Monday, 11 February 2019

The Hunting Ground written by AK Benedict and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: The Doctor arrives in present day Iceland and receives a frosty reception from Inspector Yrsa Kristjansdottir when he becomes the chief suspect in a murder enquiry. But the Doctor knows that the real killer is of extra-terrestrial origin. Joining forces with Yrsa, the Doctor goes in pursuit of a ruthless alien that is hunting humans for sport. Yrsa unearths a dark conspiracy which reaches back into her own past. Determined to expose the truth and prevent further deaths, the Doctor and Yrsa soon find themselves running for their lives, prey on the hunting ground.

Softer Six: The Sixth Doctor is seldom travelling on his own so it is always a bit of a novelty when he is. This is a story that wants to introduce you to him from the point of view of the guest cast, or more specifically Ysra, and he’s an immediately mysterious fellow. Turning up out of the snow in the guise of a hiker who found a body. All the best mysteries live in the forest. He doesn’t go out of his way to pretend that he is a regular person, banging on about imps and trolls, but then perhaps this (one of the most alien incarnations of the Time Lord) has simply forgotten how to blend in (that coat). On the patchwork planet of Algernom he can blend in with any surroundings. Why would he report a crime if he was the main suspect? He’s never drawn attention to himself in this life or any other (pants on fire). He doesn’t always have to have the last word but it is so very satisfying. Yrsa only has to spend an hour with the Doctor to know that he is a world class expert in trouble. Leave him alone in a police station and he’ll tinker with the printer until it starts singing. The Doctor really enjoys the vistas of Iceland, a place where the strange and the wonderful are not only believed in but welcomed. Forbidden knowledge is the most tempting of fruit and he cannot wait to savour it.

New Recruit: I find it very strange that a new bolshie police officer should be introduced and handed to the sixth Doctor as a companion when he already has one who has been waiting in the wings for some time; the wonderfully dry and witty DI Menzies? People have been lobbying for more Menzies for some years now and just as she is about to make her reappearance along comes a carbon copy of the character. I’m not saying that Amy Beth Hayes gives a bad performance, it just feels like a substitute when her character spec is so similar to Menzies. The more Yrsa knows about the Doctor, the less she feels she knows about the world. Wasn’t it a bizarre idea to set Yrsa up as the sixth Doctor’s latest travelling companion and then feature a story where, first episode aside, they barely interact?

Standout Performance: Colin Baker struggles to make his parts of this bearable. Yep, that says a lot.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Everything and nothing is alien in Iceland.’

Great Ideas: Valen is a frozen world in the anchor arm of the Syphello galaxy. Surely across the breadth of Doctor Who we have populated the universe a few times over by now.

Audio Landscape: The first cliffhanger cannot help but make an impact because it is an assault of sound as the wolves attack the Doctor and Yrsa.

Isn’t it Odd: The first episode is very strange in that it gets off on precisely the right foot; a great setting, a cheeky Doctor and a murder but then it fails to do anything of note for the next twenty minutes? There’s an entire subplot surrounding Yrsa and the secrets that her father kept from her but I couldn’t have been less interested. It’s not built into the story in a particularly compelling way (indeed at times it felt as if two completely different stories were taking place). You’ve got to hand it to the Doctor, he certainly likes to be prepared. The Hunting Ground achieves the impossible. It manages to feature a villain who apes but is even more inept than Tim Shaw. At the point where he admitted that he took away a trophy I thought there was some serious plagiarising going on…until I couldn’t figure out which was released first. The sixth Doctor is collecting companions like stamps these days. Is this really the time to be indulging in another (let me guess, those at Big Finish loved working with Amy Beth Hayes) when there are the adventures of Older Peri and Constance & Flip to get back to. Skipping from the snowy wastelands of Iceland to a bog-standard alien planet was a fatal error, it’s not a shift in the story’s favour. Colin Baker used to star in stories such as The Holy Terror, Jubilee, Doctor Who & the Pirates and Davros. Now he ends up in Lure of the Nomad and The Hunting Ground. This makes me very grumpy. There literally could not be less tension in the last episode if they had tried. Imagine if the Marfick’s had hung around in the TARDIS at the end too. What a TARDIS line up that wouldn’t be.

Standout Scene: People say that McCoy was the one who set up his adventures before they had even begun but Sixie has him beat here with a get out clause ready to bonk all three cliff-hangers on the head. Which rather leaves his reaction to them a bit baffling. Why would you be anxious if you knew you had the solution to hand?

