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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 if 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 were 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.

Tegan, Turlough and Enlightenment (1983)

enlightenment1

I saw Janet Fielding at a Doctor Who convention years ago. She was asked about the way she left the series which, it was said, “was notable because companions usually leave by getting married to someone wildly inappropriate.” Quick as you like, Fielding replied, “No, that’s what I did in real life.”

Fielding spent three years on Doctor Who playing the truculent Tegan. But unlike some of her TARDIS predecessors and successors, Tegan rarely attracted any romantic attention. The one time she did garner an admirer, it was creepy ethereal being Marriner (Christopher Brown).

The aptly named Marriner is an officer on an Edwardian racing yacht. Or so we think, until it’s revealed that he is one of a race of god-like Eternals, the yacht is a spacecraft and the race is around the solar system.

He gets off on the wrong foot with Tegan when she’s alone in the darkened, disabled TARDIS console room, and he climbs up its police box exterior, peering into the scanner. First his hands appear splayed across the scanned, pulling the rest of him up. Then his big ol’ boat race fills the screen in wide eyed wonder. It’s uncomfortably like the village peeping tom is looking for an unsecured window.

Once Tegan ventures outside the TARDIS, Marriner’s fixation grows. He’s a tall, blond, handsome man in uniform. Normally, he’d exactly the sort of sort a companion would strike up a flirty rapport with. But Marriner’s preternaturally calm demeanour and his unsettling stare means he makes for uncomfortable company. “You’re a stowaway,” he declares silkily to Tegan, “and I shall put you in irons.” Down boy. It’s way too soon to start mentioning your toys.

It turns out that Eternals depend on the minds of mere mortals to keep themselves entertained. But Marriner’s focus on Tegan is particularly keen. “I find you fascinating,” he keeps telling her, to Tegan’s obvious discomfort. It soon grows into an obsession. “You’re not like any ephemeral I’ve ever met before,” he wails plaintively from outside Tegan’s bedroom door.  These days we call this sort of behaviour stalking. If she had a mobile, it would be full of freaky texts: U HAVE AMAZING MIND. UR FASCIN8ING. 😳

Unsurprisingly, Tegan doesn’t respond well to her peculiar suitor. Although it is unusual for a companion’s admirer to be rebuffed; on the whole if its not the story’s villain, then flirtations are reciprocated. Tegan, however, wants out. Half way through Part Two she asks to go back to the TARDIS, and sit the rest of the story out. “I can’t cope with Marriner,” she wails, and that’s telling enough. Alien spaceships and kidnapped humans are all in a day’s work, but too much unwanted attention from a besotted weirdo? That’s a deal breaker.

Marriner’s meant to be a platonic type of amour, only interested in Tegan for her mind. But the most time he spends with her, the more “ephemeral” his desires seem to get. “Your companion’s a very beautiful woman,” he tells the Doctor in Part Three (“Is she?” he replies offhandedly). And in Part Four he baldly tells her “I want you. Your thoughts should be my thoughts. Your feelings, my feelings.” How far would he go? Perhaps even turn human?

At the story’s end, there’s a hint that Marriner might even give up his Eternal life to be with Tegan. About to be banished back to the Eternal’s echoing void, he pleads to stay and begs Tegan for her help. Tegan’s not having a bar of it; there’s not a hint of fondness in her response: “I can’t”. Never has love for a companion been so unrequited.

But then again, perhaps we’re overlooking something. Marriner was barred entry to Tegan’s bedroom on board the yacht. Even the Doctor has to knock. But ginger ninja Turlough (Mark Strickson) bowls straight in without invitation. It’s a room he finds “quite familiar”. Perhaps he’s spent some time in it before? Ooh-er, hanky panky in the TARDIS.

*****

Turlough also gets a bit of Eternal attention, although he has to throw himself overboard to get it. He’s picked up by the crew of the Buccaneer, captained by the piratical Captain Wrack (Lynda Baron). Wrack’s entrance is a turning point for the story. Up until then, it has been a gentle, dreamy affair. When Wrack enters, via a slow pan from thigh length boots, up to flashy waistcoat barely containing ample cleavage, up to a head full of teeth and curls, we know our villain has finally shown up. With a swipe of a cutlass and a machine gun laugh, she reduces Turlough to crawling prostrate at her feet. She’s the boss, me hearties.

There’s never any hint of romance between Wrack and Turlough, although if there were, it would be of the kinky kind. “You ephemerals have such inventive ways of inflicting pain,” she coos at him at one point, having chained him to a post. Still there must be some appeal there, similar to the one Marriner feels for Tegan. She likes to read Turlough’s “devious” mind. “It’s fascinating,” she says, echoing Marriner’s sentiments. But thankfully she doesn’t repeat his whole ominous following around routine. Let’s face it, if Wrack wanted Turlough she’d simply have him, then and there.

Wrack is a vibrant splash of colour in this story, but she’s ultimately quite disposable. In fact, Enlightenment is more Turlough’s story than anyone else’s. The prize that everyone’s vying for is eventually won by him and the Doctor. The Doctor’s modest enough to turn his reward down, but Turlough’s share of the prize turns out to be the breaking of his pact with the Big Black G. “Enlightenment was not the diamond,” the Doctor explains. “Enlightenment was the choice.” Luckily it’s also a handy petrol bomb, which Turlough gets to hurl at the Black Guardian and he goes up in flames. Now that’s what I call enlightened.

THE TEGAN AND TURLOUGH DEATH WANDER: Faced with an deadly hazard mere footsteps away? Why not try the Wander of Death, like Doctor Who’s friends Tegan and Turlough? Say you’re faced with an floor grille that’s open to space, or a door being forced open by a sea monster, or an excavator driven by a cadaver. Instead of running away, adopt a dazed expression and wander gormlessly towards it! Then become ensnared in or trapped under said hazard and wait to be rescued by the Doctor. Note: this may result in the death of some innocent supporting characters.

LINK TO Robot of Sherwood. Oddly enough, Enlightenment gets named checked by the Doctor in Robot of Sherwood.

NEXT TIME… A dangerous journey… A crisis… Our next stop is a Planet of Giants. But be warned, it’s lost the urge to live!