My relationship with Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor in the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range has thus far proven to be a decidedly rocky one. So will this latest outing fare any better? Particularly given that this time around he is joined by a certain Melanie Bush, of whom I hold a legitimate fear of being deafened by, should she revert to form and go all scream-happy during her first trip into audio. Please join me and my eardrums on what may prove to be their final journey.
“What’s so special about an English police telephone box?”
Episode 1: The year is 1980, and in the ruins of the doomed city of Pompeii an earthquake has uncovered a startling discovery buried within the volcanic ash. The TARDIS.
First impressions count. Unfortunately, things did not start well for me with this particular entry in Big Finish Doctor Who audio land. And it is for a reason that has been one of the banes of the audio series thus far, the dodgy accent. In this particular case, quite possibly the worst fake Italian accent I have ever heard. And it is so distractingly bad that it completely undermines what is, actually, a fantastic story hook, with the TARDIS being found encased in ruins that are almost two thousand years old, and UNIT arriving on the scene to cover up that discovery. That is a great place to start a story from, but doing so with an Italian that comes across as less genuine than a Hong Kong handbag is probably not doing it all the justice that it deserved.
But even worse than the poor accent is the fact that there was no need for the accent to even be there in the first place. It wasn’t necessary for the character, who could have been an archaeologist professor from anywhere studying the ruins. Or, he could have been Italian without having to resort to a-speaking like a second-a rate-a Mario. The latter becomes even more evident when the story goes back in times to Pompeii and no one is putting on broadly silly Italian accents, so why do it once at the start with this single character? Especially when you can’t do it well enough not to have it be so distracting. It makes no sense to me whatsoever, and it does the story being launched a disservice.
Putting that rant aside, the story really does have a great set up, and the first episode, on the whole, does quite well in putting all of the various pieces in place, while maintaining listener interest along the way. There’s another terrible piece of voice casting that I’ll go in to later, but apart from that this is an engaging, interesting first episode, that culminates in a really nice cliffhanger ending, to boot. And Mel isn’t even annoying. Honestly. My ears were surprised, too.
“Time can not abide a paradox.”
Episode 2: The Doctor and Mel are in Pompeii the day before the fated eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and the TARDIS has been buried under a collapsed building during the most recent earthquake. So why isn’t The Doctor trying harder to find a way for them both to escape?
After a great set up, the second episode is a bit of a mixed bag, really, being undermined by some weak performances, as well as some distinctly odd performance choices.
Perhaps the most notable of which is an exchange between Lisa Hollander’s Eumachia and Andy Coleman’s Celsinus, which has been done in some kind of faux-Roman dialogue style, much as you might see on HBO’s Rome series, or Starz’ Spartacus, only here it is incredibly stilted in both writing and performance, and even more perplexingly, it is the only scene in the entire story done in this hyper-exaggerated way. It feels like an experiment that didn’t work, but they kept it in anyway, and it grinds everything to a halt, and just confuses both the narrative and the audio soundscape by it’s very presence. It doesn’t do the two actors in question many favours either. Strange stuff. And poorly done strange stuff, at that. Both actors are actually fine for most of the rest of the story, particularly Coleman, but the scene in question was decidedly, and distractingly, cringeworthy.
The other notable performance issue in this story is the casting of Steven Wickham as the unfortunately named gladiator Murranus (no relation to Rick, who I’d also happily see covered in lava). I’ve said this before, and it may seem like a rather obvious point, but in audio, sound is everything. And that very much includes the voices attached to each character. We have to be convinced by, and invested in these characters by the strength and quality of their vocal performance alone. There’s no body language, no physicality whatsoever, it’s all aural. That’s why really bad accents bug me so much, because if the voice is all a character has to ground it and sell it to an audience with, if it fails on that count it brings down the level and believability of the whole performance, as well as undermining all those that surround it. And that point has rarely been so pointedly made than by Steven Wickham’s performance here.
Wickham gives us what must surely be the most effete gladiator of all time. He sounds more like a decadent Roman senator or wannabe Emperor, rather than a tough, battle-hardened gladiator of the arena. And as a result he doesn’t convince in this role for a single moment. And making it even worse, he is in this story a lot, in a sub-plot that frankly is little more than filler to begin with. And rather dull filler, at that. The thing is, it’s not even that the performance itself is completely awful, it is just that when taken in context with the character he is supposedly playing, it just utterly does not fit in any way whatsoever. It strikes as being so monumentally out of place that he should never have been cast in this role to begin with. Not with that voice anyway. It is just too much of an aural anachronism. And as a result it tends to derail the main story whenever his character shows up.
