Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Silent Scream written by James Goss and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: On the set of a busy Hollywood movie in the late 1920s, a damsel is in distress! As cameras roll, she opens her mouth to scream and... nothing comes out. Nothing at all. It's happened again. The Doctor, Romana and K9 have arrived in a terrified Tinseltown. A new film is being made and several stars of the silent screen are viewing it as a potential comeback... but it may prove a poisoned chalice. Actors are vanishing and strange creatures stalk the streets. Something evil is lurking behind the scenery. Can the Doctor stop it when he doesn't have a voice? It's time for his close-up.

Teeth and Curls: I’m sorry, but this simply isn’t an accurate representation of the post-Shada fourth Doctor. You can point out that he is up to his scene stealing tricks in State of Decay until you are blue in the face but the truth is that Baker spent most of his final year in a big sober huff. I’m not suggesting he didn’t do fine work in that year, he’s too good an actor to suggest that. I’m just saying this grinning, excitable loon would be completely out of place should this story turn up between, say, The Leisure Hive and Meglos. Whoever knew that the Doctor is a huge fan of Hollywood stars of the twenties? He was passing in the era and simply had to pop in on Loretta Waldorf, for a signature and a glass of soda water. There is some fun in suggesting that the Doctor works in special effects and K.9 is his greatest triumph. The Doctor is spied and laughed at, apparently an eccentric Hollywood fop looking for a job. He’s dressed a little too pretentiously to be a spy, but then maybe that is the idea. Tom Baker is an anarchic presence when he invades the realm of the quack from the future, becoming the dominant voice amongst voices.

Aristocratic Adventurer: There is a mild attempt to explain why people like going to the movies, to escape the humdrum nature of their lives. K.9 asks Romana if she ever feels the need to escape to which she naturally explains that her life is full of thrills and spills. She’s clearly not been paying attention to her audio stories these past two season particularly well, then.

Great Ideas: Like the New Series episodes that have to get to the point quickly in order to have some fun with their ideas, Goss jumps straight in at the deep end with people who depend on their voices in their careers being stolen.

Audio Landscape: Hollywood in the 1920s has lots of exciting reference material and immediately the soundscape is something a little different to the norm, capturing the plastic jollity of tinsel town. The chorus of disembodied voices with the tape spinning in the background is a novel soundscape and you can see why this might have been pitched as a different kind of audio experience. I wasn’t too impressed with the only cliff-hanger, the sound of overlapping voices can be chilling but I don’t think this really cut the mustard. It becomes an intolerable noise very quickly. The Face of Evil episode three cliffhanger (‘Who am I?’) is still the best example of this, and possibly the attack on the Doctor in Death to the Daleks (‘You do not exist!’).

Isn’t It Odd: I don’t know if anybody has been paying attention but the creators of these audios profess to be Doctor Who fans, and extremely intelligent and observant ones they are too. Season Eighteen this is not. The TARDIS only visited the Earth twice in Tom Baker’s final year and that was only as a stepping stone to more imaginative worlds (Argolis and Logopolis). Meglos aside, there was none of the frippery of The Beast of Kravenos and The Silent Scream, the tone was far more sombre and subdued, beckoning the entropy that was about consume the universe. So why are the makers of season six of the fourth Doctor adventures insisting on creating stories that harken back to the lighter, more irreverent style of seasons sixteen and seventeen? Is this the season eighteen they wished had taken place? If you were looking for an authentic version of Tommy B’s final year, all clinical science and morals, then you might wind up very disappointed indeed. Unconvincing American accents have been the bane of many a Big Finish production. Who could ever forget the godawful Buffy wanabee Becky-Lee in Minuet from Hell? Or the dreadful Southern drawls trampling all over Renaissance of the Daleks? It’s baffling because America must have an even bigger acting pool than the UK (there are rather a lot more of them) and yet Big Finish insists on British actors Americanifying their voices in an awkward way. Pamela Salem is a wonderful actress but she cannot sound entirely convincing as an American…because she isn’t. It’s as simple as that. I wouldn’t be surprised if Salem was employed simply because Tom Baker wanted to work with her. Once the ghosts have stolen her voice, it’s something of a blessed relief. The drawling faux accents are especially galling in the climax. The plot is so light that I sighed and it evaporated into nothing before me. I’m not sure if you can even call this a plot in the conventional sense. The premise is already in operation when we join the story, the Doctor chats with a few characters to discover the truth of that and does a little jig with the sonic screwdriver and magics away the problem. This isn’t deductive, the answers are just handed out without any real effort on the part of the characters. Dr Julius is such a dreary villain that the Doctor cannot even be bothered to sound particularly angry when he tells him he is despicable.

Standout Scene: It’s worth listening to to hear the Doctor give his audition piece, a mash up of Peter Piper and She Sells Sea Shells…at least Baker is having fun. The Doctor losing his voice is a novelty, imagine trying to script an entire audio without the fourth Doctor having the use of his voice. But it isn’t really stolen, it’s just a bit croaky.

Result: The best Tom Baker audios are those that are allowed the time and space to breathe and the story a chance to build up some atmosphere. The original Philip Hinchcliffe set and The Paradox Planet stand out for me as the most successful examples. There have been some one hour winners (Iceni, both Sontaran stories, Drax) but on the whole they seem to stick to a pretty familiar formula; introduce the threat quickly, introduce a couple of quirky characters, a little witty banter, some dashing about, a less than spectacular reveal and an ‘is that it?’ climax. If you’re looking to kill an hour amiably but without any sense of challenge then knock yourself out. If you want to pay for something with a little more meat on the bones, for something that makes you consider its ideas or long for its guest characters to return because they were so winning, I’d say skip to another range. The Silent Scream ticks over nicely enough, there is a pleasantly weird idea at the heart of it (although it has echoes of The Idiot’s Lantern but with voices being stolen rather than faces) and it paces out it’s episodes enjoyably enough with Tom Baker in particular in fine (if not season eighteen) form. Will I remember anything about it after listening? Hardly. Will I want to re-visit it in the future? Never. At least half of this range has been consigned to the ‘taking up storage space unnecessarily’ section of my hard drive and The Silent Scream has joined its bedfellows. I’m still too frightened to face the Briggs two-part finale at the climax of series five, something tells me from the savage previews and his past form that this also occupy the same part of my hard drive. The Companion Chronicles, Dorian Gray and Torchwood ranges all seem to be able to drive real drama, excellent character work and haunting concepts into their stories so I’m not sure what it is about the 4DAs that they seem to revert to this easy, popcorn style Doctor Who. I have no doubt that there will be a couple of winners this season, there always is. Even that is an inevitability, but they are diamonds in the inoffensive rough. An hour of trad Who, misplaced in the wrong season. A shame, I was expecting something more substantial from Goss. He touches upon the reason why people watch movies in the climax (when people have nothing, they need dreams) and it’s a shame that he didn’t take it much further and embrace and celebrate the flicks: 5/10

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