01 June 2014

BF: Moonflesh


Moonflesh is a deceptively complex story, but perhaps not in design. From the first episode, you might think that the story would be an intelligent exploration of the morality of hunting. But you'd be wrong. After the second, you might think it would be a mysterious adventure - a 'romp' - given that the adversary can hide within bodies. You'd be wrong again. The tone doesn't really seem to be decided at all, probably a consequence of Mark Morris having to script it hastily. While the characters are all very broad and theatrical, they also suffer, and the rest of the story isn't sufficient to label this a character piece.

The Doctor and Nyssa arrive in 1911, Suffolk. While sometimes the quirky explanations about how the Doctor can figure out his location are enjoyable, I didn't think his remark about smelling like late October was quite good enough this time. It could easily have been established when they came into contact with the guest cast. The opening scenes of them exploring the estate, teeming with animals is quite enjoyable, mostly for the atmosphere evoked by the sound design. I would have welcomed an extended opening segment to be honest, on reflection. Soon enough they meet with Silver Crow, a native American who came back to England with the main guest star of this story - Nathaniel Whitlock.

Over the course of the first episode, it becomes clear that we're in the midst of a hunting party, assembled to spend a weekend shooting at Whitlock's estate. We're introduced to his daughter, Phoebe, and three people attending the event - Edwin Tremayne and his son Hector; and Ms Bartholemew. While all of these characters suffer inconsistent portrayals, I felt that Francesca Hunt (sister of India Fisher, fact fans) was best suited to her role as Hannah. Part One is very much structured all around the cliffhanger, and you're never in any doubt that the Moonflesh stone is going to play a large role in proceedings (presuming you've managed not to notice the title). Hannah takes the rock up to her room in order to procure a sample. She is from the Order of the Crescent Moon, who believe that time is a never-ending circle and life is simply one embodiment of a spirit (if I've understood correctly anyway), and they think the Moonflesh will give them the ability to contact the other side. This is never confirmed or denied, and Hannah's membership of the Order is not referenced again, which I think is a shame and makes it seem like the detail was included purely to kickstart the real story in time for the cliffhanger.

The Moonflesh creature, awoken by Hannah's interference with it, claims to have escaped from its own Prime Cluster, the innocent victim of an improper judicial system. After the Doctor and Silver Crow have managed to make their way to the TARDIS (suprisingly easily, given that it was supposed to be lost), they discover that more of the creatures are raining down on Earth. Now that it's been awakened from its dormant state, its hunters have come looking for it. The third episode ends with members of the guest cast being possessed by the Moonflesh, and Part Four deals mainly with the (not overly shocking) revelation that the creature the Doctor allowed into the TARDIS is in fact an escaped convict. When credentials are posed that starkly so early into a story, it feels inevitable that the reverse is true. The whole thing is resolved within nine (count 'em!) lines of the script as Silver Crow again performs the ritual that brought Vatuus (the titular alien) to Earth - the Ghost Dance.

I could describe and discuss the intervening events, but I think what I have concluded so far should give you a broad enough picture. There really isn't much activity in between beyond a bit of corridor-running (with the corridor in this case being Whitlock's grounds). By far the best thing about Moonflesh are the sound design and music score. This month, these come courtesy of Andy Hardwick. While there's nothing particularly original or inspiring in the score, it does still fit the material and gives the story a historical feeling without alienating listeners with a cultural overload. The sound design is where he really excels. I can't think what he must have had to do in order to obtain some of the clips and effects used here (presuming they are his own) but they brought far more atmosphere to the story for me than much of the script or its performers. The best moments come when there is something actually happening (such as the last thirty seconds of Part One) and those moments really grabbed me. Everything else was a bit flat. Indeed, it's taken me about two weeks just to listen to this. I kept dosing off while listening, or getting distracted by other things like clouds and weather. There just wasn't the hook to this story that I needed.

But I'll move to the actors. Returning once more is John "versatile" Banks, this time taking on the role of Silver Crow. For much of the story, I believed his character to be a native African as I misheard at the beginning, and I was confused as the performance given by Banks unshakably reminded me of a native American. When his origins are addressed towards the end of the story, I realised my error and everything made much more sense. This is a good performance, but does feel a bit too far to the side of stereotyping over authenticity. As a character, Silver Crow probably fares best in this. He, like the other guest parts, is inconsistent, but he is always dependable and resourceful (sometimes a little too much so). His backstory, swimming in a muddled sea of mixed metaphors about hunting and animal cruelty, seems one step too far for me. Of course, including a character like him is going to inevitably lead to some kind of parable involving their gods, but I felt it was too integral a part of the story, particularly the dream sequence he and the Doctor have (although that was my favourite bit of the whole serial). Fresh from last month's Scavenger, Banks takes on a completely different role here and shows how adept he can be. While it's not a completely satisfying performance, it's another silver star (as opposed to gold) to add to Banks' score card.

