Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Red Lady written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: An anomaly in time brings the Doctor and Liv to London in the 1960s, where they meet a young lady named Helen Sinclair - desperately trying to make a name for herself in the face of sexism and prejudice. Whilst the Doctor tried to uncover the secrets of a mysterious artefact, a far deadlier mystery awaits Liv and Helen in the collection of a recently deceased antiquarian. Because that's where they find the Red Lady. Because if you do, you might not like what you see.

Physician, Heal Thyself: The Doctor talks about living in this period for several onces - is he talking about both his exile to Earth post The War Games and his amnesiac period in the eighth Doctor novels? He's appalled at his companions suggestion that he land the TARDIS on top of the temporal anomaly, although in reality he has no clue what will happen. Maybe it would solve the situation without them even stepping outside the Ship. An unknown language is a bit of a problem for the Doctor because the Time Lords know a lot of languages. Fortunately it brings the Doctor in the path of language scholar Helen Sinclair and despite the fact that she thinks he is completely insane, it's clear they are going to hit it off. A linguistic genius or a lunatic?

Liv Chenka: She's the voice of reason, she stops the Doctor being too reckless and she ensures that they make it through the day unscathed. Sometimes the Doctor needs somebody to gently point out the flaws in his plans. She thinks the Doctor needs to learn to explain about the TARDIS a little more delicately. 

Helen Sinclair: It's been some time since a pair of ladies have featured in the TARDIS without a male companion, not since the heady days of Peri & Erimem. On TV it was the rarest of things (only Arc of Infinity, Snakedance and Dragonfire, I think) and so this is a rich field to be furrowed. Helen gets a strong outing here with she gets to show a host of emotions and prove that she is going to be quite the firecracker as she gets more involved in the Doctor's life. Her boss, the curator of the museum thinks that she shouldn't fill her head with silly notions like promotions when she should be concerning herself with settling down and starting a family. After all, she doesn't have long left. What an outrageously sexist thing to say but this was the 1960s. She's surrounded by fusty old men in a work environment where everything moves at a glacial pace...given she will be having hair raising adventures with the Doctor perhaps she should be careful what she complains about. I like the fact that Helen is initially stubborn and wants nothing to do with the Doctor (although with his sexy new haircut I would at least have a superficial interest if I were her) but as soon as evidence is presented that proves that he is right she puts aside her objections and helps him. She's intelligent and she's willing to admit when she is wrong. By the climax the Doctor considers Helen a very valuable member of his crew and invites her to join him, an offer that she cannot refuse. 

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I think I just heard a man being murdered...'
'How do you study a creature that kills you when you look at it?'

Great Ideas: Straight of the bat there is an engaging discussion of the nature of art that suggested this was going to be an intelligent piece; suggesting that the more secretive you are about a piece of art, the more attention that you get. Pieces of art featuring a distant female form are Mcallum speciality. Locking away your art in a vault and demanding that it is forgotten about is only going to stimulate interest and rumour. To the masses, it is the ultimate tease. It is the same woman in every piece of art and there is a dark secret at the heart of her appearance. To get too close to the Red Lady invites the kiss of death. Every second the Doctor and Liv delay, the Eleven is free to roam the universe which puts it in the most terrible danger. Smartly, the Doctor realises that it is isn't the language itself that is important but the spaces between them, it's an Ancient Greek record and with the stone age equivalent of a grammarphone they will be able to play it back and hear what it says. So far, so plausible. And an idea that has the ability to frighten on audio if the recording played back is sufficiently spooky. When the message is played it proves to be nothing of the sort but an intruiging link into the next adventure. Mcallum didn't die of grief per se but he couldn't live once his family had been cruelly taken away from him. Not even his wife and son saw his artwork. He began building up his collection when he was very young, after his mother and father died. The twist that he was a blind art collector makes perfect sense of the insistence that nobody else has a nose at his collection - if he can't see it then nobody can. The Red Lady never got to him because he was blind. It's horribly plausible that his wife and son caught a look at this secretive material and the Red Lady took their lives and filled with remorse Mcallum took his own in personal retribution. She took his parents too and that's why he continued to buy the pieces that featured her, trying to prevent it from happening again. Monopolising her. Is it possible Mcallum blinded himself to stop the Red Lady from attacking him? Trapping her in a poem and stick figures is a genius idea, she can be transferred into any work of art (which is entirely subjective) and has to be locked up to prevent any more deaths. Will we hear from the Red Lady again? The fact that the nature of her existence is left unexplained is probably the best solution all round. Can you imagine some creaky SF explanation for her power? No, much better to keep us guessing.

