Wednesday, 31 January 2018
The Blood Furnace written by Eddie Robson and directed by Ken Bentley
The Real McCoy: Ace’s Uncle and a bit of a shipping enthusiast, according to Mel and the way McCoy is playing the Doctor (like a drunken old uncle who bumbles from one scenario to another) these days he might as well be! Listen to the scene at the end of episode one where the Doctor explains what has happened to Ace – McCoy literally sounds as if he has just been handed the script and has had one Scotch Whiskey too many. It’s inexcusably bad. The Doctor gets off a sly dig at the Dominators that made me chuckle, so I suppose he isn’t all bad. He’s never heard of the Orgium though and wonders if their boast to conquer half the galaxy is just hyperbole.
Oh Wicked: Ace discovers they are in Merseyside and sates categorically that nothing interesting is going to happen here. One, that’s not the way a decent companion should behave – I remember when she used to bounce out of the TARDIS looking for danger in every shadow. Has she become the latest version of Tegan? Two, this is where Hex was from. You would think that this would warrant some conversation about their former companion who, in the day, claimed to have a massive impact on their lives. The last time they were here was Afterlife, where they picked up Thomas, Hex’s alter ego. This all seems to have been flushed down the tube to create the ‘season 25’ vibe that these stories with Mel have been aiming for.
Aieeeeeeee: Finally after five stories with this team somebody has decided to shine the spotlight on Mel. You have to question the logic of bringing this team together if not to reveal new facets of their character or to highlight them against one another. Instead it seems to have been an amusing ‘what if Mel and Ace had kept travelling together?’ exercise with very little thought behind why that would be entertaining, amusing or revealing. It’s proven to be none of the above, just a little stale. Ace has regressed to being a child, the Doctor seems to have lost his chess playing skills and Mel, whilst good with a computer, is about as bland as she was during her time in the TV series. They aren’t complimenting each other and it is very frustrating because all three characters have proven to work very well on audio. So it’s nice to see a little character building take place. If it’s riveting enough it might begin to justify this wonky set up. Mel meets up with her old boyfriend from college who has done rather well for himself since they split up, creating a new steel alloy and making a ton of money. It’s a promising start that looks set to tell us a little about Mel before she met the Doctor. Trouble is, there isn’t very much chemistry between Bonnie Langford and Todd Heppenstall, they play the scenes like two people who have never met before. I realise that meeting an ex can be awkward, but there has to be some of that spark there that proves this was a couple in the first place. Stuart was offered a job in the Middle East after he graduated and Mel was happy in Pease Pottage…and long-distance relationships are awkward. When Mel decides to take Stuart’s offer of a job and stay on Earth it feels very sloppily written and played, not a patch on her original leaving scene in Dragonfire. It’s almost as if the story is willing us to believe she will be back in the TARDIS at the end of the story. It fails to be touching or revelatory, just something that happened. I realise that Mel is supposed to be a computer whizz and a bit square, but she has also always been portrayed as being highly emotional, occasionally hysterical (especially on TV). So why is her interaction with Stuart so cold and unfeeling? Why does she sound less than impressed when offered a great job? Has she had an unmade story between her TV stint and now where she met the Cybermen and had an emotional inhibitor inserted in her heart? And how about the reason why Mel chooses not to stay behind at the end? 'I'm happy doing what I do.' Wow, that's probing stuff.
Standout Performance: Julie Graham is a formidable talent and brings all the gusto and gumption that she can to the role of Carolyn. It’s not her fault that she is saddled with an unconvincing and underwritten character. Remember when she got to eat the scenery (and practically everything else) as Ruby White in The Sarah Jane Adventures? That was how to write a really tasty part for this charismatic actress.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I once met a Sontaran called Harold!’
Great Ideas: The Orgium have control over matter that no other race has ever achieved. The conquered half a galaxy. They’re an old, old civilisation, geared towards war. Yadda yadda yadda. There’s so many old, old civilisations geared towards war out there I’m surprised there are any inhabitable worlds left in the universe. Their technology isn’t anything that we would recognise as technology. Stuart and his company have been building a spaceship all this time, which is news to him. The Orgium want to conquer races that develop in ways that offend their culture – it’s an overly simplistic view of xenophobia but at least they do have a reasonable motive. With the Orgium virus, every piece of equipment with an electronic circuit could be destroyed. Imagine if the story had started with that happening and dealt with the fallout of a world without technology?
