Thursday, 3 December 2015

Main Range 079. Night Thoughts by Edward Young (February 2006)

“How happy they, who wake no more!/Yet that were vain, if dreams infest the grave.” – Edward Young, in The Complaint: or Night-Thoughts on Life, Death & Immortality, 1742-5

Night Thoughts is something of a first for Big Finish’s Doctor Who audios: not a new piece written by a writer who has also written for the television show, but a story that was very nearly made for TV itself, and could well have been broadcast in 1990 as part of Season 27 (although it seems far more serials than the requisite four were under consideration for that season). Edward Young’s old script, then, has been dusted down, redrafted, and had a dash of Hex added to it, such that it is fit for purpose once more. This might become standard once BF set up their Lost Stories range in 2009, but at this point it’s a rather unusual move. It’s particularly unusual because there doesn’t seem to be all that much of merit in Night Thoughts.

It certainly sounds – in tone and in production as well as in dialogue – *very* authentically like a Sylvester McCoy TV story, and were it not for Hex’s presence (though it is no bad thing that he is present) it could very much be a classic of the early 90s. The setting – a lake on a remote Scottish island, all night-time fog and shadows – is the stuff of many a classic horror film, although setting it in 2006 rather than a more Fang Rock time period is a nice touch. Young’s script puts together a reasonably intriguing lattice of horror imagery, and while at first we start with stock horror clichés – Ace sees a drowning woman’s face under the lake, for instance; a creepy tape with someone’s distressed final moments – the central setup of five haunted academics from the local university is, to be fair, a little different to your average horror story. They are of course paralleled with the Doctor and Hex as two ostensibly medical specialists, leaving Ace and the housemaid Sue as the odd ones out (although I have to say, the five of them do take to the TARDIS crew a bit quickly, given how on edge they all are; I would have expected more suspicion).

One of the elements of Night Thoughts I most appreciated was the ways it allows Hex (or as the Doctor delightfully persists in calling him, “Mister Hex”) to come centre-stage relatively often (he has been generally sidelined since first appearing in The Harvest; comparing this script to LIVE 34 and Dreamtime, you’d never know this was the one that had to have the character inserted at a later stage). It is, after all, his dream of “well-meaning amateurs” in an operating theatre, working on a kids’ toy, which sets up the nightmarish consequences that follow, and many of the most horrific sequences involve him. Olivier’s rapport with Aldred is also much-improved here, with a teasing brother-and-sister element to the way they relate. Sophie Aldred is at the strongest she’s been for a while, too, conveying real fear in her surroundings and trust in the Doctor. Ace in the lake here is an interesting parallel to the closing shot of The Curse of Fenric, especially if this had been broadcast a year later, and there are numerous mentions of Ace’s grandmother Kathleen which also belie the script’s original genesis. On a different note, her introducing the Doctor and Hex as her “partners in crime” reminded me of Rory and the Doctor as “Amy’s boys”. The dark foreboding of this story also plays significantly to Sylvester McCoy’s strengths, and the actor delivers a brooding performance in the same vein as Master (his story about the bear is very creepy: “jig, jig, jig…and then they set upon its eyes” even if some of his ‘to-camera’ asides perhaps get a little too knowingly melodramatic). It’s also of note that – above and beyond even his scheming – the Doctor gets literally monstered here, as his voice is turned to the villain’s advantage (“will you walk into my parlour, said the spider to the fly?”).

The poem that provides the namesake for this audio drama – and indeed, by a poet who provides the namesake for the author – was published in nine sections between 1742-5 as The Complaint: or Night-Thoughts on Life, Death & Immortality by the English poet Edward Young (allegedly no relation). It’s an evocative and haunting sequence, given over in large part to the thoughts which often rise to the surface in the “witching hour” (or Geisterstunde as they put it so marvellously in German); a pity, then, that this audio only really evokes it superficially rather than by exploring similar themes.

Instead, Night Thoughts mostly aims for one thing – to be scary. Hartley’s murder is appropriately chilling even before we know who is responsible, but the cliff-hanger to Part One, in which Hex finds Hartley’s eyes have been removed and is stalked by a hooded figure, is properly spooky. The presence of a horrifying gas echoes Gatiss’ modern-day The Hounds of Baskerville. The continuing murders (swallowing acid, etc) get still more freakish and unnerving, and ever more paralleled with animals like bears, dogs and rabbits. The ‘Happy the Rabbit’ toy as an element of Sue’s mental disturbance is also an effective device on audio, especially with its creepy voice; that childlike innocence – which also rears its head in the jingle of Oranges and Lemons – really adds to the story’s atmosphere. However, that’s all Night Thoughts really is for most of its runtime: atmosphere. It is very well-made from a production and music point of view, and most of the acting is good, but it’s not especially moving, or profound, or symbolically interesting, despite some potential around perception, eyes and seeing. The scares are well-done (particularly the very last scene – see below), but there doesn’t seem to be much else to it. The plotting is frequently limp and obvious, with exactly what you suspect is going to happen being the very next thing that happens (and the exposition-heavy ending is very tiresome). If this had been a part of Season 27 in 1990, it would’ve been an okayish Sylvester McCoy Doctor Who story, but nowhere near as strong as many of the ones surrounding it.

Other things:
“He’s nothing more than a clockwork soldier, and I like winding him up.”
“It seems like Hurricanes Alison to Zechariah are brewing up a biblical storm.”
“The human race appears to have perfected everything, except itself.”
“We were lost, Bursar.”/“What were you doing?”/“Trying to become unlost.”
The Doctor’s answer to his specialist field this time round? “Macrocosmology”.
“I’ve always felt that the greatest asset in fishing is caution.”/“Especially if you’re a fish.”
“This is to be a battle of the minds, is it, Doctor?”/“So nice of you to come unarmed.”
“At night even the atheist half believes in God” (a direct lift from the Night-Thoughts poem).
There are a few hints that this collection of academics isn’t what it seems to be: an army chaplain/deacon is unlikely not to want a funeral, and a bursar is not traditionally this sort of academic.
The Bartholomew Transactor/time-travel element never really goes anywhere particularly interesting.
That episode 3 cliff-hanger resolution is a proper copout.
Um, why does the Doctor lock Ace and the Bursar in a cellar “for safety”? Zombie-Eadie could easily break in, but they can’t break out if a stuffed bear happens to come to life… :facepalm:
I admit it though, the Deacon reading the suicide note she will write in 10 years’ time is rather effective.
A lot of this plot doesn’t add up that well, but the final scene is masterfully done, and really properly scary: an eyeless toy rabbit gouging out a man’s eyes whilst whistling Oranges and Lemons. Goosebumps.

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