What’s it about: Curses and tombs, revenge from beyond the grave - and Dick Turpin! England, 1738. On the trail of a lost book, the Doctor and Charley arrive at the beautiful country estate of Sir Ralph and Lady Sybil. But all is far from idyllic. There’s a murderer on the loose, and the nearby woods are the haunt of the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin. And that’s not all. Something else has journeyed here. Something that could destroy the very fabric of reality. The Doctor and Charley have just forty-eight hours to solve the mystery before the whole world succumbs to The Doomwood Curse…
Softer Six: You would be hard pressed to figure that the Doctor and Charley have only had one adventure together since they already have superb chemistry that is very easy on the ear. The Doctor sighs her name in the way that he reserves for only his best of friends and he trusts her enough to rifle through his library and take four-hour baths! Rather wonderfully Charley leaps into action when she realises that the Grel are going to burn books…and he tries to remind her that he is the one who comes up with all the clever plans but she’s already gone. I think these two are going to get on splendidly. He doesn’t find gothic romances like Rookwood the epitome of literature like he used to and by the time he came to read it he had past the stage when such a thing became desirable. The way Charley describes it leads the Doctor to believe it is a most edifying tome. It’s always great to see the ultra arrogant sixth Doctor embarrassed and being shoved inside a coffin whilst the perpetrator sits on the lid definitely ranks! However he has been at this melodramatic lark for far to long to be beaten when it comes to ham theatre and he cries, ‘The bones are moving! Grasping me to them in an embrace of death!’ – I was laughing my head off at this wonderful nonsense. Since he begun his audio adventures there has been a more intimate side to the sixth Doctor that we rarely saw on TV and his attempts to get John to surrender to his grief and not hide away in fiction is another great example of how sensitive and tender he can be. He is shot square in the chest and should have died (or regenerated) but fiction demands that he survives to allow the story to continue. The Doctor trusts that one day he and Charlotte will be the best of friends.
Edwardian Adventuress: Charley is still trying to get the hang of this ‘travelling with an earlier incarnation’ lark and she can’t help but let slip her astonishment that the TARDIS has gotten them where they want to be for once! She tries to sound as naïve as possible when asking the Doctor that surely there must be some laws of time to bound his adventures…forgetting to mention that she is a direct violation of them twice over! Ever the romantic Charley finds the whole notion of curses and tombs, revenge from beyond the grave, gypsies and dashing highwaymen highly desirable and she is certain that Rookwood is a correct interpretation of Dick Turpin. In their short acquaintance the Doctor was under the impression that Charlotte was not the sort of person who would fall to pieces at the mere hint of the macabre but she is spooked by the idea of an exit from a tomb! She’s already got a key and has to bite her tongue from mentioning it when the Doctor gives her a spare for the TARDIS. Ironic for Charley that she has spent her recent past pretending to have forgotten her past and now she genuinely has! Charley is forced into whatever role the story needs of her so she hops from fluttering bride to be (a role that seems to suit India Fisher really well!) to daredevil criminal Gypsy Charlotte (in which Fisher adopts a very cute country aaaccc-cent!).
Standout Performance: This is exactly the sort of script that actors hungrily accept roles in Doctor Who for. Expertly written parts that allow them to indulge in melodrama and enjoy the fact anything could happen in the story. It’s hard to say who had a better time on this story because you don’t need the extras to tell you that they were enjoying themselves! I especially enjoyed Geraldine Newman’s villainous Lady Sybil who delights in murder and revels in chaos and has her plans foiled by the Doctor at every turn (She manages to sound deeply concerned when she stumbles on Charley’s death that she has arranged only to discover that she alive…and her deadpan ‘Oh!’ made me howl). She is all sinister asides and mocking laughter, exactly what the novel demands of her. John is the character through which we see all these changes in narrative take place and John Firth has the nigh on impossible task of having to continually convince the audience that this is how its always been every time characters take on a new role. Nicky Henson has exactly the sort of rough edged romantic voice that was needed to bring Dick Turpin alive…and he sings a nice song too!
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We better go…to Rookwood!’
‘I assure you this yawing sepulchre contains no bones!’
‘That world you were in before it was a world of words and words on a page however skilfully written can never convey the reality of losing a loved one.’
‘I don’t think anyone is all bad Charlotte but Turpin came closer than most.’
