18 July 2016

Audio Review: Doctor Who - Vampire of the Mind

Despite being the second instalment in Big Finish's blockbusting Master trilogy, Vampire of the Mind is another relatively quiet entry. It's more straightforwardly entertaining than And You Will Obey Me and is definitely a very solid story. It doesn't give away much about its universe-shattering successor The Two Masters, and works well as a self-contained tale, which is always welcome amongst Big Finish's ever-growing library of ongoing stories, but perhaps isn't what I expected at this stage of the game.

Justin Richards is, for me, a writer who can always be relied upon to deliver something that's very listenable, relatively easy to follow, and has a subtle but thought-provoking backbone. Here, this is the relationship between the brain and memory loss. Dementia is the clear allusion but sadly this is not explored in any real depth, and the only character mentioned to have it is kept off-screen for the play's entirety, which feels like a waste of dramatic potential. The Master shows up again, though not in a guise the Sixth Doctor is familiar with, but he suspects his involvement throughout.

On the one hand, this is a good move by Richards because he doesn't beat about the bush - and even has the pair meet before the first episode is out - but on the other hand, the Sixth Doctor's doggedness, even in the face of all the evidence to the contrary (while totally in character in that respect) seems a little naive. There are plenty of previous adversaries of his who would be interested in a scheme involving scientists going missing - Linx in The Time Warrior, for example, and he might even think it possible the Rani was involved, given all his recent encounters (I've no idea where this comes in his personal timeline before you ask).

The twist is quite well done, with Richards subverting expectations - the Master was trying to get the Doctor's attention, and knew he'd show up eventually. He has been performing brain-related experiments, trying to perfect the transfer of memories from one to another. This has resulted in most of the kidnapped scientists becoming completely devoid of personality after their minds have been drained, and it's these 'Blanks' who represent the physical threat of the story. As in And You Will Obey Me, the Master has lost the ability to control his TARDIS, and requires the Doctor to escape Earth. Both are also set in 2016. This leads me to think that each Master comes from a point after the events of The Two Masters, and that the resolution of that story will lead to each being marooned on Earth, their memories (at least partially) wiped.

Accompanying the Doctor is Dr Heather Threadstone, looking for her father - an accomplished professor of computer science and an old ally of the Doctor's. Heather is fine, and interesting enough and she seems to have a spark with the Doctor. The moments where she undermines him are nice, but extremely predictable by the Doctor's unwavering over-confidence. She's certainly a stronger character than a lot of the stand-in or even permanent companions Big Finish has offered (*cough* Hannah Bartholemew *cough*). However, it feels like there is little to set her apart from the other confident, intelligent, middle-class women we get these days. Don't get me wrong, it's great we're seeing a swing towards stronger female characters, but when they're all practically interchangeable it's a bit of a hollow victory. Kate Kennedy - fresh out of BBC Wales' excellent adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream - does an excellent job with the material, however, and is probably the sole reason I'd like to see Heather return.

Even though he's been in plenty of stories with the Seventh and Eighth Doctors now, this was also my first encounter with Alex Macqueen's Master, and I must say I was impressed. Richards has clearly put a lot of thought into how the Master has set up this story and it really pays off. Macqueen gives a great performance throughout, whether he is supposed to be charming, victorious or threatening. There's the sense with him that he could turn on a sixpence, as with Tom Baker's Doctor. And you really don't want to get on the wrong side of the Master. Given all the nostalgia around this story - it's even set in the same prison as The Sea Devils - I was surprised that no association was made between the creature the Master has been using to drain or reassign memories, the 'Mind Leech' and the alien in the Keller Machine in The Mind of Evil. It seems an obvious link to me, but unless I missed it, no connection was made, despite this Mind Leech having been there since the 1972 story.

Andy Hardwick provides credible post-production to Vampire of the Mind, highlighting the key moments with skill. His sound design work also ties in well, maintaining the balance between it being overwhelming and sounding like an audiobook. One thing I did notice however was that his score, although very nice, featured very few bass parts. This was made obvious each time the theme music kicked in, with its thudding bassline. I don't enough about it for this to be an actual criticism - maybe that would've made the male voices, of which there are many, more difficult to hear? - but it was just something I picked up on. Still, very good as always.

In summary, this story is a very easy listen. Jamie Anderson has clearly established himself as one of Big Finish's most accomplished regular directors now, and I expect - and hope - to see him on the schedules for many years to come. There isn't much to this story, leaving a feeling of missed opportunities, but as it stands, Vampire of the Mind is an entertaining encounter between the Doctor and the Master. Colin Baker, Alex Macqueen and Kate Kennedy unsurprisingly stand out as the stars of this story and Justin Richards has clearly put a lot of thought into how best to manoeuvre the three of them. Largely frothy but with moments of darkness, I enjoyed Vampire of the Mind quite a lot.

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