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Archive for the ‘Audio Reviews’ Category

Just today I got my (virtual) hands on a copy of Cubicle 7’s Fourth Doctor Sourcebook, which I am still assimilating and may yet return to in order to comment in more detail. (As you might expect, given my vintage I am a sucker for almost anything with Tom Baker’s Doctor on the cover.) This is, putting it briefly, a guide for creating storytelling game scenarios either featuring the fourth Doctor, or imitating the style of his stories. It’s actually a little surprising that the book is either too vague when it comes to summarising what makes this era distinctive, or rather too specific. ‘Be knowingly derivative’ is about the limit of the book’s advice, which if you ask me is simply waving vaguely in the direction of the surface, let alone barely scratching it. Then again, perhaps I am being too harsh: but nevertheless, if you know what you’re about it is relatively straightforward to distill the essence of the Hinchcliffe-produced seasons, at least, and whip up some new ideas in the same vein.

Or perhaps I’m taking too much for granted, as convincingly recreating the style and atmosphere of this most celebrated, not to mention dissected, era of Doctor Who is one of those challenges which quite a few have taken on, with outright successes being notably thin on the ground. Quite by chance, I’ve also recently been listening to Destination: Nerva, an audio from 2012 which also has a go at synthesising the magic.

nerva

Written and directed by Nicholas Briggs, this story sees the Doctor and Leela drawn to the aftermath of a battle between British soldiers and aliens, which has – somewhat surprisingly – taken place in Kent, in 1895. The victorious Brits have stolen the alien starship and headed off to parts unknown, and the Doctor, as usually, feels morally obligated to go after them.

However, the TARDIS takes the duo hundreds of years into the future, to a construction complex in Jupiter orbit where a new space dock is under construction: the Doctor knows that eventually the dock will become the Nerva Beacon, repository of the most precious cargo in human history, but that all still lies in the future for now. (The story is charmingly vague about when Nerva was actually constructed, most likely because the exact dating of one of the TV stories set in its early history is still somewhat controversial. Personally I’d date Revenge of the Cybermen to the mid-to-late 25th century and suggest this story occurs anything up to a century before that. But I digress, as usual.)

No sooner have the Doctor and Leela made themselves known to the authorities on Nerva than an unknown spacecraft is approaching – and, not entirely unsurprisingly to the listener, it turns out to be full of the nasty imperialist toffs and their followers from the start of the story, mysteriously unaged, and now carrying a horrific mutagenic disease of some kind…

Now, I would have said that all you needed to create a properly authentic fourth Doctor story in a performed medium was the presence of Tom Baker. He’s still so iconic, and still inhabits the role so utterly, that you really don’t need anything else, do you? However, Big Finish seem to have thought different and, no matter what horrific contortions the victims of the virus go through in this story, they’re not quite as extreme as the way that the story itself bends over backwards to try and cement its place as a bona fide extension to Season 14.

It opens with a virtual reprise of the end of Talons of Weng-Chiang, for one thing, with explicit references to Jago and Litefoot and the leads’ mock-Victorian attire from that story. As if that wasn’t enough, the story goes on to revisit the spiritual starting point of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era, the Nerva Beacon (as seen in The Ark in Space), and serves up a body-horror-influenced story about possessed astronauts. Okay, okay, guys: we get the idea.

The really weird thing is that, despite crowbarring in so many references to the on-screen stories from this period, Destination: Nerva really doesn’t feel much like any of them. One can’t really blame Nick Briggs for not being Robert Holmes, hardly anyone ever has been, but this just feels like a fairly bland runaround, with no sense of the ‘genuine gothic’ so beloved of Philip Hinchcliffe himself. (The swipes from Holmes, by the way, extend to reusing a plot idea from one of his Blake’s 7 scripts, but I’m not entirely certain this has been┬áconsciously done.) It’s pretty much a wit-free zone, too: I may be doing the script a disservice, but most of the Doctor’s funniest lines sound like ad libs from Tom. And, for a story so intent on immersing itself in the spirit of 1977, there are signs of a modern sensibility at work: there are two significant female characters, which isn’t exactly evocative of an era where many of the stories had no guest roles for women at all.

