Audio Frequencies (DWM #512, June 2017)

Reviewed this issue:

Doom Coalition 4
The Silent Scream
Zaltys



Arcs are a fairly recent phenomenon in Doctor Who (as opposed to arks, which were ten-a-penny back in the day). And even now, in an era when seasons build towards a finale, as opposed to just carrying on until they stop, continuing story threads – a Bad Wolf mention here, a Vote Saxon poster there – tend to manifest as background noise that your causal viewer might not even notice.

Doom Coalition is something else. At 16 episodes, it’s been called – by this very organ – ‘the biggest single story in Doctor Who history’. That’s not to say it hasn’t wandered off down many an enjoyable plot cul-de-sac – with the Doctor, there’s always time for a quick adventure before tea. But, across four box sets, its centre of gravity has stayed the same, with events always returning to the eponymous cabal of Time Lords and their plot to save Gallifrey by bringing about the end of… everything else.

Its final chapter, then, is very much an Event. But, like its immediate predecessor, which opened with the BBC Audio Award-winning Absent Friends, Doom Coalition 4 starts small with another tight, John Dorney-scripted bottle episode.

Hurtling into a “murdered future” in escape shuttle that’s anything but, the Doctor and companions Liv and Helen are the only beings left alive in an eternity of emptiness – which, as a way of setting up a three-hander for Paul McGann, Nicola Walker and Hattie Morahan without fear of interruption, is certainly extreme.

Convinced he’s finally been beaten – and, worse, that his talent for incorrigible meddling has handed his enemies their victory – the Doctor cuts an unusually dejected figure. “There’s always a way out,” he laments. “Until there isn’t.”

Liv, by contrast, is the very model of indefatigable – a proper Pollyanna who, when Plans A and B go belly up, simply insists there’s still the best part of an alphabet of plans to work through. So many plans, in fact, that, for a chamber piece largely set in one room, Ship in a Bottle develops into a surprisingly action-packed affair, complete with space walks and an attempt to sail the time winds by rigging actual sails, that you suspect wouldn’t come cheap on the telly.

With a cast of this calibre, a bit more philosophical fat-chewing and a shade less functional plot chatter might have been desirable. But if Dorney’s script lacks the emotional heft of Absent Friends, it makes up for it with a mix of zingy dialogue and a genuine, urgent sense of peril, building to a real doozy of a cliffhanger.

The effects of that cliffhanger continue to resonate throughout Matt Fitton’s Songs of Love, which shifts the focus back to the genocidal Cardinal Padrac as he plans to bring about the end of days. “When the future becomes unclear, people want certainties,” he tells the High Council, topically, outlining what could firmly be described as a “Gallifrey first” foreign policy.

Robert Bathurst gives a fabulously purring performance as the DC’s senior partner, whose urbane charm masks the ruthless streak of a man willing to wipe out the whole of creation without once showing signs of (I’m so sorry) cold feet. His manipulation of the empathic, time-splintered Caleera (Emma Cunnife), in particular, is horribly abusive, though he does betray a chink in his armour by falling for River Song’s laser-guided flirting. (This story catches Alex Kingston’s saucy star maiden on her way to her “final destination”, though don’t ask me which one, because I’ve lost my spreadsheet.) We also welcome back split personality Time Lord sociopath The Eleven, played with snarling relish by Mark Bonnar, who is literally in everything these days. Look, there he is coming through your door now.

Fitton also scripts the set’s third instalment, in which the Angels take Manhattan. Again. Set in 1970s New York, The Side of the Angels finds Cardinal Ollistra – played in Big Finish’s War Doctor audios by Jacqueline Pearce, and here by Broadchurch’s Carolyn Pickles – striking a dangerous bargain with the temporal scavengers in order to provide refuge from Cadrac’s forthcoming cataclysm. 

Her fixer for the deal is none other than the Monk, of meddling fame, who’s camped out in NYC in the guise of a preacher. (“Did the Doctor go to school with anyone who isn’t a Time Lord super criminal?” asks a despairing Liv.) It’s a bumptious performance from Rufus Hound, whose ding-dong Terry Thomas act provides a nice contrast to the Noo Yoik accents everyone else is rocking. (Is it just me who has a problem with British actors speaking in those “Gee, Officer Krupky” West End musical voices?)

Liv and Helen continue to lurch from one hot mess to another with barely time to catch their breath between scrapes – something Litton acknowledges with a nice gag about them being tied to a railway line. (It’s surely only a matter of time.) Their trials include an encounter with an Angel emerging from a video screen that’s virtually a carbon copy of Amy being menaced in The Time of Angels – but as that’s one of Who’s all-time great scares, it’s hard to begrudge this repeat performance.

Indeed, the whole episode plays like an Angels’ greatest hits album, complete with “don’t blink”, people being sent back in time to “live to death” and the creatures taking the voice of a recent victim, and it’s none the worse for that. It’s a story that takes a while to get going but really ramps up the tension in a thrilling final act, as the city is hit by a blackout. “If New York is going dark,” warns the Doctor, “it will be a hunting ground for the Angels.” Eek.

