Tuesday, 5 January 2010

"How did the nasty men bring you back from the so very, very dead?"

Series of audios written by Paul Magrs, directed by Kate Thomas, 2009

I was slow to get excited about the Hornets’ Nest series. Much as I love Tom, I’ve never idolised him to an hysterical extent, so I was relatively cautious about these audios… but nevertheless ended up listening to the first instalment the day after release (what can I say; the pre-order was cheap).

I’m slightly ambivalent about the series at large because though The Stuff of Nightmares especially is rather glorious, the following stories quickly become repetitious. In fact, originally this review was just about The Stuff of Nightmares, but it’s actually applicable to all five stories – it’s just that the repetition and continued lack of resolution does grate (there’s only so many times you can have the Doctor realising yet another character is infested by the hornets). (I was reminded of the way the Lemony Snicket books failed to live up to their initial potential by sticking to a very tight, limiting format.)

There is still a lot to love, not least because Paul Magrs so deliberately eschews the flashiness of modern TV Doctor Who; it’s a relief not to find the Fourth Doctor pressganged into Russell T Davies’ London in any of these stories. In fact, not only is it not modern, it is fastidiously old fashioned, in a very specifically quaint, ‘English’ way; all genteel cottages, housekeepers, sherry and almond slices. There’s an archness to this approach which extends to even the Ben Willsher/Anthony Dry artwork (which is a pleasing contrast of a very graphicsy approach and ‘ironic’ Target nostalgia – and considerably more stylish than the vast majority of design associated with DW) and the music, which is redolent of British sixties horror. Brass! Strings! All shimmering menace, and rather wonderfully cinematic. The relatively simple sound design is also a bonus; the narration isn’t swamped with sound effects demonstrating events that have just been narrated.

I’m very grateful the present day sections of Hornets’ Nest are almost unrecognisably 2009, as juxtaposing the Fourth Doctor with a lazy roll call of Twitter and Heat and Cheryl Cole would have been ridiculous and desperate – especially considering the cultural equivalents of these things weren’t deemed worthy of particular recognition by the series in the seventies, so there wouldn’t even have been any symmetry there. It’s equally pleasing for the stories to eschew spacey, futuristic settings in favour of a range of period settings.

The plays’ old-fashionedness extends to their wordiness; they are written with a rich, gloriously unfashionable verbosity – which sounds negative, but really isn’t. They also benefit – like Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles – from being mainly based around narration, rather than a straight ‘drama’ approach. (The sleeve notes describe them as multi-voice adventures, which is an accurate if uninspiring description.) This approach also makes for a more controlled approach from Paul Magrs, compared to his sometimes indulgent past work.

It should go without saying that Tom Baker relishes every fruity sentence of these scripts. There’s relatively little to say about Baker; the main reason I find him less interesting than everyone else seems to is precisely because, during a long and varied era, he was very effective on screen – making him far less interesting to revisit, compared to Doctors whose eras were more lacking in certain areas. He is essentially unchanged; so much so that the moments when he does sound his age are almost disquieting, and that during the opening instalment it took me a while to stop imagining Tom as he is now within the narrative. As the story progressed though, the years fell away and it was very definitely the Fourth Doctor that I was picturing.

It makes me feel very old to say it – and I’m not even (quite) 25 – but compared to the all-conquering Davies juggernaut, it’s a relief to have a grandiloquent, sexless and bona fide eccentric Doctor back, even if it proves to be only temporarily. Equally, it would have also been inappropriate and facile to lumber this vintage Doctor with the new series’ maudlin introspection, so I’m glad Magrs avoided this.

While the Doctor might appear relatively unchanged from his heyday, the Avengers-like blend of the offbeat and menacing which characterises Magrs’ plots has, I would suggest, more in common with a conception of how outrĂ© and gothic the show was during its popularly-considered seventies heyday, rather than a representative recreation per se. While the reanimation of taxidermed animals – though partially cribbed from Ghost Light – possessed dolls and haunted ballet slippers are suitably ‘Hinchcliffeian,’ the concept of a Doctor living with his housekeeper in a quaint cottage is a slightly mischievous idea, in a fannish way, verging into a knowing postmodernity.

However, considering how apparent Magrs’ avowed admiration of Angela Carter is in the series, I can’t say I’m complaining that Hornets' Nest isn’t a more stringently accurate recreation of its era. In fact, I can’t think of anything more tedious; however much some people might like to pretend otherwise, this is the twenty-first century, and while it’s wonderful being able to unexpectedly enjoy new Fourth Doctor stories, an exact recreation of his era would benefit no-one. Rather, it’s wonderful having a more self-aware approach to what (in terms of the Doctors’ post-TV afterlives) has been a long-dead incarnation.

There are definitely archetypal moments included here which could come from any era of the show, but they’re written with an awareness of their status as genre trappings (humans fighting alien possession, etc). (The Doctor cheerfully acknowledges genre conventions like imprisonment by dim-witted lackeys in rooms with inferior locks.) Also, there are pleasingly arch, fannish jokes and references throughout (which fortunately avoid veering into Gary Russell territory); the Doctor professes to have taken several “short trips and sidesteps,” and namechecks Pescatons, Trods and The Star Beast’s Wrarth Warriors.

