08 June 2014

BF: Tomb Ship

I have a lot to discuss with this one. So much so, I've made myself a little bullet-pointed list as I've thought of points to raise. My overall impression is disappointment. It's not unusual for Doctor Who stories to decline in quality from their first to final episodes, but the drop off here is momentous. While the first half enjoys the luxury of being a full-blooded action-adventure serial, it falls apart in rather a big way should the listener stop and think about the story at any time. The second half is a mess of plot, characters and dialogue. The resolution can be predicted from the first episode and it's disappointing that it plays out in such a predictable fashion.

The Doctor and Nyssa arrive on the titular craft early into the opening episode, but as soon as the former realises the ship is of Arrit origins, he's desperate to leave. This is when they encounter Virna and her band of children. This story is almost unique in that the entire guest cast are all members of the same family. I say almost unique because Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS would be the other occasion. Funnily enough, this is very close in tone to that particular episode, and I kept finding myself thinking of it. There are more similarities than you would first think though, and Tomb Ship really does feel like an unhappy synthesis of the aforementioned Journey and The Rings of Akhaten. It has the tomb raiding, band-of-unconvincing-brothers aspects of the former and the Egypt-esque mythology of the latter.

The core idea at the heart of this story is a sound one, despite what I've said. The Arrit seem to have assembled some sort of ship (I don't really understand what it was for before the God-King died) which is being remotely piloted (destination set upon his death) into an inhabited system before it detonates and sends the local sun supernova. I love the idea of what is effectively a flipping huge bomb drifting between planets, the inhabitants of neighbouring planets and occupants of the ship basically being held hostage. That is a far more compelling line of inquiry to start with in my opinion, and has inspired me.

What we get is essentially four episodes of the Doctor and Nyssa having to think each of their parties (they're invariably separated once more) out of a series of puzzles, playing out like a longer version of that section of Death to the Daleks. I know Exec Producer Briggs is a big fan of that particular yawn yarn but this is surely taking it a bit far? The back-history of the Arrit is never really explained and there doesn't really feel like there's an enemy in this. There is of course the jeopardy of dying, and there's the Arrit-Ko (Wirrn by another name by the way people keep going on about them, see the cover above) but they never appear for more than a couple of minutes at a time and are quickly disposed of on each occasion. 

It's a shame that Virna is such a monotone character. Eve Karpf is apparently in her sixties, but I would've judged from her performance being twenty years younger than that - maximum. She seems like a good actress with a poor part, so she (knowingly) overdoes the excesses of the character. This probably helps Virna more than anything, but it's a shame she's always "looking out for number one" (as her sons put it) either in terms of financial gain or in terms of living and dying. I was genuinely really impressed by the cliffhanger to the third episode where she is forced to choose between herself and the Doctor or two (don't ask me which) of her sons; one party must die. I didn't know how she was going to get out of it, but then the Doctor resolves things by sacrificing himself and thus passing yet another test (just as I thought we were going to get some real danger as well). 

I've never been a huge fan of Egyptology and all that, but underground passages and caverns hold a great spookiness for me. The sound design was great in that respect, and I could picture the setting perfectly in my mind's eye. I imagined a big-budget version as opposed to what we would have got in 1982, but that's all the more credit to Richard Fox and Lauren Yason. As far as they went with this though, I felt they could have gone further in this direction. Littered through Tomb Ship are little poem-like warnings spoken by a hologram. They really don't make any sense though. At times it sounds like they're trying to rhyme, but failing quite abjectly. This confusing prose is mirrored in the authors' notes for the CD booklet where they riddle their way through the column without actually saying anything. This just frustrates me really, and didn't put me in a good frame of mind to start the second half with.

The big point of this release though is the familial aspect. I'm sorry to say that the sons are completely interchangeable. They're not full brothers - they only share a mother. Virna has countless children, which would presented with a cheeky wink if this were the Russell T Davies era (oh how I yearn for it) but here just feels like everyone's just being a bit snooty about it. Given that Virna travels galaxies, you would've thought there might be more differences between her children. All of the sons speak in much the same patterns with near-identical accents. Studying the behind-the-scenes photos, fact fans will note that the actors do look quite different, but on audio that just doesn't translate. It's a shame Ken Bentley (perhaps one of the company's most accomplished directors, but settling a little too much into the Gary Russell mould of late) didn't cast actors of more diverse regions or at least steer them towards different interpretations. As it is, it's really hard to keep track of which of them you're listening to and so I just gave up trying to follow any characters outside of the principals, Virna and Jhanni by Part Three. 

