Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Tomb Ship written by Gordon Rennie & Emma Beeby and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Nyssa to a vast pyramid, floating in space. A tomb ship – the last resting place of the God-King of the Arrit, an incredibly advanced and incredibly ancient civilisation, long since extinct. They’re not alone, however. Another old dynasty walks its twisted, trap-ridden passages – a family of tomb raiders led by a fanatical matriarch, whose many sons and daughters have been tutored in tales of the God-King’s lost treasure. But those who seek the God-King will find death in their shadow. Death from below. Death from above. Death moving them back and forward, turning their own hearts against them. Because only the dead will survive.

An English Gentleman: Davison sounds a little more invested in this story which is strange because it gives him even less texture to play about with than Moonflesh. I would have loved if he would have snapped Virna's neck, sawn it off her head with a rusty blade and then ripped out her spinal column. I honestly wouldn't have objected. At least it would have been something out of the ordinary. He bellows, objects and behaves in a generally Doctorish manner...yadda yadda yadda. Just copy and paste what in Moonflesh. Davison is not being pushed by any of this material.

Alien Orphan: I discussed in my review of Scavenger (which is becoming more and more appealing with each successive release since then) that it was quite refreshing (at least for me) to enjoy a companion who is simply along for the ride rather than one that is suffering all kinds of emotional turmoil and intense development. You only have to look at the latest Hex story to see the kind of unpersuasive madness that leads to (let the character go already). Back in the day many of the Doctor Who boys and girls were simply there to prop up a story, provide some jeopardy and banter and make the Doctor look extremely clever as he explains all the complicated science to them. Nyssa was one of them. Irritatingly I am having the reverse reaction to her treatment lately...which is to fulfil the function of the traditional companion to the nth degree. Where Flip was infectiously bouncy and addicted to danger so she could get away with an absent back story and missing dimensions, Nyssa in the recent releases is being written in such a level headed, plain and sensible fashion that it is impossible to find anything of significance to grab onto. Where Flip was vacuous from the word go, Nyssa has a fascinating back story built into her character (the destruction of Traken, the death of her father, the alien orphan walking abroad in a dangerous universe) that is ripe for exploitation. Frankly there is no excuse for her to be written in such a tediously monotonous way. Sarah Sutton is ready to up her game whenever a script emerges with the right material (Spare Parts, Creatures of Beauty, Circular Time, The Eternal Summer, The Emerald Tiger) but she has been particularly ill served of late. I don't know how many more Nyssa stories I can listen to where she wanders about giving stock responses to disposable threats. That just doesn't float my boat.

Standout Performance: Even Eve Karpf admits that Virna is a character lacking in dimension and that it gives her the chance to go completely over the top. She succeeds admirably.

Great Ideas: The Tomb Ship is a treasure house, a repository for all the God King's wealth. When the Tomb completes its journey it explodes with enough power to create a new star  - a bomb. The music of the spheres are radio waves emitted from the stars. Arit-co means slaves of the Arit, genetically engineered to live aboard this ship and serves its occupant - the Arit God King. The Arit thought their Kings were Gods even after they died all alone and drifting through space for thousands of years. A God needs his worshippers until it was time for the ship to go nova and turn a God King into a God Star. An inhabitant planetary system with a supernova bomb heading towards them...this story is channelling the Voyager episode Dreadnought. Jhanni is one of Virna's children who came on her last expedition. She has been waiting for her mother to come back for her ever since. The God King is a nine foot tall giant in funereal robes waiting on his throne to become a living star. A cellular stasis field keeps him looking as though he only died yesterday. Is the scrap between Virna and Jhanni the first instance of a full blown Eastenders-style bitch fight in Doctor Who? I suppose that's worth celebrating.

Audio Landscape: A banging door, TARDIS landing, crackling fire, insect creatures forming a bridge, gunfire, screams in the distance.

