Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 013. The Shadow of the Scourge by Paul Cornell (October 2000)

Joseph Campbell wrote of the hero’s journey, also known as the monomyth (a concept borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake), in 1949. Though it has been adapted countless times since, one of the principal tenets is the Master of the Two Worlds, the idea of a hero who shifts from the domestic or “real” material plane of existence to something more metaphysical and spiritual, who can freely move between them. As Philip Sandifer points out in his wonderful article on The Shadow of the Scourge, McCoy’s Doctor is probably the Time Lord who best fits this description. His last line in this story sees him describing himself as “only human”, and the way this is spoken with both irony and truth is perfect: his Doctor is one of the most human of them all, warm and compassionate, but he walks in eternity as much as Baker did at his strangest; he plays chess-games with creatures that represent fear itself.

And that, ultimately, is the central dichotomy of this story. But it’s not a dichotomy, not really. It’s not an equal duel of good and evil. It’s very much a triumph of one over the other. Because the Doctor may always have to duel monsters, and he may take a certain relish in doing so, but that’s not all he does. He’s the man who plays the recorder, and recalls the “daisiest daisy”, who fell in love with the TARDIS all those centuries ago.

More than anything I’ve yet encountered (but then I am a virgin when it comes to the 90s novels – see what I did there?) this is Paul Cornell’s Doctor Who mission statement. The Doctor can meet with external representations of our innermost darkness and self-loathing, and he can win. Vital to the story, of course, is that the darkness is real darkness, that the threat is truly awful. And this is achieved because Cornell writes very, very good Doctor Who monsters. The Scourge voices are superbly dark and creepy, one of the most affective alien voices I’ve heard (both rough and comically Northern, the perfect blend of chilling and blackly funny). The insectoid aliens are an idea that’s memorably gruesome, and the suggestion that Annie’s unborn child will be assimilated into the Scourge itself is one of the show’s darkest moments (not to mention compelling Mike and then Gary to strangle themselves). That the Scourge are both psychologically disturbing as well as having a creepy physical appearance is a strong combination. The atmosphere of fear and paranoia is, as in that other great Seventh Doctor audio The Fearmonger, wonderfully conveyed. Placing the hotel in a dark, featureless void is sublimely apt and so, so chilling: as someone who has suffered from depression myself I can quite categorically say that that can be how it feels.

“You could see the Scourge as a disease, symptoms of clinical depression. We’ve all felt their tendrils… when it’s raining when it should be sunny. When we’re alone and we don’t want to be. When civilisation and history seem just things left on the battlefield… They came to be known as demons, the archdukes of Hell, because the geometry of their realm suggests the inferno. They keep certain human souls there, those who fail to escape. They’re an index of human fear and desire.” At first I was uncertain that the idea of human mental illness being a cause of alien power could be handled delicately enough, but Cornell makes it work – partly because of the resolution (which I’ll come to) but also partly, I feel, because no attempt at a long-term solution is given. People are going to continue suffering at the hands of the Scourge whatever happens, and nothing the Doctor can do will change that. And another speech worth quoting: “We are human failure. We live in the gap between what you are and what you could be. We have been parasites on your kind since the first australopithecine became conscious. In one instant, that beast was aware of her own self, and in the next, she doubted she deserved the happiness she experienced with that awareness.”

The story is so successful not just because these are cracking monsters, and not just because the concept behind them is chilling. Cornell’s characters are very, very humanely and compassionately drawn. The married man Michael trying to hide the fact that he took someone else out to dinner is a great human touch (“there are still certain things that one shouldn’t talk about”). The Scourge’s exploitation of Mary’s fear is genuinely very moving, and her death with its vision of hell (“You won’t die here… because that’s where you’re going!”) is a classic Doctor Who moment. All their inner demons are effective though – Annie as a fraud, Gary fiddling the accounts, and so on. We have here “three groups of desperate people” which the Scourge can feed off… the material, the cosmic/metaphysical and the spiritual are all presented as pathetic little human endeavours in the face of huge, powerful insectoid fear-monsters. And yet they are also sufficient to defeat those monsters.

