'Terminus' is a rather overlooked Doctor Who, but one of which I'm rather fond. Despite some shortcomings in terms of production and acting, it has much going for it, including an interesting plot, and it makes a fine leaving story for Nyssa.
There are two major aspects to the plot of 'Terminus'. The first of these is the revelation that Terminus is a time machine that inadvertently caused the Big Bang when the pilot jettisoned fuel into a void. This is a rather controversial issue amongst fans, since it doesn't really hold up to scrutiny; the idea that jettisoned fuel could have created the universe seems a bit unlikely, and it is also paradoxical, assuming that Terminus was built by a race from this universe. Having said that however, it's an interesting concept and the impending repeat of such an action by the computer on board Terminus adds considerable drama to the final episode, given that if the Doctor cannot stop it the universe will be destroyed. The second plot thread is that of the Lazars, and more importantly their effect on Nyssa. Having discovered that Terminus is a rather inadequate hospital operating a kill or cure service for sufferers of lazar disease, Nyssa is rather painfully forced to see the true horror of the situation when she too becomes infected. It makes for some fine character moments, as she is forced into a shabby cell with other sufferers, callously manhandled by the bitter Vanir who have very little interest in their charges, and finally subjected to an insanely dangerous treatment in the form of a massive dose of radiation. For Nyssa, one of the most compassionate of the Doctor's companions, this is a perfect departure; having endured so much, she comes through her experience wanting not to get away and put it behind her, but to stay and help others facing the same situation. 'Terminus' is unrelenting grim, which is entirely appropriate given the storyline, but Nyssa's decision to remain on the station to try and improve things provides a ray of hope at the end, not only for the Lazars, but also for the Vanir, as she offers them a way to throw off the shackles of the corrupt and uncaring Terminus Incorporated. Sutton is very good throughout; she portrays Nyssa's distress very well, and the constant misery and suffering of such an inoffensive companion should tug at the heart of even the most cynical fan. The whole story works well at paving the way for her to leave, as she not only stays to help, but specifically remains behind to help by using her scientific skills, often overlooked during her television appearances. Her eventual farewell scene to the Doctor and Tegan is superbly well handled and very moving. It's a shame that director Mary Ridge makes her whip her skirt off for no good reason except possibly to titillate (yes, I know - she's feverish and takes it off to cool off. But it's still in close-up ).
The grim atmosphere of 'Terminus' is present from the start. The malevolent presence of the Black Guardian remains ominous for the TARDIS crew, and once Turlough's reluctant sabotage takes effect the feeling of foreboding mounts as the TARDIS locks on to the transport ship and a large skull motif appears on the wall of Nyssa's room as a door materialises. The skull motif is evident throughout the story, and helps to set the ton and so too does Roger Limb's funereal incidental music, but it's not just these obvious influences that make 'Terminus' seem so bleak. It's many things, from the spectre of lazars disease itself, the appearance of bandaged wrapped hands from behind locked doors and the pathetic moaning of the Lazars, the bitter weariness of the Vanir, and the corpse of the pilot still sat behind the controls of Terminus. I would imagine this dark mood does not appeal to many fans, and I can understand why, but it works to the benefit of the story.
