Monday, October 14, 2013

Doctor Who: in defense of "Terminus"

When I recently published an essay with my top-20 Classic Who serials, comments were flattering and amazingly respectful -- and by "amazingly," I simply mean that every Who episode and serial has its passionate advocates and detractors, and I think I expected a little more controversy than I got. Only one entry inspired a hearty range of guffaws -- you know, of the "You like that?" variety -- and it was "Terminus." And yes, indeed, I do like "Terminus," very much, but since so many don't, I thought I'd go into a little more detail here. So let's start with two lines that pretty much sum up the "Terminus" experience:

Nyssa: What are they going to do with us?
Inga: Supposedly cure us, but I rather think they're going to let us die.

"Terminus," from the Fifth Doctor Peter Davison's second season, is best remembered as "the bad one" in the Black Guardian Trilogy: the one that (thank goodness, most would say) is quickly overshadowed by the final installment, "Enlightenment." And indeed "Terminus" is sandwiched between the giddy "Mawdryn Undead" and the magical "Enlightenment," and it's dire: but not dire in quality, dire in tone. Dire in terms of what it says about human beings, and the way we treat one another -- and exploit one another. "Terminus" is the Doctor Who that Tells the Truth, and as such, it's the story that few want to hear. I've often wondered if it takes a certain kind of person to fully appreciate "Terminus," but I've seen people in all walks of life fall in love with it. But it's very much a story best-suited to those with a little life-experience. It's the serial for anyone who's ever worked under a miserable employer, or been abandoned by the health care system, or felt disenfranchised from friends, family or colleagues. It's for anyone who's ever found themselves on a treadmill from which there is no escape.

As human beings, we tell ourselves, "You always have options." That's our coping mechanism. We convince ourselves that we have the potential for change, the capacity to fix things -- that if our situation is grim, we're never trapped in it.

But what if we were? What if we are? What if we're stuck in that soul-sucking job because we're living paycheck to paycheck? What if we're sick and can't get proper medical care, and no one gives a f**k? What if we're living with a physically or emotionally abusive spouse, or boyfriend, or girlfriend, or parent, and stay there, because we have no place else to go? What if the world really is as bleak, our choices as limited, our outlook as terrifying, as it seems on those darkest days?

Valgard: We can't just let him die.
Eirak: Valgard, we're all dying.

"Terminus" is not for the faint of heart. It's bitter, brutal and uncompromising. And as a result, it's brilliant. That some people (most people?) can't get into "Terminus" lies partly in the fact that its flaws aren't niggling -- they're noteworthy.

It's an exit story for Nyssa, but Sarah Sutton is particularly pallid throughout, and she's partnered with a juvenile (Dominic Guard) who's too green for the role he's handed. (Sutton had been having an awful season, really only doing detailed work in "Snakedance"; otherwise, she too often seemed to be running through emotions rather than acting.) At one point, she's carted off by a robot (a really puny robot: another flaw), and neither her cries for help nor the juvenile's fear of rescuing her is convincingly played.

The costumes are by Dee Robson, and atrocious. (Are they a step up from her "Arc of Infinity"? Probably not.) The raiders wear space helmets triple the size of their heads (why?), while the guards wear clanky armor with those drop-down visors that you keep thinking will fall mid-sentence and cut off their noses.

And then there's this dog...

It's writer Stephen Gallagher's update of the dog in Norse mythology that guarded the gates of hell, the Garm. Gallagher reveals in the DVD extras that he imagined perhaps just his eyes would be seen, and the rest left to the imagination, but no imagination required (or utilized) here -- it's a giant, patchwork canine with claws, whose first appearance prompts a "you're kidding" response. (It's a step up from the Quarks, the Mire Beast, Erato and the Myrka, but what isn't?)

And as good as the sets seem early on -- foreboding: endless passage-ways of bleak graffiti -- when they actually have to represent something specific (like an engine about to blow), they're so sparse and unconvincing that it's almost like watching black-box theatre. "Terminus" was a shoot mired in production hell, so it's hard to know what was built but unfinished, what was designed but never built, and what they simply didn't have time to load in. But what's there isn't good enough.

