Oh, is that her name?
Never let it be said that Doctor Who is afraid of tackling the big cosmological questions, like the very origin of the universe. Unfortunately, sometimes the show’s answer to that question comes in a form like Steve Gallagher’s “Terminus” (Story Production Code 6G), an overstuffed confection that aspires to great heights but, like his prior story, “Warriors’ Gate,” collapses under the weight of its unwieldy plot. Unlike most of the Fifth Doctor’s stories to date, though, “Terminus” suffers not from continuity-related meta-narratives foisted upon the tale by producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward but from the dense and tangled world building—sufficient for six or eight episodes—that Gallagher tries to cram into a mere four episodes.
With Turlough still under the influence of the Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall), his supposed freedom at the end of “Mawdryn Undead” being but a ruse, he surreptitiously removes the “space-time element” from the TARDIS console, causing a dimensional instability that allows the outer universe to permeate the theoretically inviolable time machine. This breach centers on Nyssa’s room, and she can only escape into another spaceship that the TARDIS has sought out as a protection against such a “breakup,” a newly introduced safety feature that the Doctor insists has always been there but just hasn’t ever worked before, if only because no plot has yet required its services. The connection between the TARDIS and the other ship is itself dimensionally unstable, phasing in and out of existence, a handy means of trapping the entire TARDIS team on the other ship.
The ship in question appears at first to be deserted, with the Doctor and Nyssa, after they find each other, discovering an automated control room. They soon have guests in the form of pirates, Kari (Liza Goddard) and Olivr (Dominic Guard), intent on purloining the cargo, expected to be quite valuable given that the ship hails from a wealthy sector of space. To everyone’s dismay, however, the cargo consists of individuals afflicted with the highly contagious Lazar’s Disease, the ship itself en route to a enormous sanatorium at the very center of the universe known as Terminus.
Even at the time of airing in 1983, this cavalier use of leprosy as a plot device drew condemnation, and indeed, Olvir specifically links Lazar’s Disease to leprosy in the first episode cliffhanger when, as the patients begin shambling out of their cabins, he screams out, “We’re on a leper ship. We’re all going to die!” Scenes of the Doctor and Nyssa recoiling from their touch reinforce the negative stereotypes, with Nyssa herself becoming infected after she has cut her thumb and brushes against one of the Lazars. But not to worry, though, because despite Olvir’s insistence that Terminus is where Lazars come to die, help is at hand, with a cure on offer from a very different kind of doctor…
Once the spaceship docks with the massive Terminus complex, Gallagher’s story begins taking on its excess narrative baggage. Armored caretakers known as the Vanir (named after the Norse gods of domesticity) oversee Terminus, themselves slaves of Terminus Incorporated, the for-profit company that owns the facility. Over many years, radiation leaks have caused parts of Terminus to be off-limits, with the Vanir wearing radiation suits to protect themselves in the “safe” zones. In the “forbidden zone,” home to the engines and control center, a massive wolf-like creature known as the Garm (R.J. Bell) roams. His role is to “cure” the Lazars, who are strung up like sacrifices by the Vanir for the Garm to collect. In Norse mythology, the Garm guards the border between the world of the living and the underworld, much as here the Garm only appears at the boundary between the safe and forbidden zones, helpfully marked off by caution tape, when beckoned by the Vanir.
The entire Vanir/Garm subplot remains underdeveloped throughout the story. Several scenes set up a tension between the head of the Vanir, Eirak (Martin Potter), who controls the supply of the life-sustaining substance hydromel (itself a reference to a mead-like beverage, in keeping with the Norse theming), and Valgard (Andrew Burt), a Vanir who wearies of the endless toil of processing the Lazars with no hope for change. Terminus Incorporated keeps the Vanir in line by only supplying small amounts of hydromel at any time, carried in the ship that transports the Lazars to the facility. When the Doctor and Kari are seen, suspicion grows that they are spies from the company, and Valgard agrees to hunt them down in the Forbidden Zone in exchange for Eirak giving up his leadership, for unclear reasons. It all feels like padding in a story that could stand to explain quite a bit more than it does.
