“We have waited, waited in the cold wastes of space. Waited for mankind to come.” – The Nucleus of the Swarm
After consistently strong stories for many seasons, I guess it was inevitable that we would have a real clunker for Tom Baker at some point. This is a horrible story on many levels but most notably it takes a possibly good idea (a virus that invades the mind and feeds on intelligence) and ruins it with silly ideas and less-than-serious dialogue. It feels like there’s a bit of dumbing down of the show at this juncture (probably in response to complaints about the more serious and scary stories of the Hinchecliffe era). Also, while there’s not a lot of need for scientific accuracy in a sci-fi program—a lot of things can be glossed over by a line of dialogue—everything does has to at least be internally consistent within the story. This show introduces concepts and then totally overlooks the implications or changes things to suit the story. The same happens with characters where reactions and decisions don’t match what we’ve been told.
There are a few good things in the story. It introduces K9 for one. (Just the fact of his introduction—his origin story is hugely underwhelming considering what a central character he becomes.) The model work is quite well done in a several scenes—a great landscape view of the planet, nice depictions of ganglia and neurons in the Doctor’s brain. There’s some good future history about the “Great Breakout”. I also like the Doctor’s dialogue with the Nucleus; it tries to appeal to the Doctor’s sense of equality by noting: “It is the right of every creature across the universe to survive, multiply and perpetuate its species. How else does the predator exist? We are all predators, Doctor. We kill, we devour, to live. Survival is all, you agree?” to which the Doctor quickly counters without a hint of malice “I do, I do. And on your argument, I have a perfect right to dispose of you.”
Unfortunately, most of the dialogue and plot don’t hold up. The worst aspect to me is the whole concept of the clone copies of Leela and the Doctor being made, shrunk, and injected in the Doctor’s body. It’s a Fantastic Voyage-type plot point which could have been very interesting but the motivations don’t make sense and the ‘rules’ of how it all works don’t make sense either. How can clones from a single cell have not only the physical characteristics but the personality, the memories, the clothes and accessories(!) of the original? Why is so much made of how they will get out if they are short lived clones that will simply disappear anyway? Why are the presented as separate beings but then sometimes (but not all the time) actions done to the originals affect them? How can they exist inside a body? (What are all the hollow spaces they are walking in so freely?) It’s especially irritating that so much of the description is scientific and biological and then suddenly they come to areas that are fanciful and symbolic – logic, imagination, fantasy. Much is also made of the mind-brain interface (“That’s the mind and that’s the brain. Two things entirely different but part of the same thing.” Huh?)
Other silly bits are the appearance of the ‘virus’ which goes from an odd lump to a giant shrimp(?!) that can’t even walk. And if it was always a microorganism that just happened to get made bigger through the Doctor’s technology, why is the cabinet readied for its incubation human sized and why are the new hatchlings on Titan big visible eggs? What is it actually doing in the cabinet anyway?
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The story seemed to start out well—the cold inhumanness of faceless space helmets of the three crew members is a disconcerting contrast to the cheery send-off celebration of the first crew. We’re not sure who either group is at first and for those few seconds when the three stand their silently and menacingly, it’s quite chilling.
- The Doctor notes that the TARDIS redecorates itself
People note the obvious crack in the wall before K-9 shoots it as a glaring goof (and it’s true that it was an unavoidable mistake due to a reshoot), but I find that to be easily explainable within the context of the story. The crack is there because it’s a stress fracture from the spaceship crashing into the station. When asked to make a barrier, K-9 immediately identifies this existing weakness in the wall which he is able to shoot at and thus break off as a large chunk along the same line.
Most of the plot is a let down—and sadly signals a move towards a lightness and less compelling set of stories. It’s also very irksome that the development Leela has had as a character seems to take a big step backward here. She comes across more dim than in previous stories.