Short Trips - Black DogBookmark and Share

Sunday, 31 January 2016 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Short Trips: 5.12. Black Dog (Credit: Big Finish)
PERFORMED by Louise Jameson
 

Written By: Dale Smith
Directed By: Lisa Bowerman

 

Sound Design + Music: Rob Harvey

Cover Art: Mark Plastow

 

Producer and Script Editor: Michael Stevens

Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

 

Released December 2015,
Big Finish Productions

"Why would they continue to worship him?"

"They don't they just fear him. He's the only god they have, and they live in terror of him invading their dreams.. If he comes, that's it. Day by day, you waste away. Then you die."

Jed explaining a dark legend to the Doctor and Leela.

 

The mighty Earth Empire is about to formally return control of one of its colonised planets back to the original native Alphans. During this handover, the Fourth Doctor and Leela  are soon involved in finding out that some legends can be very much reality; in this case the myth of the planet's undisputed one God, known as "The Black Dog". Leela's very individuality becomes endangered, and the Doctor must take a rather more passive role as he tries to understand a battle being fought in the darker corners of the human mind..

 

This play once again is narrated and voice acted by someone who portrayed of the most memorable female companions in the original TV show. Louise Jameson is without doubt of the best actresses to grace Doctor Who, and here she makes the most of myriad opportunities to bring an intriguing story to life. She also manages to do the male characters justice, and yet retains the feminine charm of her own primary 'noble savage' protagonist.

The magnetic Fourth Doctor is never going to be forgotten in any story that features him, but here he truly must rely on the amazing willpower of his stout-hearted companion. Lesser mortals would almost certainly be overcome by the potent curse that the 'God' inflicts on its victims. He still gets some nice lines and offers his considerable skill and intellect to finding a solution to the curse.

There are some overlapping themes with Leela's remarkably quirky debut story The Face Of Evil,  which gained a rather unexpected repeat in the UK close to the time this title was released. There is also some interesting and smartly done world-building. For such a restricted running time, the information that the listener processes is arguably comparable with a proper feature length TV story of four episodes. The story is notable in starting somewhere in the middle, and then proceeding to provide explanations that feel organic and of little obstruction to the play's momentum.

The Black Dog has a backstory that is truly grim, but fascinating and poignant too. It is also a worthy foe, that possesses a tangible gravitas. The idea of victims being under this spirit's sway is a core concept, and resonates some time after the last sound has been heard by the listener. Leela is one of the most buoyant naturally optimistic companions that the Doctor ever acquired in his travels, but still human, and still more than able to suffer in terms of her mentality and her spirit.

The Doctor's 'noble savage' assistant is still a character with much potential; even after many more original stories have been done in the last couple of decades. Here she gets some good development, in that flashes of her inner fear are exposed, and yet her determination still comes coursing through. And even if the victorious outcome is inevitable, there are some mental scars that Leela is likely to still contend with. This means the aftermath feels less cosy and flippant than would be the case in a more bland and risk-averse script.

And the play works on multiple levels. One of the most famous British Prime Ministers suffered from his self-described 'black dog'. Yet Winston Churchill managed to live a long and distinguished life. Similarly here, the threat of all-pervading doom is a tough thing to process, but with the right willpower, there is hope. 

The play does not have all that much location changing or full on action in some senses, but there is a real atmosphere that really makes this Short Trip breathe full life. The music is very nicely done, and does not ever come across as intrusive. It also is used selectively by Rob Harvey to punctuate turns of events or changes of scenery.

 

The dialogue is very natural sounding as well, and helps in distinguishing the different personalities involved. Of course, were this not the case I believe Jameson's skill still would be able to perform this important task. There are some beautiful sentences during much of the narration. Thus, this certainly would work well in written form too. Indeed Short Trips began as book anthologies, and well before this current line of original audios. And the very final passage to close the play is truly poetic and haunting.

One small criticism is that we have a mild profanity uttered by Jed - the main guest character - and on several occasions. Certainly it would never pass the higher-ups involved during the original Hinchcliffe and Williams stories, let alone Mary Whitehouse. And yet the extended Doctor Who universe has often ventured into such territory, partly in an effort to shake off the tag of Doctor Who being just for young children. The legacy of more intricately plotted and authentically characterised tales - arguably forming the most in the Virgin New Adventures book line - cannot and should not be ignored.

 

So overall, this is another fine title from the Big Finish team and I am glad more Short Trips will continue to materialise on a monthly basis - as of now.