Isn’t it Odd: Nothing much else is happening in The Blood Furnace so an exploding console will have to do. It is linked to the plot, but as a secondary jeopardy that is explained much later, which means this feels like a very arbitrary moment of peril. After all we need a moment of false jeopardy, don’t we? I really love the idea of a race of beings that can manipulate space time with language, it’s an intriguing notion and one that has potential for some imaginative scripting. A shame then that Doctor Who has already explored the concept as well as it is every going to be in The Shakespeare Code with the Carrionites and that the ability manifests itself here with poor Julie Graham being forced to get her tongue around some bizarre alien language which fails to have any impact on me intellectually. The English language is a beautiful thing and this was a chance to indulge in some witty and imaginative wordplay…instead Robson opts for making the villain sound like she is making up a bizarre language. The Orgium’s attempt to conquer the Earth is over before it even began because the development of digital technology so fast that the planet will be intolerable to them within a matter of years. Hence the destruction of the worlds technology. But since we know that the digital age raced onwards because of stories set in the future (I very much doubt that The Blood Furnace will be responsible for wiping from existence every Doctor Who story set post 1990s on Earth…if it was, how embarrassing for those stories), this entire invasion tale has been a big fat waste of time. Technically the Doctor didn’t have to do anything at all.
Seriously, who is listening to these stories from the production team after they are complete? This is the second trilogy featuring this trio and a third has been commissioned already. Sometimes it is time to cut your losses and admit that something isn’t working out. I’m sure Sylv, Bonnie and Aldred all enjoy working together but that’s not really a reason enough when these plodding, characterless stories are the result. For me I’ve rated this run of stories since A Life of Crime 4, 5, 2, 5, 4…so unless The Silurian Candidate turns out to be an absolute masterpiece of epic proportions (reviews have suggested otherwise, but you never know) it will be my least enjoyed consecutive run of stories for one set of regulars since the trilogies began. I realise this is entirely subjective and that there may be a wealth of people out there loving this stuff, but the reviews from reviewers I trust (not the ones that are plastered all over the Big Finish pages, the entries chosen from sources who seem to think every release is a masterpiece) suggest I am not alone in my criticism.
Result: After a cosmic heist in space, a historical, a quirky SF sequel and an oddball drama, this was a chance for the seventh Doctor, Mel and Ace to enjoy an urban setting and a touch of realism. After the New Adventures and some of the better 7th Doctor audios (the Fearmonger, the Harvest, Damaged Goods) you would expect that he would take to a down to Earth setting like a duck to water, a chance to get personal with the guest cast and indulge in some gritty storytelling. The Blood Furnace delivers none of this, and my expectations went sadly unmet. I’m having a love/hate relationship with Ken Bentley at the moment, and it’s possibly because he is now the most prolific Big Finish director of them all (with well over 50 stories under his belt). I find his work varies depending on the quality of the script, so in the recent Doom Coalition series which he tackled he was handed a huge epic, full of incredible set pieces and really winning individual stories. He directed the life out of them, and the result was a polished, engaging, exciting must listen. In the same breath he has directed the first six 7/Mel/Ace stories and with scripts that have been a little half-hearted, the resulting direction has been too. It doesn’t seem to be a problem with Barnaby Edwards or newbies Jamie Anderson and Helen Goldwyn. They all have the ability to inject life into even the most underwhelming of scripts. The Blood Furnace feels tired from the outset, like the director knows he’s seen all this before. The setting is reasonably well developed in the script but I don’t think that was translated with any vitality in the final piece. The soundscape is adequate, but I never felt as though I could shut my eyes and whisk myself away into this story because it was struggle to visualise what was happening. I struggled with the casting of Todd Heppenstall too, playing an old flame of Mel’s but lacking any of that spark with Bonnie Langford that would have made this work (check out The Waters of Amsterdam to see how this thing can be made to sing). Ace is given a reasonable role, but she’s the only one of the regulars I could really believe in. The aliens are a cheap Carrionite rip off, with nothing to differentiate them from a handful of other Doctor Who aliens and the only truly distinguishing feature is Julie Graham, who struggles gamely with an blandly written villainous role. Worst of all is Sylvester McCoy, the most dangerous of the Big Finish Doctor’s because he can swing anywhere between purring menace and toe-curling hysterics. This is clearly a script that he hasn’t studied in any great depth and he wanders through the story sounding a little lost and a little drunk, despite the Doctor supposedly putting lots of little plans in place. He sounds at sea in his own series. It’s the ambivalence that a story like The Blood Furnace drives out of me that reminds me why I struggled to return to main range to get reviewing again. It serves no real purpose, it’s a story that is just there: 4/10