Friday, 16 February 2018

Ghost Walk written by James Goss and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: This is a city of ghosts and no-one knows them better than Leanne. Twice a night she leads tourists to visit the most haunted sites - the Hanging Yard, the Witch Pool, the Screaming House, and, of course, the Catacombs. Leanne’s realised the ghosts of the city are real. Something’s lurking in the Catacombs - an ancient force that has been growing in the darkness for centuries. Sabaoth is returning and they must be stopped before they devour the world. Leanne knows this, because a ghost told her. A ghost called The Doctor.

An English Gentleman: ‘Because I’m the Doctor. I’m the link you really shouldn’t click!’ It’s a glorious entrance for the Doctor, stepping out of a tense moment in a ghost walk and declaring he is a ghost. He’s an advocate of the universe, acknowledging there are some things out there so strange that they translate into bad things in our perception when they are nothing of the kind. He tends to babble when he is nervous. Saying that he acknowledges that any being that feeds off the life force of sentient beings is one that they might not have the capacity to get along with. The Doctor’s insistence that he died in the catacombs makes for a brilliant cliff-hanger, I love how understated it is and how it is so much more effective than another tedious moment of jeopardy of the kind we know won’t bring down any of the regulars. I’m guessing this is the only time the Doctor will ever be described as an inner ear infection. There’s a glorious suggestion that the Doctor only kept K.9 around to allow him to talk aloud without looking silly. The Doctor simply cannot get his head around how many beings out there cannot appreciate how wonderful just being alive is instead of always wanting more. He thinks the Earth is a very nice planet and worth saving over and over.

Maths Nerd: ‘Can we wait a few more minutes? The Doctor specialises in last minute rescues!’ Even when he’s terrified for his life he manages to fire off a crack at Tegan’s expense. Upon learning that his punishment for stealing a loaf of bread is banishment to Australia, remembering that Tegan is from there, he doesn’t really fancy that. He finds the Earth very dull and has no idea why the Doctor keeps coming back here.

Alien Orphan: In a moment of uncertainty, Nyssa states that she misses Traken where everything made sense. Nyssa’s psychic potential is explored once again, a talent that I feel could be exploited a lot more on audio now there is the time to lavish on deepening the regulars. On Traken they recognise fear but are taught not to feel it. A saucy madam with herbal remedies that give the impressions she is a witch, Nyssa is devastatingly beautiful enough to turn the head of even the clergy. It feels like the quickest romance in Doctor Who history but in relative terms to the story Nyssa has been in Matthew’s company for some time, certainly enough time for him to offer her a life of quiet contentment over that of giant frogs! She’s drawn to his kindness, but she understands it isn’t a practical plan of action giving she is leaving in a few days.

Mouth on Legs: ‘Death won’t stop Tegan.’ Can you imagine anything feeding into Tegan’s hatred of travelling in the TARDIS more than stepping outside and straight into a pile of mushy bones. Tegan finally gets to return back to her own time…just not entirely in the way that she imagined.

Standout Performance: When Shabaoth finally found a voice I was certain I recognised it. What a fine, silky menace that Stephen Grief has to his voice, and whilst it is treated in a similar way, it is a million miles away from the part he played in the fifth Doctor audio Primeval, many moons ago. Fenella Woolgar has also been employed by Big Finish before and her brilliantly down to Earth turn as Leanne couldn’t be more different than her star turn as Agatha Christie in The Unicorn and the Wasp in series four.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s eaten an entire TARDIS. It probably has indigestion.’
‘The voice in my head is questioning my sanity?’
‘Wait. You’re trying to make me less scared of a ghost by telling me it’s just a ghost. EVEN THOUGH I AM SURROUNDED BY GHOSTS?’
‘Sometimes, when we’re confronted by terrible things… We smile. It’s called being alive and making the most of it.’
‘This is how the world ends Leanne. On a rainy day.’

Great Ideas: I want to share a story with you about a ghost walk that I went on some ten years ago in Edinburgh, whilst visiting with my then partner and mum. It was a really stormy night, I remember, and we spent an amiable half an hour in a tavern before the walk, which I spent belittling the whole idea of ghosts. This was like striking a match near an explosive with my mother, who has long been involved in a spiritualist group and a familiar debate between us. Nothing could have prepared me for the most chilling experience of my life when I was down the catacombs. It was an oppressive, dank place and the guide was overly theatrical, just as Leanne is here. But as he spelt out the terrible crimes of a man who had committed terrible acts and been hung put to death in the very spot we were standing I can vividly recall my entire body turning to ice, as if I had stepped into a freezer. A deafening whine filled my ears and I collapsed in the middle of the group. Appalled, embarrassed and very scared, I was taken outside wherein I finished the tour but my whole body was taut and I had a cold sweat for the rest of the night. I have never mocked the supernatural since. I don’t know what happened but I am not claustrophobic and the effect came on so suddenly and appallingly, I have no rational way of explaining it. The opening scenes of episode one brought it all back to me, a memory I had pushed away over the years. Maybe it was the Doctor all along.

