Monday, 15 March 2010

The Holy Terror written by Rob Shearman and directed by Nick Pegg

What’s it about? The TARDIS lands in a forbidding castle in a time of religious upheaval. The old god has been overthrown, and all heretics are to be slaughtered. Obviously it isn't the sort of thing which would happen there every day - just every few years or so. And when the Doctor and Frobisher are hailed as messengers from heaven, they quickly become vital to opposing factions in their struggle for power. But will they be merely the acolytes of the new order - or will they be made gods themselves? An evil destructive force is growing deep within the crypt. And the pair soon find out that they will be lucky to escape their new immortality with their lives.

Softer Six: The sixth Doctor’s renaissance continues apace with another story that sees him stepping out of his terrorising personality of the past and emerging as a powerful but gentle being with a vast tapestry of experience to call on and his own unique way of approaching his adventures. These audio adventures are constantly innovating, the last story saw a brief venture into the dark and complex world of the New Adventures and here Big Finish have a stab of joining in on the big, bold and colourful world of the comic strips. Before Big Finish came along some of the sixth Doctor’s finest adventures took place in DWM. There were some gloriously imaginative and macabre adventures, the sort of which you could never imagine the BBC conjouring up on a tiny budget. The sixth Doctor burst from the page in colour and was accompanied by a companion whose very conception is as brave and experimental as the series itself. Giving the sixth Doctor a shape shifting companion introduced a world of visual splendour and creativity – Frobisher was everything Kamelion could have been on the television (why not have him appear in every story with a different actor each time – how brilliant would that have been…imagine the arguments on the forum now – who was the best actor/actress to play Kamelion?) and he had a fantastic personality too!

The Doctor tires to make Frobisher understand that it doesn’t matter to whom the cruelty is directed it is the cruelty itself that is wrong. This was definitely a period where the TARDIS could have some spectacular temper tantrums and the Doctor whilst still remarkably fond of his home seems almost in awe of her ability to override his control and take herself where she wants to go. They are just travellers and rather brilliantly one of the crowd describes the Doctor as the servant of the big talking bird! He is a man of many colours and finds the ritualised culture they have been stranded in fascinating. He has a very relaxed, natural chemistry with Frobisher and there is a feeling that they have travelled together for a long time. They insult each other playfully in a way that only good friends would do. He declares proudly that sooner or later the enemy all want to meet him and is hilariously told that they didn’t even know who he was until he walked into the room! His reaction to Arnulf’s mutilation is one of pure horror. This is a darker and more graphic adventure to what the Doctor is used to and he admits he is terribly afraid as the tale unfolds. He is not comforted by Eugene’s confession that he will die first. One of the drags of his lifestyle is hanging around to be executed; he wished they would just get on with it. He has known millions of planets and people and goads the child into trying to find the identity of his father amongst them. It is really heart-warming when he is reunited with Frobisher. The climatic moment that sees the sixth begging Eugene not to commit suicide is simply one of the most powerful scenes in Doctor Who’s canon and Colin Baker’s finest moment thus far. It brought tears to my eyes.

Big Talking Bird: One of the crowd admits the big talking bird is a miracle! An angel from heaven, perhaps the Doctor and his companions could be perceived that way. He was a gumshoe detective, cool and charismatic with a smooth American accent. A monochromatic bird! As a private eye he has often had to morph into the clergy. He has forgotten his real name because nobody uses it. Frobisher likes pretty women and he tried marriage but it didn’t work out for him…he was the Ogron she fell in love with. Once Pepin has abdicated he realises that he has to be God as somebody has to look after this crazy bunch. He finds the position very draining. In half an hour he manages to introduce parliamentary democracy, religious toleration and the concept of equal rights. He is shot by real bullets and remains unharmed and saves Berengaria from death and suddenly wonders if he does have some kind of divine power. Both the Doctor and Frobisher leave this adventure haunted by the events they have experienced.

