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Land of the Dead

Doctor Who: The Big Finish Audio Adventures #4
Richard Radcliffe

Peter Davison's Doctor is brilliant - of that there is no question. The sheer joy of having him back, doing these Audio Adventures is a major pleasure. Phantasmagoria showed that he had lost none of the charm he had as the Doctor many years ago - this is his next offering. He's joined by Nyssa this time - possibly the companion that worked best with the 5th Doctor on Television.

Land of the Dead isn't a bad story, by any means - it's just not that great. Set in the snowy wastes of Alaska it should have atmosphere galore. Big Finish provide a haunting musical accompaniment to the action, for sure - you feel cold just listening to it. Stephen Cole emphasizes the culture that exists there, and the contrast with the rest of the world. There are many monologues about the ancient spirits, and the mixed blood the main characters have is never far from the main action. As I say it should have atmosphere galore.

But it doesn't. The family feud that exists between Brett and Tulong is mentioned that much, it becomes uninteresting. The Permians roar, and then roar some more to provide cliffhangers. Monica Lewis comments sarcastically about something or other - and then she does it again later on. There is so much repetition, it's like the Adventure is being stretched to fit its 4-part allotted time.

The story does contain some cracking ideas though. Brett's house is an Architectural Marvel, providing the mind with some wonderful imagery. The Alaskan Waste setting provides a "cut-off from the outside world" scenario that is always striking. The Doctor dominates the action, trying to figure out how to defeat the Permian Menace. Davison is a great Doctor.

Onto the rest of the cast:- Nyssa is a disappointment. Telling Tulong about the past was plain dumb, her continued trust of Tulong unbalanced. She is better in later Audio's, thank goodness. Monica Lewis is the stand-in Tegan character - but nowhere near as good. What started out as a good character became rather one-dimensional by the end of the story. Brett, as the leading baddie, is pretty good. He has one of those menacing voices so required of villains - but even he goes nowhere with his character.

So as a summary - Davison is great, there's some great ideas - but the story lacks magic overall. 6/10.

Paul Clarke

'The Land of the Dead' is the first Big Finish audio to feature the Doctor/companion pairing of the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, and only the fourth Big Finish audio to be released. In comparison with more recent audios, it has a very straightforward, traditional plot; limited to merely a handful of locations and with a small cast, it could at a push have been achieved on television at the time. Brett's Monument might have challenged the budget, but at worst it would probably still look better than 'Time-Flight'. In retrospect, it rather feels like Big Finish was testing the waters, before starting to push the boundaries of what they could achieve with their audio dramas, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.

The immediately obvious thing on listening to 'The Land of the Dead' in context (i.e. between 'Time-Flight' and 'Arc of Infinity') is how much older both Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton, which is of course inevitable; it is worth mentioning however, because they fall back into their old roles with such ease that after five minutes I find I no longer notice the difference. Davison is superb, recapturing the combination of fierce intelligence, breathless enthusiasm, and sheer urgency that he displayed on screen, and the Doctor's considerable intellect is central to both understanding and eventually destroying, the Permians. Sutton is more of a revelation, since having been often overshadowed by writers focusing on either Adric or Tegan, Nyssa really gets to shine here. She's very well used; Nyssa's scientific background is well utilized, as is her strength of character (she overcomes the influence of the Permians far more easily than anyone else), and in addition Sutton gets the chance to portray panic and terror in ways that she never did on screen, dispelling any accusations that she is a wooden actress. The character also displays great empathy and understanding, reminding the listener how likeable she was; her constant attempts to reason with the increasingly disturbed Tulung are always as level headed as is possible under the circumstances, whereas Tegan for example would almost certainly have simply started shouting at him.

