The most obvious story to compare ‘Night Thoughts’ to is ‘Ghost Light’, with both stories being science fiction masquerading as gothic horror, both featuring the Doctor and Ace trapped with a group of mysterious characters in an isolated house with a dense storyline ideally requiring multiple listens. Sadly however, where ‘Ghost Light’ improves with numerous viewings the more one listens to ‘Night Thoughts’ the more it’s plot-holes and clumsy mechanics become obvious - which is a shame, as when it comes to atmosphere and isolated moments of horror this play does a lot of things right. A lot of four-parters struggle to fill their running time with some obvious padding, but the storyline here is perfectly paced throughout, though it must be admitted that a lot of this is due to the hidden motivations that are only gradually revealed to the listener as the truths are slowly drip-fed and the masks removed.
This being primarily a horror story Edward Young tries hard to pile on the atmosphere early on, though occasionally he tries a bit too hard and the story shifts into a realm so bizarre it becomes laughable. The Doctor’s dialogue in particular often slips from being portentous into downright pretentious as he drifts moodily through the first two episodes spouting doom-filled nonsense aimed at nothing an no-one in particular; witness his ridiculous spooky story about a bear (“Jig…jig…jig”) or his uttering of such virtually unsayable cryptic dialogue as “The tears of a child: the greatest water-power known to man”. Throughout ‘Night Thoughts’ dances along this line of either being incredibly spooky or just so over-egged it becomes laughable: I’m still not sure what to make of the disturbed young girl Sue and the scary/hilarious voice she puts on when talking to the world through her stuffed rabbit Happy. Generally though, the longer the play goes on the more settled it becomes, thought the final lurch into science fiction territory doesn’t quite gel, with a quite bizarre new treatment of the altering of history via time travel to allow for the creation of a mummified zombie that raises more questions than it answers. The play also suffers from a pair of diabolical cliff-hangers, not because they are inherently weak but because the resolutions in the following episodes are so dire (Episode 2 Cliffhanger: Ace is caught in a man-trap! Episode 3 resolve: err…no she isn’t; Episode 3 cliffhanger: the opening of a coffin reveals something so horrific that it leads to a bloodcurdling scream! Episode 4 resolve: err…the coffin is empty – but there was a scream anyway – as it was a cliffhanger).
Despite this, despite plot-holes and inconsistencies throughout, ‘Night Thoughts’ does have a certain something that makes it very compelling listening. There are oodles of spooky goings-on, enough mysteries and hidden motivations to keep you coming back for more, a very nasty twist ending, and a general sort of gruesome viciousness that you just wouldn’t get from today’s light and fluffy feel-good TV Doctor Who. ‘Night Thought’s is undoubtedly a mess – but it’s a very interesting and highly entertaining mess.
Edward Young's 'Night Thoughts' was originally under consideration for the abortive Season Twenty-Seven and it's easy to see how it would have fitted in with Andrew Cartmel's vision for the series. With an isolated gothic setting, a splash of horror, and a whole host of exaggerated, distinctive characters, it bears more than a passing resemblance to 'Ghost Light'. And it works extremely well.
'Night Thoughts' is an attempt at gothic horror, from the setting to the bear, and at times feels like a Miss Marple story. The story is packed with images that are both nightmarish and ghoulish: Ace sees someone drowning a lake and jumps in to help, only to find something dragging her down; Hex is troubled by nightmares and recognizes Hartley from them when he meets him (this, incidentally, is never adequately explained); Hartley dies in the cellar, O'Neil glibly passing it off as a heart-attack and cheerfully noting, "We ended up sticking the body in a chest freezer, I doubt Captain Birdseye would approve." Most sinister of all, Sue talks through her toy rabbit, in a scratchy, hideous voice designed to chill the blood.
