Maybe That Idea Came From Somewhere (The Nightmare of Eden)
|So. How was your weekend?|
It’s November 24, 1979. Dr. Hook’s beautiful woman obsession continues for two more weeks before the Police break up the party with “Walking On the Moon.” That lasts for a week before Pink Floyd take the top slot with “Another Brick in the Wall.” Kool and the Gang, Donna Summer and Barbara Streisand, Gary Numan, and the Sugarhill Gang also chart, making this, I think, a strong contender for the most utterly screwed up set of musical options ever.
In real news, Air New Zealand Flight 901 crashes into Mount Erebus in Antarctica. Bruce George Peter Lee sets fire to a house in Hull, killing three and setting off a large manhunt. Jack Lynch resigns as Taoiseach of Ireland, which is by far the best name for a major political office ever, and the whole Rhodesia thing continues with the short-lived and unrecognized state of Zimbabwe Rhodesia returning to British control as Southern Rhodesia. Smallpox is formally eliminated, there’s a coup d’etat in South Korea, and the first Star Trek movie debuts.
While on television we once again have a story that gives us an opportunity to practice our “defending the Graham Williams era” skills. As usual, a curate’s egg. Somewhat surprisingly, the biggest problem isn’t the writing, given that this is a Bob Baker solo script. Apparently Dave Martin was the weak link there. I mean, the writing isn’t award winning genius. But it’s serviceable enough. The real flaws… let’s see. The Mandrels are, of course, a disaster, although at least with them, unlike several other recent monsters, you can see why people thought they could have worked. They’re firmly a case of just missing scary and landing on ridiculous (and the two are often a hair’s breadth apart) as opposed to a misconceived disaster. The acting is often poor, though nobody stands out as a particular disaster. The sets are… generic 70s space ship at its most generic, although some points are on offer for a relative lack of white.
But the biggest problem, if we’re being honest, is the basic concept. The number of series that have had good days with anti-drug stories is very, very small. It’s not a great topic, largely because one can’t deviate from the proscribed moral position that drugs are super-duper bad. Lacking in any ability to say or do anything interesting with the material they become little more than a race to see how ludicrously anti-drug you can end up being. So for Bob Baker to falter here is hardly surprising. Heck, even Steven Moffat has trouble with this theme, with “How to Make a Killing,” his anti-drug episode of Press Gang, being by far one of the weakest episodes of the series. Still, the fact that a vraxoin high consists of emotional apathy followed by death means that this has to be said to be something of an impressive entry in the ludicrously excessive anti-drug story sweepstakes. And given that vraxoin is one of the story’s big ideas and that another one of its big ideas is nothing more than a less interesting lift of Carnival of Monsters it’s easy to see why this story is a bit underwhelming.
But thankfully, and here’s something we’ve gotten to say relatively rarely over his Doctor Who career, this is a Bob Baker story. Which means that there are more than two big ideas in it. And while the first two are lackluster, the third one is actually quite interesting. This is a little bit surprising on the surface, because it seems like by far the least interesting. When you’ve got drugs that are made out of the corpses of dead aliens and a reskinning of the Miniscope in your story the bit about two spaceships crashing into each other seems utterly lackluster. So, of course, it’s the thing I’m going to talk the most about.
It is easy, especially when you are the sort of person prone to sitting at a keyboard for hours of a day banging out strings of letters, to fail to think adequately about the visual dimension of television. This is doubly so if you are of my generation and thus used to watching television while sitting on your computer or otherwise half-watching, leading television to often become a radio play reinforced with pictures. (If I may be speculative, I suspect this is why an increasing number of fans are watching and enjoying reconstructions. Not just that they’re now much more widely available – although obviously they are – but because the visual grammar of a reconstruction is basically what watching television while noodling on Facebook is like anyway. Unfortunately it equally well explains the dreadful practice of “motion comics,” which I’ll talk more about basically never.)
