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I must confess to having been swept up in some of the excitement surrounding Big Finish's "lost stories" season. "Great," I thought, "I always wanted to know about scripts that didn't make it to television in the old days!" A treacherous little voice in my head kept whispering doubts, though, insisting that announcing a host of ideas from the aborted season 23 wasn't exactly an auspicious beginning. You see, I remember the target novelisations; or, more specifically, I remember glancing at them and thinking with more than a hint of disbelief, "well, thank the gods we got Trial of a Time Lord" (!?!).
My fears seemed justified when I bought a subscription to the season and listened to Mission to Magnus. I may yet try writing a review of that monstrosity, but the truth is that after having it for months I haven't had the tenacity to finish it. Leviathan was full of interesting ideas but the execution felt so off and ill-conceived in a number of ways that I have to wonder what the production team was really thinking.
Nevertheless, I was very interested in The Hollows of Time for a couple of reasons. I think Chris Bidmead writes fascinating stories, even if they don't always seem to come off right, and not only is this piece written by the man himself, it purported to be a sequel of sorts to the season 21 highlight Frontios.
Well, The Hollows of Time is not well and truly a sequel to Frontios, but it does happen to be the best of the Lost Stories range thus far. Lest it seem that this be faint praise given some of my criticisms, which I'll get to in a few paragraphs, I'll explain what the story does right, and how original it actually is in a couple of ways.
I actually had to sit in silence after the story was over for a minute, not because, as is often the case with heavy drama, I was emotionally taxed and utterly bowled over by an ingenious script, but because I simply couldn't believe the boldness of what Big Finish had done here, and I wasn't even sure how much I approved of it. While the commentary tracks on the discs indicate that this was originally to be a rather visual story, and though there are many bits of expository dialogue shoehorned into the script that occasionally feel a little contrived and unfortunate, I think that were this story produced for television it would have been rather conventional and not worthy of a great deal of comment. Because of the audio format, and because of apparent "rights issues", there were certain things that Big Finish simply could not get away with without making serious alterations to the script, and thus a couple of new things are tried that the original TV series would probably never have attempted, at least, not in 1985/86.
In the first place, the Doctor and Peri are actually in the TARDIS for the entire duration of the play, recounting hazily remembered bits of an adventure that took place in their recent past. Why are their memories so foggy? They don't know, and in fact, though there are a couple of hints (bit of a spoiler here, I suppose), neither do we ever find out for certain! This makes the exposition actually seem more natural than usual, since one character always has to jog the memory of the other as to what really went on, and it also makes the verisimilitude of certain reported events somewhat questionable. Whenever something happens that obviously shouldn't be heavy on dialogue, we go back to the TARDIS and have it explained for us, more or less. Most of the time, this works pretty well, and you have to admit it's a hell of a lot better than people yelling "AAAAAH! I?M BEING DRAGGED UNDERGROUND!! I'M DROPPING THE TEA KETTLE! I'M IN SPACE AND HANGING ON FOR DEAR LIFE!"
The other area in which The Hollows of Time proves rather unique is in its handling of the villain, and this is definitely linked to the strange memory loss and necessity for flashbacks I mentioned in the previous paragraph. I must admit that when the play ended on its particular note my jaw was on the floor. The Doctor and Peri leave the village of Hollowdean, she believing that they've "saved the day" while the Doctor seems to have his doubts, neither of them actually being aware of the nature of the force responsible for their travails! Certainly, part of the reason the Doctor is so utterly maddened by the gaps in his memory (you can practically feel the frustration pouring out of Colin Baker's voice over this... very well done) is because he knows, and we know, that he ought to know what all this is really about.
The clues are all over the place, but I must confess that the most obvious calling card is something I didn't even pick up on until listening to the commentary track, at which point I shook my head and thought to myself that if, knowing what I know and having no imposed memory blocks, I didn't shout an instant "aha! so that's who is responsible!", I can't exactly blame the Doctor for being "too dense" to figure it out. Anyway, after much reflection, I have decided that I really like this mystery, and I wish Doctor Who did this sort of thing more often. There's an old story by Mark Platt from, I believe, one of the Virgin decalogs, in which the Master concocts a scheme of dominance over time and space or some such thing, and gets foiled by the Doctor without even realising that he's crossed paths with his nemesis in a roundabout way, the beauty of the story being that most of it is from the Master's point of view. Stories that involve Daleks are often most insidious and creepy when we're shown what effects the creatures have on the world around them but see little of them in action. Enigma is a powerful draw and, while it's easy to plunge over the edge from imbuing a powerful sense of mystery into sloppy "I can't be bothered" sort of writing, for the most part The Hollows of Time avoids simply being clumsily frustrating.
