Sunday, 23 October 2011

Audio Review 9: Whispers of Terror, written by Justin Richards (1999)

Released: November 1999

The Doctor – Colin Baker
Peri Brown – Nicola Bryant
Amber Dent – Rebecca Jenkins
Goth Fotherill – Hylton Collins
Visteen Krane – Matthew Brenher
Radio Announcer – Harvey Summers
Museum Curator Gantman – Peter Miles
Detective Berkeley – Nick Scovell
Hans Stengard – Steffan Boje
Beth Pernell – Lisa Bowerman

Main Production

Producers – Gary Russell & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Writer – Justin Richards
Director – Gary Russell
Incidental Music – Nicholas Briggs
Recording, Sound Design, Post-Production and CD mastering – Harvey Summers at Medium Moose
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producer (for BBC Worldwide) – Stephen Cole

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Peri to an advanced world, were they find themselves in the Museum of Aural Antiquities...and stumble upon a dead body. As the Doctor searches for answers, he uncovers far more than just the political conspiracy he was expecting. A homicidal creature, made purely of sound is on the loose in the museum, and as the bodies start to pile up, the Doctor struggles to foil the conspiracy and solve the mystery of the creature’s existence. The sound creature, while intelligent, has been driven insane by the trauma of the murder of its former human persona, leading politician Visteen Krane. Krane was killed at the behest of Beth Pernell, another politician and colleague of his, whose ambition for the Presidency and obsession and lust for power leads her to resort to any means in order to achieve it. Krane cheated death by channelling his mind and brainwaves into a machine that condenses them into sound waves, creating the wild sound creature, who has been seeking revenge ever since.
After pacifying and calming the sound creature, allowing it to return to sanity and become Krane again psychologically (albeit still as a sound creature), the Doctor, with Krane’s help, thwarts Beth Pernell’s fixed political election campaign, and reveals her as Krane’s murderer.

Story Placement
Between The Twin Dilemma (TV Serial) and Attack of the Cybermen (TV Serial).
Although BIG Finish’s intended placement was after Revelation of the Daleks (TV Serial), the bad tempered exchanges between the Doctor and Peri in this audio feel even more heated than what usually occurred at this point in their character development, despite The Twin Dilemma being directly referenced in Attack of the Cybermen.

Favourite Lines
The Doctor – “It’s what you say that’s important, not how loudly you say it. Could be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying...nothing”.
Peri – “I’m glad you’ve learnt that at last, Doctor”.
The Doctor – “Me? Huh! Me?! You’re the one that needs to learn how to speak properly”.


I don’t mean to pick on poor Justin Richards, honestly. Taking a break from the Hornets’ Nest audio series, I fancied revisiting a BIG Finish release, and this was one I hadn’t listened to for a long while.

Whispers of Terror was only BIG Finish’s third official Doctor Who audio, and already they were trying to think outside the box with ideas that explored the potential of the audio medium. Justin Richards comes up with perhaps one of most obvious, but great ideas nonetheless – a creature made purely of sound. This particular sound creature is of course homicidal, but don’t be fooled, there is more to this character than either the synopsis or the first episode implies. Justin Richards has also neatly set this adventure in one big sound museum and editing suite, wonderfully including all the paraphernalia and jargon that comes with it. Of course there is a slight danger that some listeners may see this storyline as trite and unoriginal, like supermarket workers writing a story about people working in a supermarket, but I don’t, I love it. Then again, being an amateur sound engineer myself, perhaps I’m biased. Another plotline in the mix is a peculiar conspiracy involving the deliberate editing or vandalism of old sound recordings. Again I can imagine some listeners finding this part of the story quite dull, but I find it really intriguing. It’s not very often that you get a mystery quite as odd and small in scale in Doctor Who, just like some of the odd plot points in Agatha Christie’s stories, so it feels very fresh and interesting here. Even the identity of the creature itself is something of a ‘whodunit’, in more ways than one.
Even with all these great elements in its favour though, it still falls far short of its promise, and on this particular occasion it’s because of the script. Despite Justin Richards coming up with a great story concept, setting and other small ideas to give an interesting variation and dynamic to the characters, he fails to bring any of them to life with much depth and development. There’s nothing wrong with the plot per se, just that it is rather simplistic. So simplistic in fact, that it struggles to fill out its four 25-minute episodes, and has to be padded out with extended music cues and pointless banter. Also, rather bizarrely, Beth Pernell manages to somehow escape arrest, only to have a confusing and bombastic death scene that feels tacked on to fill up the story’s remaining minutes. BIG Finish’s own behind-the-scenes book, Doctor Who: The New Audio Adventures – The Inside Story (Benjamin Cook, 2003) reveals that the original draft of the script was much, much longer, so who knows how painfully slow it could have been? The book also reveals that the odd ending was a rewrite, while the original death scene seems a much better, Macbeth-inspired version where Beth commits suicide, although it would’ve been even better had Beth still been arrested. The script in the produced version of Whispers of Terror though, has a simple and slow enough plot that most listeners would be able to correctly guess the mysterious identity of the sound creature, and who originally murdered their human persona early on into the second episode, and be waiting patiently for nearly another two episodes before the plot fully catches up. So food for thought, it is not.

