Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Main Range 078. Pier Pressure by Robert Ross (January 2006)

Pier Pressure is one of the most old-fashioned Doctor Who stories I have ever heard (a phrase which here means “utterly devoid of originality”), and, like Robert Ross’ previous Medicinal Purposes and much of the oeuvre of Mark Gatiss, its author seems utterly enthralled to simply be echoing the period pieces and horror stories of yesteryear, leaving no trademark element or tiresome evocation untouched. It’s not that there isn’t promise: the 1930s English seaside town of Brighton is peculiarly distinctive (thank you, Brighton Rock) and, in its own way, a very obvious locale for a Doctor Who story. Just as a pier is a collage of colourful merry-go-rounds, apple-bobbing, neon, tinkling muzak, silly clowns and far too much sugar, but one under whose struts the sea could wash up all manner of flotsam and jetsam, where rotting deadwood can mingle with a bloated dead body – so too with this story. There’s that chirpy, faux-innocence to the way a lot of the characters speak, yet it often masks their inner monstrosity; the opening scene, for instance, feels in cadence and pitch rather like that of a Famous Five story, but then suddenly takes a turn for Hitchcockian horror.

The mere references to a phantom bloodsucker targeting young maidens is part and parcel of quite how old-fashioned this story is, and immediately set alarm bells ringing (the idea of something so nostalgically draped in the dressings of hokey 80-year-old thrillers – right down to all that violence against women – did not fill me with joy). The fact that Emily seemed to be written as a 30s adventure serial “dumb broad” type role elicited a similar facepalm. If Ross was evoking such a period, I presumed, he damn well better subvert the hokey staples or provide some interesting justification for why Doctor Who was telling this kind of story in 2006.

Spoiler: he doesn’t. Instead the story limps ploddingly onwards, with every Enid Blytonism (“you’ll be as right as rain in no time”, “out of the doldrums”, “a right royal racket”, “curtains for the lot of you”) another blow to the ears. Ross depends on rather plodding exposition and dialogue a lot of the time (“This is 1936!” one character exclaims, helpfully), inexpert flashbacks and descriptions clogging up the runtime. Characters are very broadly sketched, and thus irritating to listen to; the performances are at best nothing special, at worst badly overpitched; I know Ross’ specialty is the history of British comedy, but that doesn’t guarantee the inclusion of Max Miller is going to lift the story in any notable way. The principal threat (a totally non-corporeal thingummy called the Indo) takes a very long time to manifest itself, and until that point there’s a lot of tedious chat about ultra-generic Evil, putting me in mind of the soporific Eunis Flood segments of Scaredy Cat, whilst the story’s focus on positive and negative emotions being soaked into the pier is poorly-handled naffness. I like Brighton and used to visit most weekends, but an enthusiasm for the Royal Pavilion and those pebbled beaches is not enough to soften two frustrating hours.

Just as in Medicinal Purposes, the Doctor and Evelyn are flat out badly written. It’s not just – as in the former case – that the characters feel off-kilter from previous audios (where Medicinal Purposes completely failed to follow on from Arrangements for War, this story does have a harder job in that it’s the first “normal” adventure for these two after our flash-forward to Evelyn’s departure in Thicker than Water, but even so you’d think something a little more in keeping with the arc as presented would have been submitted. On the other hand, that means that Ross’ two stories sit together in quick succession, so perhaps we can chalk the both of them up to a really weird bumpy patch for the Doctor and Evelyn, which works with the reference to Knox in this story – he’s still preying on Evelyn’s mind). Worse than that, they often simply don’t feel like themselves at all. Evelyn is given dialogue that even Maggie Stables seems to think sounds unnatural and corny in her mouth, as she’s curiously lacking in enthusiasm, while the Doctor is a complete misanthrope glowering about life’s futility, above and beyond his usual grumpiness quotient.

Just to be clear – it’s not that the Doctor as being in a foul mood is some kind of deal-breaker for me. But Ross’ Sixth Doctor is so often petty, and waves away grouchiness with “I’m an alien; my actions are alien”, which is the kind of dreadful dialogue you would only ever say in defence of somebody else, not yourself. It also, frankly, sounds patronising – we’re being reminded not to assume such normality from this hero, that we trust him too often, etc., fine, but must it be done in such a heavy-handed way? Lines like “Grouch? ME? Perish the thought” make me feel as though Ross has only read the barest of labels that says, “Sixth Doctor = grumpy one” and worked from there. He does cheer up once he reaches Brighton, and Baker’s general vivacity is always welcome, it’s true, but this is confounded by the fact that his excitement to be in a pub talking to the “common man” is then weirdly offset by his denouncing the “riff-raff of a public house” once he actually gets there, and that he talks about “separating the wheat from the chaff”, which strikes me as a very dismissive and unpleasant thing to do (and is a phrase he reuses later with distaste to describe the alien influence, making it an even more odd choice). His bedside manner is at his worst (“I’m rather pleased to say she’s dead” he tells Albert of Emily). And then there’s his bizarre, OOC dismissal of Evelyn’s offer of help and taking up the much less experienced Albert instead, and his continued insinuations to Albert that “being a hero” means “to look after your lady”…I could go on, but suffice to say I really don’t like the way the Doctor is written here.