The use of the other regulars besides Nyssa is rather interesting. On first glance, it isn't very impressive; there is some soap opera bickering between Tegan and Turlough in the TARDIS at the start, and once the story moves to the ship the pair are effectively sidelined for the rest of the story by being trapped in some maintenance tunnels. But there's actually more to it than this, as it continues Turlough's development rather effectively; during his TARDIS scenes with Tegan, he initially demonstrates all of his worst character traits, as he proves smug and condescending. He is also of course still forced to work for the Black Guardian, albeit with increasing reluctance. But once he and Tegan become trapped in the ship, whilst they seemingly do little except wander about in an attempt to get out again, they actually start to form a guarded friendship as they are united by adversity; they swiftly start to cooperate, each seemingly developing a measure of respect, if not actual liking, for the other. Most importantly, Turlough's questioning of whether Tegan could commit murder in cold blood demonstrates his gradual redemption, as he increasingly comes to like the people he's travelling with. He's still obviously terrified of the Black Guardian, but he's becoming slowly more rebellious within the confines of his cowardice. Strickson plays the troubled character very effectively, conveying a great deal simply by frowning a lot. Davison meanwhile is his usual impressive self, and manages to forecast the impending destruction of the universe with remarkable conviction. He too is very good during Nyssa' final scene, and it's rather amusing to see him sidestep the question of whether or not it will be nice to see Tegan. This suggestion that he finds his loudest companion at this time rather tiresome on occasion is quite interesting, and was also hinted at during the final scene of 'Arc of Infinity'. It by no means suggests that he doesn't like her, but it adds slightly to their relationship that it is often less than harmonious, since friends inevitably annoy each other from time to time in real life.
'Terminus' also benefits from some decent direction, adequate if unimpressive model work, and some excellent set designs both on board the transport ship and on Terminus itself. Where 'Terminus' falls down however is in the guest cast and certain aspects of the costume design. Whilst Valentine Dyall continues to impress as the malignant Black Guardian, the raiders and the Vanir are almost exclusively poor. The single exception is Peter Benson as the ailing Bor, but the rest of the Vanir are horribly melodramatic, especially Andrew Burt as Valgard. The two raiders are little better; both Liza Goddard and Dominic Guard as Kari and Olvir respectively adopt various daft macho postures whenever they are required to point guns at anything, and their delivery of certain lines is also rather dubious (most notably, Olvir's "We all going to diiiie!" at the end of Episode One). But their costumes really don't help; whilst the bronze plate armour worn by the Vanir is rather effective, the costumes worn by the raiders are diabolical, including as they do cartoon space helmets, small capes, and very big hair. Speaking of costumes, I'm also none too fond of those worn by the Lazars; bandages are understandable, but quite why lazar disease results in sufferers deciding to dress in filthy rags is beyond me. It would seem to be a rather unsubtle attempt to draw comparisons with traditional images of lepers, but the parallels between lazar disease and leprosy are already made clear by the script; it doesn't need to be hammered home. Finally, the Garm is reasonably effective, although the use of light bulbs for his eyes is deeply unfortunate.
It's inevitable that dodgy acting will undermine a good Doctor Who story more than almost anything else save possibly for gaping plot holes, and to an extent this is unavoidable true of 'Terminus'. Nevertheless, it's worth trying to see past this to appreciate the rather satisfying plot, the great design work, and a fine departure for Nyssa.
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Valentine Dyall had the greatest voice. He played God in Bedazzled and Gargravarr, custodian of the Total Perspective Vortex, in the "Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" radio series. His voice can convey absolute menace, even when saying things like: "Operate the blue switches!" Sadly, in his role as the Black Guardian, he's just part of a linking storyline that gets in the way of "Terminus", which is not completed until the next one, "Enlightenment".
"Terminus" itself has a story about health care at its worst; where commercial profit has made outsiders of disease victims. It's not the most well remembered story'; the subject is grim and there are lots of problems. Fans began to appreciate "Terminus" more after the great Doctor Who drought of stories that period in the nineties when the series had been cancelled and every previous TV story got reassessed in publications like Doctor Who Magazine and In-Vision. The details behind the scenes of "Terminus" read like a production that was cursed. This had enough equipment failures, strikes, and lack of time to make the difficulties of Project: Greenlight's productions seem really whiny. Speaking of whiny, Roger Limb's music score in this can set your teeth on edge. It's not as good as his stuff for "Caves of Androzani" or "Revelation of the Daleks" and seems made up on the spot whenever someone on screen moves around. It constantly gets in the way. Perhaps Roger wasn't very inspired by this one.
