Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 014. The Holy Terror by Robert Shearman (November 2000)

Unlike all of the previous writers for Big Finish at this point, Robert Shearman was a completely new name. He’d been a playwright before (and a highly acclaimed one who’d worked with Alan Ayckbourn) but this is his Doctor Who debut. And his newness, his freshness shows in every nook and cranny of this gothic masterpiece: this is starkly, boldly, radically original, and I can’t imagine we’ll see much like this again unless it’s from Shearman’s own pen. Steven Moffat thinks it’s better than every single televised Colin Baker story, and quite frankly I find myself agreeing with him.

Shearman’s dialogue is stunningly dark; witty; full of wonderful turns of phrase and a rich, quasi-biblical, quasi-Shakespearian vocabulary. His is a unique imagination into which we can drop the Doctor Who narrative framework, and this is a story full of great, great ideas: as a satire of religion it’s both wickedly funny and pointedly, sharply fierce. He borrows freely from a vast array of literary tradition, most clearly Jacobean tragedy but also Richard III (and of course Macbeth: “Who would have thought an old man would have had so much blood in him?”, and then again when the Doctor’s hand goes straight through the knife). That a new religion should begin every time the previous God dies is fascinating, and that each God is thought immortal until their inevitable death a wonderful comment on the self-repeating ludicrousness and futility of deification. The monarchic succession of sons after their fathers, the weight of heritage and lineage, is similarly lampooned. That history repeats itself so absolutely in this bizarre world, that we are condemned to commit the same stupid, violent acts, really keeps us on edge and makes for some gripping listening. We also get a quite disturbing look at father-son relationships in the real world (not just in this perverse one), and the way in which each father ruins his sons, and each son idolises and then ‘kills’ his father (as Larkin puts it in This Be The Verse, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad… they may not mean to, but they do/…Man hands on misery to man; it deepens like a coastal shelf”). Shearman also looks at the absurdist world of free will, of everything being pre-determined, and the way this can play out in theatrical narrative – I have a feeling he’s familiar with Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. That Pepin and Berengaria become real beings rather than mere constructs in their very moment of death is the stuff of real, proper tragedy: just as we realise our fleeting potential in this world, we die (we’re talking the greats here, like John Proctor in The Crucible or Ianto Jones in Children of Earth).

This story is so gloriously dark. Berengaria and Livilla are both deeply unpleasant pieces of work. This is a tale of masochism and sadism, of mutilation, torture, murder and infanticide: quite possibly one of the nastiest narratives the Doctor has ever found himself in. The Child of Tacitus is one of Doctor Who’s most disturbing creations: a torture device for a single old man in the form of a sadistic child. Its rising massacre of the castle’s inhabitants in Part 4 is nasty as hell. The high body count and the bloodbath is about the only thing which makes this pertinent for Colin Baker’s era, since its experimental nature and high-concept narrative means it stands head and shoulders above the rest in quality. But boy, what a bloodbath. Even in the TARDIS we find a kind of sadistic cruelty, in which a creator preys upon his creation – Frobisher hunting the Gumblejack out of pleasure.

I won’t exactly be breaking new ground by pointing out that it’s also hilariously, uproariously funny. The initial recanting joke is highly amusing for the trick it plays on the expectant audience. Similarly amusing is Pepin’s initial speech, and the rituals of assassination and rebellion. Shearman knows the kind of thing his audience expects, and he’s more than capable of inverting it for an excellent joke. This becomes a high-brow literary pastiche of the very works he’s plundering: all the stereotypes are present and correct, the shock twists, the literary horror… Much like Catch-22, a novel which makes you laugh at the absurdity of war and then weep over its horrors, Shearman blends humour and horror in a perfect balance. The final twist of the knife, so to speak, in part 4 is about as horrific as the show gets.

Much of the story’s humour comes from Robert Jezek as Frobisher. So, Frobisher. A mesomorphic talking penguin-shaped Whifferdill paired with the Sixth Doctor, an invention of the weird and wonderful world of DWM comic strips. I’m just going to say “yep” and accept it, because why the hell not? Jezek’s New York twang is wonderfully distinctive amid the portentous tones of the castle inhabitants, and he makes for a great pairing with Baker’s Doctor. They seem to have a very relaxed banter, as though they’ve been friends for quite some time – and indeed this story is probably Baker at his most compassionately mellow and his least obnoxious. He’s funny, he’s shrewd and he’s powerfully emotive. If only they’d had great scripts like this in 1985. And, because of course it’s worth saying, Frobisher being mistaken as a prophet from heaven is just a sublime plot point in every way. Only in Doctor Who: “All hail the big talking bird!”

So far, I think this is the strongest guest cast overall. Childeric is fantastically played by actor Peter Guinness, his wonderful sinister tones perfectly complementing the claustrophobic castle environment: a lovely Richard III pastiche. The court scribe Eugene Tacitus (a nod to Roman history?), bumbling along, making things up, is at first a delightful take on Barquentine from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast – for conveying Polonius-esque courtier histrionics, Sam Kelly is stupendous. He’s both terrifically pathetic and very funny, sometimes at the same time. But his character arc takes a sudden twist mid-way through the story, culminating in the sublime Part 3 cliff-hanger. The revelation is packed with emotional wallop and hard-hitting as it can possibly be. Bring Shearman back any time.

