Again, it’s not exactly moving at top speed, but there’s a steady sense of progress and development, with a couple of great surprises. The first is when Stott is revealed to be neither dead nor villainous. Previous episodes have clued us in that this is another Agatha Christie in Space thriller, and any Christie fan will know never to believe someone is dead when there’s no body. It’s also very Christie-ish to reveal that, far from being the drug smuggler behind this all, in fact Stott is a major in the Space Corps investigating a new source of vrax on the planet Eden.
This one could do with a little bit more incident, but the story is moving along. The major difference from Baker’s collaborations with Martin is the lack of an obvious catchphrase, and the relatively disciplined number of ideas. The three distinct plot strands – the drug smuggling, the Continuous Event Transmuter and the hyperspace collision – are clearly connected, with a mysterious stranger running through all of them hotly pursued by the Doctor.
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…
It’s been pointed out elsewhere that the problem with this episode is that Adrasta is croaked about five minutes in, and the rest is an extended epilogue. I see that this isn’t structurally very elegant, but I quite like the novelty of watching a new order rise on Chloris. Normally, the Doctor defeats the baddie and leaves; in this, he sticks about to help clear away the remnants of Adrasta’s tyranny. The un-named Huntsman is a surprising choice to be new world leader, but in a post-Game of Thrones world anything seems plausible.
I enjoyed how this is basically a pastiche of the classic Star Trek episode Devil in the Dark right down to the Doctor attempting to communicate telepathically, Spock-style, the monster carving a message in the rock, and the discovery of bits of shell. It’s almost shameless. Where it differs is in the incidental characters, which are a lot more colourful (/borderline anti-semitic) than any in Star Trek. And the fact that (as far as I recall) Spock doesn’t attempt fellatio on the Horta.
‘Don’t interrupt dear,’ says Lady Adrasta with brilliant condescension. Later, she gives Romana a slap. After City of Death, this feels like a conscious effort to put Romana up against villainous women to confound their expectations. Romana’s usefulness as a character is obvious, as she gets to do all the clever stuff freeing the Doctor up to plunge into the pit to discover the creature (although her escape attempt is a bit rubbish). With Leela, you’d have to either do this the other way round, or have greater reliance on K9’s intelligence. K9 himself is the one made a bit redundant by all this: he’s become the brawn; the Leela with a Janis thorn; the tin dog in this thruple. He wasn’t really missed in the last two stories and is almost entirely reduced to being a prop/dog-shaped gun in this episode.
This one ends with my favourite cliffhanger yet. The tyrannical Lady Adrasta, ruler of the planet Chloris, has had one of her hapless minions hurled into ‘the pit’, which conceals some horrible, unseen monster, as a warning to the Doctor of what happens to those who disappoint her. Romana arrives with K9 to rescue the Doctor, but K9 is overcome by Adrasta’s wolf-weeds, and the Doctor gives Romana a sad pat on the arm before suddenly and unexpectedly leaping into the pit. Not only is this about a hundred times more shocking and interesting than the Doctor being thrown down the pit, or being dragged in, but it’s the kind of twist I really enjoy (the audience isn’t just left wondering how he’ll get out of it, but why he got into it in the first place).
Having worked out what Scaroth is up to, this final episode sees the Doctor comprehensively dismantle both the Count’s carefully-constructed façade, and Scaroth’s 400 million year plan to alter the course of time. Tom Baker plays this like Poirot brilliantly foiling the villain: the tomfoolery is largely put aside and instead the Doctor shows off his keen insight and wisdom as he unpicks the Countess’ ‘discretion and charm’ and in a few moments playing on her doubts about her husband to the point where she’s ready to pull a gun on the Count. Then, for desserts, he confronts Scaroth himself.
Again, this is mostly exposition rather than action. Again, when the exposition is done this wittily and this well, it barely matters (although I still wonder what the eight-year-olds in the audience made of it). If any of the main performances were sub-par, this wouldn’t work as well. But Julian Glover is excellent, doing his best Olivier Richard III as he confronts the Doctor in 1505; being the perfect host to Romana in 1979. Like Kevin Stoney’s classic villains, Scaroth is willing to play along with the jokes providing he’s getting what he wants, but kills without hesitation when the joke wears thin. Tancredi’s, ‘You can write, can’t you?’ and Scarlioni’s twinkling smile as the Professor is aged to death are brilliantly horrid.
I love how this episode is nearly all exposition, but it’s more entertaining than all the running around quarries in Destiny of the Daleks. While the Count and Countess act like they’re in Hustle and explain their clever plan to pinch the Mona Lisa, the Doctor gets locked in a cellar but still manages to learn about the Count’s time experiments and uncovers six copies of Leonardo’s masterpiece before he escapes. It’s then a short hop back to the Renaissance for another twist cliffhanger (I like these a lot better than the normal “Dr Who is about to be exterminated!” ones). Last time it was “The Count is a monster!” this time it’s “The Count is a time traveller!”