Saturday, 20 April 2013

Eldrad Must Die! written by Marc Platt and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: 'A Doctor, curse his name, threw me down among the dead… but I endure.' I am Eldrad… and I must live! A nuclear icebreaker, foundering in Arctic waters. Seabirds washed up in the fishing resort of Ambermouth, their wings encrusted with crystals. A shining artefact of uncertain provenance, up for sale on an auction site. All of these things are linked, as the Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough are about to discover. Linked to the rebirth of a genocidal tyrant, presumed dead many years ago… For the sake of the planets Earth and Kastria alike… Eldrad must die!

An English Gentleman: Listen to the interaction between the regulars in episode one, doesn’t it all sound a little bit strained and unconvincing? Whilst I’m sure this isn’t the case it sounds like the actors have had a blazing row before heading off to the sound booths and it certainly isn’t helped by Platt’s awkward dialogue – but then I found that was also the case with his handling of this team in Cradle of the Snake too. The Doctor sounds a little bored when recounting the events of The Hand of Fear as though he recalls it as one of his less exciting adventures. To the Kastrians the Time Lords are known as a race of ‘archivists and know-alls.’

Alien Orphan (the Older): Nyssa proves quite adept at playing fruit machines, figuring out the correct algorithms in order to maximise her winnings (what you didn’t expect her to just enjoy it, did you?). She has a natural affinity with creatures in distress and winds up jumping into a pool with a dolphin to soothe its anxieties.

Mouth on Legs: I find myself looking forward to spending time with Tegan these days which is a wholly unnerving experience. It’s the Doctor, Nyssa and Turlough that are the paranoid ones nowadays and Tegan the willing adventurer who is the first one out the TARDIS doors and dipping into the sea. It is about as far from her onscreen persona as you can get but considering it is a massive improvement likes not quibble. There were a few occasions in Eldrad Must Die! where she was a little too perky (when the story needed a more serious response) and that is certainly not a criticism I ever thought I would make about this character.

Alien Orphan (the Younger): We’ve seen people from Turlough’s past turn up before but that was from childhood on Trion, this time Platt plumps for the less intriguing idea of a reunion with one of his old Brendon school friends. He lives on his nerves (and the occasionally crisp).

Standout Performance: With everybody delivering agitated performances (not their fault - it’s how they are written), nobody stands out as delivering anything memorable.

Great Ideas: I quite enjoyed Platt’s representation of how Turlough’s mind was slowly taken over by Mulkris, portraying the possession in a dream sequence set in Brendon School with the Doctor playing the role of Headmaster (even if this was ripped off wholesale from Platt’s similar dream sequence/possession in Cradle of the Snake). Eldrad is a silicon being infected the shores of Ambermouth, tainting the fish and the seabirds and contaminating Skipper. Years back, government uses the island to dump radioactive waste, depleted uranium. Silicon lifeforms have their genetic matrix set in stone, they can regenerate even from a tiny fragment. Some of the imagery is rather nice, an entire village of people covered in crystals. The Watcher is a crystal cut in the shape of an eye. The ship in a Quartzberg was also a nifty concept (albeit one which is introduced with far too much expressive dialogue). Just one grain of glass could resurrect Eldrad and he wants the power of the TARDIS to recreate himself. The final episode offers up one last intriguing image, snow quartz battering at the shores of Ambermouth.

Audio Landscape: Crashing waves, alarm, seagulls, lapping waves, a car speeding off, splashing with dolphins, Turlough attempting to run them off the road, church bells.

Musical Cues: Full marks to Wilfredo Acosta, his score is fantastic. Absolutely the best thing about this tale. I should imagine I will give the bonus track of his music more attention than the actual story in the future.