Something in her surroundings is upsetting the TARDIS. The Peter Cushing gag made me chuckle. The alien feeds on life and the TARDIS is a living entity and the noises they heard where its cries for help, attempting to activate the HADS. Once it has consumed the energy of the TARDIS it lays dormant, gathering enough strength to build a physical form. It projected its soul to Earth, inducted energy from its surroundings and then built itself a new body. The alien's retained some worshippers to guard the place and ensure it's not disturbed as it begins to grow itself a corporeal shell. These caretakers will protect the site for as long as the entity wishes them too – months, years, centuries. Leanne’s evening tour is called ‘The Catacombs of Death’, and it baffles me that an adventure series with the insane titles of Doctor Who would avoid a title of such dynamic melodrama. Tegan walking around the dead console is precisely the sort of atmospheric stillness that 80s Who lacked, it’s precisely the sort of uneasiness that greeted Donna in Turn Left when she faced a similarly cadaverous TARDIS. And the malevolent voice that menaces Tegan is eerily similar to that of the one in The Doctor’s Wife. Sabaoth has the ability to send other peoples spirit ahead in time to act as an anchor, a stepping stone for him to follow. The whole of concept of Schrodinger’s Ghost is wonderful, the Doctor might be a spirit wafting through the catacombs but until his body is found he might have either suffered Sabaoth disembodiment or death. That’s some smart writing. There are distant galaxies – far out in space and time. Whole sectors of space that are dark. No suns, no life, no energy. Drained. Like they were born and died unimaginable aeons ago. Only there hasn't been enough time for that to happen... Imagine a creature that turns a whole cosmos dark, and then leaps on to the next. It’ll arrive exhausted. It’ll take time to regrow. But it will. That’s Shabaoth. In an unexpected moment, Sabaoth offers the Doctor access to the TARDIS to let him leave rather than face the destruction of the Earth. It really helps to make him less of a one dimensional nasty. The Doctor isn’t dead: back in the 17th Century he bricked himself up and went into a healing coma. He interfaced with the ship’s telepathic circuits to projected his consciousness into the future.

Audio Landscape: Saboath’s materialisation is very dramatically realised, it’s a memorable culmination of his machinations.

Isn’t it Odd: This time I’m here to contradict my own criticisms of the past, so the only thing that is ‘odd’ is me. I’ve often jeered at and derided cliff-hangers where regular characters are placed in positions of danger, supposedly fatal ones, when we know exactly how they are written out of the series on television. It seems an entirely fruitless affair, there to serve a purpose of providing a cliff-hanging moment rather than to genuinely convince us that they are about to meet their maker. The fact the cliff-hangers are something of an outdated mode of breaking up a story into acts is another matter entirely and I often question whether they are necessary to a story aside from aping the classic series format (and given plenty of them are unconvincing in this manner). However, I tip my hat to the end of episode, which proves that if you are going to do this sort of thing, do it with the sort of momentum of an entire episodes build up and with the kind of conviction that it plays out with in Ghost Walk. Nyssa is last seen gasping for air as she is drowned as a witch and Adric gets up close and personal with a noose. What makes this work so well is that the episode begins with these set pieces in place and the remaining 25 minutes is a suspenseful journey to show how they got there. I know Adric well die at the hands of the Cybermen and that Nyssa will leave the Doctor on Terminus, but for a moment their safety was a real matter of concern as they face the reaper in extremely vivid situations. And the fact that we don’t return to their stories for an episode and a half rather does add weight to the reality of their demises.

Standout Scene: ‘You’re rather fun to have around’ says the Doctor to Tegan as he thinks she’s going to die. It’s the sort of line that would have worked wonders on television and made sense of the Doctor keeping around this angst-ridden harridan that is always complaining about their adventures. Of course this line goes even further on audio, because Tegan is genuinely fun to have around these days. Leanne is on the periphery of the story for much its length, only for the audience to discover she is the most important person in the entire play. She’s the vessel and it’s a terrifyingly real moment when she realises that her part in Saboath’s plan.

Result: A complex, eerie adventure with plenty for each of the regulars to do, Ghost Walk is the sixth high scoring main range effort on the trot. To my mind, James Goss has always been one of Big Finish’s best writers and he’s crafted a more substantial than usual plot, taking in lots of different time periods, a whole reef of guest characters and fascinating central premise in the Lovecraftian creature that is manipulating everything. Despite this, he never loses track of the story he is telling or the impact it has on the central characters. I really like how the Doctor tries to piece together the nature of the creature in the first two episodes, using his unique viewpoint to give at an academic rather than catastrophic perspective on its behaviour. To Tegan it’s a monster that has consumed people and TARDISes, to the Doctor it is a helpless creature following its biological imperatives. That’s a creative new take the idea of an energy sapping creature. Sabaoth turns out to be one of the more insidious nasties that the Doctor has encountered, but not entirely unsympathetic. Nyssa turns the head of the clergy and is drowned as a witch, Adric gets to play with his fists and go down for thievery and the Doctor and Tegan share some enchanting scenes that are enhanced by the formidable relationship between Peter Davison and Janet Fielding that spills into the story. Goss’ dialogue is truly excellent; intelligent, probing and best of all always revealing new shades of character. Dialogue is one of the best weapons of the audio writer and at times Big Finish productions treat it as merely descriptions of action rather than a tool to tackle ideas and to colour in characters and situations. Goss has a brilliant grasp on his plot and characters and so the rest is down to the actors, who fly with a script as good as this. All of the cliff-hangers are clearly handled too, which I address above and left me hungry for the next episode. It's not an original threat to the Earth, but the presentation of the story is very much so and I found Ghost Walk to be an extremely valuable effort in a range that is once again proving that it can spearhead the Doctor Who releases: 9/10


Rawhide Kid said...

You are on fire at the moment every time I look there's a new review up! You're my main goto for Doctor Who reviews

Alistair.servan said...

I hate Tegan, I hate her so much. And Adric... he's bloody awful too, the fact that this is still an enormously good and entertaining story is a shining testament to the cast and direction.