Great Ideas: The Holy Terror is a cornucopia of fantastically clever ideas; Rob Shearman lavishes his imagination and introduces stacks of funny, dark and powerful concepts.
• Does the TARDIS have philanthropic circuits? Is that why she always takes them to places where the local populace need help? She goes on strike in this story and shuts down all her power unless the Doctor exceeds to her demands. She lights up certain controls to show the Doctor what she wants and where she wants to go.
• Pepin the sixth fell asleep in the bath and drowned, not a very noble way for God to go.
• A heretic’s death is having one eye gouged out and the other remaining so you can see the flames rising to burn a heretic to death.
• There are recantation forms to be signed and filed so you can switch your allegiance from one God to the next! The first scene is provocative in that sense, the guards threatening you with execution into you agree to switch to the new God and then you are free to go!
• As God dies his wife is locked up and her handmaiden becomes Empress.
• ‘They’re only guards after all!’ – the ritual sacrifice – murdering two guards with real bullets and the shooting the new God with blanks to prove his divinity!
• Divine providence – God always dies on the last page of each new bible that is written and the scribe always picks the right sized book. Pepin only has a tiny pamphlet suggesting Eugene knows something about the life expectancy of the latest God.
• There was a terrible case of chicken pox once and Gods were popping up and dying quicker than you can say heretic!
• 1/10th of the population are executed for heresy when God dies because they were all guilty for worshipping a false God.
• The very idea of introducing change such a ritualised society is glorious. Free will spreads like wild fire and we watch as the characters within try and break free of their stereotypes.
• Religion is described as compromised empty rituals!
• Childeric is breeding a new Messiah, a 5 year old child who has been kept away from society to protect him from corruption, cynicism and complacency. So it can have a language all of its own Arnulf has had tongue removed so he cannot corrupt the child with our language.
• The child is a revenge on Eugene; he is a torture device. The castle is a prison holding Eugene and forcing him to relive the crime of murdering his son over and over again. From the outside it is no bigger than a blue police box.
• Pepin and Berengaria learning to love each other shows how these characters transcend their original function and her both slaughtered by the child covered in blood.
• The ending is horrific and powerful, Eugene convinces the child to murder him and he is killing himself for the awful crime of not loving his child and murdering him. A father is God to his son.

Standout Performance: This is a story that allows its actors to really get to grips with some oddball characters, to give them something beyond their regular style of acting and as a result it is full of memorable characters and performances.
Roberta Taylor is astonishingly good as Berengaria who is an indulgent, cruel and bored Empress. Her gorgeous gravelly voice is perfect for audio and she plays her part to the hilt. The scene where she berates Livila’s lousy torture methods is awesome: ‘I don’t want to live!’ As the wife of a dead God she has no purpose and the story sees her trying to discover if she can have a purpose beyond that role which starts to subvert before the child kills her and her son.
Helen Punt plays the bitchy and traitorous Livila and despite her good looks is clearly the most pathetic character in the whole play with lines like: ‘You could make me ugly! Batter me, bruise me.’ She is one twisted creation.
Peter Guinness plays up the evil and gruff voiced Childeric.
Stefan Atkinson brings a touch of the upper classes to his role as God and perfectly captures Pepin’s naïveté and friendliness: ‘Even when you both hit me you looked the other way!’
However Sam Kelly must take the plaudits. He is desperately sweet as the scribe Eugene: ‘I’m the man that writes the bible!’ It is one hell of a performances watching him get steadily more jumpy and aggressive as the story continues. When the Doctor pushes for information about his son Kelly really comes alive. He breaks your heart at the conclusion when he finally talks to his son and begs his forgiveness for the foolish act of a madman.

