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