Speaking of pointless banter, this storyline is supposed to be set during the more turbulent period of the sixth Doctor and Peri’s friendship, so the script has a pushed in a few argumentative passages between the two characters to remind us of the fact. Although I commend Justin Richards’ attention to detail by trying to make the story fit in with the tone of the early sixth Doctor’s TV adventures, I can’t help but feel that he’s over-egged these passages, making the Doctor and Peri a bit too argumentative and rude, the result being rather grating (and I say that as a fan of the sixth Doctor). I think only The Twin Dilemma has more tiresome exchanges between the Doctor and Peri, although I must admit, I did find the Doctor’s jibe at Peri’s accent a bit amusing. However, having said that, the Doctor does have a solid presence in this audio, and is likeable most of the time. Peri though is reduced to being rather ineffectual in places, and often falls into casual stereotype, as per most of her TV episodes.
The other characters are simplistic too, but Justin Richards (and to some extent, Gary Russell) does make an effort to make them interesting. Beth Pernell is the spiteful, paranoid and power-hungry politician; Stengard her calm, smug and sarcastic producer, come lackey; Berkeley is the open-minded and weary-eyed detective; and Curator Gantman is a blind, but proud archivist, media historian and audio expert. Gantman’s blindness despite having a poetic irony to it is also used as a device for a neat plot twist later on in the story. All these characters are interesting and enjoyable to listen to, but they offer little for the audience to relate or react to, mostly because they are only a short distance from their established stereotypes (power-mad megalomaniac, thug or goon, ineffectual detective, eccentric librarian). Also despite their interesting quirks, all the characters are still ultimately at the mercy of the needs of the plot, rather than always acting on their ‘natural’ motivations. An example of this can be found during episode three, when Stengard has a contrived lapse in character, undergoing a sudden and a bizarre attack on his conscience (which is never believable for a moment), allowing him to conveniently be in a good position to enable Peri to release the sound creature from Beth Pernell’s grasp two minutes later. All-in-all then, two-dimensional characters are better than one-dimensional ones, but they’re still not as rewarding as three-dimensional characters are. It probably doesn’t help them that they’ve also been given some occasionally rather theatrical dialogue. Visteen Krane and Beth Pernell get away with it, given that they were leading and public-speaking politicians, Krane in particular astutely labelled as an “actor”, given how much of an emphasis the New Labour politicians gave to ‘spin’ since 1997, and the unfortunate high level of prominence it has in 21st century British politics. Other characters however, aren’t so lucky. The Doctor’s “Nooooooooo!” during the risible cliff-hanger of episode three, for instance, is rather embarrassing to say the least. If this wasn’t enough, there are also lots of bad sound jokes peppered throughout.

However, Whispers of Terror is partly bolstered by the fact that it benefits from a great cast. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant both give assured performances, once again highlighting how good a TARDIS team they are, however their characters are ultimately handled by the script. Fan favourite and 1970s British TV stalwart Peter Miles generally excels and does his best as Curator Gantman in what is quite a modest role for an actor of his experience and skill, nicely underplaying his lines. Lisa Bowerman, star of the Benny Summerfield audios and director extraordinaire is also a very strong performer, verbally sparring with Colin Baker quite brilliantly as the Doctor clashes or faces off with Beth Pernell at various points throughout the audio, and give Beth a coldly calm and calculated edge that helps turn the character into a great villain. Matthew Brenher is also rather impressive as Visteen Krane, giving a colourful performance that gives the perfect impression of the character as a theatrical performer as well as a politician.
The audio is also strengthened by some great sound work by Harvey Summers and Nicholas Briggs. The sound design in particular is stunning, with the myriad of sounds and echoes created giving the audio a very claustrophobic, atmospheric and creepy feel that is well maintained throughout the adventure. The flighty whispers and distorted voices, as well as being very clever and creative, help give the sound creature a continuous, all-pervasive presence that can go anywhere, at any time, and in fact never ever truly goes away. I imagine it could be a bit scary to younger listeners, playing Whispers of Terror on a dark autumn night. You can’t really say that about most Doctor Who monsters on audio, which reinforces how great a creation it is, as well as how brilliantly BIG Finish have brought it to life. As rushed incidental scores go, Nicholas Briggs’ is really quite decent, considering how he had to step in at the last minute to do it, and his score fits in perfectly with the incidental scores written for TV Doctor Who episodes in the mid-1980s, so another job well done by the BIG Finish production team!

