Monday, 12 December 2011

Castle of Fear written by Alan Barnes and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: 1199: Returning from the Crusade, Hubert, the new Earl of Mummerset, comes to take possession of Stockbridge Castle, his ancestral home. The only trouble is, in his absence, demons took possession of his Castle... 1899: The Stockbridge mummers’ play takes a wholly unexpected turn, when the Dragon slays St George. These events are not unconnected, the Doctor and Nyssa discover. There's an alien presence squatting in Stockbridge Castle, and it's their job to expose it. If Turkish knights, killer boars and a gang of rogue paladins don't stop them first…

An English Gentleman:There is a Doctor near at hand, ready to make the champion stand. Not another poultry mime but an Earl of Space and a Lord of Time!’ ‘What if I promise to doom myself just as soon as I’m out of the pit?’ the Doctor says, getting into the Monty Python spirit of the story. He wants to be saved from certain death so he can go and save certain death, naturally! I love the way Maud digs at the Doctor’s feeble strength by calling him Sir Runt! The Doctor has puns coming out of his backside as he faces up to the Rutan on the rack and when he meets up with Nyssa again he compliments her on her resourcefulness. What sort of knight wears a wegetable upon his breast? One inspired by JNT of course. I was astonished listening to the Doctor and Nyssa pooling their information when they meet up, finishing each other’s sentences so smoothly in an extremely fluidic exchange. They compliment each other beautifully and later when the Doctor believes Nyssa to be dead he drops his guard for a moment and says that he was fond of her – very fond in fact. If there was ever a moment where the Doctor had come close to admitting romantic feelings for one of his companions this must surely qualify.

Alien Orphan: I love Nyssa being able to travel alone with the Doctor and completely agree with Peter Davison that she compliments his Doctor better than his other companions. When written well Nyssa can be very surprising character and Sarah Sutton a surprising actress and plonking somebody as regal as Nyssa in the middle of a Pythonesque farce might seem like a contradiction in itself. However it works a treat because Nyssa gets to be a fabulous bossy boots when it comes to dealing with the inept Hubert, Earl of Dorkdom and unexpectedly she really gets into the spirit of the adventure and proves a warm presence. By the end of this story it has surely been the kindest adventure yet to her character as she has a hand in all the best moments.

When the Doctor suggested spending Christmas in Stockbridge, Nyssa was desperate to escape the confines of the 20th Century that they always seem to find themselves in. However 1899 proves too primitive for her with all its debauchery and jeering but even she can’t resist pointing out her Doctor when they call out for a medical man to join in the theatrical madness. In fact once they start participating she rather gets into it, pointing the Doctor towards his lines and improvising some herself! I love the way she calls herself the Lady Nyssa of Traken and she is smart enough to take her shoes off when she realises that is why the boar are pursuing them. A quick thinker, she can immediately see that the enemy are using electricity to bring down the knights in their suits of armour and orders their retreat. Then she marches into action with a plan to short-circuit the drone army! No wonder she was so trigger happy in Arc of Infinity, she’s had plenty of practice developing a fighting spirit with Big Finish. Come episode three she is ordering Roland to strip before her, the dirty mare! She laughs when he attempts to frighten her by waving his sword around and all he is wearing is long johns! She’s such a clever one that she double crosses the Rutans by tricking the Doctor into thinking she has given them everything they wanted…and then reveals that she did give them everything they wanted – unlimited power! Power without limit. How destructive does that sound?

Standout Performance: You know you are going to be in for a good time when Joe Thomas turns up on the cast list and his turn as Hubert, Earl of Mummerset is a delight to listen to for exactly the same reason Simon is such a treat in The Inbetweeners – he’s not afraid to throw away any sense of image and play an absolute prat! ‘Oh you fibber!’ He turns out to be a right big girls blouse and reminds me an awful lot of Captain Emanuel Swan from Dr Who and the Pirates thanks to his upper class twittitude and he is just as fun to listen to (also the director Barnaby Edwards played swan which creates a nice symmetry). Susan Brown also deserves kudos for really throwing herself into Maud the Withered (not the strumpet!) and having great fun with her horrifically over the top accent. John Sessions gets his tongue around a particularly quotable cod French twang as Roland of Berkhampsire! I really don’t have anything bad to say about any of the performances though, as usual Big Finish has assembled a top-drawer cast.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘This is stretching the point too far, don’t you think?’ – the Doctor on the rack!
‘I suppose middle age counts as a good innings in the Middle Ages’ – I love a bad pun, me and it reminds me of The Time Warrior which this story alludes to.
‘Its not too late to consider a collectivist alternative!’ – all the confab about serfs only being serfs when they have someone to serve is very funny! ‘We aint peasants! We’re serfs!’
‘Nyssa don’t patronise them’ says the Doctor as she gives them some peasantry explanation as to why the demons are leaving. He then continues with a full on Star Trek Voyager technobabble description of his own and naturally they comprehend the former.
‘And what if we aren’t lucky?’ ‘I recommend you don’t start any long sentences!’

