Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Crooked Man written by John Dorney and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Winter at the seaside. The wind blows. The waves crash. People are dying and a strange spindly figure stalks the cold, deserted streets. A typical holiday for the Doctor and Leela in other words. When they stumble across a grotesque series of murders at the coast, the TARDIS travellers realise the local constabulary is out of its depth. Something supernatural has come to town, something evil. And it all seems to be tied in to a particular young family. Monsters lurk behind strange doors. Tragic secrets wait to be uncovered. And somewhere, deep within, the Crooked Man sits. He is waiting for you.

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor is in high spirits as he visits the seaside, whistling to himself as he strolls along the prom. I was instantly reminded of his trip to Brighton beach in The Leisure Hive. Showing how his mood can turn on a sixpence he goes from happy go lucky holiday to harbinger of doom, worried about the lack of activity in the seaside town and smelling death on the breeze. The Doctor is about to tell the police not to do anything he wouldn't do but that doesn't really narrow it down. He is a mere humble genius who never gives out his autograph. This is one of those stories where the Doctor is one step ahead of the audience and it is actually rather exasperating because of it - he knows that Lesley is a walking cliché, he knows that Celia is trying to poison them and yet there seems to be no connection to these random moments until he joins the dots for us. He loves it when people try to kill him because it means he is on the right track! Why does he wear such a long scarf when he does so much running? Rather than sympathise with the 'lesser' characters the Doctor seems to taunt them for their lack of literary merit. He really has developed a nasty streak this year.

Noble Savage: The Doctor and Leela are described as a 'loony in a scarf and girl who doesn't seem to know it's winter.' Leela is all bravado until she attacks the Crooked Man to no effect. Leela calls the Doctor up on why he asks her if she can perform certain acts when he doesn't have a plan b - of course she will try. Leela has seen so many wondrous things with the Doctor that have test her sense of reality that the Land of Fiction is just another in a long list. Her lack of knowledge makes her more susceptible to accepting these things than somebody like Simon. In a loose moment of set up Leela talks about her father who gave his life for hers. This is expanded upon in the next story, The Evil One. Fiction was never really her thing, she has always been more literal minded than anyone else he knows. If there is anybody who can resists the Crooked Man's influence is it his noble savage.

Standout Performance: Unlike producer David Richardson I do not hold Sarah Smart in high esteem as an actress, despite some impressive credits on her CV. In particular her turn in Doctor Who (The Rebel Flesh two parter) was appalling; an agonising, one note performance that turned a sympathetic character into a pantomime villain. Fortunately Smart is far more on the money in The Crooked Man, handed a more realistic character she finds some emotional truth and delivers a much more considerate performance. However given the character isn't given a great deal of interest to do in the first half of the play and is poorly motivated in the second half it still isn't the breakout role in Doctor Who for Smart that perhaps they were aiming for. Personally I thought Neil Stuke's Crooked Man was far more impressive, a role that could so easily have been bungled and yet he manages to be both over the top and seriously sinister (this is probably the effect they were trying to achieve with the Jester in Axis of Insanity but it is realised so much more effectively here). His delivery of the cliff-hanger punchline gave me chills.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Scarcity doesn't imply value. It can represent a lack of interest.'
'You will die in terrible agony!' 'Only in the next draft!'

Great Ideas: The idea of having to sell on treasured possession at a fraction of the cost that they were purchased for from the man they were originally bought from is a harsh reality if modern times and how items devalue the second they leave a shop. Don't listen to this story on your own at night, the first attack by the Crooked Man in the bookshop is quite terrifying. Dorney certainly has an eye for macabre detail that ties into his theme of literature being abused, the bookkeeper suffering the indignity of having Dickens and Scott Fitzgerald stuffed down his throat until he expires. As soon as you realise that the characters that we have met are straight out of books then Dorney can have some fun (although perhaps that isn't the correct term) with the idea, breaking the books spines and setting them alight. For some reason the walls between fiction and fact have come tumbling down, East Wold is a weak point between our world and the Land of Fiction. It's a one in/one out situation, the Crooked Man coming through the gap and killing somebody so somebody from the Land of Fiction can take their place. Only the mot unpleasant and self centred characters are willing to agree. The last time the Doctor visited the Land of Fiction it was all literary classics not second rate hacks from unpublished fables - is Dorney trying to suggest that somewhere in a fetid little hole in the Land of Fiction all the characters from those half baked fan fictions exist? The number of storytelling mediums are increasing all the time; websites, epublishing, print on demand, tabloid exaggeration, television spin offs...a proliferation of the imagination that is causing some characters to be squeezed out of the Land of Fiction. Only so many characters can exist in their world and it now fit to burst and so the lesser known characters found a tear between the two worlds and exploited it. Given the threats to Earth are manifold on Doctor Who it is hard to find a new approach to the idea...I don't think anybody has attempted invasion by mediocre characters from inferior fiction before! They would tear through our world, slaughtering the population and replacing them with one dimensional characters. What an appalling prospect. Obscure books are being tossed out first.

