Since 2005 it’s been socially acceptable to like Doctor Who again. Yeah, there are probably people reading this saying “No it haznt m8. Lolz”. Well it has. So there. It’s the BBC’s jewel in the crown. But it hasn’t always been that way.
Back in the late 1980s, the quality of Dr Who nosedived. Social commentators point towards the ‘wobbly sets’ and the lack of budget compared to American alternatives & big budget science fiction films of the time as the catalyst for the decline, but that’s not really true. The budget was never great. Yes, it constrained what they could do, but that didn’t hinder it in the 1960s or 70s. It’s just a myth that people have accepted as a truth.
What caused the decline was a combination of scheduling, terrible writing, the inclusion of ‘Guest stars’ ahead of proper casting, a lesser standard of acting and the fact that the controllers at the BBC hated it.
Ironically, what a lot of people point to as the real ‘nadir’ of Dr Who – i.e. the Sylvester McCoy era – probably isn’t. In truth it started towards the end of the Peter Davison era and really hit rock bottom during Colin Baker’s initial run. Don’t get me wrong, this era produced the best ever Dr Who story (that being the brilliant Caves of
Androzani – Davison’s final story), but it was followed by what is commonly believed to be the worst (Colin Baker’s opener, The Twin Dilemma).
Sadly this has a lot to do with how Colin Baker’s Doctor was written. The Script Editor of the time – Eric Saward – has covered himself by trying to blame it on Baker. He says Baker wasn’t a leading man.
Well if you’ve only ever seen Colin Baker’s TV stories you might be inclined to agree. His Doctor is quite frankly annoying. He wears a stupid coat and spends his time involved in panto-style arguments with his companion. It doesn’t make for good TV. The easy thing is to blame it on Baker. The damage was done and it was his fault. Dr Who never recovered and it was cancelled in 1985 and again in 1989.
So getting back to my original point, Dr Who wasn’t cool in the 1990s. Society had rejected it. I could go on at length about how this was due to ‘Super Fans’ like the infamous Ian Levine and the desperately uncool Jeremy Bentham (no, not the guy from Lost) who represented the public persona of ‘The Dr Who Fan’ of the time, but Levine would probably find out (he has eyes and ears everywhere) and get his ‘very litigious lawyer’ onto me.
And so it wasn’t on TV. And it didn’t look like it would be coming back any time soon.
What happened then was that people who had a decade to dream up ideas for Dr Who stories had an outlet for their creativity. And because it was in the medium of audio then they didn’t have to worry about sets or special effects, or the fact that the actors had aged. And it allowed them to be creative with casting as well. The Sixth Doctor got an old woman for a companion. Now, we’ve all seen what a terrific job Bernard Cribbins did with David Tennant, but generally speaking the formula has been ‘The Doctor and the 20-something girl’ since 1970.
Some of the Big Finish Audios are among the best Dr Who stories ever written, and the scripts have been ‘borrowed’ by the TV series since it was brought back (The Eccleston story ‘Dalek’ is based on the 6th Dr Audio ‘Jubilee’, while the reason the Cybermen used in modern day Dr Who have been from a parallel dimension is because they wanted to borrow heavily from the critically acclaimed – and mildly overrated in my opinion – 5th Dr Audio ‘Spare Parts’)
Most of all, what the Big Finish Audios did and have continued to do, is prove Eric Saward wrong. When given the right scripts, Colin Baker is excellent as the Doctor.
Anyway, that’s the back-story over and done with. As you know, this is a blog about reviewing stuff, but this review takes a different format. Rather than being a review of something I’ve just watched, I’m reviewing this with the aim of hopefully getting you to listen to it; it being arguably one of the finest Doctor Who stories you’ll never see – The Holy Terror
Written by Robert Shearman (he who wrote the previously mentioned ‘Jubilee’ and ‘Dalek’) The Holy Terror stars Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor, and Robert Jezek as his companion, Frobisher.
Well sadly this is the reason that despite the story being brilliant, it hasn’t sold particularly well compared to other Big Finishes. Frobisher is a penguin. Well, he’s actually a shape-shifting private detective alien with a New York accent who happens to have taken the form of a penguin. He’s actually a companion from the Dr Who comic strips in the 1980s. I’m fairly sure I got a small comic book free inside a packet of crisps in 1986. Yes, a packet of crisps…
Anyway, because it has Frobisher in it, people probably thought it wasn’t to be taken seriously, so the sales for this story were not high, and so this is one of only two appearances that Frobisher ever makes. And that is a shame.
With audio plays, the plot is everything, so I really don’t want to give much away should anyone decide to track this down. And what I’ve found is that unlike watching films, it’s quite difficult to actually review an audio drama without ruining the plot, so bear with me as I try my best.
The TARDIS lands in a mysterious castle inhabited by what appears to be a normal, medievil style society. But as with most things, everything is not as it seems.
The society worships the Emperor Peppin VI, who they see as a Living God. Sadly that Living God has just died from falling asleep in the bath and drowning, so his wife Berengaria (well cast as Roberta Taylor, ex of Eastenders and The Bill) is sentenced to death and her son Peppin VII (played by Stefan Atkinson, a man so famous that he doesn’t have his own Wikipedia page) is due to be made Emperor in his place. But Peppin VII is a wimp of a man who is scared of becoming Emperor, mainly because he doesn’t believe he is a God. His nasty wife Livilla doesn’t believe he’s a God either. Livilla, much like Berengaria before her, was chosen as the wife for the royal lineage not for her personality but for her looks. Ergo, despite being attractive (or maybe because of it), she’s a total bitch. I’m sure most men (and woman) have known at least 4 or 5 people like that in their lifetime.
