When I was in short trousers, Season 17 was meant to be the nadir of the show: too silly and packed with dreaded “undergraduate humour” until the blessed JNT came along and swept away the shoddy, slapstick stories that ‘insulted the audience’ (according to Eric Saward) and returned the show to its glory days (overlooking the fact JNT was practically co-producing Season 17). The reappraisal that’s been going on since the mid-1990s means most fans won’t come to Season 17 with this preconception (and probably won’t even be aware that it used to be a thing), but as it was received wisdom at an early age, I always view Season 17 episodes with the knowledge that this used to be hated.
In a roundabout way, that brings me to Nightmare of Eden – Part Four, which contains one of the most derided scenes. It’s the one where the Doctor suddenly turns into the Pied Piper, leads the Mandrels in a conga into the CET machine, then runs back and forth as they chase him before vanishing into the bushes and emerging with his coat ripped up (but otherwise unharmed). And it’s the very first time this season when I have to concede that, maybe, this is a bit self-indulgent. All the other scenes that got the old fans’ blood boiling, like the Teach Yourself Tibetan bit in The Creature from the Pit, I’ve found either harmless or actually quite fun and entertaining. But this is all done with such half-heartedness that I don’t think it works. I think it’s because Barry Andrews, Geoffrey Hinsliff and Peter Craze stand about looking bored as Tom ambles round, sapping any sense out of the scene and making it look like three actors who’ve had enough of the leading man’s antics over the past month and just want to go home. At least it’s not disastrous – by this point the plot is pretty much done, and this is just a jokey addendum. And kids probably loved it, anyway.
That’s the bit I didn’t like out of the way. Luckily, the rest of it is largely very good. I enjoyed Fisk turning his bureaucratic ire onto Dymond; Romana’s heart-to-heart with Della; the Doctor telling K9 to ‘put your leads on’, and the cleverness of the drug smuggling plan (transferring the CET scan of Eden between the Empress and the Hecate). The Doctor’s reversal of their plan, trapping them in the CET and delivering them to the space police, is inspired, and his curt dismissal of Tryst is rightly noted. The model work is up to the strong production standard of Season 17, including a very well-done scene of a shuttle landing in the Hecate’s hangar bay.
Overall, I like Nightmare of Eden a lot. It has a strong story that’s intricate without becoming convoluted, and which ties together satisfyingly neatly, like any good pastiche of detective fiction. It’s the best Bob Baker script. It’s clearly let down largely by the direction, which results in a lack of energy and pace (fatal when you’re trying to pull off physical comedy like the Pied Piper scene), and some shots that just don’t work (here, it’s the Doctor hiding in outrageously plain sight in Dymond’s shuttle). Like most of Season 17, it’s still very underrated: the entire RTD run owes a huge debt to this deft balance of issues, light wit, love and monsters.
Next episode: The Horns of Nimon