I had been very much looking forward to a new written-and-directed-and-guest-starring-Nicholas-Briggs audio in the main "Doctor Who" range, because he's usually very good and because it's been three years since he did this for the main range, and so it's doubly sad that I have to say I was very disappointed.
The main problems are in the story itself. It's got one single plot line that moves at a snail's pace, with no subplots to liven things up or even much interesting incident in the one plot we do have. We've got a mystery door on a spaceship that people are compelled to walk into that at times emits a 1950s train station bell, and that's about all we get in the whole of the first disc. When the Doctor and Evelyn go back in time on the second disc to investigate said train station is about the time I noticed my second big problem with the story, which was that it's nearly the same one we heard way back at the beginning in Briggs' "The Sirens of Time," where the Doctor and Evelyn are being manipulated into altering history by a weirdo time creature to prevent the human race becoming a space power, only this time there's not even any inter-Doctor bickering to enliven things. The only difference is that the thing is imprisoned at the end of time instead of at the beginning (and no mention here of the Divergents? Aren't they supposed to be there too?), and that it's been committing multiple genocides instead of just one. I do like the concept of these creatures being trapped in a time loop of their own jealousy that causes them to rip species after species out of time, but it takes a very, very long and uninteresting time to get us there.
The only bit of the journey there that I did find interesting is the portion of parts three and four where the Doctor and Evelyn meet Nick Briggs and John Killoran's characters on the train (Trevor and Palmer, respectively) for here at least there are some character quirks with these two that go beyond the bland starship personnel back in the future, and the Doctor trying to bluff his and Evelyn's way through the situation is a lot more amusing than his begging Captain Oswin over and over again that they really are there to help. If somehow the two plots or the character sets in each location could have interacted together perhaps we'd've had a far more interesting tale than this? This entire script feels like it's only a first or perhaps second draft, or perhaps was one that got caught in the gap between Gary Russell leaving the story editor's job and Alan Barnes (who is credited on this) taking over and didn't get the rigorous red-lining-in-the-margins that it needed. An especially bright shade of red should've been used on the bits of dialogue that claim the Earth is 50 billion years old, when it ought to be merely 5. 50 billion is 3-5 times older than the estimated age of the universe in fact!
The direction, sound design, and performances were all of the highest standard, however, and on these points at least Nick Briggs still has an unbeaten record as far as I'm concerned. In the guest cast, I'll single out Martha Cope managing to bring at least a little human life and interest to her character of Captain Oswin, certainly much more than was on the page, and I was surprised how different her voice was at times from that of her character in the latter two Dalek Empire spinoff series. Colin Baker and Maggie Stables were their usual charming selves as well, but I couldn't get over the feeling that they were trying very, very hard to lift this script, but I fear it was too heavy a load to bear.
4 out of 10 for "The Nowhere Place," I'm afraid.
Colin Baker has been given something of a bum deal with Big Finish of late. After building him up as their star attraction, realising much of the potential his character so obviously left hanging when he was unexpectedly sacked from the show they have left his character in something of a ‘nowhere place’ (witty guy, huh?). Given the shuffling of four Doctors it is always a couple of months before Colin gets a look in and if his stories are under-whelming (and lets face it Pier Pressure, Cryptobiosis and Medicinal Purposes were all pretty dull) you have a huge gap between this and the last time Colin has a chance to shine.
The Nowhere Place is the best Colin Baker story since Arrangements for War. Its not absolutely perfect but as a piece of storytelling and for giving Colin Baker and Maggie Stables a chance to prove they are still the best Big Finish have to offer it deserves much plaudits.
There is more than a touch of Sapphire and Steel about this story but that only works to its advantage, the mysterious (and hugely ominous) door that is sucking people through into the no-where place proving to be far more terrifying than any alien threat. Not only that but the mixture of science-fiction and the past (highlighted by juxtaposition of the settings, on a spaceship one moment and on a steam train the next) is perfectly intoxicating. The Doctor and Evelyn land like elements out of time ready to sort out the problem. If Big Finish was not already dealing with Sapphire and Steel I would think P J Hammond would be calling is lawyers.
