Sunday, 7 March 2010

The Shadow of the Scourge written by Paul Cornell and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? The Pinehill Crest Hotel in Kent is host to three very different events: a cross-stitch convention, an experiment in time travel and... the summoning of the scourge. The Doctor, Bernice and Ace find themselves dealing with a dead body that's come back to life, a mystical symbol that possesses its host, and a threat from another universe that's ready for every trick the Doctor's got up his sleeve.
This time, has the Doctor gone too far?

The Real McCoy: The second outstanding showcase for McCoy’s devilish seventh Doctor in a row! I have had my issues with the New Adventures characterisation of the regulars in the past but had they had handled the Time Lord this adeptly throughout I would have been extremely happy. The second he steps out of lift and announces ‘first floor, horror, tragedy and mysterious deaths’ I was captivated. In typical New Adventures style we get to experience the master manipulator and the emotional wreck and surprisingly rather than being out of his depth McCoy is bloody good. It makes me wonder about adapting some of those novels…

As well as all of his other talents he has a penchant for cross stitching – another fascinating facet of his seventh persona he discovered after he regenerated. He uses Benny’s name to book in as a hotel in Kent is one of the few places where the pseudonym John Smith might raise a few eyebrows. He was dreaming when he discovered the Scourge and he made the deal with them, offering unconditional surrender of planet Earth in the name of the Time Lords. He has saved the Earth now and then so now thinks finders keepers. His shadow stretches back and forth through time and he has different faces, some of them hidden. He relies on the fact that he is much cleverer than his foes. When the Doctor’s plan goes wrong the threat holds more weight simply because it is the NA Doctor that has been outwitted and McCoy’s agonising scream cuts right through you. Whilst exploring his mind Bernice comes across the Doctor’s other selves who manifest themselves in times of emergency – they turn their noses up at his choices. He enjoys saving everyone at the last minute. His meaningless little life is made up of lots of meaningless little moments. He fears that his friends don’t love him and that they fear him visiting because he always brings monsters in his wake. He almost gives up during the course of this story – he feels the darkness calling him and wonders if it is finally time to regenerate into his eighth self. He recognises his ego, needing his friends to love him and let him know he has done the right thing. An attention seeking child? The Doctor is forever testing his companions and forcing them away from him. He loves rolling hills and falling asleep half in the sun and half in the shade. What gives him the right to walk into situations and juggle with the fates of planets? Who gives him permission to stand up? His friends do. Some strong characterisation there.

Archaeological Adventurer: I found it hard to accept Bernice in the companion role for the first few minutes but she had such good chemistry with both the Doctor and Ace it didn’t last very long. She’s too strong a character to feel subordinate to the Doctor and she is quickly off having her own adventures. Her humour is prevalent – especially when she asks to be put in touch with her two turtles, Squidgy and Speckly. She is a sceptic but not professionally and she doesn’t believe anything happens after death. Bernice does a terrible impression of the seventh Doctor; a Scots accent is definitely not her forte! The Doctor is her best friend. She puts on a front that is never her true self and could never ask for help for all the pain she hides. Bernice loves a houseful of sleeping guests and whole days spent just talking and dozing. The scenes between Sylvester McCoy and Lisa Bowerman are unexpectedly powerful and it pains me to think this relationship was not exploited again – the Doctor and Benny have long been one of my favourite solo combos and it would have been very right on to have had a series of stories for them. There still could be…

Ace of Hearts: I hated the aggressive angst ridden Ace from the New Adventures and was extremely pleased when she was finally cut out of the series (which co-incided with the series suddenly leaping up in quality – odd that!) but I have to admit Aldred plays this Ace with far more aplomb than her usual, younger model. She is afforded a lot of humour here that she was denied in the books and comes of as a far more rounded character as a result, not just a masturbating gun. Nobody lets her play about with their science experiments. She pretends to be cross with the Doctor when the Scourge arrive to claim the Earth from him which is actually quite a clever bluff considering how often she was at logger heads with him in the books! Ace is scared like everyone else but covers it with anger. In a moment of true bravery and stupidity Ace has her eardrums punctured so she cannot hear the Scourge and they cannot control her. She admits that she is not happy busting heads together all the time and that she does want a real life. She faces her monsters all the time and it makes her a stronger person for it.

Great Ideas: The opening scenes are brilliantly scary and funny – the awful ‘Om’ communion which leads to a genuine manifestation of aliens. I loved it when the lift opened by the Doctor and friends to reveal the body of Old Will. The revelation that he is the Scourge leader is a great surprise. The Scourge know eight dimensions and if they are able to fully materialise they would be able to reach around walls, walk through time and reverse every decision – humanity would have no choice but to worship them as Gods. They are a disease, an index of human fear and desire and we have all felt their tendrils from time to time. The dimensional bio implant is the weapon the Scourge use to torture humans in their own universe – they stretch them across different possibilities and age their bodies over several centuries. Brian and Annie murdering Mary is horrible, feeding on her delusions and feasting on her pain and fear and everlasting death.

