Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 004. The Land of the Dead by Stephen Cole (January 2000)

Right from the opening it’s clear we are in somewhat unusual territory for Doctor Who – or certainly, for the Fifth Doctor. If this story could slot into any year best it’s probably mid-68, but even then some of the themes belie its later release date (there’s a slight whiff of Ghost Light, but only a slight one). The Seeds of Doom-esque opening in the Alaskan wastes is strong, and the soundscape quite nicely done. The setting is distinctive and intriguing, which is definitely to the story’s credit: the sumptuous house amid the snowy wastes. Additionally, the interior architecture of the house is well explored, complete with the creepy “bone room” which is a wonderful concept. Unfortunately, this story never seems to get past the “great idea” stage. There are a lot of good ones here, but it doesn’t feel like writer Stephen Cole does anything tremendously interesting with them. The characters are few, which is worrying given that none are especially engaging; the dialogue is often quite clunky; the cliff-hangers feel samey; Part 3 feels interminable; and the story mostly follows the same sequence – creeping about, getting attacked, making sarcastic remarks, etc.

Let’s look at one of those good pitch ideas: the Permians. The central conceit is a very good one: primordial, evolving creatures emerging out of fossil and earth and natural elements upwards toward the finest human dwelling money can buy. There’s a mythical dimension to this which is very appealing; the tension between tradition and progress is an important theme, and a strong one. But again, Cole doesn’t do all that much with them. The creatures absorbing the people they devour is great, but it doesn’t feel the true horror of it is ever delivered on. That said, I do like the resolution of fire – an ancient material to fight an ancient threat.

Similarly with the characters: their back history is rather impressively well thought out, but that doesn’t make it interesting. Monica is Tegan-lite, and while that gives Davison excellent material to bounce off it doesn’t make her intrinsically interesting. The other characters never stand out especially – and oh God, those American accents!

The story’s opening sound-bites about Alaska are a tad obvious but the Fifth Doctor doing his history lesson mode gets a thumbs up from me. I like it when the Doctor gets to be all knowledgeable and show-offy, and Davison doesn’t always get as many opportunities to do this. The Fifth Doctor/Nyssa dynamic is a very pleasant one, and I wish we had seen more of this on TV; I certainly look forward to future audios with these two: an intelligent, open-minded duo who get on. Nyssa’s reference to her father’s death is a nice touching moment, one she rarely got on the main show.

So overall, one with potential that ultimately doesn’t go as far as it should. Doctor Who on TV can do better, certainly, but even four stories in, I already know Big Finish can do better themselves.

Other things:
“Strangers?”/“…only until we’ve been introduced.”
“How is a fossilised skeleton moving about without flesh and blood to clothe it?” – an extremely Doctor Whoish line, the sort of line you just know the writer revelled in when they thought of it!
“It’s still alive?”/“Unsettling, isn’t it?” Ditto here.
The Permians’ weakness – synthetic material – is memorable enough, and the scene where they throw paint on it is a good one.

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