Friday, 20 August 2010

The Dark Flame written by Trevor Baxendale and directed by Jason Haigh-Ellery

What’s it about: A thousand years ago, the evil Cult of the Dark Flame infiltrated every star system in the galaxy. In the history books the Cult is legendary, its despotic leader a terrible memory. But for some the Dark Flame still burns. For some, its horrifying power is the ultimate goal. All that is required is for the right people to be in the wrong place and time. An archaeologist and his robot are on the poisonous world of Sorus Alpha, where they will uncover a hideous relic. The Doctor and Ace are on their way to the deep space research centre Orbos, where Professor Bernice Summerfield is soon to start the countdown to universal Armageddon. Four acolytes of Evil. Three mad scientists. Two companions. One Doctor.

The Real McCoy: People are going to think that I am mad but I genuinely think the Doctor is beautifully characterised in this story. If there is one good thing you can say about Trevor Baxendale it is that he manages to capture whatever Doctor he is writing for with consummate ease. Because I am so used to his breathless, utterly delightful take on the eighth Doctor I wasn’t sure what to expect with the darker seventh incarnation. If you read the script of the Dark Flame the Doctor is a truly phenomenal force in this story, witty, heroic, crazy and very crafty. He even manages to achieve Godhood in the last episode, which is just a step away from what the writers of the New Adventures were trying to achieve. Unfortunately (and it is a big unfortunately) this is undoubtedly Sylvester McCoy’s worst Big Finish performance bar none. He squanders what could have been a truly great showing for his Doctor by gabbling his way through the script as though he never seen the thing before (which is a possibility but if so he doesn’t have the skill to read off the page naturally). His inflections are in all the wrong places (‘The Time Lords frown on that sort of thing’), half the time he sounds as though he has downed a bottle of whiskey before grabbing his microphone (‘Dorotheeeee’) and fails to stress the important moments (‘Let gooooo’). It should be beguiling and yet he constantly draws attention to the performance by rushing his lines, stumbling on the technobabble and sounding totally at sea. It’s just bizarre and a real shame. He settles down in episode four and does manage to get through the climax without anything too embarrassing happening but by then the damage has been done. His last line is a beaut, however.

Everybody knows about the Doctor. He has the curiosity of a cat. As far as the Doctor’s concerned the laws of time are just there for the breaking (or at least that is what Benny thinks of him!). He has a cavalier attitude for a Time Lord. The last time he visited Orbos was with Mel when the universe felt like a lot safer place and one that you weren’t embarrassed to show your friends. He spends most of his time now outwitting disasters before they have even happened. When he feels the time energy running over the crystal he describes it as ‘wine flowing through sand.’ He didn’t think he would have to come up with a cunning masterplan, he thought they were just picking up Benny. The Doctor’s age is compared to Krull’s and he is just an infant in comparison. He admits that his own technobabble – dimensionally transcendental and all that – does sound rather silly. Hilariously he describes the matter transmitter as feeling like being flushed up a toilet! ‘Hello Slyde, I haven’t missed you at all!’ he insults beautifully. He admits on the quiet to Ace that he has always got a plan. He tries to convince that he would be a terrifying force for evil and for a second you believe him (although he would have to be played by someone other than McCoy or you wouldn’t be able to take him seriously!). His mind connects to the Dark Flame for a few moments and he has unprecedented access to time. He has finally achieved Godhood and proves worthy of those powers, nipping and tucking the timeline and giving Remnex a clean death without actually preventing the death itself. He admits no one should have that sort of power. He loves his job.

Ace of Hearts: I’ve hardly made a secret of the fact that my least favourite aspect of the New Adventures is the infamously named New Ace. She was torn from the Doctor’s side just as Bernice came on the scene and spent a few years being a hardened space mercenary before returning as a tough as nail, bitchy, bullying soldier who shoots first and talks later. Okay that is an overly simplistic of how she was portrayed but with one in five writers giving her any depth I found her shallow characterisation and wilful petulance too much to bear. I am starting to wonder if we had had Sophie Aldred playing these steps in Ace’s life it might have sweetened the pill a little. There’s nothing that Ace does in this story that she didn’t do in the New Adventures that annoyed the hell out of me in the books and yet Aldred, giving her best performance since The Fearmonger adds some charm and intelligence to the character. She still insults and fights and overreacts, but Aldred softens the blow. Its miles less offensive than the screaming angst queen from The Rapture.

