Saturday, 19 January 2019
The Sinestran Kill written by Andrew Smith and directed by Nicholas Briggs
Teeth and Curls: ‘I just stopped by to tell you that whatever you’re planning, I’m going to stop you…’ I’m surprised it has taken Big Finish this long to team up the Doctor with an entirely original companion for a series of adventures. With the sixth Doctor it was instantaneous with sparkling results. It’s very unlike Tom Baker’s tenure to be behind on the times. Whilst I applaud using Louise Jameson, Lalla Ward and Mary Tamm (wonderful actresses all), part of the fun of the audio universe is exploring the what if nature of paths not taken by the TV series. Given how ruthlessly this range has stuck to nostalgia over innovation, perhaps it isn’t altogether surprising. What’s also nice is that this season there is a nice spread of unusual names writing across the adventures, now Briggs and Barnes have flogged Tom to death they have moved onto pastures new and handed the nursery to new hands to see what other people can do with the toys. It’s a promising start for what could be the most original series of adventures the fourth Doctor has had on audio yet. We’re used to hearing Tom babble to himself, both on screen on audio so his opening scene is hardly a surprise. The Doctor is quick to assess a scene of almost murder and to stick his oar in unapologetically. Described as extra-terrestrial, possibly extra temporal. Tom Baker still has a very odd way of exclaiming his dialogue. Listen to how he shouts ‘Run!’ in episode two. It sounds like a man who is enjoying showing off rather than a man trying to add drama to a scene.
Bobby on the Beat: A cynical hard-nosed female police officer is quite a novel idea for a companion of the fourth Doctor. She has one of the most nonchalant reactions to walking into the TARDIS, whilst still being fairly shell shocked. I’m not sure if it was the way that Jane Slavin mutedly played the moment but it didn’t feel as momentous as it always should. She doesn’t know about UNIT or aliens but her boss does so she questions if she is the only person who doesn’t know. Someone she has known for over two years turns out to be a shape-shifting alien. She wonders why she isn’t more surprised about that. To be honest, so was I. practical and open-minded Ann Kelso might be, but I still think this is the sort of revelation that would generate shock. It’s hardly the sort of disclosure that is commonplace. And to be honest the story could do with that kind of human interest. By shrugging off each twist, so do we. This is supposed to be the audience identification figure after all.
Great Ideas: The Sinestrans are criminals of the worst kind and totally ruthless. They earned their reputation through murder and extortion. They have a particular modus operandi, using empaths to take control of others who commit their crimes for them.
Audio Landscape: Have Big Finish been through the entire spectrum of modulated voices now? The Sinestran are one of the more obscured and irritating of attempts. It’s pretty unpleasant to listen to.
Isn’t it Odd: Perhaps it would have been more fun had the Doctor assumed alien involvement and made an ass out of himself suggesting the criminals were masked extra-terrestrials when in fact they genuinely were just a criminal gang? The pincers on the cover rather blow any chance of surprise in that department. I think a story without an alien threat might have been rather novel. Maybe it’s just the way these fourth Doctor Adventures are paced but it feels as though there is relatively little time to experience the story. Before the end of the first episode the Doctor is dishing out exposition about the Sinestrans because we need to understand ho they operate so the finale can kick in. But there is no attempt to allow us to experience their (admittedly terrifying) modus operandi. We’re just told everything about them in one great lump so the story can progress. It’s a very unsatisfying way for the story to unfold. Did you get a feeling of danger surrounding the Sinestrans? Because the Doctor is teamed up with the police (both of whom take everything in their stride) you don’t have anybody reacting to the threat in a way that generates fear. Imagine if Barbara has wandered through the Dalek City in a ‘seen all this before’ sort of way? Somebody here needs to be afraid. There’s a suggestion that this isn’t the last we’ve heard of the plan that the Sinestrans were part of. It doesn’t fill me with confidence for the upcoming season.
Standout Scene: Am I supposed to be surprised that the Doctor picks up a gun and shoots somebody at the cliff-hanger? Remember him straddling the D-Mat gun in Invasion of Time? Did I think he had genuinely murdered somebody? Not for an instant, and I wasn’t wrong.
Result: What’s the oddest genre that you could shove the fourth Doctor into? This is a man who strode through gothic horrors, universe spanning tragedies, comic capers and frightful murder mysteries. And yet he never touched upon the world of contemporary crime, crossing paths with the police and aiding their investigations. Tom is such a big character it is odd to have him stomping, bold as brass, through what initially appears to be a criminal investigation is a bit of an anomaly. There’s nothing colourful or crazy for him to latch onto and so he seems a little out of sync with the straight story being told. I was quite surprised by the lack of occasion in The Sinestran Kill. It’s the introduction of the fourth Doctor’s first original companion, I would have thought all the stops would have been pulled out to make this story as special as possible but this is a pretty humdrum adventure with relatively little incident, spectacle or wit. There’s very little about how Tom and Jane play their characters that makes me think that they belong together as Doctor and companion. Remember when Sixie and Evelyn met? Or the fifth Doctor and Erimem? Eight and Charley? There was that instant spark, that exciting feeling that there were arresting possibilities. It’s early days and they might develop a fine rapport but there was nothing that made me sit up and pay attention and long for more material with this pair in their debut. I enjoyed Frank Skinner’s DCI Neilson much more and it might have been a more innovative approach to have had an all-male TARDIS team. It’s a beat for beat standard 45-minute Doctor Who story. Mystery introduced, (unimpressive) banter between the Doctor and his companion, exposition, cliff-hanger, a dash of action and a climax. None of it is necessarily bad but it’s desperately uninspiring. A splash of colour in the dialogue, an unexpected twist, memorable characters, a bit more zip and pace in the production. All these things are missing. Andrew Smith has produced some clever, exciting scripts but this isn’t one of them and with John Dorney as script editor I’m surprised that they opened the season with something as ordinary as this. Nick Briggs is one of Big Finish’s most reliable directors and I’m surprised he has delivered something as unpolished as The Sinestran Kill. I’ve heard much, much better. Thank goodness this has been released as part of a set, as a standalone story it would be unforgivably unmemorable: 3/10