Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Audio Review 10: Hornets' Nest - 4. A Sting in the Tale, written by Paul Magrs (2009)

Released: December 2009

The Doctor – Tom Baker
Mike Yates – Richard Franklin
Sister – Susie Riddell
Nun – Clare Corbett
Mrs Wibbsey – Susan Jameson
The Swarm – Rula Lenska

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 Mike Yates of how he tracked down the alien Hornets back to medieval Northumberland, where a Priory of Nuns are under attack from a pack of wild dogs. The Doctor discovers that within the Priory walls, the Nuns guard a Pig, whom they are convinced to be their mother superior. The Pig, in fact, holds the Queen of the Hornets and the wild dogs are possessed by the Hornet workers trying to reclaim her and unite the hive mind. After the Dogs penetrate the Priory and discover the Queen, the Hornets all unite into a collective mind inside one of the dogs, which the Doctor lures back to the TARDIS, to save the Priory.
However, once inside the TARDIS, the Doctor and the Hornets chase each other, in a deadly game of cat and mouse, until the Hornets take their chance to invade the Doctor himself! Powerless, the Doctor is forced to pilot the Hornets back to Earth, whereupon they escape into 18th Century Venice, taking over the young dwarf Antonio along the way.

Story Placement

Between Hornets’ Nest: The Circus of Doom (BBC Audio) and Hornets’ Nest: Hive of Horror (BBC Audio).

A Sting in the Tale is a successful culmination in the ongoing story of the Hornets’ Nest audio series. We finally learn the whole truth about the mysterious alien hornet creatures, and can at last fully appreciate the status quo between the hornets and the Doctor before their future battle back in the present day takes place. Sadly, partly because of the brilliant plot twist revealed in The Circus of Doom, there is little in the way of surprises in this adventure as the audience will already know that the TARDIS was to be invaded by the hornets, and that they would eventually end up in 18th Century Venice. Despite the overall predictability to the plot though, there is still a fair amount to offer to the loyal listener.
For a start, there’s the greatly atmospheric and romantic setting of a Medieval Priory in Northumberland. Thanks to Paul Magrs’ great narrative passages, it’s easy to imagine the bitterly cold rural landscape, and the Doctor walking on the crisp, thick snow. The medieval scene is also well established and maintained, as the Doctor has to endure barley soup with “rancid” butter while in the barren and claustrophobic stone walls of the Priory.  We also have hornet-possessed animals once again, only this time live and not stuffed. Furthermore they’re used and written much more effectively than in previous Hornets’ Nest audios. We have a bemused Pig, who rather bizarrely and somewhat implausibly is mistaken, and dressed, as a mother superior by the other nuns in the Priory. Rather more threatening are the rabid and ferocious wild dogs that attack and invade the Priory as the Hornets try to reclaim their Queen from the resident Pig. The image of wolf-like dogs stampeding through a medieval stone priory is absolutely picturesque and slightly unnerving. Had this been made for TV, I have no doubt that it would be quite a chilling and impressive sight.
The story’s growing dynamism continues as inevitably the Doctor leads the last Hornet-invested hound away into the TARDIS, and runs around various imaginative made-up rooms. However from that point on, the audio becomes rather more mundane and predictable. The myriad of TARDIS rooms are interesting at first, but after a while the continuing run-a-round just becomes tiresome padding as it has done in many other adventures that feature a lot of the TARDIS. The takeover of the Doctor by the Hornets though, does raise the stakes of the story arc significantly, as its interesting to see the Doctor genuinely out of his depth, even if it doesn’t last long. Also, as previously mentioned, we already know that the TARDIS has to land in the lagoons of 18th century Venice, so loyal listeners spend the last third of the audio just waiting for the inevitable events mentioned in The Circus of Doom to play out. It seems as if the real adventure is yet to come.
The other real disappointment in the audio is the true nature of the Hornet creatures themselves. Apparently, they only came to Earth by chance, and that apart from possession and self-miniaturisation, it seems as if most of the magical powers listeners have witnessed them make use of in previous audios (hypnotism, mind reading, manipulating human emotions, animating still objects) have appeared from nowhere, without explanation. It feels like a bit of a cop-out that so many of these powers, in some cases integral to the plots of previous adventures, like the animated ballet shoes, were just contrived to make the story possible, and that’s even without mentioning all the many convenient coincidences throughout the Hornets’ Nest series.
On a more positive note, Tom Baker is still on good form, particularly on the narration, which you can tell he really loves reading, such is his infectious enthusiasm. The rest of the cast is quite minimal and play much smaller parts on this occasion, although I did notice that one of the Nuns (if there was more than one) had some trouble with their northern accent. The sound design on the alien Hornet voice was really good too. I didn’t even recognise that it was played by Rula Lenska when I listened the first time around! Simon Power’s music has also clearly been steadily improving since The Stuff of Nightmares too. Some of it sounds positively Dudley Simpson-esque. Although it’s still disappointing that the music just consists of a small selection of repeatedly used cues. Maybe the music budget is rather tight on BBC audios. BIG Finish seems to manage well enough.
So A Sting in the Tale mainly consists of a rounding up and summary of all the plot threads in the Hornets’ Nest series so far. The first third is a short atmospheric adventure into medieval Britain that is really well-written, but as soon as the action moves to the TARDIS the story seems to stop in its tracks and begins to wind down just as it was getting exciting. Despite a short burst of tension when the Doctor is momentarily taken over by the Hornets, the last half of the audio is an exercise in padding and summing up, which is a big shame, because it seemed that A Sting in the Tale had the potential to be the best in the series so far.

Score: 8/10

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