Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Audio Review 13: The Land of the Dead, written by Stephen Cole (2000)

Released: January 2000

The Doctor – Peter Davison
Nyssa – Sarah Sutton
Monica Lewis – Lucy Campbell
Shaun Brett – Christopher Scott
Tulung – Neil Roberts
Gaborik – Andrew Fettes
Supplier – Alistair Lock

Main Production Credits

Producers – Gary Russell & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Writer – Stephen Cole
Director – Gary Russell
Incidental Music – Nicholas Briggs
Recording and Editing – Alistair Lock
Sound Design and Post-Production – Nicholas Briggs
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Remastered by Mark Ayres)
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producer (for BBC Worldwide) – Stephen Cole

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

The Doctor and Nyssa arrive at Alaska in 1994, where a primal force seems to be stirring. Shaun Brett, an American millionaire, is half-way through constructing a house entirely made up of natural materials, and it is meant to stand as a monument to the local region as well as his late father, whom Brett constantly obsesses about. However, the construction has disturbed an ancient creature from hundreds of millions of years ago, a creature formed entirely from bone and capable of killing and assimilating its prey via a deadly psychic energy field that leaves all life in its wake...
Nyssa discovers that the creatures originate from the Permian era, while the Doctor unsuccessfully tries to keep them trapped in the house. Brett and Tulung, a local native whom Brett has employed, turn mentally unstable as a result of the Permian creatures, kidnapping Nyssa in the process and turning on each other. After Brett and Tulung stop arguing over their differences at the sight of an old archaeological dig, the Doctor discover that the Permians can be killed by fire. The remaining survivors lure the Permians back to the house, and trap them inside, while they torch the house to the ground.

Story Placement

Between Empire of Death (BBC Book) and Winter for the Adept (BIG Finish audio).


It’s usually down to pure luck, or the instincts of the writer as to whether rushed scripts are successful. The Invasion of Time (1978) was something of a muted hit. Although it is saddled with some relatively poor adversaries and padding, the strength of the plot, story ideas, main characterisation and brilliant cast helped it to rise above the mess that was the sum of its parts to become a really enjoyable romp. By comparison there are the works of Pip and Jane Baker, who in the space of one year produced the excellent and fun (although contrived) resolution to The Trial of a Time Lord (1986), and the awful, but equally fun Time and the Rani (1987), both of which were thrown together in a short space of time. The Land of the Dead though, is not one of the lucky ones, and like many troubled productions, falls by the wayside.
However, there is a fair amount to like, especially in the first two episodes. The setting of the story in Alaska feels quite exotic for Doctor Who, even on audio, so for a while it feels quite special. The sound design also works well to sell the setting to us, with strong and bitterly cold winds and the sound of walking on snow. Then there’s the great promise of the story’s premise itself.
The idea of the Permians, an ancient dinosaur species, is breathtakingly imaginative. Partly similar to insects, they exist as creatures with an exoskeleton, albeit one that appears to be made entirely from bone, and in the form of a skeleton itself, with flesh and blood of sorts within the bone rather than around it. They resemble the skeleton of a raptor-like theropod dinosaur, but have evolved to kill their prey using a psychic energy that strips the meat of their bodies. The Permians also seem to be able to affect their prey mentally too. A couple of the characters have periods of mental instability, and in Brett’s case in particular, sometimes goes insane too. Of course there is nothing in real science and archaeology (yet) to make any part of this creature conceivably possible, despite how little we know of the Permian era of the Earth’s long history, but Stephen Cole’s efforts to make the Permians at least plausible does both him and his creations credit, with a substantial and believable new monster that poses a real threat to human life. The other good thing is the gradual rising intrigue about these creatures that flavour the first two episodes. It’s nice that we (the audience) don’t know everything at once and have to wait to some of the answers.

Unfortunately there’s a limit to just how much waiting the audience can put up with, and I certainly lost interest before the story’s conclusion, purely due to the sheer amount of padding and wasted subplots there are. Parts two and three are the worst offenders. Nyssa spends the whole of part two trying to find out the age and origin of the Permians, which although interesting, doesn’t really do much for the ongoing story. Meanwhile, the Doctor spends the whole of part two merely observing the escaping Permian with Monica. At least in part two though, the intrigue about the nature of the Permians still tides the listener over the slow patches. As part three continues the slow pace though, the story begins to drag significantly, with Nyssa being kidnapped by Brett and Tulung, and the Doctor and Monica using their efforts to prevent the Permian creatures from escaping out into the World, which turns out to be a waste of time anyway. The Land of the Dead is clearly a story that doesn’t have the mileage to fill out four episodes, and it would definitely have benefitted from having one episode taking away from it.

Another one of the ineffectual story elements are the ‘Hybrid’ creatures; sea animals that have unnaturally bonded together as a result of the psychic energies of the Permians. They seem quite an interesting and creepy idea at first, but it doesn’t take long to realise that they are merely a script device that are only used when a scene (usually outside) needs an injection of dramatic tension to help maintain the feeling of the characters being constantly under threat.

