Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Phantoms of the Deep written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: On their mission to explore the Mariana Trench at the very bottom of the ocean, the deepest and most inhospitable place on Earth, the crew of the deep sea vehicle Erebus make an unusual and startling discovery. A battered blue police box. As the Doctor, Romana and K9 join them on their journey, the submariners soon discover that the TARDIS is not the only unusual find lurking on the sea floor. Super-intelligent squid, long-lost submarines and their miraculous occupants are only the start of their troubles. The Goblins are coming. And they won't let anyone out alive.

Teeth and Curls: Nobody can produce an ominous tone quite like Tom Baker and his talents in this area are utilised to the full in Phantoms of the Deep, as all manner of underwater nasties are thrown at our heroes. The Doctor is very proud of the latest version of K.9 that he built, prompting Romana to suggest that is why he needs repairing so much. Their destinations are supposed to be random, which was why he fitted the Randomiser in the first place but he does seem to have a preoccupation with the planet Earth. Once he landed the TARDIS in the heart of a star and it barely dented the paintwork – chucking the old girl a few thousand fathoms beneath the ocean was never going to do her any harm. When he thinks Romana is dead he curses himself for ever letting her get involved with an inveterate old trouble maker like him. The Doctor takes great exception to K.9 being called a gadget, he’s his second best friend after all!

Posh Girl: One day Romana intends to write a thesis on the Doctor, in particular exploring his levels of sanity. When Romana attempts to resuscitate the Doctor she asks that he surely wont do anything as mundane as dying.

Standout Performance: Mary Tamm always seemed to be at her best when she was able to play to her strengths of naughty indifference and snobbish humour. I never found her especially convincing when it came to jeopardy (think of that moment when she is strapped to the table in The Androids of Tara or when she is was thrown off a cliff in The Stones of Blood). Whilst the cliffhanger to part one is a corker, I was less convinced by Tamm than usual as she had to present Romana drowning in an airlock.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s like a cross between the inside of an oyster and being back in the womb!’
‘Just because something’s imaginary it doesn’t mean it can’t hurt you.’

Great Ideas: Just hearing the acronym DSV (Deep Sea Vehicle) is enough to give me the shudders (as I’m sure anybody with a passing familiarity with Jonathan Brandis will testify to) but Doctor Who has always managed to piggyback on the success of other shows and play about with their ideas for an adventure. I really like the idea of an underwater adventure and since Warriors of the Deep (and I would argue Cold War too) failed to capture the claustrophobia of such a location it is still wide open for Morris to exploit. There’s a pleasing reference to one of Morris’ companion chronicles, The Great Space Elevator, which ties this story nicely into the same time period. Super intelligent squid capable of communicating through symbolic logic, a pleasing concept given that we have barely explored the depths of the ocean and there could be anything in existence down there. Discovering a derelict submarine under the water excites me because by exploring its rusting interior the Doctor is potentially looking into what the future holds for the crew of the Erebus. The phantoms of the ocean are an illusion, created by an alien spacecraft nestled on the seabed. The submariners are being tested for their psychic potential, just as the squid were and their brain power is being massively increased. It was built to reconstruct a race memory of a long extinct race, programmed to find the most intelligent species and increase their mental capacities to a point where they can be used as receptacles. The phantoms are the ghosts of species that built the ship, whispering in their minds. The spacecraft gave Jack the power of telekinesis and kept him alive for over a 100 years. With his powers his fears can become a reality and could potentially tear the Erebus apart. I don’t know what a vampire squid looks like but it sure sounds nasty (googles…ooh nasty!).

Audio Landscape: Underneath the sea, bubbling waves rolling past, sonar scanner, the Erebus churning through the water, along the sea bed, a robotic claw grabbing hold of the TARDIS, the creaking hull as the pressure drops, water dripping, K.9’s nose blaster, water filling rooms, characters lost beneath the waves, the screaming phantoms of the ocean.

Musical Cues: Jamie Robertson’s music always feels the most authentic when it comes to capturing that Dudley Simpson essence of melodrama. He’s on top form (he’s always on top form) in Phantoms of the Deep, using the slowly rising piano to generate a buttock clenching level of tension. Come the second episode he is ramping up the pressure (hoho), especially in the last ten minutes as the pace accelerates towards the climax. Big Finish have stumbled across a really gifted musician in Robertson and his work should never be taken for granted.

Isn’t it Odd: Trying to squeeze what would have been a four parter back in the day into two means that something has to give and in the case of Phantoms of the Deep, which gets just about everything else right (its setting, plot, atmosphere and tension at the very least), it is the characterisation of the guest cast. Don’t get me wrong they are all perfectly serviceable characters (I would expect nothing less from a dab hand like Jonathan Morris) but nobody really stands out as unique or breaks their stereotype. Morris’ other contribution to the season had a terrifically memorable guest cast but a slight plot, so this reverses the trend. Perhaps if each release was three episodes long we would get ample time to explore both narrative and character with equal depth.