But ironically, if ever you were inclined to go along with shoddy production values, it's in "Terminus," because it's part-and-parcel with the world writer Stephen Gallagher envisions. Terminus is a space-ship where lepers ("lazars," as they're called here) are housed (but rarely cured), where the guards dispatched to deal with them refer to themselves as "baggage handlers," where raiders sent to plunder the ship are deserted by their own party. It's a world where no one is cared for and no one is content, a world where people are used and tossed aside. It's a world where hostility and paranoia run rampant, and where entropy is the order of the day. Power packs stop charging after one shot; armor fails to shield from deadly radiation; drugs distributed to keep workers in their place are often watery placebos. If you duck beneath a grate to escape an oncoming crowd, that grate will invariably stick shut; if you head for a doorway, that door will start to close just as you arrive -- forcing you to make a leap for it. Terminus is, in microcosm, a civilization in decay. It's a "worst-case" universe, one where all the odds are stacked against you.

And because of that, the undernourished sets don't matter much; the giant dog and even larger space helmets are easily overlooked. The clunky acting by a few key players is unfortunate, and damaging, but not deadly -- because the tale they're spinning is pure gold. "Terminus" is all about the script, and the script is great -- a society trapped in a cycle of corruption, abandonment and abuse -- and one that's astonishingly prescient. In talking to friends overseas, I'm frequently asked why the U.S. -- this vast, powerful expanse -- can't get certain "fundamental" things right: why we can't get gun-control legislation passed; why racial fear and violence run rampant; why so many seem terrified at providing affordable health case for the masses. Is our broad, sweeping country ultimately ungovernable? "Terminus" is about a health-care system that's broken, the product of an economic and political climate that preys on the weak and the poor and the sick, that invites mistrust and fear, aggression and violence. It's a salve for the folks who've been on the receiving end, and an indictment of the ones who create and perpetuate it. And too, it's a cautionary tale for the ones who don't yet know what they're in for. In a way, it's a perfect script for this age of instant celebrity, where success is measured by YouTube hits and Twitter follows, and folks appear indestructible in their insular communities. Because "Terminus" says, "Just wait." We all, at some point, find ourselves on "Terminus," as we leave our safe havens and head out into the broader, barren expanses of the real world. "Terminus" is the rude awakening that always comes.

Valgard: This is Terminus. No one's happy here. Staying alive is all that counts.

There's one scene with Tegan that's lame (in part 4, as if Gallagher runs out of things for her to do, he has her rush to the control room and miraculously abort a launch), but otherwise "Terminus" is a solid story for all four principals. Sutton, as noted, is muted throughout, but the character of Nyssa is pivotal: contracting the lazar disease and ultimately figuring out a way to regulate and improve the cure. She essentially takes charge of the operation by serial's end, and in doing so, makes a bold decision that marks her farewell to the TARDIS. Tegan and Turlough are stuck in an air vent for much of the action (a common complaint lobbed at "Terminus" is that Turlough has to be side-tracked, because otherwise he'd have to make good on his mission to kill the Doctor), but in truth, a double-act character study is something Tegan and Turlough both need at this point. As they're about to travel with the Doctor without Nyssa as a buffer, they're both due a little humanizing -- some self-awareness and self-reflection. They get it here, and the results show up instantly in "Enlightenment." Far from shunting Tegan and Turlough aside, "Terminus" is a pivotal story for them. It broadens their outlook and widens their range.

And Davison's Doctor is superb. I've seen critiques that he has nothing to do in "Terminus." On the contrary, the Fifth Doctor is at his best: analytical, quick-thinking, compassionate -- with the mind of a scientist and the heart of a humanist. There's one moment in "Terminus" where I think I love the Fifth Doctor more than ever. He's entered the stockyard, on a catwalk overlooking the main level; he's just learned that Terminus in the center of the known universe, and he's pondering the reasons and the ramifications. And as camera lingers on his face, you can see him processing it all. You can see the intellect at work. Not all the Doctors could pull off silence: some needed an audience, action, lines, to realize their character -- but Davison could do it, and brilliantly, with just a wondering look.

And who but Davison could pull off these talk-to-the-animal scenes, briefly becoming a space-age Doctor Doolittle:

Garm: Have I served you well?
The Doctor: Indeed you have.
Garm: Do something for me. Destroy the box. Set me free.
(The Doctor picks up the signal box and smashes it on the floor.)
The Doctor: Rest. You've earned it.

And later, assuming charge in that quick-tempo Davison way, he passes along his knowledge and his understanding to those he's leaving behind:

The Doctor: Now it's important you inform the authorities about what's been going on here. Make it impossible for Terminus Incorporated to retaliate. For example, you must make contact with the pick-up ship.
Valgard: What ship?
The Doctor: The one that takes the cured Lazars away. Well, the Garm will know all about it.
Valgard: We no longer have any control over him.
The Doctor: Then speak to him. Win his confidence. You'll find him very agreeable.