The most important thing though are the ideas and as usual with Doctor Who it is imagination that sees the story triumph rather than glossy production values (although The Nowhere Place does exhibit these too!). When I heard that Nicholas Briggs was taking over from Gary Russell at Big Finish I punched the air with delight. This is not meant as Russell bash because he did a fabulous job setting up the audio range and produced a fair number of absolute classics but there is something about Briggsy’s work which screams of effort, as though sweat and blood has gone into making it. He has a marvellous ear for writing dialogue, understands how to milk drama from his fertile ideas and (as if that wasn’t enough) is a superb director, musician and actor to boot. No, a change of creative direction is what Big Finish has been desperate for for several years and if The Nowhere Place is an example of what they will produce then sign me up. Tellingly, Briggs writes, directs, scored and acts in this production and its quality speaks for itself.
There are so many things to admire about the script, the dramatic tension between the Doctor and Captain Oswin, the possession of Evelyn (which could have been as dire as it was in Pier Pressure but is pulled with remarkable drama here), the hilarious scenes on the steam train where the Doctor pretends to be the ticket man, the massive red herring as the Doctor is tricked into going back in time, the Doctor’s fear…but most importantly the revelation that the human race was not the first race to evolve on the Earth. It is a shock twist like this that can decide a stories fate but this pulled off with real elegance, suddenly making sense of the all the bizarre happenings earlier on. The last episode is pretty amazing all told, especially the Doctor’s reaction to all the species he has never met that were wiped out and facing his nightmares head on.
There are many people who have adored the sixth Doctor’s gentler transition to audio but as ever with these things there are those who feel as though he has lost his bite. The Nowhere Place presents us with the sixth Doctor at his absolute finest, when you wouldn’t even think of him as a Doctor but the Doctor. Here we see his warm relationship with Evelyn, easily matching that of the fourth Doctor’s with Sarah and the seventh Doctor’s with Ace…they are clearly made for each other and the chemistry between Colin and Maggie is effortless and marvellously entertaining. So when the pair of them start acting edgy and terrified it is very frightening and both actors take on a nervous, uncomfortable tone that really gets under your skin. Seeing the brash, verbose sixth Doctor genuinely terrified is really unnerving and his desperation to find answers results in some dramatic scenes with Oswin. It is in the final episode where we see what the Doctor (and Colin) are made of where the Doctor lands the TARDIS in front of the door and confronts his fear with all the bravery and determination as the third Doctor did before he died. The emotions that he displays during these scenes is extraordinary; anger at the genocide of so many species, guilt at never discovering their passing, sympathy for the race which has been condemned to Time’s End, contempt for their jealousy at other species who were given the chance to reach the stars and keep going, regret at the severity of his actions to stop them. The quiet scene between the Doctor and Evelyn after he has destroyed the Nowhere Place is fantastic, Evelyn wanting to know what the hell the whole adventure was about and after the Doctor asks her what it felt like she decides she would rather not know. Colin attacks this script with real gusto, unafraid to strip down layers of his character to give the audience an uncomfortable ride and Maggie Stables is always great value, her frightened performance one of Evelyn’s top appearances to date. I was unsure about listening to more Evelyn stories after her departure but now I am convinced that there is much for this duo still to show us.
The other performances are variable but the best of them are smashing, especially Martha Cope, who after first hearing her in episode one I though I would really hate but from no-where her character’s strength of conviction really pleased me. The scene where the Doctor manages to convince her he is on her side with just words is phenomenal. I wasn’t that thrilled with John Killoran as Palmer who is playing something of a bored character so his bored sounding performance is probably quite good, but it still didn’t convince me that much.
Basically what you have here is three episode of spooky weirdness (but riveting spooky weirdness) and then a final episode that brings the house down. Loaded with great concepts, a chance for the regulars to shine and a production as polished as anything Nicholas Briggs directs, The Nowhere Place is easily the best this year. Lets have some more of this quality please.
You have to give Big Finish their due – for nearly seven years they have produced brilliant Doctor Who audio plays. Okay, there may be the odd clanger every once in a while, but on the whole their output has been consistently better than the classic TV series ever was. I have to say though, I did worry when I saw the blurbs for the 2006 releases – unlike usual, there weren’t any that made me go “oh wow, I can’t wait for that one.” Ironically, I have really enjoyed every single release so far this year. Whilst none of them (except “The Kingmaker”) have been mind-blowingly amazing, they’ll all been great Doctor Who stories.
“The Nowhere Place” is no exception.