(Man, there’s a big can of knotty worms – I would never judge the sexual or racial politics of a 1970s story by modern standards, or at least not too harshly, but on the other hand is it acceptable to criticise a period pastiche for being too diverse? In this case I would cautiously say yes, given that Destination: Nerva plainly has being a Hinchcliffe pastiche as its prime raison d’etre. The inclusion of a more diverse cast may or may not help the story as a story, but they’re certainly a mark against its authenticity.)

On the other hand, the story’s desperation to prove itself a genuine part, or at least a continuation of, this era of the series may be understandable given that neither Tom Baker or Louise Jameson sound quite match-fit in this story. Their performances aren’t quite pitched right – 2012 Leela sounds shrill and up-tight where 1977 Leela was matter-of-fact and sincere, while the Doctor… I don’t know, the dividing line between the fourth Doctor and Tom Baker himself has always been, umm, porous, but to me it sounds like there’s a lot more Tom than the Doctor in the performance here. The effortless domination of every scene, and that subtle alien aloofness – both of them are not quite there any more. Some of it may simply be down to the fact that, inevitably, Tom’s voice has changed as he’s aged, and it doesn’t quite have the richness or power it once had.

Oh dear, I’ve been almost entirely negative about a story for which I am, theoretically at least, the ideal target audience: I’m a die-hard fan of the series who started watching at the end of Season 14, which is exactly when this is set. Are my standards too high? I don’t know. I have to say that I’m not particularly a fan of Nick Briggs as a writer – his stories are always solid enough in terms of narrative cerpentry, but they’re almost never especially witty or inventive, or indeed pack much of a punch in terms of subtext or emotional content. All this is true of Destination: Nerva – it feels like a statement of intent rather than an actual story, with the realisation not living up to the ambition.

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Well, one consequence of the recent transformations in my life is that I am now sharing the garret with 700+ CDs and DVDs (not to mention a couple of dozen World of Darkness sourcebooks, but I suspect they may be a bit too niche even for this blog), including the majority of existing TV Doctor Who and the entirety of the first six years of the Big Finish audio range.

I suspect that, ironically enough, the rise of Doctor Who to its current world-conquering televisual status has been really bad news for the audio range. These initial CD-and-tape releases were a massive deal for Whodom in the early 2000s, being the only place you could find proper actors doing proper new Doctor Who stories (followers of the novel range were prone to grumpiness on this point). Now, however, they are as niche as they have ever been – with all-singing, all-dancing Doctor Who readily available (and, occasionally, seemingly inescapable), you have to be especially dedicated to want to pay for even more.

I have to say that the only new Big Finish productions I’ve listened to in the last nine years have been their fiftieth anniversary special and a few Paul McGann stories that turned up on digital radio back in 2011. Increasingly I am beginning to wonder if my life might not be a little bit brighter if I dipped back into this particular world on a more regular basis: God knows I am disenchanted enough with the current version of the TV show, and the moment where I part company with it entirely is (I suspect) only one more change of lead away. Plus, partaking of more Doctor Who means more opportunities to write about Doctor Who, which is always something that makes me happy.

May as well start with a good one, so the first story I figuratively dusted off was The Holy Terror, from 2000. This tale was written by Rob Shearman, notable for being probably the only writer for BF to graduate to working on the TV series itself (a few others have come up through the ranks of the various novel ranges). It was highly regarded at the time, at least by those who bought it: however, it was apparently rather less successful than other plays of the time, something which the producers ruefully referred to as the Penguin Effect – shorthand for the tendency of insular fans to eschew stories they don’t consider to be ‘canon’.

