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Pier Pressure

Doctor Who: The Big Finish Audio Adventures #78
Paul Clarke

Having been singularly unimpressed with Robert Ross' Big Finish debut 'Medicinal Purposes', I had low expectations fro 'Pier Pressure', not helped by the fact that the title is a crushingly bad pun. Nevertheless, I was entirely unprepared for how wretched an experience it would turn out to be.

Ross's apparent status as an expert on British comedy comes into play here as the Doctor meets the legendary Max Miller, but as in 'Medicinal Purposes' he proves that knowing a lot about comedy and actually being good at it are two entirely different things. Once again, Ross provides an uneasy juxtaposition of humour and horror, but whilst Robert Shearman used this combination to great effect in 'The Holy Terror', here the end result is just macabre and not in a good way. More (or less) than that, the story is just extremely boring. The alien entity that has possessed Talbot is simultaneously very dull and ill defined; the Doctor tells us everything we need to know about it in a single overwrought and melancholy infodump at the start of Episode Three, and which roughly translates into "it feeds on negative emotions". The denouement is equally dull; the Doctor persuades Talbot to resist his master, persuades Albert to sacrifice himself by shorting out the aliens (which happens "off-screen" as it were), and everyone goes home. There's a load of tedious dialogue about the human spirit, but it's a massive anti-climax. The gap between the beginning and end of the play is filled by a meandering plot, which gives us a cliffhanger to Episode One that is the stuff of cliché ("He's been dead for fifteen years!") and self indulgent references to Knox.

Almost pointlessly given the quality of the script, the cast is mostly excellent. Doug Bradley is best known as Pinhead from the Hellraiser films, a role that succeeds largely because of his vocal talents. This makes him ideal for the role of Professor Talbot, as he talks to himself in different voices, which allows Bradley to veer widely and with considerable skill between confidence, doubt, fear and smugness. One of the few strengths of Ross's script is the portrayal of Talbot as a rather tragic figure, a frightened, broken and lonely man, terrified into committing evil acts by the other occupant of his mind, and its genuinely surprising that Talbot helps rescue the Doctor and return him to the TARDIS, explaining, "I am a human being Doctor… call me old fashioned, but I couldn't bear to stand by and watch you die." He's a genuinely well-meaning villain, taken in by the aliens and persuaded to help them, which works as well as the plot will allow but would work much better if the aliens in question actually had a decent plan.

Then there's Roy Hudd. Like Ross, he's a self-confessed fan of Max Miller and plays the role with enthusiasm and a great deal of skill, making Miller the best thing about 'Pier Pressure'. He gets the few great lines of the entire story, such as when Albert enthusiastically tells him, "Oh, Mister Miller! I'm a huge fan of yours" and he grumpily snaps, "Where you in tonight? Not that much of a huge fan then!" Hudd makes him both witty and likeable (which by many accounts is a fairly accurate portrayal. He also gets some decent moments with the equally egotistical Doctor, such as when he asks the Doctor, if he works for the BBC: the Doctor's response is particularly amusing from the lips of his Sixth incarnation, as he replies, "The British Broadcasting Cooperation, often unforgiving to their finest assists, but no, Mr. Miller, not in my jurisdiction I fear." Maxie isn't stupid, and realizes what the TARDIS is because of the snippets of information he's heard from the Doctor, and this sharpness allows him to act as a commentator throughout. Sadly, despite Hudd's enthusiasm for the part, the script often reduces him to a caricature of Miller, and although Ross's decision to use some of Maxie's more famous jokes is understandable, it doesn't alleviate this problem; given his field of expertise he might have been better off actually writing new jokes in the style of Max Miller.

The only other supporting characters of any real note are Albert and Emily, played by Chris Simmons and Sally Ann Curran, and both of who are working-class stereotypes with irritating cod-working class period accents. This makes them sound as though they are participating in amateur dramatics (which is unfortunately not far from the truth in this case), although this is perhaps intentional, since Albert is obsessed with theatrics.

And then there are the regulars. Colin Baker and Maggie Stables both bring their usual professionalism to the role, but Evelyn spends most of the time following the Doctor around and explaining things to Miller, whilst the Doctor gets saddled with a great deal of extremely pompous, portentous dialogue throughout, including such tripe as, "If I'm to vanquish this abomination I need to know what it is" and the risible, "A conductor made of Gallifreyan zinc." Admittedly, I quite like the lines, "I regulate time, and there are so many faults, so many cogs that don't fit" and "Evelyn, of course it's "frightfully dangerous"! If it wasn't "frightfully dangerous", everybody would be doing it", and the Doctor's melancholy speech at the end of Episode Two, but these aren't anywhere near enough to salvage 'Pier Pressure'.

