Monday, 5 April 2010

Minuet in Hell by Alan W Lear and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? The twenty-first century has just begun, and Malebolgia is enjoying its status as the newest state in America. After his successful involvement with Scotland's devolution, Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart has been invited over to Malebolgia to offer some of his experiences and expertise. There he encounters the charismatic Brigham Elisha Dashwood III, an evangelical statesman running for Governor who may not be quite as clean-cut and wholesome as he makes out. One of Dashwood's other roles in society is as patron of a new medical institute, concentrating on curing the ills of the human mind. One of the patients there interests the Brigadier - someone who claims he travels through space and time in something called a TARDIS. Charley, however, has more than a few problems of her own. Amnesiac, she is working as a hostess at the local chapter of the Hell Fire Club, populated by local dignitaries who have summoned forth the demon Marchosias. And the leader of the Club? None other than Dashwood, who seems determined to achieve congressional power by the most malevolent means at his disposal...

Breathless Romantic: McGann’s first season is an odd beast indeed and at only four stories long it is hard to really say whether he was very successful in the part. His second year of stories saw him working on an entire range of stories from historical thrillers to science fiction epics. This season feels short and blunted by the fact that the quality of the stories is something of a lottery and McGann and Fisher were finding their feet. To put Minuet in Hell at the end of that mini series was an even bigger mistake, just as the 8th Doctor starts to flourish in Venice suddenly he is a gibbering wreck who has lost his memory and is wrestling was claiming his identity with a fraud called Gideon Crane! It is not the most encouraging of signs! A shame because this story does have some very interesting ideas about the nature of the Doctor but I just feel it would have been better suited later in his run and with a tighter script. For example the whole idea that the Doctor has dreamt up the last 900 years of his existence as justification for his madness is extremely chilling, that notion is only touched upon for a moment but I thought it could have been exploited into an entire story (The Unbound story Deadline has a similar theme). A madman who imagines adventures in time and space battling aliens – it’s an idea too chilling to think about! Then we have the whole idea of the Doctor having to prove and argue that he is the Doctor, another interesting concept as McGann and Nick Briggs go head to head in a continuity battle to see who can answer the most questions right (and intriguingly one of the questions is next chronologically speaking in the Big Finish canon but three regenerations back in the Doctor’s timeline!). An accident in the TARDIS causing the Doctor to lose his symbiotic link with the TARDIS is frightening and then for him to link with the first person he meets on Earth causing shared memories and for a human to think he is the Doctor…that’s trippy! Briggs is initially quite annoying simply because he is so forceful in his opinion that he is the Doctor but he grew on me as the story continued and when he is finally free and behaving as a Doctor we would recognise, heroic and intelligent, he won me over. Another causal concept thrown out is the Doctor being split between entire leagues of people, another great idea that is wasted in five minutes. Having an entire room full of people waking up and claiming they are the Doctor works through its sheer weirdness! Wouldn’t it have been great to have had an entire story centred around this with different incarnations emerging in different people giving actors a chance to take on Troughton and Pertwee? Here is it’s lost amongst all the extraneous plotting.
What is really odd is that despite these mishandled clever ideas that really look at the nature of the Doctor is McGann makes no impression at all. Give him a script and ask him to be commanding or dashing and he delivers the goods. Lock him in a cell with no personality or charisma and he barely registers. A shame as that is the impression I walked away season one with!

Edwardian Adventuress: Oh Charley my darling, my darling! I don’t know what to make of Charley in this story – she is a fish out of water. Stuck without a memory or the Doctor, stuck in the wrong country and century and shoved into a skimpy costume and forced to play pretty little satin bottom! Its like the writer hasn’t a clue what to do with her and her characterisation is taken to an extreme (she uses the exclamations ‘Rather!’ and ‘Botheration!’). The Charley of this story has some spunk (she drones on about female emancipation and gives another left hook when a member of the Hellfire Club rips her clothes) but a lot of her scenes feel false and inserted just to give the character something to do whilst the Doctor regains his memory. I think the idea was to take away her memory so Charley can discover herself again and we can learn more about her but the transition is too easy…she’s amnesiac and then suddenly – pop! – she knows who she is again! She is described as the Queen of Hell and I know a few reviewers who might have found that very apt! About the only really interesting thing I took from this story was that Charley remembers the flames and destruction of the R-101 when she wasn’t actually aboard when it happened. Where is all this leading?

Great Ideas: There are quite a few discussed above actually! Cerebral surgery is mentioned, storing a person’s entire conscious. The story lists a number of hilarious murderers (you’ve got a guy who steals peoples pets and sets them alight, the gay axe man of Rhode Island and a woman who bludgeoned six officers with a prosthetic leg!). Becky-Lee’s weird psychic powers are straight out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer but no where near as effective. Marchosias certainly livens things up, an impish demon dressed up like the devil with a really twisted sense of humour!
Standout Performance: Helen Goldwyn is easily the standout performer in this play. Goldwyn plays Becky-Lee Kowalcyck with such hideous ineptness I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be taking the piss out of Buffy or not! The accent was so annoying it was like a cheese grater working on my brain every time she opened her mouth and she stresses every other word to make sure we realise she is American and serious. She might have been a fun foil for Charley had somebody thought to tell Goldwyn that this was supposed to be a drama and not a Greek tragedy.
Sparkling Dialogue: Nadda.