The plot is very simple, allowing writer Stephen Cole to focus on characterisation. The idea of ancient threats being awoken by archeologists is hardly original in Doctor Who, but the Permians at least are quite interesting. Rather than being powerful god-like aliens, they are merely incredibly dangerous and highly adaptive animals, and as such are simply acting true to their nature. The wisdom of using monsters that can't speak however is questionable for an audio drama; the roars and howls of the Permians and the hybrids are suitably unsettling, but because they don't speak or have intelligence, a considerable amount of expository dialogue ensues, as the Doctor makes deductions about them and explains these to Monica. My main criticism of 'The Land of the Dead' is actually exposition; it is an inevitable pitfall of the audio medium, and although it is generally handled well (much more so than in 'Time-Flight' as it happens!), there are points during the story when both Monica and the Doctor are required to describe both the Permians and what they are doing ("It's breaking loose, isn't it?", "It's got no eyes, only sockets!", "Those teeth - there must be thousands of them!"). Despite this, the Permians work surprisingly well. It is also perhaps an advantage that Big Finish are not making stories to be broadcast at teatime on a Saturday afternoon; the violence and gore is upped a notch, allowing for added realism although without being gratuitous.

In addition to the Permians, the plot also revolves around the thirty year old issue of the deaths of Brett's and Tulung's fathers, and drives much of the story. It is a simple story of truth and deceit, but it is well told and is benefited by the actors involved. As the increasingly unhinged Shaun Brett, Christopher Scott is very good; Brett is thoroughly unlikable, being as he is a bitter, arrogant and rather racist bully. His desperate need to believe in his father is potentially sympathetic, but Brett is so unpleasant that any sympathy is lost. In contrast, Neil Roberts' Tulung, bound to the abusive Brett by the need to find the truth, is far more sympathetic, even when the Permians' influence makes him endanger Nyssa. The pair therefore work well together because of the contrast between them, and after Brett's constant belittling and patronizing of "Little Tulung", the revelation that Tulung's father stopped the Permians thirty years earlier whilst Brett fled is immensely satisfying. On the subject of Roberts' acting incidentally, it is worth noting that whilst Big Finish occasionally uphold the age-old tradition of dodgy accents in Doctor Who, both he and Andrew Fettes as Gaborik do pretty well here.

Where the characterisation does fall down is in the case of Gaborik, who unfortunately comes across as a bit of a one-dimensional stereotype; his tradition-motivated objection to Brett's riffling of the land for building materials, and his obvious dislike of the man, rather raise the question of why he hasn't cleared off before. Ultimately, he seems to be present only to highlight the difference between himself and Tulung, a man torn part by his mixed heritage. In addition there is Monica Lewis, cast into the role of pseudo-companion so that the Doctor can explain the plot whilst Nyssa is away. The character is extremely irritating, her wisecracks and sarcasm making her sound like a cut-price Benny Summerfield without the wit and charm, and her dialogue about how she reacts to stress sounding horribly stilted. Lucy Campbell is also the weakest of the generally strong cast, often sounding self-conscious, which means that she often gives the impression that she's reading her lines for the first time.

In terms of production, 'The Land of the Dead' is excellent, with great effects and incidental score, and Gary Russell proving his directorial skills early on. Overall, 'The Land of the Dead' is a solid start to what might be referred to as "Season Nineteen B", and keeping the plot in the traditional Doctor Who mold allows Cole to reintroduce the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa team effectively. With this done however, and with Big Finish increasingly gaining experience, there is much better to come.

Lawrence Conquest

According to the author’s notes, the scripts for this audio were written in 1 week. It shows.

Despite Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton turning in excellent performances this is a pretty uninspiring story. Much has been made of the totally inept use of the audio medium, as Stephen Cole turns in a tale that would be great for TV or comics, but relies almost solely on monster special effects. There is plenty of dire unnaturalistic dialogue, as the characters are forced to describe everything they are seeing in Paradise of Death fashion.

But possibly the worst thing about The Land of the Dead is the boredom factor – following a reasonable enough set-up in Episode 1, the plot simply consists of characters running around in circles being chased by roaring monsters. Every cliffhanger is identical – yep, you guessed it - character menaced by roaring monster, cue theme tune. Sigh. The piece also lacks a real villain as a focus, as even Shaun Brett is merely revealed to be mentally affected by the creatures ‘energy fields’, rather than the prime mover behind events.

Its not quite dire enough to reach ‘all-time-worst’ depths, as it lacks any truly hideous performances, though the constantly sarcastic Monica Lewis started getting on my nerves by the plays end. Ultimately Big Finish’s first real disaster should at least have had the benefit of showing everyone how not to script an audio. 3 episodes of inarticulate roaring monsters is no substitute for drama.

And besides all this – why is the Elephant Man on the cover?

