Monday, 19 December 2011

Plague of the Daleks written by Mark Morris and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: Stockbridge used to be such a lovely place. The loveliest village in all England, according to the guide books. But hardly anyone visits Stockbridge now: a few tourists, a couple of Trust guides, the odd beady-eyed raven. But something is coming to Stockbridge. Something which turns village cricketers into ravening zombies – a plague such as the Earth has never seen, falling through history from a time when humanity's greatest enemy was a race known as the Daleks. The Doctor and Nyssa visit Stockbridge for the final time, to confront the terrible secret buried at its heart. The storm clouds are gathering…

An English Gentleman: He solves a few mysteries and insults a few Daleks but ultimately this proves that Davison is only ever as good as the opportunities a script gives him. And in this case it is very little.

Alien Orphan: Nyssa thought churches were supposed to be joyous places full of worship and singing but perhaps that’s just how they are on Traken. In Doctor Who they seem to breed the most terrible things. She knows how much the Doctor loves Stockbridge but after their recent perilous adventures she cannot wait to get back to the TARDIS and get out of here. Nyssa knows what it is like to have somewhere that you love destroyed and so she can sympathise with his loss of Stockbridge.

Standout Performance: Richard Cordery seems to be the only guest star that is trying to offer something a little different and his wibbly wobbly exuberance as Professor Jabbery at least makes his scenes enjoyable to listen to. Much of the rest of the cast wander the story as though they are bored by the whole thing. Astonishingly both Liza Tarbuck and Keith Baron fail to make any kind of impact. Peter Davison’s monosyllabic Dalek impression in the final episode leaves a lot to be desired.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Don’t let their lack of numbers lull you into a false sense of security.’

Great Ideas: A pub that has been mysteriously evacuated in a hurry during Christmas, the food is rotten and mouldy and the landlady doesn’t seem to recognise that anything is wrong. Crows are massing for attack and you can walk from blistering winter in one room to calming spring in another. A woman from the 1960s, weather altering technology and spaceships – is this all just random weirdness or is there a mind behind all this? The Critical Age – by the 45th century solar flare activity was so extreme that over 95% of the Earth’s surface became uninhabitable. Turns out that there is a Stockbridge experience where you can enjoy the long lost delights of a beautiful English village. Both a viable historical resource and a beautiful place to visit. The villagers are nth generation clones and most of them can barely function as human beings anymore, life spans get shorted with each generation. All the birds and animals are Artifical Lifeforms. Episode two wanders into The Walking Dead territory with the clones wandering the rain lashed streets of Stockbridge murderously and I can almost imagine that being the starting point for the writer. The CES is the Central Environment Station is in the middle of Wells Wood. The Daleks have long been considered extinct by most civilised races. They have been waiting beneath Stockbridge in a state of suspended animation waiting to be revived, knowing that the Doctor keeps returning to Stockbridge and leaving a squad behind to deal with him. They have been there for over 17 centuries and three of the Daleks have survived. One thing about the Daleks is that they do seem to create weapons of devastating simplicity.

Audio Landscape: Nyssa lands with a bump, whistling wind, crackling pub fire, walking through the crunchy snow, crows cawing, birdsong, a cricket match with the ball hitting a bat and polite cheering and clapping, a spaceship screaming into the atmosphere, rain lashing down, zombies gurgling and groaning and banging on the doors, rain hitting a roof, the Dalek heartbeat, the Cushing movie control room hum, extermination blasts, alarm, rubble falling, explosions.

Musical Cues: Whilst apparently confused whether he is writing a Christmas special full of carols and festive tunes or to remain silent as the exposition approaches like a torrent, Steve Foxon finally settles down to right and out and out zombie feature in episode two.

