From a controversial season in Doctor Who’s history, Nightmare of Eden plays around with tone like a baritone on acid… which seems vaguely appropriate for a story in which the horror of drugs is the dominant theme.
Serious-minded but facetiously performed, it’s easy to get distracted by the stylings and trappings of late ‘70s Who. If your heart isn’t curiously warmed by the sight of astro-tourists in sunglasses and space macs, this may not be for you. And yet, look beyond the glitter and the flares, and the script, if not the performances, asserts that this is a world populated by real people: jaded, sardonic and dry. It’s proof that sometimes the most sober slice of Who is garnished with the campest of toppings.
Take loveable Germanic zoologist turncoat, Tryst.
Tryst may possibly be the worst thing in Nightmare of Eden. Or the best. It’s hard to tell. Tom Baker speaks for all of us when he ad-libs, of Tryst’s accent, ‘I’m just interested in the voice. Fascinating.’ But there’s no denying it: the world of Doctor Who is a more glorious place for having him in it.
Several years later, Doctor Who would mistake quirky wit for day-glo wackiness, and yet, with no less than two scriptwriting demi-gods at the helm – the man that helped to give us Wallace and Gromit, Bob Baker, and the man that made being a polymath seem like the most joyous thing possible, Douglas Adams – this is a story which knows the right side of the line to tread. Mostly.
Customs and Excise Officers, Fisk and Costa, may look like they’ve stepped in from a Berlin fetish bar, but they do a neat line in bureaucratic misanthropy nonetheless. Brilliantly, the ship’s Captain gets progressively more Northern the more drugged up he gets. And then there is the trippy delight of seeing the Doctor drowning in hazy slo-mo effects while simultaneously being assaulted by a man in tinfoil. It’s like the 1977 Doctor Who annual come to life.
Back in 1979, we didn’t know what to make of such curious sensory overload. Like K9 on a bad day, it was enough to make us blow a fuse. But in 2012, we know better.
There’s something rather prescient about a script that can take in such matters as insurance claims, drug running and even throw in something called The Eden Project. In these times when you’re lucky to get through the day without being run up multiple times about PPI protection, it all seems really rather current.
Ultimately, what’s not to love about a script that can compare the structure of the universe to an infinite sequence of Russian dolls while throwing in gags about jelly babies, as well as satirical swipes at the treatment of economy class passengers? For all the deficiencies in presentation, Nightmare of Eden is still a story with real science and genuine imagination at its heart.
Extras: Toby Hadoke moderates an entertaining commentary featuring Lalla Ward, Bob Baker, actor Peter Craze, effects supervisor, Colin Mapson and make-up artist, Joan Stribling.
Understandably, the discussion takes in such matters as the programme’s financial limitations and the presentation of drugs in a story for children. But, given that Lalla Ward is on the panel, it’s inevitable that conversation also turns to her costume (like a maternity outfit, apparently) and the genius of Douglas Adams. We have been here many times before. Even so, it’s impossible to disagree with Lalla when she asserts that ‘Douglas’s silliness was quite cerebral and quite interesting.’ Quite right.
Lalla pops up again on an awkward and stilted interview segment from Ask Aspel in which it’s abundantly clear that the woman who champions ‘interesting silliness’ is, in that context at least, prickily unable to laugh at herself. Ah well – we were all rather po-faced when young.
As for the rest of the set, the two standout features are a fan analysis, featuring comedienne Josie Long and writers Joe Lidster and Simon Guerrier, and documentary, The Nightmare of Television Centre, which goes behind the scenes of the production from the viewpoint of the techies.
There’s no getting away from it: any production in which the original director was sacked during a tea break is going to be considered less than satisfactory. But all told, the participants are rather harsh on the success of the story. In this instance, time hasn’t lent distance to their assessment of it – which is a great shame. Nightmare of Eden is far from a stillbirth, and, for this reviewer at least, rather a success.
Released on DVD on Monday 2nd April 2012 by BBC Worldwide.
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