Monday, 5 February 2018

The Silurian Candidate written by Matthew J Elliot and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The year is 2085, and planet Earth remains on the edge of a nuclear precipice. At any moment, either of two vast rival power blocs, to the West and the East, might unleash a torrent of missiles, bringing about the terrible certainty of Mutual Assured Destruction. But there is another way - or so Professor Ruth Drexler believes. Hence her secret mission deep in Eastern bloc territory, to uncover a hidden city, never before glimpsed by human eyes: the Parliament of the Silurians, the lizard people who ruled the Earth before humankind. There, she’ll encounter a time-travelling Doctor, who knows the Silurians well. A Doctor on a secret mission of his own.

The Real McCoy: Mel sticks up for the Doctor, pointing out to Ace that if you had lived for 900 years that you would probably have a few loose ends dangling that needed tying up. Perhaps he should be commended for being the first Doctor to bother actually attempting to tidy them up? The Doctor’s loose ends mostly seem to be old battles unfought. He’s a lot more secretive these days, says Ace, which highlights that this is a long time after Mel left him the first time around. So why oh why haven’t these stories capitalised on that fact before? I do appreciate the writer seemingly attempting to do something with the idea that time has passed and the Doctor isn’t the same man that Mel recognises from before, but this manifests itself in a very bizarre scene in the console room where she is insidiously attempting to extract their destination out of him in an insidious way and he remains frustratingly and pointlessly vague. It’s very awkwardly handled because both of them feel out of character. The Doctor was all about brooking peace between the Silurians and the humans. Why now is he so invested in handing over the planet to the reptiles out of some moral duty because they never officially surrendered it when they went in to hibernation? And when the Silurians have shown little but contempt for humanity in the past, why would he fall on their side so completely? Is it just because this the seventh Doctor and he’s supposed to behave controversially? He’s his usual amiable self until the story calls for him to behave outrageously, claiming the Earth as his own and

Oh Wicked: Remember Ace, when attempting to manufacture a moment of danger at the cliff-hanger, you’re not supposed to punch the air with delight and project positive exclamations. Her reaction to being menaced by a T-Rex? To dance with delight! Mel ponders what this unfeeling Doctor has done Ace. Made her a bit stupid by the looks of it. Bizarrely she does it at the first and second cliff-hanger (‘Cavemen! Brilliant!’). After all this time, she still doesn’t trust the Doctor.

Aieeeeeeee: Mel wonders if all she is to the Doctor is a big heart, a way for him to experience his adventures emotionally. When did he stop being able to do that himself? This is an interesting idea, and again it is nice that Elliot remembers to ditch the faux season 25-ness of these stories and try and engage with the regulars in a dynamic way and AGAIN it is fudged by bringing up the idea and failing to apply it to the story in any meaningful way. How does Mel have the right to be so angry with the Doctor for somebody being shot at the climax when it is precisely what she did previously in the story?

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Better safe than mown down by a firing squad.’
‘You’re not going to tell me that resistance is futile, are you?’ ‘No…but it is.’
‘I was hoping the Silurians would have some wifi based equivalent…’
‘Willy Wonka! Finally, I’ve realised who you remind me of, Doctor!’ is a very odd line in the middle of an exposition scene.
‘The Doctor says I’m as honest as the day is long, and we’ve been to some planets with some really long days!’
‘Spunky! I love it!’

Great Ideas: I remember seeing the beautiful cover for The Silurian Candidate and thinking that this was going to be the renaissance seventh Doctor story to drag this run out of the mire. Big Finish covers have become much more artistic and striking in the past couple of years and this is one of the best. Reading the blurb, my expectations only grew. I think stirring memories of the seventh Doctor Silurian comic strip from the Doctor Who magazine were mixed in somewhere too. There’s rather a lovely moment where we appear to have come in at the end of one of the Doctor’s tales of the past and have missed the bulk of the story when it fact he has only been thinking to himself and muttered the climax to his story to Ace and mentions it is a shame that she wasn’t telepathic because she could have heard the rest (and given that story is The Key to Time it would have been a damn sight more riveting than this). It’s that kind of smartness that this story needed a lot more of if it was going to tackle the sort of weighty themes that it does. Unfortunately, the next scene plays the same trick and attempts to make us laugh at it, thus gutting the original elegance of the idea. Ruth is heading down into the hibernation chamber to obtain the technology to send the human race up in to deep space – that’s a tricky proposition because it suggests fucking up the planet and then abandoning it for pastures new. Which makes Ruth seem a little selfish and defeatist. At least she is looking to hand the data over to both sides of the conflict, rather than ensure survival for just her people. But surely in a war to be handed a loaded gun like the hibernation technology, it would just escalate the conflict? The first side to launch, the first side to conquer the stars, the first side to abandon the planet and send down a devastating series of missiles to wipe the other side out?