Isn’t it Odd: The first episode reminded me very strongly of the incoherent awkwardness of Renaissance of the Daleks blended in with a stockpile of mysteries introduced in the same manner as The Eternal Summer (but not dealt with as skilfully). There was plenty of randomness thrown in but it didn’t feel as though it was being explained adequately as we moved on to yet more puzzles and the characters all seemed to take everything in their stride. You can be a little too relaxed in your storytelling if you’re not careful, assuming that the audience understands everything that you do. Stockbridge being turned into a heritage site was a clever idea but it is dealt with in a very undramatic fashion – the characters just wander about carefree and so the episode fails to build up any momentum. The Daleks don’t even turn up before the end of the first cliffhanger which is usually a given in a story where they feature in the title. The first cliffhanger is anomalous because we have no idea why the acid rain should be in effect where no outside influences have been suggested. It just feels like a random event there to provide a cliffhanger. It also has that peculiar Death to the Daleks episode three feel (you know, the designer flooring of death) where it just abruptly stops rather than leading to a satisfactory climax – it feels like sloppy direction which is unthinkable from Barnaby Edwards who usually crafts the cliffhangers with such care. The characters have a bad habit of describing the action as though this is an audio descriptive televised story for the blind (‘Look at the way he’s moving all strange and jerky like a sort of puppet!’) – it’s a sign of a freshman writing full length audios that dissipates over time. Certainly Morris’ House of the Blue Fire was far less guilty of the crime. How strange that we intercut between the streets packed with slavering zombies to the bitching blandness between the visitors to Stockbridge in the second episode – talk about undercutting the tension! The mention of Phillip dying at seven years from The Eternal Summer feels less clever than some of the other linking moments in this trilogy because it is a remarkable co-incidence that of all the graves he could have come across it was one from a character in the previous story? Mrs Linfoot really is the most butt crack itchingly infuriating character to have stepped from a Big Finish adventure since Caitriona from The Rapture or Monica Lewis from Land of the Dead! She is there for no other purpose but to get in the way and complain (‘Get those filthy tentacles away from me you purple freak!’), and no personality or function beyond the confines of what Plague of the Daleks demands of her. Richenda Carey’s performance isn’t the most subtle or naturalistic either (‘Get away you vile little creature!’) and by the end of episode two you will be so sick of hearing about ‘her Vincent’ you might just want her torn limb from limb by dribbling zombies to remove her from the story. When the Daleks do finally turn up it feels as though the story is adding another element to complicate things – it reminded me of their inclusion in Daleks in Manhattan when there was so many other elements vying for attention. When the Daleks appear it should always be an exciting moment and this is one of the rare times I sighed, perhaps from Dalek fatigue in Big Finish stories or perhaps because it was stacking up another disjointed plot element to be dealt with when so little of the story had been explained already. This story just cannot seem to settle down and decide what its tone should be – Professor Jabbery starts ranting at a Dales, refusing to be intimidated by its threats in a baffling scene that I am not sure is supposed to be funny or frightening but doesn’t achieve either. Halfway through the third episode and you could be forgiven for giving up on this story altogether – the Daleks are back and appear to be entirely unconnected from the main story and enjoying their own little scenes screeching away at each other. The climax of episode three features a couple of over excitable Daleks jabbering on about the Doctor becoming one them and reining supreme – its almost as if they are trying to live up to their own hype because we still don’t have a Scooby Doo why they are there! They say these things because it is what the audience expect them to say rather than because it makes any kind of dramatic sense. It would appear the only reason the Doctor meets up with them is because he wanders into their little nest! This is three of the most ineffective Daleks we have ever met – everybody seems to take the piss out them and their long forgotten Empire! They fail to do anything remotely terrifying and then everybody starts doing Dalek impressions like kids in a playground! Even this isn’t original – it was explored in a much funnier and scarier way in Evil of the Daleks. Daleks usually manage to avoid the Cybermen trap of appearing just because they are a popular monster – there is usually a new twist on the Daleks or their storyline is pushed in a new direction but in Plague it feels as though they have turned up because Big Finish thought it might sell a few more copies. There is no reason why this has to be a Dalek story and when that is the case they shouldn’t be used. Lysette and Issac are Dalek agents – just like Stein in Ressurection of the Daleks! The Doctor tries to battle with Issac psychologically to drive the Daleks out of his mind – just like Stein from Ressurection of the Daleks! The plot grinds to a halt whilst Issac tells a heartrending tale of his past…get a script editor in here now! Since the Doctor turns up an awful lot in London does that mean that there are Dalek squads waiting in select locations around the capital too? ‘Using your TARDIS we will travel back to the dawn of the Dalek Empire. With your knowledge the Daleks will conquer all of time and space!’ Yaaaaawn. Is that what we have waiting four episodes to discover? The conclusion features Lysette deactivating the bubble around Stockbridge and destroying the village to bring the Daleks down – what an unsatisfying end to a great location. It feels like the writer has written himself into a corner and because there is nothing especially intelligent to conclude he just destroys the place in a great big bally explosion! Its an unsatisfactory end to both the story and the trilogy. Ultimately none of the story ties together, it literally is just a number of random elements shoved together to hope if they blend well. They don’t.

Result: The Daleks are in this story why exactly? One of the most sloppily written Big Finish stories for an age, Plague of the Daleks will strain your patience until it is worn away and you are left with angry frown lines etched into your face. Episode one is an irritating composite of unanswered questions, episode two is a zombie tale interlaced with some surreal moments of melodrama, episode three introduces the Daleks but fails to integrate them into the plot and the last episode has to catch up and try and explain everything that has been introduced in the story so far and fails spectacularly to bring the story to satisfying close. If you listen to the interviews on the disc you realise that the writer and the script editor both came to this story with different ideas (Barnes: the heritage Stockbridge and the Daleks, Morris: the zombies turned by rain) and the resulting story feels like a discordant clash of concepts that don’t belong together. What this story needs is a script editor who can tie all the disparate strands together into a satisfyingly coherent whole but what we are left with is a slapdash first draft. Proof that even the best of directors can have their off days because Plague of the Daleks feels as though it has been assembled without much care almost as if Edwards knows he is onto a stinker. Even the performances lack the usual conviction of a solid Big Finish cast with Liza Tarbuck and Keith Baron failing to make any impression at all. Forgettable roles for both the Doctor and Nyssa means Davison and Sutton’s contributions are pretty workmanlike too which is unthinkable after the last two scripts afforded them such luxurious opportunities. I considered turning this story off at the end of episode three and coming back to it later but I knew that if I did that I would never listen to the end so I forced myself to endure the conclusion. That is never a good a sign: 2/10

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