Monday, June 25, 2012

Whispers of Terror

Let me be honest: I was NOT a fan of Colin Baker's time on Doctor Who. I had managed to enjoy most of the Peter Davison era, even though I was crushed that Tom Baker wasn't the Doctor anymore. While the Fifth Doctor's era had it share of clunkers, it also had lots of returning monsters which appealed greatly to me at 10-12 years old. When I first laid eyes on "Twin Dilemma", I didn't get worked up over how awful a story it was. No, I was upset over the Doctor actually trying to kill poor Peri. This was just unacceptable. I knew the Doctors were all a little odd or erratic just after regeneration. Hell, Peter Davison was pretty much useless for 3/4 of Castrovalva and made people carry him around in a coffin for God's sake. But, the Doctor actually trying to murder his faithful companion?! No way. And of course the outfit was... not the right choice as nearly everyone except John Nathan-Turner seemed to know. But, really that one violent moment colored me against poor Colin for a while. It didn't help that they kept having the Doctor and Peri constantly bickering throughout his first full season. It all just made me predisposed to not like him, and when his boisterous smugness kept coming through, it just made me dislike him more. I get that they wanted us to not trust him at first, and then grow to like him, but they made him a bit TOO unlikeable for me early on. I also thought the stories for his first season were mostly bad. Even the much loved "Vengeance on Varos" which has some clever political satire, comes off as a bit dull to me. When I watch the DVDs today, I find the double episode length to be pretty excruciating. They kept telling stories at the same 25 minute pace, they just reduced the number of cliff hangers by doubling the episode length. That's my feel for it today. Back when they first aired on PBS, I had no idea the episodes were longer because they weren't broadcast that way. They simply had abrupt endings with no sign of a cliffhanger. This just made my reaction to the show worse. Baker's last full season "The Trial of a Time Lord" was better. The writing still has some problems - mainly related to deviating from Robert Holmes' and Eric Saward's original plans for the ending. But, they began to smooth the edges of the Sixth Doctor here. Plus, having him direct a lot of his vitriol towards the villains instead of the people we tended to like, made me laugh at his tirades instead of cringing during them. Big Finish (and Baker) both realized that they needed to further the rehab on the Sixth Doctor's likeability, and it happens right away with this story.

I suppose it was only natural that when making Doctor Who in an audio only medium that they would eventually do a "sound monster" story, and Big Finish didn't waste any time by providing one here in their third release. Writer Justin Richards wanted to do a story which couldn't have been done on television or novels, and he succeeded. The sound effects are quite dense in this and it was apparently a very difficult production to create. The setting of the Museum of Aural Antiquities ends up as the perfect setting for such a sound-oriented story. We basically have a political thriller centered around a recently deceased (or killed) politician named Visteen Krane. The museum has captured his last, unheard speech due to the former actor's obsession with rehearsing all of his speeches before delivering them to the public. The speech is about to be aired to the public for the first time as a tribute, where the public will hear who he was going to name as his running mate. This seemingly would have been his trusted adviser Beth Purnell, but naturally, all is not as it seems. Oh, and right before the speech is to be broadcast there is a sound monster running around the museum killing some people.

Hmm, I don't make it sound really good do I? Fortunately, it's a terrific story. The Doctor and Peri are great here. Instead of having irritating arguments with each other, there are just gentle quick jibes at each other that come across as slightly vexed affection instead of actual friction. It's hard for me to remember how I first reacted to this kinder, gentler Sixth Doctor now - since I first heard this story around 9 years ago before Big Finish had astoundingly transformed Colin Baker into my favorite Doctor. But the transformation for me likely began here or in his next story "The Marian Conspiracy". Listening to this now, the Doctor's boisterous arrogance puts a big grin on my face. As I listened to this last week while walking on the beach, I was even chuckling a bit out loud listening to the Doctor's rantings. Nicola Bryant slides right back into playing Peri as if she was filming the series the previous week instead of around a dozen years before this was recorded.

The most notable guest star (in my ears) is Peter Miles as the blind museum curator Gantman. Miles made his most famous TV Who contribution was as Davros' henchmen Nyder in the all time classic "Genesis of the Daleks". His voice is instantly recognizable (at least to me) in his opening lines. It's somewhat novel for me to hear him as a gentle "good guy" here. Matthew Brenher is also notable as the deceased Visteen Krane. Beth Purnell is played by Lisa Bowerman who also tackles the role of Bernice Summerfield for Big Finish. (I'll have plenty to say about "Benny" when she appears in some Doctor Who stories later.)

The story is suitably creepy when the sound monster is menacing the various characters and it's done with a lot of frankly disturbing audio. When I recently listened to this I noticed how VERY similar the music (done by Nick Briggs) was to the music of Colin's era. This isn't generally something I think Big Finish tries to do. Richards makes good on his ambition to tell a story that would only work on audio, and it goes beyond the presence of the sound monster. It's really a great story and the best of the first three. Big Finish would go on to dabble a bit more with the sound monster idea, but it never works as well again as it does here.

Rating: Great

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