Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Screaming Skull written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley & Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: Disgraced soldiers Ruth Matheson and Charlie Sato are called back into action by Captain Mike Yates, when the UNIT Vault is mysteriously locked down by a deadly force. Together they must infiltrate the Vault and get those trapped out alive. But what enemy are they facing?

Mike Yates: We haven't spent a great deal of time in the presence of Mike Yates with Big Finish beyond a handful of companion chronicles and one Lost Story but the few occasions they have dealt with the character he has proven to be a surprising hit. I think the relative rarity of the character comes down to his involvement in the Nest Cottage audios, to avoid any confusion between his modern day timeline in the Audio Go 4th Doctor series. Since that company has now gone into administration there is no longer a conflict of interest. Richard Franklin has proven to be a fine narrator and whilst you might think that Yates was something a cardboard character on screen, his ousting from UNIT and subsequent humiliation have turned out to be great dramatic points in his life that has warranted further exploration. Yates has returned to service now. There is a mutual link between Yates and the two Vault employees, they have all been considered a security risk by UNIT at some point. He understands the suspicion they must be under and the scrutiny they must be facing. Mike has effectively come out of retirement to go on this suicide mission into the Vault but then he never was the sort of person to sit back and do nothing. He has personal reasons for doing so which he is keeping close to his chest. Walking around the Vault brings back all kinds of memories for Mike, seeing plastic daffodils and stone gargoyles that link back to alien incursions during his time serving with UNIT. One of the missing officers is called Lucas and she and Mike had a relationship when she was a new recruit and he was a training officer. A career in UNIT and a personal life don't really mix and it didn't work out but his connection with her is enough to draft him in to rescue her. He was clearly quite the ladies man behind the scenes since Yates alludes to nights spent with Corporal Bell too. He went along for the ride with the Doctor and Jo to Karfel (pre-Timelash). He tries his damndest to keep his affiliation with the Doctor a secret from Rees but he has been such a dominant figure in his life it is impossible to scour his past and not find his footprints imprinted all over it. Jane genuinely was in love with Mike and when he was discharged she tried to help him but he pushed her away, perhaps too strong a reminder of everything he had lost. It is hard for him to ask UNIT to shoot to kill Jane, even though she is dead already.

Sato & Matheson: Probably the easiest to get a handle on (for me) and the least explored 'spin off' of the box set, the continuing adventures of Charlie Sato and Ruth Matheson and their career in the UNIT Vault is something I have been looking forward to ever since the gripping climax to Mastermind in the final year of the companion chronicles. In Tales from the Vault, Jonathan Morris created a brand new playground for Big Finish to play about with in the UNIT Vault, a sinister environment where all the artefacts and gubbins from the various attempts to invade the Earth have ended up in storage. Each artefact comes with a story that for the most part is linked to an adventure with the Doctor. In Mastermind the treasure turns out to be the Master, a prisoner of the organisation and a man who is manipulating his way out of custody. At the end of that hypnotic tale we left Charlie (a new recruit to the Vault) and Ruth (a long serving member) trapped in a lockdown, mesmerised by the Master who has escaped and left behind as collateral damage to his escape. Exposure to and manipulation by the Master meant that they could never be trusted again. Morris said that he thought there were more stories to be told with these characters and in this setting...and now has set himself the task of proving it. It seems appropriate that the TV series has acknowledged the existence of the Vault (The Day of the Doctor) and it is an alternative spin on the same idea that was touted in the Sarah Jane Adventure, Enemy of the Bane. They are still prisoners of their own people at the beginning of The Screaming Skull, Charlie have come to terms with his fate but Ruth convinced that she can talk her way out of confinement. She has passed every psyche evaluation that they have thrown at them and refuses to sit around feeling sorry for herself. Because of how they handled themselves in this escapade, Ruth and Charlie are no longer considered a security risk. That makes Ruth equal in rank to Mike.

Standout Performance: Franklin commits 100% to every audio he is working on. His performances in the past decade have been so much more impressive than he ever was on television.

