Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Beast of Kravenos written by Justin Richards and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: A stunning new star act is wowing the audiences of the New Regency Theatre. The modern mechanical marvel of canny canine charisma - the automated dog that can answer any question - the incomparable - the unbeatable - K9! The Doctor and Romana have returned to Victorian London and been reunited with their old friends Professor George Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago. However this is not merely a social visit. A terrifying crime spree is sweeping the capital, and the burglaries of 'The Knave' defy all logic. Something impossibly dangerous is taking place amid the fog. Only the time travellers and their friends can stop it... but can they be sure they're all on the same side?

Teeth and Curls: I remember when these fourth Doctor audios started up and I had terrible trouble disassociating Tom Baker the personality from Tom Baker as the Doctor. The line seemed to have been blurred, no doubt aided by the fact that he had been allowed to run riot with his persona in the AudioGo Nest Cottage series (for all of it’s strengths of imagination and creativity). Those early stories were so nuts and bolts Doctor Who and it felt like Big Finish were trying to clip Baker’s wings a little and bring him back down to Earth. That made his outrageous leaps of madness seem even more like an actor being indulgent. Somewhere along the line Baker has remembered how to play the part as he did on the television and recent stories such as The Paradox Planet and The Trouble with Drax have revealed an authentic fourth Doctor, deftly characterised and beautifully played by Baker. The trouble is this story is supposed to be set during season 18, which was the year Tom Baker was castrated on television and forced to rein in his dashing wit of seasons 16 and 17. There’s not sign of that here. He was an extremely dour, almost sour Doctor in this season. The one story that let him truly shine throughout (State of Decay) was written by an old hand (Uncle Terrance) who clearly didn’t get the memo that this season the Doctor was to be serious, dramatic, moody and constricted by real science (not the whacky science of the previous couple of years). So does this make The Beast of Kravenos an accurate representation of Baker’s Doctor or not? Yes and no. It’s accurately season seventeen but not accurately the year it is supposed to be set in. Baker has been doing these audios for too long now and is extremely comfortable in the role…if only somebody (writer Justin Richards or director Nick Briggs) had told him he was supposed to be under a black cloud. Whenever the Doctor is around it seems that everybody’s job gets a lot more difficult. Exciting, isn’t it? The Doctor finds it as annoying as Litefoot that Romana seems to know everything about everything. Quick can understand why Litefoot likes having the Doctor around, he’s the smartest man in the room at all times.

Aristocratic Adventurer: How unusual that the Doctor should have two such companions with the same name…the last time Romana met Jago and Litefoot she was in another guise altogether. She doesn’t care to be compared to a London bus.

Partners in Crime: According to Jago, K.9 is a modern mechanical marvel of canny canine charisma. But then he always did have a way of jazzing up the most bog standard of acts. Whether they have access to a nucleonic phase pulse generator is not the sort of question Jago tends to ask his auditionees. It’s quite unthinkable that their assailant could possibly be a gentleman in the eyes of Litefoot, more than likely a complete bounder.

Sparkling Dialogue: The incessant alliteration that accompanies Jago has grown tiring over the years. I prefer him to be written intelligently rather than predictably.

Great Ideas: Victorian London is one setting where K.9 might just appear to be a technological marvel. He’s also quite the wit, cracking jokes in the face of his audiences questions. The Knave, a killer who always leaves a playing card at the scene of the crime. The Doctor’s method of tracking down the Knave is to place a tracker inside a Gallifreyan jewel and have him steal it.

Audio Landscape: You had better hope after countless seasons of Jago & Litefoot that Big Finish have perfected the soundscape of Victorian London. I’m sure there are plenty of street scenes, theatre spectacles and gentleman’s study’s that could be called upon to copy and paste.

Isn’t It Odd: Series six of the fourth Doctor adventures should be aiming a little higher than an opening story that plays it quite this safe. It’s the first year that Briggs and Barnes aren’t writing for the range and I was hoping (given the intriguing roll call of writers) that we would be treated to a little novelty and experimentation. Richards is the ultimate safe pair of hands writer and Jago & Litefoot are the ultimate safe pair of hands guest characters. We even had a story set in this period with these characters just a few seasons ago. Colour me unimpressed that we should kick start a season so obviously. ‘Romana, someone’s stolen the TARDIS…’ thus ends episode one and I could barely be bothered to stifle a yawn. What, again? Lalla Ward delivers a perfectly fine performance but does Romana sound a little unimpressed by events or was it my imagination? She walks through the story observing, deducing but not really engaging with the story. It reminded me more of the first incarnation of the character.

Standout Scene:
The first time this story surprised me was the revelation of who the beast is posing as. But given that character vanished for a certain amount of time it was more of a ‘oh that makes sense’ reaction than anything.

Result: A traditional story featuring Jago & Litefoot and a baying beast in Victorian London…it hardly screams the fresh if clinical and innovative approach of season 18, does it? As I seem to say with every other fourth Doctor release, this is perfectly serviceable and if it was the first Big Finish you stumbled across you might be tempted to seek out more. Infernal investigations, the Doctor and Romana on the case with the most formidable combination in the annals of criminology by their side, K.9 saturated in wit and humour and the basic plotting of a Doctor Who story. It’s almost textbook stuff. Am I outrageous in wanting more from this range? Last year they proved it was perfectly possible with Jonny Morris and John Dorney’s output. The last time Richards wrote a fourth Doctor adventure I was in Colombia reviewing and in desperate need of a decent slice of Who to cure my home sickness. What I got was flat and uninteresting, a truly mediocre piece. This is a little zestier in its execution but in no way more creative or bold in its storytelling. At least with Benjamin and Baxter on board you know there will be some fun interaction but this is Doctor Who on autopilot, as though their inclusion is excuse enough not to try. It might as well have been written by Briggs. Even the revelation of who The Knave is can hardly come as a surprise given he is the only guest character to have been established beyond the regulars and the guest regulars. It’s a little like The Rescue in that respect. Richards wrote both Time Zero and Sometime Never…, novels that juggled complex, stimulating ideas and hanging on dense narratives. Why are his audios so simply plotted and lacking even basic invention? Completely unchallenging, very mildly diverting and simply not strong enough when you think there have been 40 odd releases before this: 5/10

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