Monday, 12 September 2011

Audio Review 7: Hornets' Nest - 2.The Dead Shoes, written by Paul Magrs (2009)

Released: October 2009
The Doctor – Tom Baker
Mrs Wibbsey – Susan Jameson
Ernestina Stott – Clare Corbett
Reverend Small – Christian Rodska
Mike Yates – Richard Franklin

Main Production Credits

Producer and Director – Kate Thomas
Writer – Paul Magrs
Script Editor & Executive Producer – Michael Stevens
Incidental Music – Simon Power
Audio Editor – Neil Gardner
Production Assistant – Lyndsey Melling
Studio Engineers – Simon Willey & Wolfgang Deinst

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):
The Doctor relates to his old friend, the retired Mike Yates, a tale of his visit to Cromer in 1932, where he experienced another encounter with the deadly alien hornet creatures. On this occasion he discovers that they are searching for a new host body, within which the hornets’ queen and hive mind and reside. The hornets intend to do this through the use of an alien instrument, which has been created in the appearance of a pair of pink ballet shoes, through which they can make the human owner dance with impossible ability to suit their own rhythms and desires.
These shoes, along with the mummified feet of their previous owner, are to be found at the Cromer Palace of Curios, where the curator is one Mrs Wibbsey. During a visit to the museum of curious collectables, the Doctor witnesses a ballerina, Ernestina Stott steal the ballet shoes, before using them for her own ballet performance on Cromer Pier’s stage. Ernestina was stung accidentally by an alien hornet and was unconsciously drawn to the pink ballet shoes in the Palace. After the Doctor saves Ernestina Stott from near death, in a revenge attack by the hornets, through the ballet shoes, they both return the shoes to Mrs Wibbsey and confront her. The Doctor has suspected all along that the hornets were behind the miraculous shoes all along, as well as the fact that Mrs Wibbsey is a controlled servant of the creatures.
However, Mrs Wibbsey is not quite as harmless as she appears, and summoning the power of the hornet creatures, she miniaturising the Doctor and Ernestina, and leaves them in a Dollhouse, populated by angry hornet-controlled dolls. The Doctor and Ernestina manage to escape the dollhouse, and return to normal abilities via the sonic screwdriver, but Mrs Wibbsey tricks Ernestina into putting the ballet shoes back on. The Doctor once again saves Ernestina from her dance of doom, and the hornets invisibly retreat when they realise that the ballet shoes are lost. The Doctor takes Mrs Wibbsey back to Nest Cottage in 2009, where she becomes the housekeeper that we met at the beginning of the Hornets’ Nest story arc.

Story Placement
Between Hornets’ Nest: The Stuff of Nightmares (BBC Audio) and Hornets’ Nest: The Circus of Doom (BBC Audio).