One of the story’s most important lines – “This isn’t supposed to happen in Kent!” is notable partly because it’s funny, but partly because it’s wrong. It’s funny because of the central dark comedy of the aesthetic here – which feels very late McCoy-era. Mental illness, depression, ancient symbols, loneliness, characters with plenty of secrets, homelessness… the themes are all spot-on. The ancient enemy in a banal and domestic setting has whiffs of Paradise Towers, and I mean that in a good way. The blend of kitsch, scientific advancement and psychic forces makes for a winning formula, and with the above line Cornell explicitly addresses the fact the genres are being blended. But the fact that it’s wrong is yet more telling. This kind of stuff does happen in Kent, as it does everywhere else. Depression (and by fictional extension the Scourge) can never be parochial.

Indeed, it affects even the Doctor. McCoy gives us a career-best performance as the Seventh Doctor in this one. Bernice carries Part 1, which only makes the Doctor’s reappearance at the end of Part 1 more effective, complete with his enigmatic hints that “all is going to plan”. The fact that he’s so far ahead in his schemes, and yet seems like the villain in the first half of the story, reminds me of the finer parts of The Invasion of Time, but it’s done here with much more atmosphere – the concept of his mind being free to roam the multiverse thanks to the Scourge’s biological implant is more McCoy than a straightforward assassination of a president. And of course, the nice twist here is that the Doctor’s wonderfully complex plan goes completely awry and he becomes a monster at the end of Part 2. The sounds of the Doctor transforming into a Scourge are horribly gruesome, and McCoy plays the anguished scream very well. Cornell almost had me convinced his time was up! The Doctor’s mind-scape is wonderful: whispers and echoing caverns and the faint drip of water. Capturing the Scourge in his head is a lovely resolution to the problem of being physically taken over by one, thus preventing the Scourge moving between the worlds and stopping them fully materialise on Earth. The inner world inverts the outer. It’s wholly appropriate to a story about fear, desperation and despair personified that the Doctor should also become a wholly psychological force for a time, fighting them from within. A war of minds, quite literally: Doctor Who’s monster-of-the-week-adventure is a fight that plays out in our heads, all day, every day.

His self-doubt whilst in his mind is one of the darkest performances any Doctor has ever made. McCoy wails and shrieks the words with an anguish we rarely see from the lead character. The Doctor fearing that he is like an arsonist who starts the fire so that he can rescue people and be a hero who is adored, Bernice’s assurance that he is a good, beloved man – this scene (but more broadly Cornell’s vision of what Doctor Who is) feels as though it has influenced the entirety of the Moffat era’s philosophy, as I feel certain it has (though particularly the wonderful and recent Listen). He also gets a sublimely strong speech in the story’s conclusion:

“Oh, but I’m not scared…because of all that has happened to me…I set myself up as a slayer of monsters, someone who battles with demons, and to do that one needs a certain authority. What gives me the right to walk into situations like this and juggle with the fate of planets? Who gives me permission to stand up?...My friends do. You putting me through all this soul-searching only served to remind me of that. And there’s something else, that I’m the Doctor. You said you read many texts concerning me, that the central feature of them was my desire for freedom. Surely you noticed something else…that I always beat the monsters. And now, here I am. Just when you’ve got victory in your grasp, wandering about in front of you without a care in the universe. Obviously I have something up my sleeve. Obviously you’re unaware of the trap I’ve lured into. I’m what monsters like you are afraid of. So tell me, are you getting scared yet?”

I truly think it’s one of Doctor Who’s great moments. Just as we’ve found ourselves trapped in a nightmarish world of Russian dolls within each other, minds within bodies within the hotel within the fractional dimension, trying to consume each other, representing one’s internal prisons as we are consumed by our internal fears, now we get “love can stop the fear” as this story’s central message, and it’s is so, so akin to Listen, I love it. Some hate the love saves the day endings, and if so I’m sure they’d hate Cornell’s soppiness, but to be honest, it’s what Doctor Who IS for me. The moment the characters state their human mistakes, weaknesses and failures and accept them is superb. “To face our monsters”. It’s soppy, perhaps, but the best kind of soppy there is (even if “get out of our heads” is a step too far for my liking!)

The story is convincingly about the smallness of one’s everyday existence as being a triumph over the existential abyss depression makes us face: “Do you think your actions are meaningless? Do you think there’s no point to life unless you’re building things or writing things or having children? Do you think it’s all over when you’ve done that?” Happiness along the journey is everything, fearing our darker natures may be natural but as Benny says, “tea and scones are great!” The little things in life are more important than the cosmic, and accepting that the Scourge reside in us, but that we can banish them, is what makes us human – I cannot think of any message more noble for a Doctor Who story.