Shawn Channell

The Land of the Dead, the fourth Big Finish Doctor Who production, continues the momentum picked up in "Whispers of Terror" and leaves the mediocre "Phantasmagoria" and the pitiful "The Sirens of Time" in the proverbial dust.

This installment in the series is Stephen Cole. No stranger to Who, Cole was the previous editor of the BBC Doctor Who novel line and is the co-author of the recent EDA "Parallel 59." Set in the frozen barrens of Alaska, the story apparently takes place between the TV stories "Time-Flight" and "Arc of Infinity."

The story is basically two stories in one. First of all, the Doctor needs to save the planet from re-awakened prehistoric creatures. This is a truly novel idea in that the Doctor has never before been required to save Earth from prehistoric beasts (Sarcasm Alert!!! ) Despite the well-worn primary story premise, it is the secondary story which provides a great deal of the intrigue. It revolves around the conflict between the wealthy Shaun Brett and the half-native, half-American Tulung. The two are connected by the life, and death, of their fathers. Both progenitors were archaelogists; however, during an ill-fated dig Tulung's father died, yet Brett's father survived. It is the attempt to discover the events surrounding this incident which provides the tension between them. Tulung believes that Brett's father was a dictatorial parasite who destroyed the country he studied and that he abandoned his father at the dig to die. Brett, on the other hand, believes Tulung's father was a spineless coward and that his father (Brett's) attempted to save everyone at the dig. Other characters involved in the story include Gaborik, an Alaskan native, and Monica Lewis, an interior designer working for Brett. Gaborik appears to have basically been used to provide some "local color" (as described by Brett) and is written off in the second episode. Lewis becomes the surrogate companion, providing a sounding board for the Doctor's explanations.

Brett has made millions in Alaskan oil and has constructed, with the assistance of Tulung, Gaborik, and Lewis, a massive home which is described as a "monument" to the native landscape. The home includes several rooms reflective of the natural surroundings, including an Ice Room, Timber Room, Bone Room, Sea Room, etc . . . The Doctor and Nyssa stumble into the mansion after pursuing atypical energy readings and being pursued by an unknown beast. As the story unfolds it is revealed that Brett has unearthed a prehistoric carnivore which is capable of absorbing the soma and intellect of its victims. The beast is embedded in the walls of the house and it is now attempting to escape. While the Doctor and Lewis try to contain things at the house, Tulung and Nyssa attempt to make it to a small research station to analyze bone materials discovered in the walls of the house. As the story unfolds, it becomes evident that Tulung and Brett are both experiencing varying degrees of insanity. Tulung comes to believe that Nyssa is his "guardian spirit" and can protect him. Brett, on the other hand, knows more than he has thus far revealed and, along with Tulung, kidnaps Nyssa to return to the dig site where Tulung's father died. It is there that "all will be revealed."

The cast in this story is, for the most part, quite good. Peter Davison's performance is fantastic (which goes without saying IMHO). Sarah Sutton does an excellent job of reprising the role of Nyssa. Lucy Campbell as Monica Lewis serves as a strong companion for the Doctor; however, I'm still not certain why Who authors insist on separating the Doctor from his companion just so they can introduce a new one. Andrew Fettes as Gaborik makes a convincing Native American and Christopher Scott's Shaun Brett is a despicable character from the word "go." Neil Roberts' Tulung is the one weak link in an otherwise strong chain. It is not that his performance is bad necessarily, but his American accent is. After the third time he referred to Nyssa as "Nysser" I really started to get annoyed. The production values, like the previous stories, are high. The score is well done and the sound effects are bone chilling.

Despite the fact that this is an excellent story, it does have some flaws. One is the done to death story line involving the Doctor battling a re-awakened creature from the Earth's past. To see basically the same general plot watch "The Daemons,","Invasion of the Dinosaurs," "The Sea Devils," "The Silurians," or "Warriors From the Deep." However, there is enough originality in the setting and relationship between Tulung and Brett to make up for this. There are also some minor holes in the plot. For example, I wasn't really sure why Tulung stuck around with Brett. Brett's character is elitist, rude, and condescending. He refers to Tulung as "Little Tulung," despite the fact they are roughly the same age. He also makes it quite clear to Tulung in episode one that he believes he is his (Brett's) possession. Tulung tells Nyssa that he stays to find out the truth about his father, but this didn't seem like reason enough to put up with that kind of abuse. A second flaw involves the fact that The Doctor and Lewis spend a great deal of the second half of the story submerged or wading in the arctic discharge from the Sea Room. While I can believe the Doctor's unique physiology may allow him to spend long periods of time in frigid sea water, I do not believe that this would be the case for Lewis.

