The Horns of Nimon ★

Despite drawing on Greek myths, this tatty, embarrassing production is lowest-calibre Doctor Who

183

Season 17 – Story 108

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“Did you know that someone’s building a black hole on your doorstep?” – the Doctor

Storyline
The Tardis collides in space with a vessel from Skonnos, which is transporting Anethan youngsters and radioactive hymetusite as final tribute to the Nimon. In his labyrinthine complex on Skonnos, this bull-like creature has promised power-crazed Soldeed help to rebuild a galactic empire. In truth the planet is but one stepping stone across the universe in the Nimons’ “great journey of life”…

First transmissions
Part 1 – Saturday 22 December 1979
Part 2 – Saturday 29 December 1979
Part 3 – Saturday 5 January 1980
Part 4 – Saturday 12 January 1980

Production
Studio recording: September 1979 in TC3, October 1979 in TC6

Cast
Doctor Who – Tom Baker
Romana – Lalla Ward
Voice of K•9 – David Brierley
Soldeed – Graham Crowden
Sorak – Michael Osborne
Pilot – Bob Hornery
Co-pilot – Malcolm Terris
Teka – Janet Ellis
Seth – Simon Gipps-Kent
Sezom – John Bailey
Nimons – Robin Sherringham, Bob Appleby, Trevor St John Hacker
Voice of the Nimons – Clifford Norgate

Crew
Writer – Anthony Read
Designer – Graeme Story
Incidental music – Dudley Simpson
Script editor – Douglas Adams
Producer – Graham Williams
Director – Kenny McBain

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
Picture the scene: two Time Loves aboard their rickety Tardis. “Come on, old girl,” says the Doctor. “There’s quite a few millennia left in you yet.” Romana’s bosom swells. “Thank you, Doctor” – until he snaps back, “Not you – the Tardis.” She looks daggers at him, before her hoity-toity air dissolves into a rare, beaming grin. It’s a moment to charm. Unfortunately, it comes right at the end of this four-parter and almost everything preceding it is Doctor Who of the lowest calibre.

When The Horns of Nimon first aired, how our hearts sank, my sisters’ and mine, as we spied the programme achieving a new low – a turgid quagmire of vapid characters, amateur dramatics, mirthless antics and clattering sets. Whatever happened to the enthralling, creditable drama we’d once loved?

We could only snigger in discomfort at the tatty production and terrible performances – from the extras as council members apathetically extolling, “The Nimon! Skonnos!” right up to Graham Crowden as villain of the month, Soldeed. His egregiously OTT portrayal obliges even Tom Baker to play the straight man.

The first two episodes are, by turns, punishingly dull and tooth-achingly embarrassing. The “gravity whirlpool” situation facing the Tardis and the Skonnon cargo ship is so feebly directed it lacks any peril. The Pilot and Co-pilot look like two old duffers manning a sewer works.

The pyjama-clad Anethans – lettuce-limp Seth and Teka, and their catatonic comrades – are a singularly wet bunch. We’re tempted to side with the Co-pilot who constantly derides them as “weakling scum!”

At one point the Doctor sees value in giving K•9 the kiss of life, then, in an execrably directed cliffhanger, he grabs the robodog’s head in mock terror as a planet – more of a dog biscuit – tumbles towards the Tardis scanner. Good grief.

Lurking behind all this are a promising script and interesting concepts from Anthony Read. Like Underworld (the first serial he script-edited), this adventure borrows from Greek mythology: Seth/Theseus brings a tribute from Aneth/Athens to Skonnos/Knossos and faces the Nimon/Minotaur in his complex/labyrinth… Crinoth=Corinth; Soldeed=Daedalus, perhaps… And the notion of the Nimons migrating from world to world like locusts could, in better hands, have been quite disturbing.

As it is, the man/bull aliens are absurd. Way back in 1987, the delightful costume designer June Hudson told me the ballet dancers playing the Nimons “had to try to move gracefully in these dreadful hooves we’d given them”. She’d sourced from Germany a “strange stretch material that looked sweaty and black” for the creatures’ heads. The result is a top-heavy, arm-flailing stagger, only partially compensated by resonant voices – which sound like the Nimons gargle on their own bile.

Shards of pace and atmosphere pierce through in the latter stages. Tom Baker approaches his part in earnest, while Lalla Ward becomes momentarily impassioned, at last breathing life and truth into the second Romana.

Certainly, she has plenty to do, with a solo trip to Crinoth, befriending Sezom (actor John Bailey played companion Victoria’s father in 1967) and zapping Nimons. She looks chic in her red horse-riding outfit and has even made her own sleeker sonic screwdriver, which the Doctor tries to purloin.

The Horns of Nimon may bring the 1970s to a dismal pass, but it had a toehold on the 1980s, where a flood of changes lay in store. And if it feels like a case of “out with the old”, one has to bear in mind how young some of the production personnel were. Graham Williams, then 34, “absolutely shattered” by three years in the producer’s seat, vacated it. Douglas Adams, 27, also moved on, having made his mildly successful mark on Who.

The largely disappointing season 17 should have ended with Adams’ six-part Shada, but an industrial dispute left the production half-finished. Valiant efforts have been made to resurrect it, but I believe his reputation would be all the poorer had Shada been aired. Adams himself confessed it was thin and mediocre. He told Doctor Who Magazine, “I thought, ‘Phew! – now at least I’m spared anybody seeing it.”

The collapse of Shada also marked the end of Dudley Simpson’s sterling 16-year run composing incidental music. In 1985, he told me how much Doctor Who had meant to him: “I loved it. I think it was the greatest challenge of my life, because every story was different and every episode gave me a challenge. Every moment. It came as quite a blow.”

Most significant of all, The Horns of Nimon sees the retirement of Delia Derbyshire’s arrangement of the theme music and Bernard Lodge’s vortical title sequences, which together had worked their spooky, hypnotic magic on viewers for 17 years.

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Radio Times archive

The episode billings and a letter and final response from outgoing producer, Graham Williams.

Nimon billings 1 & 2
Nimon billings 3 & 4
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[Available on BBC DVD]