Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden (parts three and four)

It’s not often that the climax of a Doctor Who undermines everything to quite the degree this one does. On the one hand, it’s kind of nice to have a Bob Baker script that doesn’t fall apart after episode one. This one waits until the fourth. But even before we get there, we have to contend with the Mandrels, who don’t rank on anybody’s list of favorite Who beasts. Some newspaper critic back in ’79 called them refugees from The Muppet Show, and he’s right. Tom Baker could have played this scene with Sweetums and Doglion, plus a laugh track, and it wouldn’t have looked any sillier.

Then there’s one of Tom’s most ill-advised ad-libs. You get used to Tom overacting and doing whatever he wants for a laugh in this period of the show, because it usually works at least a little. And so we get to the infamous incident where, offscreen, he’s being attacked by a Mandrel and bellows “My fingers, my arms… my everything!” and emerges with his clothes in tatters. It did get a big smile from our seven year-old son, who enjoyed the mayhem, but it completely undermined the simple moment just ninety-some seconds later when he just quietly says “Go away” to the villain. You can’t play the same page as both a pantomime and as a serious drama. The bigger will always overpower the smaller, which helps to explain why this story is so poorly regarded.

The villain doesn’t help matters much. I’m not sure whether it’s Lewis Fiander’s silly attempt at a German accent or his silly Roger McGuinn granny glasses that undermines the character more.

I think you can see a little more of Douglas Adams in this serial than in the previous one. The concept of two spaceships warping into each other and occupying the same space is a pleasantly high-SF idea, and the two customs officers who start complicating the story at the end of part two are bureaucracy-obsessed cousins of Shooty and Bang-Bang from Hitch-Hiker’s Guide. (They’re also the spiritual ancestors of the Caretakers in the 1987 serial “Paradise Towers,” I think.)

But credit where it’s due: this was Bob Baker’s last contribution to Doctor Who after writing or co-writing eight serials over ten seasons. Among other credits after this, he co-created Into the Labyrinth for HTV and wrote a few episodes of the long-running cop show Bergerac before finding his biggest success as writer for the Wallace & Gromit films.

Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden (parts one and two)

Sometime in the second half of 1984, I convinced my parents to drop my younger brother and me in downtown Atlanta for my first con, one of those Creation shows that were common at the time. We spent a few hours drooling over comic books that we couldn’t afford and several more hours in one of the video rooms. They showed “Nightmare of Eden” to a packed house. It had aired on WGTV locally a few months previously, so I’d seen it before. It was my first Doctor Who repeat. And the audience loved it. They treated the monsters seriously and they laughed at the Doctor’s jokes. When David Daker’s character tells the Doctor that the company that the Doctor claims to represent went bankrupt twenty years ago, the Doctor instantly says “Well, I wondered why I hadn’t been paid,” and the room just exploded with laughter.

Our son also really likes it, apart from the scary monsters, which are only briefly glimpsed in the first two episodes. There’s a lot to like so far. The down sides are pretty minor. I think the worst offense is that, not content with letting a “Have a care, Doctor!” slip through in the last story, our beloved script editor allowed a “Don’t play the fool with me” this time, but we’ll live.

Behind the scenes, “Nightmare of Eden” was written by Bob Baker. It’s his only solo Who script after co-writing eight serials with Dave Martin. It was partially directed by Alan Bromly, an older BBC veteran who was approaching the end of a long career, but he actually quit midway through one of the recording sessions and the producer, Graham Williams, had to actually step in and finish it himself, probably growling that what he really wanted to do three years previously was produce a nice, safe cop show without one crisis after another like he was forced to manage on Doctor Who. Apparently he was already thinking of quitting, and this troubled production was the final straw. More on those troubles next time.

Time Bandits (1981)

Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits was made for an insanely small budget of just $5 million for a movie that looks so much larger than that. David Rappaport plays the unelected leader of a gang of time-hopping criminals who burst through an imaginative kid’s bedroom and bring him along on their adventures, and the cast includes John Cleese, Sean Connery, and Michael Palin, who cowrote the movie with Gilliam, in memorable parts, along with a who’s who of familiar faces in very tiny parts. Blink and you’ll miss Jim Broadbent, David Daker, and Neil McCarthy, among others.

I’ve never loved any of Terry Gilliam’s “solo” films, not even Bandits, which I first saw when I was ten. I admire it and I enjoy it, but it’s so prickly that I can’t embrace it. It’s not a comforting movie. It’s a weird, wonderful, deeply unpredictable, and occasionally funny movie, but it’s certainly not comforting. I remember just about everything in this movie getting under my skin and unsettling me when I first saw it, and then wanting to see it again as soon as possible, hoping for answers. This movie just refuses to provide any.

So I saw it several more times when I was in middle school, because HBO played it regularly for a while, and maybe once when I was in high school, and I don’t think I’ve seen it since. On the other hand, my wife thinks that she may have seen this movie more times than any other film, and our son just had his mind completely blown by it, so I’m definitely in the minority around these parts.

The world that Gilliam built in Time Bandits is incredibly vivid and incredibly ugly. Absolutely everything is dirty and wet. I like how all the costumes (designed by Jim Acheson!) are incredibly complicated but somehow never quite seen very clearly. A being called Evil, played by David Warner, has these hideous hench-guard things with black cloaks and the skulls of animals, but they never stay still long enough for us to focus on what they are, and subsequently dismiss them. So I think this all adds up to an experience that can get around the back corners of your mind and stay there, unsettling you. The scene where the heroes run down an impossible corridor with the booming face of the Supreme Being haunted me, the Supreme Being’s refusal to politely explain everything to Kevin bothered me, and the sad coda back in the present day – slash – real world gave me nightmares.