The main flaw of 'Night Thoughts', as with several recent Big Finish Doctor Who audios, is the plot, which is as in 'Singularity' hinges on an approach to time and time travel that is neither logical nor consistent with the loose model of time travel usually adopted in Doctor Who. The members of the dysfunctional on the island are connected by the "euthanasia" of Edie, a young girl who came to the island with her mother Maude and sister and seemingly developed gravinax poisoning, prompting the scientists on the island to kill her and supposedly avert her suffering. The four scientists responsible decided to cover this up, along with Maude's suicide, whilst Ruth, the other daughter disappeared. Sue it transpires is actually Ruth, and O'Neill, who was Maude's husband, came to the island in search of her. So far so good, but then we learn that Edie actually had an eye infection rather than gravinax poisoning, as a result of which the scientists are wracked with guilt and want to change history by using the Burser's machine, the Bartholomew transactor to send a message to the past. The fact that this would cause a whacking great temporal paradox is glossed over, and the Doctor reveals that their plans are doomed to failure anyway, since the Bartholomew transactor isn't powerful to change history, at best offering a ghostly-image of what might have been - in the future, it is used purely as a play-thing. This isn't terribly logical for several reasons, and explanations waft vaguely around without ever really coalescing into anything other than nonsense. Things become even more complicated when it transpires that the experiment brings Edie temporarily back to life, adding a zombie to the mix, and that Hartley embalmed the body shortly after death in the hope of bringing her back to life. Guess where he hid it?
But in spite of all of this, 'Night Thoughts' works. It works because Young's characters are outrageously eccentric, especially Major Dickens, and all spout the most deliberately overblown, theatrical dialogue, including the magnificent line, "A woman in a wheel chair is no more likely to be struck by a tree than one who isn't" and "Good evening Ace. My extremities need warming, may I join you?" It helps that the cast is superb, with Andrew Forbes' slightly bumbling portrayal of O'Neill making him the one genuinely likeable and blameless adult character in the entire story, regulars aside. Joanna McCallum is alternately pompous and mortified throughout, and the always-risky use of child actors pays off in the form of Lizzie Hopley, who makes Sue by turns sinister and sympathetic with apparent ease.
But one man steals the show. Doctor Who veteran Bernard Kay has proved his acting ability time and again in the series ever since he first appeared in 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth', and he brought really authority and charisma to the role of Saladin back in the 'The Crusade'. His performance as Major Dickens however, nearly outstrips this: cast as a Doctor Who villain for the first time he conveys ruthless arrogance with aplomb, and for the first half of the story the audience is left to deduce whether he's genuinely unpleasant or simply a buffoon: thus, when Ace gets trapped in the Major's alarm system, which includes a bear trap, his initially malicious glee gives way to an admission that, "Despite my theatrics, the traps can't be set automatically" and Kay makes him sound convincingly guilty when he thinks Ace has been killed and concedes that he was just trying to scare everyone. Later however, his truly unpleasant nature becomes apparent when it transpires that the Major knew perfectly well that Edie wasn't suffering from gravinax poisoning but persuaded the others to kill her because he wanted to be "the first ever man to kill somebody and bring them back to life." When confronted with the truth of his appalling actions, he dismissively asks, "Do you expect me to apologize for such an insignificant sacrifice." Satisfyingly, the Major gets his just desserts in a grizzly coda as the reanimated Edie finds him, tied up by Hex, and takes his eyes. Kay's portrayal of gibbering terror emphasizes just how unpleasant a fate it is.
In the midst of all these colourful supporting characters, a summary of what Ace and Hex actually achieve here reveals that it consists of very little. Nevertheless, Young captures their characters perfectly: Sophie Aldred has, in the past, given some truly appalling performances as Ace both on and off screen, but she seems to have found her feet with the more adult Ace and has developed a rapport with Philip Olivier that transfers well to both their characters. Ace has become rather protective of him, firmly announcing, "No one freaks my little Hexy out and gets away with it" and they are obviously growing increasingly fond of each other, and they each run towards the other's voice without the slightest hesitation when Hex starts shouting, despite the danger that Hex, at least, knows surrounds them. Unfortunately, in a throwback to the early days of Big Finish, Ace gets some dreadful exposition when she's confronting the mysterious figure in the attic ("You pricked me! What was that? Blasted hypodermic") but this is mercifully kept to a minimum.
Having started to ham up his role again in recent audios, Sylvester McCoy gets back on form and is at his best delivering such memorable lines as, "The tears of a child - the greatest water power known to man" and "History has been written, however unpleasant", and it helps that the Doctor gets more to do here than either of his companions. Scenes especially worthy of note include his deduction, in the style of Miss Marple, of the Burser's identity from the books on her shelf (she hasn't read her own, because she didn't need to), and his trip back in time to ensure that Edie still dies, which fails because he can't bring himself to kill her even to protect the web of time.
