Storytelling, sins and Terminus (1983)

Forgive me Terminus fans (yes, both of you, haha)  but I’m not quite finished with City of Death. On that DVD’s “making of” featurette, a number of Who luminati line up to talk about how great the story is, but when it comes to Douglas Adams’ stint as script editor, their reviews are decidedly mixed. The consensus seems to be that he was a prolific generator of good ideas, but didn’t understand story structure. That anyone can say this with a straight face on a documentary about City of Death is slightly bewildering. Apart from a few languid breaks for sections of travelogue footage around Paris, that story is one of the most tightly plotted the show ever produced.

And while we’re about it, think about the rest of the stories in Season 17. Despite any of their other pros or cons, they are all well structured stories, well told (save for, perhaps, The Creature from the Pit, with its odd narrative dogleg in Part Four). Sure, these were written by some of Doctor Who‘s old hands, but they’re shaped and formed by Adams. If he really is shaky on story structure, I see little evidence of it in his year as script editor.

Compare it, though, to Terminus, and there’s a story whose storytelling is all over the shop (despite its merits, of which, contrary to popular opinion, I think there are several). And because we haven’t done a listicle in while, let’s list the 7 deadly storytelling sins in Terminus.

  1. Too many characters. Most obviously illustrated by the way that companions Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Turlough (Mark Strickson) are relegated to clamber through miles of underfloor ducting for the whole story. What makes this even more annoying is that there are two surplus characters: glam rock space pirates Kari (Liza Goddard) and Olvir (Dominic Guard). Their contribution to the plot is minimal and there’s no reason their places couldn’t have been taken by Tegan and Turlough. Then we’d have had a story which involves all the regulars substantially. And in Turlough’s case, this would have kept him closer to the Doctor. Given that his character’s whole raison detre is to kill the Doctor, it might have helped to have actually been within chucking distance of him.

2. There’s no villain. The story tries to cast our suspicion on the Vanir, a group of disheveled men who act as porters for the cargo of Lazars destined for treatment on board Terminus. But as it eventually pans out, the Vanir are simply drug addicted slaves. The real bad guys are here at the Company, the Vanir’s employers and Terminus’s operators. They are the ones who process the Lazars without care or satisfactory cure, (presumably for profit) and they are the ones who keep the Vanir enslaved through the supply of glow sticks of their drug of choice, Hydromel. Problem is, we never see anyone from the Company, so we have no-one to epitomise the threat they represent. Think, for example, of the Tom Baker story The Sun Makers, where the odious Collector represented all that was corrupt in that enslaved society and gave us a villain to hate. There’s no such figure in Terminus, only a half-hearted attempt to build up the character of Vanir leader Eirak (Martin Potter) into a ruthless bully, but in reality, he’s just as big a victim as everyone else on this ship.

3. The problem Nyssa wants to solve isn’t shown. Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) contracts Lazars’ Disease which makes her pale and weak and too hot to wear anything but her underwear. She’s manhandled into the big furry paws of the Garm (RJ Bell) whom we’re led to believe will torture her. As it turns out, the Garm actually administers the treatment which cures Nyssa, but she’s not grateful. The treatment, she says, is haphazard. Some live and some die, but for those who live the treatment might lead to unforeseen secondary illnesses. The process needs refining, she says. But we’re told all this, never shown it, so it’s hard to visualise what the problem actually is. In fact, the only thing we do see is Nyssa being cured, which seems to suggest there’s no real problem here.

4. The big bang plot is unconnected to the rest of the story. Throughout the story, the Doctor (Peter Davison) is intrigued about Terminus’s position at the exact centre of the Universe. This doesn’t seem to worry anyone else, but later he deduces (somehow) that the explosion of Terminus’s engines millennia ago caused the Big Bang, and a second impending explosion may cause its destruction. Cue Part Three cliffhanger! Then the doggy Garm comes and flicks a big red switch and it’s all fixed again. Then it’s back to the main plot about the Lazars, which is completely untouched by all this flim flam. (For other, more relevant, instances of destructive, history altering events, see The Visitation, Earthshock and indeed City of Death. That can be our LINK).

5. It’s unnecessarily complicated. The sabotaged TARDIS locks on to a Lazar carrying ship. The ship is then boarded by the space raiders from funky town. The raiders’ ship then scarpers. Then the Lazar ship lands on Terminus. What ever happened to just landing the TARDIS in the place where the story’s happening? (One of the problems here, is that the set designs for the Lazar ship and for Terminus are drably similar, so there’s no sense that these are different places. Even the production team was confused. In the next story, Enlightenment, Turlough says, “I explained what happened on Terminus!” but in fact, he never boarded Terminus. To coin a phrase, “all these corridors look the same to me.”)

6. Its climax is hugely unexciting. Because there’s no real threat or villain to overcome, everyone just agrees to Nyssa’s plan to synthezise some Hydromel (in a home made meth lab, I presume) and start a hospital. Eirak is outraged a bit, but that’s all the resistance it meets. It’s a quiet, drama-less revolution.

7. It’s too long, but somehow still runs out of time. It’s quite a feat, but this story maintains a gentle languid, pace during Parts Two and Three, with much corridor wandering and aimless chatter. But suddenly, half way through Part Four, it seems to run out of time. The Vanir, including the previously belligerent and murderous Valgard (Andrew Burt) are swiftly won over. There’s no time to explain how Kari and Olvir will get back home. A quick goodbye to Nyssa and suddenly we’re back to the TARDIS for a closing snarl from the Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall, see problem 1). In short, its pace is all over the place.

Now cast your mind back to City of Death. The right amount of characters, a clear and present threat, no unnecessary subplots, a strong climax… you get the idea. It’s just a better told story than Terminus.

In fact, all of season 17’s stories are better told than Terminus. It’s just one comparative example – there are many other stories both better and worse – but when we look at story telling which is genuinely a mess, we can see that Adams wasn’t half bad at his job.

NEXT TIME: Build high for happiness. We move into Paradise Towers.

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