Other things:
“We’re the Scourge, and the Scourge are us, and that means we can tell the Scourge what to do. Listen!” There it is again with the Series 8, Episode 4 link.
“That’s all we were afraid of. A poor old man who died alone. Isn’t it odd, the things we’re afraid of in the dark?”
There’s only one bad thing about this story, and that is: good grief, the cover is one of the worst things in the Whoniverse.
A tremendously surreal, bizarre, creepy opening. The chanting of “Om” makes for a terribly effective way to begin and the long, drawn out “Oooooooommmmmmm” is very, very unnerving.  And the music is (while mostly calm and incidental) a powerful backdrop to the dark themes.
“And I’m Mother Theresa….which I have been on a professional basis.”
“You have felt my presence in the past, Annie, in dreams… in moments of tiredness, in your head. You know, you poor con artist, that you actually chanced upon something in the great beyond. But of course with your rough mythology, your dolphins and crystals and money, you had no idea what it actually was.” Splendid.
“You are property. Your kind belong to us. When we have finished here you will all belong to us.”
The lift descending and opening just in time to reveal Old Will turning into the Scourge Leader might be quite a visual moment, but it comes off strongly on audio too.
My unfamiliarity with the Virgin NAs doesn’t help me here, but the TARDIS dynamic seems like an effective one.  Dr Bernice Summerfield seems like a good addition – older, wiser than Ace, without looking up to the Doctor quite as much; always ready with a good quip, but capable of being dynamic and driving the plot forward. In fact, she’s the strongest character in the story’s opening, while Ace feels slightly off and the Doctor remains a mysterious figure in the background. Bernice being rather taken by the Eighth Doctor is a nice touch, too.
Ace’s characterisation isn’t perfect here, but there’s a sign of the edgier person she will become when she lets herself get deafened by Gary.
The wise old biddy/where’s the body lip-reading gag is very amusing.
“There’s a time experiment going on in a hotel in Kent? How baroque!”
“Is this the room with all the extra-terrestrial channelling going on, or are you all holding hands because you’re really friendly?”
“I’m meditating.”/“Does the sherry help?”
“I greet the leader of the great unity of the Scourge. In the name of Gallifrey, I welcome him to this universe, where he and his minions can feast… On behalf of the Time Lords, I offer you the unconditional surrender of the planet Earth!”
“Normally I get to experience a lot more pleasure before I wake up feeling like this!” – Benny is wonderfully cheeky.
“They are in no danger now… but they will be later.”
“Run like the mindless meat you are!”
“That’s three “what?”s – soon you’ll have enough for a new battery.” She really is this story’s central wit!
“You are complicated. I can see your shadow stretching back and forward across what your people call time. You have different facets, different faces, some of them hidden.”
The story’s pacing is great. It launches full into alien terror early on, with minimal build-up. We are kept guessing, unaware of the Doctor’s plans and traps for the creatures.
Ace’s reaction to fear – “she bashes it.”
“I don’t think the monsters would bother knocking.”
“It’s one of the eternal mysteries of the universe: why does tea made in a hotel bedroom taste worse than tea made in any other circumstances?”
Glad to know the Doctor is convinced of sugar in his tea after that little scene in Remembrance!
Ace description of the Scourge’s preying on humanity’s depression as being “like a hyperspace version of Radiohead” – wonderful.
“The only rational thing for humanity to do would be to worship them as gods. Gods of despair and horror.”/“Are there any more secular options?”
“Feast on the energy of her everlasting death!”
Benny’s ventilation duct gag is a lovely meta in-joke, as is: “I’m tired of sneaking through corridors.”/“You should try doing it professionally.”
I love the Seventh Doctor: “As William Shakespeare once said to me, come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough.”
“Hello. Welcome to my mind… Sorry about the mess.”
“I just think you enjoy saving us all at the last minute, like you’re a conjurer and there are rabbits of some kind.”
McCoy intones “deep hat” with wonderful sobriety.
“It’s just a meaningless moment. Put enough of them back to back and you’ve got a meaningless life.”
“Up the lift shaft! It’ll be fun!”/“Do you have a different definition of that word in the future?”

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