One day, they will make a TV-movie about the October 2003 Staten Island Ferry disaster, and that movie will be atrocious. Right before the ferry is about to crash, some actor, who's already seen "Nightmare of Eden", will utter the line, "Oh no!". That's what actor David Daker did right before his character's starship collided with a space freighter. It is not, on its face, a proud moment, or a good beginning for a story.
"Nightmare" tops several "Worst of" lists in the "Doctor Who" pantheon. Worst costumes, certainly. There's not a single character in this piece who's dressed sensibly. Starting at the top, Romana appears to be dressed in a gray maternity gown. With red trim. Most of the starship crew is dressed in leather: the ship's crewmen are wearing red sleeveless vests with glitter added. And white pancake makeup, to boot. The two federal agents whose comic banter takes over the second half of the story, are dressed like the biker from the Village People. Tryst's team wears white T-shirts under black vests, so the only thing missing, cleary, is the rhinestone studding. Daker's black jumpsuit has spandex sleeves. I won't even get into what the starship passengers are wearing. I fly coach three times a month and they just don't issue that at the departure gate.
The special effects are bad. The opening shot is of a styrofoam spaceship wobbling its way across the stars. There's a lot of experimental computer imaging in this 1979 epic, but explosions happen before the gun blasts which cause them, and after Della is shot in the neck, she famously falls to the floor clutching her midriff.
So why, then, is "Nightmare of Eden" so entertaining? At what point does "bad" become "good"?
Make no mistake, this is deep in the doldrums of Season 17. There's the serious plot masked by the off-the-wall script. Two spaceships collide, one still half in hyperspace. The resulting dimensional instability causes a bunch of ape-like monsters wearing bell-bottoms to kill a dozen extras merely by brushing their elongated arms across the victims' heads. Seriously, what is the message of "Nightmare of Eden"? With the customs agents trampling over everyone's civil rights, and the drugs giving several people a really bad trip (including, presumably, the director who quit and the costume designer), you could package this on the "Starsky & Hutch" DVD and it would seem right at home.
There are moments of great subtlety in the script. Before Vraxoin is slipped into his Kool-Aid, Rigg is unusually competent for a "Doctor Who" starship captain. He blows the Doctor's cover after just one scene, and holds his own on the witty banter front for several scenes after that. Once he gets high, he gets to deliver some wickedly funny lines ("They were only economy class, what's all the fuss about?"). The rest of the comedy is a little too broad (Geoffrey Hinsliff and Peter Craze are awful), and Lewis Fiander's accent remains baffling, but at least Fiander seems to be intentionally overacting, so I can take the joke. I do not understand, however, why he pronounced the word "three" as "ten". Or why customs officer Fisk is introduced as a "Water Guard". There was no water in this story. Again, it wasn't just Captain Rigg who was on the Vraxoin.
Tom Baker is completely off the wall. He's already been much maligned for the "Oh! My fingers! My arms! My legs! My everything! Ohh!" shtick. But he also bites into a phallic green appendage for the second story in a row (remember "The Creature From the Pit"?) and tells us that it "didn't taste at all bad." Lalla Ward remains the picture of confidence and competence. Maybe she was having flashbacks to "Hamlet".
I come away from "Nightmare" with Lewis Fiander saying: "We worked on this idea together, before he died, of course. Then we stopped." If I close my eyes, I am having a great time. And learning to brush my teeth after meals.