Audio Landscape: A crusty old till, seagulls screaming, a sea breeze, a smashed window, baby gurgling, child's toy playing, scraping vegetables, lighting the stove, creaky doors, pouring out wine, doorbell, tea china, smashing china, pages tearing, burning, bashing in a door, tearing wood, growling, flapping pages, banging on the door.

Musical Cues: It seems that every time I am drawn to check out who scored the music for a story these days it is always the same name that crops up: Jamie Robertson. Whilst I usually associate it him with big, bold, cinematic soundtracks (that might sound like an anathema on audio but somehow he achieves it) he cooks up something much more subtle and sinister in The Crooked Man. Silences are used to disquieting effect, the sound effects are given a chance to really frighten the audience and the music gently underscores the menace of the investigation into the murders. It is extremely well judged.

Isn't it Odd: I had one big problem with The Crooked Man, at least in the first episode, that made it a frustrating experience. Whilst I found the Doctor and Leela investigating the spate of crimes in the village vintage material, I lost interest whenever the story shifter back to Laura and her domestic situation. It takes an age to see how one is tied into another so for some time it feels like two irreconcilable plots are existing side by side for no reason whatsoever. Whilst on the whole I think that Tom Baker is improving in leaps and bounds with each season of 4DAs, he still has the occasional lapse where he hiccups on a line of dialogue and sounds terribly stilted. Listen to the moment he repeats 'Procedure? Procedure?', it has that Sylvester McCoy defect of sounding like it is the first time he has clapped eyes on the script. Lesley King might be the very cliché of the TV personality but that doesn't make Lizzie Roper's overdone performance any easier to swallow. The Doctor suggests the baby is being stolen because it is fuelled by a limitless imagination and it could be used to keep the bridgehead open. A young child perhaps, but surely a baby doesn't have any kind of imagination until it has a firm grasp on language and the world around it? It would have been far more shocking had the baby been murdered for its place in our world. I don't think it would take a genius to figure out that Simon comes from he fiction world given he can sense where his son is and tackle the creatures that exist there. I didn't buy that Laura would accept a substitute father from another realm quite so easily with the evidence presented, even if the boys father did abandon them so abruptly. The twist is foreshadowed insofar as dropping hints that Simon isn't real but there is no real establishment of Laura's motives in this arrangement. As far as she is concerned it just feels terribly contrived, inventing a perfect husband who just happens to turn up and pick up the pieces where her ex left off. Would anybody accept that quite so easily? What was Dorney saying about poorly developed characters? The ending where Simon holds back the hordes of clichéd characters and seals the breach is too simple. What this story needs is time to breathe.

Result: I'm so conflicted with The Crooked Man because there are a lot of good ideas in place and it has some effective moments but I don't think it holds together anywhere near as well as it should. I'm not sure it is the realisation because Nick Briggs' direction is typically strong (although he lets a couple of poor performances through) and Jamie Robertson's soundscape and music both capture the horror of the situation superbly. I can see what John Dorney was going for with this adventure and intellectually he approaches the Land of Fiction from a less showy and more substantial angle than The Mind Robber. However there is no denying that waltzing with literary figures in a fairytale land is much more exciting and colourful than meeting a collection of fictional stereotypes turned baddies in a seaside town. Concentrating on the unknowns in fiction is a smart idea in theory, those characters who are long forgotten whilst the classics are given plenty of attention but the resulting guest cast is pretty unmemorable as a consequence. There is a much more tragic story to be told about these forgotten, embarrassing characters of hack fiction created by lesser writers and unfairly compared to the greats of literature. Instead of going for a more affecting angle he instead turns the characters into stock villains trying to take over the world. It is a novel idea but following in the footsteps of so many other Doctor Who stories. Maybe he didn't want to go over familiar ground since he already approached the idea of having clichéd characters take on greater dimensions in The Forth Wall. Mind you he talks about the responsibility of the writer to his characters in the extras for that tale and seems retract that here, suggesting that this cast of villains is merely the sum of its not very skilfully written parts. Maybe he doesn't have to accept responsibility when they are written as somebody else's creations? Tom Baker veers between very good and awkward in this story and whilst she isn't given her best characterisation in the range, Louise Jameson supports him well as Leela. I find it sad that a story that made me think about its ideas should just scrape an above average mark but whilst I can appreciate what the writer was trying to achieve I don't think the overall story came together quite as engagingly as he hoped. It's good but it could have been great. After setting up an intriguing scenario with the Land of Fiction rejecting its lesser creations, there is no time to explore the concept before the story has to be wrapped up in a terrible hurry. Perhaps this is another case for longer stories for the fourth Doctor, in which case there would have been time for the villainy and a chance to flesh out the characters too. Kudos for trying something a little more subversive and less traditional though : 6/10


Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

I enjoy it when your conflicted!

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Alistair.servan said...

6/10 was a bit harsh. Worth an 8 at least. Gave me a proper lump in my throat.

David Pirtle said...

I think this story's more enjoyable to think about than it is to listen to for most of its running time, but the ending is quite moving. I'm not sure how I'd score it, so I'm glad that's your job :P