Monday, 21 November 2011

Audio Review 11: Hornets' Nest - 5. Hive of Horror, written by Paul Magrs (2009)

Released: December 2009

The Doctor – Tom Baker
Mike Yates – Richard Franklin
Mrs Wibbsey – Susan Jameson
Queen of 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, Mike Yates and Mrs Wibbsey, with the help of the Hornets’ ballet shoes, and the TARDIS’ dimensional stabiliser, miniaturise themselves so they can penetrate the nest of the Hornet hive mind. Upon discovering it inside the head of a stuffed Zebra, they confront the Queen of the Hornet Swarm. The Doctor and Mrs Wibbsey are incarcerated, while the Hornet Queen brainwashes Mike Yates, and poisons his mind against the Doctor.

The Doctor and Mrs Wibbsey escape their paper prison by starting a fire. In the panic, they restore Mike Yates to his normal self and use his acquired knowledge of the Hive to set a trap for the Hornet Queen, using the royal jelly of the Hornets as bait. The Queen is successfully tricked into the trap, the Doctor using the latent power in the Hornets’ ballet shoes to miniaturise the Queen to a microscopic size, wiping out the influence of her mind control of the other Hornets’, who are now reduced to being normal insects. The Doctor, Mike Yates and Mrs Wibbsey escape the burning Hive in the nick of time, and restore themselves back to normal size. The surviving Hornets are dropped off in a distant galaxy, away from harm.

Story Placement

Between Hornets’ Nest: A Sting in the Tale (BBC Audio) and the Demon Quest audio series (BBC audio).

After four enjoyable tales in the past and some very intriguing build up, Hive of Horror feels like something of an anti-climax in the Hornet’s Nest audio series. As concluding instalments go, it does its job, resolving the overall story arc and showing the Doctor defeating the alien Hornet creatures, but it fails to deliver the meaty, substantial and satisfying narrative that the Hornets’ Nest series needed in order to make it all feel worthwhile.

To Paul Magrs’ credit though, he does create some new and original material to keep loyal listeners interested in the general proceedings. Setting the adventure inside the Hornets’ nest itself, for instance, is inspired, giving a real sense of the Doctor confronting the enemy inside the ‘lion’s den’. Although, in a way, the nest was the only place left where the stakes would feel considerably higher, considering the various times and places this series has taken listeners. Even on audio, thanks to Magrs’ superlative descriptions in the narration, the hive is a fascinating, and very alien labyrinth that feels both claustrophobic and unsettling in equal measure. The fact that the Hornets are much bigger in size than the Doctor and co, relatively speaking, makes their threat much more convincing than in their previous audio appearances. Experiencing the Doctor confront the Hornet Queen in her “throne room” also has distinct echoes of The Parting of the Ways and Planet of the Spiders about it, as the Doctor faces down his powerful, and more imposing foe.

Paul Magrs also takes time in the script to give Mike Yates some well deserved character development. Although the last series of Jon Pertwee’s era in Doctor Who gave Captain Yates substantial character development, sadly more than was ever given to the Brigadier during the TV series, the character of Mike Yates during Hornets’ Nest is significantly older, so it’s only right that the series takes the time to explore that. The Hornet Queen uncovers Yates’ resentment at being a has-been, who has never received any credit for his loyal service, while the Doctor seems to take all the credit, and is free to be care free, and nearly forever young. At this point, it’s interesting to note that the Doctor’s companion for Hornet’s Nest was originally meant to be Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, but was only changed when Nicholas Courtney was too ill to take part. However, its point of interest in my view is how well Yates’ character development could also be equally applicable to the Brigadier. In fact we can already hear a bitter and resentful version of the Brigadier in BIG Finish’s Doctor Who Unbound audio, Sympathy for the Devil, so the idea isn’t hard to imagine. In fact, I can’t help thinking it would’ve been better had the Brigadier been in Hornets’ Nest instead of Mike Yates, but I shouldn’t dwell on the ‘what if’, particularly as it’s not fair on Richard Franklin and the character of Yates, who have both been some of the highlights of this audio series.

