “Nightmare of Eden” got made, though to hear the cast and crew talk about it, just barely. Two spacecraft – the Empress, a commercial airliner, and the Hecate, a smaller transport ship - collide, and are fused together. The Doctor (Tom Baker), Romana (Lalla Ward) and K-9 (David Brierly) arrive and attempt to help remedy the situation, only to discover that the accident was caused by the Empress’s co-pilot being high on a drug called Vraxoin.

For the first time in its long history, Doctor Who was suddenly tackling addiction and drugs. Does it do it in a noteworthy manner? Not really, and certainly not in any way that’s relevant to today. Although the Doctor claims that he’s seen whole planets destroyed by the drug, its effects boil down to making those high on it giggle and lose their concentration – basically about the same as smoking a joint, and hardly the scourge of the galaxy. There’s one fairly effective scene with a character jonesing for his Vrax threatens Romana, but beyond that, anyone looking for any kind of serious adult exploration of the topic won’t find it here, although credit should be given to producer Graham Williams and Douglas Adams for at least taking a chance and trying to see what might happen by going down such a road.

Mandrels & Mandrells
“Nightmare of Eden” is several mysteries intertwined, chief among them, “Who’s smuggling the Vraxoin?” The story’s monsters are called the Mandrels, who should by no means be confused with the Mandrell Sisters. Like those great ladies of 70’s and 80’s pop country music, however, they appear more cuddly than threatening. The guest cast is mostly cardboard, although Lewis Fiander offers up a cartoonish, over the top performance as the scientist Tryst, which at the very least makes him more interesting to watch than the rest, even if it’s all terribly silly. After a passable first two episodes, the events meander off into quite a bit of aimless running around, and while Baker and Ward do a decent enough job of carrying the proceedings, “Nightmare of Eden” is ultimately a pretty forgettable entry in the world’s longest running sci-fi franchise.

Yet there are two noteworthy things about “Eden.” Around the 15:30 minute mark of Episode One, Romana is looking through a window made by the story’s gimmicky gadget, the Continuous Event Transmitter, which is a most improbable piece of science fiction...but mildly clever nonetheless, especially since it sort of drives the whole story. Anyway, for about 60 seconds the show presents us with one of the most unnerving sequences ever created on classic Doctor Who. It is, in fact, so well done in comparison to the rest of the story, that one can only conclude it was an accident. I wonder who was responsible for it - director Alan Bromley, who was fired partway through the studio recording, or Graham Williams, who took over after the firing?

David Daker & Tom Baker
Secondly, and this is more personal, and far less revelatory, but the Empress ship captain, Rigg, is played by David Daker – the same David Daker who had some years before played Irongron in “The Time Warrior” (which, incidentally, was Alan Bromley’s only other Who directorial effort). I’m sure some people reading this already know this bit o’ trivia, but for me it was a minor mindfuck, compounded by the further realization that Daker was also Kevin’s Father in Time Bandits! It was Daker’s unmistakable vocal inflections that led to me piecing all this together, and then heading to IMDB for confirmation. Daker does a pretty good job here, and is far and away the standout guest actor of the serial. He’s not Irongron great – there’s no way he could be given that the writer of “Eden,” Bob Baker, is no Robert Holmes – but he does about as good a job as he could have given what he had to work with.

May was a peculiar month for Who DVDs here at the Morgue. High marks were given to one Sylvester McCoy story, fair marks to another, and finally an expression of disappointment over a Tom Baker serial. Very strange month, indeed.

DVD Extras: With this being the final story featuring Lalla Ward to get a DVD release (“Shada” aside), it seems unlikely that we’ll ever get that long awaited Ward/Tom Baker commentary track. Here Ward is joined in various turns by actor Peter Craze, writer Bob Baker, effects designer Colin Mapson, makeup designer Joan Stribling – all moderated by Toby Hadoke. As always, Lalla’s a joy to listen to. As hinted at above, “Eden” was a production fraught with problems, and so the making of, called “The Nightmare of Television Centre,” really concentrates on only two things: the dodgy videotaped special effects ship sequences, and the disastrous production that led to the firing of Bromley; as such, its running time is only 13 minutes. “Going Solo” features Bob Baker talking about writing his only Who story without writing partner Dave Martin. “The Doctors’s Strange Love” is yet another entry in the series featuring Simon Guerrier, Joe Lidster and Josie Long (would somebody please make her stop?!) chatting up all things “Eden.” There’s also an 11-minute vintage interview with Lalla on a show called Ask Aspel.  Then there’s the usual photo gallery, production notes subtitle option and Radio Times listings in PDF form. Finally, there’s a trailer for “Dragonfire” and “The Happiness Patrol.”