This is set during the time when Benny and Ace are getting on. For such a seasoned traveller you would have to wonder about the way she bumbles her way through their introductions (‘Isn’t that the bloke who was screaming in the TARDIS?). She proves herself to be technically competent. She has a hot temper and jumps at Slyde at the slightest provocation. Ace is not the girl she once was, she left the Doctor and fell in with the military and she’s now very good at killing Daleks. She is rather aptly described as a hooligan of a companion. The Doctor without Ace is like rhubarb without custard (he also mentions Batman without Robin and Holmes without Watson but the rhubarb one is the best). It has been a long time since she thought of herself as a girl. She prepares herself for unarmed combat with her best friend.

Archaeological Adventurer: Again it is really difficult to imagine Bernice as a companion of the Doctor considering her distinguished Big Finish career championing her own series for 11 impressive seasons. Lisa Bowerman is such a fantastic actress she can make anything worth listening to but the trouble with squeezing her in a story with McCoy and Aldred is that she steals the limelight effortlessly. Even if she can’t pronounce Ogrons. There are times in the story when I wonder if Baxendale was trying a bit too hard to make Benny sarcastic and she almost becomes a parody of herself (‘Let us go…you git’).

Trust Bernice to stir up trouble wherever she goes! She came to Marran Alpha toe meet with her friend Victor Farrison but he didn’t show so she ended up working in refuge dumping! She uses humour to hide how frightened she is. She meets Joseph for the first time and the Doctor repairs him at the stories climax insisting she doesn’t know when she is going to need him again. She is in the prime of her life, for a human.

(I love it when Big Finish do something quirky like this and take a step into the New Adventures. There are lot of people that consider the New Adventures to be the highlight of the Doctor’s travels, a time when the series truly exploded with possibilities and probed the Doctor in a myriad of fascinating ways. I’m always torn because I like a lot of what they did in the New Adventures, especially opening the Doctor Who universe into a world of original novels and creating a compelling number of backdrops and recurring characters but I do still wonder if they pushed things a little too far in places. I preferred the eighth Doctor books personally because they mixed the strength of the New Adventures (the mind blowing ideas, the adult characterisation) with the nostalgic feeling of the TV series. It was a best of both worlds scenario for me. Anyway, I digress. I just want to give Big Finish kudos for having another stab at the New Adventures and allowing the fans of that range a chance to hear real actors playing the characters they have always loved.)

Great (clichéd) Ideas: The TARDIS is skittish, almost nervous to go to Marran Alpha (not explained). Remnex sends a telepathic message to the Doctor to beware of the Dark Flame. Marran Alpha has a volcanic, poisonous atmosphere with the Orbos facility in orbit, conducting experiments in Black Light. The Doctor describes the planet as being in a very bad mood. They are trying to create a miniature artificial star. Remnex is murdered whilst clutching the crystal and his death scream is beamed back in time to the TARDIS. The Dark Flame is a death cult that worshipped an energy being from another universe. The Dark Flame itself is described as the burning heat of evil. Remnex’s corpse is reanimated and used to house the revered leader of the cult, a putrefying corpse taking over the universe? The bones of long dead men are spat from the Earth and reanimated with the strength of the undead. A negative energy being from a dark universe, one of those forced out of existence by the collapse of our universe. The skull can control a black light explosion. Vylas Krull made contact with a negative energy being and transferred from person to person until all the remains of Krull was his desiccated skull. They want to convert the artificial sun into a gateway to a dark universe and carry evil to every corner of time and space! The Black Light explosion will take place inside the time space continuum and turn love into hate, peace into war, creation into destruction and leave all civilisations in ashes. The Dark Flame is the last flame of a dying universe.