Result: It’s a shame that the atmosphere that was conjured up in the first few minutes couldn’t have been maintained for the entire story, this would have made a very nice wintry detective story with extra-terrestrial undertones. Instead it becomes something a lot less compelling, a bizarre science fiction tale that relies heavily on the character of Yrsa and her backstory and unfortunately it just isn’t up to the task of pulling me through. It’s one of those stories where it feels like a companion is being set up (think The Rescue or The Bells of Saint John) but there aren’t enough interesting things going on away from that to make it interesting. The most bizarre aspect of this story is just how little mood there is to the piece because I thought the Icelandic setting would be ripe for scares getting lost in the snowy wilderness. Instead it is an extremely wordy piece, with little suspense when things are discovered, lots of treated voices and some very noisy action set pieces. There’s a pair of comedy administrative alien heads that fail to raise a laugh and yet we spend and inordinate amount of time in their company. It’s hardly a Holmesian double act. Or even a Sawardian one. It’s more of a Dominators sort of double act. They get less appealing every time they appear and yet the story never stops offering them up. The Hunting Ground caps off another year of main range stories on a disappointing note. Disappointing would be a good way of describing the main range titles this year, which seem to have started fairly well but haemorrhaged interest as time went on. There doesn’t seem to be any real passion or inventiveness in the range at the moment, nothing to mark it out as the flagship range of the company. Head over to the Early Adventures or the companion chronicles or spin offs such as Gallifrey, Torchwood and the Novel Adaptations and you’ll find all manner of standout storytelling and excitement. Sure, we get the odd bright spot like Ghost Walk or Muse of Fire but the standard seems to be lolloping great husks of stories like Lure of the Nomad, The Dispossessed and Warlock’s Cross. For those of you who hated series 11 be warned, I’m about to say something nice about it. This has elements of both The Woman Who Fell To Earth (the hunting plotline) and It Takes You Away (starting with aspirations to Nordic Noir) but it has about a tenth of the colour, imagination and enjoyment of them. Crushingly dull, this review is a poke in the eye to those of you who say I excuse any Colin Baker story and dismiss any Sylvester McCoy one. Two stories came out together this month and I know which is the stronger of the two: 3/10

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Night of the Vashta Nerada written by John Dorney and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it About: Funworld was set to be the happiest planet in the galaxy. A planet of joy, of euphoria, of laughter and delight. Except construction was marred by reports of a predator and then, a few days before opening, all communication ceased. Owner Georgia Donnelly is desperate to open the resort and has hired Amanda Steele's crew to find out what happened on the planet. They're the best. But even they might not be up to the task. Joined by the Doctor and being picked off one by one, they slowly start to realise that something terrifying lurks in the shadows.

Teeth and Curls: Rather wonderfully John Dorney does the precise reverse to The Silence in the Library with the introductions. There we had the Doctor and Donna being menaced and a group of strangers breaking into the scene. Here we are introduced to the main guest stars in the first few minutes, witness them in danger and then the Doctor makes his entrance. This incarnation always does like to announce his presence in a memorable way. For those of you who like to be able to squeeze these stories into some kind of timeline the Doctor states that he came to funworld after the rather abrupt departure of his previous travelling companion. So let’s assume that’s Leela. He’s certainly got the teeth of a predator. This is a much darker fourth Doctor than the one we are used to in the 4DAs, not afraid to call people stupid or to bring them to task for their behaviour and deeds. It makes you wonder why they go for the fun and frivolous fourth Doctor quite so much because the one who is a little bit scary and unpredictable is a lot more interesting to be around. When he says ‘that’s enough out of you!’ I certainly wouldn’t argue with him. Haunted houses always give him the heebie-jeebies (perhaps he remembers the time he visited Ghana in his first incarnation - I’m sorry I mean the dark recesses of the human imagination). He doesn’t show the slightest hint of fear at finding a roomful of skeletons, instead he gets straight to work deducing how they came to be in that state. I love the way he suggests that if your neighbour was being stripped off his flesh next to you that you wouldn’t stick around to watch, you’d be off quick as a flash. The Doctor has never met the Vashta Nerada before so this is something of a historic occasion. Interesting to see that if you piss the Doctor off enough then you’re invited in the TARDIS to safety. When Tom Baker’s Doctor is desperate and panicking, you know the shit has hit the fan. And you know that you have really gotten to him when he says he is saving your life ‘for some reason.’ When Peter Davison’s Doctor fails to save to anybody he howls his way into the TARDIS with a hanky and promise to med his ways. When Tom’s does he either winds up reciting a poem (Horror of Fang Rock) or just saying ‘oh well.’ What a bastard.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘She’s paid to do something she doesn’t like…isn’t that the definition of work?’
‘Do you think you don’t get intelligent predators? What else do you think a human is?’ – he’s come quite a long way since his ‘homo sapiens’ speech in The Ark in Space.
‘Do you think you can kill the dark?’
‘The Vashta Nerada are known as the piranhas of the air!’