The Doctor and his companions come to a ship going to Terminus as a result of Turlough's interference. The ship is full of the terminally sick lazars, and Terminus is where they are swept under the rug. Terminus is a kind of space station that is supposed to cure the lazars, but no one's ever come back from it. Turlough is being bullied as a result of his promise to the Black Guardian in "Mawdryn Undead". Turlough is a cowardly twerp, but you can sympathize with the character when he's confronted by the Black Guardian and the suspicious Tegan (even scarier). He gets stuck in the ducting under the floors of the ship with Tegan for the whole story, and they're forced to work together. Even as Turlough is trapped in the ducting with Tegan, he still gets nagged by the Black Guardian's crystal. The Doctor is accompanied for most of the story by the raider pirate Kari, because he needs someone to talk to at all times and, doggone it; he just doesn't have enough companions to talk to. This is, of course, also Nyssa's last story. Nyssa takes off her skirt but it's 'cause she's got fever. For most of the rest of it she's in a potato sack like all the other lazars. She chooses to stay behind and help the lazars, as she's the best person to actually find a cure for lazar's disease. It's kind of a tacked-on leaving scene for a Doctor Who companion, just like when Steven left in the sixties to help the Savages. Fortunately the goodbye is more emotional.
A scary atmosphere has been constructed in the scripts by Stephen Gallagher, but on screen it can get dull. Art deco skulls and eerie sound effects show the intention, but a lot of the sets have iron stairs or prop lights mixed in with wires and plastic bags. The pirates are done up in an 80's punk style with fuzzy hair and eyeliner, wearing capes and fog-up helmets. Fortunately the armored Vanir, guardians of Terminus, have great costumes. Another creepy voice in the story is the loudspeaker (don't say Tannoy Voice, it's copyrighted) doing the announcements about sterilization of the ship. This and the clinical, surgically implemented robots (there was supposed to be more than one!) continue the relentlessly grim feeling of the first few episodes.
After the creepy ship is out of the picture, more mystery surrounds Terminus with the suggestion that it is in fact the center of the known universe. This comes in a little late and seems like an afterthought. Meanwhile Nyssa has caught the disease, as she takes off her skirt for what looks like no reason. She was originally meant to be feverish, unbuttoning the brown suit and brooch of her earlier appearances. Since John Nathan-Turner had changed her costume for Season 20, the removal of her clothing doesn't make quite as much sense, but... oh well, more Dads. She is then taken by the gruff slave labor Vanir, who just transport her from place to place like all the rest of the infected. "What is this horrendous place?" Poor victim Nyssa. That's about all her character ever got to be. She's had a tough time on the TARDIS, she'd better get out! Perhaps her choice to leave makes good sense after all.
The Vanir are unpleasant, although they are shown to be workaday joes who have little choice but to go through the motions of their jobs. There is also infighting amongst their ranks, competition, all that stuff. One of the Vanir named Valgard stands out as being especially unpleasant and sneaky. They don't even get a paycheck, just glow sticks to insert into their chests. What a bunch of sad sacks.
D'you hear someone singing?
At this point the story introduces relief in the whimsical but tragic Bor. Bor is another guard of Terminus, but unlike the others he's delirious, singing and mumbling phrases repeatedly. "Short term memory's the first to go", as he says more than once. Yay Bor! Too bad he's got that nasty radiation burn.
The leaking radiation builds as do other science fiction ideas with the introduction of the ancient dead pilot existing in slow time, the Garm, and the Big Red Switch counting down that moment when "the whole universe will be destroyed!" The Garm was meant to be a pair of eyes in shadows and not a Hanna Barbera character, but since they went and made this whole big costume and someone tall sweated like crazy in it, you might as well just enjoy it. As far as "the whole universe will be destroyed" goes, it might be said that the cliffhangers in this story are some of the worst. Episode one ends as the pirate Olvir almost sings "We're all going to DIIIIIIEEE!" Then episode two has Valgard in his chummy, impulsive way, strangle Kari, then change his mind and lets the Doctor know it's his turn, "Only you I'm going to KILL!" Then you get the Universe stuff. Pretty silly, and not good cases for having Doctor Who stories told in segments.