holyterror

Insular fans are idiots, if you ask me: more than a decade on, The Holy Terror still sounds superb. Shearman’s audio stories tend to be set in strange pocket realms cut-off from the rest of the universe, and so it proves here. Irked by the Doctor’s current companion, Frobisher, interfering with the systems, the TARDIS lands in a very peculiar castle. The ruler of the population is venerated as a god by his or her subjects, and intricate systems and rituals have long been established to dictate the behaviour of virtually everyone involved. The newly-installed God, Peppin VII, is very unsure of his suitability for the position, but the grinding wheels of tradition look set to crush his rather tentative objections – until the Doctor and Frobisher (who closely resembles a large talking penguin) find themselves mixed up in events. But a homicidal, near-omnipotent presence is incubating in the depths of this very strange place – but what exactly is it? And does it have any connection to the strangest fact of all – that the castle has an inside, but no outside…?

Doctor Who on audio is a somewhat different beast to its 20th century TV incarnation, and vastly unlike the thing which is currently on TV. In some ways this is beneficial, as dubious sets and problematic special effects are considerably rarer in a sound-only environment. Certainly the story is (obviously) much less reliant on action and visual spectacle, but I think this rather helps it attain a state of true Whoishness: the series, for me, is all about strong ideas and characters, properly developed, and The Holy Terror is almost too densely packed with these.

Then again, this is a Rob Shearman script, and these are usually distinguished by savage black humour, unflinchingly graphic violence, and a fearsome density of ideas and themes. On the surface, The Holy Terror initially plays like a pastiche of I Claudius, played especially for laughs, and much of the play is about the seeming-absurdity of religious belief – characters complain about not being executed in the manner they expected, and so on. Then again, the play does have things to say about the importance and comfort of ritual, both religious and otherwise, which did not seem to me to be entirely unsympathetic. Then again, by its closing stages the story has moved on to be about guilt, and the effects of being caught in cycles of violence, and what it means for a parent not to love their child. On top of even this is a more scientifictional concern – namely, the morality of the treatment of sentient artificial beings. Just because someone isn’t objectively ‘real’, does that mean their feelings are of no import?

There is, obviously, much to contemplate here and it’s to Shearman’s credit that he manages to juggle these concerns and still keep the story intriguing and frequently very funny. That said, anyone used to the recent TV series will probably find it very talky, in additional to being tonally quite different: to say nothing of the fact that Shearman is quite happy to concentrate on his own characters for whole scenes at a time – not only are there key moments in which the Doctor and Frobisher aren’t present, they aren’t even discussed by the other characters.

Just as well, then, that the performances are so universally strong: the characters are usually stereotypes, but then that’s the point, and the players bring them vibrantly to life. The big names in this play are Peter Guinness, Roberta Taylor, and Sam Kelly, all of whom are excellent – Kelly gives a remarkable vocal performance in a dual role – but even a supporting actor like Peter Sowerbutts finds real pathos and poignancy in his scenes towards the end of the story.

Clearly revelling in it all is Colin Baker. His era of the TV series is still, for good or ill, relatively little-loved, but possibly the best thing about the whole Big Finish range is the opportunity it has given Colin Baker to show the Doctor he was moving towards being on TV: here he is slightly pompous and doesn’t mince his words, but he is still perceptive, intelligent, and deeply humane. Many other great Colin Baker audios were to follow, but this is perhaps the first that was truly outstanding.

As I intimated at the start, however, the revived TV series has seemed less keen to draw upon the audios for inspiration and talent than it has the novel range. Shearman only wrote one story, in 2005 – perhaps the process of writing eleven drafts of the script was not to his liking – and while Dalek is still one of the highlights of the revived series, it doesn’t have quite the depth or complexity of the CD story it was based on. Perhaps I, too, am getting more insular as I grow older, but it increasingly seems to me that the best of these CDs capture the essence of really great Doctor Who more closely than some ‘proper’ TV stories of recent years. And if you were drawing up a case to this effect, The Holy Terror would surely be one of the exhibits.

 

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