For the 60th Anniversary of Doctor Who we revisit the story of Doctor Who, the occasional series written for the 50th Anniversary, explaining the origins of the programme.

Episode 31 - An Unearthly Series - The Origins of a TV Legend: First published 23 Nov 2013

The Brood of ErysBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 19 August 2015 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
The Brood of Erys (Credit: Big Finish / Damien May)
The Brood of Erys
Released by Big Finish
Written by Andrew Smith
Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Released: Feb 2014

Remember how after making promising progress in terms of their narrative trajectory, recent modern Doctor Who serials such as “Night Terrors” and “Into the Dalek” somehow managed to squander their potential come their respective final acts by making sudden forays into overly sappy territory (if this reviewer never has to endure the sight of the Doctor teaching ex-Kaleds the beauty of the stars again, it’ll be too soon)? Well, much as The Brood of Erys, the second outing in Big Finish’s January – March 2014 trilogy of Sixth Doctor and Flip storylines, does its utmost to maintain a consistently impressive benchmark of quality throughout its four contributory episodes, so too does the 183th chapter in the aforementioned studio’s never-ending range of Who-themed audio dramas lose its way at precisely the wrong moment, thereby threatening to ruin its audience’s perception of what might otherwise have been one of Colin Baker’s finest off-screen hours to date.

More on that momentarily, however – let’s first align our metaphorical TARDIS scanners towards Brood’s strengths, since in spite of its lacklustre denouement, the drama in question can’t possibly fail to hook its listeners during its opening three-quarters. Central to its resounding success in this respect is the pair of increasingly tight-knit travellers currently piloting their Type 42 machine through time and space; although one gets the sense nowadays that Baker’s incarnation – nor the man himself, if his recent revelatory interview with DWM was any indication – will never quite shed his reputation as the version of the Doctor who underwent one of the weakest overall runs in the show’s history, the 72-year old thespian responsible for bringing the character to life during the mid-1980s has rarely been on finer form than he is here. Channelling all of the compassion and bombast he can muster as old ‘Sixie’ and his faithful accomplice explore a sentient moon known as Erys whose emotional motivations become murkier by the second (a fascinating narrative concept which this reviewer couldn’t help but wish writer Andrew Smith had deployed before “The Doctor’s Wife” aired on BBC One in 2011, but there we are), he not only reminds Nathan Turner devotees of the merits of his era but also affords the ever-complacent yet ever-righteous hero an emotional gravity which this incarnation’s haters might have claimed was lacking during his original run.

At the same time, every accomplished – if in this case cruelly unappreciated – Doctor needs a similarly worthy assistant at his side, hence the above reference to not one but both members of the TARDIS crew. When this reviewer came to pass judgement on Antidote to Oblivion last July, Ms. Philippa Jackson (Lisa Greenwood) appeared to represent one of its only notable caveats due to the lack of much in the way of character development afforded to her by scribe Philip Martin, yet just as Matt Fitton recently showcased Flip’s potential by exploiting her fears of performing before an audience and her realisation of her ability to overcome those long-running self-doubts in “Stage Fright” – the penultimate of the four captivating tales contained within Big Finish’s newly-released boxset “The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure” – Smith achieves much the same feat here, adding additional layers to Jackson’s personality by having her demonstrate her raw recklessness in a valiant but nonetheless risk-laden effort to reunite herself with the Doctor come Brood’s action-packed (sometimes to the point of its own detriment, as we’ll discuss later) second half, not to mention during the numerous Hammer-riffing body horror sequences where the young adventurer finds herself forced to navigate the depths of the titular living planetoid, encountering an all manner of spectacularly-voiced secondary constructs along the way including the slimy – in every sense of the adjective – Terrill (Chris Overton), the wayward amnesiac Sarra Vanser (Nicola Sian) and best of all the hauntingly omniscient persona of Erys (Brian Shelley) himself.

Indeed, in a similar vein to how Greenwood’s ever-passionate work as Flip has been complemented (and thus strengthened) to no minor extent here by Smith’s beneficially character-led script, the latter trio of supporting cast members each thrive in their respective roles thanks to the layered dialogue that their individual constructs spout out over the course of their extensive airtime. In a weaker science-fiction audio yarn, for instance, Terrill and his band of shameless, ever-troublesome Drachee scavengers would have come off as mindless slaves created for the sole narrative purpose of serving as the frankly dull lackeys of a (mostly) physically formless antagonist, yet far from allowing this to be the case, Smith throws more than one curve-ball into the figurative mixture that ensures the Drachee have just as significant a function to fulfil in the grand scheme of events as the Doctor, Flip or their latest adversary. It’s a true thrill to be able to confirm that as a result, once Brood moves into its fourth and final 25-minute segment, all but the most apathetic of listeners are sure to empathise with every character who they’ve encountered so far, and as such to feel as if they are on tenterhooks with regards to how each construct’s arc will come to an end.