Meanwhile there is intrigue in court as the other main players in this story, his ugly and rotten-to-the-core half-brother Childeric (played by Peter Guinness who is actually Roberta Taylor’s wife [yay, jobs for the boys]) and the High Priest, Clovis (played by the wonderfully named Peter Sowerbutts) plan on usurping Peppin and taking power for themselves.
While this sounds pretty run of the mill, the interesting part is that everyone knows this is going to happen. Because the society in which they live is based around (unwitting) self-determinacy and the observation of rather stupid customs.
As Berengaria explains…
“Throughout history the Empress has given birth to two sons. One good, virtuous, heroic – the rightful heir to the throne. The other – a bastard. Twisted abhorrent. It’s practically mythical”
The people of this society don’t know why this always happens – it just always does. The son of the father will always take his place, whether it’s as the Emperor, the High Priest or the Captain of the Castle Guard. They just accept it.
The main supporting character in this story is Eugene Tacitus, who is portrayed wonderfully by Sam Kelly (best known for appearing in sitcoms like ‘Allo ‘Allo, On The Up and Black Books). Tacitus is Scribe to the Emperor and his job is to take note of the Emperors movements. Essentially, he is writing the Bible.
Of course, by landing in this world, the Doctor and Frobisher become embroiled in events. By materialising at the time of the coronation of the new Emperor, they are hailed as messengers from heaven, and immediately become vital to the opposing factions in their struggle for power.
Frobisher spends most of his time with Peppin, while The Doctor focuses his interests towards the whole nature of the self-determinacy of the society. For example, he is intrigued to find that every bible written by the palace scribes of times gone by is written in a book that just so happens to be exactly the right size to outline the Emperors reign from beginning to end, with no wasted pages.
While all this is going on, evil is growing deep within the palace crypt. Both the Doctor and Frobisher soon realise that they will be lucky to escape with their lives…
And that’s where I have to stop. I don’t want to ruin the plot by telling you what happens next.
Of course, without ruining the plot any further, I can enthuse over how good the script is.
At first the story appears as though it’s being played for laughs. The initial scenes where Tacitus is given a choice between being executed as a heretic for worshipping Peppin VI or claiming allegiance to Peppin VII and being free to go are performed in such a way that you really aren’t supposed to take them seriously.
Similarly, during Peppin’s coronation the ‘miracle’ they use to show he is a God is a card trick.
But slowly and without you really noticing a deliberate change of gears, things take a more macabre turn. Card tricks and silly ways for a supposed God to die are replaced by people being tortured, guards being knifed through the heart for the sake of tradition, a man having his tongue remove and then – in what is possibly one of the most disturbing and taboo things I’ve ever seen or heard in Doctor Who – a baby being murdered by having its neck snapped.
What has started off as appearing to be a light hearted romp becomes a clever and intriguing piece of writing and then becomes possibly one of the grimmest and dark things you’ve ever heard.
And because it’s all in audio and certain things (like the death of the baby) are not explicitly shown or indeed spoken about, and instead rely upon sounds and the imagination of the listener, Shearman can get away with it. With audio, Dr Who can become for more ‘Terrible’ than it ever could on a Saturday teatime.
And yet, what also works here is that it doesn’t try and be ‘grand’ like some of the new Doctor Who on TV does. From watching it all recently, Russell T Davies made a rod for his own back with having more and more alien invasions getting progressively bigger in scale, until it got to the point that his successor – Steven Moffat – ended up having to reset the universe to stop it. It’s a story about a threat to a small, self contained society. That allows the writer far more flexibility with the outcome.
So the script is terrific. But the acting is equally good.
Colin Baker shows that given the right script, he is well suited to the role. Maybe he’s got better with age, I don’t know. But what I do know is that comparing his performance in this to his pantomime Doctor of 1984-6 its night and day.
In actual fact, having regularly finished last in the ‘Favourite Doctor’ category in the Dr Who Magazine’s annual fan survey, Baker made an incredible leap to the top of the poll in the early 2000s. Of course, David Tennant has taken that title from him since then, but it shows what the power of good script writing can do to a man’s reputation.
Star of the show though is Sam Kelly as Eugene Tacitus. Some actors maybe are better suited for the radio because of their terrific voice range rather than their actual acting ability, and I guess Kelly is one of them. Being that this was performed in the late 90s, Kelly can’t have been that old, but he plays the role of Tacitus as a forgetful and fussy old man with the aged-voice and mannerisms to match. His performance is a major aspect of what makes the story work. And that’s what audio dramas have to do. If it had been Jimmy Nail or Alan Carr playing the part you wouldn’t be able to take it seriously.
The lines he is given to speak are at times brilliant as well. His description of the Doctor and Frobisher’s arrival for his bible as “And lo, a blue box appeared out of thin air, and out stepped a big monochromatic bird, and by contrast a man dressed in every colour that can be conceived” is just one of those lines where you think ‘That’s just fantastic writing’.
Should You Listen to The Holy Terror?
Well I wouldn’t have bothered to write this if it wasn’t worth it. I guess you would have to have an interest in Dr Who to listen to it though, which will immediately rule out a few people I know. Having said that though, you wouldn’t play a good game if you didn’t like games and you wouldn’t watch a Superhero film if you don’t like Superhero films, so that’s obvious.
But the two things that will put off people who DO like Doctor Who – i.e. that it doesn’t have a ‘real’ companion in it, and also it’s an audio rather than a TV show – really shouldn’t put you off it.
So yes, listen to it.
Getting hold of the Holy Terror might not be that easy (legally, that is), but if you know me and are interested in hearing it, I’m happy to lend you my copy.