The other actors are equally good. Liza Goddard, as the chief raider Kari, is wildly undervalued. She's charming, pairs well with Davison (she's a fine sounding-board, and her dry, clipped style matches Davison's own), and she adds a little luster and glamour to the proceedings. (First time I watched, I had no idea who she was, or that she was stunt casting. I bought into her completely, teased hair and all.) If she weren't there, I guarantee she would be missed. And the guards are well-characterized and well-played. Only Martin Potter as Eirak overdoes the sneering a bit: the others -- Andrew Burt (who'd go on to play the Chief Inspector to Davison's amateur sleuth in Campion), Tim Munro, and Peter Benson as Bor -- make solid impressions, and in the case of Benson, quite a sympathetic one. (As sympathetic seers go, I'll take Bor over Binro in "The Ribos Operation" anytime.)

And Mary Ridge's direction, too often slated because of the fabled production headaches, is consistent and strong. As noted, she fails to get a decent performance out of Sutton, something a (presumably) more communicative director like Fiona Cumming would have managed, but otherwise, her work is not merely solid, but often vivid. (A multi-level "elevator going down" scene, as Nyssa's led to her presumed doom, is sensationally ambitious and effective.) And more to the point, Ridge's direction seems utterly in line with Gallagher's narrative. She shoots her characters through grates and grids and bars, as if the eponymous spaceship is holding them hostage, precisely the point of "Terminus." In Gallagher's bleak universe, everyone is trapped: not just the TARDIS crew, but the patients in need of medical assistance, the guards supplied with just enough drugs to keep going, the raiders left to fend for themselves, the Garm killing as many as he's curing because of his lack of free will. (Even the ship itself -- in one of Gallagher's more twisted conceits -- is trapped in an unending cycle of creation and destruction.) Everyone is at the mercy of unseen, uncaring forces -- and for those watching from home who've lived it, who've felt powerless to make a fresh start, who've felt at times at war with the world, and losing, it's a scenario that rings all too true.

Bor: Am I dead yet?
Sigurd: No.
Bor: Oh, funny, I could have sworn that. But still, it's a relief. I am hoping for something rather better on the other side.

Gallagher paints a relentlessly bleak picture, and not till the end -- when the Doctor, Nyssa, Kari, the guards and the Garm finally work in tandem -- does he offer the promise of hope we so desperately crave. But even then, he's careful not to tack on a "happy ending." Nyssa will remain on Terminus (and she will die there, Tegan reminds her), but that's her choice. Other characters haven't yet formulated their plans: they merely have "ideas" of what they'll do next. But they can move on. They have options. And sometimes, "Terminus" tells us, that's the best the universe can offer us. Sometimes, that glimmer of a better tomorrow is all we get -- and ultimately, it's all we need. On life's cruelest days, it's the most we can pray for.

And it's enough.

Note: after I posted this essay, I decided to turn it into a bit of a series, of five neglected or maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting. Next up, "The Ark".


  1. Blimey! I can guarantee no one has ever this much on Terminus!! Congrats! It's not my favourite but you mount a spirited defence. I found the guest cast poor, the Garm and costumes awful and the pace is snail slow. I also hate the tacked on Terminus creates the universe nonsense. However, I agree that it is a good allegory and surprisingly adult and bleak. You're right that the stories either side of it also make it appear worse than it is.

  2. I've never had a problem with Terminus, all Doctor Who stories have struggled to do their scripts justice, we go along with silly rubber monster designs and misjudged performances because the writing is so good. It's low budget and time constraints are bound to cause poor execution occasionally and invite ridicule! As you so eloquently point, there are so many things to enjoy in a story like Terminus that these production problems should never distract from the wonderful ideas the scripts often hold. You're preaching to the converted here but I very much enjoyed reading your defence of an unfairly rated story. Keep up the blogging!

    1. Thanks, Graham, for your kind words. I agree: you often have to overlook the limitations of budget and time, and when the script and/or performances are strong, you're happy to do so -- but for some reason, I'd observed folks seem to have more trouble doing that on "Terminus." And thus the post. :) Maybe the themes just hit too close to home for some folks, or maybe they don't hit close to home at all for some lucky people -- but boy, this serial speaks to me! Thanks again for reading, and for weighing in!