I'm afraid, though, that it's not entirely excused. Some more answers, or maybe background, would have been nice and would have helped the story a good deal. I'm still not sure what it is that the villain was actually trying to do... build a big gravity engine that could crush whole planets? What is all the business with time corridors really about? Why does the villain need a village full of followers, setting up some kind of religious cult of which the audience never learns much of anything? At a guess, the villagers pour money into the cult's coffers, allowing the purchase of much advanced scientific equipment for the Reverend FoxFoxwell's experiments... but really, the villain should be more resourceful than that and it's hard to believe that such a grand setup is really about money. Perhaps he just finds it amusing. Still, I would have liked to have seen more of the cult in action, and less of Simon and the shrill housekeeper or whatever she is, Mrs. Streeter, a truly unnecessary character if there ever was one. More of Professor Stream would have been ok, too. I mean, he's so mysterious and introduced early on, and then fades away so completely into the background that everybody seems to literally forget about him. That is clearly a signpost that he must be up to something suspicious, right?
And really, the misappropriation of time is actually my biggest beef with the story. What the author, or production team, chooses to focus on to tell their tale is not necessarily what I'd focus on if the story were in my hands, and of course that's how a lot of fanfiction and other atrocities happen, isn't it? Seriously though, the biggest cop-out concerns the Gravis, which, as this is nominally supposed to be a sequel to Frontios, I should be able to mention here without breaking the spoiler-killing convention. To say that this sly and manipulatively selfish creature is underused in The Hollows of Time is an understatement the size of a quantum gravity engine. The villain's henchman picks the Gravis up from the uninhabited planet on which the Doctor dropped him on Frontios, presumably takes him far back in time to twentieth-century Earth, and drops him at the centre of the gravity wave generators he's so carefully set up. The Doctor decides he needs to converse with the big caterpillar thing, and we think, "Ah boy, this might be dangerous; I bet the Gravis is pretty angry about having been left on that desolate planet for who-the-hell-knows-how-many-centuries. He probably wants to destroy the Doctor more than ever!" Only, we then fade to the TARDIS and the Doctor simply tells Peri how the conversation went! No antagonism, no atmosphere, no mystery... frankly, it sucks, so forget all about this being a sequel to Frontios, really. That was certainly a major waste of opportunity and, in my mind, a large let-down, considering that much squandered time actually seems to exist in the play.
Things move so slowly in the opening half, too, that when they really pick up in a mad rush toward the end it all gets totally jumbled and, again, it feels as though the wrong things are emphasised. I do have a theory about the time corridor and the villain's need for the Doctor's TARDIS; it suggests that more was going on here than is immediately obvious and that the Doctor, far from being a man on a holiday who happened to stumble upon a nefarious plot and stop it in the nick of time, was actually very much at the centre of the villain's plan. How else to explain the memory blocks? I will stick by this assertion, because I prefer not to believe that Big Finish once again dropped the ball on a fairly intelligent script by leaving too many loose ends around and coming up with sloppy explanations for events that make no sense on reflection or are just poorly paced in general.
But really, the leisurely pace of the early sections of the tale in particular are perhaps to blame for things feeling rather awry later on. There's not really a sense of danger at all until near the very end of episode one, though there's certainly some mystery and a rather ominous feeling that never quite results in the revelation it perhaps should presage. Indeed, there's even a rather annoying false scare here, when the housekeeper comes in to remove the tea things and accidentally loses Foxworth's Tractator shell. The gravitas with which Foxworth insists that they mustn't touch it, and how carefully he tries to pick it up... well, I was expecting something along the lines of the Yeti stories, with the spheres rolling across the floor in preparation for something really nasty, but nope... all that happens is that the Reverend's machine starts going crazy in some obscure way. This scene is so deliberated, so long-winded that it seems it must surely mean something, but the payoff is, sad to say, rather inconsequential. We also get some confusing stuff with the Doctor floating around in space in the early moments of episode two, which feels like padding and is too talky by far; that's something a story with this much enigma and underplayed mystery can't seem to afford. Why not just have the Doctor explain in the TARDIS what happened, so we can get some more varied flashback scenes?
