Tuesday, 3 July 2018

The Shadow of London written by Justin Richards and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The TARDIS materialises in the backstreets of London in the 1940s. Whilst K9 entertains himself in the time ship's library, the Doctor takes Leela for a walk in the streets. But England’s capital is oddly quiet. There are no cars and very few pedestrians... whilst those people they do meet appear really quite English indeed. And all the while they are monitored by cameras feeding images into a secret control room. Something strange is happening in the city. Traitors are running wild... and nothing and no-one are quite as they seem.

Teeth and Curls: How wonderful that one of the most anarchic of Doctors can adopt the guise of an upper-class toff so convincingly. He’s read PG Wodehouse and recognises that this place has been affected by his works. It’s almost like an interpretation of his works. Shame he wasn’t so lucid during The Auntie Matter. He was too busy getting off on the madness of that adventure. This is the first script of the season that seems to indulge Tom Baker and his penchant for adding extra layers of eccentricity to his character…but when the Doctor and Leela spend the first 15 minutes wandering about looking for a plot it has to be filled in with something. Baker’s natural scene stealing ability is tailor made for that.

Noble Savage: Leela remembers London as a busy bustling place, not this deserted landscape. She seems wary, looking around all the time.

Great Ideas: London is practically deserted; Big Ben isn’t chiming and there isn’t a pigeon to be seen. Why clear out everybody and leave only half a dozen? The truth when it comes is much more interesting than we have been led to believe; the fake London has been created in Germany in the last month of the Second World War. It’s a training ground, a fake London where they can train Nazi soldiers to infiltrate the Capital City and win the War. Hitler’s last gambit to try and bring Britain down. The creature is a genetic manipulation, an incredibly crude obscenity that has been altered thanks to the experiments in the concentration camps. Implants added and its humanity stripped away.

Audio Landscape: There’s something so trite about having a creature appear on audio that is just a snarling beast and having your characters jog on away from it. It is the literal interpretation of a Doctor Who soundtrack with the pictures missing. At this point this is not an audio that is doing anything exciting with language or exploring a dazzling new soundscape. It’s people reacting to a nonsensical threat that we can’t see. Why would I be interested in that? It turns up again at the climax to episode one, simply to provide a cliff-hanger.

Isn’t It Odd: Let’s not beat around the bush: in this story the Doctor commits murder on a creature that has already been tortured beyond belief. His solution to the problem is to put the poor thing down like a dog. And his method is to have it burnt to death! Whilst I might expect something of this nature from the sixth Doctor (he’d probably douse it with petrol whilst cackling manically) or perhaps the eighth (at his most morally wounded), it doesn’t sit at all well with the fourth Doctor who was usually much cleverer and far less sledgehammer than this. Your reaction to the climax will probably depend on how acceptable that you find this act. It’s stated that the creature is in terrible pain and dying anyway, but this feels like a cavalier response to that rather than trying to do the best by the poor man. Very odd, but at least Justin Richards is continually thinking outside the box on this one. Even if it is so far outside the box that it is mischaracterised. He calls it a mercy killing.

Standout Scene: Remember that scene outside the Dalek saucer in the Dalek Invasion of the Earth with the fake façade of English houses set up as a useful backdrop to try and create a setting within London? That’s what I could see when the Doctor and Leela talk about a fake London with the front of the houses appearing to be real but with absolutely nothing behind them. I would have loved to have seen this visualised on screen, it would have been a fourth wall defining moment.

Result: There’s a definite vibe of The Android Invasion about the opening episode of The Shadow of London; the Doctor and his companion landing in a location that is a massive mystery in itself. A recognisable but deserted, oppressive and mysterious location for them to puzzle out. The Doctor even namechecks the story. Because it was such a domestic setting, I felt echoes of Memory Lane too. And since it’s London, Invasion of the Dinosaurs too! There’s an artificiality about the story from the very beginning with the Doctor and Leela continually pointing out all the things that are wrong with this interpretation of London. They start to sound a bit like one of my reviews, pointing out all the inaccuracies and the sources that the writer is paying homage to. There’s something that’s quite clever about that. For once this is a Justin Richards script that isn’t content to rest on the shows past laurels but actually conjure up a bit of atmosphere and mystery. I’d come to recognise his opus in the same vein as Terrance Dicks’ later work, often self-plagiarising, constructing stories out of Doctor Who clichés and going for nostalgia at every turn rather than creating something truly original or startling. By creating a paper London with an edge that the Doctor and Leela can walk off, Justin Richards has presented his most vivid imagery in years. If there’s a problem here it is the direction, which is a little lethargic and unengaging and it’s become clear that Nicholas Briggs has left the building for the second half of the series 7 boxset. Perhaps Ken Bentley was trying to stress the affectedness of the setting by not putting into place all the immersive sounds that would have made 1940s Britain come alive but the result is a story without much audio atmosphere. Coupled with some flat performances from the guest performers and you have a pretty sluggish piece. I would expect a Justin Richards story to be ultra-traditional and to have its socks pulled up by a strong production but the reverse seems to be true here. The answer to what is happening is genuinely impressive because the story will have you believing that this some kind of science fiction artifice for the purposes of some alien scheme or another but instead it goes down a completely different, historical route. I liked how it played on expectations like that. It doesn’t have the chutzpah to follow up on it’s revelation with anything deeper than a cursory explanation, which is a shame because this could have led to some serious examination of wartime tactics and lengths people would go to win. It could have had some historical impact, like the show used to in its early years. ‘We can worry about the ethics and morality later!’ says one character. Why? I thought. That would be so much more interesting. The Shadow of London lacks substance beyond it’s location and the creature depicted on the cover and a few surprising subversions, and it fails to provide as chilling or as memorable an audio experience too because of its lacklustre direction: 5/10

1 comment:

Christopher "Peaky" Brown said...

Justin Richards writing a 5/10 script? Who'da thought?

Also the mercy killing aspect...what on Earth, Justin...