And so, after a full 16 hours of storytelling, it falls to Stop the Clock to provide a satisfying pay-off to the Doom Coalition saga. Does it succeed? Pretty much. For a real-time race against the clock, it’s surprisingly sluggish out of the blocks, and the plotting feels a bit overstuffed at times, with so many bluffs and counter-bluffs of the “I’d kill you now, except…” nature it’s on the verge of becoming ridiculous. There’s also a scene in which the Eleven taunts his armed captor – shades of Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, not to mention Missy and Osgood – that manages to be both deeply silly and utterly chilling at the same time.

Then, in the last half-hour, John Dorney’s story begins to build up a real head of steam, until there’s a genuine, electric sense of the listener being present at a critical moment in the history of the universe.

For all the apocalyptic, end-of-everything high stakes, though, Dorney once again keeps his focus small and sharp. Yes, he sets the scene for the Time War, which can’t help but feel huge, but even then he does it by rehearsing the very personal moral dilemma – Gallifrey or the universe? – the Doctor will face after his next regeneration. He also prefigures one of the great themes of 21st century Doctor Who – the potential of small, seemingly insignificant people to do great things – in scenes that satisfyingly recall both Donna’s elevation to the most important temp in the universe and Rose’s transformation into the Bad Wolf.

This, really, is how Doctor Who ought to do Armageddon. It’s big, and epic, spanning the whole of space and time – even going beyond space and time – but, in the final analysis, it’s a story of heroes; of extraordinary people and places, but also of ordinary people being terribly brave in the face of incredible danger. Across its 16 discs, Doom Coalition, expertly marshalled by director Ken Bentley, has been all these things. And what finer trio of actors than Paul McGann, Nicola Walker and Hattie Morahan – surely a contender for the most supercharged TARDIS team ever – to provide the series with its beating, human heart? Or half-human heart, in the case of one of them. (I’m just messing with you, don’t write in.)

 

Doctor Who in La La Land? It’s the sort of idea you can imagine would have crossed script editor Christopher Bidmead’s desk pretty quickly on its way to the bin. And yet, here we are, with the 1980 vintage Fourth Doctor whooping it up in Twenties Hollywoodland like Bidmead’s predecessor, Douglas Adams, had never left. 

Lalla Ward explicitly makes the point that The Silent Scream – in which faded screen sirens find that a new career in the talkies comes at a deadly price – reminds her of one of her dear friend Douglas’s ideas. A light, spritzy, comedy time travel remake of Sunset Boulevard (now that’s an elevator pitch), it’s such a departure from the house style of Season 18 it’s hard to picture Tom Baker in those sober shades of burgundy and purple. In fact, Baker is at his very sauciest here, flirting with every dame in town and saying things like “Is that soda water? I’m tingling for a fizzy sip!”

James Goss provides him with several signature Fourth Doctor moments, like the way he goes from goofing about in front of the camera to deadly serious in a heartbeat. He also declares that “cinema is the chance to see the world through the eyes of a child, and when you’re as old as I am, that’s magnificent”. Which sounds like as good a mission statement for this Doctor as any. Lalla Ward is at her gutsy best, too, “bursting in, all Mary Pickford”, while John Leeson has fun turning K9 into the world’s earliest in-car sat-nav.

Goss packs his script with witty asides and meta jokes (“A rescue attempt in the final reel? How heroic”), even daring to poke fun at screenplays which reduce their leading ladies to nothing more than scream queens. I can’t think what he’s referring to, can you readers? There’s also a sly dig at a certain stripe of collector who, in their lust to own and control their hobby, have forgotten why they once enjoyed it in the first place. And just in case the imputation isn’t clear, the character in question describes something as “a curate’s egg” – a phrase officially only used in the 21st century by Doctor Who fans. Case closed.

For all its larky nature, The Silent Scream has something to say about our fear of being forgotten, and the human desire to leave a footprint on the world. The fact it does it with such a light touch is just one of this lovely story’s many charms, so hooray for Hollywood.


If The Silent Scream delights in being a square peg in Season 18’s round hole, Fifth Doctor adventure Zaltys is made of pure 1982. So much so that the first 10 minutes could have been recorded against a couple of TARDIS wall flats, as the regulars snipe and moan at each other about all the usual suspects like maths and E-space and Heathrow.

When the action moves to Zaltys – the so-called “planet of the dead” where the natives have gone into hibernation to avoid an imminent catastrophe – writer Matthew J Elliot delights in piling on vivid, technicolour characters and imagery, including a psychic wolfman and a woman who’s half fish, while the planet itself is a lurid landscape of orange beaches and purple skies that would have required some dangerously experimental Quantel Paintbox in 1982.

It’s a vampire tale, at heart, but not a particularly scary one, full-blooded gothic horror not really being de rigueur during this period of Doctor Who. Instead, Elliott adopts a rather relaxed and perambulatory approach, liberally sprinkling his script with nod-and-a-wink in-jokes about ventilation shafts, twisted ankles and corridors that all look the same.

The story suffers somewhat from this lack of narrative oomph, despite fine work from a strong cast (take a bow, in particular, Sean Barrett, Niamh Cusack and Philip Franks). But that’s okay – not every Doctor Who story can be an apocalyptic epic spanning more discs than the entire recorded output of The Beatles, and even the Doctor can’t be expected to save the entire universe every week. Really, two or three times a month is all we ask.

Published in Doctor Who Magazine issue #512, June 2017 © Panini UK Ltd

All titles available from Big Finish