Standout Performance: Sylvester McCoy – what a performance! He gets to be playful, menacing and emotional and nails them all equally well. It’s a shame that many of his later performance should underwhelm because there was the potential for his Doctor to rival Colin Baker’s for the audio crown but it was rarely this commanding again.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘This isn’t supposed to happen in Kent!’
‘What it comes down to is this, things have got well spooky so get your coat, we’re out of here!’
‘It’s one of the eternal mysteries of the universe. Why does tea made in a hotel bedroom taste worse than tea made under any other circumstances?’
‘As William Shakespeare once said to me…come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.’
‘I think happiness with those we love means everything! I think these creatures are preying on the flaw of humans being stupid and not trusting their own strength. And it would all be okay if we could just get out hands on some tea and scones because those things are great!’

Audio Landscape: The Scourge voices are initially absolutely terrifying – especially Lennox Greaves snarling Demi Leader. I loved the atmosphere brewed up in the communion sequences – the constant chanting of ‘Om’ before they suddenly all hit a low key ‘Ommmmmmm’ – brr creepy! The oncoming Scourge is represented by an approaching growling storm of voices. The legs and head tearing from Annie’s back is shockingly visceral. The Doctor’s mind is actualised in as weird and hypnotic a fashion as I would have hoped for, lots of whispering voices singing, water lapping and dialogue running off into the distance. Benny falls into the Doctor’s mind with comical style (‘Sorry about the mess.’). You can hear the Scourge soldiers tendrils burrowing into the Doctor’s brain. Ace in the lift shaft sounds totally authentic, the Scourge pursuing sounds as though it is far below her.

Musical Cues: The music is quite discreet in this story whilst still being extremely creepy and effective. The first scene is made all the more terrifying because of Lock’s excellent score, especially the bell tolling as the Scourge finally manifests. There are several fun moments punctuated by a bouncy melody – Benny ripping the piss out of Rygel 4 and the Doctor talking his colleagues through his plan. After all the fireworks in the Doctor’s brain he talks Brian back from his Scourge personality and a touching high piano note plays over these moments.

Isn’t that Odd: After a couple of reasonable attempts that is one appalling cover. Some of the worst photo shopping this side of the photos Clive shows Ms Tyler in Rose.
After a while the Scourge growling out threats to run and hide gets thoroughly tedious.
Once Ace cannot hear we are treated to several unfunny gags where somebody says something and she repeats it straight afterwards. It isn’t funny the first time. A shame considering all the wit on display elsewhere.
Occasionally the story verges on the edge of corny but then Paul Cornell does have that urge to push the schmaltz in practically every story he has written. Where his love for the New Adventures and the seventh Doctor comes to the fore is in dialogue like, ‘He played chess against these monsters and they beat him!’ which would be a bad line under any circumstances but becomes cruingeworthy because the writer is trying to draw attention to the fact that this is an NA. Which should be obvious. The final indignity comes at the climax where all the characters are screaming ‘Get out of our heads!’ I just wanted to jump into the story and machine gun them all. I can never remember the New Adventures being this fluffy. It just screams of the writer telling the audience this is an important moment – despite how small – like that awful moment in Father’s Day when the Doctor talks to the bride and groom and finds out how they met. You tell the story and I will decide what is important.

Standout Moment: The scenes in the Doctor’s head are an audio triumph and the performances of McCoy and Bowerman capture a friendship between the Doctor and a companion that has rarely been bettered.

Result: I am not really a huge fan of the New Adventures despite enjoying a great many of them because I don’t really like all of the grey areas they pushed the series into and yet I found Shadow of the Scourge to be a superb representation of them on audio. All of the NA staples are there; the Doctor is a powerful God-like being who doubts his decisions, we take a little trip into his mind, his companions are sarcastic and hard nuts, the monsters transcend reality and there is a healthy dose of angst and emotion. Gary Russell handles all of this with a masterly grasp, coaxing some terrific performances from his guest cast and capitalising on the drama and humour of the script. Cornell writes with wit and beauty and gives us lots to think about and takes a strong look at the central character of the Doctor and his part in the series. McCoy doesn’t disappoint and it becomes one of the highlights of his Doctor’s adventures. The Scourge make for an interesting if overly nasty monster and their realisation is excellent. Despite a few moments of overdone syrup, this is a finely judged side step into the world of the New Adventures: 8/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

1 comment:

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There's three elements for a decent fire, and each of the three are common at the Pinehill Crest Hotel in Kent; a trial in time and space, a spiritualist and her devotees summoning their supporter soul, and a cross-line tradition. The entry of the Doctor, Ace, and Benny only minutes before the disclosure of a dead body is basically the wind that flares the sparkle; soon, the Doctor is giving control of the planet Earth over to the Scourge, a race from another measurement who can just exist in our measurement by putting their spirits into the body of a host that has been racked with gloom and sadness, gradually transforming their bodies into insectoids