“A ship of ghosts, Doctor, going on and on and unable to remember why.” – Jackson
Everything about this story feels like a first rehearsal—from the lackluster delivery of the actors to silly production errors to bad direction and dialogue to ridiculous plot points that defy grade-school scientific credibility. I have to admit they were really trying on some levels. The story takes elements of Greek myth and subtly weaves them into a sci-fi tale, something which should have been a grand idea. They also tried to push the boundaries of technology by using a special overlay to have the characters seemingly running around real caves rather than a set. Unfortunately, none of it comes together well and, given the mediocre acting and storyline, we’re left with a rather unengaging story overall.
There are a few interesting surprises like the reveal of the Seers as oddly designed robots and the funny effect of the pacifier on Leela as she strokes Orfe’s hair. Some of the model shots are fairly well done, and there are surprisingly a few really great lines like when Leela reassures Idas of the Doctor’s ability to save his dad: “Do not worry. He has saved many fathers.” Some of the mythical references are almost too subtle to catch which is also kind of fun. (The Minyans chase the P7E which a clever re-rendering of Persephone or the crab nebula being named Charybdis.) They make a great decision at the end to have the Doctor realize the parallels and wonder aloud: “Perhaps those myths are not just old stories of the past, you see, but prophecies of the future.”
Much of the production is just irritating however—people waiting ages for cues, actors seeming distracted, entire scenes being reused, characters behaving in strange ways. How does Leela suddenly know how to use the shield gun (and the TARDIS)? Why is Herrick so eager to get into battle with the people he’s been seeking? Why add the unnecessary backstory of the Minyans as being related to Gallifrey and the Time Lords? Some of this is explainable as a way of shoehorning the Greek myth elements into the story (Hercules was hot headed, there have to be gods to figure in the storyline) but it doesn’t make sense to the story which is the more important thing. There’s bad acting (the first cutaway to the helpless slaves running from the falling rock is unintentionally laughable rather than tragic) and dialogue (“Whatever blows can be sucked.”) and also just flat out mistakes; right from the start, Tom Baker’s face is smeared with a handprint that is actually supposed to be paint the Doctor has gotten on himself (but it’s not referred to and looks like the makeup crew did a horrible job) then it’s gone when they arrive but back again at the end.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The moment when the normally loud and brazen Oracle realizes it is beaten and suddenly goes dark and in a subdued voice says “Then I have failed in my duty, and deserve destruction” is quite striking.
There were two points that struck me as explanations for things later in the series:
- Leela seems much more gentle and eager to help people after beings subjected to the pacifier. The lingering effects of this could explain why she would do something so out of character in the next story as to suddenly leave traveling with the Doctor to marry Andred.
- The Minyans’ database is able to identify the sound of the landing TARDIS as the sound of “a relative dimensional stabilizer in materialization phase”. This proves clearly that the sound is a normal part of all TARDISes and Doctor has not been making a mistake in his use of ‘the brakes’ as River accuses the eleventh Doctor of much later on.
There are lots of problems with the story and it’s one of the lowest points of the Baker era. Above all, however, I feel irritated by the mess that is its explanations of gravity, planet formation, and space.