Tony’s reached his stop.
Terminus is a Doctor Who story that’s hard to love. Even among the Black Guardian Trilogy which introduced us to Turlough, the universe’s whiniest redhead, it’s the least of the three by some considerable way. It’s a symphony in beige and cheapness, with a storyline that frequently borders on the impenetrable, and at several points crosses the border into sheer barking convenience, if never quite madness because it’s always clear that the people behind it know what’s supposed to be going on, even when the audience has little idea, or has long stopped caring.
Writer Stephen Gallagher was an odd fit for Doctor Who at the best of times – his two stories, Terminus and the earlier Warriors’ Gate have things in common, including a gruff, fairly demoralised crew, some oddly leonine or other fantastical beast-creatures which turn out to be rather more civilised than might be at first imagined, and some fairly hardcore science fiction physics into which he requires you to buy if you’re to give much of a toss about what happens over the next couple of hours. If you care more about, say, solid characterisations than what might conceivably have happened to explain the Big Bang, Terminus is hard going.
But there are things about it that you’ve probably forgotten. The most useless-looking and ultimately redundant robot since The Sontaran Experiment? That’s here, for reasons no-one understands. Liza Goddard as Kari and Dominic Guard as Olvir in spacesuits that are essentially Eighties shoulder-padded leotards with goldfish-bowl helmets that seem to bulge especially to contain their wildly demented Eighties hair. Turlough and Tegan frankly fannying about in the wainscoting for the best part of three episodes trying to do…something. Honestly, we’ve just finished watching it, and the reason they were down there is already running the hell away from our brain.
Then there are things that you’ll probably remember – the Vanir (the guards were called Vanir, for no terribly good reason) in their skeleton-designed severely cheap-sounding plastic ‘radiation armour,’ each of them looking like they needed a good wash. The endless shuffling parade of beige and raggedy rent-a-lepers known as the Lazars (oh yes, from the root of Lazarus, presumably, he who allegedly was returned to life), that serve no real purpose but to be there, and give Terminus itself a reason for existing. The Garm – the humungo-dog-cum-genie who comes when he’s bidden, yearns for freedom and turns out to be both extremely useful at pushing unpushable levers to save the universe from going foom, and a restrained-by-the-company lab tech who could well have the basis of a cure for Lazars’ Disease, a fact of which the Vanir seem stunningly clueless, given that there are presumably shiploads of people who get sent out of Terminus, all toasty and irradiated.
Oh and of course, there’s Nyssa, towards the end of Episode 4, swanning about the place in her smalls for no terribly good reason except, as Sarah Sutton has since put it, ‘to give something back to the fans.’ The fans, believe us, were duly grateful, though whether today, even in the age of Doctor-snogging, there’d be quite so many…ahem…interesting angles is highly debatable.
Oddly, Terminus is at its best before anyone forces Gallagher to get to any kind of a point – in Episode 1, a surprising amount of time is eaten up with Turlough messing about with Tardis roundels, being shouted at by the Black Guardian, and then being narked at by Tegan as she takes him to ‘his room,’ which used to belong to Adric. Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson are on great form here, as Tegan honestly and up front tells the newcomer that he’s weird and she doesn’t trust him because he’s unreliable, while Turlough, snot-nosed little git that he is, can’t help rub his ingratiating charm in her face. It’s an interesting dynamic because what it makes clear is that, while Tegan thought she had it bad with the last precocious, male, alien brat in the Tardis, this one’s an even worse replacement, and isn’t about to apologise for being what he is. Yes, in storytelling terms, it’s weird that Turlough has to take Adric’s rooms – it’s a semi-infinite set of dimensions, he really has to chuck out the belongings of the previous occupant? – but his place as exactly that, the replacement Adric, is underlined not only here, but at the end of Terminus too, where he’s being shouted at by an evil man, dressed in black, in a totally black environment, much as Adric was in Castrovalva.
When we start having to give a damn about Terminus, and the Lazars, and the Vanir, and the Garm, and the Big Bang, Terminus as a story is rather more in love with itself than either the budget or to some extent the writing encourages us to be as viewers – while the Vanir all have individual characters, and at least an actor of Andrew Burt’s calibre isn’t wasted as the rebellious Valguard, they do have the look of a tragic Eighties goth band, clonking about the place in their skeleton armour, engaging in power-struggles that never really mean that much until the end, when Nyssa and the Doctor give them access to a means of freeing themselves from company control. The Garm barely ever makes sense of any kind. The Lazars mostly disappear from sight, becoming just a ‘thing’ that needs solving, off-screen.
Liza Goddard is more or less what passed for stunt casting in 1983, and neither she nor Dominic Guard really make an impact in their massively underwritten parts. And…well, we mentioned Tegan and Turlough spend most of the story in the underfloor heating, right? If there was to be any such thing, that could have been a solid way of getting them to bury their respective hatchets, but no – because Turlough still has his big ‘confrontation with evil’ scene coming in Enlightenment, there can be no real thawing between them in Terminus, meaning they just faff about in the ducting for most of the story, while the Doctor adopts a single-story companion in Kari, and Nyssa determines she’s not feeling very well, and then suddenly is, but needs to be wearing far fewer clothes.
One way in which Terminus does succeed though is in Nyssa’s departure from the Tardis, which is handled far better than many other such endings, including the previous one for which Gallagher was responsible, when Romana decided to stay behind in E-Space. Here there’s argument, there’s pleading, and there are tears, but there’s also a speech from Nyssa that shows her having grown up beyond the Doctor’s tutelage, and hugs and kisses for both the Doctor and Tegan, who have become Nyssa’s family in the absence of her people and planet. There’s not perhaps an enormous amount of foreshadowing that it’s coming, but there’s more than, for instance, Sarah-Jane got. More than Tegan would eventually give. If Terminus has little enough to recommend it, it does Nyssa’s departure a reasonable amount of justice, and shifts the balance on the Tardis team by removing the intermediary and the referee between Tegan and Turlough. Whatever else its failings, and they are many, Gallagher and Sarah Sutton together make Nyssa’s leaving a moment of Tardis history that’s well worth remembering.