Doctor Who: The Lost Stories: Nightmare Country – Starring: Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Mark Strickson, Beth Chalmers, Ian Conningham, Edward Dede & Tracy Wiles. Written by Stephen Gallagher & Directed by Ken Bentley – CD / Download (Big Finish)
Stephen Gallagher’s history with on-screen Doctor Who extends to just two stories.
Nightmare Country is story number three.
He’s on record – not least in the Behind The Scenes material on this release – as saying that he wasn’t especially happy with the way his first script for the show, Warriors’ Gate, turned out. He’d done a great deal of work on the script, and quite a lot of it proved unusable within the timescales, and more importantly the budgets of the early-Eighties BBC (at least according to then-script editor, Christopher H Bidmead), leaving Warriors’ Gate a fairly high-concept script rendered into BBC being by quiiiiite a lot of nothing, some great models and effects shots, some less-great scenic images and a cast of good actors trying gamely to make the strides the script demanded of them and not really getting there.
Gallagher, he says, had a bit of a moan about it to then-producer John Nathan-Turner. Nathan-Turner’s response was to commission Gallagher to write his second script, Terminus. There were some similarities in the material – a shipful of malcontents in a troubled situation, a hugely tall animal biped who saves people after being treated badly, and a beloved companion being somewhat hastily written out at the end (Romana in Warriors’ Gate, Nyssa in Terminus).
Nightmare Country was Gallagher’s pitch for Season 21 – the season which started with the chronically overlit return of the Silurians and Sea Devils, and got better as it went on, culminating in Peter Davison’s swansong, The Caves of Anrozani, before effectively jumping off a cliff with the first Sixth Doctor story, The Twin Dilemma. The one, if you recall, which featured a giant slug as the villain, despite it looking like a roll of dodgy Student Union carpet after Freshers’ Week with a pair of Elton John’s spare glasses stuck on top.
‘You’ve sent us another million-dollar movie and we just can’t do them’ read the note Gallagher received from the Doctor Who production office in response to his Nightmare Country pitch.
To be fair, if they couldn’t manage a bipedal slug, they may have had a point.
Now, thanks to the power of audio and the determination of Big Finish to meet demand from fans that every nook and cranny of potential storytelling be explored, Nightmare Country has finally seen the light of day. And certainly the audio medium is its friend, because as an experience, it’s the least esoteric, most down-to-earth of Gallagher’s three Davison-era scripts.
That’s not at any point to claim it’s not hellishly complex, because it is, certainly as far as its core ideas are concerned – the Doctor has agreed to help a race called the Volos…do something complicated, involving a small team of…well, mental terraformers, essentially, to build a world out of pure firmament and their conscious thoughts. Planet-building, to order, by the power of a small collective of minds in a shared consciousness matrix, while their bodies remain in the conventional material universe. The tricky thing about which is that anyone who goes into the semi-comatose state necessary to do the job wakes up in the virtual space of planet-creation without the slightest idea of how they got there. Which you might think – and spoiler alert, you’d be right – makes the whole planet-building thing a touch on the tricky side. Especially when it turns out the mindspace looks like a world of relics and old bones, and there’s a horrifying enemy in situ to hamper proceedings – a species called the Vodyani.
With it so far?
Introduce some scientific skulduggery and the accidental inclusion of a history of war, and we’re off to the races – the Doctor, who doesn’t know he’s the Doctor, must help the strangers he encounters, who are suspicious of him, to escape the clutches of the Vodyani, do…something they can’t quite remember, and if at all possible, get out of the mindspace they don’t know is a mindspace by walking through a very particular door.
Still with it? Anyone weeping for the straightforward impossibilities of Warriors’ Gate yet?
Relax a little. The great mantra of creative writing is ‘Show, don’t tell.’ Which is why Nightmare Country works a great deal better as an experience than it’s ever going to do in explanations on a page. While the Doctor’s quest for enlightenment and the emergency exit goes on inside the mindspace, Tegan and Turlough each have a strand of activity to keep them busy – Tegan becomes a volunteer to go and bring the Doctor back, while Turlough tackles the skulduggery that has at least in part led to the whole ‘conscious planet-building’ thing going spectacularly wrong.
Turlough comes out of Nightmare Country with honours – which would have been consistent with the development of his character-arc (such as it was) in Season 21, away from desperate exile-turns-would-be-killer and into something more genuinely helpful and at ease with his knowledge. On-screen, there would have been a greater treat for viewers too, because there are scenes in this story set in the secondary control room, that great old wood-panelled version of a Tardis console room that had paved the way for experimental console room design and took the show away from the necessity of a brightly lit, mostly white Tardis interior. Turlough flips all manner of necessary switches in that old room here to help defeat a cunning opponent in a game of Zero Room hide and seek, showing himself to be clever, resourceful and even, when it absolutely comes to it and there’s no more slimy alternative, rather merciful.
That said, Tegan’s journey in this story shows what could have been (with a tweak here and there), a much more satisfying departure story for her character than was actually delivered on-screen in the last handful of heartbeats of Resurrection of the Daleks (Come on, this is the writer who got rid of Romana, K9 and Nyssa, you know you want to pop into the alternative universe where he got to write out Tegan too). Tegan here shows not so much what she’s learned from the quietly heroic Fifth Doctor, but what was latent in her from the very beginning – a desire to help people, and to facilitate their lives through the actions of her own. It would have been a much stronger, nobler, less what-the-hell ending for the mouth on legs, and it works beautifully well within the confines of this story too. There’s even, and whisper this because no-one can believe it, hugging between Tegan and the Doctor before everything goes staggeringly wrong. Again.
That’s a thing that certainly feels developed in Nightmare Country on audio – the pacing’s good, the cliff-hangers are strong enough to give you the necessary moment of shock, and the flipping of the script between episodes 3 and 4 really takes the energy of the whole thing up another couple of notches, as ideally it should do as you power on towards the climax of the story. Stephen Gallagher here, under Guy Adams as script editor and Ken Bentley’s direction, manages to both eat his cake and have it, delivering a script that’s at least as packed with mind-bending ideas as either of his two on-screen stories, but where the relationships between characters are for the most part less fraught, and therefore less hard work for listeners, and the threats become clearer and more concrete as each episode progresses.
The script and the main cast are significantly bolstered in delivering Gallagher’s vision in an engaging way by the presence of two Big Finish stalwarts in the cast – Tracy Wiles, who’s approaching her thirtieth Big Finish release, and Beth Chalmers, whose number’s nearly double that. New and exciting voices should of course always be used where possible, but when the ideas are complex (building planets by conscious thought-matrices, remember?), there’s something about having a couple of familiar voices alongside the Tardis team that helps the medicine go down in a most delightful way.
If you’re a fan of Warriors’ Gate and Terminus, you’re going to need to listen to this to hear what might have been, had Eighties Doctor Who had 2020 Doctor Who’s budget. If you’re not a particular fan of Stephen Gallagher’s on-screen Who, give this a listen anyway – it might well convince you that the things you’re not keen on were more a product of the spit-and-sawdust budgets of the Eighties production than of the scripts themselves, because on audio, where the listener brings the world to life by the power of their imagination, Nightmare Country’s a bit of a dream come true. Tony Fyler