Next up is Nathaniel Whitlock, embodied by Tim Bentinck. He was supposedly very rich once, thanks to his own father's tea trading, but he never had much of a brain for business and so instead spends half the year raising capital and the other half spending it on adventures abroad. Whitlock's quite likable, but a bit of a buffoon too. Playing him off as a man sunk in stereotypes and preconceptions of the era against the Doctor and Nyssa's no-strings-attached views could have been interesting, but instead this is sidelined for other, less gratifying filler. His wife apparently wouldn't fit within Big Finish budgets died when Phoebe was young, but how this is relevant to the plot, I'm not entirely sure. While Bentinck's performance is perhaps the strongest, I felt his character was quite slight and poorly-devised. Like all of the guests, he falls too much into the mould of what would be expected: he's an upper-class toff; he goes hunting for pleasure only; he dines finely and doesn't seem to have any weaknesses. The key to a character in a historical piece, if you're going to approach them as a stereotype, is to give them a flaw. Something that makes them relatable and human. He doesn't appear to have one. It's nice that he gets possessed at the conclusion,  but a bit predictable when the time comes. I'm sure there's an interesting story to be told about exotic animals roaming the Suffolk countryside, so it's a shame that it's revealed just to be his own collection, in a way.

And so to the Tremaynes. I found it very hard to differentiate between Edwin and Nathaniel when they were involved in the same conversation. I think director Ken Bentley could have done more to encourage a different portrayal. Of course they will be of the same class and 'breed' of man, but I did have a hard time. Eventually I gave up. Hugh Fraser seems like a good actor, but once again he's lumbered with an unsatisfactory part to play. Like a vast proportion of characters in Moonflesh, he doesn't really seem to have a role to play in the story. Sure, he's there to hunt in the first place but after that he just seems to pick up the odd bits wherever necessary until he's injured and then tries to pull a Palmerdale (see Horror of Fang Rock) and get Hannah to get him out of there. Overall, he's quite a bland character and his switching allegiance becomes tiresome rather than intriguing, as I sense the intention was. His dismissal of his son is similarly wearing and it seems he only has two character traits and motivations: self-preservation (physically or financially) and putting down Hector.

It's a bit short-sighted, in my opinion, to include a character called Hector when there's a companion (featuring stories three months either side of this) with the same name. Of all the things he could have been called, this was chosen. Still, it's not the worst aspect of the character. His blossoming romance with Phoebe interested me no less than the main plot of the story, and it was nice to see it develop over the course of the four episodes until he elected to stay with her. Correct me if I'm wrong, but like his new-found love, he doesn't seem to have an occupation. He also seems to be living off his father, which degenerates his character. What if he even had aspirations to something else? I would have loved it if Hector and Phoebe could have gone off adventuring together (in the same way Craig and Sophie resolve to go and save monkeys in The Lodger) instead of just sitting around the estate. Still, Geoffrey Breton (almost a name posher than his character's!) gives a good turn, and I wouldn't be sorry to hear of his involvement in future Big Finish projects.

Phoebe, as already mentioned, does seem a bit... lacking (for want of a better word, ironically). She doesn't give the impression she ever does anything approaching interesting (or even try to) beyond caring for her dogs, Brutus and Portia. As I studied Julius Caesar at school a couple of years ago for my IGCSE, I am familiar with the characters they are supposed to represent, but I feel the names may throw a few consumers. Something more interesting to warrant the inclusion of the hounds, other than to make Andy Hardwick's life difficult, could have been the dogs becoming possessed, and a chase through the forest ensuing. This, in my head at least, would have made for a great third episode - instead we get the relatively bland 'Doctor-inviting-all-and-sundry-into-the-TARDIS' routine that was commonplace during Davison's era. Phoebe is played well by Rosanna Miles, but once more I feel that the ability of the actress exceeds the part.