Sparkling Dialogue: Without quoting the entire play here are my all time favourites…
‘Hiding in crypts doesn’t make you look evil Childeric, just rather sulky and anti social!’
‘News of my notoriety shall reach even the furthest depths of hell where your black heart shall burn forever.’
‘Your father committed the ultimate blasphemy.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘He died. Gods aren’t supposed to do that sort of thing.’
‘I thought I felt a twinge of something divine for a moment but it was just indigestion.’
‘I would have thought that the pre requisite of the High Priest was to have a little faith!’
‘If you live or die I shall say it was foretold. People feel reassured that way.’
‘To death or life eternal!’
‘When I came here to torture my mother-in-law, when I came to gloat, with a small blunt knife I would cut her face, every day I would do it, hack another piece off! By the time I had her executed there was no face left! Just her eyes so she could see the moment of her death. And never once did she cry. Did you even bring a knife?’
‘The lying blasphemer speaks the truth your majesty!’
‘I had to give you your tongue back so I could find out what your dying words are.’
‘You call yourself a God? A God of one single building? You might as well call yourself a landlord!’
‘How long have you been a God? How long has it taken you to wreck our society?’ ‘Well I started this afternoon, actually.’
‘That child out there is your only God and his name is death.’
‘Daddy you were a God to me and I thought we would rule forever!’
‘They felt pain, they felt fear and more than that they had hopes and dreams and families. Yes it is terrible but that’s what comes of travelling in the TARDIS. All the people you meet, all the planets you see, you know they wont last forever and our next journey could be to a time where they have all been forgotten. Such little lives…that we can feel like Gods set apart from them all.’ ‘And that’s supposed to make me feel better?’ ‘No. No, not at all.’ ‘For a while back there I actually thought I could do something good. I actually felt I could save them all.’ ‘I know Frobisher. Believe me, I know.’

Audio Landscape: Some bravura direction from Nick Pegg makes sure that this very special script is treated to the best possible production. We’ve got squeaky doors in prison, echoey footsteps, vast sounding crowd scenes at the coronation, scribbling, flippers on stone, snoozing, tongueless whimpering, a smug TARDIS hum, blood oozing, crowbar hitting flesh, a chilling breeze running through the vault, the Childs hideous unnatural voice, a screaming child, a whirlwind, bloody and watery deaths, a static void…

Musical Cues: Alistair Lock once again scores the action and injects some real chills and emotion into the story. The opening music sets the scene of the foreboding dungeon beautifully. There is a lot dark piano music. An imperial trumpet blasts during the coronation. Frobisher’s tune is fun and fluty. The twinkling score when the child appears merely adds to his horror. The childlike nursery theme as he slaughters everybody is really uncomfortable.

Isn’t that Odd? For Big Finish to tip their hat towards the comic strip like this is marvellous and it is such a shame that so few people bought this title initially. Those proud, idiot fans who think that it is too far fetched for the Doctor to have a talking penguin for a companion. Thank Goodness word of mouth spread about how good this story was although in a way I think those initial detractors should remain in the dark – they don’t deserve a story this good. They enjoy a show about a regenerating time travelling being who leaps about history and the future in a box which is bigger on the inside than the outside. And they find a talking penguin absurd? Sheesh.

Standout Moment: The conclusion of this story is devastating. An ashamed, tortured father begging his son for forgiveness and killing himself for the crime of murdering his own son.

Result: This is how good Big Finish are when they are on form. Much like the prison that the story is set within this audio is not quite what it seems and anyone who goes in expecting a deliriously fun and flightly adventure with the Doctor and Frobisher will be shocked. This is a shockingly bleak and yet hilariously funny take on the nature of religion with a biting commentary on the nature of religious toleration. It is populated with some gruesome and twisted characters played outrageously by a terrific cast at the height of their powers. Colin Baker and Robert Jezek make as much of an impact on us as the Doctor and Frobisher do on this society. The script constantly surprises with witty lines, thoughtful moments and stacks of unusual twists and by the time you reach the last episode you are wrapped up in this dangerous and frightening world. Every time I listen to this story I come away with something new, the issues discussed are always going to be relevant and the imagination on display here by Rob Shearman means he simply has to be used again. Astonishingly good, Big Finish has really hit their stride now: 10/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:


Phill said...

Good review. This was the first play I heard from BF, played to me by at least one subscriber who wasn't put off by the companion. Never looked back since.

Hopefully you'll be putting these on my site sometime as well. Cheers and keep it up.


Frederick Ortiz said...

Really spot on he review... but I wonder what your take would be on The Maltese Penguin, which is truely an awesome piece of black feathered detective noir

Timothy Allan said...

Isn't it Russell Stone who scored the music for this story, and not Alistair Lock? It seemed very much like Russell Stone's style to me, although I could be wrong.