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Posts Tagged ‘Sam Kelly’

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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