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Why the Nimon Should be our Friends

Storytelling and Stylistic Change in Doctor Who

By Phillip J. Gray

[The fourth Doctor]
Warwick Gray
FACT! The Horns of Nimon is a truly dreadful example of Doctor Who. After all, the story is dominated by over-acting, a silly script, poor production values... you can probably recite the generalised fan criticisms yourself. The Horns of Nimon issue of InVision opens with a preachy diatribe on the story's financial problems and states that it would attempt to "find out what went wrong ... and account for the story's ultimate failure despite the straightforward narrative and care of production."1

The assumption that a Doctor Who story could be counted as a 'failure' despite straightforward story-telling disturbs me deeply. What I intend to argue is that The Horns of Nimon is one of the last Doctor Who stories which concentrates on telling a story. It is notable for being the final story before Doctor Who became obsessed stylistically with shallow factors, primarily a focus on glossy production values. These were fatal to the series' central tenet: that the primary function of Doctor Who is to tell a story successfully.

Presently Doctor Who fans are rushing disingenuously to praise Doctor Who in the years 1977 to 1979. Fandom has been retreating from its once near-hysterical adulation of the early Nathan-Turner period, but after concentrating on the Hinchcliffe era is only now beginning to re-examine the late 1970s as a potential area of quality.2 The Fourth Doctor Handbook interprets the Williams period more generously than might have been expected even five years ago, commenting that the comedic/camp aspects of these stories "often disguised the fact that the scripts were, on the whole, highly literate and intelligent. They exhibited a knowing, post-modern playfulness with the traditional conventions and cliches of Doctor Who and of TV drama in general."3 I intend to examine this statement in relation to The Horns of Nimon and the importance of its relationship with the stylistic charges which took place in 1980.

Storytelling is the central feature of The Horns of Nimon. The plot is unlaid carefully at an even pace throughout the story. The initial exchange between the pilot and the co-pilot set the scene immediately with a single line of dialogue: "The second Skonnon Empire will be born." The audience is immediately aware of several things: the decayed setting, that Skonnos is a militaristic but declining society, that it has plans to revive itself and that the Doctor will somehow become involved. The motivation for the Nimon's machinations on Skonnos is revealed in episode three, although the audience has known of the Skonnons' ambitions since the first episode and has received hints about the 'Great Journey of Life'. The grotesqueness of the Nimons' ambitions is painted in broad strokes. They are 'swarming like a plague of locusts across the galaxy, creatures that strip the binding energy' from the universe. In other words they are a variation on the vampire motif. InVision concedes that Anthony Read's understanding of Doctor Who was spot-on: "His script was near enough text book Doctor Who in terms of affordability, practicality, casting and structure."4 The in-jokes to the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur which culminate in the Doctors recognition of the maze-like structure of the Power Complex are satisfying textually because they are an overt confirmation of what many viewers would have recognised.

The stylised costumes and sets reflect elements of the plot. The elaborate shoulder pads of the Skonnons assist the story's scriptural depiction of a militaristic, self-important society. Romana's red hunting costume suggested by Lalla Ward refers to the hunting of the bull. The production reinforces the nature of the storyline, supporting the story as told by the script rather than dominating it. Moreover, occasionally the production actually aids the humorous subtext. When landing on Skonnos the Doctor remarks to K9 that they should land "somewhere unobtrusive" - and because of the nature of the central Skonnon set, the TARDIS appears in the very centre of the agora. When Seth tells the Doctor inside the maze "all these corridors look the same", this is an effective postmodern statement on the nature of the programme and a knowing nod to the audience. Presumably the writer Anthony Read had a fairly good idea of the capabilities of BBC set designers. As a final example, in episode two the Doctor is in the maze attempting to mark his way by affixing paper stars to the walls. Not only is this a reference to Theseus's ball of string, it is also a knowing in-joke on the science fiction nature of Doctor Who itself.