The lack of care the listener has for these characters isn't helped by the fact that Virna doesn't give a toss about them either. She's quite prepared to sacrifice them if it means getting closer to the treasure and perhaps having so many children has reduced their worth to her (diminishing marginal returns and all that - thanks AS Economics!). Or maybe she was always this heartless. It would certainly seem like it from the way the story unfolds, transpiring that all the corpses littering the place are in fact other children that she's brought to their deaths on her last mission here. It's mentioned that that was around a decade ago, so did she have a bit of time off to raise some more troops? The family are said to be serial tomb raiders, but there's no expansion beyond that. Even a quick character moment between Nyssa and Homogenous Half-Brother 2 (or was it 3?) telling her about some loot they've scooped on similar expeditions would've been a start. Still on the topic of the boys, even the Dramatis Personae on the front of the script can barely think of any distinctions between the characters. I'll quote it for you:

One of Virna's sons. Young, decent-minded, but weak; under her thumb.

One of Virna's sons. Rough and brutal.

One of Virna's sons. Rough and brutal, obedient to his mother's authority.

Another of Virna's sons.

It seems to me that they could have lumped all four together under 'Virna's sons'. Those are bloody daft names too. They're trying too hard to be spacey and 'futuristic' and failing on both counts. The descriptions seem mostly to me that they're just trying to fill up the word count rather than describing any particular aspects of their personality. Jhanni - Virna's daughter who was abandoned years ago on the ship and now feels the need to creep everyone out (plus she's made some kind of psychic link with the ship [?!]) - doesn't fair much better. She's as shallow as her mother and their spats soon grow tiresome rather than being the gripping character drama they hopefully were conceived as. She's also pretty predictable and mighty useful in a tight spot, especially at getting rid of the Arrit-Ko (how I wish they'd been the villains of the piece, they look brilliant on the cover). 

I must just quickly mention Murs as a name. Why? Why? Every time it was mentioned, an image of a grinning twenty-something in a white-shirt and braces was brought to mind rather than the 'rugged' brute of a man we're supposed to get. Stupid decision in my (very) humble opinion. Another thing about Virna's state of mind, just quickly. We never learn her motivations, at all. She's willing to sacrifice her kids - right, got that - but what for? She doesn't mention what she'll do with the treasure - sell it? set herself up in a nice mountain range? exert authority across a minor moon? - and as such it leaves her even shallower as a character.

Look away now, spoilerphobes. You really will benefit from not reading the rest of the review (final paragraph excused) if you've not already heard Tomb Ship.

The big shock of this tale, coming at the conclusion of Part Three is the return of Hannah Bartholemew from Moonflesh. Although I did see Francesca Hunt's name in the credits on the back of the CD case (credited as 'Other Voices') I assumed it was just some crowd pieces recorded during the Moonflesh sessions. Even if it were a bigger role it wouldn't be totally surprising given John Banks' back-to-back performances in March and April's releases. I did comment last time that Hannah was my favourite character from that story, so technically I should be glad she's back. However, only appearing in about twenty-six minutes of Tomb Ship, it's hard to gauge what impact she'll actually have on the TARDIS team and I hope she doesn't become Companion Cipher 54 like Nyssa of late. Although I'm not that keen on her personality (I don't dislike her, I'm just not overly enamoured) it's better to have some personality than none.

Anyway, she proves a useful little plot device. Still carrying her gun, she manages to repel some Arrit-Ko and leads the Doctor back to the TARDIS after the HADS activates. That's a point I meant to pick up on. When the Time Lord tries to flee at the top of the story, it's heavily implied that the walls have rearranged themselves (or similar) but then we get that relatively mundane excuse that since Cold War has become a little too commonplace for my liking. It would've been interesting to have Hannah's views (given her membership of the Order of the Crescent Moon [still a little too Harry Potter for my liking]) on the life cycle depicted by the Arrit. 