What a crying tragedy it is, then, that after three episodes’ worth of steadily rising tension and intriguingly unravelled mysteries surrounding Sarra’s curiously absent yet vital memories, Smith hurriedly injects a small armada of emotionally vapid – albeit purposefully so – enemies not unlike those described previously here as being the stuff of lacklustre sci-fi efforts so as to add in some physical dangers for his ensemble despite the fact that the psychological toils presented by Erys’ meddling with the minds of ‘Sixie’ et al were more than enough to carry Episode 4 on their own merits. Whereas the scarecrow-styled hordes introduced a little way into “Human Nature / The Family of Blood” back in 2007 at least acted as a decent metaphor for the ceaseless, meaningless slaughter committed over the course of the Great War as they were endlessly gunned down by the students unlucky enough to attend the school which was playing host to one John Smith, the so-called “mud soldiers” who elect to crop up in Brood’s closing quarter hold no such deeper moral implications, instead existing only as a rushed means through which to off one or two supporting characters so as for (Andrew, not John) Smith to rest safe in the knowledge that his serial didn’t conclude without containing a single demise of some kind. Worse still, in subsequently attempting to add some further emotional levity (perhaps realising too late his mistake in abruptly prioritising action at the last second) by lobbing in a hopelessly indulgent throwback to the First Doctor era which doesn’t receive any of the necessary moments of foreshadowing earlier on required to justify its inclusion, the playwright comes cripplingly close to offering the impression that he had little idea whatsoever as to how to call it a day.

Yet to end on such a defeatist assertion would represent an unfair manner in which to resolve this particular assessment, especially given the strength of the ground-work laid during the opening three instalments. Make no mistake, Smith at least structures proceedings in such a way that the thematic discussion of matters such as corporations attempting to lay claim to entire landscapes without any thought of the immediate (or even distant) repercussions, not to mention that of the infuriating global political bureaucracy which can often force individuals to take drastic action for their family and / or community in today’s society, scarcely ever fails to captivate, a rare accomplishment given that many dialogue-led audio pieces can often lose their way by using too much exposition to delve into such themes and not enough in the way of tangible plot developments. As was the case with “Night Terrors” and “Into the Dalek”, though, Brood will forever be remembered as coming within inches of fulfilling its commendably lofty aspirations of centralising psychological drama over action, only to lose its nerve at the last instant and in doing so rank amongst the most notable could-have-beens in Who’s history.

FILTER: - Audio - Big Finish - Sixth Doctor - 1781782997

The Brood of Erys (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 28 September 2014 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton

The Brood Of Erys
Written by Andrew Smith
Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Released: Feb 2014 by Big Finish

The Brood of Erys packs a classic Doctor Who premise – arriving in a star system containing just a single planet and its accompanying moon, as well as an array of radio beacons lining its boundaries, the TARDIS intercepts a mysterious transmission informing its crew that their lives will be in jeopardy should they venture any further. Naturally, the Doctor and Flip (Lisa Greenwood) travel into the metaphorical heart of the danger zone, only to find themselves and their vessel latched onto by a family of “curious” extraterrestrial beings called the Drachee (think the Slitheen, but with subtler and less frequent expressions of gaseous exchange and, mercifully, far less slapstick humour).

There’s something charmingly innocent about the concept of a horde of alien toddlers exploring the deepest recesses of the TARDIS in order to simply learn more of the unknown (not least due to the high-pitched voice of their leader) – and something inherently hilarious about the characteristically melodramatic and agitated reaction offered by Colin Baker’s incarnation of the Doctor – yet as is virtually always the case in narratives taking place within the so-called Whoniverse, the situation turns sour in a matter of moments. Flip is taken hostage by those same individuals who claimed themselves to pose “no danger” whatsoever, while her self-appointed protector is forced to take refuge on a damaged space yacht – and, soon enough, the planet Asphya itself – with an amnesia-prone female humanoid who can’t remember her own name, let alone her dark history or the influence it’ll have on events to come.