Audio Landscape: I’m trying to accentuate the positives in a generally abysmal tale but even the soundscape fails to ignite in The Silurian Candidate, at that is usually something you can rely on with Big Finish. It’s surprising how effective action sequences can be on audio when they are well paced, well described and authentic sound effects are utilised. The action in this tale struggles a lot, inoffensive sounding dinosaurs and limp guns providing little tension that is made up with the actors barking hysterically to stress the peril they are in. They sound like actors in a studio trying to convince you really hard that they are in desperate circumstances, a sure sign that the writing and direction isn’t up to scratch.

Isn’t it Odd: The Matthew J Elliot continuity machine is back in session: Daleks, Cybermen, Fenric, The Fires of Vulcan, Gallifrey, the Hand of Omega, the Key to Time (specifically the climax and The Androids of Tara), Bloodtide (but given this is a Silurian story, it’s predecessor on audio should be mentioned), two hearts, the plots of Dr Who & the Silurians and Warriors are regurgitated and plot points from The Ark in Space and The Sontaran Experiment set up. Let’s optimistically suggest that Elliot is attempting to provoke potential new converts to Doctor Who that have stumbled across Doctor Who thanks to The Silurian Candidate to explore the rich annals of its history. Or pessimistically suggest that he’s an over-enthusiastic fan that cannot resist having his characters spew up continuity references as though they are a gaggle of Doctor Who fans waiting in line at a convention signing. Elliot truly struggles to write realistic dialogue between people without laying on too much exposition, over stressed politics (be it gender or social based) and awkward jokes that fail to hit their target. Dramatically, there doesn’t seem to be much point to the first episode, which fails as a scene setter because there is no substantial information given about the setting or the characters. It winds up being a lot of wandering about searching for some kind of plot that has failed to show up yet. It’s where a classic Doctor Who story would normally be in part three of six, padding rather than development. And there’s something very strange about experiencing the city of the Silurians with the Doctor casually explaining everything rather than the companions experiencing it (and the wonder that comes with that). It turns this into an intellectual exercise (without much intellect) rather than an emotional one, which is distancing. In fact both the Doctor and Ruth chat away about their intentions so nonchalantly, it is as though Elliot has no clue how to dramatise a story. Ruth talks about the Earth being a lost cause before we witness it. The Doctor talks about handing over the planet to the Silurians without any context that would make this revelation…well a revelation! Show, don’t tell is the key to good drama but The Silurian Candidate never stops yammering on about it’s intents. What about a little atmosphere in the Silurian Parliament? The characters walk about as if they are taking a stroll around the supermarket. Remember Bloodtide and how it so expertly built up suspense around the horror of the Silurians reveal? When did the main range become this neutered of tension? Bloody hell, by the end of episode two there have been two separate, long winded explanations about who the Silurians are for the benefit of both Ace and Mel. Get on with telling the bloody story, Elliot! You shouldn’t be vomiting up explanations before the story has even engaged in first gear! You have to question a script that drops a revelation about the Doctor wanting to hand the Earth to the Silurians and then fails to mention it again for half an hour. When Ace brings it up, the idea has been drained of any dramatic worth. It’s more like ‘oh yeah…that.’ It’s seriously damaging that no serious emotional connection is made to the setting, the scenario or the characters. The revelation that he is the Silurian candidate fails to inject life in to the story because, even at the climax to episode three, the implication of this is incomprehensible. ‘When I go up…everyone goes up!’ The story essentially boils down to a Donald Trump wannabe being so full of hot air that he takes out the heads of both sides in the conflict. How very subtle. The Doctor’s solution is to put both the Silurians and the humans to sleep with an alarm clock that will wake them up at the same time, essentially pausing the story and allowing somebody else to deal with the hard choices. What an odd thing for him to do, exempting himself of responsibility and letting the tension play out at a later date.