Standout Scene: I always loved that moment in The Invasion of Time when it appears that K.9 has gone rogue and heads off to bring down the transduction barrier and allow the Vardans to invade Gallifrey. There is something very dramatic about the way that Gerald Blake shoots the metal dog up close and personal that makes him appear alien and unknowing. Jonathan Morris taps into that sense of menace with his excellent cliffhanger, K.9 suddenly turning on Romana, first trapping her in the airlock and then expelling her out into the ocean. It’s all wonderfully exciting and the metal mutt has lots of explaining to do. 

Result: With some startling atmospherics, it is very easy to slip beneath the waves with Phantoms of the Deep and enjoy the stifling ambience of a tale set beneath the ocean. Jonathan Morris has always been a versatile writer but the gulf in genre and tone between this and The Auntie Matter establishes his ability to turn his hand to any type of story more effectively than ever. Where he opened up the season with a sunny, light and blissfully funny tale, here he indulges in the claustrophobia, terror and crushing horror of a base under siege adventure in an enclosed location. Between the two stories he has covered what must surely appeal to every Doctor Who fan. It’s a story that isn’t afraid to present some exciting set pieces despite the fact that there are no visuals (the underwater sea walk is very impressive) and Ken Bentley is more than up to the task of bringing these ambitious sequences to life. The first episode lays down all the individual elements (the intelligent jellyfish, the derelict submarine, the large underwater body) and then the concluding part cleverly weaves them all into a satisfying narrative. In storytelling terms there is nothing here that hasn’t been done before, it is the location that sets it apart but even on those terms this makes for highly enjoyable night time listening (turn all the lights out and press play, trust me it’s fantastic). It is probably the story that relies on the Doctor and Romana the least, at least in terms of their particular personalities. You could happily switch them for any other Doctor/companion combination with the minimal of tweaking, which is certainly not something you could say about The Auntie Matter but is often the way with such a traditional Doctor Who story. Regardless, Tom Baker seems to be having a blast and his enthusiasm for the material is quite infectious. Well paced, full of excitement and evoking a malevolent flavour, Phantoms of the Deep is another winner for the second season of fourth Doctor adventures: 8/10


Tony Jones said...

Joe - with you on this, another good story in the 4DA range

Anonymous said...

Oh, it is nice to see a new audio review from you! I missed them!

Dovid M said...

I think you rated this a tad bit high, personally. I thought K9 got way to much dialogue, and that the explanation about the spaceship was just a strange and rushed way to tie it all together, itlike something out of a new who episode and not a good one, in my opinion. but, to each there own, I guess. (the cliff-hanger was good, though)

Peakius Baragonius said...

I may be late to the party here but I really enjoyed this one. I love the Deep Sea and ocean life in general and this TARDIS team happens to be one of my favorites - the writing and rapport between them is *marvelous*. As a squid-fan I love the Super-Intelligent squid as well, very Douglas Adams-y in feel.

And above all, this simply felt so very different from any other Doctor Who adventure I've heard, it felt almost like a documentary that also happened to feature some of my favorite characters in fiction having an adventure along the way.

The problem is that the first part of the story is SO good (10/10 for me in fact) that when Morris or the script editors remember that this is a good old Doctor Who story and give us the good old traditional Doctor Who explanations, I kind of felt...not let down, exactly, but I felt like it drives the story off-track. Since it's set in such a weird, unique, and fantastical environment, I would have preferred if the nature of the threat had been...well, those adjectives also, and perhaps more specific to the Deep Sea. Heck, I'd have been fine if there was no overarching threat (or if it didn't seem apparent at first), and instead they'd spent the majority of the story just encountering the wonders of the deep :P (That being said, the imagery conjured up with the spaceship was still fantastic, and the story never ceased to be entertaining.)

Also: am I the only one who groaned at the "twist" concerning the nature of the Erebus's mission? It isn't built up at all, but it is also somehow predictable - not a good combination. Ultimately, it's purpose seems to be to give meaning to Dr. Sawyer's sacrifice, as though giving her life to save her crew and allies wasn't noble already. But what kind of meaning - is it supposed to make us feel reassured that Dr. Sawyer did "bad things" and thus it was okay for her to give her life? In which case, how stupid is that?! To add extra depth, as though her facing her arrogance at disregarding the squids' warning wasn't enough? I don't know. It's not a big issue - I'm just analyzing for fun/analysis's sake - but it adds nothing to the story, and since it was obviously supposed to it failed in its purpose.

Still, I can't complain too much when a story ends with K9 saving the day by asking a bunch of squid for help, and this is still one of my favorite audios that I've heard.