Director Gary Russell does a fine job with the slightly bizarre script, and seems to enjoy recreating something of the feel of Season Twenty-Six, and the end result is that 'Night Thoughts' papers over its flaws with a great deal of style and wit. Sacrificing plot for characterization is a risky venture that Big Finish seems to be undertaken with alarming frequency of late; here, fortunately, it pays off.
Truly, truly excellent and the sort of excellent we haven’t seen in a long while. The fact that it happens to be a seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex story merely makes the taste of success even sweeter. It probably requires a second listen once you have all the important information to see how cleverly it is all put together but even on a first listen it is clear how well written, well directed and well performed this is. What’s more its also the scariest thing Big Finish have offered up since The Chimes of Midnight and (for the sheer amount of scenes that made me shiver) it probably even tops that.
It pleases me so much that the Doctor, Ace and Hex get to be involved in a story that isn’t impenetrable (Dreamtime), that doesn’t split them up throughout (Live 34) and actually starts to exploit the relationships between them. It is easily Philip Olivier’s best story since The Harvest and the only one which allows us to see how likable and useful Hex can be. Whilst his medical knowledge is a bonus (given people are dropping like flies in this story!), it is his compassion (especially in a very sweet scene with Sue where he talks about the mother he never knew and gives her her first hug) and his muscle (punching out Major Dickens) that marks him out as particularly useful. It is also helps that he is no longer being treated as the new boy and that he has stopped saying, “Oh my God!” ad nauseum. Olivier is not the sort of actor you would expect to find in Doctor Who (given he comes across as pretty hip and gorgeous) and at first it would seem that his very up to date character was completely out of place in Doctor Who, particularly these troubled times of Big Finish, but I am fully prepared to admit how wrong I was and can see now how his inclusion is not only pretty brave but gives the McCoy stories (easily the weakest of the bunch usually) something of a twinkle. What’s more he is perfectly surprising in spots, especially now he is called upon to do more than soap acting it is amazing to see how far his ability extends.
Ace is still the weak spot and Sophie Aldred continues to overdo it in places but in stories like Night Thoughts were she is underwritten and given more to do than explode emotionally and blow things up she can be quite a treat. Certainly she gets knocked about a bit here more than she is used to and it is quite fun to see Hex rib her for it, considering how she acts like a seasoned time travel veteran, ready for anything. The biggest trouble with Ace which know matter how good the story is Big Finish will never be able to rectify is that Ace is clearly (more so than Nyssa and Turlough and Peri who they also use) a character bourne out of the eighties and add to that this is her one millionth appearance in a Doctor Who story (slight exaggeration but not much!) she comes across as outdated.
Sylvester McCoy on the other hand just cannot act. Or rather he can act in brief moments where he’s not really trying to act (I’m not kidding you! Its when the seventh Doctor sounds bored or disinterested and tired that work the best, because there he is acting as I always imagined he should…above everyone else, aware of everybody’s part and just going through the motions of his pre arranged plans) but when he is putting effort into the role he comes across as tongue twistingly incomprehensible and worse, unbelievable. I don’t mean to be cruel but he just does not make the dialogue sound convincing, no matter what interesting things they are doing with his character it is the performance that counts. There are more than a few hints of his darker Doctor here, especially when he has to go back in time ask for a child to be killed, that push the boundaries in a very pleasing way. The fact that the villain is going around using a recording of his voice before he attacks people is creepy in itself but the way the Doctor seems to know what is happening without having a clue who any of the players are before they arrive terrifies me, he always seems to be holding back on explanations, letting his friends work it out for themselves. A complex character, if not entirely satisfying.
However, despite their flaws together they make a highly engaging team. Hex brings out the teacher in the Doctor and the more mature Ace and there is clearly a great deal of affection between them which makes scenes like Hex’s concern for Ace when she is wandering through a garden full of animal traps genuinely tense.
