Thursday, December 13, 2012

Embrace the Darkness

"Embrace the Darkness" (written and directed by Nick Briggs) is, for me, a tale of two halves. The first half is a wonderfully creepy story of a base of humans on an alien planet assaulted by the terrifying indigenous life forms who drain all the light from their base and then horrifically burn out their eyes. The second half is where we find out that maybe these creatures aren't the monsters they seem and a set of alien invaders is on the way to wipe everyone out. The first half of the story is the more effective half. It's a genuinely scary sci-fi story reminiscent of Alien (or Aliens). The second half seems to move more slowly with a certain lack of urgency.

The opening scene of this story is tremendous. We join a base staffed by three humans on the fourth planet of the Cimmerian system. The planet is rich with minerals and seemingly has no local inhabitants. Since the Cimmerian system has a burnt out sun, the crew is there to set up some "Energy Projection Units" which will act as an artificial sun - making the planet ripe for exploitation. The three crew members have a nice informal relationship and in a short scene we hear some lovely banter between them. This serves to make them quite likable in a short period of time, which makes the horror which befalls them all the more effective. Just before they are about to activate the EPUs , tremors shake the base to its foundations. Then the lights begin to dim until they are in utter darkness. Then the locals arrive and the three visitors begin to scream in terror and pain. The actors really give it their all here, and the sound effects and music really help to make this scene terrifyingly effective. The Cimmerians' lone dialog in this scene, "Embrace the darkness," is delivered in a creepily menacing whisper. And, we're off to a fantastic start!

The Doctor and Charley are whizzing along in the TARDIS, when the Doctor spots a veritable armada of (fancier) Type 70 TARIDSes ahead of them in the vortex. He briefly mulls the idea of meeting up with them and saying, "Hello", but of course that's not really his style. So, he quickly changes course. They arrive in the Cimmerian system, which the Doctor notes is famous for having a sun which inexplicably went dark. They begin drifting forwards and backwards in time to see if they can figure out what caused this mystery. When the TARDIS accidentally fully materializes in the Cimmerian system, they are immediately intercepted by a craft piloted only by a computer AI named ROSM embodied by several robots who has been sent to rescue the three crew members on the planet. ROSM is at times both menacing and laughable as a ruthless, but also often inept AI. The main threat from ROSM is that he wants to kill Charley because she has all sorts of dangerous, unknown, malignant cells that ROSM detects in a scan. The Doctor explains this away as carcinogenic precancerous cells normal for the time period she is from, but astute followers of the season arc may wonder if there's more to it than that. These same fans of the story arc may also wonder why a fleet of TARDISes was in the time vortex seemingly in the Doctor's path...

The Doctor manages to dupe and distract ROSM enough for Charley to inadvertently elude termination by taking an escape pod to the planet. What follows is various encounters with the traumatized crew and the local inhabitants. As noted before the first half is lovely and creepy. The three crew are very well played by the actors who react to their trauma in varying ways. Charley also is threatened by these Cimmerians more than once but manages to narrowly avoid having her eyes burned out. In the second half of the story we find out these aliens aren't the sadistic torturers they seem, and they suddenly become quite chatty about who and what they are.

When the new alien threat arrives which will seemingly kill both the Cimmerians, ROSM, and humanoids alike is when the story takes a downward turn for me. First off, there seems to be a lack of urgency about their imminent death. The idiotic ROSM keeps insisting on tons of safety and flight checks which delays the humans escaping in their craft seemingly forever. The Doctor meanwhile is riddled with guilt over putting them all at risk by his actions and blames himself for the death of one of the Cimmerians, which is ridiculous. His actions are totally justifiable given the Cimmerians wait until the new alien invaders are about to wipe them out to bother communicating lucidly with their visitors. And, the Doctor has nothing to do with the Cimmerian's death! All of this just annoys me as the Doctor and the Cimmerians sit around for a long time chatting with each other, instead of dealing with the impending alien threat. All of this calamity could have been avoided if the Cimmerians had been a little more communicative in the first 3/4 of the story. Finally, when we confront the aliens near the end, the revelation of who they are is a nice twist, but it leaves the ending a little flat. Plus, the revelation lacks some explanations which makes the story seem a bit illogical.

Still, while I don't love the end of the story, it's pretty fun as a whole. The music and sound design do a really great job of establishing the creepy atmosphere. ROSM is a fun source of both threat and comic relief. While the second half doesn't work as well for me, others may appreciate the clever twist more than I do. Apparently, McGann was exhausted when they recorded this, but it doesn't come through in his performance at all - a testament to both McGann and Briggs. I wouldn't call this the high point of this great season, but I also wouldn't call it the low point. Briggs over the years has proven that he's very adept at producing these futuristic space opera type stories. He has a knack for nailing the atmosphere and sound effects. While this isn't his best story, it's perfectly solid and entertaining.

Rating: Good

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