Terminus ★★

Nyssa strips off for her series departure – in a grim tale about disease, a big dog and the centre of the universe

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Season 20 – Story 126

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“It could be pure coincidence, but Terminus seems to be at the exact centre of the known universe” – the Doctor

Storyline
Turlough is still being urged by the Black Guardian to kill the Doctor, and when he sabotages the Tardis, it almost breaks up. A fail-safe mechanism locks on to the nearest spacecraft – a liner transporting people infected with Lazar’s disease to Terminus. This space station, manned by the Vanir and a dog-like Garm, supposedly offers a cure, although no one has ever returned. The Doctor also realises that a fuel dump on Terminus caused the Big Bang and another one could incur its destruction. Nyssa discovers the cure for Lazar’s disease and leaves the Doctor to help turn Terminus into a proper hospital.

First transmissions
Part 1 – Monday 14 February 1983 (Wales); Tuesday 15 February 1983 (rest of UK)
Part 2 – Wednesday 16 February 1983
Part 3 – Tuesday 22 February 1983
Part 4 – Wednesday 23 February 1983

Production
Filming: September 1982 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: October 1982 in TC6 and TC8 (remount Dec 1982 in TC1)

Cast
The Doctor – Peter Davison
Nyssa – Sarah Sutton
Tegan – Janet Fielding
Turlough – Mark Strickson
Kari – Liza Goddard
Olvir – Dominic Guard
Black Guardian – Valentine Dyall
Inga – Rachel Weaver
Eirak – Martin Potter
Valgard – Andrew Burt
Sigurd – Tim Munro
Bor – Peter Benson
Tannoy voice – Martin Muncaster
The Garm – R J Bell

Crew
Writer – Steve Gallagher
Incidental music – Roger Limb
Designer – Dick Coles
Script editor – Eric Saward
Producer – John Nathan-Turner
Director – Mary Ridge

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
Alas, Nyssa! She never quite sparked into life as a companion, although Sarah Sutton always played her with subdued dignity and, with the writers, kept the character true to her roots as an ascetic, boffinish daughter of Traken. And now we can see that, since her debut in January 1981, Nyssa has matured into womanhood – it’s in plain sight when she gets down to her undies for a farewell to her fans.

It wasn’t Sutton’s choice to leave. On the BBC DVD she says she’d happily have stayed aboard the Tardis until Nyssa was “old and wrinkly”, and admits to being “very upset in that scene where Janet [Fielding] and I hug each other. I really, truly was crying.”

Unlike earlier companion exits that came out of the blue (Leela, K•9, the two Romanas), Nyssa’s adieu is built neatly into the story. In her first scene she’s passing the time by “synthesising an enzyme” in her Tardis bedroom. Such fun! She is then thrust into the unknown dangers of the space liner before any of her chums are, meets the diseased passengers and is infected herself. By the end, she chooses to stay on Terminus, sure that she can synthesise and improve upon the Vanir’s phials of restorative hydromel and perfect the cure for Lazar’s disease.

“Here I have a chance to put into practice the skills I learnt on Traken,” she tells her friends. “You’re a very brave person,” says the Doctor, visibly choked. “She’ll die here,” chirps Tegan, helpfully. Even if you’re immune to Nyssa, as I am, her farewell is fleetingly moving. Tellingly, she’s one of the very few companions the Doctor kisses goodbye.

Less successful is the treatment of new boy Turlough. His act of sabotage does set the plot in motion but thereafter, because we can’t have him failing to kill the Doctor every five minutes, he has to be kept out of the way. So Turlough spends most of the story trapped under a floor grating, along with poor Tegan, since he needs someone to interact with.

It would have been far better to involve them in the narrative and dispense with Kari and Olvir, the preposterously glamorous space raiders. Liza Goddard (the Skippy actress who became a star in the UK in the 70s and 80s with Take Three Girls, The Brothers and Bergerac) and Dominic Guard (the boy from The Go-Between) are redundant after episode one. Their moussed, backcombed hairdos now look so 1980s and have to be accommodated under vast perspex helmets.

The first episode, in hindsight, is one of the most effective of the season. An unusually long section is set aboard the Tardis (its maze of corridors and Adric’s old bedroom) with Turlough up to no good and bickering with Tegan. Oddly, a full seven minutes pass before the Doctor appears. The Tardis’s impending destruction and connection with an unknown vessel are particularly creepy, with throbbing, wailing sound effects and the ominous appearance of a painted skull motif.

At first, linking Lazar’s disease with leprosy reads like a lapse in taste. Part one’s cliffhanger has Olvir screeching, “We’re on a leper ship! We’re all going to die!” and a letter of complaint from the Leprosy Mission was published in Radio Times (see below). But writer Steve Gallagher’s intention was to destigmatise contagious diseases. And, in that, the story almost succeeds. It might have worked better had the Lazars and their plight been given a more emotive focus.

Gallagher’s scripts are full of intriguing sci-fi concepts, but the tone is unrelentingly grim – a far cry from the verve and spectacle of his previous commission, Warriors’ Gate (1981). The petty squabbles of the Vanir (gods in Scandinavian mythology) are of no interest to anyone. Fittingly, one of their number is called Bor.

Gallagher intended the Garm as a “mythical presence”, seen only as “a silhouette in the dark”. Instead the production team highlight its deficiencies from all angles – tubby, upright, bewhiskered, it resembles Peter Ustinov playing a knackered old dog.

The weakest aspect, though, has to be the one imposed upon the writer, that of Turlough’s ongoing pact with the Black Guardian. That the all-powerful being persists with it, rather than just vapourising the Doctor himself or, more practically, engaging one of the venal Vanir to do his bidding, seems very silly indeed.

Radio Times archive material

RT mailbag (12 March 1983)

RT billings

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[Available on BBC DVD]