But our kid just loved it all, so never mind me when I was ten. He’s made of sterner stuff. He was so fired up by the movie that we had to banish him to the floor because he couldn’t keep still on the sofa and was driving me nuts with his kicking. When we got to the climactic battle against Evil, he was on his feet and jumping up and down like he was on a pogo stick. There was a small part of me that worried that seven might have been too young for this movie, and that part was as wrong as can be.

Our boy doesn’t seem to have very many nightmares, and doesn’t have trouble falling asleep after he’s seen something frightening that we’ve watched. Time Bandits caused me troubles, but I don’t think I’ll need to come back and edit this post with an addendum that the grisly fate of Kevin’s parents came back to bother him in the middle of the night.

In case you didn’t know this, Time Bandits was one of the first movies produced by George Harrison’s company Handmade Films, and he contributed the wonderful song “Dream Away,” which plays over the end credits and which I have always enjoyed. A year later, the song was included on Harrison’s 1982 LP Gone Troppo. It’s by far the best song on the record.

Doctor Who: The Time Warrior (parts three and four)

For a show whose hero owns a time machine, Doctor Who didn’t actually go back in time all that often for a huge chunk of its history. When William Hartnell was the Doctor, they did a “historical” nearly half of the time, but since the show’s later producers wanted to do more science fiction-oriented tales, they phased them out. Patrick Troughton’s Doctor went back in time in only three of his stories, and those are mostly missing. Troughton’s final story, “The War Games,” seems to start in 1918, but that proves to be a feint. This is the only story where Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is seen to go back in time.

I think that Robert Holmes, who wrote this adventure, had such a good time crafting the dialogue and the situations that he made the call to play with historical pastiches more frequently when he became the program’s story editor the following season. I suppose that he could have gone for historical accuracy, but why do that when you can have the villains snarling at each other with Shakespearean-styled insults? There’s even a lovely bit where the Doctor and Sarah are disguised as friars and speak with a remarkably literate-sounding guard, who assures them of Irongron’s generosity and kind temper. And so season 13’s “Pyramids of Mars” will give us the literature lovers’ version of Edwardian England, and season 14’s “Talons of Weng-Chiang” won’t be the real Victorian London, but the one of Doyle and Rohmer and Freeman and movies about Jack the Ripper. And it’s all so amazingly fun!

That hilarious exchange with the guard went over our son’s head, but he had a ball with the scene in part three where the Doctor drives away Irongron’s troops with some stink bombs that send up great clouds of yellow and pink smoke. Linx was a little bit frightening, and he was glad when Linx gets killed by an arrow in the vent in the back of his neck. We’ll meet plenty more Sontarans in the years to come – I will happily confess that I spent most of my sophomore year of high school bellowing “I DO NOT TAKE ORDERS FROM CIVILIANS!” in my best imitation of Major Varl whenever anybody asked me to do anything – but the terrific Linx is the best of them all.

Doctor Who: The Time Warrior (parts one and two)

Season eleven of Doctor Who started with the introduction of two of the most important additions to the show’s mythology: Sarah Jane Smith and the Sontarans. Sarah would be the Doctor’s companion for eighty episodes – more than every Doctor after Tom Baker played the role! – and get more return visits in the show than any other companion, and that’s before we factor in her incredibly entertaining spinoff series. Elisabeth Sladen only had a handful of small television parts before winning the part of Sarah Jane. One of these was playing a student activist in a third season Doomwatch that the BBC wiped. Sarah is one of everybody’s favorite companions. She’s smart, determined, resourceful, and once she accepts that she’s somehow traveled back to the 12th Century, she’s immediately putting battle plans together to raid the enemy castle and kidnap the Doctor, whom she thinks is behind this adventure.

But it’s actually a Sontaran by the name of Linx who is behind this, and honestly, Sarah is kind of overshadowed by how hugely entertaining this character is. Writer Robert Holmes decided not to think of Linx as an anonymous “alien monster” but a really fun villain with an understandable motive and an unwavering belief in his moral superiority. And even he doesn’t get all the best lines!

When I first read Terrance Dicks’ novelization of this story for Target Books, I wasn’t all that impressed, because the bandit Irongron was such a stupid and boring villain on the page. But David Daker is having the time of his life in the part, and he chews up the medieval dialogue with perfect relish. Daker and Kevin Lindsay, who plays Linx, are a perfect double-act, each finding something the other can offer them but neither at all pleased by their ally’s attitude or personality. I really like how Robert Holmes sidelines the Doctor to build the worlds of the Sontaran Empire and the politics of medieval England. It’s an incredibly fun story.

Our son needed a quick and dirty history lesson about why there are so few knights and soldiers around that bandits like Irongron’s crew could take over a castle, and he got a lot more squirmy than usual at the beginning of the second episode, but he really enjoyed both of the action scenes in that episode. He was also on the lookout for any nonsense from renegade Time Lords: when Irongron’s men find Linx’s spherical spaceship in the forest, he asked out loud: “Is that a TARDIS?” I kind of wish I hadn’t immediately told him no.