In spite of the commendable sense of scale conveyed by these initial eventful set-pieces, Brood’s narrative comes to focus far more on psychological demons than it does physical antagonists, a rare attribute which previously worked to great effect in televised serials such as 42 and Midnight and which certainly doesn’t do the story any harm in terms of building the intrigue surrounding its constructs and the somehow-sentient moon of Erys. Central to writer Andrew Smith’s prolonged investigation of the inner workings of the mind is this notion of an intelligent planetoid and the ramifications its sudden (or gradual) metamorphosis could have for its inhabitants. Of course, as plot elements go, a sentient moon is by no means a completely original addition to the series’ lore (although one might argue that nearly fifty-one years on from November 23rd, 1963, it’s nigh-on impossible for today’s scribes to give birth to wholly unique antagonists) – The Doctor’s Wife’s House comes to mind as a recent example of how such a conceit can be implemented efficiently within the realms of modern science-fiction (and, indeed, modern Who) – so it’s a great relief to see Smith take such a contrasting approach to his predecessors, intertwining the arcs of the aforementioned amnesiac, the Drachee (who offer up an all manner of simultaneously humorous and quasi-philosophical insights into the current predicament facing Erys and the system as a whole) and the spherical landmass which gives this particular audio drama its name to such an extent that one can’t fail to be swept up by the mystery surrounding both of them.

That said, while Smith undoubtedly manages to subvert expectations of the traditional representation of adversaries who attack via the mind rather than through any physical manifestation, Brian Shelley’s voice work as the mental embodiment of Erys isn’t quite so successful in this regard. Sure, there’s genuine enthusiasm and vigour present in Shelley’s portrayal of one of the more abstract (and therefore challenging) forces conceived by the minds of Big Finish in recent years, but when it’s juxtaposed with Michael Sheen’s chilling vocal contribution to Neil Gaiman’s aforementioned 2011 TV story, it’s all but pointless to attempt to argue that the former performance is anywhere near as memorable or layered – instead, it comes off as rather derivative, as if Shelley has dedicated a considerable amount of his spare time to watching psychologically investigative serials like The Brain of Morbius in order to hone his contribution to the ever-expanding world of Doctor Who spin-offs (if such a term can even begin to do justice to the increasingly accomplished and ambitious work of Big Finish and its various writing teams) rather than focusing on putting his own engaging spin on the dialogue afforded to him in the notably generous script (that several scenes rely wholly on his ability to match and / or surpass Lisa Greenwood’s evident enduring passion and conviction doesn’t help matters either).

If Shelley is the play’s weakest link, then Baker and Greenwood are easily the two central components which (in tandem with the near-unparalleled intelligence of Smith’s delicately-structured and thematically subversive storyline) hold it all together. Both of these talented thespians have had more than enough time to develop their portrayals and to tailor them to cater for the preferences of Big Finish’s constantly expanding Doctor Who-orientated fandom and, unsurprisingly, they’ve done so with enviable ease, to the extent that they’re now seemingly able to transform even the most exposition-centric sequences into dramatically engaging exchanges that reward the attentive listener in unexpected ways regardless of whether or not they feed directly into the narrative’s denouement. The sixth Doctor in particular is taken completely and utterly out of his comfort zone as the situation at hand shifts out of his control and unseen forces manipulate proceedings in order to suit their own ends, instantly enabling Baker to flex his performing muscles as his character’s increasingly desperate attempts to rally against his newfound nemeses begin to seem more and more futile.

After months upon months of mediocrity, then, Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio dramas may well have found their footing once again with The Brood of Erys. Andrew Smith – unlike several of his esteemed predecessors - doesn’t rely on the series’ past tropes in order to strengthen the credibility of his tale, nor does he integrate needlessly contrived references to classic or modern serials in a similar vein to those scribes who fear that they’ll lose their listeners’ attention should they neglect to include such call-backs in the mix. There’s still room to improve in future sixth Doctor productions, of course – perhaps it’d be worth Smith becoming more involved with the casting process when it comes to selecting a truly accomplished voice actor to portray his next storyline’s central antagonist, since Brood’s brilliantly subversive script certainly more than warranted such talent – but to paraphrase John Hurt’s already-beloved War Doctor, for now, for this moment, this is the show we’ve come to know and love again.

FILTER: - Big Finish - Audio - Sixth Doctor - 1781782997