Always do what you’re best at.
Nothing says Doctor Who quite like monsters running rampant on a spaceship, and Bob Baker’s “Nightmare of Eden” (Story Production Code 5K) delivers a passable, if somewhat overwrought, story where alien beasts drive the narrative forward as the main source of danger in the story while also being victims of the real villains of the piece: drug smugglers. The true nightmare from the planet Eden comes in the form of Vraxoin, a drug so addictive and lethargy-inducing that the only planet known to supply it was incinerated.
Baker, writing his first solo effort without his usual partner Dave Martin, revels in creating elaborate settings for his stories by means of a few choice details, and when he succeeds, as in “The Armageddon Factor” and “The Sontaran Experiment,” the world feels real without needing to be completely sketched out. Starting proceedings on the interstellar cruise liner Empress, with shots of passengers packed into economy-class seating and wearing protective garb, helps establish the story’s setting; the package tours and entitled tourists of the year 2116 could as easily have been on a chartered 747 to the Canary Islands as on a warp-drive flight to the planet Azure. A collision between the Empress and a small survey craft in the wrong orbit around Azure results in the two ships being dimensionally stuck, with the smaller craft engulfed by the larger when the liner came out of warp.
The Doctor and Romana arrive on the scene with no explanation and dive straight into attempting to separate the two craft, pretending initially to be agents of Galactic Salvage & Insurance. They soon meet a scientist, Tryst (Lewis Fiander), whose over-the-top German accent and square-framed glasses immediately cast him as suspect. Tryst has been collecting samples of all the flora and fauna in the galaxy using a Continuous Event Transmuter (CET), which dematerializes whole areas of planets and transfers them to laser crystals for storage, an undertaking the Doctor finds both fascinating and horrifying—mostly the latter. The primitive (to the Doctor) technology interacts poorly with the dimensional instability caused by the collision of the two ships, allowing passage into—and out of—the captured milieux.
Between the need to free the ships from their trans-dimensional embrace, the revelation of Vraxoin being present on the Empress, and an unknown assailant who knocks out the Doctor, Baker and director Alan Bromley deliver one of the finest monster reveals in years, even better than Scarlioni’s unveiling in “City of Death,” because it comes as an actual surprise. Though signposted by a crewman who dies with claw marks on his face and neck, the sudden appearance of a large, scaly, green-eyed alien from a hole in the wall cut by K-9 nevertheless delivers as much shock as Doctor Who has provided in ages.
Mandrels, native to the poorly-named planet Eden, have wandered from their habitat in the CET thanks to the dimensional instabilities prevailing on the Empress, and they pop up whenever Baker needs to help the Doctor and Romana escape, or to provide a bit of filler action. Their overall design works well, with an air of menace in their lumbering gait, to say nothing of their disconcertingly bloody claws. Too, their presence also helps drive the plot without Baker needing to reveal the identity of the drug smuggler. Not until the middle of the third of four episodes do we discover that Tryst has been working in league with Dymond (Geoffrey Bateman) the pilot of the smaller ship, to procure the addictive drug, a late revelation as far as Doctor Who goes.
Because the natural habitats stored on the CET crystals do not exist in an ordinary sense, their contents do not appear on scanners, making an ideal smuggling mechanism. However, for the scheme to work, the barriers between the crystal and “regular” space must be permeable, to move the drugs from the projection, hence the need to create dimensional instability by crashing the two ships during an exit from warp. It’s really rather convoluted, leading to a higher than normal concentration of technobabble in this story, though in fairness about an average amount for a Baker (and Martin) story.
Adding to the complications, officious excise agents from Azure appear on the Empress and, after detecting a trace amount of Vraxoin on the Doctor, declare him and Romana to be the drug smugglers, to be shot on sight. This leads our time travellers to hide inside the Eden projection, where, after escaping from a carnivorous planet (because why not?), they encounter Stott (Barry Andrews), a member of Tryst’s expedition who was declared dead. In actuality, Stott, an undercover intelligence agent investigating the Vraxoin ring, escaped the trap Tryst planned for him but was captured by the CET.
It’s at this point that the story has about three too many characters, to say nothing of asides with various crew members and irate passengers who then get eaten by Mandrels. The core story of drug smuggling aided by a dimensional smuggler’s hold is fascinating, but the amount of padding in the story belies its thinness and the underdevelopment of the existing characters. Earlier Baker and Martin stories have likewise suffered from grand ideas that can’t quite hold up the weight of four episodes, as in “Underworld” and “The Invisible Enemy.”
The Doctor has previously encountered a “zoo machine” in his travels, in Robert Holmes’ “Carnival of Monsters.” There, the Miniscope miniaturized its quarry and trapped the unfortunates in a time loop, to be viewed over and over. The implication here is that time continues as normal inside the crystal projections, whether or not the machine is switched on, at least according to Stott, who has been in the crystal for nearly two hundred days. The machine must be on for passage between the projection and regular space, though, suggesting that Romana’s idle tour through the various worlds contained in the CET at the story’s beginning is responsible for letting the Mandrels out of Eden in the first place.