However, it’s not all bad news as far as the guest cast go. Gemma Bissix as slave girl Aglae is really quite good, and the rest of the cast acquits themselves well enough, with notably solid turns from Robert Curbishly and especially Nicky Goldie. And as far as the stars go, Sylvester McCoy gives an interesting, if rather downplayed performance this time out, while Bonnie Langford mostly manages to avoid the more grating aspects of her character’s TV appearances, and does a fine job in her Big Finish Doctor Who audio debut. Two episodes in and she still hasn’t deafened me by screaming, and still isn’t annoying. My ears can barely believe it.
“Time working against me…”
Episode 3: As Mel finds herself trapped in a Roman prison, The Doctor is being sought by an angry gladiator, seeking to restore his lost honour by any means necessary.
As we go into episode three, it all turns into a bit of a run-about, and clearly they seem to be treading lava a bit to string the whole thing out to the proper length. It’s still enjoyable enough, but it does serve to underline some of the main issues with Steve Lyons script. Now I actually think there is a lot that Lyons does right. He sets up some great ideas, performance niggles aside. There’s a decent cross-section of characters, and character types, from across the various classes within the doomed city. He gives Mel plenty to do, keeps McCoy’s Doctor interesting, albeit dragging out the maudlin attitude to ‘the inevitable’ perhaps a touch too long, and both of them feel completely believable and true to character. And the fall of Pompeii is a great Doctor Who historical setting, as proven again during recent years in the TV series when The Doctor and Donna Noble found themselves in a very similar story during the fourth season episode The Fires of Pompeii.
But what that TV version had, and this audio sadly doesn’t, is dramatic punch. Lyons’ actual surrounding story here in The Fires of Vulcan is actually in many ways smarter and more interesting in my opinion than the one at the centre of the TV episode The Fires of Pompeii. However where the audio falls down significantly is in terms of gravitas as to the event in question, and pathos, in regards to the fate of the city itself, and the characters met along the way. The TV series managed to do both of those things very well, giving a somewhat weak core story some proper dramatic punch, whereas the audio is far less successful on those grounds. And as such I couldn’t help but wish that this audio had a bit more dramatic power to it, given the scale and tragedy of the event at it’s core. Alas, that just wasn’t to be.
Heading into the final episode, and the odds now seem to be that Mel isn’t going to either annoy or deafen. My ears have become cautiously optimistic about the future. And I’ve just received a message from my cat that she’s left home in order to move in with the neighbour’s dog.
“The Gods cleanse our city with fire!”
Episode 4: As Vesuvius finally erupts and Pompeii is plunged into chaos, The Doctor is horrified to learn that Mel is still somewhere within the city, searching for the TARDIS.
So, how does it all end? A bit disappointingly, truth be told. The final episode is largely yet another run-about, albeit this time in the shadow of the actual eruption, and Pompeii’s imminent doom. The biggest issue with this is that much of the running about seems to be a bit random, and yet everyone who needs to find anyone else somehow luckily manages to do so, despite the entire city being in chaos, and dust and smoke limiting both mobility and vision. Meanwhile fate seems to specifically be targeting only the bad and the stupid people, which is quite nice of it. But Doctor Who often tends to take such liberties of convenience, so you can pretty much go along with all of that, even if it does tend to stretch incredulity a bit thin, and just generally lacks the emotional and dramatic punch that it should have had along the way.
What wasn’t quite so easy for me to go along with was the ending, which was a complete cop-out of the highest order. And while the explanation that we are given as far as how The Doctor, Mel and the TARDIS have escaped fate without breaking the bounds of paradox is tied up neatly enough, it feels like it has suddenly come out of nowhere in the way that it is presented. And worse still, it just isn’t in any way dramatically satisfying, either in execution or explanation, despite the best efforts of McCoy and Langford to try and ‘sell’ it. At the end of the day it just feels like a bit of a cheat, really.
This is still a solid Big Finish Doctor Who audio release, and there’s some great ideas here, it just doesn’t all quite work in the telling. As to my feelings about the Sylvester McCoy audio era in general, this one hasn’t made much of an impact on that, and I still find him to be easily my least preferred audio Doctor. McCoy’s performance in this one is fine, but overall he just doesn’t seem to have shown the same dramatic oompf that the other two audio Doctors, Colin Baker and Peter Davison, has thus far managed to reliably deliver. And I do believe him capable of it, because every so often you do get a moment where that potential shines through, but it just never seems to be sustained, and McCoy never seems to truly soar in his performance the way the other two, for me, often have. Hopefully, just like his TV adventures, he’s just a bit of a late bloomer. Time will tell, I suppose.
Oh, and before I go, here’s a handy survival tip that I picked up from The Fires of Vulcan: If you ever find yourself running from an erupting volcano, apparently all of the women that you know and find yourself with will only serve to slow the fleeing men-folk down. Every single one of them. So, if you’re male and you find yourself living in the shadow of a volcano, your best option may be to go gay. You know, just for safety. And if you’re female…I don’t know. Buy a horse?
Next up: Sylvester McCoy returns in Shadow of the Scourge