Isn’t it Odd: I don’t want to say that Big Finish are getting a desperate at plundering the classic series but I think I may have to. Just looking at the Tom Baker era in general and you can see how there is barely a story that hasn’t had an homage to or some element of its story resurrected. Robot (The Relics of Jegg-Sau, Mirror, Signal Manoeuvre), The Ark in Space (Wirrn Dawn, Wirrn Isle), The Sontaran Experiment (the same Wirrn stories, Heroes of Sontar, The First Sontarans), Genesis of the Daleks (take your pick), Revenge of the Cybermen (and again), Terror of the Zygons (The Zygon Who Fell to Earth, Death in Blackpool), The Android Invasion (The Oseiden Adventure), The Brain of Morbius (The Vengeance of Morbius), The Seeds of Doom (Hothouse), The Masque of Mandragora (Sarah Jane Smith series two), The Deadly Assassin (Gallifrey), The Robots of Death (Robophobia), The Talons of Weng-Chiang (Jago & Litefoot – specifically The Last Act). I’ll stop at the end of the Hinchcliffe era but you get the picture. I make it only Planet of Evil, Pyramids of Mars and The Face Evil that manage to remain separate unto themselves. But you can pretty much examine every era of the show and I would probably go as far as to say that 80% of it has been referenced or ransacked.  In some cases the writers have taken the seed of an idea from the original story and taken it in another direction and added to the mythos but in the majority of cases it feels as though the show is being scoured for the primary reason that it sells more copies of that particular release. I get that Big Finish is a business and making money is their primary concern and I have no problem with continuity being used if it is done so sparingly and effectively but that is not always the case and that is what I object to. Did we need a second Eldrad story? No way. Was his name plastered all over the melodramatic title to sell more copies? Without a shadow of a doubt. The sad truth is that Big Finish is so prolific now and has pretty much used up all of the good monsters that the 50th anniversary year is left littered with the regurgitated corpses of stories like The Hand of Fear. And I think if you strapped people down and tickle tortured them into admitting the truth then nobody would honestly say that this was a story that they desperately wanted to listen to a sequel too. To say I went into this tale hesitantly would be an understatement. Big Finish has proven its ability to provide some truly outstanding original material and if I am honest a list of my favourite stories would fall in that quarter (Dr Who and the Pirates, A Thousand Tiny Wings) rather than those which apply continuity for the sake of marketing purposes.

Unfortunately within seconds I thought I was back in The Hand of Fear – a pre-titles sequence featuring Eldrad screaming his head off and a nuclear setting with lots of alarms and panic. If Platt wanted to encapsulate his source material in a couple of minutes then he has done a good job. Apparently Brendon school was full of aliens, a hidey hole for exiles from many worlds – that is an idea that is so out of left field and barely elaborated on that surely Platt is just taking the piss now? Was nothing in the TV series as it appeared to be? Turlough’s surprise is so muted that the scene lacks any real emotional value. None of the guest characters really come alive beyond what this story asks of them – I never got the sense of them being able to exist outside of these four episodes. We learn very little about them and the performances were quite broad making them feel a little one note. Jim is especially wearying in this regard. Episode two features more Turlough dream sequences than you could possibly want but since we don’t know how much of this is genuine flashback and how much is a metaphor for what is happening inside his head it is hard to take anything useful from the exercise. I never quite bought why the Kastrians took their own lives on the extremely unlikely chance that Eldrad might return one day in The Hand of Fear and when it is spelt out quite so plainly here it still leaves me baffled. It seems like such an extreme thing to do when the likelihood of his return is so slim. When you add in the contingency that Mulkris the Executioner was sent off to ensure that no part of him survived it makes their suicide pact even more drastic and unnecessary. The trouble with trying to convey possession on audio is that you have no visual aids (Lis Sladen’s childlike body language and flickering eyes made all the difference in the original) which leaves you with actors slowing…down…their…voices in a terribly melodramatic fashion to suggest they have been taken over. It’s trying to be frightening but it’s actually pretty comical. Platt isn’t usually guilty of such obvious descriptive dialogue but I really noticed it in this adventure (‘The beach, it’s moving!’ ‘Making a vortex! A whirlpool!’ ’It’s sinking!’ ‘It’s swallowing my TARDIS!’). Somebody always gets left out of the action when there are four regulars to split the action between and this time around its Nyssa who is left with little of consequence to do (at least its faithful to the TV series in that respect). Mulkris threatened to be an interesting character but she is dispatched almost as soon as her role in the story was revealed (and using the poison that was also sported in The Hand of Fear no less). Blah, blah, blah…a new race of Kastrians and take over the universe… It’s clear that bringing Eldrad back to life wasn’t to examine his character in any great depth but to indulge in the usual meglomaniacal clichés. Four episodes of trying to turn a speck of glass into a stompy, shouty villain for this? ‘Eldrad loves to make War. He lives for strategy and design!’ basically means he’s as boring as we all thought. ‘That will precipitate the crystals worldwide!’ – a last minute worldwide threat does not make a gripping story. Platt is prolific enough now that he can start plagiarising his own work from years back and if you want to see what the guy can really do with crystals then check out the far superior A Storm of Angels in the Unbound range. Episode four sees the story leaping to Kastria and Eldrad stomping about the place in a vainglorious rage. Does any of this sound familiar?