While powering the Empress‘ engines back on, the Doctor is attacked by one of those loose Mandrels, which electrocutes itself on exposed wiring and dissolves into rocks of Vraxoin, explaining Tryst’s incessant demands that the Mandrels not be killed: the beasts are the source of the drug. Tryst and Dymond escape to Dymond’s ship after the Doctor frees it from the Empress, and when they connect another CET to the one holding the Eden projection, by means of an “inchuka laser,” to transfer the crystal’s contents, the Doctor reverses the flow and traps the smugglers’ ship in the CET instead. It’s a very tidy ending, even by Doctor Who standards.
Rather than damn by faint praise, it should be noted that somehow, it all works, when taken on its own terms. The story never settles firmly into a serious vein due to the effects of the Vraxoin, which causes extreme apathy and indifference, leading to scenes where the captain of the Empress, Rigg (David Daker), who has been surreptitiously drugged, laughs uproariously as passengers are slaughtered by the Mandrels. Far from being horrific, it adds an air of absurdity. Lewis Fiander’s pastiche of an effete scientist further keeps the story from being viewed as anything other than comedic, very much in keeping with Season Seventeen’s overall attitude. Throw in some hapless bureaucrats armed with laser pistols and you have all the making of a sitcom. The only real dissonance comes in the conjunction of the humor with the subject of drug addiction, which mostly serves as a MacGuffin rather than any real moral center for the story. The Doctor quipping at story’s end that people are responsible for their own choices with drugs, while objectively accurate, comes across as tone deaf at best.
The effects team provides a quite accomplished effort here, between well-realized spaceship interiors, decent model ship work, and the strong implementation of the Mandrels, which never look silly. Given the amount of padding in the story and the subsequent length of time the effects work is front and center, it’s well that the effects team is on its game for this story. In particular, the video work to create the dimensional instabilities comes off very nicely, not just for the time but as an iconic representation of that kind of phasing in/phasing out visual effect.
As with all of Season Seventeen so far, “Nightmare of Eden” plays into Tom Baker’s strengths, allowing him to veer from happy-go-lucky to stern in the course of an episode. His evident glee as an actor comes through when he’s fighting with an entire horde of Mandrels, off screen, his shouts and yelps and screams portending an increasingly dire outcome, before he saunters out of the projection, trapping the beasts behind him. No sooner than he gets his biggest laughs of the story, however, than he icily stares down Tryst, who begs for mercy while being dragged away by the police. Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor has, perhaps, the widest range of any of the Doctors thus far, and when writers provide for that scope, he takes full advantage.
Sadly, Bob Baker fails to deliver as strong a script for Lalla Ward. Romana devolves in this story from active and able to frightened and meek, being scared of approaching a Mandrel corpse and having to be physically restrained from screaming by the Doctor. This portrayal of Romana feels at odds not just with Ward’s tenure as the character but for the character as a whole. Baker, working with Martin, has written stronger companion roles in the past, so the backsliding here seems inexplicable. Romana does act bravely when confronted by the excise agents, who threaten to kill her if she activates the engines to separate the ship, but on the whole, it’s a step back for the character.
At least the term “companion” makes another appearance, now in all but one of Season Seventeen’s stories so far after previously being absent for years. Here, the leader of the Azurian excise agents uses the term to refer to Romana:
Fisk: If you see the Doctor or his lady companion, arrest them.
Again, though, the qualification of Romana as “his lady companion” feels unnecessary at best; it’s not as though the Doctor has another, non-lady companion, against whom Romana needs to be distinguished.
Given that Baker and Martin debuted K-9, it’s little surprise that the tin mutt gets ample screen time, with David Brierley providing the voice. The Doctor has almost entirely anthropomorphized K-9 at this point, giving it a gender and exhorting it to bravery and perseverance. K-9s stun ray gets a good workout as well, blasting guards and Mandrels in every other scene, it seems. Still, K-9 does not turn the tide of the story, given that the Mandrels really only serve as temporary plot impediments, but fits more generally into the role of a useful companion, a fine middle ground for a robot dog who can do anything a writer needs at any given time.
“Nightmare of Eden” certainly doesn’t rank amongst the classics of Tom Baker’s run as the Fourth Doctor, but neither does it come in near the bottom. It’s simply a serviceable story, told with enthusiasm if not excessive skill, taking an interesting concept as far as it will stretch and filling the gaps with monsters, chases, spaceships, lasers, and technical doo-dads. Perhaps Bob Baker could have told a more poignant tale about drug addiction and the exploitation of sentient creatures for their natural wealth, or a more pointedly satirical yarn about rampant consumerism and package tours to far-away pleasure planets—”Nightmare of Eden” takes a little from column A, a little from column B, adds a potent dash of Tom Baker, and calls it a day. As the Doctor says, “Always do what you’re best at.”
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Post 110 of the Doctor Who Project