The planet Skonnos was once the center of a powerful empire, but no longer. In an attempt to reclaim its former power, the Skonnans have made an agreement with the Nimon, a double-horned creature of great power. In exchange for weapons, and assistance with rebuilding their empire, the Skonnans give the Nimon tribute in the form of young people from the neighboring planet, Aneth, and hymetusite crystals that provide nuclear energy. However, the final shipment of tribute malfunctions and disappears from the Skonnan radar. The TARDIS materializes outside the ship, and the Doctor extends the TARDIS’s defense shields to provide safe passage for himself and Romana. Once on the ship, they encounter the tribute–a small group of boys and girls barely out of adolescence–and the nervous, self-serving co-pilot, who has taken command at the death of the pilot. Between them, the Doctor and Romana get the ship going again, using some of the hymetusite crystals. But when the Doctor returns to the TARDIS, the co-pilot sets off for Skonnos, leaving the Doctor stranded in the path of a fast-approaching, planet-sized asteroid. Somehow, he must reunite with Romana, and help the inhabitants of Aneth escape the clutches of the Skonnans, and the dreadful Nimon…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
The last broadcast serial of season 17, “The Horns of Nimon” makes the final case that the show needs a breath of fresh air. The silliness and goofiness that has pervaded the previous couple of stories doesn’t abate–in fact, it abounds. Watching the first scene with the TARDIS crew, you have to wonder whether this is a Doctor Who parody, or if the production team are still in pantomime mode (it was broadcast from December 12, 1979 to January 12, 1980). For a number of reasons, as I will soon enumerate, this is probably my least favorite Doctor Who story.
What’s sad about that assessment is the fact that the story itself isn’t to blame. Made during any other season, with a different production team and script editor, it would have fared much better, I think. The basic story is of a deal cut between the people of Skonnos and the Minotaur-like Nimon. Skonnos provides Nimon with power crystals and tribute (basically, young humans from which to feed), and the Nimon provides Skonnos with weapons and help restoring the empire. The Skonnans are represented to Nimon by Soldeed, a manic soothsayer-type, who also presents the Nimon’s requests to the people. Soldeed believes he is manipulating the Nimon, saying what he/it wants to hear and dutifully providing the tribute, meanwhile reaping the greater benefits of the relationship. At one point, one of the Skonnans questions Soldeed about this, noting that such an imbalance usually portends something ominous. Soldeed poo-poos the idea, but he is too quick to dismiss. As we later learn, there isn’t just one Nimon, but many, many Nimons, and they are utilizing the power of black holes to travel from planet to planet, draining them of their resources like parasitic nomads. They have about used up all the people and resources of their current base, Crinoth, and are set to invade Skonnos to do the same there. The tribute and crystals provided by the Skonnans are, in fact, the tools of their own downfall, as the Nimon makes use of them to give them the strength and power they need for their work.
As I said, this is a good premise for a Doctor Who story, and script writer Anthony Read (Douglas Adams’s predecessor as Script Editor) is to be commended for it. The main problem is there is so much whimsy, comedy, and hyper-melodrama added to the story, it’s hard to take it seriously. At one point, the Doctor, Romana, Seth, and Tika (two youngsters from Aneth) are hiding from the Nimons behind large consoles. The atmosphere of the show, and the way the Nimons move around, make me want to yell “Behind you!” like a small child watching pantomime.
The character of Soldeed is very theatrical, played with large gestures, and larger-than-life bravado and mischief. He is the classic villain, with an evil laugh, booming threats, and a showy, drawn out death scene. In short, he fits the mood of the serial. At one point Soldeed even calls Romana a “hussy”!
The Doctor makes an interesting comment, when he spins the TARDIS to make it bounce off an oncoming asteroid (whose idea was that?). He notes how he would have been “a great slow bowler.” This could be taken as an (unintended) foreshadowing of his next incarnation!
I have to say, Romana II is probably my least favorite companion. Mary Tamm’s Romana I was a lot more restrained, and far less like the Doctor, which was good. Romana II gets particularly shouty in this story. Excessively shouty, in fact. The dialog between Romana II and the Doctor can be witty, but often it’s nonsensical, and they sound like a pair of full-of-themselves undergrad students.
Amidst the budget-challenged effects (which includes model shots recorded on video, which never look as good, and some dubious firearms), there are some good and well-executed ideas. I like the corridors that change their configuration, so they are like an impossible maze. (Since the Nimon is based on the Minotaur, it only makes sense he has a labyrinth.) And the final explosion model shot, which was recorded on film, is probably the best effects shot of the whole story.
To sum up, don’t bother. Okay, if you’re the die-hard, completist Whovian, watch it, but you have been warned. For the rest, don’t panic. Things do get better. 🙂