Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 019. Minuet in Hell by Alan W. Lear and Gary Russell (April 2001)

The opening of the final story of McGann’s first season is creepy and shadowy: “The legends of Gallifrey speak of a world where everything is horror. Horror and pain. A world from where there is no escape from the creatures that crawl on the crust of the land. Of the lost and the hopeless and the broken and the doomed. The legends of Gallifrey speak of a world, and the name of the world they speak of is Hell. Hell is where I have come to at last. And there can be no escape.” McGann's panicked delivery is excellent and “Hell” is given a truly chilling sonic realisation, the crackle of flames and the incantation of satanic voices.

And then it all goes wrong.

I’ve spoken before about the dichotomy of Big Finish being that of adhering closely to the “classic” formula of Doctor Who and looking ahead, pushing the boundaries, expanding the universe and generally pre-empting the new series. At its worst, Big Finish just aims for the latter with minimal ambition and the result is a snooze-fest like Sword of Orion. At its best we get such stunners as the recent The Stones of Venice, and the forthcoming Loups-Garoux, which I’ve just finished listening to and desperately want to discuss instead of this one. Minuet in Hell, however, is an uneasy patchwork of both approaches, leaving neither element fully satisfied.

It’s all the more frustrating because there ARE good things about this. To whit: it’s always good to see the Brigadier again (in one of the more blatant “let’s make this feel as classic as possible” aspects) – sure, his appearance is a bit token just to get him alongside McGann, but frankly that's reason enough. The implication that Lethbridge-Stewart helped set up the Scottish Parliament in the late 90s is left-field but the idea he's come to lend expertise to the Malebolgians is probably the most bizarre reason to include him in a storyline so far (among some stiff competition) – even as a cover, it's completely ludicrous. It is, though, completely and utterly wonderful that the Doctor admits to feeling safer because the Brigadier is around, one of the nicest, most understated moments in their entire friendship; their final scene together is marvellous too. The Hellfire Club is a wonderfully Doctor Whoish concept one should be able to do lots with. The same is true of the cerebral surgery storyline, which boasts some wonderfully nasty stuff and some great black humour (“bludgeoning six rednecks to death with her prosthetic leg” my personal favourite). There are some nice lines, and Nicholas Briggs does a great job with the intriguing concept of Gideon Crane.

But the story is a mess. It really is. The Satanist American politician, posing as an evangelist, also tied up in unpleasant experiments on brain surgery, attempting to summon the demon Marchasios; the Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-esque femme fatale; the return of a beloved character from the Doctor’s past; the horrific gentleman’s club plotline; the Psionovores; the mental asylum and the question of identity – it’s all incredibly undercooked. Nothing gets to breathe whatsoever, because it’s all breathlessly tripping over each other (even though this is practically a six-parter in length). In one sense, one must be forgiving since Gary Russell is trying to salvage Alan W. Lear’s old AudioVisuals script, but charity will only get us so far. This is painful to get through.

Part of that comes down to the American setting. No, it’s nothing to do with the accents, which irk a little but not too much. There is something patently ludicrous about them, but they're not excruciating to listen to. It’s the terribly botched presentation of America as a nation. Take the political intrigue storyline: I cannot accept the ludicrous suggestion that a fifty first state called Malebolgia could be founded without others' suspicion that their new state shares the name of the Eighth Circle of Hell from Dante’s Inferno. This is the country where Obama’s middle name is considered dubious to many. It’s a critique of America from the ignorant perspective of a Brit, and while there might be much about America that is worth critiquing, you need to know your stuff first. The Buffyesque attempts to make grand points about society combined with pulpy demon activity falls incredibly flat here, I’m sad to say.

There’s a lesson to be learned from the fact that the two best McGann audios so far are the ones uniquely written for Big Finish, which feel tailored to his Doctor and make good use of Charley, and are not laboured by continuity or the show’s past. Let’s hope his second season sees a higher success rate.