And on top of that it is easy to overlook the visual components of older television. Because there’s something alienating about watching something that looks old, because so much of the pacing is wrong to modern tastes, and, perhaps most significantly, because technological changes continually alter how the visuals work in the first place it’s easy to fail to think much about the way in which a story is told visually. And if you’re Bob Baker (or Dave Martin, to be fair) that’s a bit of a pity, because it means that none of your scripts are really adequately appreciated anymore.
There are many, many ways in which Bob Baker is not a great writer. His dialogue is clunky, his characters are shallow, and his plots are meandering. But on the other hand, it’s not like he hasn’t, you know, written three Oscar-winning films. I mean, yes, the Oscars went to Nick Park, the director of the Wallace and Gromit films, but Baker did write the things. And looking at them what’s clear is that they are intensely visual pieces. Every single scene is based primarily on revealing information and telling the story via what happens on screen – which isn’t surprising given that part of the fun of Wallace and Gromit is meant to be seeing what Nick Park can do with stop-motion. But it’s worth stressing just how visual the scripts are. Other than the feature-length Curse of the Were-Rabbit, all of Baker’s Wallace and Gromit scripts have at most two speaking characters. They’re not just heavily visual scripts, in other words, they’re scripts that are completely structured around the notion of visual storytelling.
Which means first of all that Baker was always going to be a bit of a rough choice of writers for BBC television. This is clear enough in the descriptions of his early scripts, with their giant skulls in Hyde Park and flaming death carrots. What Baker was good at was coming up with amazing things to put on the screen. And this is key. He’s usually credited with having a lot of ideas, but a perusal of his scripts shows that actually, he doesn’t have that many different ones. The esteemed William Whyte pointed out most of the common elements in a comment on The Armageddon Factor. The key thing to realize is that the things Baker generates aren’t really ideas in the first place. If they were, he’d explore them considerably more than he does. No, he comes up with images. Which was not really feasible on a Doctor Who budget most of the time, hence his scripts being ruthlessly reined in to try to be about fewer things.
Even still, Baker consistently shows more concern for the question of what’s happening than most writers. The Baker and Martin stories do a better job than most of thinking through the episodic structure, making sure that each week of the story does something tangibly different from the one before. Even when pacing within an episode is confused or muddy there’s always a sense that Baker and Martin stories are built with their episode structures in mind and with a conscious brief to make every episode into a concrete event in its own right. (This again does their reputation no favors in the modern age of the DVD. Really no writers of the 70s are as harmed by watching in movie format as them.)
But their best scripts have always been the ones in which the matter of what happens is not merely a question of plot points but of visual events. The Claws of Axos – still in many ways their best story – works because it is a continual bevy of fascinating visual experiences. Even into The Armageddon Factor the best moments are the ones relating to the slowly expanding time loop, which makes for unusual and interesting television. And it’s important to note that this gets at one of the most fundamental things about what the series is. From the first moment of the bizarre and shrieking theme music Doctor Who defined itself as a space in the television schedule in which strange things happened. The TARDIS was initially defined, remember, in terms of television. Doctor Who’s initial brief was to create televisual spaces in which unusual things happened. Looking at the early single episode titles of Doctor Who it’s striking how many describe places instead of events: The Cave of Skulls, The Dead Planet, The Wall of Lies, The Screaming Jungle, The Temple of Evil, etc.
In this context the collided spaceships of The Nightmare of Eden are an impressive return to form for Baker. The idea of merged and overlapping ships with patches of unstable space is fascinating in part because of how it turns the world of the story into a visually and conceptually distinct space. And in particular, what’s interesting about them is that they mean that part of the story is visual. What makes this story interesting – and it’s something that’s lacking in most of the stories around it – are the ways in which the Doctor runs through different parts of the spaceship, moving through the passenger sections (which are couched firmly in terms of airplanes) into jungles or tangles of wires and machinery. What’s interesting isn’t just what’s happening but the confused and tangled spaces where it happens and how the various parts of the ships juxtapose and affect each other. Or, to put it another way, what’s interesting here is that the idea of the crashed spaceships and what happens on screen are the same things. That’s distinct from, say, City of Death, where the concept (an alien running an outlandish art fraud) and the events (Tom Baker and Julian Glover delivering brilliant wisecracks) are related but distinct. The crashed spaceships and what happens on screen around them can’t be meaningfully distinguished between.
