Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Main Range 083. Something Inside by Trevor Baxendale (June 2006)

Remember how The Dark Flame’s USP was “at least it’s not Nekromanteia”? Well, the USP of Something Inside could rather cruelly be summarised as “at least it’s not The Dark Flame.” While no masterpiece, and certainly overlong, Something Inside is still more enjoyable than Trevor Baxendale’s previous effort in several ways – the performances and the production are better, and the threat and stakes are better realised, even if there is still a whiff of bog-standard sci-fi cliché about the plot and the cacophony of tone-deaf clank about the dialogue. There is a certain energetic relish to the story’s more gory elements – the exploding head idea is delightfully gruesome, for one thing, especially the first time it happens (poor Marcus is only my age!). And the focus on telekinesis and telepathic assassins is, if not exactly new ground in science-fiction terms, not something we’ve seen much of in Doctor Who; the idea of a world in which telepathy is weaponised for specific purposes in war is pleasingly logical, and grows organically out of the world we know; it feels of a piece with Three’s a Crowd in that regard. And the Cube is a cracking, chilling setting – a prison to house all the telepathic soldiers who frighten the government so much. But taken as a whole, the story doesn’t really work on an aesthetic level; there’s a weird disconnect between these Pinteresque English names (Jane Thirgood, Gorden Latch, Marcus Lenn, Tessa Waylund) coupled with performances that are either consummately RADA or liltingly Welsh on the one hand and the overt mental torture of this spacey setting on the other, a disconnect that could be intriguing but rarely satisfies because it seems so oddly fused together. As a play, Something Inside never elevates itself much above humdrum plotting, a bit of running around, and toying with some fun surreal trappings, but I think it would have benefited from committing to being darker and more experimental, from surprising us a little more (case in point: is giving the torturer a weapon as bland as an electric saw the best move in a story that’s all about, well, what’s inside?).

That said, the Brain-Worm (the story’s central arena for dark, creepy experimentalism) is – well, it is really rather creepy. Its MO seems to be a little like those invasive beetle things in The Mummy, except with some added mental agony. It’s also, to Baxendale’s credit, conjured up pretty evocatively in the dialogue: “it’s there…in my mind. A memory, like a worm, turning and twisting in the dark, blood-red, blind. It’s there…it’s there.” Whether it’s what was shifting around in the back of Baxendale’s mind or no, my instant association when it comes to worms, parasites, mental agony, blood-red colour, and destruction is of course William Blake’s utterly sublime poem The Sick Rose (1794), some of the very finest, simplest and yet richest lines in the English language. It’s so short and sweet it’s worth recounting here:

“O Rose, thou art sick;
The invisible worm, 
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm: 

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.”

The ‘invisible worm’ in question gives rise to a vast number of interpretations – sexuality, loss of innocence, the fallen state of human beings, illness, and, indeed, mental torture. To my mind, this makes the Brain-Worm considerably more interesting; a horrific, invasive, nihilistic force which poisons essentially healthy minds. But the story itself rarely goes anywhere this interesting; that’s the issue with going off on Blakean tangents (though I’ll concede that the Doctor trapping the Brain-Worm inside his head, “like a wasp in a jar”, is a potent image, even if I feel this sort of thing was done better in The Shadow of the Scourge). In Part Four, Baxendale aims for a tenser execution of the concept than he has deployed heretofore, as the Brain-Worm escapes the Doctor’s mind and no one can be sure where it resides; it’s reasonable stuff, but nothing to write home about, and the monotone voice the actors adopt when possessed is highly tiresome.

So where else does the story lose points? Well, one of the key elements is that the Eighth Doctor has lost his memory another time (“oh please, can’t you come up with anything more original?”); quite apart from this happening over and over in the Eighth Doctor novels, there’s the sodding movie in the first place and Minuet in Hell not all that long ago. Worse still, the whole gambit of opening with the mid-interrogation/torture/memory loss as a framing device and then flashing back to everything else before catching up has been done to death already by now, surely? I dunno, it feels more plodding than edgy (especially when paired with the telepathy version of reversing the polarity. Yawn). In defence of this aspect of the story, it allows McGann to do some good work, playing a slightly tougher and more pragmatic version of his Doctor, unclouded as he is by the sentiments of memory. As to the other regulars – there’s a great little moment in Part One where Charley learns that C’rizz has telepathic abilities, and is rather surprised that there was something major about him she didn’t know: a small thing, but an effective nod to their ongoing relationship. I’d like to see a lot more like this, and Conrad Westmaas is generally quite strong here, even if all we really get in terms of his arc is “his past is a bit murky”, which we know by now. Charley, on the other hand, has almost completely stalled; it’s a real pity that such a unique companion played by a great actress has been rendered as generic as generic can be.