In terms of characterisation, the Doctor is a straightforward investigator of events, and the programme's liberal/moral imperatives are in full force. Because of the Doctor s stated determination that the Nimon must be stopped the anti-imperialism of this story is much more succinct than the next tale to deal with the subject. Christopher Bailey's Buddhist references and the production's obsession with a visual display of the symbols of the Raj, rather than a coherent storyline, confuse and distort Kinda. Unlike the moral indecision of the Fifth Doctor, there is no hesitation by the Fourth Doctor on behalf of the Anethans. Romana too is determined to stop the parasitic Nimon, something confirmed by her encounter with the dying Sezom on Crinoth.

The relationship between Tom Baker's Doctor and Lalla Ward's Romana is an interesting one. Although Ward fulfils all the criteria of the traditional companion as the channel of explanation for the audience, because of her nature as a Time Lady and Ward's rapport with Tom Baker, Romana is something quite different. She seems more of an equal despite the Doctor being quite clearly in charge of the situation. It is Romana who points out the radioactivity of the Hymetusite and who suggests using the mineral to power the spaceship back to Skonnos. The 'switched sonic screwdriver' scene demonstrates Romana's technological prowess, yet Ward is careful never to overstate this (probably recognising Tom Baker's position as the programme's acknowledged star). Romana's behaviour is startlingly varied in The Horns of Nimon. In episode one she is capable of demanding that the co-pilot turn back for the Doctor, labelling him a "despicable worm". In other scenes Romana is the traditional line-feed for the Doctor, enhanced by the sly wittiness which is Ward's characterisation ("Oh, you will Doctor! You will!" she replies to the Doctor's wondering why he hadn't thought of the solution to the problem when she had). Such subtlety of performance adds layers to the traditional companion role without falling into the stereotypes of later companions: 'gentle' Nyssa, 'aggressive' Tegan.

Horns has been criticised severely for its guest performances. David Owen claims that the nature of the performances betrays the nature of previous Doctor Who style, which used "credible performers and dialogue to outline the unfolding of the incredible."5 Justin Richards also argues that the performances are largely inappropriate to this story, citing inevitably the notorious Crowden maniacal death-laugh.6 Graham Crowden's performance is a good deal more subtle than he has been given credit for, fans concentrating generally on the infamous laughing at the death scene which has been labelled illogically 'pantomime'. Yet the death scene is not unrealistic considering Soldeed's reversal of fortune and the character's realisation that the Nimon has deceived him. When Romana forces Soldeed to perceive that there are three Nimon in front of him the Skonnon tips over into insanity, although the viewers have been aware that the character has been unstable since his first appearance. Despite Doctor Who fans' po-faced expectation that the programme should be terribly serious drama, Read's writing and Crowden's performance demonstrate that the actor and the production team were aware of the mixture the general audience was expecting.

Analyses like those of InVision, which attempt to reconcile on-screen dislikes with back-stage and production 'faults', betray the intended nature of the transmitted story. The fan appraisal of Horns as a 'failure' because of 'inside information' on production represents a basic failure to realise that production information was not supposed to affect one's reception of the story. The vast majority of the 12.4 million viewers who watched episode four of The Horns of Nimon would not have known about the affect of the studio strike, and it is an illogical inheritance of the 1980s that fandom would judge a story on such grounds. Justin Richards acknowledges that the audience reaction to the story was favourable and that the memories of many of the personnel who worked on the story were generally not unfavourable. But he places great emphasis on the fact that the curtailed Shada had been allocated much more effort and money and was to be the climax of the season. Apparently Horns is incapable of being a story in its own right apart from the 'cheaply made filler story which should never have ended the season'. In plotting terms Richards admits that the story is more than adequate and that the Nimon have a credible motivation, but in his summation he returns to the production theme. Although thought-provoking, the article's return to fan stereotypes is unsatisfying because it uses the purportedly 'inadequate' production as a basis for judging the end product. Inferences such as these illustrate one of the greatest faults in fan appreciation of Doctor Who stories, a trait which was fuelled by the production-obsession of the Nathan-Turner era. When confronted by something mythologically bad fans grasp for some aspect of the production which can 'explain away' the supposed faults. In any case, a concentration on the 'production faults' of The Horns of Nimon does not successfully explain the disparities in viewer ratings between Seasons 17 and 18. Who fandom has major problems coming to terms with the fact that in the late 1970s Doctor Who was a popular, and a populist, teatime programme designed to appeal to the general public rather than to a small group of viewers. Many fans found (and still find) it difficult to accept that the 'serious drama' of Season 18 could be less popular than the 'pantomime' of its predecessor (the prime offender supposedly being Horns). Despite a disparaging fan reception at the time The Horns of Nimon was very well received by the general viewing public at Christmas 1979. It peaked with ratings of over ten million viewers in January 1980. Of course ratings should never be regarded as an adequate judgement of a television programme. Season 17's popularity had undoubtedly been boosted by the ITV strike, although this had been resolved by October 1979. Probably Horns shared in the consistent viewing patterns initiated by the BBC Saturday evening monopoly earlier in the year. But even taking this into account in the context of the audience for whom it was created The Horns of Nimon was an undoubted success.

