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…