“The profits on human suffering…” – The Doctor
People don’t seem to like this story, and some bad direction and off-putting costuming certainly give them reason. However, I think this is quite an excellent story if you look at the plot structure itself and surprises in it. The idea of a ship in hyperspace having accidently materialized intermeshed with another was a fascinating idea to me as a kid, and I still find it a well done way for us to enter to the story. I really like how, unlike a lot of Doctor Who stories, there is no apparent immediate danger at the arrival of our heroes; it’s more like the Doctor and Romana are just helping sort out a parking accident. We also meet the professor and his CET machine which is again a fascinating discussion of a sci-fi idea that initially doesn’t seem to have any menace.
When the Doctor discovers a cache of drugs on the ship, we do start to have a hint of something more serious in regards to events going on the ship—and a satisfying explanation for the odd behavior of the crew member that caused the crash. Indeed, the Doctor’s horror at Vraxoin and what the drug can do is quite an adult theme. (“I’ve seen whole communities, whole planets destroyed by this.”) The mystery of the story really takes off with the scene of Romana watching the projection of Eden on the screen when the camera zooms in until we suddenly realize there is a face of a man looking out. This surprise and others (like when the Doctor realizes you can enter the ‘picture’) keep the story going well. It then seems to turn into a standard tale of surviving a monster attack until the great reveal that the Mandrels are the source of the drug. This leads to the final explanation of the elaborate but entirely plausible scheme by those involved to facilitate the smuggling. Overall, I must say this is one of Bob Baker’s best constructed and best written stories.
There are lots of other interesting bits such as Romana getting to show off her technical prowess and her bored casual comments that show her advanced understanding (like her passing comment about how Russian dolls actually show a model of the universe). The whole story has a definite moral tone as the Doctor condemns the zoolike quality of the CET machine and especially when the Doctor coldly dismisses Tryst as he tries appeals to him as a fellow scientist for understanding of his motivation in smuggling the drugs to fund his research. The Doctor makes it exceedingly clear that scientific progress can never trump ethics.
So yes, the monsters are bit silly, the Azure guards seem slapstick, there are lots of bad effects and bad timing, and Tom Baker goes off the rails a few times—but I still the think the story over all should not be dismissed.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The depiction of the effects of the drug Vraxoin is a surprisingly serious theme for a kids show. I find the fact that the very sympathetic captain Rigg goes out of his head due to his drink being spiked with it quite sad. Also, the idea of a world in a picture seemed both amazed and disturbed me as a child when I thought of animals and people being “trapped” in it as it were. This struck me even more this viewing when I caught the line for the first time where Romana notes that Tryst must have scooped up huge chunks of planets leaving bald patches behind.
Unfortunately, a good story line can be ruined by some bad production. The initial hyperspace collision of the two ships was supposed to be a dramatic moment but the model effect is so minimal and yet held for so long that it is definitely one of the most boring “crashes” ever. This same problem happens throughout the story and seems to be bad coordination of direction and editing. They put in a lot of effects (laser guns, the biting creature from the projection, etc.) where the actors had to stand for a long time waiting for a cue. These are not well-timed to the effects and thus the characters just seem to be standing around awkwardly. Also, many fans hate the appearance of the Mandrels. I don’t mind their puppet like look overall but they are very ineffective costumes since they have stiff arms that can only be waved about. Their ‘attacks’ on people just don’t look that convincing. (The attack on the passengers by the Mandrels should have seemed horrible but the costumes of both kind of kill the mood.)