Tim Hill

The stylistic differences between The Horns of Nimon and its successors are illustrative of the flaws in the programme's post-1980 format. Telefantasy always pays homage to its stylistic ancestry. The Hinchcliffe era did this often in a very contrived and obvious fashion with references to Forbidden Planet, Frankenstein, and the B-movie genre as a whole. It strikes me as extremely odd that fandom is prepared to accept intertextual spoofing in the elaborate costume dramas and space operas of 1974-77 (Planet of Evil, The Brain of Morbius to name but two), yet are not prepared to do so in Season 17. The Nathan-Turner era is often characterised as being a return to the 'serious drama' of the mid-1970s over 'pantomime', but such analysis fails to recognise the humorous subtexts of Seasons 13 and 14. In an interview for InVision on the script editing of Season 17, Douglas Adams argues that comedy should always underscore but never undercut drama in Doctor Who, working best when "in tandem with the drama, reinforcing it at certain key moments."7 The Seth/Teka double-act in Horns accurately reflects this essential stylistic device. The dramatic peaks of the story are accompanied inevitably by Teka's confident appeals that Seth will defeat the Nimon. At one point Teka is expounding the virtues of Seth, followed immediately by Romana's realisation that they are trapped in the cell as she has left her sonic screwdriver on the flight deck. In fact there are a variety of storytelling pairings in The Horns of Nimon. As well as the Doctor and Romana, there are Seth and Teka, who act as a conduit for explanations from the Doctor in the Power Complex during Romana's absence on Crinoth. Sorak and Soldeed also act as an expository duo, especially in the scenes in Soldeed's laboratory where the audience learns of Soldeed's bargain with the Nimon and the scientist's plans for the future. Soldeed's characterisation to Sorak of the Nimon as simple and under his control is an effective contrast to viewer awareness of the Nimon's technological superiority which has baffled even the Doctor and Romana.

Stories like Horns are full of references to the literary genre (rather than the Hinchcliffe emphasis on filmic referencing), but although this literary inter-referencing was a new direction it still operated within the series' central emphasis on storytelling. Under Graham Williams the story had been raised even above the previous norm to a postmodern emphasis on the telling of the narrative as much as on plot itself. In 1980 the previous stylistic similarity (regardless of purported 'gothic' or 'pantomime' elements) of focussing on telling stories successfully was discarded in favour of presenting a strong visual picture. What Christopher Bidmead and John Nathan-Turner failed to recognise was that Doctor Who was successful because of its textual balance between humour and drama, regardless of which was more overt. The dichotomy was all. Removing the humour (with vague promises of providing 'wit') distorted the narrative and corrupted the essence of the programme. The Fourth Doctor Handbook describes the programme's new direction as a "noticeable charge in [the scripts'] basic approach to storytelling, with less emphasis being placed on detailed, straightforward plotting and more on concepts, style and imagery."8 The Nathan-Turner/Bidmead Season 18 is the beginning of Doctor Who's inability to tell stories successfully to a general audience. Pseudo-science takes precedence over straightforward narration. During Season 18 glossy production values were supposed to hold together stories that were convoluted at best (Full Circle) or incestuous and generally incomprehensible (Logopolis). The Leisure Hive ("something of a triumph of style over content"9) and its early seasonal compatriots are told adequately, probably in large part because of the initial consistency of leads from the previous season. Bit even in stories like The Leisure Hive there are glaring inadequacies in the plot which visual effects were supposed to compensate. How can Romana and the Doctor know about the faked tachyonics experiments when they enter the room after the hologram has finished? The emphasis on production values degrades the credibility of the script. There would have been fewer problems if the script had been given priority over the visual nature of the story (in this case the hologram effect). In my belief this is why on repeated viewing many Eighties stories are reduced to inadequately-scripted visual cyphers. Too often after Season 17 Doctor Who is a programme consisting of visual effects with a script instead of a story with visual effects. The Horns of Nimon is the final Doctor Who story where the script comes indisputably ahead of the production. The fact that Doctor Who was cruder visually than flashy American series or big-budget cinema films is fantastically irrelevant. The programme's success had not been built on special effects but on solid storytelling. John Nathan-Turner's statement that Who had to attempt to keep up with Star Wars and the ilk illustrates his almost complete lack of understanding of what made the programme so unique, and ultimately so successful. American series such as Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers were unsuccessful because they emphasised the visual rather than story-based nature of their format. Neither lasted more than two seasons, and both had major structural changes for the second.