The other wasted subplot, other than a big part of the Doctor and Nyssa’s role in the story itself, is the big rivalry between Shaun Brett and Tulung. Initially the rivalry between the two characters added an interesting dimension to them, but the ‘mystery’ as to which of their two fathers was the most courageous during a disaster on a past archaeological dig is given far too much script time. After a while it becomes clear that this rivalry is sadly the central part of Brett’s and Tulung’s character, and due to the added mental instability brought on by the Permians, this bitter dispute gradually turns into a large row. This particular row comes across as an awkward domestic falling out, which immensely grated with me, as you don’t want to be there listening to it, and feels like you’re in the middle of a bad soap opera at times. This verbal sparring spans the last half of part three and the first half of part four, and yet all the time it has very little impact on the story, beyond the first two minutes of part one, which occurred thirty years previously. Part four does reveal that the 1960s dig catastrophe was brought on by some awakened Permians, but that doesn’t really excuse the past 60 minutes of bickering the listener has had to endure throughout the story. If that wasn’t enough padding there are also quite a few scenes where characters are discussing (or arguing sometimes) about the same character or plot points that they discussed only ten minutes or so previously. It really makes it hard to enjoy listening to the audio, as the listener is given comparatively little new information, story or character development to experience over relatively long time periods, and sometimes it feels as if the script is purely going through the motions.

The characterisation in the script also continues this feeling. The Land of the Dead features a solid and typical offering of the Fifth Doctor that feels all the more authentic due some dialogue quoted from his television episodes, but seems to have a more laid back role in the story than usual, spending a lot of time merely observing and offering explanations, although he does come up with the solution to the Permian problem, and puts his life on the line at the end to defeat them. Nyssa’s first outing on audio is also a decent appearance, although you do get the impression that the story (or Stephen Cole, rather) is deliberately trying to find ways of keeping her out of the way, as Nyssa too doesn’t get an awful lot to do. Monica Lewis meanwhile is, as other commentators and reviews have observed a near clone of the companion character of Tegan (who is currently left to her job as an Air Stewardess at Heathrow Airport in the UK, after being left by the Doctor during Time-Flight). I’m sure this was unintentional of Stephen Cole, but it’s not hard to see the parallels. Monica is also probably the only likeable supporting character, starting out as a put-upon interior designer with an essential sense of humour, given the hard work as well as deadly situation. However, she gradually becomes very irritating from part two onwards, seemingly losing her character and turning into a walking-talking script device for sarcastic and ironic jokes, to the point where Monica seems to vainly care more about herself than the deaths and life-threatening dangers taking place around her. Tulung also starts off very likeable, but his acidic relationship with Brett probably stops the listener caring much about him, even if we still take his side. Shaun Brett, on the other hand, is a slimy narcissistic individual, obsessed with both his father and himself, and above all likes to show off, always making others aware of his superior position in the household. In a way Brett is the character you love to hate, only this time mostly for the right reasons, and sure enough Brett doesn’t disappoint in that department as an insular and cowardly villain. Although the rivalry subplot between him and Tulung makes you glad that he gets killed by the Permians by the time we get to part four. Gaborik though, is sadly quite a weak character. I much appreciate Stephen Cole’s effort to try and add some depth, background, culture and local colour to the Alaskan setting, utilising a well-researched background on the Inuit, who are the native tribal peoples in the Arctic regions of the World. However, this brilliant research is partly wasted by having Gaborik speak it out bluntly like a talking encyclopaedia, and without a hint of subtlety. Still, I’m sure had there been redrafts of this, it wouldn’t sound so much like an information dump. Gaborik also suffers from seemingly having little character outside of his traditionalist paranoia, so on one level is practically highlighting his status as cannon fodder in part two.

It also doesn’t help the characters much that they have to say some very melodramatic and hammy dialogue. The worst affected by this is probably Nyssa, who has to manage the atrocious cliff-hanger at the end of part one; panicking at the sight of the hybrid creatures, and half-delirious in a ‘sea room’ which has conveniently locked itself on cue, and also spouting vague and enigmatic warnings about what’s to come. Actually there’s quite a few convenient coincidences, such as in part four when the Doctor and Monica follow an ice tunnel that conveniently leads to the pit where Nyssa, Brett and Tulung are.

Fortunately the great cast go some way to redeeming some of the banalities in the characterisation. Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton are on good form, and help to transport us into the drama convincingly, until the material begins to dry up. Christopher Scott gives the best overall performance, helping to give Brett several layers of vanity and malevolence, as well as making sure he doesn’t turn into a theatrical one-note villain. Lucy Campbell and Neil Roberts are also quite assured in their performance, but they are hampered slightly by the problems with their respective characters. Andrew Fettes though, seems to struggle with Gaborik. It’s hardly a great character anyway, but sadly Fettes fails to redeem him.

The production is fairly smooth and polished as usual, with Nicholas Briggs doing the honours with some very realistic design that instantly draws us into the audio. His music soundtrack though is reasonably basic, and though not bad, unfortunately comes across as rather functional and plain in most places.

So overall, The Land of the Dead is generally quite a forgettable and disappointing adventure for the Fifth Doctor. There are some brilliant ideas, a well-imagined monster and a wonderful setting to enjoy, but the production is drowning under the weight of an extremely padded and melodramatic script that promises much and delivers comparatively very little. Still, you can’t really blame Stephen Cole too hard considering the time constraints he had to work under. I think almost anyone, would struggle to make something good in so short a time. Although, next time I get to re-listen Big Finish’s Doctor Who audios, I’ll probably overlook The Land of the Dead in favour of something more enjoyable.

Score: 5/10

No comments:

Post a Comment