Friday, 24 June 2011

The Death Collectors written by Stewart Sheargold and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: 'There is only death.' A virulent disease that killed millions. A missing scientist. An ancient race of salvagers who collect and preserve the dead. The quarantined planet Antikon connects them all. When the Doctor arrives on a sky station above Antikon, a single accident has already set in motion a chain of events that will mean the death of every living thing. And the only way he can stop it is to die. Again.

The Real McCoy: I am officially stumped. The Death Collectors sees McCoy once again flying solo and once again triumphing within that role and within one minute at the beginning of this tale: ‘Hello? Someone in trouble? A Distress call? Lets find out…’ he is somehow more believable than he was in The Dark Husband’s entirety. Is it his companions that provoke his less than stellar performances? When stating he is a Time Lord he gets an extremely unimpressed reaction in the shape of ‘I’m sorry am I supposed to bow?’ Despite all the intrigue his many regenerations is quite a dull affair and he doesn’t want to add to that story today thank you very much. Pure speculation is not very specific and he prefers to find and see! The Doctor tries to convince the virus to become one with him and it can die finally when he regenerates but that will take too long for them. The Doctor asks Danika to join him on his travels but upon hearing that she wants a quiet life he concludes perhaps they wouldn’t be the best of companions.

Why does he always end up on the wrong side of the door – any door? He doesn’t sound best pleased to have landed on a Dar Trader ship so they must have history. When asked what he is doing in the airlock the Doctor smugly answers that he enjoys putting himself in near death situations (and I think there might be a touch of truth in that!). Unfortunately he left the proof that he was alive in his other coat and is claimed as spatial detritus!

Standout Performance: She’s versatile, I get that but Katerina Olsson has appeared in so many Big Finish adventures I’m starting to think that other actors are being put out of work. Worse, her plumy tones as the sarcastic computer voice Nancy really grate after about ten minutes and sounds exactly like a robotic Headhunter. McCoy’s airy, breathy performance as the virus is so odd I don’t know how to judge it.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Who is this rather offensive little man?’
‘Death is merely a science, Doctor. Measure it correctly a cure can be found.’
‘Science wins!’

Great Ideas: The Dar Traders (or Death Collectors as they are otherwise known) scavenge the aftermath of battles. They display a vast array of dead creatures on their walls. They have never collected a Time Lord before. Antikon’s Decay decimated an entire system so naturally there is a government funded project to research the virus. Their resurrection ability is not natural, they traded it with something that was infected with decay. Ridley’s signal corrupted Nancy, reanimated the collection of dead things and created the creature – I’m so glad the Doctor explains this in episode three because I wouldn’t have had a clue otherwise! Its not an alien intelligence masquerading as a virus – that is its natural state as pure decay. They tend killing those that they try to communicate with, trying to computerise their organic selves by using the signal. Corrupting Ridley’s suit when trying to kill him and then corrupting Nancy as they tried to sneak in via her – their own means of communicating through them is death. The virus tries to invade the Doctor via the TARDIS telepathic circuits.

Audio Landscape: Commotion, caterwauling, turbulence, discordance, hullabaloo, stridence and general uproar! That’s the only way you can describe the execution of this story. Brain meltingly noisy and incomprehensible.

Musical Cues: There might have been music in there somewhere but it is smothered in all the pandemonium.

Isn’t it Odd: It’s all a matter of grabbing the audiences attention and not letting go. When I listened to Red a few months back I found the first episode arresting because it laid all of its cards on the table immediately and then proceeded over the four episodes to explore its sinister concepts. The direction was extremely clear too which made the horror of the situation all the more frightening – there was no escaping the fact that people were being murdered horribly and it was being enjoyed. In comparison The Death Collectors gets off to a dreadfully uneven start – you don’t have a clue what is going on or who anybody is 20 minutes into the story and freshman director Ken Bentley (who, I might add, would go on to direct some stunning McCoy releases) confuses things even more with a great splurge of noise over the important moments where crisp, clean effects would have made things a lot simpler. Its not helped by one of the characters asking ‘Can you make any sense of it, Nancy?’ when they play back the horrendous racket. I do recall a thread on Gallifrey Base regarding the eighth Doctor third season story The Cannibalists which one poster was suggesting was an affront on their auditory systems because it was so noisy. I don’t subscribe to the same opinion but I suggest that he doesn’t listen to the last couple of minutes of this story because I was a terrible headache from the extreme levels of unpleasant noises that were strangling my eardrums! I should never have to wince when listening to an audio, let alone drag the earplugs out to escape the hellish sound! Unfortunately things fail to cohere in the second episode and since these characters lack any believability or sympathy and the situation continues to devolve into a lot of screaming white noise my attention really started to falter here. I find it a little too convenient that there are two separate plotlines – the Dar Traders and the virus and by a matter of pure co-incidence one collects the dead and the other can only communicate via the dead. Talk about driving the idea home with a sledgehammer. The ending tries to be hard-hitting but winds up being far to melodramatic for its own good (‘Taaaaaaaakkkeeeeee meeeeeeeeeeeeee!’).