A real, proper disappointment, Pier Pressure squanders the germ of a good idea (Doctor Who meets Brighton Rock) by focussing on a rather uninspiring one (Doctor Who meets Max Miller) – but, more to the point, by piling on over-the-top performances, uninteresting characters, an ugly take on the Doctor, and a thoroughly tiresome script that recycles and constantly references other stories but fails to illustrate anything new. Don’t go near this one; its jokes fall flat and it isn’t scary at all, meaning it fails as send-up but also can’t hit straightforward chills either. It might be the worst Sixth Doctor audio so far.

Other things:
The music is irritating and the title’s naff too.
“From a lifetime of experience, Evelyn, I’m not convinced that your world has a great deal of good left on it.” Boy is that one of the most unDoctorish lines I’ve come across, and not in a particularly good way either.
“One of the beauties of the TARDIS is that it is marginally bigger on the inside than on the outside.”/“I have noticed. It was the sort of fact that hit me in the face the moment I walked into it.”
“To have seen what I have seen, to have been where I have been…Sirius IV, Metebelis III…”/“Sounds like a football result.”/“A match I would pay to see.”
Unsurprisingly, there are a number of nods to the abortive 1986 Blackpool story, The Nightmare Fair.
“Conan Doyle, Sayers, Edmund Crispin…all the greats knew it: if you want to get to the bottom of an English mystery, you have to get to the bottom of an English pint glass first.”
The relish with which Ross gets to describe the Sixth Doctor’s outfit (“Cor, and they say my clothes are bright…lit up like a Christmas tree, he is!”) and the fact that Max Miller thinks the Time Lord is cosplaying as him is quite funny.
The story’s best line, as the Doctor tries to assuage Maxie’s protests about staying out late: “Time is relative!”/“And so is my mother-in-law!”
The Doctor’s aside that every so often he has an “uncontrollable urge to dominate humanity” I actually rather liked, to my surprise. Because you would, wouldn’t you, think about that every so often if you were almost like a god compared to human beings?
“If we don’t stop bickering and get going, by midnight Dante’s Inferno could well have nothing on Brighton!”
The best bit of writing here, Colin’s Doctor getting a rare moment of solitude: “do you have any idea just how long it has been since I sat, calmly and serenely, and simply basked in the sound of the ocean? A long time. A very long time indeed. I never just sit and listen: the highs and lows, the pleasures and woes, everything subtle, everything gently shifting in the universe, everything ticking within me, reverberating and nourishing. I’m the watchmaker. I regulate time, and there are so many faults, so many cogs that don’t quite fit, so many worlds that would shatter, so many lifeforms that could destroy everything, shatter the very fabric of time. But here – as the ocean laps in, and the ocean laps out – here is real purity and honesty. A simple tide, uninterrupted.”
I wonder if Talbott disappearing and reappearing as he confronts the Doctor on the beach was inspired by the Valeyard doing the same thing in The Ultimate Foe?
“Walk. Attack. Kill,” must be the most banal monster-mantra ever devised.
Maxie learning that there will be a Second World War: “Don’t tell me they’re going to have a rematch!”
I gather the Indo and Professor Knox are to return in Assassin of the Limelight. Not especially looking forward to that one, then.

2 comments:

  1. Listened to this a couple of days ago. It is absolutely awful. Possibly the worst the Big Finish audio I have heard. It should never have been produced, although that could be said about a number of BF audios. I suppose the sausage factory has not be supplied and that there simply isn't the bandwidth to have rewritten/rewrite scripts as much as they should be. "Pier Pressure" is almost totally incoherent. And just think how much could be done with 1936 "Brighton Rock" Brighton. Even Max Miller has potential as one-off companion. I think casting Roy Hudd here was a mistake. He might n=be an experienced radio pro and a Max Miller expert, but Miller was in his early 40s in 1936 and Hudd isn't and it shows. Not that simply casting someione vigorous would have made much difference. You need a plot that makes some sense (what is the point of Billy other than a vague Hartnell homage?), characterisation that has some basic psychological truth to it (the characyers are even more blase about the tragic events affecting them than in standard "Who") and some actual feel for history and setting.

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    1. I agree on all points. Absolutely terrible. And how strange that a writer best known for writing histories of British comedy should churn out something so unfunny, cynical and misanthropic.

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