On the whole, "Terminus" is not a bad idea. It's just that the execution was let down in parts, and it comes off as forgettable next to other Season 20 stories like "Enlightenment", and the celebration of "The Five Doctors". A few later Colin Baker & McCoy stories make it look like a well-executed classic. Throughout the four episodes "Terminus'" potential is there, and perhaps that's why it's worth looking at again.
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Never have so many people worked so hard to create so little as they have in Terminus. This story from the 20th season is certainly on of the most uneven stories of the Peter Davison era which excels on some points and dies badly on others.
I've gotten used to the occasional padding to fill the story and sometimes have enjoyed it. Smarter authors will fill the padding with bits of back story or character scenes but Steve Gallagher fails to come up with anything interesting or original to keep the story moving. In a story that has a full TARDIS crew, the Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough, plus two pirates, Kari and Olvir, and various guards, prisoners and the Black Guardian it should be a whirl wind adventure but it completely falls flat after the first ten minutes of the first episode. The Black Guardian has forced Turlough to damage the TARDIS and it crash lands on a ship just as it is being hit by raiders. The TARDIS crew is separated and have face various dangers. This is a real explosive start but then absolutely nothing happens until the third episode. It's just a bunch of one dimensional characters going through a predictable routine that doesn't add much to the story.
The raiding party is dressed with comical helmets, capes, and skin tight jump suits that make them look more like they are from a futuristic telling of "Babes In Toyland" and fails to give them any credibility. Olvir, who claims to have combat training, panics and hides in a corner after their first violent encounter. Later he barely manages to handle a worn and battered Valgard and still completely misses the Garn taking off with Nyssa just a few feet behind him. The character is so badly written I couldn't help but wonder if it was originally supposed to be Adric in the story but hastily rewritten and readjusted to fit a different character.
As a stark contrast from the look of the raiding party the Vanir, guards on Terminus, are amazingly catching in their styles. The skeletal like armour makes and odd clicking sound as they move and their masks give them a powerful presence when they enter the scenes.
Another odd pair of characters added after a few episodes are the Garm and Bor. The Garm is a huge creature with a dog like head and glowing eyes that has been forced to serve the Vanir. Unfortunately it only looks good but when it talks you can sadly see the thin veil meant to cover it's mouth and the face of the operator inside. Less would have been more with this character. On the other hand Bor is more of the average guy type character who just wants to stay loyal to his job and has paid for it with pain and suffering from radiation sickness. He's the most interesting character brought in during the story and gets all the best lines. "Am I dead?" he asks. "No? Well, good, cause I was hoping for something better on the other side."
Nyssa gets the worst writing of all the companions in this story. She's gone from an experienced space traveller with a high IQ to someone who, when hearing footsteps approach, cowers into a little ball and hopes for the best. Then she spends two episode screaming in fear and getting stripped down to her undies but manages to come back in the final episode as a genius scientist who is willing to brave out the rest of Terminus and stop the plague.
Tegan and Turlough go no where in this story. All they have to do is spend time together and scowl at each other to get them to do anything. There is so much that could have been done with the Black Guardian haunting Turlough in this story it's sad they way both of them are turned to one dimensional roles.
One of the strengths of this story, and there are very few of them, is the design of the ships and Terminus. That skull symbols on the doors are very powerful and give an uncomfortable feeling to the location. There is also enough dressing and changes in set dressing that you never get the "we've been down this corridor before" feeling.
So why was this story done? Apparently the idea had been rejected two years earlier but accepted for the anniversary season. As part two of the second Black Guardian trilogy the story fails to advance the Black Guardian plot in any way. The structure of a trilogy leads to the second act being a big cliffhanger but there is no advancement to the umbrella story here. The best bet is to just skip the story between the classic Mawdryn Undead and the creative Enlightenment and just make it Black Guardian two parter.
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