The Doctor and Kari, chased by Valgard, finally make their way to Terminus’ control center, where they find a long-dead giant in a spacesuit in the pilot’s seat. A quick examination of the consoles leads the Doctor to realize that Terminus is at the center of the universe because it created the universe, which is something of a leap even for Doctor Who. In short, for an object the size of Terminus to be able to travel through time—and why not?—the power required would be capable of creating an explosion large enough to have sparked the Big Bang. The ship apparently dumped its fuel when it was about to explode and then jumped billions of years into the future to avoid the cataclysm, creating the universe—and apparently destroying the old universe where all the shareholders of Terminus Incorporated used to live? Or perhaps the company found Terminus after it arrived from the past after having created the universe and claimed it for their own, thinking the best use for a technological marvel with untold power resources and capable of time travel was as a sanatorium staffed by slaves? Even with all the good will and suspension of disbelief once might muster, “Terminus” simply makes no sense, more so than any prior story has ever achieved, handily stealing that crown from “Underworld,” another mythologically-infused melange.
In the interim, Nyssa has been captured by the Vanir, her symptoms from Lazar’s Disease beginning to manifest through a pallor and general weakness. Olvir originally abandoned her when a sterilization drone apprehended her onboard the ship, but he follows and tries to rescue her once the Vanir prepare her for the Garm, driven no doubt by his own experience of his sister having been sent to Terminus and never heard from again.
Turlough and Tegan, having left the TARDIS despite the Doctor’s instructions, spend all of one episode and much of another in a crawl space under the floor of the ship, trying to hide, certainly an uncomfortable experience for Mark Strickson and Janet Fielding, though filmed to quite claustrophobic effect by director Mary Ridge. Urged by the Black Guardian to kill the Doctor, despite the fact that the story is doing its best to accomplish that without his help, Turlough rips wires out of an emergency bypass circuit in the spaceship, trying to re-open the hidden TARDIS door, but somehow manages to start the engines on Terminus instead. Given their condition, they will explode, destroying the known universe in the process, which is certainly one way of killing the Doctor.
Rather than working on a solution via the many switches and computers in the control center, the Doctor and Kari spend several scenes just pushing against an automated lever that operates the engines, one so big that it takes a giant (like the dead pilot) to operate. In desperation, they call upon the Garm, who turns out to be a quite reasonable individual who must obey any commands issued by the possessor of the summoning device. Despite the compulsion, the Garm wishes to know if his efforts matter, and when the Doctor insists that they do, he shoves the lever back, allowing the Doctor to disconnect the engines. When the Garm asks to be freed from control, the Doctor gladly smashes the device, quite a trivial repayment for saving the universe.
Much of the story indeed hinges on the Garm, whose origins and nature remain entirely unexplored, with the only real insight coming when he turns out to be literate, reasonable, and sympathetic, as opposed to the expectation those lupine ears and red eyes create. As Nyssa discovers, he really does provide a cure for Lazar’s Disease, at least after a fashion, putting the afflicted into a room where they are bombarded with radiation. Nyssa realizes that a controlled dosage will provide sufficient succor, yet the Garm lacks the tools or insight to tailor the treatment to a level that does not often kill the patient as part of the cure.
As for the pesky Vanir, once the Doctor and Nyssa are reunited, they quickly gain allies amongst their former foes by promising to synthesize a version of hydromel that can be recreated on Terminus, freeing them from the tyranny of the company. The Doctor defers to Nyssa, who is shown at the start of the story working with chemicals, and she avers that it should be a quite simple process. Then it’s just back to the TARDIS, with the two pirates somehow finding a way home, the Black Guardian scolding Turlough for failing yet again, and off to the next adventure—with one minor exception.
