Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 053. The Creed of the Kromon by Philip Martin (January 2004)

Philip Martin, the alliteration-lover behind Vengeance on Varos (1985), Mindwarp (1986), and Mission to Magnus (sort of 1986), returns to Doctor Who to pen his first Big Finish audio in the equally alliterative form of The Creed of the Kromon. Martin is in fact only the second Big Finish writer to have previously written a script for the TV show, following Ghost Light’s Marc Platt (OK, half a point for Andrew Cartmel). But the key difference is that Platt has had a key role in shaping the show during the Wilderness Years – writing two novelizations and three landmark original novels, the last of which appeared only a couple of years before Big Finish began. Philip Martin, on the other hand, left Doctor Who behind in 1986. He’s been out of the loop.

The other key difference between Philip Martin and Marc Platt is that Marc Platt is very, very good: he’s very accomplished, he’s literary but he knows how to construct a scene that will punch you right in the gut, he can do dark, he can do funny, he can do surreal. And he knows exactly how to make the audio medium work. I quite enjoy Martin’s 1980s work – Vengeance on Varos is very solid, particularly – but the ugliness of Mindwarp’s ending looms large. What his audio story shows is that getting in a writer in 2004 who was doing a reasonably decent job for TV in 1986 is not necessarily a good idea. I suppose the rough parallel is hiring Robert Sloman to return to write the big finale of Season 27 in 1990: it’s not a particularly great notion. It’s not just that it fetishizes the past, but that it actively damages your own sense of pushing forward full throttle with new writers, new concepts and a new tone. At least it’s not as though Martin was asked to write one of the key stories launching a new arc in a universe completely unlike our own… oh, wait.

The Creed of the Kromon explodes, with unfortunate leadenness, Scherzo’s excellent efforts to fashion a truly different universe, and tells just about the most conventional Who story imaginable. People not recognising the word “time” is not an adequate attempt to make the Eutermes Zone feel any different from any bog-standard sci-fi setting we could get in our universe. This is a very space-opera-like adventure – quite unlike any of the Eighth Doctor stories we have heard thus far. It’s just regrettable the story is so unnecessarily long, the pace so languid, the cliff-hangers so muted; so many of the moments feel like Who-by-numbers, devoid of any particular heart or flair (escape/capture, etc., you catch my drift).

Part of the issue might be that Martin writes in a notably visual way. His two broadcast stories display an intensely visual imagination, which works well in the brash and vibrant Colin Baker era, but is often hard to follow on audio – leading to characters needing to describe their surroundings in great detail. Terrifically visual monsters are all very well, but on audio they’re just a bunch of silly voices saying things you could almost hear in any bureaucratic office on Earth. His dialogue is a tad wooden, and it’s fair to say he doesn’t sound as though he has the most solid grasp on the characters of the Eighth Doctor and Charley, as writers like Barnes and Shearman do: there is very little fall-out from the previous story. Where Scherzo made their relationship rocky and difficult, and showed us a darker, trickier side of the “joyous adventurer” Eighth Doctor we thought we knew, The Creed of the Kromon does little to continue that development, which is a bit of a black mark against it to say the least.

There are numerous strengths, however, which raise The Creed of the Kromon above the bar of “disastrous” I was led to believe and certainly made me warm to it more than Nekromanteia.  Stephen Perring gives a wonderful performance in the first and final scenes as the sibilant Kro’ka, possibly my favourite voice-work as a new villain since Kwundaar. He sounds like a kind of psychologically disturbed, ethereal judiciary at points (“You’re going to have to curb your rebellious tendencies if you wish to take your application further” – this is very much the same man who was writing the anti-authoritarian screeds of the 80s, isn’t it?), and the concept works well. The idea that each of these one-off worlds is a laboratory environment in which the Doctor and co are being in some sense observed by the Kro’ka is probably the best thing about The Creed of the Kromon, even if it really belongs to the arc as a whole. I look forward to the inevitable re-match.

There are generally better ideas on display than those in Nekromanteia: the visions of the humid Kromon world and the back-history of the damaging effects of corporation and the small-minded “trappings of corporate dross” work reasonably. Zone Eutermes is a good setting, a barren, arid wasteland, sparsely populated by the bio-spheres that are home to the Eutermesans. The Kromon themselves are giant termite creatures (as we can see on the cover) – authoritarian and tyrannical, they once again represent Martin’s bug-bear of vast and unethical companies expanding and expanding with minimal concern for citizens, but they aren’t especially interesting and the voices are poorly realised. We also get the Oroog and the Salanders, two other alien races, though they make little impression: one can’t fault Martin for his attempts to sketch in a properly alien world, even if it’s not an especially exciting one. Elements of the world are nicely gritty too – the food preparation chambers are suitably stomach-churning, and the Kromon soul torturing the Doctor works well.

We also meet C’rizz the Eutermesan, a new companion who will be joining the Doctor and Charley for their travels – in fact, the first real person they have met in the Divergent Universe. I do like a good alien companion, and the exoskeletal, blue-skinned, yellow-eyed C’rizz certainly fits that description. Conrad Westmaas’ performance is reasonable, if unexceptional. His back-story isn’t especially engrossing – he comes across as a fairly normal oppressed/desperate rebel, and his doomed romance is woeful – although it’s hardly the worst by Who companion standards. Perhaps he will be more developed in later stories; certainly, if the Kro’ka’s warning promising his possible future instability is anything to go by.

After the first two episodes I was wondering why this attracted quite as much ire as it does: but then the elephant in the room reared its head: the treatment of Charley. The cross-breeding hatchery sub-plot is tiredly reminiscent of both Vengeance and Mindwarp, and it wasn’t the strong point of either even then; does Martin insist on reducing the female companions to such roles? Every single time? There’s no reason why a human woman would have to be the queen of the Kromon; the writer doesn’t have to make the two species’ biological systems match up like that and it would be very easy not to. So why does he? I can only assume because he can’t think of anything else to do with Charley. She comes back out of her poorly engineered “peril” very, very easily, as though the whole thing was just a plot device. And that’s a bit shit, frankly.

The Creed of the Kromon, to me, is not quite as gratuitously offensive as Nekromanteia. But it is certainly dull, pedestrian, and unpleasantly tainted by misogyny to boot: a disappointing second chapter in the Divergent Universe arc.

Other things:
This really sounds very mid-80s, from the opening bars of Darlington’s score onwards. In fact it’s a bit too good, a lovely piece of work – all guitar-soaked and shimmering.
“An audio insect spray”? Nice.
“You must have something to offer… would you describe yourself as an asset to society?”
“What is the purpose of your visit?”/“Pleasure.”
There’s a lovely little scene in Part One when the Doctor and Charley jokily pretend they’re settling down to a night in swan’s-down beds (again, you have to ignore the lack of continuity from the previous story, but either way it’s a sweet little moment).
“Can you not alter your skin tones?”
“If useful, you will be put to work.”/“And if we aren’t?”/“You will be turned into fertiliser.”
“You must have some use, what is it?”/“I’ve often wondered.”
Clever little moment where the Doctor tricks the computer into thinking the three heroes have been pacified.
“You’re feeling a little aggressive, aren’t you, Charley?” – yeah, she is a tad out of character.
The Doctor, on the third elixir: “A little sharper than the others. A superior vintage, obviously. I’m sure it could become an acquired taste.”
Obligatory Varos/zeiton-7 reference.
“The Kromon have encountered the Big Bang Theory.”
“As I saw it, [C’rizz] was fine until he met you.”

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