Audio: BBC: Doctor Who and the Nightmare of Eden

Written by: Terrance Dicks

Read by: Dan Starkey

There are, across almost sixty years, a vast variety of “types” of Doctor Who story. There are the ones where you need more information to make the story really sing, like The Eaters of Light, by Rona Munro. There are the ones that sit in their own rich stew of internal backstory that just needs bringing out to absolutely fly, like Remembrance of the Daleks, by Ben Aaronovitch. There are the ones where what made it to the screen was joyful, and all you have to do is capture the same spirit in the book. And then there are the ones where the story is basically sound, but it was let down on screen by some element of budgetary constraint, whether it’s wobbly sets or a genuinely shonky monster-design.

Each of these types can very much benefit from a good novelization, because when you write the novel, you have a chance to expand the universe in which the story sits, to give more character points-of-view, or to short-circuit the audience’s disappointment with the on-screen version and make it not only credible but genuinely gripping.

The Odd and the Quirky

The Nightmare of Eden fits firmly into this last category.  Written for the screen by Bob Baker (co-creator of elements of Doctor Who mythos like Omega and K9), it’s an oddly quirky mixture of a hyperspace car crash and a sledgehammer subtle “drugs are bad, kids” message. Though “oddly quirky” is perhaps an unnecessary qualification, as the story was placed in 1979’s Season 17 – the season famously script edited by Douglas Adams. If you weren’t “oddly quirky” in that season, you probably weren’t going to get in.

The two storylines of grumpy space captains whose ships fuse while coming out of hyperspace, and a scientist who has a kind of photo projector that takes slices of the real environment rather than images of it, are ultimately united by the “drugs are bad, kids” motif – but not before there’s been time to introduce a shaggy, snarling bunch of monsters called the Mandrels.

And really speaking, it’s when the Mandrels appear on screen that the whole thing goes from “oddly quirky” to “Well, this is just silly now,” and you lose all the interest that’s been built up so far. They are not only poorly designed as monsters, they’re distinctly poorly played, the actors having no more inspired idea how to deliver them than by literally waving their arms about in trademark “I am monster, fear me!” mode, even as the action of raising their arms seems to make their Mandrel skin ride up and threaten to show their human belly buttons underneath.

Even Bob Baker expressed his disappointment with the realisation of his Mandrels, and the production has a troubled air throughout – the director, Alan Bromly, quit halfway through, having argued with Fourth Doctor actor, Tom Baker, and Producer Graham Williams had such a dreadful time stepping into the breach that he decided he was going to quit the show while making the story. It’s not necessarily called “The Nightmare of Eden” for nothing. From the moment the Mandrels appear, the whole thing has the feeling of a show becoming a parody of itself, and it’s been held up for decades as an example of how not to do Doctor Who.

The Power of a Novelization

That’s where the novelization process can be really helpful. Whether you’ve seen the on-screen version or not, in the novel you get the chance to recreate the Mandrels in words, which are always far richer than late-Seventies Doctor Who budgets. The novelization can smooth over backstage quarrels and immerse the reader or listener in the science, the human tragedies, the drug-running business, and above all, the genuinely intended scariness of the Mandrels, and reinvent The Nightmare of Eden as a potential classic piece of late-Seventies Doctor Who.

Step forward then, Terrance Dicks, by far the most prolific of the original Target novelizers, as well as being a writer and script editor for the show.

Dicks was beyond any shadow of doubt also one of the best Doctor Who novelizers, frequently able to enhance a story that hadn’t exactly dazzled on screen. And that’s a feat he performs admirably with The Nightmare of Eden. Keeping his prose relatively sparse, he nevertheless delineates his characters effectively, toning down the occasional piece of overplaying on screen, particularly from Lewis Fiander as Professor Tryst, so that you’re never broken out of the narrative by those “oddly quirky” elements, as you are on screen.

Instead, you’re left alone to focus on the business of space heroin – the “one time and you’re hooked” drug in the show is called “vraxoin.” Keeping things tight also allows the oddness of Doctor Who dealing with a “real world” threat like the potential devastation that drugs can cause to slip past you in the compelling push of the storytelling.

And the Mandrels, when they appear, give just enough of a nod to the TV versions that you get a sense of what they are, but also actually work as monsters, giving you the sense of something more akin to HG Wells’ Martians – “something the size of a bear, glistening like wet leather” as HG put it – rather than of something musty dug up by the BBC Costume department and shoved over the head of a much-put-upon extra.  

Super Starkey

So – all’s well in the world of The Nightmare of Eden novelization, then?

Pretty much. It’s short, agreeable, and gives you something you can read between meals without ruining your appetite. It’s the Milky Way of Doctor Who novelization.

And then, for the audio version, you hand the reading duties to Dan Starkey.

Dan Starkey, for those who somehow don’t know, is pretty much a vocal genius. He’s delivered tons of voices for the Big Finish audio drama ranges over the years, as well as becoming everybody’s favourite Sontaran in both on-screen Doctor Who and Big Finish drama as Strax, the Sontaran being gradually rehabilitated as part of the Paternoster Gang.

Starkey is well up for the challenge of voicing various Doctors, companions, and other players in the cosmic drama that make up Doctor Who, and like Jon Culshaw, he approaches the Fourth Doctor with a kind of leonine yawn on some of the larger, more expansive vowels, so you get a “Yeeeeess,” or a “Well, quiiiiite,” that actually does evoke the universe’s champion wearer of impossibly long scarves very effectively.

Combining that with a workmanlike differentiation of tones spread across the other characters gives you an audiobook that absolutely delivers value for money, while rescuing a story that had good bones, but was hampered both by design and budget issues, and on-screen also suffered from a touch of heavy-handed messaging, a strand of overplaying, and some hurried, unfortunate directorial decisions.

The audiobook of The Nightmare of Eden is probably as good as The Nightmare of Eden is ever going to get. If that sounds like faint praise, it shouldn’t – Bob Baker’s story actually has some fun and fascinating things to say alongside its moral outrage at the narcotics trade. And between them, Terrance Dicks and Dan Starkey lift those things out from an unfortunate televised version, and let it shine like a jewel in a jungle.

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