Saturday, October 17, 2009

Doctor Who: Hornets' Nest - The Stuff Of Nightmares

By guest columnist Margot Layne

We read the rumors last summer: Tom Baker was returning to Doctor Who. We, the faithful, the soi-disant Whovians, the former members of DWAS (the UK organization, not the US version), we happy few, we band of scarf-wearing, K-9-loathing, Romana 1-not-2 loyalists, dismissed the story instantly. Our Tom spurns all offers to associate himself with the role. He always has, he always will[1]. After all, he was and is The Doctor.

But the unthinkable happened, the rumors were true; Tom would return in an audio play as the Fourth Doctor. For an instant, we allowed ourselves to hope. Big Finish produces scads of very good-to-excellent Doctor Who audios with high production values, audio artists, real Who Actors, and real Who writers. This could be good. Maybe Tom would be working with Louise Jameson (the savage Leela), or Mary Tamm (Romana 1) or Elisabeth Sladen (Our Sarah). None of us dared to imagine Tom and Lalla Ward together again. The smart money was on Nicholas Courtney because Nearly-Ubiquitous Nick has revived his role as the Brigadier for television, direct-to video, audio, live theater, cereal boxes, matchbook covers, and at least one email adventure. Then the press release dropped like a lump of mashed potatoes on a high school cafeteria tray-- no Big Finish, no Leela, not even the Brig. We would get Tom and Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin). Really? Captain Yates?? He left the show before Tom joined it. Oh, we had a baaad feeling about this.

"Hornets’ Nest: The Stuff of Nightmares" is the first of five audio releases. Written by Paul Magrs, it is not an audio play but is really an audio interpretation of a story. Magrs evokes a Philip Hinchcliffe mixture of horror and humor. Hinchcliffe was the definitive producer of Doctor Who during Tom Baker’s tenure, achieving high ratings and fan appreciation numbers, but ultimately driven from the job for scaring the kiddies too much. Magrs story isn’t bad. The Earth is invaded by a swarm of intelligent hornets, who, like all Doctor Who invaders of Earth want to take over the planet by secret and terribly indirect and strange methods. In this case, they inhabit and animate the stuffed bodies of museum animal specimens which have been discarded by those museums as penance for their sinful centuries of shooting and preserving dead rare animals. Yes, it is literally the stuff of nightmares; evil sawdust-and-chemical-filled badgers, voles, lions, tigers, and bears animated by alien Hymenoptera hell-bent on world domination through, well...animated taxidermy. Even the best Doctor Who stories rarely stand up to careful analysis so don’t be put off by the absurdity of the plot.

Franklin does a nice job as Captain Yates, being true to his own character and not trying to be the Brigadier. Magrs wrote the part well and provided a plausible if unlikely reason for the Fourth Doctor seeking out an older Captain Yates instead of more familiar companions. Baker and Franklin take turns narrating the story events with Baker filling in the events leading up to the present situation. Basil Exposition would be a welcome presence. Susan Jameson voices the part of Mrs. Wibsey, the housekeeper for the Doctor’s house called The Nest. She’s good in a Mrs. Danvers sort of way and if The Nest is not exactly Manderley, neither is it the TARDIS[2]. Whenever Mrs. Wibsey is involved, the disc becomes a proper audio play instead of a mere reading. But where is the TARDIS? We hope, no demand, it returns in the upcoming episodes.

Later in the story Daniel Hill enters as the Hornet-possessed Percy Noggins. Percy is a taxidermy artist, broken-hearted by the removal of his beloved stuffed animals. His heartbreak made him vulnerable to the mind-control powers of the Hornets’ hive mind but the good Doctor relieves him of the evil influence through his own powers of hypnosis. Hill’s portrayal is good and his scenes with the Doctor further relieve the exposition.

And Tom? As he never fails to remind us, he still is The Doctor. His voice is a powerful instrument and, by ten minutes into the performance, is completely convincing. He reanimates the Fourth Doctor to an extent the alien Hornets can only envy. Tom’s Doctor is complete and accurate, all teeth, curls, and scarf. Best of all is the amazing laugh.

The disc is more than a novelty but less than a real Doctor Who adventure. There is enough value in it to make it worthwhile to Fourth Doctor devotees and the later episodes may be much better as the actors grow more comfortable with the story and their characters. Yet this disc shows just how good Big Finish is at producing Doctor Who and how others, even the mighty Beeb, fail to meet expectations. I can justify buying this disc on the grounds that if it is successful, Tom Baker might finally agree to do a proper turn as the Fourth Doctor for Big Finish. That would be such stuff as dreams are made on.

Here is the 2009 release schedule for the remaining episodes:

Episode 2: The Dead Shoes-- October 8
Episode 3: The Circus of Doom-- November 5
Episode 4: A Sting in the Tale-- December 3
Episode 5: Hive of Horror-- December 3

"Hornets' Nest: The Stuff of Nightmares" can be ordered from Who North America here in the U.S.

[1] Some have claimed he appeared in some sort of fan video called "The Dark Dimension" or "Dimensions in Slime" or something. Absolutely not true, Darlings.

[2] There is no madwoman in the attic, either, though it is delicious to imagine Mike Yates as a gun totin’ Jane Eyre to Tom’s Mr. Rochester.