Great Ideas: Recently two investigators have been sent in to the Vault and they have no way to ascertain whether they are still alive in there. In an emergency the Vault can only be opened from the outside. C19 were the forerunners of the Vault and they moved it here in the 90s, stating that it didn't feel right for the base to not be underneath a landmark. Morris has great fun alluding to previous Doctor Who adventures without explicitly stating anything, everything from Invasion of the Dinosaurs to Pyramids of Mars. Even previous Big Finish tales are referenced with a Terrovore from The Crimes of Thomas Brewster buzzing about to cause mischief. Rees is active inside the Vault, animating the corpses of the dead. There doesn't seem to be anything extraordinary about the music box in the Vault but it is known to be linked to the Reesinger Process that was dealt with by the Countermeasures team back in the 60s. Sir Toby put it in storage and it was it was given to UNIT in the mid 70s. Apparently the UNIT file on the exploits of Henry Gordon Jago and Professor Litefoot is quite the page turner. For the last half century the music box (and Rees within it) has been incarcerated beneath the Tower of London. The flesh may perish but the mid endures. The idea that Rees is trying to piece together a new body for himself like a cut price Frankenstein's monster is genuinely ghoulish, luring officers into the Vault and murdering them, lopping off bits here and there to make stitched together shell to place his mind in again. Rees divided his spirit between the music box and the skull, both practically immortal but unable to do anything on their own. It's only when they have been moved in to the vicinity of each other in the vault that they have been able to achieve a critical mass and he has been reborn as a mental intelligence. The music box has vanished and Mike is ordering the activation of the space/time telegraph to call in the Doctor.

Audio Landscape: A growling car, playing violent video games, sea rolling and crashing, helicopter blades screaming, groaning in pain, humming Terrovore, shooting lasers, the screaming, humming voice of Rees, wind whipping.

Musical Cues: After the ghoulish version of Ding Dong Bell used in Mind Games and the more percussive version in The Reesinger Process, it seems very appropriate that the same nursery rhyme should be adapted for the more action packed and modern world of a UNIT story to something much more cinematic and bombastic. There is an exciting, militaristic bent to the soundtrack in this release that made diving into the story and being dragged along in its wake quite effortless.

Standout Scene: I want to be above the giddy excitement of wandering through the corridors of the Vault and discovering items that have taken part in previous Doctor Who adventures...but I'm not.

Result: What an unexpected delight. This was the story I was expecting the least from (because it doesn't have the weight of an entire range behind it) and what it achieved was quite unforeseen - that I wished there was a spin off series to follow. Don't get me wrong I have thoroughly enjoyed both Vault stories from Jonathan Morris (especially Mastermind, which still ranks as one of my favourite companion chronicles) and it was great that further opportunities have been handed to Ruth and Charlie. Drafting in Mike was a stroke of genius and Franklin, Ashbrook and Tso make quite the trio of UNIT misfits heading off on a dangerous mission that could potentially allow the organisation to wipe their hands of their previous disgrace. Having Mike and UNIT involved makes this feel more like a Doctor Who story than the first two instalments of the Rees saga and The Screaming Skull is packed to the gills with continuity references from the TV series, previous audios and even the AudioGo series that Mike has defected from. It's deliriously enjoyable to be steeped in the past like this, such is the nostalgic opportunities that the Vault offers. Despite the fun, this is quite a claustrophobic story and the closest this box set has come to an out and out horror. Rees is taking on the survival methods of the Master, a new body at last and the way he is going about it is quite macabre. Tying together the worlds of Jago & Litefoot, Countermeasures and the UNIT Vault should have the adverse effect of making the Big Finish universe feel smaller by containing all of them within but bizarrely it had the reverse effect on me. Pulling them all into a cohesive mythology left the impression of a expansive, diverse universe that allows for many different types of storytelling that strides across decades and having them all referenced together in this tale gave me a genuine thrill. The strongest segment yet, with typically snappy Jonny Morris dialogue, some great ideas, an excellent pace and a trio of UNIT characters that are begging to be explored further: 8/10

1 comment:

Adam Graham said...

I also loved the wax cylinder they found of Jago & Litefoot. It was not only a nice cameo but it sounded incredibly authentic.