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I am a massive fan of Big Finish, and can safely say that I know good from bad. I needn’t though, because most of the plays they produce are spectacular. The weaker ones tend to suffer from problems such as having too many ideas or being too flat. But the infamous 2003 audio play Nekromanteia takes things to a new level.
Nekromanteia is written by author Austin Atkinson, who had had limited writing experience when he was commissioned to produce a play. Being a massive Doctor Who fan, he decided to make this appeal to those who saw the show as a child’s show. His vision was to write an adult story that was gritty and violent, as well as engaging and interesting. What he did produce was certainly gritty and violent, but not the latter.
The story is basically about a corporation who wants to enslave a planet, and comes up against conflict, notably a cult of witches. The Fifth Doctor and his companions Peri and Erimem are introduced to the plot and fight to stay alive as they are surrounded by battle and havoc. While that description sounds epic, the actual story is not that engaging.
1. The characters. The characterisations of Peri and Erimem are very far from how they are portrayed in other stories. Peri is shown to be whiny, cynical and bitchy, as well as spiteful. She puts down characters and also makes innuendoes on occasions. This is very distant from the caring, kind and cautious young American we see in other stories. Erimem is shown as meek, weak and shy, which is very much a juxtaposition to the warrior Egyptian Pharoah we seen in other stories. What’s painfully obvious is that Nicola Bryant and Caroline Morris are trying their best with the script, trying to characterise the characters as they have been previously. On occasions, Nicola Bryant even puts emphasis on different parts of a sentence to try to give it another meaning (a line more faithful to Peri’s character), but what was originally intended is still obvious. Another problem with the story is the effect the Doctor and his companions have on the story - nothing. They literally do not need to be there, and the story would still play out exactly the same. The only reason it appears they are there is as a point-of-view. For example, we learn about the machinations of the corporations through their eyes, and then we learn of the motives of the witches from their perspective, but when it comes to a bit of a plot, there’s nothing. Every action they make is inconsequential to the storyline, except for a few occasions in which they help supporting characters to get to certain places. The supporting characters don’t do much either. Because the main characters don’t do much, it may sound like the supporting characters are full of depth, and influence the plot in many ways. Only, they don’t. The characters feel like caricatures and tropes, for example, the antihero, the villain, the innocent one who messes up etc. None of them have a scrap of a personality, and they feel more like parts of the plot than characters. The worst part is that most of them don’t do much to the plot either. Except for two of them, they all just stand around arguing, or shooting at things for no reason.
2. The Descriptions. Because this story is an audible medium, you expect for the author to go out of their way and have a character say ‘hey look, it’s a _____’. But in this story, nope. Most of the atmosphere and description comes from the sound effects and the music. The sound effects are alright, but are deliberately turned up too loud to deafen the listener. This may be just to make the story seem more realistic, but actually takes the viewers out of the story. The music is really quite terrible though. At the beginning, when the main characters visit the market, there is this rather strange repetitive music that sounds like an Asian snake charmer tune played on what sounds to be a kazoo. After about two seconds in, the music gets to your brain and you want it to go away. The other incidental music is this loud track of deep, doom-laden, dark crescendos that swamps every scene it can reach. This music is designed to be scary and add atmosphere, but it honestly makes the story feel like a melodrama. It also tells you absolutely nothing about what’s going on.
3. The Grittiness. I have no problem with Doctor Who going into the realms of violence, sex and drugs, if it is done in the right context and respectfully. What I mean by that is that it needs to not be seen to glorify it. But this story goes way over the top for no good reason. There is much violence in this story, and the sounds of flesh ripping is common (unfortunately, the same sound effect is used again and again...) and there is much blood spilled. But the effect this has on the plot? Nothing. The Doctor also gets his head ripped off and his body eaten by cackling witches. This violence is just far too real and when it is effected on our main character, it just doesn’t work. The sex in this story is overwhelmingly shocking. Peri spends most of the story naked, with male characters gawking at her at every opportunity. The worst example is the rape of Erimem. I swear, if this was done the same way again on any television show, this would get such a backlash. Basically, without dwelling too much on it, Erimem continuously doesn’t show the character Harlon the respect he feels entitled too, so he rapes her as a way of communicating his power. We don’t see if Erimem fought him off, which, as an Egyptian Queen, she should have been able to. The character in question, Harlon, is the anti-hero, so we are supposed to be supporting him, so it doesn’t make sense that he’s forcing himself on the companion. And the worst thing, it doesn’t affect Erimem’s character development in any way, shape or form. And even worse, it doesn’t affect the plot in any way. It’s almost like Atkinson had a simple plot which would have worked, but he threw all the gritty stuff in to make it interesting.
4. The End. This story’s problem is solved by the self-sacrifice of a cat. I kid you not. To be honest, it tells us a lot about the quality of the story!
In conclusion, Nekromanteia suffers from an array of problems that renders it one of the worst Doctor Who stories in any medium. Luckily, we won’t be seeing anymore stories like this, as Peter Davison requested the writer never write for Big Finish again.