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10 January 2016 @ 03:11 pm
The Randomiser: Terminus  
I am very fond of Terminus even though it's a bit of an oddity for a Doctor Who story and certainly not the kind of story I'd normally expect myself to be liking. It maintains, throughout, a sombre and world-weary tone. It has a certain awkwardness in construction (most notably that it clearly has no use for Tegan or Turlough and so they spend about three and a half episodes wandering aimlessly down corridors or crawling through ducting). The "happy" ending does not withstand much thought.

I think my fondness for the episodes rests on two keystones: Nyssa and the Vanir. It isn't, to be honest, a great story for Nyssa. She spends an awful lot of it ill and incarcerated. However, it does focus on her and even though she frequently has few options, we get to see her feelings and thoughts, her determination and courage, and her dogged approach to problem solving, even with the constraints she is under.

There is a very weird scene where Nyssa randomly strips down to her underwear (though, admittedly, the skirt she removes did not conceal a great deal more than the petticoat underneath). Tame layman commented that it was a bit odd, confirming that it wasn't just the notoriety it has gained in fan circles over the years. I've heard conflicting stories about why it happens though all revolve around the script requirement for Nyssa to drop something for the Doctor to later find and it's certainly the case Sarah Sutton's costume does not provide many options for things to drop. I suspect the idea that "the Dads" would appreciate it prevented the production team making any serious attempt to overcome the costuming problem (e.g., providing a pocket for a handkerchief). In fact, I imagine many "Dads" did appreciate it, but that doesn't stop the whole `I'm feeling unwell, I know I'll take my skirt off' thing looking somewhat contrived.

In theory, even though they have nothing to do. Tegan and Turlough's segments could have worked well as character development, and they very nearly almost succeed. Tame layman thought it was the quality of the acting that let them down. However, one can't help but feel that this is mostly a situation where a large Tardis crew and an arc plot (Turlough is still in thrall to the Black Guardian here) are acting as a drag on an episode.

The Vanir are also a bit odd. I have a suspicion that their Norse names, coupled with Terminus's position as the initiator of the big bang, was supposed, in some version of the story, to have more weight with more explicit call outs to Norse mythology. As it stands, it is like the ghost of a theme. It gives a sense that there is some resonance, without an real idea what it is. In an odd way, given the strange mixture of decay, drudgery and petty bureaucracy that seems to govern the Vanir's lives, it works. There is a half-understood theme here, just as they only half-understand how Terminus operates, and only half-grasp the power they do and don't have in the scheme of things.

There are no villains in this story and arguably no monsters (since the Garm turns out to be friendly). Eirak is the closest there is to a villain and the worst that can be said for him is that he has a ruthless solution to the reality of insufficient resources. None of the Vanir are presented as particularly nice people, but they demonstrate many good qualities. Most of them are loyal to and care for each other. Bor goes into the radiation zone to fix the engines convinced that this sacrifice is necessary. While the Vanir mostly ignore the Lazars, they do not actively mistreat them. Unlike most of Doctor Who's universe in which most people are fundamentally good with a few very evil apples. This is a world in which most people are not very nice but where enough of them have some kind of underlying baseline of friendship, compassion and responsibility to allow a good outcome to emerge.

Kari and Olvir, the space pirates, work less well than the Vanir. When the episode started Tame Layman commented, on seeing Nyssa, "look at that 80s hair" and I had to suppress a giggle knowing that the pinnacle of 1980s Doctor Who hair was about to turn up. I think the big problem with Kari and Olvir is that they are bright sparkly new romantic space pirates and that sits oddly with the harsh and grim demeanour of the Vanir. They needed to have more of an edge to them and we needed to believe they were actually dangerous for them to work with the rest of the story. Lisa Goddard, as Kari, makes a good stab at ruthless but intelligent efficiency despite the costume, but Olvir, sadly, is merely a bit wet.

Then there is the happy ending, in which the Vanir are freed from the shackles of the company because Nyssa can synthesize hydromel for them. Even if one accepts the Doctor's rather dubious assertion that the company can't send in armed troops to remove them (because the troops would be too afraid of Lazar's Disease to set foot on Terminus), given the cure merely requires a large dose of radiation one can't help feeling that the company can open up shop anywhere it pleases. So presumably it will just leave the Vanir to rot in their crumbling space station. In fact one wonders, why, the company doesn't just have treatment centres all over the place. Large radioactive sources are not, actually, that hard to come by. However, I'm watching the wrong program if I want well thought through world-building.

Terminus is a story that can't quite decide on its tone and has several structural problems (in no small part caused by circumstances outside the story's control). Still where it works, it has a certain conviction and a belief that it is people who aren't explicitly heroes but who try to go about their jobs with some modicum of responsibility and compassion, that will win the day. It's an oddly optimistic tale for all its grim setting.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/182106.html.
 
 
 
wellinghallwellinghall on January 10th, 2016 05:17 pm (UTC)
Due to my ... complicated adolescence, I had long periods without great TV access, which I think is why I didn't see this one at all. Or maybe it was just that, as a nearly 17 year old, I felt I had grown out of Dr Who.
daniel_saunders: Leekleydaniel_saunders on January 10th, 2016 05:41 pm (UTC)
This is a story that has grown on me a lot. I found the novelization incomprehensible, but every time I watch the story (usually as a part of a Black Guardian trilogy marathon), I like it more. I think last time I actually prefered it to Mawdryn Undead and Enlightenment, which surprised me. I think the arc plot works better if the stories are watched consecutively.

It's a strange story that somehow contrives to be melodramatic and subdued at the same time, but I think it just about succeeds. As you say, it is grim, but also optimistic, which might be a reflection of the time it was made - Doctor Who was only beginning to discover it could do 'grim' consistently; had the story been made a year or two later, there probably would have been less redemption in it, which I think would have made it worse - that sliver of hope does stop it being overwhelming. Then again, I like happy endings.

Incidentally, the whole thing reminds me of Babylon 5 a little: the legacy of ancient races, over-worked administrators coping with an impoverished underclass that they don't know what to do with. Even Bors reminds me a little of Marcus Cole. This may all just be coincidence, but maybe not!
louisedennislouisedennis on January 11th, 2016 11:40 am (UTC)
I suppose you could see the contrast between the grim and grimy Vanir and the sparkly space pirates as indicative of a wider tension between Eric Saward's grim dark tendencies and JNT's more "pantomime" approach - though it lacks any real sense of Saward's black humour.

The Vanir are in some ways the flip side of the slaver crew in Gallagher's Warriors Gate. The slavers are basically small-minded jobsworths who not only can not rise above circumstances but are uninterested in doing so - their's is a petty kind of evil that adds up to a much greater evil. The Vanir are presented as essentially small time crooks serving their time with equally little interest or ambition outside the sphere of Terminus itself but somehow their small kindnesses to each other (if no one else) add up to some greater good.