Doctor Who episode 518: Nightmare of Eden – Part One (24/11/1979)
Bob Baker is the BAFTA-winning co-writer of Wallace & Gromit: an accolade that might be hard to square with The Sontaran Experiment or The Armageddon Factor, but absolutely makes sense watching Nightmare of Eden. I really like this: it has a seriousness about what it does, but not necessarily the way it does it. The anti-drug message is plainly set out: XYP, aka vraxoin, can lay waste to civilisations. Its teeth-grindingly irritating effects are established in the first scene, as Secker, made idiotic by vraxoin, giggles as he risks the lives of everyone aboard his spaceship. Never have I been happier to see someone meet a grisly end. It might unfair to suggest the show hasn’t worn its social conscience on its sleeve quite so plainly since the Pertwee years, but…
This could have turned into an earnest piece. It isn’t. The script subverts grand space opera with its focus on government subsidies, compensation, insurance and the ‘galactic recession’. This is more attuned to the concerns of The Sun Makers than The Star Wars; the interest in the unchanging, niggling ordinariness of life is exactly what I enjoy in a lot of Russell T Davies scripts (particularly Gridlock, which is Nightmare of Eden’s spiritual twin). The writing is amusing without being packed with gags (although ‘Of course we should interfere. Always do what you’re best at’ and ‘He just likes to irritate people’ are great one liners). The designers pick up on some of the implications, and make the Empress look exactly like what it is – a cross-channel ferry in space (it does the ‘Station Nine to Azure, Azure to Station Nine’ run), complete with the budget luxury First Class lounge and corridors that look like the ones on a Stena Sealink.
Some of the performances are less impressive. Lewis Fiander plays Tryst as the Son of Zaroff, with an accent that could be Dutch, South African or anywhere in between. Maybe this is who Douglas Adams had in mind when he was talking about people playing for laughs. There are also a lot of direct-to-camera moments, which makes sense when it’s Rigg looking at his monitor, but less so when it’s a random crewman talking direct to the audience (I guess it was their only real chance to show off “pop star” Richard Barnes).
Next episode: Nightmare of Eden – Part Two