23 December 2015

Audio Review: Dark Shadows - Panic

The first of 2015's audiobooks, Panic was my first experience of Dark Shadows' more traditional format at Big Finish. After the full-cast murder mystery epic that was Bloodlust kicked off 2015, I was looking forward to these more reserved offerings, to see how they contrasted. Happily this story holds up very well.

The difference is not comparable to the Doctor Who main range and Companion Chronicles, where the latter usually features one character narrating story. Instead, Panic is a smaller scale story but is presented for the vast majority of its duration as full-cast with only very sparing narration.

The main story is framed by Quentin Collins spending the morning with his great-great-grandson, including making and eating French toast. It's to his credit that writer Roy Gill manages to make London, usually portrayed as a bustling, claustrophobic metropolis, feel completely deserted and isolating. He achieves this by following Quentin and university professor Lela Quick, who have both returned to London from America. Each of their experiences suggests that this is an alien environment, a view which is only strengthened by the events that occur when Lela visits Pandemonium...

This is a shop of antiques and curios that Quentin bought not long before when the previous owner, who he met in Big Finish's favourite pub the White Rabbit, wanted to retire. Hunting for a record that has haunted her dreams, Lela gets more than she bargained for. Despite not being set in Collinsport, this story is very much in the same kind of slightly unnervingly weird vein as usual, with a very odd - and slightly camp - villain from the dawn of time who likes masquerading as PhD students.

But despite the requisite supernatural backdrop and the emphasis on words and their origins (clearly a topic of much interest to Gill) the real story of Panic is in the meeting of Quentin and Lela, who we're told at the top of the episode are married. It could be said that Panic follows too many cliches as their relationship develops but his take is certainly striving to be original. They don't exactly hit it off to start with, and are - naturally - brought together in the defeat of the demon trying to kill them. One - very neat - clause of the contract they must break stipulates that 'Quick will be Quick no more'. As soon as this was brought up, I fully expected what ensued, but at the start of the story I would never have seen it coming.

The villain - Pan - is said to have allegiance to neither good nor evil, just chaos, and I think that's well reflected here. In fact, he reminds me of the Anthony Ainley incarnation of the Master from Doctor Who in the 1980s, in that his plan has no real order or reason, other than subjugation of innocents. And perhaps that's appropriate, since this story is intended to be set in that period, right down to the VHS-style cover. Pan's brought to life by John Askew, who does a decent job but is inconsistent in places and very sparingly hams it up a bit too much. For the majority of the story he is very good though, and Gill has written him a strong supporting part first as Robert Goodman, as another way into the story.

Where the real spark lies is between David Selby and Susan Sullivan though. They are both excellent in their roles as Quentin and Lela and you can see how they'd get on well as a couple, even from the few brief exchanges here. They frequently irk each other but grow closer over the course of the story, and by the time they're awkwardly talking about whether they ought to divorce, you'll be sold on them. Michael Shon is once again very strong as Harry, but this isn't his story. Likewise, Alexandra Donnachie is great as Holly, Quentin's employee (and completely unrecognisable as Jacqueline Tate in Bloodlust) but she's not the focus.

Overall Panic is a very fun way to spend an hour. You need not be a Dark Shadows aficionado to enjoy this, but you may get some mileage from Quentin's part of the story if you are. Joseph Lidster and Jim Pierson direct this very cleanly, faithful to the tone of Roy Gill's strong script. David Darlington is as reliable as ever, providing great music and sound design to this tale. In the scene devoid of enhancements in the second half, you really notice how much of a difference his work makes. On the surface, Panic is a rollercoaster ride through nightmarish settings and environments but underneath there's a touching love story - the best of both worlds. Innocent, pulpy fun, this is highly recommended.

You can buy Panic from Big Finish here.

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