Oh, well, people often don’t know what you’re talking about.
Anthony Read began his tenure on Doctor Who as script editor for “Underworld,” a dismal retelling of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts and possibly the worst story of the Fourth Doctor’s entire run. Fitting, then, that he would make his last contribution to the series by writing another mythological story, “The Horns of Nimon” (Story Production Code 5L), that shows just how well legendary fables can be repurposed into futuristic tales. The trick, it turns out, is to be blatantly obvious about the borrowing, letting the audience in on the secret from the beginning.
Read signposts his recounting of Theseus and the Minotaur by simply scrambling letters in proper names, opening proceedings in this four episode story on a decrepit spaceship bound for Skonnos (cf. Knossos, primary city of the ancient Minoan culture on Crete), bearing human sacrifices from the defeated planet Aneth (cf. Athens). The tributes are to be handed over to the Nimon, who, yes, just happens to be a horned creature, half-bull and half-human, better known as the Minotaur. To be fair, Read builds the layers up slowly, so that the audience feels clever at recognizing the allusions and noticing the parallels before they become so explicit as to be painfully obvious.
The Doctor, meanwhile, has disassembled the TARDIS control console, preventing the blue box from dematerializing or putting up defense shields, helping set up a chance collision with the Skonnon spaceship. Both craft are caught in the pull of a nascent black hole, and they come close enough that the Doctor is able to create a passage between them. There they discover the tributes from Aneth, seven young people in golden yellow jump suits, one auspiciously named Seth (Simon Gipps-Kent). (In the original telling, Athens regularly provided Minos with seven boys and seven girls to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, and the hero Theseus—Seth—took the place of one of the youths in order to defeat the monster. Having fourteen tributes here might have taxed the guest cast budget.)
Doctor Who seldom deviates from the pattern where the Doctor prevails at the end; one needs to go back as far as the Third Doctor’s inaugural season, with “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” for an example of the Doctor unequivocally failing, though “Horror of Fang Rock” comes close. The journey, the telling, then, becomes more important than the outcome, so the fact that we know Seth will “slay” the Nimon in keeping with the underlying myth adds to, rather than detracts from, the narrative experience. It’s not a spoiler if you already know it’s supposed to happen.
The mythology provides coloring for the characters here, unlike in “Underworld” where the Jason and the Argonauts story yields narrative structure but not any detail or nuance. Still, one could be forgiven for having trouble recognizing that Soldeed (Graham Crowden), the sole scientist on Skonnos, is an analogue for Daedalus, if only because the generally accepted concept of that old artificer does not include manic laughter and overacting sufficient to make even Tom Baker blush…
This still being Season Seventeen, the laugh-a-minute mandate of producer Graham Williams and script editor Douglas Adams remains in effect. Between Tom Baker’s penchant for repeating back every phrase said to him in a higher octave—possibly ad libbed, though more likely scripted with the knowledge that Baker would do it anyway—and Graham Crowden playing the grandiloquent vizier Soldeed as though auditioning for an East End pantomime, any seriousness latent in the plot vanishes. But, again, with the outcome being foreordained, the story as a whole does not suffer for the humor, unlike more notionally “serious” stories as “The Creature from the Pit” and “Nightmare of Eden.” The humor here remains confined to the characters for the most part rather than the narrative, and even the frequent sight gags of the Doctor, Romana, Seth, and Teka (Janet Ellis) hiding from the Nimon in the open have some grounding in the Nimon’s awkward gait and lack of peripheral vision.
Mythology is not the only inspiration for “The Horns of Nimon,” as the core plot mirrors that of “The Armageddon Factor” or “The Invasion,” wherein a hidden benefactor offers technology and power that will return its recipients to their “rightful” glory. In exchange for building the Nimon a power plant guarded by a labyrinth of constantly changing corridors—much as Daedalus built for King Minos, minus the nuclear furnace—Soldeed is promised a fleet of new ships with which to launch the Second Skonnon Empire. Just a steady supply of human sacrifices (accompanied by radioactive hymetusite crystals) will see the Nimon’s own project fulfilled, and the ship carrying Seth and the other tributes represents the final installment, after which the long-awaited warships will be produced.
In truth, the Nimon has been using the nuclear power plant, fed by the hymetusite crystals, to create a black hole near Skonnos, the one that trapped the TARDIS and the Skonnon ship, in order to create a wormhole-like link to the planet Crinoth (cf. Corinth). The Nimon, merely the advance guard of a species of nomadic parasites, seeks to bring its fellows from Crinoth, whose people and energy have been devoured by the Nimons’ voracious appetites. The Nimon leapfrog from planet to planet, counting on the avarice of the resident populations to enable them to set up a string of invasions, each bamboozled with promises of technology in exchange for power—and a pittance of human sacrifices. A Nimon’s gotta eat, after all.
The Doctor and Romana stumble separately into the Nimon’s labyrinth on Skonnos, Romana having been taken prisoner by the co-pilot of the Skonnon tribute ship while the Doctor follows after finally fixing the TARDIS sufficiently to reach the planet. Many scenes follow taking advantage of the labyrinth conceit, with our time travellers, plus the gold jump-suited sacrifices from Aneth, wandering hither and yon, stopping just long enough for the set hands to change the walls around for the next shot. The effect works well enough, with the angular ornamentation on the labyrinth walls creating a sense of endless distance and dimension. Ariadne’s rope does not make an appearance, but the Doctor does affix star stickers from his copious pockets on walls in an ill-fated attempt to map his progress.
