Assembling a genuinely impressive cast and enlisting the help of brilliant creative consultant, 2004’s The Crystal Conundrum seems a significant step forward for the Sci-Fi Sea Cruise… at least on paper. It’s just a pity about the clumsy execution, which prevents it from being a straightforwardly entertaining romp, and certain special effects which are genuinely worse than anything in regular Doctor Who.
This video marks the debut of the time vortex credits which will become standard for the series: the Tom Baker-era “diamond” logo superimposed over a rippling, zooming sea of blue and white static (an unintentionally good choice for something shot on a cruise ship). The classic Delia Derbyshire theme is used in the opening, and gives way to the grating but apt Seventh Doctor theme for the end credits.
We see the TARDIS materialise on the cruise ship courtesy of an awkward two-dimensional green-screen effect. (Could have done without, but not the end of the world.) Out step the Seventh Doctor and Bernice Summerfield. Now, this is remarkable for two reasons.
Firstly, the Sci-Fi Sea Cruise has managed to get Sylvester McCoy, an actual Doctor, to play a substantial part, and he quickly establishes himself as the MVP for the entire enterprise. With no shame, no reticence, and no pretentions about what constitutes proper acting, he completely throws himself into the role, displaying the sort of insane buffoonery and comic overacting one normally only sees in his outtakes. A performer first and an actor second, McCoy is the perfect star for this sort of outlandish entertainment, the fan video context allowing him to push the Seventh Doctor’s ever-present clownish aspect further than ever. In a small concession to his classic costume, he’s even wearing a good old panama hat.
Secondly, Bernice Summerfield has literally never appeared in live action before – she’s a spin-off character, originally created by Paul Cornell for a novel series in the 90s, and later migrated to the Big Finish audio dramas, where she was played by Lisa Bowerman. In The Crystal Conundrum, Bowerman takes the role to the screen for the first time, and basically nails it. An experienced theatre actor who’s worked with McCoy countless times, she has no trouble recapturing the characters’ dynamic, playing Bernice with just the right level of emotion and wry cynicism to balance the Doctor’s clowning. (She wears regular clothing, which is fine for the character.) It’s enough to make one wish for the chance to see Charley Pollard, Eveyln Smythe, Lucie Miller, or any number of other audio companions in live action… even if it’s only in a dodgy 14-minute video shot by amateurs on a big boat.
The video quickly establishes a link to Death Takes a Holiday as the Doctor takes out his Zybanium crystal, explaining, “I had trouble with it a while back, and this one is wearing out. I’m going to replace it.” The reference doesn’t make the story any more confusing for an audience who hasn’t seen the original, but it does display a level of fannish self-involvement, and the decision to connect directly with an otherwise completely unrelated video (not to mention naming it after the reused McGuffin) is rather navel-gazing. In a comedy bit, the Doctor drops the crystal, which cracks.
It quickly becomes apparent that The Crystal Conundrum is being made with far less technical finesse than Death Takes a Holiday. The camera rarely moves, with long static shots that make it feel more like watching a play than television, but then again, that’s also true of the William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton years. The audio quality is markedly lower, with lots of wind, but at least the dialogue is always audible. In the uploaded version, the video also appears to have been shot in 4:3 and stretched to 16:9, meaning it requires some messing about with player settings just to make it watchable.