With some decent actors, Max Miller, and the quintessentially British seaside resort of Brighton, 'Pier Pressure' had the potential to be rather good. Sadly, it is turned out to be one of a small number of Big Finish Doctor Who audios that I have absolutely no desire to listen to ever again.

Eddy Wolverson

“Pier Pressure” is the worst sixth Doctor and Evelyn audio since… well, probably ever. It’s doubly disappointing because it had the potential to be so much more; a fantastic and evocative setting, a five star cast, and a writer who has proven he can write much more compelling Doctor Who.

This story really is a strange animal. Ross’ characterisation is excellent – Roy Hudd’s Max Miller is consistently entertaining, the Doctor and Evelyn are both portrayed well (though the Doctors “technicolour dreamcoat” appears to have made a comeback, not by popular demand) and even the young, heavily stereotyped, lovers Emily and Hollywood-wannabe Albert even have their charm. However, the plot is dull, predictable and it has all been done a thousand times before. The young beautiful woman taken over by an alien entity. The alien using mind control to turn the Doctor’s companions against him…

Fortunately, the superb performances and exquisite production make “Pier Pressure” a passable effort – its not quite down there with the likes of “…ish” and “Whispers of Terror” but it certainly isn’t up to the standard of any of the other sixth Doctor / Evelyn audios. On a side note, although “Pier Pressure” continues last month’s horrendous tradition of beginning CD1 with a trailer for the next story, Big Finish have re-vamped the layout of the CD booklets for 2006, making them a little bit more modern and a bit more like a programme you might get at the theatre which I think is nice touch. Sadly, no matter how nice the wrapping is, its what’s inside that counts. Robert Ross should bare that in mind for next time…

A wasted opportunity; not a patch on "Medicinal Purposes."

Lawrence Conquest

I have been having something of a crisis of confidence in Big Finish recently, which had led me to seriously consider dropping the range after regularly buying every release since they started back with ‘Sirens Of Time’. While I have still found the odd recent release to be enjoyable, far too much lately has been mediocre, or worse – and with the return of Doctor Who on television Big Finish are under pressure like never before to justify their existence. Sadly ‘Pier Pressure’ is the worst sort of story that could arrive when I am feeling in this mood, as it’s sheer mediocrity is hardly likely to rekindle my faith in audio Doctor Who.

Robert Ross’ previous Doctor Who audio ‘Medicinal Purposes’ was a flawed but promising debut, but sadly ‘Pier Pressure’ highlights all the failings of that earlier story without any of the strengths. Once again Ross relies heavily on a comedy star turn – this time Roy Hudd where ‘Medicinal Purposes’ had Leslie Phillips, but where his earlier story was built around some interesting concepts ‘Pier Pressure’ is nothing more than a collection of mindless worn-out Doctor Who clichés. Oh, the setting is suitable atmospheric: the mysterious domain of a supposedly long-dead magician on a deserted Brighton Pier, but strip away the ephemera and it’s all Doctor-Who-by-numbers: a race of aliens who want to take over the Earth; possessed characters walking around with such sparkling dialogue as “Walk – attack – kill!” it even ends with the traditional (and incredibly lazy) Heroic Sacrifice of a minor supporting character. The aliens themselves are decidedly dull with absolutely no original features: the Doctor instantly proclaims them to be ‘pure evil’ and that an ‘apocalyptic disaster’ awaits, with ‘the whole human race under threat!’ but for all this talk the aliens seem pretty pathetic, only managing to possess 1 girl during the plays entire running time, and able to be defeated by a length of wire.

The pacing is also awful, with the play dragging terribly over two hours, with several over-extended scenes that just seem to be filling time. I’m not one of those people who think the new 45 minute TV story format has instantly rendered the longer audio stories redundant, and indeed some of the TV stories are over so quickly there’s a gap in the market for Big Finish to provide some proper well-constructed and plotted stories: but the simple fact is there just isn’t enough plot in ‘Pier Pressure’ to fill 2 hours, and it drags as a result.

If the play has one saving grace it’s that the performances are generally fine, and while not much happens for a large amount of the running time the characters are amiable enough. Doug Bradley – now forever set in most peoples minds as Hellraiser’s iconic Pinhead – turns in a great performance as Professor Talbot, but as the role mostly requires him to hold conversations with himself it’s all a bit wasted really. The return of Maggie Stables as Evelyn this soon after her ‘farewell’ story in ‘Thicker Than Water’ is slightly questionable – not that Evelyn shouldn’t be able to return from time to time for ‘missing’ adventures in the same way that other ex-TV companions do, but one might expect that Big Finish would take the opportunity to give Colin Baker a fresh companion for a while, rather than take him straight back to a character who has only just left the TARDIS.

