Often maligned for its cheesy monsters and poor special effects, the 1970 Doctor Who story Nightmare of Eden makes its way to DVD courtesy of the BBC. This Tom Baker story isn't nearly as bad as some fans make it out to be. While the creatures and processed shots are far from perfect, they're not all that horrible (for Doctor Who) and the story is has a lot going for it including a fun mystery, some great bureaucratic foils, and a tight story that moves at a good clip. Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame) was story editor at this time, so Tom Baker has some humorous lines that he relishes delivering, but if you don't mind a little bit of over-the-top comedy thrown in for the children watching (and they were the target audience) that works more often than it doesn't this is a pretty solid episode.
The Doctor and Romana land on the large luxury space ship Empress soon after it gets into an accident with another vessel, a small cargo vessel, The Hectate. Instead of crashing into each other however, The Hectate has managed to partially materialize inside the Empress, causing a region of special instability. The Doctor is pretty sure he can separate the two crafts if he can get to the power center on Empress, but that's blocked by the other partially materialized ship.
While attempting to come up with a Plan B, The Doctor is introduced to a scientist on board the ship, Professor Tryst (who comes complete with a laughable German (?) accent). He's been traveling around the galaxy cataloging and preserving examples of all the various life forms in a machine he's created, the Continual Event Transmuter, or CET for short. This device is able to take a section of a planet and record the entire ecosystem, life forms and all, on a crystal. Researchers can then access the different planets and study the creatures in their natural environment whenever they want. Though The Doctor seems impressed, Romana claims the machine is a faulty prototype at best and points out some significant flaws in the design.
There are more problems that just separating the ships however. The navigator on Empress starts acting strangely and walks into one of the special instabilities where he's attacked by a savage beast, a Mandrel, and killed. What's worse is that he was on Vraxoin, a deadly and very addictive drug that is so horrible; it's wiped out entire planets. The only source of the drug was eradicated, and that was supposed to be the end of it, but it seems that someone has discovered another source and is set on distributing it.
There are a few things that don't work well in this story, but a lot that does. On the bad side are the special effects. Yes, they're lousy and some of the people that created them claim that the reason the processed shots appear so lame and the space ships look like the models that they are is because these parts were recorded on video tape to save money instead of film. While I agree that they would have looked significantly better on film, and the models are well made and detailed, I don't think shooting on film would have improved things significantly. Let's admit it: the SFX from this era of Doctor Who always look pretty cheesy.
The Mandrel costumes are also a source of embarrassment for Doctor Who fans. They're stiff and garish and it's hard for the actors to appear menacing in them, especially when they can't really bend their arms. Of course, that general critique applies to a large percentage of classic Doctor Who creatures (look at the Nimon in the next episode, The Horns of Nimon. The Mandrel at least look like someone went to some effort. The Nimon is a guy in a black spandex suit with a paper-mache mask plopped onto his head. But I digress...). This isn't horrifically bad, and they even appear somewhat menacing when viewed in the darker light of the
Aside from that, this adventure isn't that bad. The story is filled with ideas and subplots but never gets convoluted or too messy, which is a trick that they haven't always been able to pull off. In addition to the problem with the ships and the drug smuggling, The Doctor has to worry about where the Mandrels are coming from, what the source of the Vraxoin actually is, who the mysterious man who shot him is and what he wants, and on top of all of that he has to avoid the officious police officers who want to arrest him, kill him, and them blame all of the problems on their dead prisoner so they can get promotions. It's a full script for only four episodes and these competing plots manage to come together quite nicely.
Tom Baker is very good in this adventure. He get to ham it up a bit but never goes over the top (okay, he does once...) and a lot of the lines are pretty funny. I especially enjoyed how they get themselves into this mess in the first place. When they first land, Romana opines that they shouldn't interfere with what's going on. The Doctor replies "Interfere? Of course we should interfere! Always do what you're best at, that's what I say. Now come on" and they're off.
The one complaint I do have, and it's a minor one, is that the CET Machine is basically the same as the Miniscope from Carnival of Monsters. In that episode The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) railed against the inhumanity of trapping creatures in the machine and even goes so far as to recount how he was responsible for getting the Time Lords to ban them. Here he just gives a *tisk tisk* to Tryst and doesn't seem to worry about it.
The mono soundtrack has been cleaned up and is very good. It is nice and clear with no hiss or background noise to take away from the story. Being a mono track, there's really not much more to say about it.
The full frame video has been cleaned up by the Restoration Team and it looks good. The colors are solid though out and the level of detail is decent. The image is sharp, with a lot of definition so Who fans are sure to be pleased.
As always, this Doctor Who DVD has some decent extras. First off is a commentary track with actors Lalla Ward and Peter Craze, writer Bob Baker, effects designer Colin Mapson and make-up designer Joan Stribling. It's all moderated by Toby Hadoke. The group seems to have a good time talking about this episode, and they spend a fair amount of time criticizing the way the special effects were handled (referring to the Mandrels as "Abba rejects") and relate some interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes. It is well worth listening to.
The video extras start off with The Nightmare of Television Centre (13 min.) a short look behind the scenes of what went wrong with the production. Apparently everything especially with director Alan Bromly who had such a contentious time with the cast and crew that he walked off the set and quit in the middle of a shooting day (he permanently retired soon afterwards). Producer Graham Williams took over the direction duties but was uncredited. There's no love lost for the special effects (shot on tape rather than film as had been the norm up to that point) or the harsh lighting in most of the scene which makes the Mandrels look even worse than they normally would. It sounded like a thoroughly unpleasant experience.
Going Solo (7 min.) has writer Bob Baker discussing his script, the only Doctor Who story he wrote without his writing partner Dave Martin, and The Doctor's Strange Love (15 minutes) is another featurette involving fans Simon Gurrier, Josie Longand and Joe Lidster. I've grown to enjoy these segments, though this is only the second one I've seen. Yes, they're geeky fans reminiscing about an episode, but these are the type of people you'd like to sit down and watch the show with. They don't revere every aspect and are very willing to laugh at the silly bits. (I especially enjoyed Josie's impersonation of Tryst.) They also make some pithy observations about the adventure. It's a nice bit that could have come off as really stupid. The main bonus items are wrapped up with a nice segment from the kids's show Ask Aspel in which Lala Ward answers some questions put to her by the children who watch the show. I enjoyed it, and didn't realize that Lala was the daughter of a Viscount and entitled to be addressed officially as "The Honourable."
In addition there is an 'info-text' option for each story. This is something that the other Who releases have and I'm a big fan of them. This pop-up text options allows viewers to read about the shooting schedule, changes between various story incarnations and the final version and learn about the history of the supporting actors. It's well worth watching, though it can be distracting so watch the story without it once. The extras are wrapped up with a photo gallery and the usual Radio Times listings.
Not nearly as bad as some remember it, Nightmare of Eden is a solid, decent Doctor Who adventure despite the cheesy monsters. It's not the greatest serial, but it's certainly better than its reputation. Go ahead and check it out. It comes Recommended.