Musical Cues: I feel as if I am being hyper critical of this release (thank goodness this gets me up to date with this years main range releases so I can head over to the companion chronicles next and start spreading the love) but even the music treaded water as much as I could tell. The trouble with one big bold action adventure after another is that they all require the same kind of score; bolshie, strident and melodramatic. After a while they all blend into each other. I can't remember the last time the music in the main range genuinely surprised me (yes I can, it was Fanfare for the Common Men but that was a special case) in the way that it used to habitually in the first 100 releases. Remember Alistair Lock's stunning orchestral soundtrack for The Fires of Vulcan. Or Russell Stone's romantic, melancholic score for The Stones of Venice. Or the unnerving work of ERS on Time Works. These days every other story sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster. It's not that it is bad music and all of the isolated soundtracks are fairly decent in their own's just they all bleed into one another and nothing stands out as particularly worthwhile. And I'm talking about Richard Fox and Lauren Yason here, and I consider them the best of the Big Finish musicians. Go check out their work on the companion chronicles, it makes this shallow action adventure fare haemorrhage into insignificance.

Isn't it Odd: The trouble with Virna and her boys is that I had them sussed from the very first second. She is such an outrageous old harridan without scruples that you know from the off that any of her children are expendable. It means, much like Moonflesh, that these characters don't have very much to offer but dwelling on cliché, unless the writers are going to break them out of that bubble and have them behave out of character. Which they don't. To anybody who is familiar with The Last, Virna is a carbon copy of Excelsior. Just as self obsessed, just as psychotic, just as greedy...unnervingly the actresses sound very similar too. I got bored of Virna using 'the family' as emotional blackmail to ensure her gullible kids did as they were told about 15 minutes into the play...I knew I was in for a long, tedious ride with this character. Was it my imagination or was the first episode filled with...a whole lot of nothing. We don't learn where the Doctor and Nyssa are or what Virna and her kids are searching's one tedious dialogue scene after the next that tells us precisely zilch. Like Moonflesh nobody is discussing anything of any substance, it is simply a lot of running around and shouting at pretend dangers which is about as pointless on audio as you can imagine. This is a dialogue driven medium, a chance to explore language and ideas so why is nobody talking about anything interesting these days? 'This is where the TARDIS's gone!' - how many freaking times can writers pull that one out of the bag? What's worse is that Tomb Ship tries to package it as a cliff-hanger despite it being the one millionth time the 'shock twist' has been deployed. Was it just me who had real trouble telling the boys apart? Either they employed very similar sounding actors or there wasn't enough differentiation in character to set them apart. I regularly lost track of who was who and who they were with. Maybe I just wasn't giving this story adequate attention (it didn't deserve it). The second cliff-hanger is just as prosaic as the first, supposedly offering an impossible Sophie's Choice style dilemma for Virna when it has already been established that she doesn't give a crap about her children. Not when treasure to be had - oooh argh! 'Sometimes sacrifices have to be made...' she retorts, writing her kids of as collateral damage. Imagine how appalling this would be had Virna been more cautiously written in the first two episodes, had we been made to believe that she has genuine affection for her brood. Going back to the Excelsior parallels, whilst the ruler of Bortresoye might not have been the most subtle of wicked aunts either, she did at least provide one gob smacking moment when she smothered Charley with a pillow, killing her outright. That was only possible because she was seen as somebody on the verge of psychosis, rather than somebody who had plummeted head first into a vat full of derangeade. There's no hope for such a traumatic twist in Tomb Ship because Virna's rectitude was spelt out in her first scene. Those children of hers are just a first wave for her to send down ahead and draw off the enemy fire. Virna's motivation for going after the treasure is to look after her family long after she's gone...and yet she's happy to sacrifice many of them in order to achieve it. Doesn't quite add up, does it? The twist at the heart of Tomb Ship is the shock return of...Hannah Bartholomew! Who? Yeah, I'd tried to erase her from my memory too. If this is the best way to link up these adventures I'd rather three standalones. And as absurd as the surprise is...why isn't it the cliff-hanger to episode three instead of another explosive (read: loud) moment of false jeopardy. I asked in the last story for a new companion for the fifth Doctor. When will I ever learn to keep my big mouth shut? There never was any treasure, it was just a misunderstanding of the inscriptions. Four episodes for that astonishing bombshell?

Standout Scene: Some amusement when Nyssa groans in pain but it sounds like she has finally blossomed as a woman.