The direction is brilliant, Gary Russell might have his off days but the last few releases he has dealt with have been excellent, as though he has remembered how special Doctor Who is and how quality it should always be. I point out the direction especially because many scenes in Night Thoughts are designed to scare and it doesn’t matter how well written they are unless the director gets the atmosphere right it is for nothing. The attacks in Night Thoughts are terrifying and the timing is always perfect. Take the scene where the Deacon discovers something has been going on behind her back…her panic rises, her screams get louder and then falls silent and we hear…ghastly breathing heading towards her. Its terrifyingly good and one of many frightening treats (the end of episode one is fab, Hex alone in a deathly silent night time kitchen and ripe for somebody with a tape recording of the Doctor’s voice to attack him).
The scary moments are all very well but the story is never short of drama either or clever ideas to back it up. The backstory of Idée’s death is heartbreaking and the catalyst for some nasty experiments in time travel. How this involves all of the guest characters is brilliantly written as we get to see the effects of their crimes before the cause is slowly revealed via each death. This leads to a stunning final episode where we realise the insane ambitions of one character have serious ramifications for the remaining characters, especially the Doctor who has to choose between life and death for one character. Throughout all this we have Sue, the very disturbed little girl who along with her toy rabbit Happy have their own story to tell. Surprisingly Sue turns out to be less involved in the plot than I would have thought but who cares, any scene with Happy the Rabbit is great. What a frightening creation and what a voice! Wait until you hear the last scene…I guarantee you will be squirming with delight as Happy takes his revenge!
The acting is strong across the board and the only real complaint I have is out of all of the suspects it really isn’t difficult to figure who the baddie will turn out to be. But there are some lovely moments dotted about; the Bursar’s frightened acknowledgement that she has been held prisoner for ten years (Joanna McCullum), the Deacon’s discovery of her own suicide note (Ann Beach) and Sue’s quiet admission that she has never had a hug (Lizzie Hopley). Another strong ensemble cast in the Other Lives’ vein where a particular combination of actors genuinely enhance the strength of a good script. As ever the production work is good although I feel I should compliment Gareth Jenkins
There's not many Big Finish audios that I enjoy so much that my eyes pop open wide at several points. That short list went up one with this release, and I was very pleasantly surprised at this.
When it first started out, I thought I could tell exactly where it was heading. It seemed obvious that the girl with the stuffed rabbit would turn out to be the mystery eye-remover/killer for one thing... but then somewhere in the middle of part two, I began to realize that I had it completely wrong, and had fallen for a red herring. And after last month's completely predictable "Pier Pressure," was I ever glad to be wrong this time. Not only did the plot veer off the straight and narrow, but in part three it began to take several bends and twists that were completely unexpected. One of these were how we suddenly get a very nice science fiction concept introduced with the Bartholomew Transmuter that can send a single subatomic particle back in time so long as it's to an earlier version of the Transmuter, but in so doing carry a message. Devices such as this have been seriously mooted by real particle and quantum physicists in recent years, although I'm sure none of them have any idea how to etch an audio recording into the surface of a subatomic particle as that very idea is counter to everything we currently understand about such particles (but then again, they thought neutrinos were massless until recently too). Another is how this device becomes the means by which a "zombie" gets reanimated and has been so since before the play began... it's just no one realizes this until much later. And then we had the really quite gruesome turns, culminating in the reveal that the zombie girl had been hidden inside the stuffed bear all these years! Gah! (and great!)
The motives of the characters were just as hard to pin down until the plot wanted them to be as well. There's the Bursar, who at first just seems to be what her title suggests...and that wheelchair she's in is a red herring in itself as I'm sure I can't be the only one who thought, "I bet she can really walk and is up to no good." That was _not_ the case, and yet the wheelchair did matter as it turned out to be the cruel means by which the others kept her prisoner. I also loved the reveal that she was J.J. Bartholomew, the real scientific brains behind the outfit as far as the transmuter goes, and that little clue of how all the books in her library are well-thumbed except for the ones she'd written herself.
Major Dickens isn't all he's appeared to be either, doing a double bluff on himself with the message to make certain that the "dead" come back to life according to his own design. At first he looked to be just the usual strutting martinet security character who's just there to frustrate the Doctor and the companions, when in fact he was the true villain all the time.
