Tuesday, 29 September 2015

BBC New Series Adventures Audiobook 11: The Hounds of Artemis written by James Goss and read by Matt Smith and Clare Corbett (May 2011)

James Goss has written a slight but enjoyable little audio story which sits well within the Eleventh Doctor’s early era (this is presumably set not long after Vincent and the Doctor – or before The Pandorica Opens, anyway; there’s a crack on the temple wall at one point). The prologue is a pitch-perfect cold open, as a bunch of British archaeologists uncover the tomb of Artemis at Smyrna in 1929 to stirring strings, right down to evocative similes such as “the gap in the stonework [was] like a missing tooth”. The Hounds of Artemis is also one of those great pseudo-historicals like Pyramids of Mars (note the Scarman Institute reference!) that hit the double-whammy of being set in the early part of the 20th century yet being intimately concerned with a myth far older than that particular time: in this particular instance, the Greek legends of the hunting goddess Artemis.

There’s a quasi-Tintin, quasi-Raiders of the Lost Ark, quasi-Christie-ish air to proceedings that makes the whole thing, like Tooth and Claw, both a rip-roaring romp and a scare-fest. There’s also a little bit of Flesh and Stone about the way sentient statues mess with our heroes’ minds. None of the various elements are particularly innovative (prophetic old woman; ancient horror about to be unleashed; the footprints of a gigantic hound; spooky priestesses), but they’re done with a lightness of touch and a good sense of fun. One of the best scenes is the creepy feast in the crypt, in which the food, the remains of dead people, rather unexpectedly turns Woolcroft and Van der Cass into colossal, slobbering hounds (methinks Goss has borrowed from the legend of Circe, as well as Artemis).

Matt Smith isn’t as flexible a narrator as David Tennant in many ways (his predecessor does a good range of voices, and builds tension with great precision and diction, whereas Smith has extremely distinctive plummy tones) and yet there’s something ineffably charming about his reading of The Hounds of Artemis, letting the words spin out of him like they’re tripping over his tongue to emerge. Unsurprisingly, Smith gives the Doctor’s entrance a delightfully daffy, one might even say bathetic, quality: “His heart thudding in his throat, Bradley Stapleton stepped forward, thrusting his torch into the ominous darkness. He licked his dry lips, head full of childhood ghost stories of bodies and crypts. But nothing could have prepared him for what he heard coming from inside the tomb. ‘Ah, hello, I’m the Doctor! We’re early… you’re in terrible danger!’” Of course the Eleventh Doctor would be on the wrong side of the tomb he’s supposed to be helping the archaeological team break into, and right from his entrance he’s a hurricane-like force of nature here, pretending that the inscription above the tomb reads “death shall come on swift wings to all who enter here” just for a laugh, and all the usual jazz. And of course his dream food at the feast is fish fingers and custard.

But it’s not just quippery; Goss has included how this particular incarnation likes to leave quirky little messages all over people’s timelines, as we see here in his hurried note to Helen Stapleton (“deepest sympathy. Apologies for missing funeral. Thought you’d find this interesting. I’ve tried to fill in the gaps as best as I can. Must dash! He was a lovely man. Happy times and places! -the Doctor”). We also get a brief nod to the idea that he sees companions as glorified pets. Smith’s Amy is less impressive – he doesn’t really try to do the accent, and when he does he gets it badly wrong – and Mrs Van der Cass is a bit of a stereotypical German effort, but the posh colonial voice he puts on as Lord Woolcroft is a joyous Carry On-style treat (there’s a lovely detail when he changes into a hound that “the collar of his shirt [was] still neat, his tie straight, but he now had the head of a dog”).

Of course, what sets this particular audio apart is that we have two narrators, and Clare Corbett is every bit Smith’s equal, performing the unusual role of reading aloud Amy’s diary extracts while Smith narrates the main action (even if it’s reasonably clear that Corbett is a stand-in for the unavailable Karen Gillan). It frees up the story’s rhythm and dynamic very pleasingly to have them both on board, and it also gives Amy something of a greater stake in the story’s events. At points it’s a bit strange that she would be writing a diary so religiously, but the conceit works well (and there’s even a silly bit poking fun at the idea that she’s running and writing at the same time); these entries are cheeky, irreverent and fun, and do genuinely feel as though they’ve been written by Amy Pond. Her diarised professions of love for the Greek goddess have a whiff of The God Complex about them, making them a channel for unease as well as a form of narration.

The Hounds of Artemis doesn’t feel especially substantial – rather like a reasonably good but ultimately unexceptional 45-minute episode. It’s more engaging than The Feast of the Drowned, perhaps in part because it’s more meant for the audio format. Aside from the unique diary construction, there’s nothing especially new here, but it is a fun enough way to pass the time. I am quickly learning, however, that Big Finish significantly have the edge over these BBC Audios.

Other things:
It’s a wonder how little things like the extra sound production from BBC Audiobooks make such a difference to what is in essence a straightforward reading.
Stapleton screams Iconic Explorer Name, doesn’t it...
Anyone else’s head-canon that the Curator to whom Helen Stapleton is writing looks a bit like Tom Baker?
“A young man and woman, elegantly dressed, he like a professor, she like a Cambridge Blue Stocking in flowing skirts.”
You can almost see Vortis from Earth – who knew?
Amy on the life of 20th century explorers: “It’s only some beefy guys from the actual village who do the digging. We just take photographs and complain about the heat.”
“Artemis sounds like a real diva. Likes: long country walks, hunting, sacrifice, and tearing people apart with dogs. Dislikes: people who haven’t been torn apart by dogs. If she was alive now, she’d be one of those women saying, ‘Oh, Rover’s harmless, just being friendly, I’ll call an ambulance while you look for your fingers under the sofa.’”
“If there’s one thing the Doctor does badly, it’s casual.”
“With what we’re up against, a shotgun will be as much use as a marmalade Taser.”
“When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping!”
“Whole new corridors…just waiting to be found!”
“This is trouble.”/“Leave Now Trouble, or Stay and Fight Trouble?”
“Your brain’s got the builders in – and whoever it is, total cowboy, it’s not subtle, just sledgehammering away.”
“If people will not believe in Artemis as men, then they will follow her as hounds.”
This line made me laugh: “The hounds stalked in to the underground chamber, two of them laying down a huge roll of carpet.” See also “the hound in the dinner jacket”.
Shame about the sonic screwdriver being so relied on, but at least there’s some logic in it being deployed as a souped-up dog whistle.
“That’s the thing with you humans. You want stuff. No matter how ludicrous it is, you want it. That’s why people buy orange clothes in a sale. That’s as curious as it is greedy.”
“As the sound of the ancient engines faded, a distant figure on a hilltop howled to itself and trotted away, the tattered remnants of its gown flapping in the breeze.”

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