Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Haunting of Malkin Place written by Phil Mulryne and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: Whilst on the way to visit the town where Henry James lived, a chance encounter with a spiritualist on a train sends the Doctor and Romana on the trail of a ghost. It's the most convincing case of haunting he's ever heard of, he tells them. And so, on their arrival, does it appear to be. Things go bump in the night at Malkin Place. The voice of a crying child. Birds bursting into flight. Strange movements in a seance. The Doctor is determined there must be a rational explanation. But is science always the answer to everything?

Teeth and Curls: He loves the chill up the spine of a horror story and Tom Baker has the sort of voice that would bring a ghost story to life with fervent ghoulishness. Bumping along in the time vortex is fun enough but there’s nothing like roaring along in a steam train. A man after my own heart! He’s insulted! The Doctor has been called many things in his life…but never neat! The Doctor wrongly assumes that Talbot is a fraudster, taking money from the victims of his psychic powers but he’s given a reminder that not everybody in the universe is out for themselves. When Talbot calls him a very rude man, I giggled. One can only be right nearly all the time.

Aristocratic Adventurer: Romana is reading Henry James in a venerable old Victorian town house…a wonderful position to be in. So why does she sound so crabby? Somebody needs to remind Lalla Ward that she doesn’t have to let her disdain for working with Tom Baker spill over into her performances because Romana has gone from being one of the most vivid companions on audio to being the least enjoyable to spend time with. I jest, of course, because Ward has delivered some beautiful performances alongside (or edited into) Baker in the Missing Adventures range (and even The Paradox Planet and Legacy of Death in this range) but it is true that she just sounds so disinterested and fed up all the time. It’s a remarkably unlikable turn in what was an extremely amiable era when it came to the regulars. Romana hates the inexplicable nature of a horror story, she prefers the inexplicable being explained. Because she likes the idea of a rational theory behind everything, Romana is mistaken for a psychic de-bunker!

Great Ideas: Talk about cutting to the chase…there’s the announcement of a death and a haunting in the first scene! If there’s one person the Doctor trusts absolutely, it’s himself and having left a note in Tarzan telling him to not go up into the attic, he insists that that is what they do. Maurice came forward in time from 1917 making the future press back on to the house. A time vacuum in 1917 trying to suck Maurice back. The spirits aren’t ghosts from the past but from the future, normal children pulled back from the future. Out of place, pulled into a secondary time zone. Maurice opened the vortex by accident, a combination of his psychic terror and a damaged temporal device and possibly chancing upon a weak point in time. Maurice came to Malkin Place because of his connection with his twin, arriving just as she suffered the loss of their father.

Audio Landscape: I haven’t bothered with the audio landscape part of my reviews for the past handful because it does seem rather redundant, in hindsight, to list a bunch of noises that feature in a story. It only took me several hundred releases to catch on to the fact (that’s pretty good going for me) and so I’ve decided to only use it where necessary, when the story is placing a particular emphasis on sound or atmosphere. Malkin Place is for all intents and purposes a ghost story (as the title suggests) and so efforts are made here to get under the listeners skin and provide some scares. Let’s see how successful they were… There’s a heart in mouth moment when the Doctor suggests that where they are going is going to be peaceful and we cut to violently loud war scenes. That made me jump. There are the usual goings on you would expect in a ghost story; a child laughing, a sinister voice, a cold wind running through a séance, knocking on the table, a ticking clock, the house tearing itself apart, a demonic hat stand…and truth be told it’s all very well done. I would expect it to be well done, Big Finish must have a vast catalogue of sounds in their prolific range of stories and the experience to get it just right now. Jamie Robertson raises the game of Malkin Place considerably, taking a bog-standard horror story and turning it into something that goes bump in the night. I’d suggest for extra enjoyment you listen in the dark with headphones on.

Musical Cues: When the sting of the seasons 18 title music cuts in at the cliff-hanger, it just feels wrong. Rarely has the title music been so discordant with the style of story that is being played out. Season 18 has a definitive feel to it and it has nothing to do with trad Doctor Who haunted house mysteries.

Isn’t It Odd:
Can you imagine a season eighteen story starting with the Doctor and Romana having set up in Baker street and enjoying the thrills of Victorian England by steam train? It sounds delightful, but we’re in completely the wrong era of the show. Whilst the explanation behind the haunting is vaguely imaginative, you have to jump through a number of loopholes for it to be plausible (‘possibly chancing upon a weak point in time’). Why do explanations in horror stories always dispel the tension so? I think some ambiguity might be in order but then it wouldn’t be much of a Doctor Who story. It’s like Hide in the new series, tense until you realise a love story is playing out. Listen got it right, refusing to give you the explanations and thus maintaining the suspense.

Standout Scene: The twist about Maurice is touchingly played, but in reality there had to be some emotional beat in the story eventually. Until that point Malkin Place lacks anything but basic characterisation. It’s this revelation that pushes the story above average, there is usually a twist of sorts in a good horror. A man out of time is still a haunting, I guess.

Result: The Doctor and Romana heading to a haunted house in Romney Marsh; him looking forward to some good old-fashioned spooks and her ready to find a rational explanation for everything. Sounds rather fun! A shame then that there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen in supernatural movies before; creepy noises, unnatural happenings, a séance, characters in deadly danger…and since this is Doctor Who it explains everything with a scientific rationale that makes repeated listenings unfortunate. It’s pretty tricky to criticise something for providing what the genre expects, but I could predict, beat for beat, where this story was going. Not the details, but the structure and where the twists would be placed. I’m not sure why it is the fourth Doctor adventures that seem to get stuck with these basic premises and inoffensive action, I would put it down to the length of the tale but it has never been the case of the eighth Doctor range. Perhaps ‘traditional’ leads the creators of these particular tales to mean ‘simple’, which doesn’t have to be the case. The Haunting of Malkin Place benefits from some very slick direction from Nick Briggs and atmospheric sound design from Jamie Robertson but in reality there isn’t much more here than a handful of pleasant characters pulling apart a Scooby Doo mystery. I would have enjoyed something a little more graphic or psychologically disturbing, Static in the main range has proven that audio Who still has the balls to truly disquiet its audience but this was all parlour tricks and no real horror. It’s enjoyable, and the performances (Lalla Ward aside, who is a right grumpy puss throughout) help but this isn’t one of those 4DAs that proves the exception to the (shallow) norm. Inessential, but a smooth listen: 6/10


Anonymous said...

The reviewer Styre from Audioreviews made the same point about Lalla sounding pissed of and about those stories having nothing to do with the season 18 feel and atmosphere
Is really Lalla Ward so unforgiving that bears a grudge against Tom Baker almost 40 years later??
He gets along very well with Louise Jameson and they weren't either the best of friends back in the day

Dovid M said...

Personally i’d guess somethings changed recently- there first collaborations in the novel adaptations were fine. Maybe theyve started recording in the same studio? Im fairly certain they hadnt at first. No comfirmation of course but the behind the scenes photos for those novels adaptations had half the cast with baker in onr picture and the other half with ward in another.
And i honestly wouldnt blame Lala for still being upset. There personal lives are there business but unlike louise jameson these two were married which id imagine is more difficilt to reconcile