Audio Landscape: The heavy breathing down the phone after the murder by artwork is seriously creepy...I considered turning the lights on at that point. After a light atmosphere for the first 20 minutes (subtle rather than scarce), a party kicks into high gear and it might just be the most impressive transition between two scenes in a while. Ken Bentley is a consistently strong director but the quality usually depends on the worthiness of the script he is presenting. I think he has upped his game to deliver some of his best direction in this story.

Standout Scene: I love love love how the climax of the story uses blindness in such a creative way. It's a quintessentially audio notion because when listening to these stories we are effectively blind, playing out the stories in our heads and creating pictures with words. I first listened to this story in the dark (I had a feeling it was going to creepy looking at the cover and wanted the full experience) and how I was as effectively blind as the regulars at the climax made this a shared experience of horror. I would suggest you listen to this in the same way. I had goosebumps and it's been a while since a Big Finish story has done that to me.

Result: 'She's here...' Coloured me impressed. Remember I said that Paul McGann seemed revved up at the beginning of a brand new epic in my review of the first instalment of Doom Coalition, well wait until you hear how engaged he is with the second piece of the puzzle. I can only think of two times when he has blazed quite this brightly before, in the height of the Charley Pollard days (throughout most of season two) and when the Lucie Miller stories kicked into high gear (series four). There was no part of Dark Eyes where I felt he was this impressed with the material he was presenting. The build up of suspense surrounding The Red Lady is so expertly handled and John Dorney delivers a humdinger of a climax, one of his finest. And anybody with even a passing interest in his work will be able to quantify that statement. The titular piece of art is a dangerously compelling image, one that will lure you in and seduce you to your last breath. It's an marvellously creepy notion that provides some moments of cold sweat of the kind Big Finish hasn't knocked out in a while. I'm not sure how it ties into the overall narrative but as a standalone story to introduce Helen Sinclair you really couldn't ask for more. Hattie Morahan makes a fantastic impression as Helen, initially skeptical but smart enough to know when the Doctor is right and then able to step in and help to save him and Liv at the conclusion. Doom Coalition has completely revolutionised the eighth Doctor range. The first two instalments have been near perfect in themselves. providing some thrilling material and a terrific new team of regulars. But what has impressed me the most has been the confidence, the life that has been injected back into the range. Dark Eyes was sporadically brilliant but it rarely had this kind of assurance. I'm eager to hear where this story is going and for more adventures with the Doctor, Liv and Helen. That's a great feeling: 9/10

4 comments:

Noah Boddy said...

Great review, but I could swear there have been more female pairings - Ace and Raine, Molly and Liv at least. Sorry for sounding like a pendant, keep up the good reviews!

Joe Ford said...

Sorry, I should have been more specific. I was talking about on the TV. How could I forgot Molly and Liv...in the last bx set! Sometimes I despair at myself...

dark said...

Atmospherically I really liked this one, for a monster with such a visual hook the Red lady had a fantastic audio presence only bought out more by how terrifying her possession was, indeed I love how profoundly creepy the deaths in this story were.

My only major issue is that Helen Sinclair's introduction had the subtlety of a brick. yes, sexism existed in the sixties, and yes, there were lots of faux interlectuals, however prejudice was rarely this blatant, I was just waiting for "don't worry your pretty little head" or something similar, and the "Iron your husband's shirts" comment was there.
It was going to be obvious that this lady would be vindicated by the end of the story, and once it seemed she had no ties to anything in the sixties her travels with the doctor were nearly inevitable.

Helen herself as a character I don't really have a problem with, and I will give much credit for writing an intelligent character who shows her brilliance by reason rather than by sudden leaps of technobabble is lovely, but I do wish her introduction hadn't been quite so ham fisted in what is otherwise a very subtle story.

I was also slightly disappointed this one didn't link more completely with The Eleven either, indeed to say the stone tablet was the pin which links this to the next story, it felt rather tenuous, after all what was the tablet doing with the red lady artwork? and how on earth could the eleven be sure that that! particular tablet would survive through time to be picked up by the Doctor?

Then again while we're playing continuity spotting, noting the national museum and Liv's memory of Martin from the previous dark eyes was a very nice moment.

Having heard all four stories I'm afraid I would say that The red lady was probably my least favourite of this set, though not because it's a particularly bad story, just for the quality of the rest and the fact that The red lady had to bare so much weight.

Unknown said...

Loved the atmosphere in this. And the nod to the MR James influence was a nice touch.