Standout Performance: Baker, who I seem to have spent most of this review praising to the high heavens, does some of his best work. It’s nice to say positive things about him on audio because I am usually a little harsh in the other direction. It's glorious to see Pam Ferris turning up in a Doctor Who too, an actress of some repute who doesn't disappoint in the slightest.

Great Ideas: There were so many things I loved about Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead that I seem to remember it took me the better part of a day to write the review and it came in at a ridiculous length (check it out). Still in my top ten classic and NuWho stories, it was a heady brew of drama, emotion, imagination and scares. I still think it is Steven Moffat’s greatest achievement in the series but that is bound to be a hotly contested opinion given how much Doctor Who he ultimately scripted. The Vashta Nerada were just one phenomenal idea in a story packed full of them but they were undoubtedly the scariest. Moffat has turned kids against statues and little kids and things under the bed…now he’s making them scared of their own shadows. It’s what Doctor Who does best, taking the mundane and giving it a horrific spin, and this was a particularly spine-chilling example. I can just imagine kids having so much in the playground on a sunny day trying to run away from their own shadows. The first third of Night of the Vashta Nerada puts the audience in an interesting position because we are way ahead of the characters (I don’t think they’ve heard the title). So it’s fascinating watching them trying to piece together what has happened to the 30-odd people on Funworld when we already know the answer and the kind of danger they are in. Vashta Nerada means ‘the shadows that melt the flesh.’ They usually breed in forests and they certainly don’t feed on humans. Because an entire eco system was wiped out when Funworld was built the Vashta Nerada had nothing else to feed on and rather than face extinction they turned to the only source of food they could find: the people. It’s not a single living being but a swarm that split into thousands of organisms and is only dangerous when they all come together. 'For your own safety please avoid Funworld' has a lovely ring of irony to it.

Audio Landscape: It’s been a long time since a method of dispatch has freaked me out quite as much as this. Not since people were melted to pools of liquid in The Holy Terror. The noise of skin ripping from flesh and the skeleton bursting free really (hoho) gets under your skin. The fact that it happens suddenly, without warning, merely adds to the effect.

Standout Scene: ‘I think you’ve got two shadows…’ Only Tom Baker could make that line sound quite so chilly.

Result: ‘It’s black and hungry and lurking in the dark…’ Finally, a Big Finish story that has some serious chills! Let’s not underestimate what John Dorney has achieved here because while you could write this off as a Troughton base under siege story featuring monsters from the new series that goes no way towards expressing how he achieves that with such economy and clarity. He has 50 minutes to create a vivid world, populate it with believable characters, re-introduce a popular monster, give the fourth Doctor a dominating role, kill off characters, find something substantial enough to say in their backstory to dig up some twists and bring the whole piece to an effective conclusion. 50 minutes. That’s a pretty tall order. To his credit he produces a terrific script, one with great opportunities for Tom Baker to growl a bit more than he’s usually allowed to (it’s startlingly effective) and some very eerie moments along the way. I found the Vashta Nerada to a much more effective ‘visual monster’ than the Angels in the first set, purely because the realisation is so much more effective and we learn more about their backstory. I’ve always said that there is no point in bringing back an old monster if you’re not going to add anything to their story. It would have been nice if Dorney had made them purely sympathetic monster who were just reacting to their change in circumstances thanks to human greed but instead they pose a much bigger threat than the confines of this story and they become a lot more like every other despotic race the Doctor has encountered. I really didn’t come to these Classic Doctors. New Monsters box sets with particularly high expectations (it was the height of Big Finish gimmickry on advertisement – although now it’s been superseded by all many of crossovers) and I certainly didn’t come expecting to hear one of Tom Baker’s best stories to date. I wish the ending hadn’t been quite as tidy as it was but I was impressed with how the suspense was kept right up until the last scene: 8/10