Nicholas Briggs will go down in history, whether he likes it or not, as the voice of the Daleks and the Cybermen in the new TV series. Of course, listeners of Big Finish productions know that he may be a brilliant monster-voice-artist, but he’s also a hell of a lot more. He’s the monster man! Dalek Empire… Cyberman… they’re all his babies; written, directed, performed. Again here, Briggs writes, directs and stars in the play - he’s almost a one-man-band! I’m always intrigued when a play like “Embrace the Darkness,” “Creatures of Beauty” or indeed “The Nowhere Place” comes along because the chances are that if Briggs is involved and the ‘big two’ baddies aren’t, chances are we’re going to get something a bit different. Take “Embrace the Darkness” for instance – an innovative audio play set in almost total darkness. “Creatures of Beauty”? – a narrative cut and pasted all over the place. Imagine my surprise then, when “The Nowhere Place” turned out to be quite, umm… normal. Or at least, as normal as Doctor Who ever gets!
With “The Nowhere Place,” what you have is a traditional ghost story… in space, and also a futuristic sci-fi thriller… on a Turret-class locomotive in 1952. Basically, the Doctor and Evelyn land on the starship Valiant in 2197, where the crew have taken to hearing a strange bell, going slightly mad and then walking through a mysterious door into nowhere. The first two episodes have a distinct creepiness about them; I think it’s something about the juxtaposition of a 1952 train bell and a futuristic starship. That and this strange door. Apparently, Rob Shearman come up with the idea of an everyday, conventional door existing on the hull of a starship, luring people to their deaths. It shouldn’t exist… It couldn’t exist… but it does, and it even frightens the Doctor!
However, the first two episodes set on the Valiant wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as they are without Captain Oswin, brought to life wonderfully by Martha Cope. The character is so real – too real, even. She’s stressed out, snappy, nasty, sarcastic, harsh and vicious! Listening to the play though, you can see exactly why – anyone would be doing her job! It’s also quite amusing watching her laud it over the Doctor. Usually he acts like he’s in complete control even when he’s the prisoner of some megalomaniac, but here it’s hilarious to watch him squirm as Oswin verbally tears him to shreds. Not many can claim to have spoken to the sixth Doctor in that way; she treats both him and Evelyn like naughty children!
“Can’t have old ladies wandering around on our train, can we? I mean, she might be a Russian spy. Didn’t look Russian, though, did she? Probably the lack of fur hat. Cunning disguise, eh? No fur hat. Ingenious. What will the KGB think up next?”
On reflection though, I think I enjoyed the third episode the most. As much as I enjoyed the 2197 episodes, the episode set in 1952 on the train has a different tone. It’s lighter, even quite funny at times. On paper I’d have thought that the episode on the train would have been the spookiest, but it’s quite the other way round. The Doctor’s broad accent as he pretends to be a Ticket Inspector (and then a Police Inspector!) is a delight to listen to – at first I didn’t even realise it was actually Colin Baker, I thought the Ticket Inspector was a new character! The third episode also brings in the enigmatic Mr. Palmer (John Killoran) and the likeable Trevor Ridgeley (the man himself, Nick Briggs) who are another delightful pair of characters to listen to. My only complaint with it is that the episode doesn’t really drive the plot forward by any great measure – at the end of it, Evelyn and the Doctor have to go back to the future where the situation is exactly the same as it was when they left. Still, if it’s entertaining enough I can forgive a slight weakness in the story!
The ultimate ending is very clever indeed - as you’d expect from Mr. “Creatures of Beauty” – but I did think it was a bit too epic; a bit too sweeping, if that makes sense. At the end of the final episode, the stakes are unimaginably high and we learn some terrible truths about Earth and humanity which come as quite a shock. Lucky these truths aren’t true because they never happened as it turns out, so there so you go! It’s “one of them ones…”
Colin Baker and Maggie Stables are superb together once again, and only hope that they can go off on another good run like they did back in 2000/2001, before things seemed to dry up for them a bit. Incidentally, “The Nowhere Place” is the first release in a couple of years to have more than one cover illustration. I’ve used a lot of Simon Holub’s beautiful CD and DVD covers (available free at http://art.gmaskew.com/acemel/) for a sizeable chunk of my Doctor Who collection, and so I was a bit gutted that, thanks to that scientific method known as ‘pot luck’, I received my CD with the William Cox design instead!