Audio Landscape: Pretty poor, all told. Nothing really grabbed me in this production or if there was a lot of effort going on in the background it was drowned out by the rather impressive musical score. I have no idea what the first scene was all about…it sounded like Benny screaming so I’m sure I missed something. I heard the hum of a spaceship, footsteps on rock and some very odd bone rattling for the skeleton people but that was about it.

Musical Cues: The second score by Andy Hardwick @ ERS and much better than the one for Bang Bang a Boom. There was no moment that stood out as being excellent but the score was pretty much all over the story and made it a more enjoyable experience.

Isn’t it Odd: This is the fifth under whelming seventh Doctor story in a row (if like me you weren’t enamoured with Dust Breeding, Colditz, The Rapture and Bang Bang a Boom) which seems odd when the other ranges are producing works as good as The Church and the Crown, Jubilee and Chimes of Midnight. What has gone wrong? I don’t blame McCoy entirely, he is capable of giving some very good performances (his angry performance in Colditz was great for example) but there are some definite quality issues that need to be addressed. Something is not quite clicking and I think the upcoming introduction of Philip Olivier as Hex will give the 7th Doctor stories a much-needed kick up the arse.

There are a plethora of problems with The Dark Flame, most of which come down to Traditional Trevor characterising the New Adventures team authentically but planting them in a story that is so stereotypically Doctor Who that Rebecca Levene would have taken one look at it and tossed it in the bin. You can pretty much sum up the entire story (sans technobabble) in the first ten minutes. Remnex will die (he has victim tattooed all over his ass), Slyde is the villain (Michael Praed plays him with a quiet menace thought even when he is supposed to be a normal scientist) and Lomas will betray the Doctor (because she is far too helpful for her own good). I guessed that the cult was still very much a alive, somebody would try and do something universally stupid and Ace will get grumpy about something. In the first ten minutes! As it turns out the one moment of genuine character drama, Bernice kicking the shit out Ace and saying she has had it coming for a long time, is all the bad guy putting those thoughts into her head. With its mixture of relics and cults this has a very similar feel to Nekromenteia…and its only marginally better. And of course McCoy, who plays his Doctor like an unintelligent bumbling fool with none of the dark menace bubbling under the surface that Troughton managed to pull off.

Result: Another disappointing McCoy story which is starting to become the norm with Big Finish. Trevor Baxendale is the hardest of all Doctor Who writers to pin down, he is always gearing for a traditional Doctor Who story but sometimes he can spin a yarn as effective and engaging as The Deadstone Memorial and Prisoner of the Daleks and other times his work lacks any subtlety or menace at all like Coldheart and The Dark Flame. Every twist is signposted and every character is shoehorned into a stereotype that plays out with grinding inevitability. The ideas aren’t half bad but they need a far more engaging plot than this to bring out their juices. Lisa Bowerman manages to salvage some dignity and oddly Sophie Aldred gives her best performance for years but they are let down by an agonisingly awful turn by Sylvester McCoy who is so out of synch with the script it’s a wonder he didn’t add his bits after all the other actors went home. I’m bored of being this harsh on 7th Doctor stories, can we have a good one soon please. An extra point because Joseph is just fab: 4/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:


Anonymous said...

I cant understand your problems with this story it's actualy better than most mc,coy's this is on a level with rememberance,nemisis,battlefeiled & dragonfire.
I suggest you re-listern to it, nice art work though

Anthony Pirtle said...

Sylveter McCoy is beginning to frustrate me. I quite enjoyed his portrayal on television, and he proved early on with, "The Fearmonger," that he was capable of delivering a strong performance on audio as well. However, it seems as if he's becoming more and more cartoonish, and this is the most cartoonish reading yet. It particularly sticks out in this adventure, with everyone else giving their all.

Cavecanem said...

Doc, I am eagerly awaiting the eventual BF story that causes me to strenuously disagree with your review, just to have something to chew on. This is not that story. What a snore-fest. Cackling villain, disposable henchmen, McSkullguffin. Bleh. I think you were generous giving this a four. There are some good lines, I suppose and Benny is always wonderful