So in summary, Whispers of Terror is an enjoyable small-scale adventure for the sixth Doctor and Peri that matches the tone and style of their original 1980s TV episodes. Sadly it probably matches it a bit too much, but that isn’t really what stops the audio from being a great adventure. It’s simple, slow, and mostly quite predictable, but on the plus side, the mystery is intriguing, and the sound creature, both in concept and realisation is a revelation. What’s more some of the characters are actually quite interesting, with a great cast to help make them really memorable, especially Lisa Bowerman; and Harvey Summers creates one of the best soundscapes BIG Finish has ever produced! I just wish it was less tiresome...and three episodes instead of four...with less bad jokes and theatrical dialogue. I’ll just shut up now.

Score: 6/10

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Audio Review 8: Hornets' Nest - 3. The Circus of Doom, written by Paul Magrs (2009)

Released: November 2009
The Doctor – Tom Baker
Mike Yates – Richard Franklin
Sally – Susie Riddell
Dr Adam Farrow – Michael Maloney
Old lady – Susan Jameson
Francesca – Jilly Bond
Antonio – Stephen Thorne

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 tells his friend, the retired Mike Yates about his third encounter with the alien Hornet creatures. Arriving in the town of Blandford in 1832, he learns that a travelling circus is in residence – the Circus of Delights. Upon visiting it himself, the Doctor finds that Hornets are using the Circus to kidnap and possess the local residents, intending to send them out into the wider world as an invasion force to help spread and multiply the influence of the alien Hornets further. While hypnotising and interrogating the circus ringmaster, Antonio, the Doctor also discovers that the ringmaster first met the Hornets back in his home city of Venice as a child, after seeing them fly out of a recently landed TARDIS – his TARDIS! The Hornet hive mind evacuates Antonio as his husk of a body dies from old age, and then takes over the body of Francesca, the circus’ dancer and tightrope walker. The Hornets force Francesca to commit suicide in order to escape from the Doctor’s clutches once more.

Story Placement
Between Hornets’ Nest: The Dead Shoes (BBC Audio) and Hornets’ Nest: A Sting in the Tale (BBC Audio).

Favourite Lines
The Doctor – “I can’t abide the waste of good gobstoppers”.

