Written By: Mark Gatiss,
Adapted By: Kyle C Szikora,
Directed By: Scott Handcock
CAST: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace),
John Castle (Edmund Trevithick),
Samuel Barnett (Robin), Katherine Jakeways (Jill),
Edward Harrison (Dr Hawthorne),
Jonny Magnanti (Lawrence), Tom Price (Sgt Barclay)
and Carole Ann Ford (Susan)
Sound Design: Iain Meadow
Music: Blair Mowat
Cover Art: Lee Binding
Released: April 2016
BIG FINISH PRODUCTIONS
The Doctor and Ace arrive in Crook Marsham, in northern England, in the mid 20th Century. In normal circumstances they would be getting a feel for what trouble is in wait, and how to counter it. But the objective for the diminutive man, who has lived many lives and saved countless more, is to abdicate from the role of Time's Champion. His energetic and sometimes volatile female assistant cannot believe how withdrawn he has suddenly becomes, and how he desires to simply travel and be an observer. But he seems adamant, and his TARDIS seems to have purposely found the ideal place for relaxation: a 'sleepy' English village.
Yet business unusual typically rears its head. People are rendered powerless, as their most intense and personal memories are overriding all of their senses. And then bodies start to be deposited, left in a truly gruesome state of decay, and attracting swarms of insects.
Amidst this wave of nostalgia and death, is the real life appearance of creatures from the 'Professor Nightshade' show. Edmund Trevithick who played the title role is suddenly having to do more than relive his past acting duties through interviews. He must actually show true fortitude, and true heroics. His fellow villagers need help, and the two odd strangers calling themselves 'Doctor' and 'Ace' would seem to hold the answers to the multitude of questions.
As with Shakedown, reviewed on this site a few months back, the source material was an original novel featuring the Seventh Doctor, and published by Virgin during the 1990s. This particular audio release is a full cast dramatisation, and follows in the footsteps of other adaptations such as Love and War, and Damaged Goods. Those two novels, along with Nightshade, were written by men who would later have a major say in the direction of the 21st century brand of TV Doctor Who.
Given the original book being of quite significant length, and having a number of deft subplots, what transpires here is a distinct pruning. This does work, though, in giving the two hour drama some urgency. Mark Gatiss provided a fundamentally straightforward core story, which made it accessible to virtually any given reader, and which was made memorable through strong characterisation and atmospheric suspense. Boiling down the original material to an entity that is more condensed is to admired, especially given the limited track record (in terms of official commercially released books/radio) by Kyle C Szikora.
Nightshade succeeds also in making the most of this particular incarnation of the main hero. The Seventh Doctor, as portrayed by Sylvester McCoy, is notable for his self-awareness and his depressive bouts of melancholy, as well as the other extremes of excitability, contempt and fury. The peaks and troughs, in terms of how different supporting characters fare in this story, match up well with our main protagonist's weary and deeply informed responses to the various events.
It is also laudable that this play does such a fine job of having a central romance, when much of the core elements of the production are pure 'Hammer Horror'. Ace is still very much the teenager full of powerful emotions that she has yet to fully harness, and she must try and make a choice over who to commit to when things hopefully are resolved - a fellow human being, or her alien confidante. In having such a down-to-earth and normal love interest for her in Robin (unlike, for example, Mike Smith or Captain Sorin) there is an added dimension of intrigue and engagement with the fates of the main players.
Also notable, is the effort to try and be realistic and show that those threatened by the Sentience are by no means purest of heart and soul. Dr Hawthorne in particular shows little regard for those that are below him in the career ladder, and has a rather bitter air of entitlement. But thanks to his engagement with the Doctor and Trevithick, there is something to be salvaged. Consequently, the overall impact of the play's events are that much more real and engaging, and not simply escapism. Additionally, later on in proceedings, the Doctor feels for the insect-like Sentience in a way, respecting its right to survive, but still knows he carries a responsibility to the rest of universe too.
A merely good adventure is usually made strong or outstanding by having a satisfying climax. In this adaptation, I am happy to say that the dénouement has plenty of time to play itself out. It is also given some real clout by having a nicely judged cameo with Susan, the Doctor's beloved grand-daughter, and how his anxiety over deciding to leave her on Earth still resonates six regenerations down the line.
With vibrant music, authentic sound effects, and a decisive director who knows how to harness his small but capable cast, Nightshade is a nice little treat from the spring of 2016. It shows the Sophie Aldred/ McCoy chemistry of yesteryear is every bit as strong and relevant as ever. In short: one to savour more than just once or twice for any fan of the Doctor Who universe.