‘Pier Pressure’ boasts some good performances, but ultimately it stands as a rather humdrum and formulaic adventure. Every story should start with a strong concept, but while Ross seems to have the basic elements of wanting the Doctor to meet Max Miller he doesn’t actually have a decent original story to tell, which renders the whole exercise slightly pointless. ‘Pier Pressure’ isn’t actively awful, but it is the equivalent of listening to paint dry.

Joe Ford

Pier Pressure has a production to die for. There are very few Doctor Who audios that reach these heights with everything coming together perfectly to create an atmospheric treat. Gary Russell’s direction is astonishingly good with a great deal of excellent comic work being performed between his actors and the sound effects (the rolling sea and shifting pebbles) and music (especially the enjoyable goofy sax playing over the Maxi scenes) all combine well. Pier Pressure comes alive around as you listen.

So why oh why is it such a chore to listen to? I was mentally listing all the great things about this audio whilst I was getting more and more bored, confused with why I wasn’t being swept away. Rupert Ross has to take some of the blame for what is an extremely dull plot, full of loathsome clichés and the sort of scenes we have heard over and over again (He’s been possessed by an alien evil! She’s not the woman you knew…we must kill her! KILL THE DOCTOR! KILL THE DOCTOR!). Whilst I genuinely feel that Big Finish is showing signs of coming out of its doldrums (certainly we are in a much better place than we were this time LAST year) the biggest hurdle they need to jump is getting some challenging, interesting scripts produced. Over the past year (aside from one or two exceptions like Live 34 and Dreamtime…and they were both pretty awful!) there has been an astonishing lack of originality (you’ve got the cod Davros story The Juggernauts, the cod historical The Council of Nicea, the cod run-around claustrophobic thriller Three’s a Crowd) and Pier Pressure is probably the most formulaic story yet. It’s a bog standard tale of an good sapping alien popping to Earth and taking control of some weak humans and causing a spot of bother for the Doctor. At no point in this story was I shocked, it just rumbled on from one Doctor Who plot point to another before coming to a perfectly predictable climax.

What makes this doubly annoying is the fact that Rupert Ross (who similarly showed little originality in Medicinal Purposes) is clearly the ideal sort of writer for audio as much of his dialogue is genuinely excellent, wasted on a really obvious plot. There were a number of terrific monologues in there, especially the Doctor’s haunting ruminations about sitting quietly by the sea, the sort of quiet reflection Colin Baker portrays so well. Not just that he has characterised much of his cast superbly with Max coming across as a hoot and holler and Evelyn being much more fun than she has been for ages (their chemistry together is fabulous as they flirt, argue and laugh with each other). His smaller characters like Emily and Albert are also well served for with some decent pathos injected into their relationship after she is taken over by the alien intelligence.

You can tell that the cast have had a ball making this and all got on fabulously together and it does help to brew up an atmosphere of fun. Whilst I feel Colin Baker is wasted in this sort of archetypal story he gives his all as usual and gets to show a wide range of emotions, from petulance to anger, from quiet contemplation to outright disgust, all of which he pulls off with his usual elegance. The marvellous Maggie Stables is still Big Finish’s biggest assets and I’m glad her leaving story (Thicker than Water) did not mean that we could not still enjoy more stories with her in the interim. She attacks her dialogue with relish, clearly enjoying her reunion with Roy Hudd who together create a entertaining partnership. Hudd himself is the star of the audio, imbuing Max with some believability whilst still being able to portray an OTT legend at the same time; he cuts some marvellous digs at the rest of the characters in the story. A special mention has to go to Doug Bradley whose alien voice is one of the most sinister things I have ever heard and on my walk home in the dark from work was enough to put the willies up me (down boys), despite the embarrassing dialogue he is given (“Ahh the female of the species! So much deadlier than the male or so I’ve been led to believe!”).

Why then are we forced to listen to endless scenes of nothing as these clearly well thought out characters stand around and do nothing (at one point they play I Spy in the TARDIS!!!!). I’m not saying it isn’t fun but with nothing to sink your teeth into it gets remarkably dull very quickly, with no real surprises there is nothing to keep you hooked. And when it came to ridiculous, predictable scenes like Evelyn and Max turning on the Doctor with the chant of “KILL THE DOCTOR!” (I’m sorry I know I keep repeating myself but I can scarcely believe they had the nerve to include it) I was ready to turn the thing off.

