Monday, 26 May 2014

Moonflesh written by Mark Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: One wouldn't normally expect to find elephants, gorillas and rhinoceroses roaming free in Suffolk in the year 1911. One wouldn't normally expect to find an extra-dimensional police box at the same time/space location either. Two aliens, named the Doctor and Nyssa, exit said box, only to find themselves pursued by a hungry lioness – for they've landed in the private hunting grounds of the famous explorer Nathaniel Whitlock, who's brought together a motley group of friends and acquaintances for a weekend's shooting. But one of Whitlock's guests isn't all they seem. One of them wants the secrets of the Moonflesh, the mystic mineral looked after by Whitlock's retainer, a Native American known as Silver Crow. Because the Moonflesh is reputed to have the power to call down spirits from another real…and soon, the hunters will become the hunted.

An English Gentleman: I've been hoping for some time that Peter Davison would be afforded the chance to enjoy a trilogy without being encumbered with companions that steal his limelight. Such a shame that it should be with Nyssa because I feel the character, despite a renaissance that has seen her character live up to its potential in a way that it never did on television, has been overused in recent years. This would have been an ideal time to feature a 5/Peri or 5/Turlough season or even introduce a new companion to jazz his stories up a bit. There's nothing especially impressive in the writing of the character beyond the usual fifth Doctorish clich├ęs and despite Davison admitting he likes the historical stories in the interview at the end I couldn't help but feel that he was a little disinterested in the whole affair. Fanfare for the Common Men aside, I haven't felt much creative energy from Davison or his stories since the Emerald Tiger trilogy. The Doctor thinks his body might be allergic to late October although he makes a great show of the fact that there is nothing more appealing than Suffolk at dusk at this time of year. As you could imagine from the most diplomatic of Doctors, he remains firmly on the fence when it comes to hunting. It makes sense not to upset his hosts but it would make far better drama if he had a stronger viewpoint. Sixie would tear through this crowd with his post-Two Doctors vegetarianism. He's ready to offer himself as the host to save Phoebe and appease Nathaniel. The Doctor was taught by Crazy Horse himself.

Alien Orphan: Described by an aristocrat as impudent but the Doctor corrects that to curious. With Nyssa on hand as the voice of reason opposing the hunt of creatures that have been shipped in from Africa, this looks set to be a moral tale that examines the rights and wrongs of hunting. Unfortunately the script never takes this route and offers little more than token objections on Nyssa' part. It would have been very right-on for her to take matters into her own hands and sabotage the hunt. Like everything else in Moonflesh, the obvious is the order of the day and so Nyssa is left on the sidelines moaning when she should be pro-active. She's a little unsure of the etiquette of the era, suggesting that Phoebe encourages the advances of Hector and seeks his company after the hunt. Since she has a latent psychic ability Nyssa is the obvious choice to play host to the alien seed. With Nyssa's mind (once again) taken over by an alien force (on television she was hypnotised by the Master and embodied by the intelligence in Time-Flight and she has been puppeteered several times in Big Finish stories) you might think that this would be a good time to explore the effect of so many exotic intelligences strolling through her psyche. Instead we just get a token 'oh it was much rage!' Very revealing.

Standout Performance: This is a stunning cast that suffers the indignity of being shackled to a less than impressive dramatis personae. It's painful listening to decent performers trying to breath life and extra dimensions into characters that have none. Morris admits that this story was written in a hurry and it's clear that none of that scant writing time was wasted on the characters who wander about the story in a painfully predictable pattern. It's a group of upper class toffs that sound as though they have been assembled for an Agatha Christie effort. I would always give my time for a story that features the likes of Hugh Fraser, Time Bentick, John Banks and Francesca Hunt but Moonflesh almost convinces me that I shouldn't. It's isn't even that they are boring characters - they are simply exactly what you would expect from this setting without offering a single surprise. We're one more 'what ho!' and 'golly!' away from a Wodehouse pastiche. And boy did they shout a lot.

Terrible Dialogue: 'On a journey. A journey of the mind...'
'It's a head! It's a giant flying head!' - why would the Doctor feel the need to explain that when he and Silver Crow are both flying towards it?

Great Ideas: It did amuse me that the second the Doctor figures he is in a zoo in England that it has to be Whipsnade. The Order of the Crescent Moon are a group of like minded individuals who believe that mankind lives in the thrall of invisible beings who stroll through time and space. Although that apparently is a gross misrepresentation by a disbeliever, even though we don't find out much more about them so it is hard to discredit the claim. The Moonflesh is like intelligent lightning, a creature that has the ability to invade and influence anything; people, animals (even rock!). Vatoose fell to Earth, drawn by Silver Crow's detached state of consciousness and attempted to possess him and use him as a physical host. Somehow Silver Crow was able to best Vatoose and the seed was reduced to a harmless rock. Gripping stuff. The murder of Edwin was the first time my eyebrow even twitched in anything approaching surprise.

