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.