Finally, amongst the guest stars, to Hannah. Ms Bartholemew was no doubt included to be a challenge to contemporary social issues and attitudes and this almost works. She is a stark contrast to all other characters in this, by not being afraid to follow her own beliefs or do what she knows to be right. She is not especially self-motivated, but at the same time, her personality does swing from one of the spectrum to the other. Francesca Hunt is great at embodying this blustering embodiment of liberty. Right from the off, she made my ears prick up. An image of a full-cheeked, rosy and 'ruddy' woman is conjured just at her voice. I knew exactly what the character looked like, and that's a powerful skill to have - although the image I had is nothing like Hunt, so even further credit to her for being able to manipulate her voice so skilfully. Despite being of the Order, this may as well not be the case for all the difference it would make - first introduction aside. Morris' message throughout this story is clear, but it is a bit frustrating how uses every single character to make it in a different way. You do need some contradiction to spice things up a bit.

The Doctor and Nyssa are really poor here as well. I've never been Nyssa's biggest fan (but Sarah Sutton is usually pretty good in my book) but here she plays companion stereotype thirteen: Tegan. She moans, wants to leave, gets left behind, hates being left behind, screams, adds little to the plot, doubts the Doctor. There's none of the intellectual prowess she so famously sports, and none of the spark inside her. Sutton sounds a bit unenthusiastic and... I wouldn't go as far as bored, but it's certainly something approaching that. The Doctor is just your typical old Fifth Doctor too. I like it when Davison's ability is tested a little, pushing him in new directions are thirty-odd years of playing the same man. There's nothing new here, beyond the strange new 'sixth sense' tics. Saying that, Morris does have his speech patterns nailed. This incarnation is undoubtedly from Series 19, so plus points for that. It's a bit disappointing that the Doctor can't be infected, as it kind of sugar-coats the rest of the story: whatever happens, we know the Doctor's safe. I'd like to have seen Davison portraying the alien. I've heard that over the last few years, Turlough et al have been the victims of possession so it would've been nice to switch things up a bit. I think what Davison needs is a story centred around his Doctor, to reaffirm why he's earned his place on the Big Finish schedules (it seems very much that it is that way rough these days). The Time Lord is quite incidental to this release. Hannah instigates the Moonflesh, and Silver Crow saves everyone. The Doctor and Nyssa sort of run about in between.

Mark Morris mentions Moonflesh was written in a bit of a hurry in the writer's notes. It was apparently originally due for release in the same slot last year, perhaps meaning that Mark Strickson didn't think he'd be available for recording. In hindsight, it's not that hard to see that this was rushed. Morris, from what I've read, has a pretty solid reputation (indeed, House of Blue Fire is at the top of my list for ordering once I get through the current pile). Basing his ability solely on this play alone is undoubtedly unfair, but I'm a bit underwhelmed. I can see the story in there that would have shone. With subsequent revisions, Moonflesh could have become one of the company's all-time best (especially with such a magnificent cast). However, in its current state, it is hard to escape the 'first-draft' feeling. This brings me to a question for debate another day - is Big Finish stretching itself too far? In April 2014 alone, when this was released, 13 products were made available. That may not sound many, but when you consider they have only about five core, full-time staff, it puts things into perspective. This was written as a replacement for a script that fell through, and this makes me wonder - would it have been better not to have had a main range release? Perhaps subscribers could choose something else of equivalent value. If it means the story suffers, surely it would be better to evaluate the whole quality vs quantity ratio? Anyway, I would've liked to have seen this in its best form, as I suspect it could be very good. I'm not entirely sure why it couldn't have been bumped to the second or third release (aside from recording schedules etc.) yet but perhaps I'll find out.

Overall, then, this is quite an unfulfilling entry into the series, and reaffirms my thoughts about the inconsistent quality of the range. I did enjoy some bits, mostly due to post-production work - most notably the section underwater. That earns Moonflesh one more point itself. This is a bit frustrating, as I believe it could have been special, but as a victim of underdevelopment and predictable characterisations, I do wish Morris had had more time. Hannah Bartholemew comes off as the best of the bunch, but her history is interchangeably important/unimportant. There is life in this play, but I don't feel it had the focus it needed. Andy Hardwick does well, but Ken Bentley isn't quite up to his usual standard. Morris' overarching theme of who's the hunter and who's the hunted could have been executed in so many different ways, but the play ends up saying nothing by trying to say so much. But then we wouldn't have got Damien May's beautiful cover art, so I'm grateful for that. Plus I can only echo other reviewers when they say it would have been a great opportunity for Peri or Turlough (alone) to enjoy a trilogy with Davison.

In a Nutshell: An interesting story lies at the heart of this, but it's suffocated by layers of metaphor and stereotyping that harm the core idea.





You can buy Moonflesh from Big Finish here, or read Joe from Doc Oho's review here.

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