I was expecting something much more perfunctory than this (not least because of the perceived opportunism of the BBC muscling in on Big Finish’s area) – more, ‘Look, we bagged Tom Baker!’… but that’s not what we’ve got. It could have been so by-numbers; as I say, either a totally generic set of basic Tom-era stories, or the Fourth Doctor pasted into a new series-alike milieu of council estates and Harry Sullivan’s extended family. But this isn’t as obvious as that, and all credit to the BBC for not simply ticking boxes.

Even the choice of Mike Yates is a (pleasingly) unusual choice of companion – not only as a recurring figure, but because he’s an old ex-soldier, not a generic new dozy/spunky Young Female Assistant. Even given how much as I love, say, Leela and the Romanas, it seems entirely appropriate for the production to have used a new pairing; a recreation of a pre-existing team would have been what Big Finish do. It feels right, for such an overdue return to the role, that this is an entirely new subset within the Fourth Doctor’s era.

I don’t have any great feelings for Mike on TV, but that’s what makes him interesting – this Doctor was always effective, so it’s no surprise that he continues to be here, whereas Mike… Apart from anything else, after all this time, he’s an unknown quantity (unlike the Brigadier, who he is replacing; much as I love Nick Courtney, I can’t help but think that might be a fortuitous occurrence – however, eg, in discussions of the characters’ long association, the replacement does become obvious). Unfortunately, Mike isn’t really developed over the course of these stories as much as I initially hoped, and though quite charming as a harmless old duffer and a good, likeable foil to the “mild eccentricity” of the Doctor, there isn’t too much to say about Richard Franklin’s performance. The use of the character’s latent insecurities in Hive of Horror has potential, but it seems a waste that it is only in the last story that he actually becomes involved in a hands-on sense.

The lack of predictability of the Doctor’s ally extends even to the story’s structure, such as it is. Even considering it as part of a linked series, The Stuff of Nightmares is surprisingly lacking in resolution - though this isn’t disappointing until it becomes clear this will be equally true of the subsequent instalments. However, audio does at least feel like this story’s most natural and appropriate medium – rather than it being something than could be tweaked to fit novel, comic strip, or TV formats. It does also make a great deal of difference that Magrs has a great eye/ear for evocative description (you can imagine being in Nest cottage, with its low ceilings, wood fire and tiled kitchen floor), but is poetic enough – combined with its multiple-narrator style – to avoid tediously straightforward radio exposition.

The five stories are very much episodes of an overall story, and though I appreciate their linked format, I almost wish they had been allowed to be more standalone. I enjoyed them all (though in retrospect The Dead Shoes and The Circus of Doom are perhaps the least involving), but given Magrs’ prodigious imagination, a bit more variety would have been appreciated. Compared to the best of Magrs’ work, despite being full of examples of his wonderfully idiosyncratic imagination, overall the series felt strangely flat, which is disappointing as the stories-within-stories structure could have lent itself to his characteristic metatextuality. Also, while the broad strokes with which Magrs paints his characters and situations are mainly successful, there are points at which the locations seem too slight – as in A Sting in the Tale, where the story is split between a mediaeval convent and the interior of the TARDIS, leading to the marginalisation of the former environment.

There may also be some inconsistencies (Mike seemingly forgets things he’s previously been told, for the purpose of recapping to the audience, while whiskey is discovered to be inimical to the hornets, but comes to nothing), but the larger-than-life grotesqueness of characters like the craven Mr Noggins and sour Mrs Wibbsey (“Go boil your head”) is a nice antidote to Davies-style pseudo-realism and all-too-neat character arcs and Emotional Moments. The housekeeper, Mrs Wibbsey, is particularly brilliant as a reluctant companion in the last part, acerbic and pessimistic, and the idea of a miniaturised expedition into the hive’s nest within the skull of a taxidermed zebra is brilliantly whimsical, but also rendered surprisingly atmospheric.

Although Amazon isn’t perhaps the best place for incisive commentary (ha!), I accidentally ended up reading reviewers’ comments there and was really surprised how many one-star ‘I was expecting an exciting adventure full of special effects’ and ‘not as good as Big Finish’ comments and calls for ‘proper’ Fourth Doctor audio adventures there were. Which just shows how bigoted fandom can be, and how unable to accept anything other than same-old same-old. And, basically, how stupid many fans seem to be. Presumably these are the kind of people who turn off films in disgust for having subtitles.

Ironically, despite the fannish approach, the Hornets’ Nest series feels a lot more universally accessible to me than the few straightforward Big Finish plays I’ve heard. Maybe because though the Fourth Doctor and Mike are established characters, this is a completely new set-up and doesn’t need to adhere to a pre-existing period, it certainly feels noticeably different to BF. Its one-night-only holiday special feel helps.

I may have reservations about this series, and am somewhat ambivalent about the very closely-linked format, but, overall, I can’t help but find it massively laudable that this just isn’t transparently commercial in the way we’ve become used to. Instead of Kylie Minogue in a soft-porn maid’s outfit we get an old man assisting the Doctor, in an old-fashioned – yet postmodern – narrated drama. It’s very heartening and welcome to see Doctor Who alive and kicking in a resolutely separate form to the new series, and I feel the richness of the writing will ensure these plays repay repeated listens.

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