Standout Scene: I wasn’t entirely convinced by the end of episode two but the thought of dying out in space with Madame Butterfly screaming in your ear is truly haunting.

Notes: The connections Doctor Who makes to culture is sometimes breathtaking and to any scholar of music a snippet of Madame Butterfly would simply be a beautiful piece of music with Puccini at the height of his powers. To a Doctor Who fan it brings images of a semi naked Sylvester McCoy on a hospital bed being murdered. The gag is that the Doctor refuses to die to the sound of elevator music…and for once unsubtle continuity really does get the laughs.

Result: A note to all future writers of audio drama. Lots of growling aliens, breathy villains, screaming, explosions and shouting does not make good drama if you doesn’t have an engaging narrative to hang it on. Without it all you have is noise. Which is pretty much what The Death Collectors is. A whole lot of noise. Its a shame because the first few minutes suggest something far more atmospheric and intellectual and a thoughtful performance from McCoy is wasted (although he does lose it in the last episode when he starts bellowing for the sake of melodrama). Sheargold’s Red threw a scary idea at you and developed it through its strong characters but in The Death Collectors the writer has a ton of inexplicable events take place to a loosely sketched cast and then has the Doctor explain what was going on at the conclusion. I don’t mind a good twist that changes my perception of a story but I don’t like to have to have the entire plotline spelt out for me because the writer has forgotten to do so as the story progresses. What bugs me even more is that the ideas are intelligent and commendably dark but their potential is lost in the deafening execution and the vacant narrative. Now excuse me I’ve just popped two solubles into water and I’m off for a little lie down. Approach with painkillers: 4/10

Spiders Shadow written by Stewart Sheargold and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: It is the eve of battle and the Martial Princesses Louise and Alison are hosting a royal ball. But there are unwelcome visitors in the garden and a sequence of events spiralling out of control. And what's more, the Doctor doesn't even remember arriving.

The Real McCoy: What I really like about this story is how we get a keen glimpse into the seventh Doctor’s intelligence as he hastily tries to arrange the scenes into some sort of order to make sense of them. So many writers (and with the return of Andrew Cartmel in the Lost Stories range it is more prevalent than ever) bypass the aptitude of McCoy’s Doctor by stressing the fact that he has set up adventures and know their outcome before the audience joins the story. But here he is wrong footed from the beginning and left trying to piece together a puzzle that sees him shine once assembled. The Doctor is alone in the TARDIS once again with only death for company. He dances superbly and with a blood flower in his lapel he cuts a dashing figure. An intruder who thinks himself amusing. The TARDIS wont let the Doctor leave and is described as a very wilful vehicle. He’s as free of an agent as he can be but a slave of his own conscience.

Standout Performance: Katerina Olson sound far more convincing as a aristocratic head of state…but she’s still made her name as the Headhunter and it is clearly the same actress which makes me expect a twist that simply isn’t there.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Time can do anything it pleases given the right encouragement.’

Great Ideas: Louise has been imprisoned in a moment of time and now it is folding back on itself. A chaotic time loop which is corrupted and destroying itself. Nerve endings pressing themselves into this dimension. The TARDIS was drawn into the time loop and is causing it to collapse. The creatures are playing out the events over and over, each time the jealous sister getting more resentful of the pretty one. The Doctor altered the loop so that the two sisters no longer hated each other and one acknowledged the others beauty.

Audio Landscape: Party atmosphere, the night air full of creatures, hissing spiders, a cracking, bubbling noise,.

Musical Cues: Kudos to David Darlington who by this point had been scoring Big Finish productions for years – his work was quite primitive when he began but it has improved practically with every release until he is scoring stories with this much talent. I especially liked the building tension in the music as the Doctor hops from scene to scene with increasing speed, it really drove home the insanity and delirium of the moment.

Result: A piquant little corrupted time loop with a great performance from Sylvester McCoy, it comes as no great shock that once again the one part sweetener overshadows the main release. I was reminded of Mission of the Viyrans with all the crazy audio trickery but Sheargold ensures there is a masterful reason for his scattered jigsaw pieces of plotting coming at the listener in all directions. The limited running time means that we can never get too close to these characters or understand the planetary situation in any depth and its quite a shame because the hints that we do get sound far more interesting than those in The Death Collectors. Ken Bentley’s direction is assured here and you can see the master craftsman starting to develop his art: 7/10

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