Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 042. The Dark Flame by Trevor Baxendale (March 2003)

And so in a thankful break from the Seven/Ace duo releases we’ve been seeing of late (a shame that they’re so unsuccessful, given I’m a big fan of their TV pairing), The Dark Flame sees us dipping back into the Virgin era, with a return of Lisa Bowerman as Professor Benny Summerfield, last seen in The Shadow of the Scourge.

Memories of Nekromanteia’s witchcraft, undead and holy relics meant I did not feel this started well; relying on such elements in two consecutive scripts seems to show the team dropping the ball on keeping a good variety of stories coming round. Plus the technobabble/pseudoscience with all these visions is a bit naff, especially the first time the Doctor touches the crystal (I’m not sure Trevor Baxendale really understands it either). Even if the overall tone is slightly similar, at least the inchoate, primeval world is better portrayed here than it was in the last release (“the surface a volcanic chaos, the atmosphere a cauldron of poison… it’s just a massive rock. Minerals and gas: the raw ingredients of a planet”). Jason Heigh-Ellery does sterling work on directing duties, giving things an eerie and uneasy pace. The music is terrific, too, really adding to the mood of the early episodes.

Even if Baxendale’s dialogue sometimes leaves a bit to be desired (he’s a bit like Tucker in the workmanlike feel of his scripts, I think, and he needs to learn how to do exposition), the characters are still better than those of Nekromanteia. Victor and the android Joseph (who’s a C3PO homage if ever I heard one) are a fun little double act, for example; Steven Wickham does a good job in both roles and Joseph’s sacrifice is even mildly affecting. And to be fair to Baxendale, I didn’t see Lomar’s double-cross coming, which made for a neat little Part Two cliff-hanger.

“I’m better looking than an Ogron, but you’ll just have to take my word for it.” Welcome back, Bernice! Lisa Bowerman is great as ever, although Baxendale isn’t half as good at writing for her as Cornell is (which is fair enough, I suppose, given Cornell is her creator) and she gets a slightly banal possession subplot in the story’s second half. Sophie Aldred and Bowerman have quite a pleasant chemistry together, particularly in their early scenes (Benny on waste disposal: “Actually, it’s quite therapeutic”). There’s something rather fun about waste disposal being Benny’s job, Benny the archaeologist who normally uncovers valuable bits of debris. It’s not an amazing audio for Ace, who doesn’t have masses to do, although she does land quite a punch on Slyde. The Doctor shooing Benny and Ace off to go and “amuse themselves” because he needs to talk to Remnex won a bit of a frown from me, but at least it’s not on the level of Nekromanteia.

The violence is similarly toned down – there’s still the gore of Remnex being stabbed through the eye, but there’s nothing quite as gratuitous this time round and it’s hardly a shock when Remnex dies. The Emissary inhabiting Remnex’s slowly putrefying body is another nice dose of subdued horror, and his mental torture of the Doctor an unnerving aspect of Part Four. I could have done without Benny beating up Ace, however. The story also suffers from the fact that the threat feels like a big rehash of Hinchcliffe-era/Cartmel-era ancient powers, only far more abstract than usual, and all told it’s relatively insipid and underwhelming – particularly in the “big climax”. There’s some effort to make the story about evil within us all (“the flame burns everywhere and in everyone. Nothing and no one is proof against its heat. It smoulders quietly and invisibly in all of us, waiting to be fanned into a blaze”) but Baxendale never really goes anywhere with it, merely giving McCoy a few bog-standard speeches about how the Dark Flame would turn parent against child, good into evil, etc.

Inevitably, I’ve been comparing this to Nekromanteia throughout. And perhaps my view on The Dark Flame is coloured by my dislike of the previous story – it may be I’m viewing this a little more favourably than I otherwise would be, given the rampant misogyny of the story I’ve just experienced immediately beforehand. Still, if the baseline of quality for a story is “at least it isn’t harmfully offensive for women”, then we’re not exactly in a great patch. Let’s hope there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Other thoughts:
Sylvester McCoy is on pretty weak form here, although I mostly blame the script for not giving him much interesting material. That said, his final line, “I love this job”, is an unexpectedly great little character moment – as he goes off to rescue what he can of Joseph the deceased android’s memories and personality.
“We’ve come to meet him. He’s due any minute.”/“Don’t let that fool you. This is the Doctor we’re talking about. As far as he’s concerned, the rules of time are there for the breaking.”
A meta-moment as the Doctor reminisces about Season 24: “The cosmos seemed a more innocent place, somewhere you could show a friend without caution or embarrassment… [now] I spend most of my time trying to outwit disaster before it even happens.”
“The web of time can look after itself – it’s the spider I want!”
Time energy within the crystal is like “wine flowing through sand”.
“And what’s the third possibility?”/“Remnex has risen from the dead.”/“That’s not very funny, Doctor.”/“I know.”
“Sleep is for Chelonians!” a nice nod to The Talons of Weng-Chiang’s “Sleep is for tortoises!” (although McCoy mispronounces Chelonians).
The Seventh Doctor shows much he needs Ace as he says that being without her would be “like Sherlock Holmes without Dr Watson, Batman without Robin, Roobarb without Custard.” A sweet little line.
“We go on the count of three.”/“Wait, do you mean, when you say three, or after you say three? I never know which.”
“Ace, I came here to collect Bernice. I didn’t think I was going to have to come up with a cunning master-plan to outwit the resurrection of an ancient evil cult.”/ “Well, you should have.” – Not particularly brilliant dialogue, but Ace makes a good point. This kind of thing happens to Doc7 all the time.
“I’m so pleased to meet you, Doctor.”/“It’s not mutual.”
As the Doctor, after implying he has a cunning plan, starts hammering on the cell door with an umbrella – Benny: “Several centuries’ experience of getting locked up by megalomaniacs and that’s the best he can come up with.”/ Joseph: “I’m starting to get worried.” :D
The story’s best exchange, and a corker of a line for any Doctor, but particularly the Seventh – “I am the Emissary.”/“I never trust people who hide behind titles.”
“Keep it brief! I’m expected on Cantanimus Prime yesterday.”
The Doctor’s whispered “I’ve always got a plan” is in its own way more sinister than anything else in The Dark Flame.
“Look into your future.”/“I can’t see anything at all.”/“Precisely.”
“You could say that Bernice has seen the dark.”
“We could all be one big happy cult!… I’ve never worshipped a negative-energy being before.”
Joseph on his death bed: “That is my brain making that noise. That’s funny. I’ve never heard it before.”
To Benny: “You’ve kick-started the end of the Universe.”/“Oh. Sorry.”
The Doctor and Ace have pre-organised Plans A, B and C? Impressive.
The Doctor, awaking: “What happened?”/Benny: “You’re supposed to tell us that.”

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