Wednesday, 10 September 2014
The Holy Terror [The Sixth Doctor + Frobisher]
The Holy Terror is an odd story. Just as The Shadow of the Scourge took non-BBC television continuity from the Virgin New Adventures so The Holy Terror takes itself from the Doctor Who Magazine's comic strip, which is why it features The Sixth Doctor accompanied by Frobisher.
Now if you're not aware of Frobisher - and really you should be - he's a shapeshifting private detective. Now, for reasons I can't quite remember, he's now generally 'stuck' in the shape of a penguin: a talking penguin. Obviously in the comic strip you had no idea what his accent was. And after all who knows how talking penguin mesomorph private detectives would actually speak. In The Holy Terror he's got an American accent. He's a gumshoe. It's not quite the cynical Humphrey Bogart type of gumshoe but a film noir gumshoe nonetheless. Which actually now my memory has clicked in properly is kind of how his comic strip introduction would make you think he would speak.*
Having the Doctor paired up with a large talking bird is always going to be a strange experience. Putting them into a story as strange as this makes for an interesting experience. The TARDIS, which is effectively on strike, lands inside a strange castle where a new God-King is about to take the throne. The society is bizarrely ritualistic. People have roles and they are expected to play them without question. Whether that role is God-King, High Priest, Nasty and conspiratorial hump backed brother to the God-King or Chief Guard. Things are expected of you. These are part character traits, part rituals. And the God-King's every move is written about by the Scribe. These are all titles. There are people with these titles but they're expected to follow that ritual without question. Even unto death.
It's all very strange.
It's made even stranger by the fact that new God-King, Pepin VII doesn't want to be a God-King. He wants to abdicate. And that his brother Childeric might have gone entirely mad.
The first two episodes in particular are quite a challenge. This isn't 'normal' Big Finish Doctor Who and it seems to be balancing precariously on the line between strange and silly but by the end this is something really dark and surprisingly moving. It's a compliment to Robert Shearman's writing that he can take it so far out there and then bring it back to being about something so human. So individual. It's hard to talk about the ending without spoiling it but I did actually find myself genuinely moved by it even as it comes at the end of horror after horror.
I can see why you might get frustrated by it at points. The whole idea of Frobisher, the weirdness of everyone's behaviour to the point at which they're almost all like cliches and just the oddity of it makes it one of those stories I imagine illicits a marmite style reaction. I liked it a lot in the end, although I wasn't sure about it until I got to the end when the reasons for people's behaviours becomes much more clear.
The performances are great. First and foremost Colin Baker is wonderful, especially in the final episode and the final scenes. They actually sound surprisingly Fifth Doctor-ish at points. Then Robert Jezack's Frobisher is fine. Frobisher's placed in an impossible position at points in this story and my only criticism is that he's a bit flat at points. The supporting cast is great, as usual, in Big Finish too.
Dan Hogarth as Captain Sejanus, Helen Punt as Livilla, Stefan Atkinson as Pepin, Peter Sowerbutts as Clovis, Bruce Mann as Arnulf and various authors in small roles : Gary Russell (Guard), Jacqueline Rayner (Woman) and Mr. Shearman himself as Sculptor.
But the three standout for me.
Peter Guinness as the mad, bad and dangerous to know Childeric. He's got the perfect voice to pitch a perfect performance for that kind of role. Then there's Roberta Taylor's Berengaria who manages to be brilliant throughout but particularly in her final scenes with her son Pepin.
However the biggest applause go to Sam Kelly. He's got a lot to do throughout but in the final episode he manages to bring depth to a final confrontation where he's genuinely creepy and moving. If he hadn't been as good then the final scenes would not have been as emotional.
So, for all its strangeness, I did really enjoy this. If you're listening and having doubts then stick with it until the end I think you'll find it worthwhile.
SEE BELOW FOR ADDITIONAL MASSIVELY SPOILERY BIT IF YOU'VE NOT HEARD THIS. PLEASE DON'T READ IT BEFORE LISTENING TO THE STORY AS I WOULDN'T WANT TO GIVE TOO MUCH AWAY. YOU HAVE BEEN TOLD.
The themes of free will and fiction reminded me a lot of Castrovalva. In fact, as I kind of mentioned above, this does in many respects feel like a Fifth Doctor story but that's my personal feeling. Probably.
*I recommend getting hold of the collected Voyager Comic Strips if you want to know more about where Frobisher comes from. You should really read them anyway as they're some of the best Doctor Who Comic strips to come from DWM.