“Terminus” marks Sarah Sutton’s final story as Nyssa, and much as Gallagher sent Lalla Ward on her way by having Romana stay behind in E-Space to help the Tharils in “Warriors’ Gate,” here he has Nyssa decide that she needs to stay on Terminus to oversee the correct cure for Lazar’s Disease for the thousands of people there and yet to arrive. In its way, such a conclusion for Nyssa stands as a noble and selfless departure, much in keeping with a character who combines a keen intelligence with a caring soul, and yet the entirety of the story up until that moment does nothing but cast the Traken princess in a weak and helpless light, lacking all agency. A strong final scene, one tinged with genuine emotion saying goodbye to the Fifth Doctor and Tegan, does not make up for a poor script for her final outing, and Sutton certainly deserves a stronger send-off, or at the very least one less abrupt.
The guest cast turns in workmanlike performances that make the most of the script, such as it is. Liza Goddard as the pirate Kari spends much of the story playing against Peter Davison, and they work well together, while Andrew Burt imbues Valgard with a fair bit of menace. When he attempts to trick Dominic Guard’s Olvir into helping him after they fight, the audience is genuinely uncertain as to his sincerity; his rueful sneer-turned-smile after Olvir leaves, having been ready to ambush the young pirate, comes as a striking moment in a story mostly bereft of them.
Mark Strickson continues to develop the role of Turlough, trying to cast the character as genuinely trapped between his essentially peaceful nature and the increasing pressure from the Black Guardian to kill the Doctor. The pathos in his attempts to wheedle out of his deal with the Black Guardian, to say nothing of his seemingly genuine desire to be liked by the Doctor and, especially, Tegan, comes across as quite affecting and yet also emphasizes for the audience that he is not to be trusted, at least not yet. It’s a hard type of role for an actor to play, and for now, Strickson does his best to rescue the character from being a one-dimensional antagonist.
Gallagher finds little at all for Janet Fielding to do here, unfortunately. Beyond a few scenes of getting miffed at Turlough and an impassioned farewell with Nyssa, Tegan hovers mostly in the background in this story, a poor use of the character, especially when contrasted with the interminable, and ultimately unproductive, passages given to the internecine politics of the Norse-themed Vanir. With the companion count dropping to two again going forward (for one story at least), Fielding should have better odds at satisfactory scripts in the future.
The Fifth Doctor himself also remains curiously sidelined in “Terminus,” with very little of the story’s resolution coming from Peter Davison. He gets into a fight, shoots a gun (at a lock, not a person), and gets to unspool all the technobabble, but this remains the case of a story where the Doctor doesn’t actually do much. He is constantly reacting to events—the TARDIS destabilizing, Nyssa going missing, the universe exploding—rather than assessing and acting preventatively. Granted, that’s much of the remit of an action-oriented show, but as the past few stories have shown, Davison’s take on the title role benefits from more contemplative conflicts than the universe blowing up, no matter how literally existential such a threat might be.
It’s hard to figure out just what went wrong with “Terminus.” Certainly it suffers from the malady that so many recent stories have faced, that of too many plot threads running simultaneously, but at heart, it just never gets out of its own way. Take the Garm and the Vanir: on their own, they are serviceable components of the story, a beast that actually does provide a mythical cure and a workforce that no longer knows the story behind the legend, but tying them to Norse mythology just over-eggs the pudding, serving no purpose other than to point out where Gallagher got the idea for them in the first place. Likewise the omnipresent Terminus Incorporated, which purports to control everything from behind the scenes and yet features not at all in the story. It’s rare to say this about Doctor Who, which has a long tradition of aggressive story editing, but this script needed wholesale eliding, not just a few cuts.
As for the central conceit, that Terminus caused the Big Bang, perhaps the less said, the better. On its own, one can but applaud Doctor Who trying to take on the big issues, and indeed, the series is well known for its own spin on everything from the origin of the pyramids to the truth behind the Loch Ness Monster—and those were both from the same season. To have tried and failed is not in itself a problem, but one has the sense that time just ran away from the production team, with industrial action having affected much of Season Twenty, and at some point they needed to film what they had. It just so happens that “Terminus” is what they had.
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Post 131 of the Doctor Who Project