When I first watched Terminus I hated it. Subsequently I have re-watched it a few times, with a kind of nagging feeling that there is a good story in there somewhere and I must be missing something, but I still can’t warm to it. As a child it seemed distasteful and a bit disturbing; it’s hard to love a story that has a whole load of diseased people walking around. As an adult it just seems woefully slow.
Part of the problem is that it is the middle story of a trilogy. Mawdryn Undead established the deal between Turlough and the Black Guardian. Enlightenment will resolve the plot. Terminus just plays a delaying game, keeping Turlough separate from the Doctor because the script has nowhere to go with that. So Turlough is stuck in ventilation shafts for virtually the whole story, and Tegan is there for good measure so he has somebody to talk to. So much for the story arc, which therefore goes nowhere. The only saving grace with those scenes is it does allow for something approaching character development, which is relatively rare in the Classic Series, with Tegan gradually coming to accept Turlough, or at least come close to accepting him. Let’s just say she ends up not hating him quite as much as she did at the start.
Terminus is one of those Doctor Who stories that starts brilliantly and then becomes a crushing disappointment. There are quite a few of those, peppered through Doctor Who’s history. The threat to the TARDIS feels genuinely very dangerous, and the TARDIS becoming a door in a wall is a novelty. I would say it is a call back to Shada, except for the fact that it was unfinished and unseen at this point. The skull imagery is very creepy, as is the Vanir armour, until it becomes unintentionally amusing because it restricts their movement so much.
But then it all turns into a story about disease, which is pretty grim. Nobody dies, but we are used to death in Doctor Who, so putting sickness on screen is actually a lot more troubling to the viewers than people getting shot. We’re just not used to it, and it has a realism that can seem troubling to a child. In fact, it’s much easier to get scared by catching a horrible illness than getting exterminated by a Dalek for example, because only one of these things can happen to a child viewer in real life. Nyssa getting infected makes this all even more troubling, and it is also sad to see the way the character is treated in her final story. She has one useful thing to do in the whole story, and up until that point she is an objectified victim.
But to get back to that nagging feeling that there is a good story in there, we do actually have an interesting theme of people getting stuck in a rut and needing to break away from the ties that bind them. The Vanir are held in place by their need for hydromel. The Lazars are trapped on Terminus because of their infection. The raiders are stranded. The Garm is stuck where he is. The TARDIS is physically attached to Terminus. Nyssa spends a lot of the story locked up, and Tegan and Turlough are stuck crawling around ventilation shafts. The whole story is stuck in the middle of a trilogy and can’t do anything because it is neither the beginning or the end. It is all quite coherent and works well, but there is an obvious problem with having this kind of theme: by its very nature it has to make for a very static story, until everyone gets themselves unstuck at the end. “Terminus” means “the ending”, but ironically this is the one Doctor Who story that is cursed by being the very definition of a middle. RP
The view from across the pond:
It has got to be said that this is Nyssa’s episode. So, here’s to Nyssa and Sarah Sutton: a character that was never utilized as well as she should have been, played by a genuinely wonderful actress who added so much to the show! With that, Terminus…
Coming off the high that was Mawdryn Undead, Terminus left me with mixed feelings. First of all, I had just met the TARDIS crew of Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough. Losing the one that seemed to have the best written character was a disappointment. Turlough was a plotter and untrustworthy. Tegan was… well, I had not really established my feelings on her yet. But in Nyssa we had the one other scientist besides the Doctor and she was leaving. To serve on a plague ship no less. Jumping forward in time to the series reboot, when a character left, there was typically a strong reason. Rose was stuck in another universe, Martha was tired of unrequited love and Donna would have burned out and died had she stuck around, to name a few reasons. Nyssa of Traken, the scientist, the one who was open-minded and curious and not tethered to feelings of unrequited love… left to help people who were dying. Altruism aside, the one attitude we can applaud, it wasn’t as though she could really do much for these people. Here, we found the cure in a massive burst of radiation. Irradiate yourselves for 10 minutes a day and you’ll be right as rain! Instead, she decides to stay. Look, I’m a bit of a germ freak; maybe for me it’s that I felt I was going to get a cold just watching all these sick people. To stay on board was crazy. But away she goes! The only possible consideration was the giant dog, the Garm. Maybe she always wanted a pet dog and, considering he would not fit through the TARDIS doors, left to finally play catch with a big canine. Who knows!
Then there’s that whole big bang thing! We’re lead to believe this ship is at the heart of the explosion that created all life in the universe. But, like Atlantis, we’ve been here already when there wasn’t a bloody great ship at the heart of it all. Castrovalva and The Edge of Destruction both featured the Big Bang. So which is it? And was there a Chronovore involved? Furthermore, the Big Bang is generally considered the start of everything, so who were these people, where did they come from and where were they going that caused it all, sickness included?? What could have been an epic meeting of beings from outside of time, ends up being a convoluted plot surrounding a bunch of sick people. Wibbly wobbly? Maybe we can accept that but Blink made sense in the end. Terminus… not so much! And the potential for this epic race of beings is not only ignored; it doesn’t even seem to be a thought in anyone’s mind! Why?
Tegan and Turlough are basically potted plants throughout the story. Writer Steve Gallagher doesn’t seem to have planned for a crew of four and wrote as if two of them were background characters at best. And the 2nd part of the Guardian Trilogy really doesn’t further their story at all either. Like the Key to Time, it’s a loose set of ideas to link some stories together. At least at this point. Unlike the Key to Time, the final part really does focus heavily on the linking story, but that’s tomorrow’s review!
But here’s a bit of irony: it’s a dark story about plagues, death and destruction… and no one dies! Hard to believe, I know! Instead, a Massive Dose of Radiation can cure people from the disease. But consult a physician before using. Possible side effects include confusion, irritability, and the need to disrobe as one walks through the corridors. Why did Nyssa feel the need to disrobe? No idea. I’m not complaining, but it seems rather unexpected. When the Doctor did it in Castrovalva, he was doing it to leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Nyssa seems to do it out of… confusion? The kindness of her heart? A sudden change in fashion sense? Remember, stop taking Massive Dose of Radiation (MDR) if you continue to experience these effects, especially while at work as it may cause a situation…
The entire story left me thinking Mawdryn Undead was going to be the highlight story for this Doctor and that I had just gotten lucky with my first story for Peter Davison. While Mawdryn is still a favorite of mine, I’m pleased to say that Davison’s Doctor did get a host of other strong stories. Sadly Terminus did not make the grade… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Enlightenment