Using the cracked crystal’s energy, the Doctor psychically communes with his past companions so that he can summon one to “balance the pull” which is trying to drag him into his own future. How this works is never explained, but it basically means that we have to content ourselves with more cut-away scenes involving actors who weren’t on the cruise. First we see Louise Jameson as Leela, then Richard Franklin as Mike Yates, then Deborah Watling as Victoria Waterfield. Each is filmed seated alone in a room, wearing modern clothes, and looking rather old. (This is reasonable for Mike and Victoria, but Leela should still be on Gallifrey at this point, and it does not look like Gallifrey.) They each express a wish to “help” the Doctor somehow, then tell him he must go “further back”. As in the cut-away in Death Takes a Holiday, the dialogue is clearly improvised, vague and wishy-washy. Finally, the Doctor decides that Jamie McCrimmon will do, and conjures him onto the cruise. (The Doctor says that he’d hoped to summon Adric for his mathematical skills, which seems slightly callous given that Adric is a dead teenager.) Jamie seems not to recognise the Doctor, who hypnotises him to restore his memory. His reaction, “Doctor… well, you’re not my Doctor, and you’re certainly not the fat one with the curly hair, but… you look different again!” makes it clear that he remembers not only his adventures with the Second Doctor, but also his time with the Sixth Doctor… yet only after the Seventh Doctor restores them. The fact that the Seventh Doctor could restore them implies that that’s what the Sixth Doctor did prior to Death Takes a Holiday, but it seems that the effects of this memory-jogging hypnosis are only temporary. When the Doctor explains, “They got me because my costumes were cheaper to make. Slimmer body”, it’s unclear whether this is a meta-reference to the video makers (which would make it unique in the series) or some kind of comment on whatever unknown forces brought him here diegetically. Since Jamie is wearing an inexplicable nightdress, the Doctor takes him to the laundry room, where (as is his wont) he steals him some clothes. When handed a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, Jamie asks, “Couldn’t you find me something out of the TARDIS? My own clothes, for instance?”, in what will prove the only time a cruise video even raises the possibility. The Doctor replies, “I’ll explain later”, which can at least be credited as an attempt to be funny and self-aware, even if it is lifted from The Curse of Fatal Death.
The simple choice to start off with the Seventh Doctor and Bernice, an established TARDIS team from the show’s wilderness years, automatically gives The Crystal Conundrum a clear position in the wider context of Doctor Who. Specifically, it seems to be set between their first meeting in the Virgin New Adventures novel Love and War and Ace’s rejoining the TARDIS crew in Deceit. (Right in the middle of the darkest, grittiest, edgiest run of Doctor Who stories ever – perfect.) The makers fumble this advantage by crowbarring in Jamie and inserting cutaways to other companions, but The Crystal Conundrum still feels like it’s on the verge of being a proper Doctor Who adventure – much more so than Death Takes a Holiday, which only aspires to “weird BBV spin-off” (and gives Downtime a run for its money, if we’re honest).
In Death Takes a Holiday (which is starting to look increasingly logical as a story), cracking the Zybanium crystal causes the TARDIS to malfunction and age everyone prematurely. In The Crystal Conundrum, it “punches holes in the fabric of space-time”, causing things to grow gigantic. (Apparently Zybanium is perfectly calibrated to produce whatever effect would be most helpful in dealing with the events of an amateur Doctor Who story which must involve an almost completely random combination of classic characters in addition to several unimpressive Americans.) First a tourist starts babbling about a dolphin turning into a whale (which happens off-screen, mercifully). Next a forced-perspective shot is used to have the characters meet a pair of giants emerging from a Professional Jockey Association Meeting, in what would have been a surprisingly good joke if it hadn’t been ruined by a tourist who screams very, very unconvincingly. The actors burst out laughing at McCoy’s ad-lib that they should keep going “because I want to get mine bigger”; thankfully this was left in the final cut, though it’s only just audible.
Once the cruise reaches Mexico, the Doctor, Bernice, and Jamie head for the pyramid seen in Death Takes a Holiday, where another Zybanium crystal can be found. (To be fair, this isn’t that much of a coincidence, as the Doctor did say he was planning to replace the crystal even before it got cracked.) Footage of spiders, cats, and lizards is superimposed over the landscape in an attempt to make it look like the dimensional instability is causing the creatures to grow gigantic; the production aims for Kitten Kong but lands somewhere in the “not even After Effects” category. (There’s also mention of a giant armadillo. Interestingly, the crystal only seems to affect living animals.) In a manner anticipating the house style of Russell T Davies, the scale of the phenomenon is established by jumping to media coverage – in this case, a radio broadcast about the animals, including a soundbite from the Brigadier. “I would line them up against the wall, and shoot them”, he declares matter-of-factly, though it’s unclear if Courtney actually recorded the line for The Crystal Conundrum or it was reused from some sort of reading. Come to think of it, how great would it have been if the Davies had brought the Brigadier in for occasional 30-second cameos during his media montages (maybe instead of Richard Dawkins or the bloody Osbournes)?
