|A frame from the recording of the commentary track|
News is relatively quiet. Some particularly bad fires in Victoria and South Australia, a multiple homicide in the robbery of the Wah Mee gambling club in Seattle, and the Environmental Protection Agency announces plans to completely and permanently evacuate Times Beach in Missouri due to an excessive amount of deadly poison in the soil.
While on television, Terminus. There was, in the drawer of VHS tapes that constituted the initial guiding principles of my Doctor Who fandom, a tape on which the words “Terminus” and Enlightenment” were written and crossed out. The tape now contained a track meet. This is one of several standing grievances between my parents and me, along with my not being allowed to trick or treat when I was a child and their failure to buy a life-size Dalek when they had the opportunity. Some day I will put them in homes and laugh at them.
The result of this is that when I finally got my hands on a copy of Terminus I was positively chomping at the bit to watch it. The fact that I remembered virtually nothing about it going into rewatching it for the blog, then, was a bit unnerving. As I’ve noted, there are few worse omens when talking about a Doctor Who story than to say that it was forgettable as a child.
And this is doubly true of the Nathan-Turner era. Every era of Doctor Who has its poor stories. The realities of BBC production mean that sometimes Doctor Who has no choice but to go to air with a story that self-evidently sucks. And there’s an inverted history of Doctor Who from the one we’ve usually followed, in which eras are described and understood by the best of what they strove for. We could instead ask what various eras do when it’s clear they have a turkey on their hands. And it is, in many ways, just as revealing as the optimistic history of the show. Verity Lambert, for instance, tries with a sort of manic desperation to do something interesting. The Lloyd/Bryant/Sherwin era just grimly grinds out the story figuring that the audience doesn’t actually care what’s on screen, leaving Patrick Troughton to shout “oh my word” a lot. The Pertwee era tries desperately to avoid ever making a turkey, slowly sacrificing quality at the altar of not fucking up until they make a horrific string of turkeys as a result. The Hinchcliffe era maintains reasonable production standards throughout, and its turkeys are defined almost entirely by whether or not Robert Holmes could be bothered to even try to fix the script. And the Williams era just dials up the charm in a frantic effort to salvage script after script that goes wrong.
The John Nathan-Turner era, on the other hand, has just about the most depressive relationship with its own failures imaginable. Whereas the Williams era, for the most part, is spurred into action when it’s clear that circumstances are conspiring against them, the Nathan-Turner era goes into the grimmest sort of autopilot imaginable, essentially just depressedly going “right, we’re doing a poorly made runaround on a generic space station and we really don’t care.” With Nathan-Turner himself never moving out of the first stage of grief and just grinning maniacally as he insists that the story worked and was good and the memory cheats and please please love me.
What makes this really weird, though, is that for most of the Nathan-Turner era this process is almost but not quite entirely unrelated to the quality of the script. The Nathan-Turner era will periodically go to the mattresses trying to make a classic out of a story with a script that is never going to make one and, equally, will occasionally just decline to lift a finger to help a brilliant script. Which brings us to Terminus, which is tedious, poorly made, clearly as boring to everybody in it as it is to anybody watching it, and by one of the best writers to work on the classic series. Perhaps the most shocking thing, when watching Terminus, is trying to figure out how this could come from the pen of the man who’d written Warriors Gate, and who is one of a handful of classic series Doctor Who writers to have a writing career that spans functionally into the present day. The answer, of course, is that it didn’t. What this story appears to be is not at all what is actually going on in the script.
Lawrence Miles, defender of the Davison era that he is in About Time, gives the start of an explanation, which is that this is meant to be Wagnerian space opera. This is not, in and of itself, a winning concept, but it’s at least an intriguing one. Miles suggests that the story should have been played entirely in sweeping, epic gestures, with everything overplayed and shouted thunderously, preferably made with a cast consisting of an endless sequence of clones of Brian Blessed.
It’s a start, certainly, but only a start. Miles’s vision of what this story could have been is intriguing, and it’s certainly true that there are occasional flashes of that sort of epic glory. The skull image that appears within the TARDIS to provide Nyssa her way off the ship is one of the most chilling images in the series, and the crowd of Lazars clawing and milling around everybody is one of the best efforts at straight scares since the Hinchcliffe era, although let’s be fair, that is a relatively small pool to be swimming in, and has Mandrels in it.
Equally, it’s true that the things that fall short of the epic fall short with an unfortunate vigor. The degree to which the Vanir are bored middle-aged men arguing with each other is deeply unfortunate, as is the failure to choreograph any of the fight scenes with even a modicum of quality. And it’s tough to muster any love for the casting of the space raiders, who are so 1980s that it causes physical pain even if you’re enormously fond of the decade, as I am. It’s also frustrating that Nyssa is left to simper and be abused through so much of the story, again in a story that was ostensibly meant to focus on her. Tegan and Turlough spend the majority of it crawling around in ducts, but for all that she actually does in the story Nyssa might as well have been there too. Her actual departure is handled with pleasant dignity, but as usual Sutton mostly demonstrates how frustratingly wasted she was on the part, and thank god for Big Finish so that we have an idea of just how much that’s true. All three companions seem to shrink in the face of the story just as much as the story’s supporting cast does. But Miles’s account isn’t the full account of it either.
Still, let’s start with what Miles does say and is right about and build off of it. At the heart of this story is a sense of cyclical cosmology built on the idea of ancient orders of things that have survived in partial forms. Miles makes much out of a concept that is elided in the televised version, which is that the space ship is a relic from a previous universe whose destruction brought about the creation of our universe. In this reading the end solution of the Garm managing to hold back the lever and reverse the explosion is not, as it initially appears, just about a superstrong wolfman. It’s about the idea that only something from the old universe can properly interact with the ship. It’s not supposed to just be a question of strength, but of a sort of narrative teleology - the fact that the old universe has its own rules separate from our universe.