Once the Doctor discovers the Nimon’s laboratory, he and Romana figure out its purpose in a few minutes of technobabble, followed by the appearance of a capsule containing two more Nimon, who have traversed the wormhole from Crinoth. While attempting to reverse the energy flow to strand the remaining Nimon on Crinoth, the Doctor inadvertently sends Romana back with the capsule. There, she meets Sezom (John Bailey), who, like Soldeed, invited the Nimon to his planet, now a useless husk. Sezom (possibly Moses, backwards?) reveals the Nimon’s evil plan and provides her with a crystal that, when powered by a staff very similar to the one wielded by Soldeed, can stun a Nimon. It’s a typical fourth episode whole-cloth plot solution, but it sets up the mythological resolution we’ve all been waiting for.
Upon her return to Skonnos, Romana finds the Doctor trapped by two Nimons. Seth, to this point, has been a reluctant hero at best. A runaway, he claimed that he could kill the Nimon to avoid having to return home, so the King of Aneth sent him with the tributes. As Romana says to him, “You have got problems, haven’t you?” But he winds up in the right place in the right time—always a good attribute for a hero to have—wielding the staff the Doctor earlier took from Soldeed. Romana tosses him Sezom’s crystal and he zaps both the Nimon, saving the Doctor. He does not, however, kill them, but for purposes of the meta-story, he, like Theseus, has defeated the Minotaur.
The Doctor then locks the energy transfer, trapping the remaining Nimon on Crinoth, which soon explodes because they attempt to use the power in the planet’s core to transfer through the now non-existent wormhole (because technobabble). As for the three Nimon still on Skonnos, they are dispatched by the explosion of the nuclear furnace in the labyrinth, vengefully overloaded by Soldeed in a death scene so boisterous that even Jon Pertwee would have stopped to take notes on all the gurning.
Visually, the effects team comes through, with simple yet effective set designs and a nice effort at representing the increased gravity near the black hole by modulating everyone’s voices just a bit slower. The cryogenic sleep chambers where the tributes are held until consumed call to mind both “The Tomb of the Cybermen” and “The Ark in Space” in their design, a nice nod to the past with an effective visual impact in its own right. They develop a menacing look for the Nimon, with long glowing horns that of course shoot death rays, even if the actors in the suits can only lumber along about as threateningly as the giant killer stones in “The Stones of Blood.” And as with the predatory plinths, the Doctor here, too, takes time out to wave a red cape at the Nimon, but rather than charge at him, the Nimon simply blasts away with its horns.
It’s another solid outing for Tom Baker, who seems solidly in his element with Season Seventeen’s more leisurely approach to storytelling. His schtick of repeating words and looking incredulous does wear somewhat thin very quickly in this story, but it’s employed with such earnestness that it comes across as an endearing character flaw rather than an obsequious attempt at manufacturing laughs, at least most of the time. His chemistry with Lalla Ward is by this point undeniable; the timing in their cross-dialogue, of which there’s a fair amount in this story, lands perfectly, and if Tom Baker is willing to let anyone share the screen with him, it is her.
Anthony Read absolutely comes through for Lalla Ward in this story as well, writing Romana with as much depth, passion, drive, and fire as we’ve seen in any companion to date, bar none. Not content to let the Doctor have all the techno-fun, she has crafted her own Sonic Screwdriver, well enough crafted that the Doctor tries to swap hers for his. The script treats her as an equal—indeed, even the lead at times—and the moral core of the story rests with her; Romana is scathing in her excoriation of Soldeed for selling out his planet to the Nimon, and she does not back down at threats of violence from various Skonnon flunkies.
Interestingly, she shows no compunctions about killing the Nimon, expressing mild regret that Sezom’s staff-crystal only stuns them. The Doctor likewise does not attempt to find some solution to their incessant hunger either, being content with eradicating their entire species rather than seeking some means of saving them, if even off-screen, as when the Second Doctor attempted to rehabilitate the undeniably ruthless Chameleons in “The Faceless Ones.”
Perhaps in recognition of Romana’s strength, Read uses the term “companion” in this story to refer not to her, but to the Doctor, a fairly rare usage of the word:
Co-Pilot: She’s a space pirate, sir. She and her companions attacked our ship!
The plural there could refer to K-9 (voice, David Brierley), but by that point in the story, the Skonnons had not yet encountered the tin mutt. Notably, the Doctor and Romana now refer to K-9 exclusively as “he” rather than “it,” and successive writers since Bob Baker and Dave Martin debuted the character in “The Invisible Enemy” have progressively given the computer canine a personality. Read, cognizant of the plot dangers K-9 provides by virtue of his past job as script editor, keeps him sidelined for the most part, but there are several scenes where K-9 is the only member of the TARDIS crew on the screen, interacting with guest actors. K-9 is, certainly by now, a companion in the real sense of the word.
“The Horns of Nimon,” much like “Nightmare of Eden” immediately prior, lands firmly in that middle ground of acceptable Fourth Doctor stories: competently executed, exuberantly acted, reasonably concluded. There’s no new ground being broken here, beyond representing the best use of mythological concepts since, well, “The Myth Makers.” And much as that story questioned the boundary between the “real” and the “mythological,” with the First Doctor being directly responsible for fictional events in the Trojan Wars, here, too, the Fourth Doctor suggests that “the last time anything like this happened,” he erred and forgot to have the returning ship painted white. (Theseus, in the myth, returned home with black sails instead of the white sails denoting success, leading his father to kill himself in grief.)
That little throwaway coda, alone, demonstrates the limitless possibilities of the Doctor’s countless adventures across time and space and into realms of legend and myth, reminding us of the wonders that Doctor Who can deliver even when the series is merely good, —and also reminding us of how amazing it can be when it is great.
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Post 111 of the Doctor Who Project