In Doctor Who the stylistic emphasis on a visual nature predominated by Seasons 20-21, and the arrival of Eric Saward as script editor contributed further to the decay: as well as abandoning its traditional focus on storytelling Doctor Who also abandoned its traditional liberal/moral imperatives. Violence and threats of violence in Horns are understated, or at least treated humorously. When the Nimon tells the Doctor that he will be "questioned. tortured and killed", our eponymous hero replies that he hopes that they'll get them in the right order. When Romana. Teka and Seth come across the hulk of a previous Anethan tribute in the Power Complex and guess what has happened, the reprisal of the Seth/Teka double-act underscores the situation without denying the graphic nature of the Nimon's feeding habits. This vital underscoring was virtually abandoned after 1980, especially after the arrival of Eric Saward as script editor. As Graham Howard's excellent article in TSV 40 illustrates, the violence of a story like Vengeance on Varos and the lack of any supporting and defusing humour is disturbing evidence of the moral uncertainty which had captured Doctor Who by the mid-1980s.

Instead of regarding The Horns of Nimon as "a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion to [Williams'] tenure as producer"10, I believe it should be regarded as the final Doctor Who story which has strong and consistent storytelling as its central aim. "Had [the fans] known that in years to come this degree of knowing wit, a deliberately self-conscious nod to the more sophisticated viewer would be rudely knocked out of the series to be replaced by a less stagey but also less self-aware form of presentation, they might have relaxed a little more, and settled back to watch a type of Doctor Who flourish that has not been seen since."11


  1. InVision 43: The Horns of Nimon, p2
  2. Something which I strongly suspect will be evident in the fan reception of the recent BBC Video release of Destiny of the Daleks.
  3. The Fourth Doctor Handbook, p167
  4. InVision 43: The Horns of Nimon, p4
  5. David Owen, 'Just Seventeen', InVision 45: Season Seventeen, p13
  6. Justin Richards, 'Simple Nimon', InVision 43: The Horns of Nimon, p12
  7. Douglas Adams, 'Adams appeal', InVision 45: Season Seventeen, p11
  8. The Fourth Doctor Handbook, p248
  9. The Fourth Doctor Handbook, p130
  10. The Fourth Doctor Handbook, p170
  11. David Owen, 'Just Seventeen', InVision 45: Season Seventeen, p12

Howe. Stammers and Walker, The Handbook: The Fourth Doctor (1992)
InVision 43: The Horns of Nimon, April 1993
InVision 45: Season Seventeen Overview, August 1993

Thanks to Graham Muir for the loan of the InVision issues.

This item appeared in TSV 41 (October 1994).

Index nodes: The Horns of Nimon
Note: Why the Nimon Should be our Friends was reprinted in the book Licence Denied - Rumblings from the Doctor Who Underground, edited by Paul Cornell (Virgin, 1997).