So, at the conclusion of the tale, the ship is piloted out of the system and Virna finally manages to enter the actual tomb where the treasure is said to lie. Everyone (that's still alive) but her escapes to the TARDIS and the ship detonates - the treasure of the Arrit was to become a God with the God-King rather than anything of material value. This is the 'light from the darkness' mentioned earlier on. It's a bit of a disappointing conclusion and I would've hoped the most human of Doctors would have at least tried to prevent the detonation and show Virna the error of her ways. But it wasn't to be. In this concluding instalment, a few of the sons (probably between one and three, I can't remember) and Jhanni seem to follow Nyssa and Hannah to the TARDIS, but then there is absolutely no mention of them again whatsoever. They just vanish. What with this and the Trackers in the preceding story, I'm beginning to wonder if this is leading somewhere. I hope so. I've heard relatively poor things about Rennie and Beeby's other full-length story, The Doomsday Quatrain, so I was hoping this would shake that baggage.

If nothing else, the characterisation of the Doctor and Nyssa has been pretty consistent across the last two stories. They've barely uttered an ounce of personality beyond Nyssa's confusion with local customs in 1911 (you'd think after Black Orchid she would have known enough to get through, working a lot out for herself). Here, they get dangerously close to depth again as Nyssa says something funny. I'm afraid I can't remember what now, but it made me laugh. The Doctor is written quite plainly again and Davison sounds more inspired than last time, but still a little lacklustre. It's hard to blame him, frankly. I'm coming to the conclusion more and more than Sarah Sutton just isn't cut out for audio. She doesn't seem to be able to convey any emotion through her voice. I thought before it was disinterest, but as it's lasted so long and is so consistent, I'm beginning to suspect otherwise. It only give those calling for a rest for Nyssa more ammunition (not that they need it). There was really no need to separate the pair in the way it was done. Really, what is the point in not taking Nyssa with Virna? Couldn't they have had the walls shift in front of them instead of something dramatic like that? I don't know. It just seems a little unimaginative (in this aspect at least).

The Doctor comments to Hannah at the very end of the tale that the TARDIS never reaches its intended destination. This is in clear contradiction to Moonflesh where he manages to pilot it to within inches of his target. I don't mind it being controllable or uncontrollable, but the script editor ought to make sure it's one or the other. Tipping between them only damages the story overall. Also on the editing front, in this and the last serial, the descriptive dialogue demon has reared its ugly head again. If you were in a setting, you wouldn't say every little thing you saw or describe the minute aspects of a marking on a wall in such a way that you sound a clot that you're not making the connection (actually, I might do the last). I just look for a little more credibility in characters and skill in writing. It wasn't present in Scavenger, so it really does seem down to the writer(s) to fix this. The worst offender this year is still Antidote to Oblivion, but I don't like to see it return too often anyway.

Overall then, this sets out like it'll be an adventure with a heart but concludes with neither adventure or heart. It has a terrible title (seriously, was that all that was left in stock?) and the direction is slacker than normal. Whereas Ken Bentley assembled a brilliant cast for the last story, I can't say the same here. All the sons play their roles in the same way, and make themselves dispensable and interchangeable as a result. The biggest culprit for the letdown of this story is the script though, which feels like it's reached the full potential of this story (conversely to Moonflesh). The music is sweeping but seems to have a limited vocabulary. Everyone seems a bit uninspired and unengaged by this, and I don't discount myself. The twist and the Arrit-Ko but beyond that it's hard to muster much enthusiasm. If only the concept had been applied differently. The mythology doesn't work for me and the marks awarded are for imagination and sound design. I'm sorry but this just didn't do much to excite me and I doubt I'll be relistening any time soon. I really hope this trilogy follows the pattern of the last and the final story blows the previous two out the water.

In a Nutshell: An imaginative but stunted entry that even Davison can't get invested in.

You can buy Tomb Ship from Big Finish here, read Doc Oho's review here, or read Dave Prince's (very generous) review (for Blogtor Who) here.

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