Review [DW]: “Terminus”

20×4. Terminus
Writer: Steve Gallagher
Director: Mary Ridge
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: Turlough’s attempted sabotage at the Black Guardian’s behest results in the TARDIS materializing on a shuttle bound for Terminus, a spacecraft where victims of Lazar’s disease are watched over by slave laborers with little apparent hope for a cure. Meanwhile, a malfunction on Terminus could result in a catastrophic explosion if the Doctor doesn’t find a way to stop it.

Review: “Terminus” plays like some sort of Mad-Lib that got mistaken for a screenwriting assignment – “Compose a 90-minute television serial using the following: potentially interesting ideas, half-baked development of said ideas, drawn-out scenes of people wandering around and chasing each other on a spaceship, and a threat to the entire universe.”

If there’s one thing that distinguishes “Terminus,” it’s perhaps the rather grim situation that the Doctor and his companions are forced to confront. Neither the Lazar victims (who suffer from a disease that resembles leprosy) nor the enslaved caretakers left at the mercy of a greedy corporation seem to have much hope of anything changing for the better. The Lazar victims are mostly just waiting to die, placing little faith in the promise of a cure, and the slaves don’t supply them with any real reason to think otherwise and are dependent on hydromel supplies from the company for their own survival. The cure itself is administered by the Garm, a strange creature that initially seems as though it may be a threat, but in fact has been doing its best to cure the plague victims and is perfectly capable of communicating with the other characters. Even at the end of the serial, it’s not as if everything is resolved perfectly. In fact, the reason Nyssa decides to stay behind is that she correctly perceives that it will take a lot of work to get Terminus running as well as it could and should, and she wants to be a part of that effort.

This is somewhat darker material than typical Doctor Who fare, and while it makes for a more challenging setup, it leaves some pretty glaring questions unanswered. In general, I found it hard to understand how this situation arose in the first place. Where did the Garm come from and who put it in charge of administering the cure? If the cure actually works more often than not, why does one of the slaves tell Nyssa that nobody ever comes back from meeting the Garm – has it been secretly arranging to transport them off the ship? Then there’s the issue of the entire universe being threatened. Apparently Terminus used to be a time-ship, and the pilot time-jumped the ship forward just after dumping fuel that resulted in a massive explosion, with the explosion itself becoming the Big Bang – and now a similar explosion is impending if the Doctor can’t stop it, causing another Big Bang and wiping out the current universe. I won’t bother quibbling with the science here, but this is presented in an oddly perfunctory manner. If you’re not only going to reveal the origin of the universe but threaten its complete destruction within the space of 90 minutes, you ought to build up to it convincingly, not relegate it to a subplot in between scenes of people running around and hiding in air vents.

The beginnings of a good story are present in “Terminus,” but too many aspects of the premise are left unexplained, and none of the guest characters emerge as particularly interesting or compelling. As has been the case in a number of serials since the show adopted a new style under John Nathan-Turner in Season 18, it feels like the script is taking on too many things at once and ultimately doing justice to none of them.

Other notes:

– Tegan and Turlough do in fact spend the majority of the serial running around and hiding in air vents, to the point that the Doctor doesn’t even realize until close to the end that they’d left the TARDIS at all.

– That said, their conflict at the beginning – where Turlough proves himself capable of lying and manipulating to cover his tracks – is one of the more interesting scenes. Although Turlough clearly doesn’t want to go through with killing the Doctor, he’s definitely more self-centered and less moral than your typical companion. While this obviously makes him less likeable, it does introduce an effective element of unpredictability into the series.

– I commented in my review of “Mawdryn Undead” that it was unclear whether the other characters realized that Turlough is an alien, but it’s evident from the dialogue that they’re aware of it at this point.

Rating: ** (out of four)

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