After the charming and entertaining entrance of the Hornets’ Nest series, The Stuff of Nightmares, it’s something of a disappointment to discover that after only one story, Paul Magrs already seems to be running on auto-pilot. The Dead Shoes is undoubtedly a weaker story, with plot and dialogue that feel significantly rushed in their creation. Paul Magrs also continues one of his apparent favourite themes here – objects with seemingly magical qualities, in the main element of this story, the magical ballet shoes that through the hornets have a life of their own. Other examples can be seen in some of his previous Big Finish audios, like The Wishing Beast, which features a sentient alien from another dimension that can grant wishes, and resembles a box.
Back to The Dead Shoes though, one of the weakest elements of the production is certainly the storyline itself. The idea of the magical ballet shoes intrigued me at first, until I realised that ultimately they have no logical purpose in the story whatsoever. The hornets seem perfectly able to control their servants just via stings or swarming into them, so the ballet shoes are clearly this story’s gimmick to help make it appear different to the casual listener. And beyond Paul Magrs’ indulgence, why do the hornets invest so much of their power in ballet shoes? The audio makes a great play on how the hornets can make the ballet shoes dance impossible moves and control dancers on a whim, but I can’t really see how making things dance, despite how clever it is, ultimately helps the hornets in their long term aims.
The conclusion of the story is perhaps the most risible though. After the hornets make Ernestina perform her dance into danger a second time, the Doctor does his scarf saving act again, and the hornets just disappear from everything, including Mrs Wibbsey. No battle, no daring do for the Doctor to perform, the plot just stops dead in its tracks, as if Magrs had run out of ideas. The best part of the story by far is when the Doctor and Ernestina are shrunk by the power of the hornets and placed in a dolls house (it almost feels like déjà vu, having just watched the latest TV episode, Night Terrors), but this is mostly just an action set piece to help fill out the episode. All these things combined give me the strong impression that The Dead Shoes was never meant to be more than just a filler story, albeit one that is written with Paul Magrs’ usual flair for visual imagery.
Also adding to this feeling is the dialogue, perhaps the other big weak element in this episode. Compared to the more stilted dialogue of The Stuff of Nightmares, The Dead Shoes thankfully avoids this, only to become more basic, incredibly theatrical and very close to pantomime, which may be different technically, but with just as much of a cringeworthy result. I suppose we should be merciful that The Dead Shoes is still a distance away from the nadir of Doctor Who scripts like Silver Nemesis and Paradise Towers, but it’s not as big a distance as I would have liked. It also doesn’t help that the majority of the characters are also rather pantomime and cartoon in tone. Ernestina is the constant damsel in distress, Mrs Wibbsey is the wicked witch in disguise, Reverend Small is the perfect stereotype of the old eccentric Englishman, and the alien Hornets are still the character-less villains from the last instalment. These characters never surprise us, and we never relate to or believe in them for a moment, which is a shame, because gravitas is what this Hornets’ Nest series earnestly needs. Even City of Death had its serious and dramatic moments.
At least the Doctor seems to be on better form this episode, but this could be down to Tom Baker’s fun performance, which is much more confident and lively, increasingly winning me over with each successive episode. At some points Tom Baker nearly veers close to OTT. The rest of the cast very much perform in line with the limited nature of their roles, but at least Susan Jameson (Mrs Wibbsey) and Christian Rodska (Reverend Small) try and send them up to try and make them more entertaining, albeit with mixed results that show up the limitedness of their characters. Richard Franklin is the only cast member to escape from this pantomime unscathed, but as his role is nearly non-existent in this episode, Mike Yates is only allowed to pitch in with a few lines to remind the audience that he’s still there.
The other main redeeming feature of The Dead Shoes is once again Paul Magrs’ splendidly written narration. It’s surprising just how much of a contrast it is given the unimaginative and clichéd dialogue performed with gusto by the cast. For one thing, I have never ever visited Cromer, let alone its pier, and yet the layers of rich description Paul Magrs produces about it and sprinkles throughout the adventure makes me feel that I had. Also the creepy Dolls house sequence wouldn’t have worked without Magrs’ imaginative details such as there being mounted mouse heads on the walls like the heads of lions, stags and moose in country houses; or the wooden dolls having eerily blank faces. All this makes me feel a little frustrated with the writer, because even though I’m still not sure if I like Paul Magrs’ style of storytelling, he is clearly a great imaginative writer with a lot to offer, but for whatever reason, decides to not to put in a lot of either character or story development. Hopefully I am wrong and this is just a blip, but either way, by the end of Hornets’ Nest I’ll know for sure.
As a result The Dead Shoes comes across as a rather mixed instalment of the Hornets’ Nest series. Just like The Stuff of Nightmares it is full of fun, with wonderfully inventive narration, but also with clichéd characters that offer little to the listener but tired old jokes and a light romp. Even the plot and storyline are ultimately inconsequential to the ongoing series, and feels more than a little rushed and underdeveloped. Still, it is mildly entertaining, if nothing much else.

Score: 6/10