In the grand scheme of things, however, these are minor complaints. If you're a Doctor Who fan (and obviously you are if you are reading this) you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of "The Land of the Dead." It is probably the best of the Big Finish productions thus far.

Daniel Hirsch

The first series of any good programme is quite a mishmash of quality. Despite this, I am pleasantly surprised that the Big Finish audio adventures have gotten so good, so quickly. After the disappointment that was "The Sirens of Time" and the confusing jumble I found in "Phantasmagoria," both the third and fourth releases from Big Finish have been quite stellar.

The fourth release is called "The Land of the Dead," former BBC Books editor Stephen Cole. It doesn't look like much at first glance; Alaska and a lot of ice, mainly, and a rather daft cover. This belies a rather tightly-wound plot that only tends to meander occasionally, and still packs quite a wallop. Indeed, as I listened to it an episode at a time, I found myself craving my return to the story, as its cliffhangers were impressive.

"The Land of the Dead" starts with what I think I can safely say is a coincidence; the Doctor and Nyssa spot the takeoff of a plane in 1964 from an Alaskan wilderness. Later, they materialize 30 years later, in a large cottage roughly in the same area. Despite the incredible coincidence that (a) they'd arrive just as the Doctor is needed and (b) that they'd happen upon two very important time periods in this storyline, I can safely say that it can be explained by the TARDIS' ever-present sense of danger. In 1994, Nyssa and the Doctor meet a motley group of people who share the house; bitter, wealthy Brett, the mouthy interior designer Monica Lewis, the hostile Gaborik (a native Inuit tribesman) and the fiery Tulung, a half-native, half-American wanderer. He and Brett share a common history, for it was on these lands, about 30 years ago (ring a bell?) that their fathers, on an archaeological expedition, faced death; Brett's father made it out, Tulung's didn't. The secret behind that encounter, and the current scourge faced by the residence of the house, comprise the main body of the story.

At first, this sounds much like the usual "Doctor and companion uncover alien intelligence plotting to take over the world" fodder. I was quite pleasantly surprised to find out that any such beliefs were shattered. Instead, we are treated to a bizarre cornucopia of beings, none of which can be described as alien, but yet are terrifying and malicious. (Though I must admit, I think whoever produced the sound effects on this album sampled a few cries of the Velociraptors from "Jurassic Park".) The house, which is actually a museum being built by the sarcastic designer Monica (who, the liner notes say, was imagined to be Monica Lewinsky in hiding; alas, it's not true but it does give one a striking visual), becomes the focal point in this story, giving it the air of a tale set inside a haunted house. For something vaguely resembling a ghost story, this certainly gives the listener a claustrophobic mental picture, exactly what is needed for a tale of this type.

The cast is surprisingly good, with few exceptions. Peter Davison steps into the role like he never left, and Sarah Sutton actually sounds like her old Nyssa. I'd had more trouble with Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant's vocal tones in the previous installment, "Whispers of Terror" (but in that story, as a fervent listener to the Benny Summerfield audios, I couldn't much get past Lisa Bowerman's guest shot.) Christopher Scott's Shaun Brett is quite disturbing, presenting the air of a haughty millionnaire with a disturbing side, and you can never really tell until the end what his motivations are; you know he's going to turn out to be the bad guy, but you can't expect the reasons why. Likewise, I was very happy with the performance of Lucy Campbell as Monica Lewis, who would have been an excellent companion; she's stubborn and sarcastic, determined, yet very sympathetic. Andrew Fettes as Gaborik sounds very much like a native American, at least the way they've been depicted on film and television. Neil Roberts, who plays Tulung, does a passable job, however; I don't think anyone in Britain has gotten the hang of writing and portraying Americans, and his accent slipped quite frequently. His scenes with Sarah Sutton as the two are being chased into a shack in the woods, are exceptional; later, however, when he takes Nyssa for his "guardian spirit," he succumbs to whining and petulance, and part of me wanted him to fall into a precipice.