Unfortunately Baker is hamstrung by the same thing that usually kills his scripts, which is that the BBC just isn’t anywhere close to being able to do his ideas justice, and that he isn’t enough of a television guy to know how to use his capacity to come up with odd images to create things that the BBC can do. But it’s notable how similar the collided starships are to the sort of eccentric narrative spaces that show up in Castrovalva in two seasons time.
The other and larger problem is that he’s stuck in the Williams era when the entire structure of the show runs counter to what he’s good at. The series is, for better or for worse, utterly dominated by Tom Baker right now. When it succeeds it’s because it finds interesting things for Tom Baker to do, and generally that means finding someone interesting for him to talk to. City of Death’s quality is largely down to T. Baker constantly having someone interesting to play with. When Creature From the Pit is good it’s because T. Baker is getting to carry on an interesting conversation with either Adrasta or Erato. And the sort of story B. Baker is good at is exactly wrong for T. Baker at this stage.
But the thing is, much as it would be easy to slag B. Baker here for the theme I’ve been on for a few stories now of “you’re a bit past your prime,” I can’t. For one thing, he’s not past his prime – he’s got three Oscar winning pieces ahead of him in his career. For another, he’s not even past his prime on Doctor Who. One of the things that the Nathan-Turner era does is move back towards a style of storytelling in which concept and event are synonymous. As poor a match as Baker’s scripts are for the late Williams era, they’re surprisingly in touch with what’s going to be going on in just a few stories’ time. Even though this is his last script and he’s been behind some weak stories for several seasons now, the problem is first and foremost that his style is a poor mesh with the Williams era.
But this becomes a criticism that cuts both ways. On the one hand, Baker’s clunky dialogue, meager characterization, and the degree to which his writing relies on an effects budget and level of skill that the BBC just couldn’t provide hamstrung him. But on the other hand, at least some of the blame has to go to Williams for letting the show get to the point where it essentially only has one arrow in its quiver. It works when it can do intelligent comedy based around Tom Baker. When it can’t, it doesn’t. And as good as the show is capable of being with that, there’s an uncomfortable reduction implicit in it. A show that was once about strangeness has become about comfortable comedy. It’s not necessarily a bad thing in terms of how the show is. Indeed, even after the ITV strike its ratings are commendable this season. But the show that exists in 1979 isn’t one that can run forever. And for Doctor Who, that’s a real problem.
January 9, 2012 @ 12:43 am
"At least some of the blame has to go to Williams for letting the show get to the point where it essentially only has one arrow in its quiver. It works when it can do intelligent comedy based around Tom Baker."
To be fair though, that isn't really Graham Williams' fault: if he'd had his way, Tom would have been replaced at the end of the Armageddon Factor. It was Williams' superiors at the BBC who said "No, it's Baker's name above the titles, and he's less replaceable that you, Mr Williams." Which of course, adds another level of contradictory commands from the Powers That Be at the BBC (cut out the horror and replace it with comedy… uh oh, the show has become too comedic, tone it down… however, the selling point of the show is Tom Baker being Tom Baker… etc, etc.)
So in this case, the metaphor of two spaceships overlapping and with ideas seeping from one to another seems incredibly apt.
And, of course, it continues with The Nightmare of Eden being the only Doctor Who on record where the the director was sacked: supposedly Tom ran rings around him during the recording, with him losing control of proceedings forcing Williams to step in and take over the rest of the recording sessions. I believe it was this incident, on top of the "You can't sack Tom" one that led to him resigning.
Finally, and possibly unfortunately, considering your lovely essay above, I believe the two spaceships intertwined idea was Douglas Adams', not Bob Baker (not that Baker didn't find interesting ways to develop that idea visually, as you said), and another nail in the coffin of Adams not being a good nuts and bolts script editor. If I recall correctly, all the writers of season 17 were given very detailed ideas about what the stories should contain. Adams also tried to bring in new blood to the writing team, and found it next to impossible to find anyone he felt measured up to the existing writers.
