Thursday, 8 February 2018

Alien Heart written by Stephen Cole and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: In the TARDIS, the Doctor and Nyssa stumble across a trail of ten destroyed worlds, all of them obliterated by means of some utterly monstrous but utterly unknown device. The planet Traxana would seem to be next in line to suffer the same fate. But when the TARDIS lands on an outpost on Traxana’s moon, Nyssa is carried away by a tide of giant green arachnoids, leaving the Doctor behind… And the coming menace is closer than he thinks.

An English Gentleman:
Peter Davison plays the Doctor as such a thoughtful fellow that it might quite the impact when he loses his rag and dishes out some moral retribution. The quote below is delivered passionately and I really sat up to pay attention.

Alien Orphan: I can recall criticising the constant barrage of Doctor and Nyssa stories around the time of the Masquerade trilogy, wondering what on Earth there was still to say about the pairing after such a wealth of adventures. Especially when the stories that gave them their juiciest material (for me that was Spare Parts, Creatures of Beauty and Circular Time) seemed to be a long way away. Now Nyssa has appeared in a prolific number of multi-companion stories too, whether that’s with Adric and Tegan, just Tegan or Tegan and Turlough. It seems whenever there is a fifth Doctor adventure, Sarah Sutton is invited to the party. And why not? She’s a very reliable performer and does tend to bring the best out in the fifth Doctor. And it’s certainly been long enough since her last solo trilogy for this tale to feel novel for her inclusion. Big Finish have mined Nyssa in a number of extraordinary ways, far more than I think her creator would have envisioned when she was created and she has been afforded more dramatic and revealing material than Eric Saward ever encouraged. Is she anybody’s favourite companion? Not many, I’m sure. But I have a warm place in my heart for Nyssa, ridiculous amounts of technobabble (of which she suffers terribly in this story) and all.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘This outpost marks the end point of a trail of obliterated worlds. Untold numbers of living creatures gone! Unique and intricate histories and eco systems undone! Freedoms fought for, loves, hates, sacrifices wiped from the fabric of the universe by some monstrous, degenerate weapon!’
‘Daleks kill with surgical precision…why would you leave a thirty-year trail of anomalous vandalism behind you?’

Great Ideas: The TARDIS proves allergic to spatial temporal anomalies and tries to avoid it but is drawn into the heart of the trans-dimensional shockwaves regardless. If they materialise in a zone of unstable matter then the TARDIS will be destroyed. Sometimes I forget that Doctor Who is supposed to be science-fiction (I know, absurd, right?) because it airs on the side of science fantasy and character drama with science fantasy trappings. It’s only when I am bamboozled with this much technobabble in quick succession (delivered with skill by the most technical Doctor/companion team imaginable) that I remember how far we have come from this sort of dry science. Space dust is all that remains of ten worlds, including Varga (Mission to the Unknown, appropriate for a Dalek story). Cole played out this scenario previously in The Apocalypse Element, except the threat was universe wide in that and the devastation threatened to be absolute. It’s still a remarkable image though, the mystery of the destruction of almost a dozen worlds. The trail of anomalous particles leads to a forward base on a planets moon to aid tactical military operations. Human beings testing terrible weapons to further expand their empire. All very Death Star. A tidal wave of green arachnoids that can carry you off in their wake…Alien Heart isn’t afraid to throw a lot of vivid ideas at you in the first five minutes. IAs somebody who often complains about overdone continuity I rather enjoyed the fact that they are mining from Lucanol, the element the Sandminer was hungrily eating up the ground for in The Robots of Death. Seven nests of cell spiders underground, each nesting hundreds of the creatures. The cell spiders were spawned from Dalek DNA. The Daleks are creating weapons to bring down the Movellans once and for all. The spiders will be used to freeze time around Traxana, thousand mile an hour winds will force their way down into the bedrock, all life blown away. The Daleks plan to infest key strategic worlds throughout the galaxy; Earth and Gallifrey included.

Isn't it Odd: When you have the use of the Daleks, it seems a little coy to wait until the story is nearly over to announce them. And when they’re on the cover of the release, it’s hard to maintain the surprise of their involvement. Especially when you introduce a heartbeat sound effect. Phoebe is such a relentless thug(ess) that I couldn’t really take her seriously. She treats Nyssa akin to how Missy treated Clara in the opening episodes of series nine, but in that case we understood the character of Missy. Phoebe just seems to be a big bully because the story needs some kind of villain(ess).

Result: Stephen Cole, now there is a name I haven’t heard in a while. In his time, he was the Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat of Doctor Who, controlling it’s output during those bold, innovative days of the wilderness years. He wrote a handful of averagely received (but I thought were solid and occasionally impressive) novels and contributed a number of okayish audios in the early days of the Big Finish trilogies. It’s a name I have come to associate with competence, and I don’t mean that in an ugly way. Alien Heart sports a number of strong dramatic ideas (destroyed worlds, a super weapon), an interesting period of time (the Earth Empire pushing out in to space) and for a while looked set to have the same kind of hard bitten tone as Cole’s superb PDA, Ten Little Aliens. But this is a story that fails to get into orbit thanks to an overreliance on technobabble (which, if you enjoy it, knock yourself out), a predictable splitting up of the Doctor and Nyssa to open out the story and a lack of characters to care about to make this story leave some kind of impression. If you’re a big fan of running up and down corridors and characters attempting to make scientific waffle sound dramatic then this could be right up your street. You have to admire Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton greatly for attempting to give this material some welly, but they are fighting a losing battle. In the first handful of scenes my interest was piqued considerably but somewhere in the middle of the second episode I was waiting for the story to end. Not even the inclusion of the Daleks could lift a story that tucks the story into the fold of continuity that was dealt with in Destiny of the Daleks. I feel that everything we needed to learn about the Dalek/Movellan war was contained to the season 17 adventure. Even the Doctor states that the war is long over. So, when the big twist that the Daleks are destroying entire worlds is revealed in the opening scenes, the only surprise can be why they are doing so, which seems to be just because that’s what they do. Try hard as I might not, I expect a little more from a story than that. But who knows? Maybe Dalek Soul (released with this story) is linked to Alien Heart in a way that sheds new light on the story: 4/10