Result: The Silurian Candidate has already earned itself something of a reputation…so my primary thought when sticking it on was ‘can it possibly be as bad as people say?’ Technically the first two episodes are the better half of the story because they innocuously feature the Doctor explaining gallop loads of continuity to his companions as they wander about the Silurian Parliament. The dialogue is frequently troublesome, there is no sense of pace or tension and the set pieces there are to break up the waffle fail to hit their mark…but there is nothing outright offensive (simply inept) about the first half of the story. It is the model of a story struggling to gain any kind of momentum, however. Episode two ends with the threat of nuclear war but since I haven’t spent any time exploring either side of the conflict, we should I give a damn? The Silurian Candidate flaunts themes of racism, devastating war and dangerous scientific developments but there is no attempt to engage with those ideas dramatically or thoughtfully. It’s a story that plays out with such sledgehammer incompetence that it’s quite painful to witness the potentially dramatic notions squandered so wastefully. Truthfully, the story could begin with episode three because that is precisely where the narrative starts. The story takes a huge lurch into the world above for its latter half and you might think, given the slovenly nature of the first two episodes, that this would be for the better. Enter Chairman Bart Falco, the first true allusion to Donald Trump in the world of Doctor Who. There was a throwaway line in a new series story, but that was just a sly dig. This is an out and out parody of the man; tactless, bullish, impolite, ruthless, racist and entirely one-note. I couldn’t believe in this man taking a central role in a dangerous conflict for one second…and before anyone says it no, I can’t believe Donald Trump has been handed that lofty authority either. The Trump comparisons are obvious; his blameless behaviour and how he points the finger at everybody else, his obsession with his own self-image, his ego that is so vast the only piece of literature he has deemed to read is his autobiography. And as for the accent…it brings up the question of why the director would allow such an offensively poor Australian accent to be used when the actor is British and the character would have been just as belligerent had he used his own accent. Bart Falco reduces the story to a cartoon, because he behaves in such a boorish and over the top way. Any attempt to study politics in wartime are corrupted by this most unconvincing of characters. The whole story becomes a reaction against him, rather than the scenario that is playing out. Warriors of the Deep might have had a manifest of problems, production wise, but at least it had a dramatic backbone inherent in the script. The Silurian Candidate fails to ignite as drama because it fundamentally fails to understand what drama is, instead of allowing the audience to experience he story, it instead chooses to explain everything, often before anything has even occurred. I genuinely appreciate that Big Finish are pumping some fresh blood into their output instead of the same names cropping up time and again, in terms of writing and direction. With that you also have to examine their output critically and find out whether a particular talent is worth sticking with. Maybe there is a wealth of praise for Matthew J. Elliot’s stories out there but I haven’t found it. However, I have read plenty of intelligent criticism of his output. Like Frank Cotterell-Boyce in the new series, I just don’t think this is a writer that is suited to realising Doctor Who. All the script editors over the years have stated that it is a very hard show to get right and not everybody can do it, not even highly respected writers away from the world of Doctor Who. I would suggest that Elliot is one such writer and script that is this tensionless, obvious, repetitive, exaggerated, unfocused and wasteful is all the evidence that you need. This is his third crack at the whip, and that talent should be refining, not regressing. I’m actually a little distressed to see a fourth story published in the upcoming schedules. I want to give a shout out to Bonnie Langford, who gives the best performance in this ghastly mess and is really trying to put some weight behind the appalling characterisation she is given. To her credit, at moments she almost succeeds. What’s astonishing is that there was a time when people said Doctor Who was too good for Bonnie. That’s reversed now, with scripts of the quality she has been handed of late she is far too good for Doctor Who. Please somebody recognise that you have a relatively untapped performer who is willing to go the extra mile and give her a vehicle akin to The Fires of Vulcan or The Juggernauts. My final point is what is the point of calling this story The Silurian Candidate when they barely feature? It would be more accurate to call this story Bart Falco Go Boom. Incomprehensively maladroit, I couldn’t connect with a story that held me at such an emotional distance from the main action and instead only offered me two hours of explanations: 1/10


Anonymous said...

Could you consider to continue with Torchwood range? Both monthly releases and new season called Aliens Among Us are some of the best audios BF have produced in a while. After some poor 7th Doctor stories you deserve a treat.

Tony said...

It's weird, I've been seeing tons of excellent reviews for this story, 9/10, 10/10 and only a couple really negative ones, like 1/10. You've always been one of the most trusted reviewers to me when it comes to Big Finish, and whether I agreed with you or not in the end, you've always been great at articulating your point.

Your reception Mccoy audios seems to be pretty mixed overall. Is it just your personal taste when it comes to that Doctor and era?