Great Ideas: The Factualiser is a Grel Device to destroy bad facts – it is the modern equivalent of burning books if they come across diametrically opposed facts that do not correlate! Rather than let Charley guess the end of the novel the Doctor decides to take her back to the time of William Harrison Ainsworth and find another copy for the TARDIS archive for her to finish. In a story that has more than a touch of Sleepy Hollow about it there is gloriously sinister flashback to Turpin forcing his way into a house, beating the owner and stealing his goods. The Doomwood Curse: ‘When a bough is found I trough, beneath its shade to lie, heir son will rise twice in the skies and a Doomwood sure shall die!’ The curse of the Doomwood family states that if a bough should fall from the Doomwood tree it heralds the death of the eldest Doomwood. For a second the story has you believe that Charley has been killed in the middle of this gothic romance only to discover that it was the chambermaid in her wedding dress. Hilariously Charley smashes a window and jumps free…but following the melodramatic trappings of this story there is a horse there to catch her fall and ride her away to safety! The Grel never wanted to destroy the book, they wanted to turn fiction into reality (or turn a bad fact into a good fact in their lingo) and whatever was in their machine (nanites) when it exploded got to work on the remains of the book along with whatever they had to hand…Charley! They brought the particles with them in the TARDIS and their doing their best to fit the story together coherently. They’ve turned Charley and the rest of the people here into a plot device, whatever they need to string a story together. In Rockwood Dick Turpin kills his partner and in this reality that partner is Charley! The narrative rules that the Doctor must get to the next set piece as soon as possible and so just like those three little asterisks that suggest the passing of time a quick scene in a tavern away from his travels suggests that they have been travelling for a whole day. Nobody feels hunger or thirst or asked any questions – they are literally shoved from one exciting bit to the next and the time in between (the boring bits) is taken for granted that it happened. If you choose to live in a world of fiction where grief isn’t real then you will never again experience true happiness either. Even the Doctor succumbs to the narrative at a vital point where he could have saved Charlotte. The particles spread and infect wherever they find volumes of narrative and in the early 18th century, the birthplace of the novel and literary giants and every home will soon be possessed by a novel. The only character that is both real and fictional, Dick Turpin, turns out to be the carrier for the particles and he channels the Grel so he can reshape the world in his own design.
Audio Landscape: I read on Martin Johnson’s website that he goes to some lengths not to use a library of recorded sounds and likes to create all the sound design from scratch on his releases. That approach really works when it comes to a historical release like The Doomwood Curse and the story comes alive in unexpected ways with his evocative sound design. Grel rifling through books, the Factualiser explodes with a rather hilarious bell ding, whispering voices in the tomb, sweet birdsong on a spring evening, banging on the door and Turpin forcing entry, a tree snapping and hitting the ground, whispering voices herald the changing of details to the story, squeaky door of the crypt, crackling fire, ripping Charley’s clothes, smashing the window, Dick Turpin firing his gun, horses galloping, when the flowers do their work the whole story stretches to a halt.
Musical Cues: The music is perfect for a rip-roaring yarn with curses and highwaymen and Johnson manages to whip up an air of romantic excitement with the soundtrack. I love the melodramatic stings at the end of episode one as the curse finally takes hold of Sir Ralph. There are ominous rumblings playing throughout the story that suggest that no matter how bad things are…they can always get worse! Bombastic drums accompany Charley as she rides to safety. My feet were tapping away with excitement as Black Bess scales a wall with two on her back such was the dynamism of the music. In kick the vocals as Bess approaches York to give this melodrama the conclusion it deserves.
Standout Scene: The Doctor and Charley recounting opposing facts about Rookwood to bring down the Grel is not only a devilishly clever ending but sees Colin Baker and India Fisher cement themselves as the Big Finish pairing of the time. They’re fantastic here and it is great to see the risk of their pairing paying off so soon.
Notes: Finally the Grel make it into a Doctor Who story after being exclusively used by the Bernice Summerfield range for some time. They were first created by Paul Cornell in his New Adventure Oh No It Isn’t but they have been helping (The Glass Prison) and hindering (The Grel Escape) Bernice ever since! I find them hugely amusing creatures…they are obsessive bibliophiles, a cephalopodan species who exist to find more facts from literature (‘Fact: It was the best of times! Additional Fact: It was the worst of times!’). Jac Rayner knows exactly how to bring them to life with some verve and the Doctor’s mind teaser and Charley’s ‘pen is mightier than the sword’ quote has them tied up for long enough so they can damage their machine and scarper!
Result: ‘Reality is still there beneath this gothic patina!’ Exactly what we needed after their dark and dank debut, The Doomwood Curse is a delightfully melodramatic affair with a sweet aroma of imagination and a hint of literature. What I really like about this tale is how it keeps innovating itself – we land in Rookwood and discover the curse in the first episode, the Doctor guesses that they are within the pages of the book in the second before we learn the truth during the cliffhanger which leads into a narrative defying second half. Whilst we are enjoying all the fun character parts and atmosphere we are kept guessing as to the very nature of the story. Colin Baker and India Fisher continue to produce riches together and at the same time enjoy their own fun in their separate narratives through the course of the story and Barnaby Edwards has once again assembled a stellar cast that has great pleasure bringing to life this passionate material. The way the Doctor has to piece together a fiction out of the interpretation of Rookwood Charley relayed to him at the beginning of the story is very clever and I love all the narrative trickery that Rayner indulges in. I also enjoyed the various depictions of Dick Turpin that we hear before the various cast members relay what the historical records say about the man giving the story a pleasing educational touch once the fiction has been wiped away. For once a reset is very welcome – its not the sort of happy ending the sixth Doctor and Charley will experience for long so lets enjoy it while we can: 8/10
Buy it from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/111-Doctor-Who-The-Doomwood-Curse