It's interesting to me that most of these stories were in fact intended to fit into TV season 23, because they actually make Doctor Who seem more like a children's programme than ever in some ways; it feels as though these stories were in part written as a reaction to complaints about season 22 becoming too violent. Every story thus far has included children in the cast. The bloodshed seems a bit toned down and although Leviathan could be considered an exception to this I suppose, it still has a kid and was actually intended to be a part of season 22. The regulars in particular seem to be spending a little more time than usual pontificating to the audience about something or other. It doesn't quite feel like the Doctor Who I love, or maybe it's just that it doesn't entirely feel like the sixth Doctor era and so I'm having a little trouble coming to terms with it. The Hollows of Time even includes a pet robot turtle! Thankfully, the little thing wasn't overused, but it must be sacrificed in the end, and both Peri and Simon seem rather attached to it! This reminds me of Clash of the Titans and that ridiculously cute owl, which seems as though it was put into the script just to make kids go "aww, cute, mummy I want one!!!"
But hey, back to the good points I think, or at least unambivalent ones. The characters and acting on display here are fantastic. Susan Sheridan plays both the housekeeper and Simon and I've never heard a woman do a better impression of a ten-or-so-year-old boy. It helps that Simon's part is actually decently written. The Reverend Foxwell is another old friend of the Doctor's, and seems a likeable elder fellow; he doesn't really get many great lines or character moments but somehow he's a pleasure to have around. It's also pretty cool, I must admit, to find a member of the clergy who also happens to be a scientific genius and spends his nights in a workshop doing research into artificial intelligence, and nobody even says "blasphemy!" once; pretty refreshing, even for an atheist like me. The chauffeur is very mysterious and, as it turns out, mean and nasty in the extreme, and he is played with a great deal of relish. We don't see much of Jane, but she has a sexy voice, and her fate is actually the one shocking moment of the play as we're led to believe that she's not really the innocent that she appears to be; the way the villain plays with her and the Doctor and company, and then subverts our expectations is positively sadistic and in keeping with the bastard's character. I am heavily reminded of a certain other tale by the same author.
Unsurprisingly, though, the regulars are the highlight performances here. Peri is not quite what she is in the normal Big Finish range, but is closer to her wide-eyed, rather-out-of-her-depth television persona. She gets some great scenes with Simon where she shows her resourcefulness and courage, though, and it seems that she has more than a hint of practical maternalism, judging by this story and the two preceding ones (I still haven't listened to The Nightmare Fair; considering Magnus, d'you think I dare?). The sixth Doctor is great, as usual, but he is positively electrifying in his addled scenes in the TARDIS. You can practically sense his pacing around, trying to figure out what was going on and what was done to him and why. He keeps focussing on the time rotor for some reason and chanting "up and down, up... and down", unnerving Peri, and you can just about see him frowning ferociously or maybe chewing on his lip in a childish but somehow intense manner. At any moment I expected him to leap up and trumpet wildly, "Of course! That's it! Oh no!!! It's worse than I thought!" and, at that point, I might just have jumped and shouted along with him.
There it is then: the first story I can recommend with only a few reservations from the Lost Stories range, even without having actually listened to that first play (I know what it's about and I frankly can't expect much). The most appealing stuff is the sense of mystery involved, and the possibility for fans to theorise and even leave the way open for future stories developing on the ideas set forth here. I think that the best Doctor Who stories are the ones that leave you thinking ferociously about what just happened and what could happen given a few alternative angles. This certainly isn't top-grade Who, but the uniquely daring nature of the story means that it definitely leaves an impression and you'll be thinking afterwards, "Wow, what was all that about, really?" Doctor Who certainly needed more of this kind of enigma in the 80s (well, before stuff like Ghost Light came about, anyway), and I think it still needs it today, both in the television series and in the Big Finish productions. This sort of science fiction really should attempt to convey a strong sense of wonder and it's nice to see that, despite the fact that Bidmead's scripts are often overloaded with incomprehensible technobabble, he really hasn't forgotten this notion at all. About that technobabble, though, I'm afraid it's pretty heavy here. I can make a lot more sense out of Logopolis, let's put it that way. Ah well... definitely worth a listen or two or three even, given its obfuscative nature, and a story that I'd play for my Who-loving friends just to observe their bewildered reactions.