Mike Yates aside, the rest of the characters suffer from little development, which is a shame, considering the smaller cast gives them all a better chance to breathe and take a bigger part of centre stage. The Doctor is probably the only exception, not needing further development at this stage, remaining the fun and enjoyable eccentric that we always love, and has a humbling unstinting faith in his old friend Mike Yates, which makes a nice change to the slight cold indifference the 4th Doctor seemed to feel for some of his companions on television. Mrs Wibbsey, on the other hand, is sadly, in my opinion, one of the most annoying companions in the history of Doctor Who (well she’s practically one now, and she certainly will be in the two subsequent two audio series, Demon Quest and Serpent Crest). I was unsure how I felt about her during The Stuff of Nightmares as there wasn’t much to go on. Throughout the earlier instalments, I withheld any judgement as I wanted to see if the character genuinely amounted to anything by the end of the audio series, but sadly she remained a fairly one-dimensional character to the end. Mrs Wibbsey seems to just endlessly grumble, complain and exclaim at various points throughout the story, like an old-age British pensioner version of Tegan, only without any real character development apart from being whisked away by the Doctor at the end of The Dead Shoes. When she’s not moaning, Mrs Wibbsey occupies the role of a stereotypical housekeeper, often quite stern and proper, but also quietly proud and attentive. This of course, isn’t irritating, but it remains just as inconsequential and irrelevant as her more prevalent complaining aspect, as her character has no impact or effect on either the narrative or the plot. Furthermore, the distinct lack of originality and development in Mrs Wibbsey makes it hard to care about or take interest in the character.

One of the real disappointments in Hive of Horror though, is the poor characterisation of the Hornet Queen. After the short contact between the Doctor and the Hornets in A Sting in the Tale, the finale of the Hornets’ Nest series needed a memorable face-off and a memorable villain to help develop, expand and round off an enemy that had previously been rather circumspect and thin on character. To start off with, the Queen cautiously pokes at her humanoid foes in order to learn about them, and tries to hypnotically seduce Yates with sweet nothings, but sadly when any real character is called for, the Queen of the Hornets is just as pantomime as the Hornets’ previous human orators.

Hive of Horror’s main failing though, is having too small a story, not in scale, but in duration. There’s only enough plot for half the story’s running time, and the resolution itself is so basic, that there’s no real tension or build-up to keep the audience interested. After having got over the image of the Hornets’ maze-like hive, the only real interesting aspect of the story is when it seems as if Mike Yates might have been successfully turned by the Hornet Queen. Any other moment or sense of danger is quickly swept away in a couple of sentences spoken in the narration. There’s also a large amount of padding in the script. Although Paul Magrs seems to slightly overdo the amount of description in his brilliant narration, a lot of time is simply taken up by the Doctor wandering or hanging around inside the nest without doing very much in particular. There’s also a lot of dialogue passages (not narration) where one of the characters rather irritatingly explains or debates at length what they think will happen next, before we actually hear it happen for ourselves, thus taking away any sense of tension or enjoyment that could have been gained from those events, making the story thoroughly predictable to the listener. The resolution is probably the worst affected by this, as its simplicity feels somewhat mundane, and possibly a slight cop-out too as a resolution to the whole Hornets’ Nest series.

Fortunately, we again have a strong cast to help entertain the loyal listener. Tom Baker is now perfectly settled back into his role as the 4th Doctor, and his wonderfully eccentric performance makes his every line of dialogue an audible delight. Thankfully Mike Yates has at last been allowed to play a more central part in this story than in previous audios, and Richard Franklin delivers in spades, happy to have more substantial material to get his teeth into. Susan Jameson tries her best, but struggles to shine with such a tiresome character. Rula Lenska, also has some overly theatrical and tiresome dialogue to cope with, but manages to give the Hornet Queen a brilliantly silky malevolence in her more subdued and quieter scenes.

Overall, the Hive of Horror is an entertaining finale to an entertaining series, but its faults are also symptomatic of those that can be found in the rest of the Hornets’ Nest audio series. One or two-dimensional characters, theatrical dialogue, padding, and simplistic insubstantial conclusions have blighted most of the audios in the series, balanced out by gloriously beautiful narrative descriptions by Paul Magrs, great cast performances and some quite imaginative ideas, sometimes creepy, sometimes wacky and outlandish. Tom Baker is undoubtedly the star of the series, successfully bringing back a character performance that made him the universally loved and revered actor he is to this day. It took a while for him to gradually feel his way back into the character, but it was more than worth the wait.

If BBC Audio can work up wonders with Tom Baker on decent audio efforts, just imagine the audio gold BIG Finish could achieve with this great man!

Hive of Horror Score: 6/10
Overall Hornets’ Nest Score: 7/10

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