We have an absurdist black comedy in which a mesomorphic Woody-Allen-inspired penguin is mistaken for a deity, religion is lampooned as the death toll rises, and a child asking “Are you my father?” can be the creepiest thing this side of the Weeping Angels. Good God, when this show hits these kind of heights, it’s truly astonishing. We trap ourselves in our own guilt, just like Eugene Tacitus, and tell ourselves complex make-believe narratives full of every kind of archetype and stereotype and stock characterisation to make sense of the actions we’ve carried through and the mistakes we’ve made, but in the end, one day, our house of cards has to come crashing down. And as anyone who has experienced that level of remorse will know, that is, after a fashion, a death.

Other things:
The ancient castle, the forbidding music, the dripping dankness of it all…it’s really rather Gormenghast straight away, complete with the bumbling Eugene Tacitus enhancing the story’s bizarre tone.
The lute playing over Empress Berengaria and Livilla’s first scene is a good touch, better still when it’s woven into the scene. I’d honestly thought it incidental music! The trumpets blaring during the coronation set the scene terrifically, too.
“The Living God Emperor Pepin VI is dead. He fell asleep in his bath and drowned.”
“According to tradition, you must be the one to devise the execution of your predecessor.” That is SO Mervyn Peake it hurts! As is the following exchange: “The rituals by which we run our lives are sacrosanct. They’re the only things which give our existence any meaning.”/“But they don’t make any sense!”/“Of course they don’t make any sense. Otherwise they wouldn’t have to be rituals, we’d be doing them without a second thought.”
“Hiding in crypts, Childeric, doesn’t make you look evil, just rather sulky and antisocial!”
“Die well, mother. Die long and slow.”/“You too, Childeric, when your time comes.”
“If it thought it was real, who are you to say it wasn’t?”
“It doesn’t matter to whom the cruelty is directed, the cruelty ITSELF is wrong!”
“They’re all on their knees before us!”/“Perhaps they’ve dropped something?”
Arnulf’s tongueless laughter is bloody frightening. “I had to give you your tongue back so I could find out what your dying words would be.”
“And he did immerse himself in warm water, and play about his body with soap. And the people were sore relieved, for he had begun to smell a bit.”
“The prose style isn’t much to write home about, but it’s very thorough.”
The moment where Frobisher’s off-hand dismissal of heaven impacts on Pepin so much is great. “But there has to be a heaven! Or else what’s the point of anything? What’s the point of living at all?”
“Gods were popping up and dropping down quicker than you could say ‘heretic’!”
“Do you like your hot water weak or tepid?”
“I’d have thought any god worth his salt would have more concerns than economising on the stationery.”
The nice little conceit that “there’s something philanthropic in the [TARDIS] circuits” ties in rather well with The Doctor’s Wife.
The Doctor’s quiet, haunted “why?” when he sees the mutilation done to Arnulf is a really chilling moment.
“No one really believes in God anymore… The people commit heresy secretly every day in their hearts. The laws by which their ancestors feared for their lives have become empty rituals, without number and without meaning.”
“How shall we survive without a God?”
“The lying blasphemer speaks the truth, Your Majesty!”
If I’ve learned anything from being a historian it’s that death and torture are inevitable. Best to just grin and bear it.”
“You call yourself a God? A God of one single building? You might as well call yourself a landlord!”
“Who is my father? Who is the man who created God?” – perhaps not surprisingly by now, the writers are getting really, really good at writing audio-specific cliff-hangers. This is one of the strongest of them all, as the Child’s voice gets lowered and we hear Sam Kelly’s tones as Tacitus, and everything falls into place. It’s a great example of delivering the revelation in the best possible way for the medium.
“How long has it taken you to wreck our society?”/ “Well, I started this afternoon, actually.”
“This castle is the universe. There is no other! I am God of it all!”
“These tunnels all look the same! Oh well, they always do, don’t they?”
Clovis’ death scene is another terrific one. “Think noble!”
Once again, the influence on Moffat’s writing is palpable, this time influencing The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances: “Are you my father?”
“That Child out there is your only God, and his name is Death. There is no hope, Sejanus, no hope at all.”
“It’s normal to love your own son. It’s natural. Why can’t I love like that?”
“Shall I push the knife into your chest, father?”
“I love you, daddy,” says the terrifying Child-vision as he kills the father which has reimagined him out of grief and guilt, and he stabs himself. Brrr.
“He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to do that,” repeats the Doctor in horror and disbelief.
“They felt pain. They felt fear. And more than that, they had hopes and dreams and families. Yes, it is terrible. But that’s what comes of travelling in the TARDIS. All the people you meet, all the planets you see, you know they won’t last forever. And our next journey could be to a time where they have all been forgotten. Such little lives…that we can feel like Gods set apart from them all.” Colin delivers this speech perfectly (it seems obligatory now that he gets a terrific speech every audio adventure), and it makes for a very mournful, melancholy end to this stunning story.


  1. My very top. I loved Spare Parts, and I loved Jubilee, but this... this might be my favorite DW story ever full stop.

    1. I can't choose my favourite Shearman, I don't think!