Other things:
The Hellfire Club, a group of aristocratic American Satanists, call serving Lady Liberty by day and Lucifer by night “a most patriotic arrangement”. Oh the satire. 
One nice thing about the script is the way it succeeds at plunging us in medias res and keen to find how the story will progress. 
The hell cheat is irritating – “the closest earthly equivalent”, indeed! That said, equating mental trauma with eternal torture is fair enough.
The gentleman's club plot line is truly horrible. Not in a stark realistic way.
Waldo Pickering. I can only shudder. 
“Oh, for the good old days of invisible ink and book codes.” Brigadier, you are always wonderful aren't you? - though his dispatches back home are an obvious exposition vessel, they are fun to listen to: “Institute distinctly doubtful legality-wise”.
Charley's Macaulay-esque history lesson regarding the Hellfire Club is quite an interesting moment. “Well, there was the devil worshipping of course, non-stop orgies, drink, jewels and ladies of easy virtue…” It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth though: the whipping scene especially. 
Briggs’ Gideon Crane is Jackson Lake seven years early, and the 20 questions game is great fun. 
Some quasi-biblical, Revelation-esque dialogue, but it feels more like window dressing than needful background. 
“You are human, aren't you?”/“Oh, ra-ther!”
Courtney delivers “we're practically childhood sweethearts!” very nicely. 
“Dead end.... I never realised what an appropriate term that could be!” Eye roll.
Silly Satanic curses summoning Marchasios are about as cheesy as Buffy (hell, the name even sounds really, really like a Buffy villain). But Joss Whedon always kept things very pulpy so the appeal was broad and linked the demon story lines to character development subtly, naturally and sensitively.
This tries to blend serious hard-hitting criticism with surreal pulp and I'm not sure how well it comes off. 
“Are we really here?”/“How terribly existential of you, Zebediah.”
“I'm losing the plot, honey...but then again maybe there isn't a plot.” You and me both.
“Senator Pickering!” Charley scolds the ancient demon Marchosias. “That's an unusual way of entering a lady's boudoir!”
The authors' constant efforts to stop the Brigadier from realising the Doctor is present really start to grate. 
Lovely nod to Grace Holloway without being overdone - and same for the little aside about Charley being a splinter in the web of time and the way it ties into the plot later as she can't be killed in the Psionovores' realm.
The flashback to McGann waffling on about Abraham Lincoln is great, and evidence of why having most of the story with him in an amnesiac un-Doctorish state is a real waste. Such a shame he's only in it properly for the last half an hour, but when he returns the story does a pick up a notch.
Jesus Christ, the Dashwood for the White House bit is every kind of awful. 
“Anyone here gone mad and works for someone called UNIT?!”
Nice that the Brigadier kind of gets a companion of his own – Becky Lee. The old military veteran and the 90sish Buffy lookalike, now there's a good spinoff.
Would the Brigadier know his theology well enough to correct Dashwood? Hmm.
The Pageter/Dashwood jealousy storyline is very underdone and unengaging, particularly coming straight after the love story at the heart of Magrs' script.
“You can know squat all about the Bible like myself and still gross 8.5 million dollars in the last fiscal year.”
“Charley, I see you've met my best friend.”/“I thought I was your best friend!?”/“Ah... Yeah, lesson to myself: don't tell people they're your best friend.”
“All due respect to Dr Pageter, which isn't a lot, I must admit…”
The noise that follows after the "contact" moment between Crane and the Doctor is very, very 1970s.
“The Lord's faithful, creating a wave of love and hard cash.”
“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the public.”
The Brigadier's faked illness and subsequent trick on Dashwood is nicely done, even if the classic “politician character still has microphone on” is a bit old hat and has even been done by Big Finish before, in Whispers of Terror.
Much like the Spillagers, the Psionovores don't come off that well, introduced as they are toward the story's denouement. They also feel like a bit of a subpar version of the Fearmonger or the Scourge. 
“I like your new face, by the way. See if you can't hold on to it a little longer than some of your predecessors, there's a good chap.”
Someone dependable, solid as a rock,” says the Doctor of the Brigadier.
Doctor Who in the USA is inherently a bit odd, isn't it: “that'll keep us both in this country far longer than is healthy for either of us.” Like the show never quite belongs there and doesn't really want to be there. 
“I'll see you around, as they say in these parts.”
The Doctor's final cry to the Brig as he walks away is brilliant: “It was fun!”
Ominous final nod to Charley's unknown nature. 

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