John Nathan Turner turned out to be more successful in this respect, although at a cost of consistency to the quality of the scripts.
January 9, 2012 @ 2:03 am
I've always thought of the two spaceships thing as being a bit like 'Alien'. That's also about two spaceships that infiltrate each other. Of course, Bob Baker's version is nowhere near as interesting because his two spaceships are not fundamentally very different and their mutual infiltration is too literal. In 'Alien' one spaceship is a kind of Freudian nightmarescape that seeps into, attacks and exploits the latent unease in the repressed atmosphere of the other. In 'Nightmare of Eden' there are no nightmares… just a crashingly moralistic 'war on drugs' thing.
January 9, 2012 @ 3:52 am
"The acting is often poor, though nobody stands out as a particular disaster."
Erm, what was that?
What about Jennifer Lonsdale as Della, so wooden she could've played the Queen in "The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe"?
What about the two playing the Azure security officials?
And most egregiously, what about Lewis Fiander as Professor Tryst? I know that recently, people have tried to defend his performance as a riff on Peter Sellers' in "Dr. Strangelove," but to me it's always been a naff accent that severely undermines the character's plausibility. Now, perhaps if it had been revealed as a ruse at the end or something, I could accept that. But as things stand, his is in my mind the worst thing about this story — even the rejects from "The Muppet Show" shambling around and hugging people to death.
David Daker, at least, makes the best of his performance as the pleasure ship's Captain while he can. And frankly I'm surprised that you didn't pick up on / comment upon the very post-modern moments when, hepped up on vrax, is pointing at the monitor depicting passengers getting mauled by the Mandrels, and laughing his head off — much, I suspect, like less-forgiving viewers have been doing at home throughout this story.
And as you did mention, by now this programme is becoming "The Tom Baker Show" rather than "Doctor Who," which in limited doses is extremely entertaining; this is one of the reasons why I (unlike many fans out there) can pop "The Horns of Nimon" into the DVD player when I'm in a crappy mood and feel it evaporate as I take in the proceedings (but more about that on Wednesday, I suspect…)! 🙂
But here, freed of directorial constraint, Tom goes his most overboard with the toe-curling "…Oh, my everything!!!" resolution, emerging from the CTE with his iconic frock coat in tatters — perhaps the perfect visual methaphor for the way in which the show has shredded with the ascent of Tom's monstrous ego and Graham Williams' inability to control it thanks to hamstringing by his higher-ups…
For me, "Nightmare of Eden" will always be third in my Top Ten List of "Doctor Who" Stories Where the Chasm Between Intent and Realisation Is So Great That Willing Suspension of Disbelief Simply Snaps With a Resounding Twang." (And for the record, "Warriors of the Deep" and "Paradise Towers" occupy slots one and two.)
January 9, 2012 @ 10:54 am
"with The Nightmare of Eden being the only Doctor Who on record where the the director was sacked"
To be fair, Michael Imison was sacked by John Wiles before the recording of the final episode of "The Ark".
The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
January 9, 2012 @ 8:37 pm
I thought we, as a fandom, collectively agreed that if we ever had to talk about "The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe" ever again, at least it wouldn't be just to make "wooden acting/wooden queen" jokes.
Please, think of the children. One day they may grow up and find an archive of this thread, adn threads like it. They will see the countless wooden acting/queen jokes and they will weep at us with pity. I don't want the children of the future to pity us any more than they already will.
January 10, 2012 @ 6:27 am
I hate to be the person who points out that the Taoiseach is the Irish Prime Minister and that the Republic of Ireland (also known as Ireland) also has a President who is Head of State. But I am that person. The person who points it out, that is. Not the President of Ireland.
January 10, 2012 @ 6:30 am
You should be both. (Fixed.)
The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
January 10, 2012 @ 7:32 am
Question: Did any of the Who showrunners leave behind any significant writings about their time on the show, or is it all gleaned from tantalizing fragments in interviews?