Great Ideas: Somewhere along the line a ‘Doctor’ has visited Stockbridge with the ability to bring the dead back to life and his skills have passed into folklore and are being worked into the local mummery. An event involving the Doctor, a green dragon and a Turkish knight! The plot hiccups back 500 odd years to the 12th Century to explain how this peculiar myth began. Nyssa steps in shite and the Doctor in a boar trap – I didn’t think this was particularly sophisticated comedy until Barnes dovetailed the two to make a great boar hunting action sequence. The tone of the piece is distinctly Pythonesque and the Doctor confirms its influences when he runs away from a fight suggesting he is ‘off to find the Holy Grail!’ A great hellish fireball came shooting over the battlements and that night the old Earl was found dead in his bathtub. There was the sound of lightning and demons about their terrible, infernal business. It’s only in hindsight that the appearance of the Rutan is well sign posted with the Earl mentioning a mist thickening and the mention of the fish stock dying the night it landed – both elements used to great effect in Horror of Fang Rock. The mist has been concocted to lower the local temperature. The Doctor guesses incorrectly that the Rutans are here on the trail of a Sontaran that has landed in the 12th century – Linx from The Time Warrior when it was the other way around. Linx was following the Rutans that were plotting here, looking to find a way to clone themselves the way their enemies do. The process has eluded them in the past but if they clone themselves whilst in human form they will end up with armies of obedient canon fodder ideally suited to hand to hand combat to throw at the enemy. The reveal that Roland of Brittany is in fact a mercenary with a bad accent is beautifully done and I was cracking up as the Earl’s scoffing retorts. The Earl returned home to claim his Kingdom in the first episode and had to suffer the indignity of proving who he says he is to a rowdy rabble in the first episode and its that Barnes being a clever sod again, setting us up for a twist in the third episode where he reveals that he isn’t who he claims to be. He’s little more than an Apprentices apothecary caught up in a messy tale of death, imprisonment and making the best of a bad situation. Is anybody who they seem to be? After illusions to The Time Warrior and Horror of Fang Rock it is natural to automatically assume this is another lone scout and the reveal of a second Rutan is another clever twist. Barnes seems to be really getting off on subverting Who clichés – the two Rutans seem absolutely delighted that their plan seems to be working at the climax almost as though they expected to be foiled. The dragon turns out to be the Rutan spacecraft aflame as it leaves the area and Nyssa quotes the play as the ‘demon’ is vanquished to ensure that the tradition is in place for when they hear it in 600 years time. George becomes St George who slayed the dragon and the rest you know as mythology.

Audio Landscape: I have heard complaints that the electronic monotone of the Rutan sounds an awful lot like the Daleks from the Hartnell era and there is some truth in that statement – only so much as the Rutan from Horror of Fang Rock also sounded and awful lot like the Daleks from the Hartnell era. It’s a harsh, memorable shriek and I rather enjoyed it for all its lack of subtlety. Rowdy theatrical crowd, birdsong, a horse whinnying, a cock crowing, Nyssa steps in horse muck, wild boar on a hunt, trees swaying, knights stomping along on horseback, the Doctor falling down the steps in true comedy fashion, a crackling torch, bubbling wine, Maud electrocuted, the fabulous Rutan transformation noise, sparking (the equivalent of foaming at the mouth!), ashes inside armour, Roland kicking in the water and drowning, the Rutan ship ascending.

Musical Cues: If I weren’t in a good enough Christmas cheer already the opening theme of Castle of Fear made me jollier than Santa Claus noshing on a mice pie in the warm glow of a Christmas tree. Fox and Yason are some of my favourite Big Finish composers (along with Jamie Robertson, Alistair Lock & Russell Stone) and they understand the tone that Barnes’ insane script is aiming for and play plenty of heroic, jolly music to give the tale a shot of magic. Listen to the superb music as Nyssa tries to figure out how events will unfold using the plot of the play in episode three, it really is fantastic.