Standout Scene: I’ve put my back out this week and I wondered if I was hallucinating my way through the agonising pain of the injury during the abominable sequence that featured the following sparkling dialogue: ‘Eldrad must Live!’ ‘No Eldrad must Die!’ ‘Give me the box Eldrad must Live!’ ‘No! No! Eldrad must Die!’ I listened to it again later once the painkillers had kicked in and to my horror it was exactly as I remembered. Have I got it all wrong and this is supposed to be a comedy? Since Eldrad’s resurrection offers no new insights I can only assume this was the reason that this story was produced, to indulge in nostalgia of the axiom ‘Eldrad Must Live!’ Not the strongest of foundations, it has to be said.

Result: Deeply unengaging, Eldrad Must Die! serves as a sequel to both The Hand of Fear and Mawdryn Undead and on the strength of this story neither were strictly necessary. And in the way Platt explores possession through dream sequences this also feels like a predecessor to Cradle of the Snake as well. The first episode is a long winded affair that wants to get Turlough in exactly the same position as Sarah Jane Smith in the original (possessed, and chanting a slogan about Eldrad) but takes twice as long to get about it. The story feels as though it has no framework supporting it, scenes of  random weirdness compound each other (Look a village of crystal people! And a Quartzberg! Quartz rain!) in an attempt to distract the audience from the fact that nothing terribly original is going on. I often find Big Finish audios are at their best when they are examining interesting ideas through thoughtful dialogue and engaging characters (check out this months companion chronicle) but Eldrad Must Die! is one of those tales that comes off like a weak television soundtrack with characters constantly describing what is happening and reacting in a state of shock at everything. To give Platt some credit he tries to examine Turlough to some small degree but its hard to take anything from the dream sequences because it is hard to determine what is memory and what is fantasy. The Emerald Tiger proved that there was a rich seam of goodies to be mined from placing this quartet of regulars in an innovative and unique story. It kicked started the last trilogy in such a delightful fashion. Eldrad Must Die! proves to be the antithesis of that tale, the depressing result of trading on the shows past for no rhyme or reason, indulging in clichés and failing to do anything fresh with the source material. Some interesting imagery aside, it’s about as tired as the main range has been in over a year. It’s the worst kind of story, one that feels like it didn’t need to be told: 3/10


Anonymous said...

Sometimes I think that BF could do more spin-off stories than regular releases based on long time dead or overused monsters. There is so many possibilities to create new enemies or alien species, visit different countries and locations in present and past (what about visiting Africa for instance?). Also it would truly love to listen Sarah Jane's own CC - told by Luke, Clyde or Rani. Or even some new Torchwood drama at least. Waiting for new Dorian Gray season and there is new Vienna spin-off.