Audio Landscape: An owl hooting, an elephant screaming, a lion roaring, pouring drinks, approaching horse and cart, crackling fire, dogs barking, a scream in the night, clock ticking, a scream in the dark, firing a shot, red lightning crackling, horses whinnying, dogs barking, meteorites falling, screaming shadows, beating wings, clay birds, hissing snakes, splashing under water, swimming ashore, a giant octopus.

Musical Cues: There's absolutely nothing wrong with Andy Hardwick's score for Moonflesh. It is atmospheric, moody and occasionally quite romantic but my issue is that I feel as if I have heard everything that this musician has to offer. There wasn't a single cure here that I felt I hadn't heard before in some place or another and many of them took my back to other, better stories. 

Isn't it Odd: Once the Moonflesh was a seed of the Prime Cluster, heir to the Takeler Empire but the Cluster was scattered from within by bad seeds. It slipped between dimensions to evade absorption and when it reached Earth it fell into a dormant state so they would be unable to detect them. It's as insubstantial an explanation as I think I have heard to explain the strange goings in a Doctor Who story, again riding the formula of similar back stories for aliens with unusual powers. Morris may have well have just said 'I am an alien and shit happens when I'm around.' The assassins following are tireless, fearless, creatures of instinct and savagery. Well it's damn lucky that the Doctor has a ready made hunting party on hand to track them down then, isn't it? Moonflesh does keep up the traditional of the fifth Doctor allowing all and sundry into the TARDIS, both allies and enemies alike. In this case he finally gets his hand bitten when Vatoose (predictably turning out to not be the victim it painted itself as) tries to take over the ship and use it to escape. An alien seed causing mischief? I can't be the only person who was cringing at the thought that it might turn out to germinate into the Isolus from Fear Her. The only thing that could make this story more tedious would be an appearance by Chloe Webber. Vatoose is a rogue element responsible for the cessation of numerous energy links within the cluster - how is that supposed to mean anything to an audience that was brought up on Terra Firma?

Standout Scene: The ghost dance ritual at least has a little atmosphere, thanks to Ken Bentley's direction and John Banks' performance.

Result: With the advent of this release there has been something of a backlash against the state of the main range over at Gallifrey Base (dissatisfied customer on that forum - what a shock!) and when Moonflesh is latest example to test the quality of the merchandise currently being produced it is hard to argue with the air of disillusionment. Looking back at the past years worth of releases there has been a wildly inconsistent altitude of quality with Eldrad Must Die!, Persuasion, Daleks Among Us and Antidote to Oblivion being amongst the worst Big Finish have ever delivered. This story can be added to that list; an intellectually stunted, over described, under characterised period piece without an iota of innovation. Moonflesh embodies the worst of Doctor Who when it is churned out ad nauseum like a string of sausages in a factory. There's nothing about this story that demands it be told on audio and I think this is something that needs to be addressed. Moonflesh would still be a rush job, predictably plotted and ill characterised but at least if you could see the action it might come alive in some visually spectacular ways. On audio it is a painful experience, a bunch of characters hunting and being hunted, shouting 'hit it!' and the audience being assaulted by a number of animal noises. And lots and lots of shouting. If I wanted to listen to Doctor Who stories that sound like audio recordings of television adventures that have been destroyed I already have plenty to choose from (and in the case of stories such as The Myth Makers & The Massacre they work better on audio than some stories specifically made for the medium). The Doctor is pleasant. Nyssa is pleasant. The upper classes hunting party are toffy and arrogant. The foreign character talks in myths and legends. The alien presence isn't as lily white as it presents itself. I could make this stuff up in my sleep. Judging by the interviews at the end of the piece I figure this is the audio equivalent of The Time Monster, where the cast and crew were having much more fun than the audience were. Well, this audience member at least. Mark Morris at his best is a writer that can thrill, chill and surprise (Forever Autumn, The House of Blue Fire, The Necropolis Express) so I can only assume that a much superior novel (seriously check out his non-Who work, it's excellent) was stealing the time away that was needed to make this meagre effort work: 3/10


jbcatz said...

As I have stated many times on the Big Finish Forums, I too feel that Nyssa should be given a break, and that a Fifth Doctor and Peri or Turlough or Tegan and Turlough trilogy is much overdue, as audios with just Turlough are far too rare. I also can't believe it's taken this long for Peri to feature in a trilogy (not counting The Space Race), and its been 2008 since she appeared with the Fifth Doctor.

There's a nice surprise waiting in Tomb Ship...

NX84904567890 said...

I think that Nyssa needs a break of at least two years, maybe even three.

I can't say that I considered the surprise in "Tomb Ship" to be nice, I'm afraid.

Tango said...

"Such a shame that it should be with Nyssa because I feel the character, despite a renaissance that has seen her character live up to its potential in a way that it never did on television, has been overused in recent years."

Thank you very much, Joe Ford, for finally admitting something that we already realized a long, long time ago. I miss so much the adventures of the Fifth Doctor with Peri Brown and Erimem. I'd like to hear a Tegan and Turlough (or Kamelion) trilogy set in season 21.

In fact, the only interesting this year is the return of Adric in Big Finish. It's exciting because the season 19 is a little explored land in both novels and audios. And the poor boy deserves a second chance after nearly thirty years of scorn and mockery from the fans.