It is worth reflecting, then, on the Doctor’s role in this. Unlike Warrior’s Gate, it is not true that his role is one of strategic inaction. But it’s also true that the Doctor does relatively little here. This is, of course, not that unusual for Doctor Who, where the plot often consists of the Doctor figuring things out so that other people can do things. But it’s still worth making the exact format of this within Terminus explicit. The Doctor is a wandering outsider who gains knowledge about the fundamental workings of the universe and uses it to preserve the order of things. Within the Norse context of the story at large, the correct term for this person is “Odin.”
I mention this because there’s a train of thought that really peaks in the late McCoy era and into the New Adventures (particularly those written by Paul Cornell) in which the Doctor becomes an overtly Odinic figure. It is an interesting role to cast the Doctor in. Certainly Odin is a mercurial figure - indeed, he’s rather unique as gods go in that he is at once a martial, patriarchal figure and, for the most part, a trickster archetype. He is still defined first and foremost by cleverness and an ability to outfox people. And he is in many ways a natural fit with the idea of the Time Lords, particularly those of The Deadly Assassin. His ravens, after all, are named thought and memory.
There is an important transformation that happens here - a sort of steady refocusing of the lens of the series made necessary by time. Early on the Doctor is most visibly allied with some form of Hermes. But as he becomes increasingly entrenched in culture this changes. (Indeed, one theory, admittedly based largely on Tacitus making shit up, casts Odin as being derived from Mercury. But even this fraudulent theory carries some potency - a sense of the Roman pantheon slitting its own throat in a desperate bid to evolve into something weirder.) Even as the actors playing him and his superficial tropes become progressively younger he gets played as an older and older figure. Hartnell may be the most “old man” Doctor, but he plays the Doctor as a sort of giddily mercurial patrician. Davison, on the other hand, plays him as a weary young adventurer.
But more to the point, when the program is facing its twentieth anniversary there is an extent to which the Doctor cannot help but be a figure of the establishment. Once you’re the longest-running science fiction show in the world you are, in a necessary sense, an institution and a part of the establishment. That doesn’t mean that the Doctor has to abandon his sense of the anarchic. But it requires a change. To some extent this has been lurking since the Pertwee era, as the Doctor has become increasingly sage. It’s not until the 1970s that it becomes the norm for the Doctor to know a lot about a given situation before he arrives and to be able to rattle off extensive facts about settings off the top of his head. Indeed one of the interesting things about Davison’s Doctor is that this sort of extensive foreknowledge is temporarily and partially stripped away again (particularly in the two Bailey stories, which overtly hinge on the Doctor’s lack of knowledge in a way that would never have happened in the Baker era).
But Davison’s Doctor, equally, is not a return to the Hartnell/Troughton mould. He may be without extensive knowledge, but he’s also wearied in a way that Troughton never was and Hartnell rarely was. And if one extends the scope out from Davison, treating him as the model for future Doctors (and it’s fair, I think, to say that his approach defines how at least five of his six successors play the part), he rapidly starts to look like a reconceptualization of the Doctor as an Odinic figure instead of a Hermetic one. In Davison he is overtly a “young” Odin - the wandering figure gathering wisdom and knowledge. But this merely prefigures the more explicitly Odinic natures of McCoy and all three of the new series Doctors. And Terminus, spiritually, marks that transition point.
But Terminus, as written, has depths beyond what Miles points at. Yes, it’s Norse space opera, but that’s just a cool style. Oddly prescient in its casting of the Doctor, yes, but on its own it’s not entirely functional without slathering of “sentient metafiction” more liberal than even I’m eager to lay down. It’s enough, perhaps, to elevate it to Time Monster territory - brilliant ideas that just go terribly, terribly wrong. But there’s a second layer to Terminus that Miles doesn’t pick up on.
The clue actually comes in something Tat Wood points out when he snarks about Saward’s tin ear for dialogue, complaining about how the line “do they think we’re stupid or something” got changed to “they must think us fools!” It’s a poor rewrite, to be sure, but the most striking thing about it is that it does actually completely meet Miles’s assertion that everything is supposed to be overplayed as if by Brian Blessed. What’s more telling, though, is what it replaces - a line of frustration that is framed and played as working class employees grousing angrily.
This is something Gallagher has played with before. Warrior’s Gate also featured a spaceship crew that was visibly coded as working class. But that was under Bidmead, and now we’re under Saward, who scuppered a script by Pat Mills in part because Mills wanted to do the story with a visibly working class captain whereas Saward wanted to portray only classless futures. So all of the class issues that Gallagher put into the script are systematically removed. The Vanir were, in the original conception, working class gods. On the one hand given names of Norse myth and made to stride around in armor and on the other hand tired, worn out, and screwed over wage slaves. This cuts right to the core of them as designed. They’re literally living paycheck to paycheck - actual wage slaves dependent on the Terminus Corporation’s shipments of Hydromel to survive. They have no choice but to work, and the need for them to do their work obliges them to be completely blind to the needs of the sick people in their care.
Likewise the Garm turns out to be a wage slave from a previous universe, bound into servitude and finally set free from his wage slavery when he saves the universe by waking up and doing something for the sake of it instead of because he’s ordered to. Or, to put it in blunter political terms, the Garm attains class consciousness and is freed by it, thus facilitating the subsequent freeing of the Vanir. The cyclical structure of mythic history is explicitly wedded, in other words, to a sort of Marxist dialectic of history. Only Saward, in his infinite wisdom, preferred a depiction of a classless future and took it all out.