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


Anonymous said...

Finally, true Doctor Who.

Unknown said...

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.

I assumed he meant Sarah Jane, since there's no version of K-9 with him in this story, and the tone of this one in general feels more like the Hinchcliffe era.

Jack Hughes said...

It could be before he set up K9 Mark II.