Thursday, 7 June 2018

The Mouthless Dead written by John Pritchard and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it About: The TARDIS arrives in 1920s England, the Doctor, Jamie, Ben and Polly finding themselves in a wintry dusk beside a railway line. The station nearby appears deserted, but there are figures watching from the shadows, all of them waiting for a dead man’s train...

Oh My Giddy Aunt: Human technology impresses him. There is an element of him playing about with very simple toys but he genuinely admires the intricacies of alien mechanisms. The Doctor mentions not having lost anybody in this war, which matches the sort of cryptic comments he used to make about his background in the first six years of the show.

Lovely Lashes: It might seem terribly sexist to leave Polly to chat away and empathise with the only other female character in the story but she’s such a personable young lady and has an ability to get close and help people that it can only be considered a strength of her character.

Able Seaman: Sailing is in the Jackson family line, and Ben is well aware of the dangers of the sea thanks to his father’s tales.

Young Scot: Jamie is still confused by the whole nature of the TARDIS and how it travels, it’s early days for him. His just as confused about trains, but he’s very willing to learn. He’s seen the kind of grief war leaves behind and when you march off to fight it’s impossible to think about how your loved ones will react if you didn’t come back. Jamie is taught about the Second World War, thus ticking the box of Doctor Who educating its audience. We were just on the tail end of that in the early Troughton days before the historicals were written off completely.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I saw it coming out of the tunnel. A massive iron beastie snorting smoke…’
‘As someone wise once pointed out…only the dead have seen the end of war.’

Great Ideas: A train strikes the TARDIS a glancing blow as it materialised and the Ship requires time to heal itself from the wound. I really like this idea, although it does contradict other times when the TARDIS has come under much greater assaults and come out beaming. But then the abilities and weaknesses of the craft have always been made up as they go along so this is entirely consistent. The stories of trains colliding with one another are told in the form of creepy horror tales. It shows just how dangerous a job it could be in the early days. How many people would have thought that the unknown soldier was their brother/husband/father? Standing as a symbol for all the men anonymously lost to conflict, it must have been an enticing symbol of what people had lost. How many people visited that monument and wondered ‘what if it is…?’ England has been ravaged by the worst war in its history and there are soldiers being mourned in every home. Minds are focused on the journey of the train bringing the unknown soldier home. On everything that he represents. The TARDIS is right there in the middle of all this with all those thought waves pouring in and it has given them some kind of substance. The TARDISes telepathic circuits were damaged when the train hit her, it took the memories that people had associated with war and projected them onto the creatures approaching. That’s why Jamie sees Redcoats but Ben sees a very different sort of walking dead army. They’ve coalesced into the real world, representing a universe of loss. Touching them will destroy your utterly, a blast of overwhelming grief. If the science is a little shaky (like Hitler was a little naughty), it is at least a reasonable technobabble excuse to capitalise on the emotional impact of the war. This story really does drive home the collective tragedy of all those lives lost.

Audio Landscape: Big Finish excels at this kind of unnerving horror. It’s very Sapphire and Steel in tone how it utilises unpredictable but recognisable sound effects to make your skin crawl. Bells sounding, breathing in the darkness, the hissing of a steam train.

Standout Scene: It was very Doctor Who to have a first episode that generated atmosphere and suspense rather than pushing the plot. The Mouthless Dead really goes for that approach to the point where the first episode is practically plotless but it is generating a sense of unease by talking about previous horror tales surrounding trains only serves to whet the appetite for the approaching horrors to come. So, when the train finally makes an appearance and the dead soldiers lumber out of the tunnel at the cliff-hanger it is a truly gripping moment.

Result: ‘Any man who fell can represent them all…’ An effective chiller, standout because so many Troughton tales ignore the fruits of exploring history. I really appreciate it when the companion chronicles take the second Doctor back in time (Resistance was another striking piece) and The Mouthless Dead doesn’t want to dash into a shallow action piece like so much of season four, it takes its time to build up an atmosphere of disquiet. Mind you, this is much more like a full cast audio than a regular companion chronicles, it lacks the intimacy that I associate with the range at its best featuring just one regular telling the tale. Instead the story confines itself to one location, which traps all four of the regulars and has more than a little touch of Assignment Two of Sapphire and Steel. Jamie and Ben both have their own tales of work in the forces, and Polly puts her charms to good use. Just a few years previously Doctor Who was all about educating its audience and so the use of the Unknown Soldier adds a little real historical colour and the line ‘any man who fell can represent them all’ from Polly really drives home what he meant to a lot of people. To add a dash of science fiction to the mix the TARDIS gets to display some intriguing regenerative qualities, which gives a good reason to strand the TARDIS crewmembers. I’d prefer Chapman to narrate more of these as he has slipped into these season four stories effortlessly, but you know you’re in for a skilful reading with Wills and Hines at the reins and all three performers give emotive performances that draw you in. My one serious complaint about this creepy adventure is that it shares the setting and tone of The End of the Line from the Sixth Doctor Last Adventure set and isn’t quite as in your face scary as that one. But if my only real downer is that one of best releases of recent years was superior, that still leaves The Mouthless Dead as a superior Companion Chronicle and one that I suggest you listen to in bed with the lights off before you shut your eyes. If the story gets a little bogged down in the mechanics of the plot in part two, it remembers to ground the story in personal moments. If there was one overriding thought that I took from this story it is that is better to remember the bravery and the heroic deeds of those who don’t make it back from combat, rather than dwell on the fact that they won’t be returning home. The Doctor’s suggestion that he would love to find out who the unknown soldier was would be missing the point. The best ‘classic’ range of Big Finish adventures hits with a striking tale: 8/10

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