Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 024. The Eye of the Scorpion by Iain McLaughlin (September 2001)

It's hard to believe that after almost 40 years Doctor Who hadn't really done a proper Ancient Egypt story, and new Who scribe Iain McLaughlin sets the record straight here with a nicely told pseudo-historical which does a good bit of world-building and successfully introduces a new companion to journey alongside the Doctor and Peri.

David Darlington's score, and the production team's sound design, is the real triumph in this story. The horns and windswept desert of Egypt; creaking doors, the buzz of alien insects, the bustle of the Theban marketplace, Egyptian percussion, the smashing of goblets, the crackling of torches, the scraping of old stone as we enter secret catacombs, the wheeling of chariots and the clashing of swords. Thebes in 1400 BC comes to life. It’s aptly aided by a strong script that creates a real sense of the culture and society: McLaughlin has clearly done his research and soaks the story in colourful details. The Eye of the Scorpion is nicely non-judgmental of Egyptian culture, making it clear that as much as we see it through our 21st century lens we are not to critique it too harshly; yet McLaughlin is not afraid to show us how ruthless and power-obsessed it could be, veering almost into Game of Thrones territory at times (Antranak torturing the assassin). The matter of the ancient Egyptians' beliefs is also treated well. It's neither upheld nor mocked, but respected. I'm reminded of the Eleventh Doctor's little smile as he says "it's a nice story" of the people of Akhaten. In one sense, it doesn't matter all that much if it's true; it's a nice story, and different interpretations are what matter - as we see in Antranak's final scene in which he recognises Erimem as the god he thought she was. And while she may not have been to us, she was and is to him.
As everybody knows, culture clashes make excellent drama, and the introduction of would-be Pharoah Erimemushinteperem to the TARDIS team is very effective. One of the most promising and impressive things Big Finish have done is to create cracking companions of their own and introduce them well. This is a great first story for Erimem, getting to know her within her own world; that key attribute of a companion – likeability – is something Caroline Morris brings to the part in spades. She's rather practical and fierce, too, capable of being stern if she needs to be, and unafraid to lead the charge in battle. Nicola Bryant gives a great performance as Peri about as early as we've ever known her (complete with Howard reference). She's still impressionable, eager to please, bright-eyed, before she's more used to travel with the Doctor. The early scenes of the Doctor showing her the various rooms of the TARDIS are a delight (particularly when he proves ignorant of what's behind a door to the lake). The Doctorless episode 2 (very reminiscent of the 60s) gives both Peri and Erimem some excellent character moments, particularly as they discuss American democracy. Peri gets to stand up to Antranak, and the two exploring the catacombs works nicely. As is becoming the norm for his audios, Davison gives an exciting, controlled and authoritative performance. He has a vast knowledge of Ancient Egypt and knows his way around, despite not having visited "recently". He's also terrifically flippant in the face of the powerful Yanis. 

In creating a world rife with power struggles and political intrigue, then, and in introducing a key character, McLaughlin succeeds admirably. He’s less successful in terms of the ill-defined science-fiction threat. Yanis is a bit of a ranting villain, and the parasite mental energy creature is something of a disappointing reveal. It's not bad as such, just a little bland, and its motives and aims are a tad banal. Frankly, this would have been a nicer piece as a gripping historical story in the vein of The Marian Conspiracy or The Fires of Vulcan. I’m also unsure about the way the memories of the thousands the creature has stolen are used to battle the creature, human memories and identities defeating the devouring evil. "Too many voices..." It's quite a new series plot resolution, and comes to be quite a tired denouement but I guess this story can hardly be faulted for later repetition.

All told: a solid if unexceptional adventure for Davison’s Doctor. But if this is the general baseline of quality, Big Finish are doing something right!

