Season 17 has been big on ideas, and following on from a story that was a mashup of issues of capitalism and Greek mythology we have an anti-drugs parable where worlds collide. To tackle drug addiction in Doctor Who in any shape or form is a brave move, but to do it so directly without any kind of a veil of metaphor is about as daring as Doctor Who gets. There was only really one way to do that which wouldn’t result in everyone involved getting sacked, and that was to straightforwardly and uncomplicatedly tell a story about drugs being bad. For a family show that’s the only sensible message, so I’m very much in favour of what Nightmare of Eden is attempting, despite there being nothing inherently interesting about a story that says “don’t do drugs” and little beyond that. The Doctor has to be anti-vraxoin, and therefore he has seen its effects before:
It’s the worst. I’ve seen whole planets ravaged by it while the merchants made fortunes.
Ultimately the Doctor has to be firmly against that, just like he fights against any other form of exploitation for the sake of financial gain. And the “ends justify the means” argument doesn’t hold any water either:
TRYST: Doctor! Doctor, I didn’t want to be involved in all this. Tell them. Tell them that I only did it for the sake of funding my research. You understand all this. You’re a scientist.
DOCTOR: Go away.
DOCTOR: Go away.
But what makes this such a remarkably adult story is not just the theme of drugs, but the fact that the drug is extracted from the corpses of Mandrels. It’s extraordinarily bleak.
This bleakness has to be tempered with comedy and there’s plenty of that as well. Unfortunately by this point in the series Tom was an uncontrollable force. Mainly that came from a good place, similar to the problems experienced with Hartnell towards the end of his run. Both Hartnell and Baker cared deeply about the role they were playing, and would not happily stand by and accept shoddy work from other people, whether that be problems with scripts, direction or anything else. On this occasion, with the director walking out mid shoot, the end result was an uneven performance from Baker, including one scene that is so ridiculous that it reminds me exactly why I can’t stand pantomimes:
Ah. Oh gosh, oh lord, oh Doctor… Steady, steady. This way. Not that way! This. Oh! Oh! Oh, my fingers, my arms, my legs! Ah! My everything! Argh!
Luckily this is an isolated incident, and when the humour is less broad it works well.
RIGG: And what in the name of the suns is it doing on board the ship? First a collision, then a dead navigator, and now a monster roaming about my ship! It’s totally inexplicable.
DOCTOR: Nothing’s inexplicable.
RIGG: Then explain it!
DOCTOR: It’s inexplicable.
There is also a lot of interesting stuff going on with the collision of different worlds. To some extent the CET machine is a rerun of the miniscope from Carnival of Monsters, but there is a significant difference. The world of the miniscope was isolated and distinct, but the CET machine is much more like a magic door gone wrong, as if the wardrobe to Narnia suddenly started working in both directions, or the Queen of Hearts climbed up the rabbit hole and invaded the real world. That’s the thing with magic doors in fiction: they’re only supposed to let people through in one direction. That’s why it always comes as such a shock when anything gets into the TARDIS. It’s a magic door for the Doctor and his companions to go to different world, but the monsters aren’t supposed to go through the magic door into the safe realm of the Doctor and his friends. Nightmare of Eden takes a magic door concept and then has it work both ways, with the monsters invading from the magical world and the boundaries between worlds collapsing. It’s a clever response to the vraxoin plot. The magic door has been used for a twisted purpose, something is being plundered from the other realm for financial gain, and there has to be consequences. Muppet monsters from Narnia invading through a broken wardrobe because their corpses are being used as drugs: only on Doctor Who. RP
The view from across the pond:
I need to confess: Star Trek was my gateway drug for Science Fiction. I was young, too. My parents said I was about 3 when I started watching it. Roddenberry had a great idea which I was nowhere near understanding at 3, but picked up later in life: you could tell a good story through science fiction without sounding preachy. In fact, you could tell a really good adventure with action and comedy and drama… and still manage to get a good message out there to the audience, sort of “under the radar”. Then there was He-Man, which also had good messages built into it. They were a little more preachy, but came at the end of the cartoon. I recall Orko and Man-At-Arms discussing the “important lesson” from that day’s adventure. By my reckoning, that’s what made science fiction better than other genres: you could tell a good story and have a message for the audience. Kind of like making a kid eat something they don’t want, like vitamins; if you make it more palatable, the kid doesn’t mind it.
When Doctor Who had is foray into the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, in Planet of Evil, I speculated that perhaps the effect of the antimatter on Dr. Sorensen was similar to the effects of alcohol use. I also stated that I doubted that was the intent of the story but it made for some interesting debate. Unlike the early Baker classic, I don’t think I can say the same for Nightmare of Eden. I think that was absolutely intended as a strong anti-drug message. And I think it did something very right when it told this story.
Before I get to that, there are things about Nightmare of Eden that need to be commented on briefly. Most notable, the miniscope from Carnival of Monsters. The CET machine is nothing short of the Miniscope: it scoops up sections of a planet and can move them around. Cool idea, if repeated from the earlier years. I was also extremely fond of the idea that two ships might collide in space but thanks to hyperspace tech, they manage to get stuck together. It offered a weird way to jump between locales. And one has to appreciate the species, these Mandrels, that are actually the source of the drug. (A bit “species 456” from Torchwood: Children of Earth if you ask me, but I can accept that; when you’ve got good material, use it!)
But what made this story really strong wasn’t the “drugs are bad” message because most of us have had that idea beaten into our heads since we were kids. It was more subtle than that. It was the pusher. We’re not introduced to drugs by a dude in a dark alley, wearing a trench coat with the collars turned up, wearing gloves, glasses and using a voice modulator. People would never get hooked, because we’d be terrified of that guy. People are introduced to it by someone that actually like. Tryst, who is incredibly likable throughout the entire story until we find out he’s moving the drugs, is that likable guy. But he’s the supplier; the one we want to be the good guy, the one we like. Isn’t it so much easier to hate the villain? Isn’t it easier to paint the bad guy as a slimy, rotten, monomaniacal baddie? Sure, but that’s not the truth! The realization is a stunning one and disturbing and you know what? It should be! It’s to let us know that not all bad guys are mustache twirling caricatures. They are people like all of us. So sure, the stories that tell you the effect of drugs are horrific are good and important, but we don’t usually see that the supplier is insidious. He grabs us with his wonderful personality. He makes us what to hang out with him, do things with him and, oh, try what? Ok, if you’re having it, I’ll give it a go…
That’s the mature message secreted away in an anti-drug story for Doctor Who. Not the “Drugs are bad” message; because we know that. It’s “watch out for the pusher, the supplier”. Frankly I think that was the stronger message for this story and one that I appreciate as a parent simply because it’s addressing something we frequently forget to address, so focused are we on the actual product, that we forget what lures people in. You don’t lure people in by saying “try this thing, it’ll destroy your life”. You do it by saying “hey, this guy is cool and fun and interesting, you’re going to want to have what he’s having!” (If you’ve seen When Harry Met Sally, you’ll know what I mean!)
Science fiction was my “drug of choice” and still is. Doctor Who was that cool, fun, interesting guy just like Kirk and Spock were in my youth. But I can’t find any downside to watching or reading SF. In fact, it’s enhanced my life time and again and made me see things that others missed. It hasn’t destroyed my life at all. And you know why? Because it actually isn’t a drug. It’s just damned good stories often with a strong moral core. We need more of that, rather than the regurgitated nonsense that pervades most of the media getting people hooked and rotting their brains out. Sort of like real drugs… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Horns of Nimon