Saturday 28 November 2015

Planet of the Rani

Planet of the Rani, by Marc Platt, had the function of telling two potentially quite interesting stories. As it's title suggests, it takes us to the Rani's little empire on the planet Miasimi Goria. Yet it also needs to tell us what happens to the Rani after she is caught and sent down to the clink at the end of The Rani Elite.

Marc Platt chooses to concentrate on the former and concludes the latter very quickly. He has the Rani being frogmarched to her cell at the beginning, then when the Doctor and his new companion, Constance Clarke arrive for her parole hearing, 47 years too late, she not only has the run of the prison, but has made herself the governor. Her final departure from Teccaurora Penitentiary is concluded at the end of the first quarter episode. I felt just a little cheated by this. The Rani being in prison is such an interesting idea that one feels one would like to see a bit more of it. The problem with The Rani Elite was that it had our favorite evil Time Lady basically doing what she had been trying to do in Time and the Rani. It was fun, but slightly stale. It was just another evil renegade Time Lord plot. A story about the Rani trying to break out of jail is exactly the kind of original and fresh story Big Finish needed to do to breath some life into their new incarnation of the Rani. Sadly, they blew the chance.

Has anybody forgotten that the late Kate O'Mara played an ex-con in Dynasty? It would have been a lovely tribute for Big Finish to have given us a Doctor Who prison drama. Over the years, Doctor Who has done James Bond, westerns, Star Trek parodies and Hammer horror. Why not Prisoner Cell-Block H or Bad Girls? It would have been so much more interesting to have seen the Rani interacting with cellmates and bitchy prison guards. With the invisibility of audio, they could do strip searches and shower scenes without any difficulties. Admittedly, the level of camp involved would have suited O'Mara's Rani rather better than the more restrained Redmond Rani, but Redmond shows the occasional camp flourish here and there.

Related to the brevity of the prison part of this story, is the problem of pace. The Rani's jailbreak occurs at a breathless pace. Once that part of the story is done and we go to Miasmi Goria, the pace of the story slows right down and we end up feeling like the story is an episode too long.

I'm not a fan of Marc Platt, yet he does have a strength which suits the story of Miasmi Goria. He is great at creating an interesting alien landscape to imagine when listening to an audio story, as he showed with Quinnis. The world of Miasmi Goria is a striking and interesting place; it has a real sense of location, with its dinner plate tree-statues and polluted air. Platt gives this something of the quality of an Hartnell story, with a peculiar and unknown world being explored. Interestingly, he says in the production interview that he tried to give it an exotic Indian vibe, going with the origin of Ushas' alias. This raises some interesting thoughts about the Rani, being a white woman with an Indian name. It makes her a sort of colonial memsahib. I think this takes away the potential racial awkwardness of the name.

There are some great things about this audio. Siobhan Redmond has really taken to the role and has made it her own. Colin Baker gives yet another fantastic performance as the Rani. I loved the moment when he imitated the Rani's Scottish accent. I do like the way that Dr. Who feels a sense of tragedy about the moral corruption of Ushas. I love the fact that the two characters have a history from their school days. We learn here about a crazy experiment that the two young Gallifreyans had attempted in their youth. Constance Clark, the Sixth Doctor's new companion is also fun. Oddly, she almost becomes a sort of companion to the Rani in this story.

I think this was a fairly enjoyable offering, but I can't get over my disappointment that more was not done with the prison aspect of the story. The Rani is a camp character. We need just a bit more fun in a story with her. Hence, it was a really bad choice to get Marc Platt to write this. Platt's stories are always serious and heavy going, which is entirely the wrong tone for a story about the Rani busting out of jail.

Saturday 21 November 2015

Gods and Monsters

I'm not sure we really needed a sequel to The Curse of Fenric. The really interesting thing about The Curse of Fenric is that we were faced with the Doctor's greatest ever enemy, a character that we had never even heard of before that story. We were being given a glimpse of a strange unseen backstory to Doctor Who. It seems rather appropriate that after that episode, Fenric was never mentioned again, apart from the revelation that he was the Great Old One Hastur. Bringing him back makes this entity a lot less mysterious and therefore a lot less interesting.

I found it a bit difficult to appreciate this story, as it is the conclusion of a trilogy and draws heavily from the Ace and Hex range of Big Finish audios. Nevertheless, it was interesting and had some great drama. The audio was reasonably well paced and structured.

The Haemovores are definitely a problem. In Curse of Fenric, these were silent monsters and so lacked a lot of potential for translation to audio. In this audio, they are made to wail, moan and gurgle, which does not come across as nearly as terrifying as it ought to. They are a very ineffective menace here.

My biggest problem is the way that this story changes the nature of the Doctor's contest with Fenric. In Curse, this was a mythic battle between two gods. Here, the Doctor is reduced to just a helpless pawn of Fenric. Big Finish has little time for the Virgin New Adventures notion of the Doctor as a god-like elemental figure. It is hard not to feel that Big Finish is in a number of ways working to undo the legacy of the New Adventure era.

Saturday 7 November 2015

The Witch Hunters, by Steve Lyons (BBC Novel)

The Witch Hunters was one of the original line of BBC Past Doctor novels, but was recently released in a series of reprints. Unlike the majority of Doctor Who novels, it is a pure historical; the only Sci-Fi elements being those relating to the regular cast.

This novel is about the famous witch trials that occurred in Salem in late 17th century America. It is open about its inspiration, referencing Arthur Miller's Crucible several times. While Steve Lyons has clearly put in a lot of research, as a theology graduate, I winced at some of his mistakes about Puritan theology. The characters refer quite frequently to Purgatory. The people of Salem would most definitely have abhorred the 'Popish' doctrine of Purgatory. He also has Rebecca Nurse believing she is damned as a result of her excommunication. That is not how the Puritans understood excommunication. While Rebecca Nurse would hardly have been happy at the disgrace of excommunication, she would not have believed that the minister had the infallible power to consign her to hell. I also thought it was a bit odd that the Ian and Barbara had not attended church meetings in Salem until the outbreak of the witch trials. There is no way that they would have been able to absent themselves for months in a community in which non-attendance was punishable by law.

The Witch Hunters is very heavy on high emotional drama, perhaps a little too much so. It does feel like Lyons is trying too hard to get an emotional reaction. The scene with Dr. Who taking Rebecca Nurse to see the future and her own memorial reminded me a lot of Vincent and the Doctor, a similarly emotion-heavy story. This novel is unusual for a Lyons story in its lack of humour (The Final Sanction being another exception); he is possibly better at working with a more comic tone.

I'm one of Susan's few fans, so I liked the attention given to her in this novel. It made good use of her developing telepathic abilities, as seen in The Sensorites. I also very much appreciated the chance to see Susan interacting with other young people, which she did not get to do very much on screen. However, I am unsure that she would have been so ready to try to change history and in her feeble efforts, she does come across as a little bit daft.

The First Doctor in this novel is very reminiscent of the Seventh Doctor in the New Adventures. The idea of him preventing Rebecca Nurse from being pardoned and returning her to be executed is a bit grim. I very much liked the fact that we have the Doctor making a solo voyage in the TARDIS following the events of The Five Doctors. This creates a gap in continuity which allows such stories as the First Doctor's solo travels in the World Distributor annuals, his TV Comic adventures with John and Gillian and his contest with Fenric and subsequent travels with Zeleekah.

This is certainly not the best Doctor Who novel, but it is an interesting work from one of the finest writers to work in the expanded universe of Doctor Who.