Tuesday, 3 October 2017

The Fiesta of the Damned written by Guy Adams and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: In search of "a taste of the real Spain", the TARDIS transports the Doctor, Ace and rejoined crewmember Mel not to sizzling Fuerteventura, or the golden sands of the Costa Brava – but to 1938, amid the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Having fallen in with a rag-tag column of Republican soldiers, the time and space travellers seek shelter from Franco's bombers in the walled town of Farissa – only to discover themselves besieged by dead men returned to life...

The Real McCoy: Surely the Doctor (especially this Doctor) isn’t so stupid that he can mistake the hum of an approaching bomber for somebody mowing their lawn? I suppose he does always try and be the optimist.

Oh Wicked: I never thought we’d hear Ace say ‘boom!’ again, given the reaction to her infamous scene in Battlefield. A self confessed adrenaline junkie, that's about as deep as this story wants to delve into its characters during all the running around.

Aieeeeeeee: Mel is diplomatic enough to swallow down the casual sexism of the period, but Ace isn’t so easily subdued. It’s a pleasing disparity between them, in Mel’s favour I would say because she comes across as the seasoned traveller. She remembers how it used to be with the Doctor, that history hurts. Ace attempts to mock Mel’s do-goodedness is to suggest that she orders a smoothie made out of spinach and tears.

Standout Performance: I particularly liked McCoy’s quiet contemplation on war. The first two episodes capture the strongest elements of his Doctor, a conflict-weary Time Lord who has learnt to play tough and whose actions weigh heavily on his mind. Who would have guessed that quiet brooding would have been McCoy’s (a man who is famous for his comedy) forte? Sophie Aldred doesn’t scream her head off throughout, because I thought a story set during wartime meant we were in for aural torture.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘So the Republicans are the good guys?’ ‘In war there’s no such thing. They’ve both committed their share of atrocities.’
‘The rest of us just haven’t had the common sense to lie down and die yet.’

Great Ideas: The Club Type 40 holiday packages are…See the Universe and Run for your Life! I’m one of those people that chooses not to educate himself on history unless a show I am enjoying chooses to focus on a particular period. Once my interest is piqued, I then go the distance and learn everything I can. Doctor Who has been extremely useful to me in that respect. I went into this knowing next to nothing about the Spanish Civil War. The Doctor gives a handy potted history of the war in the first episode to anybody who is green (like me) and reveals that the Republicans are already wounded beyond repair and terrible losses are due until their surrender. It sounds like the perfect setting for a Hartnell historical, so it’s rather refreshing to step from the McCoy era. Apparently when it comes to history even the footnotes like Juan Romero are inspiring.

Audio Landscape: You have to wonder how an actor faces an audio challenge when the script says he has been ‘zombified’ without giving the character any dialogue. Low moaning, apparently. Mumbling voices, insects humming in the distance, bombs falling, masonry loose, someone screaming into a hole, flames crackling, walking on stones, a bell tolling, a squeaking door, Lynx’s screaming and scattering.

Isn’t it Odd: I think this series of adventures is serving more as a ‘what if Mel had stayed at the end of Dragonfire?’ than taking place years afterwards in the post Hex period of Big Finish. There’s simply no indication that Ace has changed at all in the intervening period and the stories feel like they belong on season 25. So, I guess in order to find some enjoyment in them I’m going to have to ignore what my ears are telling me and make up my own continuity (I can do that, it’s my show too). Otherwise this is another cynical marketing ploy on Big Finish’s part where they wanted to work with Slyv, Sophie and Bonnie just BECAUSE without any decent reason to do so. It’s certainly not to explore the characters, which I would have thought a given in the circumstances. So, let’s chalk this down to ‘what if…?’ It’s lucky there was an English reporter like Newman involved, who can explain the details of the conflict to Mel and Ace and thus, to us. I’m guessing the idea of The Walking Dead charging in on a Doctor Who historical set during the Spanish Civil War might have sounded like a good idea in theory (Horror on top of conflict) but the lengths the story goes to justify that these are zombies in science fiction terms renders them as scary as a church mouse. The story becomes mired in hideous fructuous, SF dialogue, a far cry from the sensitive portrayal of war in the first episode.

Standout Scene: The bombing in the first episode is spectacularly realistic. Massive credit to director Ken Bentley for making wonder if I should run for cover and hide.

Result: I thought the first episode was really rather good; dramatic, evocative and educational but that was ruined by the first cliff-hanger where the science fiction elements of the story collide with the historical ones and the recently smooth narrative veers off the rails. Even the dialogue, which has been informative and emotive suddenly lurches into awkwardness. Whether it’s Big Finish or the television series or the comic strip, nobody seems to trust to tell a pure historical when that would be the freshest approach any of those mediums could take. Instead aliens always barge in on the action and things become far less interesting. It’s a shame because the location is conjured up with real care and there were parts of Fiesta of the Damned where I could close my eyes and find myself back in Spain and truly see the action as it was unfolding. The music was a treat too, but I’ve come to expect nothing less from Jamie Robertson. The regulars, particularly Bonnie Langford, are given material that plays to their strengths too, which further compounds the unfortunate lacklustre nature of the narrative. There’s a distinct lack of character conflict that might have brought the story alive, this is one of those rare Doctor Who stories where everybody seems to get along…and it’s set during wartime! So, what you’re left with is a period of history that is potentially devastating to explore but with a story that fails to do so in favour of another bog-standard alien race. We’ll only visit the Spanish Civil War a few times in the lifetime of Doctor Who whereas we’ll be inundated with aliens until it expires. In this case, the wrong call was made. I guess the old adage is true; Doctor Who can survive anything except being boring. The fact that the production is so stellar (I can’t even fault Sophie Aldred) merely rubs salt in the wound. Trust that human history is riveting enough: 5/10


Vane said...

I'm Spanish and my grandparents fought on the Republican side on the War, when I was little my grandma used to tell me a lot of stories of the War, my maternal grandpa was being deported to a concentration camp in France when the war finished but he could escape.
All this to say that I was so looking forward to this release set in a period I have been told first hand stories (opposite to English history some of which I don't even kmow) and I was profoundly disappointed with this release :( *sigh*

I'm so very glad you have started reviewing again, I missed you!

Rawhide Kid said...

Great to have you back, I've missed your reviews

Liam said...

Good to see you back. Your reviews have been missed.

david kelly said...

Welcome back, dearly missed.

david kelly said...

Welcome back, dearly missed.

Joe Ford said...

I'm touched by the comments, guys. I'll be tackling Makers of Demons next week!

ThatOtherPerson said...

Awesome! I've been missing your reviews. Good to see my favorite Doctor Who reviewer back. :-)

Anonymous said...

So good to have you back Joe, keep up the excellent work.

Dovid M said...

Just saw this now and I'm inclined to agree with everyone else- welcome back!