Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 009. The Spectre of Lanyon Moor by Nicholas Pegg (June 2000)

Nicholas Pegg gives previous Big Finish scribes aiming for a traditional Doctor Who adventure a run for their money with this instalment, originally written to tempt Tom Baker's Doctor into the fold; it feels practically lifted from the mid-70s, complete with foggy moors, unnerving night-time manors, eerie phenomena, betrayals, a high death count, and a sci-fi explanation for something supernatural in Earth’s past. What we get at the opening is quintessential English countryside, chirpy birds, splashes, breeze, farmyard animals… a rural score accompanying to convey the pleasant idyll, but slowly everything darkens: the claustrophobia of the fogou is nicely done too, as are the prehistoric whispers. The tone is distinctly Hinchcliffian. A low, eerie score of strings soak this audio drama in atmosphere. Among various contenders, one of the most Doctor Whoish ideas on display is the exploration of the fogou, the underground passage built by Iron Age man. Archaeology slots very well into Doctor Who, and fits nicely alongside Colin Baker’s grandstanding expert of a Doctor. It also suits Evelyn Smythe, who gets to display her historical knowledge not only of the Celts’ tin mining but also to do some research in Flint’s library and immediately identify the time-period of his manor – she’s wonderfully resourceful and I want more companions like this (writers in Cardiff, take note).

There are various other reasons this tale feels redolent of Image of the Fendahl or The Daemons. Much like in the recent episode Hide, it’s always nice when writers give a creepy location a bit of back-story, and the call backs to the Civil War, the 18th century excavations, and the 1840s farmer add flavour to Lanyon Moor’s already chilling atmosphere. There are some truly gory details in here, whether it’s Flint’s threat at the end of Part Two, or the memorably gruesome dispatch of Moynihan toward the end – Mary Whitehouse would have had a field day with this in ’77. Of the strong guest cast, one of the strongest thus far, Professor Morgan & the student Ludgate have a good double act: the new-fangled PhD student and the old “trowel-scraper”. Morgan’s pronunciation of “cafetiere”, for instance, is great, his lilting Welsh tones delightful on the ear. Ludgate’s late betrayal is also interesting, even if it feels like you can hear the cogs of the plot turning. Toby Longworth’s varied performance as Morgan/Sancreda is strong, even if the Tregannon feels a bit hackneyed and irritating. Susan Jameson as Mrs Moynihan is good fun, a sort of parallel twisted Evelyn where (the much less interesting) Archibald mirrors the Doctor. Like much in this story, the little hints seeded early on about her character end up being nicely relevant to her character in Part Four. In fact, Part Four is meticulously plotted, with just the right details segued in the right places to make seemingly contrived plot points come off perfectly. And finally, I warmed to Nikki immediately (as a walker myself). It’s quite upsetting that she gets torn apart seconds after her appearance. Evelyn is truly shaken by the experience in a nice and sudden dramatic turn, whilst Nikki’s death is appropriately gory.

The other strong classic element here, of course, is a certain member of the Lethbridge-Stewart clan. Nicholas Courtney slips back into the role of the retired Brigadier with consummate ease. His voice is incredibly distinctive and he works well with both Baker and Stables. The Brigadier versus ancient creature climax is a little bit of a Battlefield redux, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and his switching of the focussing amplifier with the copper wire is fairly neat. But how wonderful that he’s carrying out surveillance work for UNIT in a tucked-away part of Cornwall, and it’s nice to see the Sixth Doctor function alongside all the UNIT bureaucracy and indeed his old friend. Speaking of which, the Six/Evelyn dynamic continues to be excellent, her sarcasm puncturing his bluster nicely. Evelyn’s sympathy for Morgan, seeing it from his point of view, is a lovely character moment, and nicely followed up by the semi-petulant yet heartfelt manner in which the Doctor apologises. The way he butters him up with all the compliments is great!

It’s not a perfect story, of course. Some of the dialogue is a bit creaky and obvious; parts of the story could definitely be pacier; the TARDIS’ return is one of the most irksome contrivances; the opening sequence is corny as hell, and impossible to listen to with a straight face. Unfortunately this extends to the depiction of the Tregannon: the faults aren’t entirely with the script, as the level of detail put into their race is laudable – but the execution feels oddly lacking and Sancreda a rather paltry threat. That said, I did like that Sancreda had 18,000 years of hate as his back-story. Alongside Moynihan, this is a story full of characters nursing bitterness and inner grudges.

The sudden hop to Athens DOES feel like a deviation from the traditional elements of this story; more moments like this would be welcome to enliven such familiar tales. As I’ve commented before, there’s nothing wrong with aiming squarely for the ‘classic’ bracket – there’s a reason it worked well the first time, of course – but good as this is on the whole, it runs the risk of feeling like a pale imitation.

Other things:
“Of course it’s Earth. Nowhere else in the cosmos has the same October mornings.”
“What’s at the end of the tunnel?”/“I think if I knew the answer to that question, on the whole, I’d get into a lot less trouble.”
“To judge by the clothes, the unexpected arrival and the manner of your greeting, I can only conclude that I know exactly who you are. I take it there’s a police box somewhere in the vicinity?”
“Ooh, this and that. Mostly that, you know.” (the Doctor’s answer to “what are you a doctor of?”)
The Doctor learns 3 times for the first time that the Brigadier is married: here, in one of the novels, and in Battlefield – I like to think he just forgets, and his brain doesn’t take in such seemingly trivial (to him) info.
“Well, he had a cavalier attitude,” the Doctor says of the Roundhead whose account he reads.
“Wherever I go in the universe, I invariably meet people like you – intelligent, knowledgeable people who for reasons I can only guess at reach a point in their lives where they arbitrarily decide to close their minds to anything new. You make it a point of personal pride to scoff, mock and ridicule anybody who happens to inhabit a larger universe than the one in which you have chosen to imprison yourself… The only way to learn is to keep your mind open to those who are more knowledgeable than yourself!” Nice to see Six can still be as caustic and acerbic as ever.
“Religion is for people who believe in hell. Magic is for people who have been there.”
“Steady yourself, Evelyn,” – I wish more companions talked to themselves like this. Her regret in smashing the ancient stained glass window: “forgive me, Sir John Arundel!”
“You can go a long way with no talent, but you’ll never get anywhere without a pencil.”
“Are you telling me that my housekeeper has entered into some kind of Faustian pact with a pixie from outer space?...Right, the minute she gets back she’s fired!”

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