After the decidedly mixed quality of the previous two instalments of Hornets’ Nest, I was beginning to wonder if it was ever going to be anything more than inconsequential and disposable entertainment, but happily The Circus of Doom bucks the trend, and starts to finally add meat to the bones of Hornets’ Nest story arc set up in The Stuff of Nightmares. Furthermore, the tone of the script is slightly darker, and is much more enjoyable as a result, losing some of the lightweight material in the two previous audios. When I say darker, I don’t mean that the story itself is especially dark, just that the balance between light and dark is much more equal, and more in line with the tone in what is usually considered ‘traditional’ Doctor Who.
The storyline for this adventure is a perfect example of this, being an inspired twist on the age-old alien invasion story, with the Hornet creatures trying to takeover mankind via a sinister travelling circus, possessing their audiences, and sending them out into the world to help infiltrate and takeover populations. The circus in particular is a fascinating playground for Paul Magrs’ creations, both mysterious and creepy, with the expert build up to its first appearance transmitting a real sense of apprehension in the listener. Another big positive difference is that for the first time, the alien hornets feel like a genuine threat. Paul Magrs wisely delays their first appearance in the story until the Doctor confronts the Ringmaster Antonio during the circus performance, so their presence in the story is much more dramatic and keenly felt.
This is also the first time in the Hornets’ Nest series that the Doctor feels out of his depth, being forced to challenge Antonio and the Hornets openly before he has any real plan, and in a great moment seems to come close to death as the possessed clowns force his head into the mouth of a lion. Paul Magrs then immediately tops this with the brilliant twist that the lion is also a hornet-animated stuffed animal, as the Doctor notices the unmistakable smell of formaldehyde, cleverly referencing the stuffed animals from The Stuff of Nightmares. However, another far bigger twist lays in wait as the Hornets’ Nest story arc comes to the fore, developing and expanding on the continuing mystery of the Hornets’ presence for the first time. The Doctor discovers to his horror that the Hornet creatures arrived at Venice (in front of Antonio) in the TARDIS. This clever twist is a real wake up call to the listeners as well as the Doctor, being something I never expected, and shows that Paul Magrs is significantly raising his game.
It’s therefore a big shame then that The Circus of Doom, like its predecessor has a rather feeble ending. Outside of their impressive entrance, the Hornets seem to give the Doctor free roam for most of the story, teasing him on towards the big twist about the TARDIS, and then just locking him up. The Doctor foils the Hornets’ invasion attempt just by freeing the kidnapped audience members with his sonic screwdriver, and then confronts the new host of the hornet hive mind, Francesca (since Antonio’s body died earlier in the story). It’s at this point that Paul Magrs is somewhat pushed into a corner as a result of his plot detail in The Dead Shoes, and has to contrive a sequence which ultimately ends with the Hornets’ murder of Francesca, by forcing her to commit suicide. This hereby allows for her dead feet to be the resting place for the Hornet hive (and queen) as discovered in The Dead Shoes a hundred years later in 1932. Although disappointingly, there’s still no explanation as to why it was so important for the Hornets to animate the ballet shoes that became a key plot device of The Dead Shoes.
Just like in previous Hornets’ Nest audios the characterisation is rather simplistic and inconsequential. Dr. Adam Farrow first looks like being an interesting foil to the 4th Doctor, but ends up being a cipher to help prompt the Doctor to explain the plot and ongoing story arc, and spends most of his time endlessly cursing or despairing about his daughter, Francesca, and her part in the sinister circus. Sally, the local shopkeeper’s daughter, is also a character with much wasted promise, very likeable and spirited, but ends up as the cardboard cut out of a damsel-in-distress that regularly needs to be rescued. The Hornets and their possessed human orators fare only a little better this time too, occasionally more subtle, but ultimately still amounting to the wicked witch in the seasonal play, with some lines of dialogue that threaten to break into camp territory, such as Francesca’s “I can rise to ever greater heights!”.
The basic characterisation though, is made much better by the strong cast that holds the whole production together nicely. Tom Baker in particular, is on top form here, and delightfully relishes some of his narrative dialogue, also adding great dramatic presence and tension to key moments quite powerfully and seductively. Stephen Thorne performs a subtle and slimy Italian variation of his Max Vilmio character from The Ghosts of N-Space, adding a welcome colour and variety to the audio soundtrack, and faces off well with Tom Baker, even if his character Antonio isn’t give all that much to say, and is also used as a talking plot device for the second half of the story. The rest of the cast are good also, especially Susie Riddell, but due to the one-dimensional nature of their characters, they have difficulty finding a chance to shine. Jilly Bond in particular is hampered by some really cringeworthy over theatrical dialogue.
Even if dialogue isn’t Paul Magrs’ biggest strong point, his beautifully imaginative and descriptive narrative passages joyously remain so. You can really picture being in that quiet and traditional rural town, full of cold fresh air in the mornings and the pungent smells of animals in the fields. The Circus is also greatly visualised, especially the reaction of the hypnotised audience of Blandford residents, staring wide-eyed and open mouthed with rigid fixed grins like Victorian ventriloquist or ‘Punch and Judy’ dolls. A Circus hasn’t been this creepy in Doctor Who since The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988 TV Serial), and it shows.
Overall, The Circus of Doom is a real treat for listeners, and a marked improvement on the previous Hornets’ Nest audios. The plot, characterisation and dialogue may not have been as well realised or developed as it could have been, and weakened what has otherwise been a great production, but the ideas and storyline are genuinely thrilling and make you appreciate the potential and ingenuity of the Hornets’ Nest series for the first time. This is where the underlying story arc really starts to get interesting, and I’m fascinated to see where Paul Magrs will take us next.

Score: 8/10