Christopher "Peaky" Brown said...

Hahahahaha as soon as I heard they were bringing back Eldrad for a sequel I *knew* this would bomb! (Maniacal laughter)

Still, sorry to hear :(

Doc Oho said...

I can't address you by name because it just as 'anonymous' but I agree with you entirely - it has come to the point where the main range, as good as it can be, is starting to feel a little stale thanks to the over reliance on continuity but the spin offs are continually producing the most original material. And the idea of an SJA style companion chronicle kicks serious ass.

Oh man, Peakius, you should give this one a go just so you can tell me what you think.

Anonymous said...

I guess one of the reasons why main range is so heavily based on elements from the main stories is the fact that many fans consume everything Doctor Who related in a very repetitive way: a logic of TV-series with many episodes usually allows creators to use same plot elements and characters as much as possible, so viewers seek stability and are usually happy to see a same story or setting again. The problem is that this settings sometimes seem to them more valuable that the story itself. So as with this audio as an example it is obvious how easily a story could be spoiled while using its elements too much. But unfortunately some do like that kind of "again" logic. For me it is a bit sad when some bad character or monster dies in the series and then is revived again and again. (It is the paradox of easily dying good guys and almost immortal bad guys.) Of course we have the Master, daleks, cyberman, silurians, ice warriors and so on, but definitely not every bad guy should come to life again.

Bad Andy said...

This doesn't happen too often but I 100% agree with this review.

Richardmlive said...

A sequel to a story that was the weakest episode in season 14 - farewell scene excepted - so I was never going to like this one and so it proved.

I think an Osiran turns out to be the 'big bad' in Erimem's farewell story 'The Bride of Peladon' so you can tick Pyramids off your list of 'sequelled' episodes as well!

Great site by the way.

ali said...

I'll let you in on a secret, I've always had a fondness for Tegan. She's a big reason for why I enjoy the Davison adventures so much. Her and Sutton of course. Don't know why, she just presses all the right buttons, I guess. "Oh rabbits."

(More likely, it's my Aussie-philia doing the talking, and not my brain.)

I don't even mind her televised appearances, but then, I'm something of a grump myself.

Speaking of dredging up past glories, I'm curious as to your thoughts on "The Butcher of Brisbane", which comes a little before this one. Doctor Who meets Tank Girl? I couldn't really make heads or tails of that one.

Christopher "Peaky" Brown said...

Shoot I meant to tell you on the 3rd anniversary of your comment suggesting I indulge my masochism and this a listen, but I picked this piece of crap up on sale earlier the year and then found your comment when I returned to heal myself with your review.

If I had the time I'd write a compare/contrast review with Lance Parkin's Davros highlighting the two stories' use of their returning villains, but I fear I haven't the time. I will say this: just for fun, I counted every time that a character said some variation on the phrase "Eldrad Must Live/Die", counting all esoteric variations including (pro)noun substitutions and verb tense and the lot (i.e. "I will live", "he lives", "they must be destroyed", etc. because fuck this story).

I counted 87 times. *87 godforsaken times*. I might have miscounted a bit, but then, I'd have to listen to this again and pay full attention to it to confirm.

(Okay, so it wasn't, like, super bad - mostly just bland and pointless and terrible and cliche. Except for the bit where the whale talked, which instead of being awesomely weird was just plain strange without any inspiration surrounding it. A very fun story to make fun of, overall!)

I hope this comment was worth the three-year wait! ;)

Christopher "Peaky" Brown said...

Ah - this is Peakius Baragonius, just in case that wasn't clear. I must have changed the name at some point...

David Pirtle said...

Got this in a subscription bundle and was actually excited for it, because another reviewer had given it an 8/10. I don't know what they were thinking, because you are right, this is not great stuff. Hopefully the next two 5th Doctor stories I picked up are better.