January 10, 2012 @ 7:40 am
Well, there's Russell T Davies, of course. The Writer's Tale is a rich and indispensable account of the latter half of his time as showrunner, as valuable for its insights into writing in general as for its information about Doctor Who in particular. It'll be a while till Phil gets there, mind you.
John Nathan-Turner did write an autobiography that had quite a bit about his Who years. I've never read it, though, so I don't know how meaty it is.
Apart from that, I don't think so.
January 10, 2012 @ 7:57 am
I'm not sure it's that useful for insights into writing in general, but it's very very interesting for its insights into Davis in particular.
If Mr Keith were President, I suppose, then Michael D. would still be rocking in the Dáil.
January 10, 2012 @ 3:14 pm
nothing more to add… except that the idea of Mandrels being chatty cracks me up.
January 10, 2012 @ 5:28 pm
Pretty much all tantalizing fragments.
Thanks for this nice summing up of the Bristol Boys, Phil. They weren't the best writers on the show but they stuck at it and that counts for something.
One thing you come close to saying, but I don't think say explicitly: Possibly one reason why the rep of the Baker & Martin stories goes down as you go through their career is because they got better and better at the primary constraint of writing for television, ie fitting their (mainly visual) ideas to the available budget. So the visual ideas got tamer and tamer but they couldn't quite replace them with anything.
Weirdly, this makes Bob Baker seem like one of the writers it would be most interesting to bring back for the new series. Flaming skulls in Hyde Park! An army of slaves being marched across a bridge made of song! A Cyber-king arising from the Thames! No, wait, that last one's crap.
January 11, 2012 @ 3:06 am
JNT's autobiography was actually given away as an audiobook subscriber bonus for Big Finish subscribers last month. Listening to it the main things I take away from it are that he found breasts and bottoms funny, that he didn't like Eric Saward or Ian Levine, and that everyone in showbiz was 'simply marvellous' and 'a trouper of the old school' especially if he could get them to star in one of his marvellous little pantos.
Henry R. Kujawa
April 30, 2012 @ 7:13 pm
I never saw Tryst as being like "Dr. Strangelove". I saw him more as "Dr. Fritz Fassbender" from WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT. (Which, of course, is much worse!!) "Licentious adulterer!!!" "Don't you dare call me that, until I've had a chance to look it up!" (Since I discovered that part was actually written for Groucho Marx, I suddenly realized how that entire film, and every line Fassbender says, would have been so much funnier if Marx had been in it, instead of Sellers.)
I suppose the joke is supposed to be, no, NOBODY that stupid could possibly be one of the criminals. But when you think about it… halfway thru the story, he starts to aggressively want to "help" The Doctor uncover who the drug smuggler is. And this is exactly the sort of stunt that 98% of all the murderers on COLUMBO ever did. (The notable exception being Patrick McGoohan in his 3rd of 4 appearances–which just happened to become my favorite episode in the show's entire history.) And how many times have I compared Patrick Troughton's Doctor to Peter Falk's Columbo? Especially in the earliest stories, and then again in many of the revival episodes, where you get to see that "the mask" of dim-wittedness on the part of the hero is in fact a mask– that he isn't just catching the bad guys (or saving the universe) thru dumb luck.
Stott seemed the most intelligent character in the story (apart from the regulars), and I kept wondering, where have I seen Barry Andrews before? Then I looked him up… oh, of course, he's "Paul" in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, which I must have watched a dozen times by now. Which actually makes sense, as "Della" kinda looks a bit like Veronica Carlson.
July 2, 2012 @ 5:43 am
While I'm not arguing at all that this story is probably quite bad I feel that for every bad story there has to be at least one person saying oh but it was one of my favorites as a kid and I am that person. I liked Tryst in fact quite a bit. For some reason I always remember this as a Leela story though, so I may have mixed up some of the bits with a different episode. To be fair when I say one of my favorites it's on a long list and still not that close to the top, but it sticks in my mind more than most of the other late Tom Baker stories.