Result: It feels like the well of talent is starting to run dry. If you had never heard a Doctor Who story before then this might...might just scrape a pass on the grounds of its novelty. But with 185 main range adventures coming before it (ranging from the ultra traditional to the boldly radical) the sheer level of banality that Tomb Ship offers simply is not good enough. It's another adventure that feels like it should be seen rather than heard and fails to exploit the muscles of the audio medium; the exploration of language, ideas, relationships and atmosphere. Whilst acceptable in their own right, the sound effects and music are starting to sound a little familiar too. I think script editor Alan Barnes needs to take a step back and ask himself if these stories need to be told because even a causal glance at efforts like Moonflesh and Tomb Ship would suggest otherwise. The setting might have been interesting had it been a little more incongruous and exotic. The characters might have excited if they had more than one dimension. The plot might have surprised if it had a single twist (especially the biggie regarding the treasure, a hackneyed concept when it was utilized in Enlightenment) that wasn't signposted from the very beginning. Except for that twist...which is just absurd. Tomb Ship could be made to work if it had its guts completely torn out, extra nuances added to the family dynamics, more spirited characterisation of the fifth Doctor and Nyssa and extra chills added by actually making us give a damn about the guest characters rather than wishing to see them all dispatched so we can head off and hang out with a more engaging bunch. More importantly it needs to be shortened to a two parter...although I still think it would struggle to fill half the length with a plot quite this thin. It breaks my heart to see the main range churning out such mediocrity - I can remember a time when this was the only product that Big Finish produced and each story was so thrilling to get hold off upon release (I travelled all the way from Crawley to London to Forbidden Planet to get my mitts on The One Doctor as soon as possible). Nowadays I find all the innovation and diversity in the spin off material and find myself in the unfortunate position of praying that the main range wont disappoint. That's two clunkers from Rennie and Beeby as far as I am concerned. No more please: 3/10


Gus Fallon said...

I've said before and I'm even started a thread about it on Gallifrey Base but Nyssa needs a good, long rest. She's the only companion that Big Finish has made me like less.

I know that she's in the already recorded Fifth Doctor Boxset but I'd delighted if she didn't appear in any more stories for two to three years at least. Her blandness and her near constant presence in Fifth Doctor stories does my head in.

Tango said...

Sadly the following story, Masquerade, its writer is Stephen Cole and he seems to have bad luck with the Fifth Doctor: The Land of the Dead, Kiss of Death and The Whispering Forest are examples of his mediocrity. So this trilogy is doomed.

But do not lose your faith, Joe Ford, I can feel that "The Fifth Doctor Boxset" will be a masterpiece because it features the two best writers of Big Finish, Jonathan Morris and John Dorney, not only will give the new and three dimensions Adric but Nyssa also finally mourn for the loss of Traken.

PinkDalek said...

I understand why you love the 6th Doctor so much: Colin is the strongest performer of all Doctors. With bad material or poor scripts, Davison and McGann sound bored (Davison sounds dull, McGann sounds as if he's pissed off or half asleep), McCoy just overacts or babbles away and Tom Baker sounds like he's taking the piss. Only Colin tried to bring out the best he can out of poor scripts.

I love your reviews and agree with you and the two previous comments that they should give Nyssa a rest.

Joe Ford said...

Thanks for the comments guys, they are much apreciated :-)

Peakius Baragonius said...

Don't worry guys, I'm sure the Main Range will be looking up soo--oh, what's that? "Revenge of the Swarm", an absolutely necessary sequel to "The Invisible Enemy", is coming out later this year? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA we're screwed

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on "Afterlife" - as soon as I heard the melodramatic acting in the trailer I knew that story was doomed for you :D

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you that this story was horrible. My first BF story was Antidote to Oblivion, but this the first time I honestly lost interest in the story. I honestly hoped though, however badly played Hannah was, that she would stick around longer than she did.

Robin said...

Did the wicked, heartless Mother and her moronic sons sound familiar? I couldn't help thinking of Futurama where we find ... wicked, heartless Mom and her moronic sons.

Joe Ford said...

That's a great point, Robin. Except without the wit and imagination that goes into making the Futurama characters so memorable :-)

Daniel Leonard said...

I actually really like Hannah Bartholomew in Moonflesh, and thought she would have made a refreshing companion, with a good rapport with both Davison and Sutton. So I was hugely disappointed when they did nothing interesting or fun with her in Tomb Ship and Masquerade. Why create such a delightful and engaging character and waste her on stories this bland? Ditch Nyssa, give me some stories with just Fifth and Hannah and give them some decent scripts and I think you'd have a hit on your hands.