What’s it about: It is 1917 and the Doctor, Hex and Ace find themselves in a military hospital in northern France. But the terrifying, relentless brutality of the Great War that wages only a few miles away is the least of their concerns. The travellers become metaphysical detectives when the Doctor receives orders to investigate a murder. A murder that has yet to be committed... Who will be the victim? Who will be the murderer? What is the real purpose of the Hate Room? Can the Doctor solve the mystery before the simmering hate and anger at Charnage hospital erupts in to a frenzy of violence
The Real McCoy: When the Doctor is knocked unconscious he uses it as an excuse to catch up some rest from time to time. When asked if he thinks there aren’t Germans out there conditioning their men in the same way he responds he can only deal with what’s in front of him and what he sees is wrong. He’s faced more firing squads than brook has had lukewarm dinners and he is only too familiar with the process. Call him suspicious but he always likes to have more than one way out of a room. I love the Doctor’s maniacal laughter as they escape on the motorbike.
Oh Wicked: It’s been a long time since Ace was called a lady! Ace and Hex suggest they work together and have no secrets, I think they forget that they are travelling with the million and one secrets under his hat seventh Doctor. I really like Ace’s pragmatism in the face of Hex’s grumbling – the First World War would happen whether they are here to experience it or not. Its interesting that Ace has taken on so much of the Doctor’s role for Hex, explaining the dangers of letting slip something that they know about future events (I guess she really learnt from her CD walkman faux pas during Colditz). She always thinks people are spying on them. She’s strong; she knows her own mind and the toughest of the army wouldn’t want to cross her. Ace steps in when Wood starts bullying Dudgeon you realise how far she has come – she was laying into Tim in Colditz for selling out to the Germans and here she stands up for somebody even though they may have acting cowardly because it is the right thing to do. Feeling as though you have let the men down because you are the only one to come back from a battle is the stupidest thing Ace has ever heard. Ace trying to be sexy outside Wood’s door is pretty lame. She bumped into her mother and brother once or twice on her travels and she figures having being travelling with the Doctor for so long she should miss them but the Doctor and Hex will do for now.
Sexy Scouse: Hex is perfect for these sorts of stories where the lad is forced to confront medical horrors that he cannot cope with. Philip Olivier always gives a superb performance but he manages to push Hex to the limit when he cannot cope with what he is experiencing. Wartime stories such as The Settling, No Man’s Land and The Angel of Scutari see his character at his best. He’s trouble, admits he is a coward and nobody knows why he is working for the army. Hex is forced to endure images of women and children being murdered whilst he gets some very nasty electric shocks to develop with a tongue depressor shoved in his mouth to develop his hate for the enemy. He screams that he is not on anyone’s side, which labels him a coward. It’s a very raw form of torture that is hard to listen to. With one dose of therapy from the Hate Room and he’s itching for a fight, getting irritable with Ace and deliberately winding her up about her fancy man. The Doctor doesn’t know what the effect on his exposure to the Hate Room would have on him. He doesn’t know what happened to his mum, his dad never talked about it although he did keep a photo.
Standout Performance: Rob Dixon is always thrown into roles where he is an unthinking bully – he was similarly terrifying in Project Twilight as Reggie and Sergeant Wood’s brainwashed violence follows suit. Michael Cochrane is the big name on the cover and he’s hypnotically frightening as Brooke, losing control in his ability to fire up the hate of the British soldiers. His admission that he is making it up as he goes along is really uncomfortable, testing men’s psyches to see which ones break and which ones hold up.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I suppose politeness can cover a multitude a multitude of sins.’
‘Imagine fighting your way through the War to end all Wars only to find out that in twenty years part two kicks off?’
‘Each German death brings us one step closer to finishing this business off!’
‘Could anyone look down at a sleeping baby, cover its mouth and nose with its hands and watch it wriggle until it was cold and dead?’
‘Compassion isn’t a weakness! It’s a strength!’
‘A human life is not a resource!’