Another thing this play has a lot of is really spooky direction, sound design, and music to go along with this story. There's some great sound FX work in the early sections where they're very careful to tell you all you need to know to make the scene physically work but not so much that you guess the whole plot (or even an eighth of it). The music by Andy Hardwick was a cut above the norm as well, with that careful use of piano and tension-building instruments generating an atmosphere not entirely unlike the music in the "Resident Evil" video games, which is entirely appropriate since both "Resident Evil" and this story are about exploring a remote mansion that's got a zombie in it. (well, lots of zombies in the game, but you get the idea)
And another thing this play has in spades is a terrific guest cast. I'll single out Joanna McCallum (the Bursar) for her fantastic round-sounding voice that's tailor-made for audio, Lizzie Hopley (Sue/Ruth) for her mentally disturbed acting that manages to both sound disturbed and let the listener know that she's a lot better clued-in than the so-called sane characters, and Bernard Kay (Major Dickens) for the distinguished and recognizable air of authority he conveys through his voice alone, though he is perhaps helped by having had memorable roles in the TV series and thus I was able to easily form a mental picture of this man in my head.
And still another thing this play has a lot of it great work from the regulars, Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, and Philip Olivier. Aldred and Olivier are rapidly perfecting this older sister/younger brother relationship that seems to be developing between Ace and Hex, with some good teasing going on between them. This helps Ace's character no end as she can at last be an _external_ person rather than an angsty one caught up in her own demons. Hex gets to have some fun in the traditional male companion "running and punching" role... in fact I almost cheered out loud when towards the end Major Dickens is again threatening the Doctor and others, and Hex just comes in and punches him out. McCoy's really in good form here too... though perhaps it's not so much him as the atmosphere he's in which is so reminiscent of "Ghost Light" and thus he's got a boost from the surrounding environment. Whichever it is, it's very easy to imagine him in "season 26" mode here of standing back and observing everything that's going on, nodding on his umbrella, and then making a few moves on the chess board of the characters.
There's only one bad thing that I can say about this story, which was that I was at first a bit confused about some of the layout and where this all was and so on, but even this seems to have been deliberate... as it isn't until Part Three that Hex and the audience learn for sure that this has all been taking place on an island. It only seems like they've forgotten to let the audience in on something, and then suddenly we are let in on it, and then it makes sense that we weren't earlier as it was yet another mystery to pile on top of the others. It's just not the sort of thing that's normally on the "mysteries" list.
Overall then, let's say 9.5 out of 10 for "Night Thoughts." As good as "Terror Firma" was, and I don't know how far further back I have to go to get to another one that's this good.
“Night Thoughts” scared the shit out of me. “It’s your own fault for listening to it whilst walking home in the dark from work at 3am,” I hear you say, and you’re probably right. Originally written by Edward Young for the TV series just prior to its cancellation, this story has a very ‘Season 26’ feel to it – the slightly unreal and moody setting reminded me specifically of “Ghost Light.” However, although Young’s story is interesting, it is far from spectacular. Where this story really excels is in the delivery - this story has to be a serious contender for the ‘scariest audio ever.’ Lizzie Hopley’s voice is just something else…
Like many audio dramas before it, “Night Thoughts” is about someone playing around with time, though Young puts a refreshing new spin on the old idea. What if you could send yourself a warning back through time to prevent you, for example, mistakenly killing a girl, but the effects of that warning on the present day are only… moderate. Moderate in that the warning may have prevented you from killing the girl in the past, but in the present she is still dead, the only effect your warning has had on the here and now is to make her perfectly preserved corpse restless… The walking dead aside, “Night Thoughts” is populated by bear traps, ghostly figures wearing hoodies, spooky recordings, a terrifying fluffy toy named ‘Happy’ and even a particularly disturbing unearthly child, Sue (Lizzie Hopley) who has a chilling ambiguity about her, towing the line somewhere between sympathy and terror.
The sound design is even more brilliant than usual, Gareth Jenkins taking bringing all these elements to life in a terrifying world of horror and suspense. I also enjoyed seeing the Doctor, Hex and Ace working together for much of the story, the first time we have really seen them in action as a cohesive unit since “The Harvest.” The interaction between Ace and Hex is especially of interest, the sexual tension I perceived between them in “The Harvest” having given way to more of a sibling rivalry.
Whilst “Night Thoughts” is not my favourite Sylvester McCoy audio, it is head and shoulders above the likes of “The Genocide Machine” and the more recent “Dreamtime” – I just wouldn’t recommend listening to it in the middle of the night whilst walking the mean streets of Hull.