Isn’t it Odd: For all the uproarious performances and solid production the first episode is an absolute mess being far too confined, failing to move the plot on in any great hurry and lacking any tension whatsoever. Bawdiness is fun but it need to be attached to a dramatic story in order to work, the first episode of Castle of Fear feels like a Saturday night down the local after a few too many drinks and makes about as much sense. It strays quite close to Unbound: Exile for me tastes and that is an experiment that should never be repeated. Nyssa tries to inject a little drama into the situation by reacting in horror to Osbert jumping off the battlements but the comedy music robs it of any drama. It didn’t help that the script seemed to repeating the same information again and again without telling us why it is relevant or come to think of it explaining what is actually going on. The answers come and the repeated information is of course vital to the story but for that initial thirty minutes you could be forgiven for thinking you were in for a long ride. Alan Barnes has a bit of problem with his opening instalments when he is writing comedy episodes. Heroes of Sontar suffered the same fate. Androidisation? Even by my standards (it has been noted that I make up my own words whilst writing these reviews) that is a duff science fiction term! Nyssa loses her wits for a moment and fails to spot that Osbert is clearly a Rutan in disguise.

Standout Scene: I really enjoyed how Barnes tried to convince the audience that the demon of Stockbridge was a Sontaran by mimicking dialogue from the Sontaran experiment before turning 180 degrees and revealing that it is a Rutan. Mind you a clever Doctor Who fan would have guessed by all the clues littered about in the first two episodes. It’s still a great cliffhanger though, given some climactic pizzazz by the director. The last episode is one of those rare Doctor Who stories where everything slides into place satisfactorily and watching this jigsaw be completed is a joy.

Notes: Having a trilogy set around the village of Stockbridge is a novel idea and a wonderful gift for the fans of the comic strips. It took me a long time to be convinced to give the comic strip a try in Doctor Who magazine because that medium has never appealed to me before and I have to admit I greedily gobbled up 12 or so graphic novels full of new stories. There was a whole new era for the sixth Doctor, a great new companion for the tenth and the eighth Doctor had a massive lease of life in the comics that was denied to him on screen it was a delight to be able to see visuals of him in action. The fifth Doctor Stockbridge adventures were exquisite to read and the return to the village every couple of regenerations is a lovely touch of linking continuity – it’s a bit like UNIT turning up in the TV series, you know it wont be too long before we end up in Stockbridge again. Its an intriguing approach to a trilogy to have it based around a location because one of the joys of this format is in linking adventures but showing how diverse Doctor Who can be. Can they tell three stories of varying tones all set in one village? Only time will tell…

Result: Castle of Fear is massively enjoyable but I beg of you not to give up on this story on the evidence of the first episode because it is a plotless half an hour of inexplicable mummery and setting up clues and the plot doesn't kick in until the second episode has begun and then story gets better and better and better. Big Finish have this uncanny ability of adding detail to televised stories without touching the continuity established on screen and this 12th century escapade offers a great explanation for why Linx was trapped on medieval Britain in The Time Warrior. I really appreciate the continuing use of Nyssa in the audios because they are giving more weight to Peter Davison’s assertion that she would have been an ideal solo companion for his Doctor and Sarah Sutton is blazes with vim and vigour throughout. Davison is no slouch either, clearly delighted to be back in cahoots with his favourite. I love the idea of a Rutan story where all of the characters aren’t who they claim to be but aren’t the Rutan either, it’s a deceptive concept that gives the third episode a real boost (everybody is putting on a duff accents because the characters are putting on a duff accents!). The comic tone of the piece is so unlike anything we have had from the main range for a while it has to be commended and once I had cleared the hurdle of the introductory episode I had a oodles of fun as the story uncoiled and all the characters dropped their masks. There are some great gags in there and the performances are all sublime and I desperately want to mark this story higher. A terrifically energetic start to the Stockbridge trilogy and like authentic mid eighties Who ends on an explosive cliffhanger: 8/10


Rob GJ said...

Have to say that Barnaby Edwards didn't play Swan in Pirates, it was Nicholas Pegg! Both Daleks though!

Matthew H said...

I've been reading and loving your reviews for the past year or so. I have only one quibble. You say 'illusion' rather than 'allusion' (You allude to something when in reference to it). Pardon my pedantry. Keep up the excellent work :-)