As has been par for the course in 2006, the direction/production is generally good, but there is one huge exception; as he proved with Dalek Empire, Briggs can do space-opera stories in his sleep, and so the shadowy claustrophobia of the Cube, the clanks and knocks echoing down corridors, is rendered with suitable aplomb. No major complaints there. The music, on the other hand – hmm. Joseph Fox’s score is technically good, and memorable, and stirring, but rarely do the individual pieces seem to have been overlaid with much regard for the content of the scene in question, so it often damages the mood rather than enhancing it. I mean, this foot-tapping stuff is almost never sinister. It’s baffling, and not a mistake I’ve ever heard BF make so egregiously before. It’s like hearing the Jeeves & Wooster soundtrack pop up in the middle of Schindler’s List (not quite that offensive, but you get the general idea).

So Something Inside is by no means an unmitigated disaster, although probably fairly described as a mixed bag. It’s more inventive and ambitious than The Dark Flame, and as such Mr Baxendale should be praised for raising his game; similarly, while it falls far short of Terror Firma, Other Lives and Time Works, I still found it more engaging than Scaredy Cat. The plot has worn thin long before Part 4 (and then everybody runs around and dies), the characterisation is so weak as to be almost non-existent, and for a story so focused on the mind, it has very little to stimulate it. But there are some sound ideas and themes, even if they are rarely as well-executed as one would like. It’s as though too much weaker material has clothed the bare bones of a good idea – as though there is something resembling a good story here, somewhere inside, but it never quite breaks free.

Other things:
“Ah, it’s you. Again. Thought you’d given up on me. Should’ve known you’d be back for more. I suppose you want me to talk.” – Doctor Who, to its fans? ;)
Mr Twyst is a bloody brilliant name for a torturer. Just that teensy bit Dickensian too. Although they are hardly the best-written characters, both Ian Brooker and Steven Elder (as Rawden) do a good job with what they’re given.
“Some people say the eyes are the windows of the soul.”/“But then some people have more poetic sense than common sense.” Yes, quite. As we all know, the eyes are not the windows of the soul, they are the doors, and we should beware what may enter there.
“You’re either very clever, Doctor, or incredibly stupid. I can’t decide which.”/“Tell me when you’ve worked it out. I’d quite like to know myself.”
Why the Cube, do we think? What’s the symbolism? The six-sided shape, a shape with seven faces if we include that something that is inside… if it was merely a nod to the 1997 horror film Cube, that’s...well, a bit disappointing.
“I’ll explain later.”/“Oh, I hate it when people say that!”
An unfortunate side effect of telepathic assassins is that I cannot come across the concept of killing somebody with a single thought without instantly picturing Eddie Izzard’s Death Star Canteen sketch (worth a look on YouTube if you’re unfamiliar).
“The pain is good. It means you’re still alive, still feeling.”
This actually reminds me of Sleep No More quite a bit (generic-ish spacey setting, decent world building, a psychological threat, and clunky dialogue) – though the latter goes at least one twist better.
“Nothing like a little lie down to clear the mind.”
“You don’t know what you’re doing!”/“I’m escaping.”
“Leave you behind? What sort of a rescue attempt would that be?”/“I thought this was an escape attempt…”/“I’m multitasking.”
“They’ve emptied my pockets! No sonic screwdriver, no yo-yo, no string, not even a jelly baby! It’s a diabolical liberty! The nerve!”
“What are your secrets, Doctor? What’s in those deep dark pockets of your mind?”
“Do you want me to tell you how brilliant I’ve been?”/“Can I stop you?”/“Absolutely not. You see, I’ve been quite remarkably brilliant even by my own very high standards!”
“It may take a while for things to slot back into their proper places, of course; at the moment I’m pretty sure my recipe for perfect custard has got mixed up with Fermat’s Last Theorem…could be messy.”
“It’s safe, is it?”/“As the Tower of London.” Very reassuring from someone who has been locked in it and escaped at least three times…
The Doctor’s awkward Liverpool/football analogy really feels like it’s one of Baxendale’s memories, not the Doctor’s, even if we make the tenuous stretch that McGann himself has a beautiful Scouse voice and that he’s been into football before in Living Legend.
“I JUST WANT TO GET OUT OF HERE!”/“…and so say all of us.”
The story needed more flourishes like this: “I’ve sealed the doors with a triple-cryptic time lock. The password is based on a Puccini aria played backwards in 4-4-2 time, but don’t tell anyone.” And a nice nod to the movie, too.

Next: 084 The Nowhere Place by Nicholas Briggs.

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