Great Ideas: Whilst more lives were lost in the Second World War and it was all played out on a larger scale I felt more frightened for our heroes when I realised they had landed in the first world war – for some reason I find it is depicted far less glamorously and more violently with dirtier, more primitive and more terrifying weaponry. Four years and eight million people killed in the most brutal of ways. What sort of hospital keeps the doors locked? One that doesn’t know which side you are on. The Daily Hate – the Lieutenant-Colonel likes to remind the men of who the enemy are to keep them focussed, listening to phonographic recordings of racist propaganda and gets them to fire blank rounds on dummies wearing enemy uniforms – that’s terrifyingly xenophobic. The Doctor, Hex and Ace have been sent by Her Majesty’s Army to investigate a crime that hasn’t happened yet, a murder. The Doctor and Ace have rat nailed to the door of their room. The urge to find safety is very strong during wartime. Wood turns out to be the murder victim, stabbed several times; the first aimed with precision and punctured the heart and then stabbing wildly. The orders they received to investigate the murder weren’t a time anomaly but a cry for help, written on Private Taylor’s typewriter. A soldier without a moral compass to guide him is one of the most frightening things in the world. They start with the medical records, probe each soldier until they find their doubts and fears and then exploit those fears and change the way they think, making them stronger at a terrible cost. The power to manipulate minds has the most awful consequences, pushing them to breaking point. There never were any Germans in the church; Wood’s men turned their weapons on each other. Brooke was working for the Forge, not for the Army.
Audio Landscape: An unforgettable opening of screams of ‘Diediedie!’ whilst somebody is shot to pieces, wartime music on a scratchy gramophone, crackling fire, people laughing, chatting and coughing in the foreground of dialogue scenes, marching soldiers perfectly in time, playing cards, birdsong, trees swaying, ticking clock, screams and murders of English women and children as they are murdered by the Germans, church bells, bashing at the typewriter, rain smacking into the forest, a bi plane breaking through the clouds, gas bombs, squeaky door, breaking a window, escaping on a motorcycle, dogs barking, wind whistling through the cracks in the building, church bells, the grinding car engine.
Musical Cues: Simon Robinson’s bare and strident, inharmonious score would probably feel out of place in any other story but its discordant sterility really matches the uncomfortable material. He chooses some very recognisable wartime music to having playing the background. There’s a very oddly placed beat boxing sounding theme that plays between scenes.
Isn’t it Odd: The first cliffhanger is oddly placed, rather than closing on Taylor’s sleepwalking attack I would have found it far more disturbing to end on Hex’s psychological and physical torture. After opening with a gripping, in your face first episode the second episode quietens down a little too much as soldiers reminisce – I would have liked that dangerous edge to have been maintained throughout the whole story. The third episode sees Ace and Hex walking into a trap of gas bombs and bullets but the story fails to make anything of this – there was a similar trap laid for Ace in Colditz and it was subject of an almighty will she or wont she die cliffhanger. After the brilliant first cliffhanger its a shame that nothing is made of Hex's treatment - it would have been very nice to have seen him trying to cope with murderous impulses.
Standout Scene: It takes a long while to get there but when the men finally shoot Brooke and go rogue you are suddenly thinking ‘oh shit’ because they are psychologically unstable and have no authorative structure to keep them in check anymore. As they blow the crap out of each other you realise this is the consequence of pushing the mental boundaries of soldiers.
Notes: The final revelation that Brooke was working for the Forge might not mean anything to Hex now but both the organisation and his mother who he discusses here would come back to haunt him in Project: Destiny.
Result: No Man’s Land contains many elements that are very good but it doesn’t quite come together as it should. The first episode is very good indeed and drags you kicking and screaming into the psychological horrors of the First World War but then the story runs on the spot for two episodes with only the murder of a particularly unlikable character enlivening things. The last episode takes another upswing in quality with an unexpected revelation about the massacre in the church and the truth behind Brooke’s terrifying mental improvisation coming to light. I remember an episode of the New Avengers that dealt with this sort of mental conditioning in war with far more aplomb, creating an independent army of psychotic soldiers through a rogue commander and as much as this piece tries to stick to its guns and make the situation as realistic as possible I felt it could do with a little bit of that melodrama to spice it up a bit. The performances are extremely strong and Sylvester McCoy and Michael Cochrane butt heads with real style but I did find the music and sound effects a little scarce in places. Interesting but only intermittently required listening: 6/10
Artwork by Simon Hodges @ http://hisi79.deviantart.com/