I am so glad to hear that Alan Barnes is taking over as story consultant and I hope that the writer of the genuinely astonishing Neverland starts commissioning some more challenging, original work. These nods to the past are nice every now and then but works of the calibre of Pier Pressure are becoming the norm these days and such conventional material just doesn’t cut the mustard.

This has annoyed me more than any Big Finish since Live 34, and for mostly for the same reason. This is a outstanding production, sparkling with witty performances and excellent direction which all comes to nothing in the bog standard plot.

Such a waste of talent.

Richard Radcliffe

When Doctor Who is set in a place that I know, the anticipation of that story is so much greater. I have always subscribed to the philosophy that DW works best when the extraordinary is mixed with the ordinary. An Alien Spaceship in a Historical setting is probably my favourite expression of this, but when the Doctor visits somewhere where I have spent some time in (and I can vividly picture the Doctor strolling around there), then there is an extra special thrill.

In my mid 20s, a good dozen years ago in the early to mid 1990s, I had a job that involved attending NHS related Conventions. I would leave my then home and work in Birmingham, complete with huge tube containing TARDIS like Stand (seemed much bigger when it was unwrapped at the venue), on my way to some Convention Centre somewhere in the British Isles. Quite often these Convention Centres are situated on the Coast (nice, relaxed atmosphere, good hotels etc). Brighton was a place I regularly went to. Most of the time I was there for 2-3 days, usually in the Brighton Metropole Hotel. Most of the time I was on my own, free to roam whenever the demands of the Convention Exhibition didn't demand my attention. They were glorious days, and I get rather nostalgic about that splendid couple of years of my life.

I was fascinated by the old Pier, and often used to sit on the Pebbly Beach imagining what it was like in its heyday. I would usually be accompanied by some DW literature of course, and I always thought it would be a fine setting for my favourite characters. I usually imagined the 4th Doctor in such a setting, probably because he was my favourite Doctor back then. I'm delighted now though that the 6th Doctor adorns such a setting - for if I had to choose a Favourite Doctor, it would be him.

Robert Ross impressed with Medicinal Purposes, and using the same TARDIS team, and arguably the same type of story - he dazzles us again. It's classic Doctor Who story territory, and the writer romanticizes the locale brilliantly - for the benefit of the listener. I was in Brighton for a couple of hours. Thanks to Robert Ross' writing, and Big Finishs' production I was there, trust me.

I am also very familiar with Roy Hudd, and his turn as the cheeky chappie Max Miller is marvellous. Roy Hudd speaks Music Hall Entertainment to me, nearly half a century after the demise of those establishments. His humour has always been totally of that ilk, and he has continued the tradition of the Music Hall, using other mediums (mostly Radio). The humour is ever present whenever he is in a scene. It's all rather cheesy at times, but very much in keeping with the type of humour prevalent in the 1930s.

I am fascinated by the British Seaside, always have been. There's a whole atmosphere associated with the Coast of Britain. Heading off for a weekend away, being blown off your feet by the sea gales, checking out the Saucy Postcards, Fish and Chips in a tacky Cafe. I love it all. There's also the ever present shows that adorn the piers and playhouses. Max Miller is one of the best of a long line that continue even today to entertain the holiday makers. I admire Great Comedians a lot, they bring joy to the masses - an extremely tough job, and you are highly gifted if you can do it. Big Finish brings that Seaside feel into my home, and I adored it.

The story is a good one, being extremely traditional, and utilizing all the wonders of its setting to its advantage. Robert Ross has also fully utilized Big Finishs greatest treasures to great effect - Colin Baker and Maggie Stables. I though Evelyn was no more after Thicker Than Water, but it appears she is continuing. I'm delighted. Knowing the end of her travels with the Doctor doesn't affect her subsequent stories a jot - same as most of the other companions Big Finish employ.

The Big Finish output is continually very good, with the majority of stories very good or better. After nearly 100 releases that's extremely impressive. Jason Haigh-Ellery, Gary Russell and all at Big Finish have their pulse on what makes great Doctor Who, and they've been doing it well for 7 years now. The TV series has been brilliant - that has to be the Number One DW attention grabber nowadays. But Big Finish continue to do what they have done since 1999 - producing consistently fantastic stories on a regular basis. I lap them up with great gusto. This Doctor Fan is hugely happy with Big Finish, and I trust the current production team enough to know I probably always will be. 10/10