If I can make only one comment in the far negative, it's the ending. The Doctor and Nyssa leave, and the episode leaves Monica and Tulung alone with a short dialogue that comes out of nowhere; two characters who did practically nothing together, all of a sudden broach a certain topic that was completely unnecessary. I found myself cringing, a dissatisfying ending to an otherwise excellent story.

"The Land of the Dead" is a worthy addition to the Big Finish audio series, well acted and well dramatised, bringing back those longing days for hiding behind the sofa. Listen in your own living room and see if you agree with me.

Simon Catlow

'Still if we didn't expect the unexpected, whatever would become of us?'

After arriving in Alaska on the trail of a mysterious energy signal, the Doctor and Nyssa are soon attacked by a strange, deadly creature which leads them to the mansion of millionaire oil man Shaun Brett, who has sinister plans of his own. It soon becomes clear that a far greater danger has been unleashed.

Stephen Cole's 'The Land Of The Dead' is a strange audio for a number of reasons. In the time since it's original release it seems to have gained an unfavourable reputation (confirmed by the recent DWM poll), and although the reasons for this are evident, it is somewhat unjust.

The Land Of The Dead's most redeeming features is the fact that, like many other of the Big Finish audios, is that it is very atmospheric. The use of sound effects to create the Alaskan scenes are very evocative and effective. And while many of the performances are good, without hitting high levels of excellence, it does boast an excellence performance from Lucy Campbell as Monica Lewis.

The cliffhanger to episode one suffers greatly from overly descriptive dialogue. With Nyssa in one room, and the Doctor on the other side of a locked door, she proceeds to describe what happens in too much detail. Although it's necessary to convey what's happening in an audio story, this must be done with a minimum amount of description otherwise it falls into the trap that the 90's Pertwee Radio Dramas fell into and the effect is to tell the listener what is happening, rather than providing sufficient dialogue to show them what is happening. This problem is always a danger with audio drama, and Big Finish have managed to keep away from this most of the time, but Stephen Cole's script is an offender in this category, and it does take away from the enjoyment of the story.

Peter Davison's performance here is not bad, but he, and Cole's script, don't really capture the essence of the Fifth Doctor's character particularly well, and this makes it hard to really enjoy the performance of the Doctor, but when he is at his best, it is in the scenes with Lucy Campbell as Monica Lewis. The two of them work very well together, and the character of Monica effectively provides the companion for a large part of the story, whilst the Doctor and Nyssa are separated.

Of all the performances that Sarah Sutton has made so far for Big Finish, her first one, which this is, sadly is her worst one. Her performance feels very flat, and this is not helped by some of the dialogue that she is given to work with. Although her voice is almost identical to how it was during the recording of the television series, she seems to be having trouble finding her character, although there are signs that she almost has it by the end of this particular title, and her subsequent appearances have been excellent.

The small guest cast all reach a good standard, even if they are not outstanding, with the exception of Lucy Campbell as Monica Lewis who is superb. Campbell plays Monica with a real sense of gusto, and this helps to enliven the scenes in which she appears no end. Christopher Scott is the other stand out performer in the drama in his role as millionaire Shaun Brett, and the remaining cast members put in sturdy, if unspectacular, performances.

Alistair Lock's music here is patchy. When it's good, it's very good and reminiscent of some of the incidental music that appeared in the television series, but what detracts from it are the occasional 'terror twangs' which are just unnecessary.

Ultimately though The Land Of The Dead is an enjoyable story, but not a particularly memorable one. It fails to make much of an impression on the listener so that although it's an interesting story, it lacks the repeated play factor that a good audio will have. Whilst the story behind the Land Of The Dead is quite interesting, and offers an agreeable way to spend two hours, the fact that it is so forgettable prevents it from being as good as it is. Cole's script has some good dialogue, but the use of the overly descriptive language becomes tedious after a while and takes away from the enjoyment factor of the story. Essentially enjoyable, but ultimately harmless, The Land Of The Dead is often criticised, and whilst some of this is justifiable when compared with the quality of some of the other Big Finish Doctor Who stories, on it's own, The Land Of The Dead is a flawed but interesting piece of drama, but unfortunately fails to leave a significant impression.