Audio Landscape: Gary Russell tried to paper over the faults in the script with lots of moments of audio madness. Spooky chanting voices, crackling fire and a growling Devil speaking in tongues unfortunate only serve to annoy rather than create an atmosphere. Have you ever heard women scream and whoop as much as the pretty bottom satin girls? Groans and screams echo in the corridors of the Dashwood Institute. It might be a comment on the effectiveness of Minuet in Hell but I thought the best sound effect was of spitting fried eggs as Becky-Lee makes breakfast. Go figure!
Musical Cues: The music was wasted on the story but one off composer William Allen provides a snappy and modern score with excellent used of electric guitar to give certain scenes a real kick up the ass.

Isn’t that Odd: that this story should be so horrendously directed after Gary Russell’s masterful effort in The Stones of Venice? The opening sequence has lots of weirdly inexplicable stuff happening which sums up the story quite nicely really. Russell fails to create an American atmosphere when dealing with such hideous clichés and hideous accents. Pargeter and Pickering both come across as bland ciphers and insulting clichés. As mentioned Helen Goldwyn sports the nastiest American accent it has been my misfortune to listen to and I’m still mopping up blood from my ears!
The US politics was dull as dishwater and Dashwood makes for a spectacularly boring villain, interested in moving into the White House and dabbling in the black arts. Unfortunately the story fails to give him any personality beyond those two goals so he steps from being charming and amiable, the perfect politician and sleazy and aggressive, the idea Devil worshipper. His relationship with Pargeter was so poorly written and performed I didn’t even realise they were a couple until the last episode!
The Brigadier is wasted in a role that could have been taken up by anybody. This could have been an awesome meeting between the Brig and the Doctor but delaying their introduction until the end of the story and having Lethbridge Stewart on the sidelines throughout makes you wonder why they bothered.

Result: Not what I was expecting at all, Minuet in Hell was beset with problems from the outset and it is one of the few audios where it shows. The script is overlong and lacking in incident, it has some interesting ideas but it never exploits them, it introduces some spectacularly dull characters and its dialogue lacks any sparkle. The direction and performances are lacking too, the regulars are sidelined and uncharismatic and the guest artists fail to bring their characters to life. I found it a real struggle to get through this story because I didn’t care about what was going on or who was involved. I just wanted the 8th Doctor to get his memory back and have a jolly adventure with the Brigadier but I guess we are going to have to wait for another time for that. A flat end to McGann’s first season and it leaves me pessimistic for future appearances: 3/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:


neofish said...

Excellent review. I came here because – after deciding to work my way through the Eighth Doctor back catalogue – I got to Minuet in Hell today, and wondered if other people thought it was as dire as I did. I hate accents done badly (at this point I’m still reeling from Rathbone in Storm Warning), and the clichéd and overblown ones on view here simply make me want to tear my headphones off, followed by my ears. The whole Hellfire Club – Dashwood idea transplanted to America was stupid and unconvincing. The idea that a southern evangelist state would be named ‘Malebolgia’ really destroyed the credibility for me from the outset. Did the authors just think this was a really cool name that – hint, hint – secretly indicated Dashwood’s sympathies? So, no-one in the US is supposed to realise that their new state is named after Dante’s Eighth Circle of Hell, and is therefore Satan’s dominion? Absolutely ridiculous and patronising (but then the entire cast of US characters are as well). And the Brigadier is suddenly an expert on devolution, having helped set up the Scottish parliament? Really? About as much sense as him becoming a Maths teacher. Add to that everything mentioned above – the rubbish amnesia plot (clichéd even when this was released), the frustration of having the Brig and the Doctor not sharing the adventure, and the hamfistedness with which the ‘hard science’ and devil worship plots were shoehorned together – and you have what must surely be the worst Big Finish release up to this point.

So, thanks for this exhaustive and insightful review, which really expounds far more eloquently than I can what a dog’s dinner this is. I look forward to reading further reviews on here!

Sean C said...

Such terrible voice acting, such a letdown after the great talents that usually show up in BF productions. Those accents! If you can't do an accent, and you take the part anyhow, you are a HACK. I kind of want my money back on this one.

Adam Graham said...

The Brigadier's presence was the only redeeming quality of the story and I felt awful for Nick Courtney to act in this tripe story. It's plot is illogical and stupid with the accents ridiculous.

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Triem23 said...

Jubilee was the first Doctor Who story (ever, across TV, audio, prose, comic) ever to make me fast forward a scene because the horror of the moment was genuinely disturbing.

This is the first Doctor Who story where I just switched it off, never to be returned to ever again. Given my low opinion of most of the Moffat era, that's saying something indeed,since in five of his six seasons I wouldn't have minded if the companions died horrible deaths, then had the decency to stay dead... (If only there had been six seasons of Bill and Nardole!).

Helyn Goldwyn is so good in other stories, but, in the name of Rassilon, never let her attempt to play American again! (Speaking AS an American, there's a terrible "generic American" accent used by many UK actors that sounds nothing like any American ever. It's like someone trying to do John Wayne's impersonation of a Londoner.)

Btw, Robert Jezek is a fine actor, but, yeah, he doesn't sound American either. He's absolutely got Canadian dialect. In some of your other reviews you've complemented his American accent, which would be a bit like talking about Sylvester McCoy's British accent.

End of snark. :)

Cavecanem said...

Sometimes I find that your negative reviews are too harsh. However, after listening, I think the only reason you didn't rate this lower is because Nicholas Courtney is in it. What DREK.