Other thoughts:
"The gods' ways are not mine to question. I'm only a soldier."
"Whoever lived here didn't have much faith in their prayers."
"Sometimes the TARDIS moves things about. Still, a little redecorating never hurt anybody."/"redecorating? You've got a lake in there!"/"yes, I know. I much preferred it where it was."
Sassy Fifth Doctor, after correctly identifying the year as 1400 BC and Peri doubting he could tell that from the air: "True, but the hieroglyphics on the wall of the house behind the TARDIS are a bit of a giveaway."
The opening chariot race is a corker of a sequence, and a thrilling listen with Darlington's score accompanying it perfectly. Great to see the Doctor and Peri get stuck in so immediately, and what a way to induct the newbie! 
Peri enjoying smashing the pots over the charioteer's head :D
"I must be getting old. I thought I knew the names of all Egypt's pharaohs...I can name every pharaoh Egypt ever had and I'm certain there was never a Pharaoh Erimem!"
Five can be beautifully, subversively sarcastic sometimes: "I was under the impression that Divine Pharaoh is always right."
The Doctor "handled the chariot like a true warrior". Nice to know he's got a few practical skills up his sleeve!
"Good luck like this makes me suspicious."
The Doctor has great impatience over Peri's delay getting changed: "it's considered bad form to keep the ruler of the known world waiting in her own palace!"
Peri seems quite willing to accept slaves waiting on her!
Erimem’s full titles: "The Great and Mighty Queen, Daughter of the Stars, Pharaoh in the Eyes of the Gods and soon to be crowned, Erimemushinteperem, Divine Eternal, the Living God."
The scarab beetle... Someone's been watching The Mummy.
Five's unfazedness regarding the topless dancers, but he retains his somewhat British reserve when describing prostitutes: "They're a different kind of entertainment *cough*..." That said, he does get uncharacteristically carried away showing off to Erimem about his travels in space and time late into the night. 
Great - and rather unexpected - episode 1 cliffhanger. Similarly, the cliff-hanger to part 3 is very nicely constructed, coming as it does as a complete surprise. The revelation later on that Peri is the host of the creature is itself another big twist. 
"Even the flies feel the unrest."
"I'm allergic to decapitation; it's bad for the circulation." Nice one, Peri.
Erimem's wife/slave/concubine faux pas regarding Peri and the Doctor is a great little moment.
"I think a god would not have needed the Doctor to save her life twice in one day, and a god would not feel as afraid as I do now." Erimem has a wonderful humility and vulnerability about her.
The scorpion attack in part 2 is pretty well done given the limitations of the medium.
"That would be sacrilege!"/"better than the last rites!"
"The royal court is a viper's nest." Great line. Reminds one of Wolf Hall.
The Doctor: "by now, you've probably worked out that I'm a pretty unusual fellow, Fayum."
"Give me the word and my men will cut the cabal of weasels into feed for the palace dogs!"
"Wouldn't it be wiser to fetch help?"/"Undoubtedly."
"You move like a spirit, Doctor."
"Did I give you leave to speak? Did I give you leave to bleed?"
"You know a great deal more than you should."/"So I've been told."
"The Nile will run scarlet as Thebes drowns in torrents of its own blood..."
Five: "I've tried death a few times, can't say I care for it too much."
"I'm someone seeking the truth! Who are you?" - a great, vehement Fifth Doctor moment.
"You lie!"/"I'll leave that to the experts."
The Doctor using the TARDIS to eclipse the sun for a brief time is so bonkers it's the kind of thing I'd normally expect to find in a new series finale.
"The beetles will eat you alive for this."
"You have fought off fatal poison and turned the sky black...yet I do not believe you are a god any more than I am. For I don't believe in any of our gods...I believe in real things. I have heard of men who study the stars and claim we travel round the sun, not it round us. One of these men even claims the earth is round like the ball. There are other men who study plants or animals or fivers and make extraordinary devices with wood or metals. You are like them, but not exactly the same... I can't explain it."
"I'm just a traveller."/"then tell me of your travels!"
"Even if I knew exactly what happens today, I couldn't change it." This is an excellent scene between Davison and Caroline Morris, as the Doctor's godlike knowledge of the future is challenged. The obvious Big Finish reference is The Fires of Vulcan.
The Sphinx built by refugees from Atlantis? How random!
"This is a dishonourable enemy... One that hides out of sight within others."
"This door hasn't been opened in over 8000 years. It's not the sort of thing you want to rush."
"We must have his mind!"/"actually I'm using it at the moment."
"You want to learn, you say? Oh, I suppose there are a few university chancellors around the galaxy who owe me favours."
"I'll have you know that the TARDIS and I are in perfect harmony."
The gag that the Sphinx's face is that of Elvis for several thousand years, until being destroyed by Napoleon's forces in the 1790s, is astoundingly cheeky. Like the revelation a couple of stories ago that man ultimately evolved out of Silurian experiments, I'm a big fan of these outrageous plot points. Big, bold and bonkers.

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