This time round, the actors are actually up for climbing the pyramid, so we get some lovely landscape shots. At the top, they meet the same archaeologist couple at a wall which is clearly meant to be the same one visited by the Brigadier and Zoe. (If filming was still banned at this point, they apparently just sneaked in a smaller, crappier camera.) They’re arguing over the inscription again, but since Bernice is an archaeologist, she’s able to translate it for them with ease. It’s nice to see her do some actual archaeology in her only live-action adventure – in fact, it’s disconcertingly sensible for something like this. In another surprisingly good character moment, the Doctor expresses frustration at those who carved the inscription, saying, “I didn’t instruct them to write that! … I told them I didn’t like the blood bit, but they put it in.” This fits neatly with the Seventh Doctor’s tradition of revealing that he’s been orchestrating the events of a story from the very beginning, and the general folk memory of this incarnation as a devious and manipulative “chessmaster”. (Apparently, the Seventh Doctor travelled back in time and instructed an unnamed alien race to leave Zybanium crystals inside the secret alcove atop the Mayan temple, which he presumably had the Mayans construct in the first place, all so that his previous incarnation could send the Brigadier and Zoe there to retrieve one. This is the ridiculously manipulative Seventh Doctor you only really get in spin-offs.) The male tourist from the previous video faints at the mention of blood, prompting everyone to call him a “wuss” in a baffling recurring joke that probably refers to something very funny that only cruise passengers know about. Jamie produces a sonic screwdriver, meaning the “door” can be opened without even bothering with the blood sacrifice. (Jamie must have received it from a previous Doctor, perhaps the Sixth around the time of Death Takes a Holiday. The Doctor says he hasn’t used it since his “fifth regeneration”, which is ambiguous terminology. It appears to be the same model used by the Seventh and Eighth Doctors in the 1996 film; the Doctor doesn’t return it to Jamie here, so this could well be the same one he’ll use to the end of this life.)
Back on the cruise, the Doctor manages to stop the dimensional destabilisation by fiddling with the Zybanium crystal (and wiggling his hat back and forth to signify concentration in the most Sylvester McCoy way possible). One of the most poignant moments in the entire show is when the Second Doctor bids farewell to Jamie and Zoe in The War Games, knowing that they will forget their adventures with him. It’s played with beautiful understatement by Patrick Troughton, and in The Crystal Conundrum, McCoy has the chance to riff on that moment as he uses the crystal to teleport his companion home. “Thank you, Jamie… wherever you are.” No real attempt is made at profundity, but when McCoy delivers the line with his wistful theatrical flair, it’s about as moving as it could ever be in the context of such a strange and arbitrary story. It also underscores the degree to which companions really only bond with incarnations of the Doctor, and not with the Doctor himself. Next thing we know, he and Bernice are off to the TARDIS (by way of the bar – another apt character moment, and the sort of line serials with these characters really would have ended with.)
In addition to The Crystal Conundrum itself, the cruise released a short trailer including some specially shot footage, not present in the main video. The scene where that blood-phobic tourist faints when he heard Bernice order a Bloody Mary is tedious, but there’s a far more interesting bit where the Doctor and Bernice drag Jamie away from the bar… which is tended by a pirate played by Robert Shearman, the acclaimed playwright who wrote the episode “Dalek” and several Doctor Who audio dramas which are better than any actual episode of the show. Shearman was on the 2004 cruise, and in addition to the trailer cameo, he is credited as a creative consultant for The Crystal Conundrum.
In 2007, Shearman published “Jolly Roger”, a short story about a man who has to cope with his wife’s recent death while taking a cruise they booked together beforehand. In typical Shearman fashion, it’s a warped psychosexual nightmare that expertly interweaves a very human relationship with strange and macabre magical realism. He also says that much of it was true. Perhaps it was informed by his experiences on the rather dull 2007 cruise, where the organisers’ decision to base it in Europe backfired – they only got one normal English passenger, the rest flying over from America, and didn’t even bother making a Doctor Who video. (They still released a DVD, though. God knows what’s actually on it beside the short, but the sublime ridiculousness of its front cover surely justifies it. Look, it’s even got that same uncial font Father Ted uses.)
One imagines Shearman’s input can only have helped the earlier video in some manner, but The Crystal Conundrum is just too diffuse and unformed for his influence to really manifest. Still, it’s mostly fun, and as close to the real show as these videos will ever manage. Later we’ll see what happens with no good writers on board at all.