Opera, silliness and The Horns of Nimon (1979/80)

horns of nimon

I wonder what Barry Letts thought of The Horns of Nimon. Presumably he viewed it, when he was about to rejoin the show in a specially created Executive Producer position and this was, at that time, the most recent story the production team had managed to complete. I imagine him, stony faced in some tiny BBC viewing suite, watching a tape of this story which drew the curtain on the decade of Doctor Who he launched, and wondering quite where it all went awry. Probably also wondering how long it would take to fix the old girl up and how soon he could head back to making Great Expectations or something.

If you watch any number of the extra features on the recently released Season 18 blu-ray box set, you’ll hear script editor Christopher H Bidmead tell the story of his job interview, in which he said the previous season of Doctor Who had been “silly” and claims Letts nodded sagely and agreed. It’s pretty easy to guess that they were both thinking of The Horns of Nimon. There are number of moments here which are clearly intended to be funny but which fall flat (and that’s my personal definition of “silly”). There’s the whizz bang noise when the console blows up. There’s “oh my gravitic anomoliser!” There’s the Doctor giving K9 mouth to mouth and a prize rosette. And so it goes hilariously on.

But others choose different words to describe contributions to this story. Tom Baker, also on the Season 18 box set, likes to use “operatic” to describe big, bold offerings like June Hudson’s costume designs, which make everyone on the planet Skonnos look like their heading to a mardi gras themed funeral (or a funeral themed mardi gras, I suppose) and Graham Crowden’s performance as Soldeed, which leaves no scenery unchewed. Crowden is often singled out for praise by Tom, because he doesn’t so much say his lines as propel them through the screen at you with ballistic force, powered by bulging eyes and bared gums.

So what’s the truth of The Horns of Nimon? Is it silly or operatic? It’s got to be said that apart from the efforts of La Hudson and Lord Crowden, there’s little that’s operatic about it. Certainly not Anthony Read’s script, which is as safe and sensible as you’d expect from a previous script editor who knows exactly how big the budget will be for the studio bound fifth story in a season of six and has scaled everything back by 5% just in case. Read’s well-documented favourite approach to Doctor Who was to raid mythology for stories which would easily translate by rearranging a few consonants in the names of characters and locations, and the result here is a thoroughly producible script. Its plotting is sound, its pacing spot on and its dialogue thoroughly unremarkable. I can imagine Letts nodding in appreciation of it in that viewing suite, perhaps grumbling about an old pro’s script being meddled with and an egocentric lead actor given too much head.

Whether it’s silly or operatic or both, it’s undeniably tatty. In fact, its whole look is a homage to late 70s glam rock on a bargain bin budget. The Nimons themselves balance precariously on vertiginous platform boots which force these towering bulls to swap charging and bucking for tottering. The Anethan tributes (made up of Seth (Simon Gipps-Kent), Teka (Janet Ellis) and five nameless, voiceless others, whose entire job is to fill up a tight nine shot with eyes wide with fear) wear costumes made out of that textured wallpaper you used to see in suburban Chinese restaurants. Seth’s only needs a zodiac symbol medallion to complete the picture, a rare oversight from Hudson. Back in 1965, The Beatles turned up for a cameo on Doctor Who and if KISS had done the same in The Horns of Nimon, they wouldn’t have looked out of place. (Nimon’s made for lovin’ you, baby? No?)

It’s worth reflecting again on Season 18 and how much better it looks than, well… all of Season 17, except perhaps City of Death. Producer John Nathan-Turner is sometimes criticised for prioritising style over substance, but when looking at Nimon’s all pervading shoddiness, you can see that the show’s look really did need attention. Perhaps the success of this makeover can be put down to Nathan-Turner’s much documented ability to spend money where it would show on screen, but whatever it was, the show needed it. Compare this story to, for instance, next season’s penultimate studio bound tale The Keeper of Traken and see how much more attention is given to making the show look presentable. For better or worse, this stuff matters.

The wobbliness of the whole production – costumes, sets and performances alike – has made The Horns of Nimon a target for disdain for the longest time. Since then, many have made attempts to rehabilitate its reputation which have bordered on the, well, operatic. It’s loads of fun, they say and yes, it absolutely is. The Discontinuity Guide by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping (mentioned here for the first time in nearly 300 posts, which is something of an omission) calls it, generously, “rather wonderful with some friends and a bottle of wine”, but I fear such a dinner party would be doomed to break up around the end of Part One, with your friends looking exaggeratedly at their watches and saying, “oh, is that the time?” while you are left trying to coax the last few drops out of the bottle solo, hoping you can hang out long enough to hear Lalla Ward shout, “how many Nimons have you seen today?” at Soldeed while he cackles his way through his death scene.

The truth of it is that The Horns of Nimon is a story which people have been attempting to breathe life into from conception all the way through to reception. It starts with a fine but basic script by Read. Then Baker, Crowden & Hudson try to resuscitate it through ad libs, overacting and sweeping grand designs. (Only Lalla Ward finds a way of dealing with the material given to her, giving it authority and conviction without going over the top. No small feat when you’re trying to acting intimidated by unsteady ballet dancers in body suits, spangly loin cloths and big plasticky bull heads). Then since its initial reception, we’ve been trying to counter the evidence of our own eyes, desperately clinging to the occasional line that lands or the rare genuinely witty beat to say, “no, c’mon, it’s really quite good and it’s funny.”

I can’t imagine this is what Letts thought. Neither Read or director Kenny McBain were invited back for Season 18. But maybe he and Chris Bidmead sat down for dinner, cracked opened a bottle of wine and smashed through four episodes of The Horns of Nimon. On to be a fly on the wall. That really would have been, to quote Cornell et al, rather wonderful.

LINK TO The Waters of Mars: more Australian actors! Bob Hornery (Pilot) is of this village.

NEXT TIME: I’ve always fancied the idea of Norway. So, let’s take ourselves away to It Takes You Away.

4 thoughts on “Opera, silliness and The Horns of Nimon (1979/80)”

  1. Incredible to think this finished in January 1980, and Season 18 started in August 1980. The same year. The difference is STARTLING.

  2. About five months between completing Nimon and Brighton filming for Leisure Hive (excluding the bits of Shada they completed and which should have taken them another six weeks or so.

    I like them both, but is Nimon really any shoddier looking than Meglos?

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