Monday, July 19, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Ghosts of N-Space"

Doctor Who "died" in 1989 when the show was officially put on hiatus but for all practical purposes cancelled. Like a monster in a horror movie though it kept rising from its grave.... Only without all the gore. Or the slaughtering of sexually active teenagers. And with the Doctor not being a monster. Or evil.... Okay, so it isn't the best metaphor but you get the drift.

In 1993 Barry Letts, who had been producer for most of Jon Pertwee's tenure, was tapped to write a whole new audio adventure. Here in America audio dramas had died out in the late 1940's to early 1950's as TV began to supplant radio. In Great Britain, however, the tradition held on and in fact is alive and very well still today. These are generally high-quality productions with full casts and audio effects which air on radio stations. For this 1993 story Letts adapted an idea he had for a Third Doctor script which was never produced in the 1970's. The finished audio drama was title "Paradise of Death" and featured Jon Pertwee, Elizabeth Sladen, and Nicholas Courtney all reprising their roles as the Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart respectively.

The story proved popular enough that Letts ended up writing a second audio drama, "The Ghosts of N-Space" which was broadcast in 1995. Again Pertwee, Sladen and Courtney reprised their roles. It would be the last time Pertwee played the Doctor as he would pass away several months later.

Both of these audio stories were supposed to be set during Pertwee's original run in the 1970's -- somewhere between the TV stories "The Time Warrior" and "Planet of the Spiders". "The Ghosts of N-Space" can be further pinpointed as taking place somewhere between "Death to the Daleks" and "Planet of the Spiders" since Sarah Jane mentions recently running up against the Daleks here.

The Plot: The Brigadier takes some personal time when he is summoned to Italy by a distantly related uncle. Upon arrival he learns that the uncle, owner of a small island off the coast of Sicily and the Castillo on the island, is having trouble from an American mob boss, Max Vilmio, who wants the island and everything on it and will stop at nothing to get it. The Brig also discovers that the Castillo is haunted by a ghost and now plagued by demonic creatures! Concerned, the Brig calls the Doctor to come and investigate.

Meanwhile, Sarah Jane Smith, deciding to give up journalism and write a novel, has traveled to Italy with her friend and former co-worker Jeremy Fitzoliver. When she spies the Brig she and Jeremy decide to follow him and soon become embroiled in the events at the Castillo.

The Doctor discovers that sometime in the past someone opened a rift between our dimension and a limbo dimension known as N-Space. N-Space is populated by demonic creatures and the spirits of the dead who do not "cross over". He reveals that they need to uncover when the rift was first opened and seal it otherwise it will soon open wide and unleash the demonic denizens of N-Space into the world.

As the Doctor and Sarah Jane travel back and forth in time they uncover tragic events in the Castillo's past and learn that Vilmio is more than what he seems and far more dangerous than could ever be imagined. Simultaneously, in the present, the Brig, his uncle, Jeremy, and a rag-tag group of defenders try to prepare for an attack by Vilmio and his men. If they fail the consequences will be catastrophic.

My Take: I really do hate to say something bad about a Doctor Who story. I'm no Precious Pollyanna but I usually try to offer constructive criticisms or at least find some good amidst something bad but THIS story... Oh, this is one of the worst stories ever written. Where do I start?!

As an audio drama there are no sets, costumes, camera work or visual effects to critique. On the flip side, though, voices are key to a good audio production. And the voices here are not great.

Pertwee does a good job and, surprisingly, age has not taken a really noticeable toll on his voice. There are a few places where one can tell his voice is not quite what it was but those moments are few and far between. Sladen, likewise, does a solid job although a few times she really over-plays a scene. Courtney, like Pertwee, does not seem to suffer too badly from age and he turns in a very even performance.

That, however, is the last of the good that can be said about the voices. The actor playing the Brig's uncle puts on the most broad, over-the-top, stereotypical Italian accent I've heard outside of Chico Marx.... only Chico was funny.

Also, I had actually thought it was impossible to create a really offensive American accent... I no longer think that. This story doesn't just produce one it produces TWO! Max Vilmio is a children's cartoon villain -- a caricature of a 1930's mobster and as such he cannot be taken seriously and never becomes much of a real threat. He's certainly not the calibre of the usual Doctor Who villains. The second bad accent award goes to the actress playing Vilmio's girlfriend, Maggie. Her also cartoonish, stereotypical, Brooklyn accent just grates on your nerves after 5 seconds. The other voice actors are not bad, just either really too earnest or too bland.

And then there is the script. Urg. The script... First of all, the characters just don't work as a whole. Vilmio, as I stated, never really becomes the menace he's supposed to be. Most of the 'tragic' characters in the past are either fluff-brained idiots or cardboard cut-outs so it is impossible to feel anything for their fate even though we are obviously supposed to. Fitzoliver, who Letts introduced in "Paradise of Death" is a perfect little idiot who is obviously meant to provide some comic relief... but of course he isn't funny and the script itself is so unintentionally funny it doesn't NEED comic relief. Most of the characters are as thin as paper dolls and the little depth we get is more like a 'drive by shooting' characterization. For example, there is a moment between Maggie and Jeremy after Maggie saves his life and we learn about her tragic, abusive childhood and the fact that she has long lived with the uncertain guilt that she might have caused the death of her abusive father. And then very quickly the moment is over, nothing more is said about the incident and Maggie's characterization doesn't change at all.

Even the regular cast does not fare too well as the independent-minded Sarah Jane Smith becomes a bit too much of an old-fashioned female companion with quite a bit of screaming, overemotionalism, and a ridiculous amount of reliance on the Doctor for everything. The Doctor spouts nonsense that is too much like spiritualism for the scientific Doctor. The Brigadier, someone who was usually skeptical of the Doctor's scientific theories, here swallows a load of guff that more like magic than science.

And that brings us to another problem. As I've said before, Doctor Who has long played more in the realm of science-fantasy than science-fiction but this story throws out the 'science' part of the science-fantasy and gives us pure fantasy. Oh, Letts makes some half-hearted attempt to dress things up in a little technobabble but it is thin and doesn't work at all. No matter what the whole story is filled with ghosts, poltergeists, alchemists, demons, hell, purgatory, and astral projection. I've got nothing against such subject matter in fiction... but it doesn't belong in Doctor Who plain and simple and it especially doesn't belong in a Third Doctor story.

The Italian setting serves no real purpose as it does not seem to add anything to the story and, aside from the Brig's Uncle Mario and a couple of supporting characters everyone else is either a terrible American or sounds a proper Brit. Plus, the script has to jump through hoops to give the Brig, a proud Scotsman, an Italian uncle.

There are also entirely too many coincidences. Huge points of the plot revolve around coincidences and Letts even tries to cover for these by introducing the ideas of serendipity and synchronicity to the story but it doesn't work. The amount of conveniences and coincidences required to make everything work stretch credulity until it snaps like a 20 year-old rubber band and on top of that it smacks of lazy or uninspired writing.

And, as a personal nitpick, there is a little swearing here which is just disconcerting because it doesn't feel like it suits the rest of the story. There is also a point where Vilmio calls Maggie a "dumb polack" in an ethnic slur which really goes beyond the pale.

Audio drama should have been a perfect fit for something like Doctor Who since it allows a script to be unfettered by the limitations of budget and special effects. A simple basic description and the listener can let their own imagination create the costumes and the sets and the special effects -- it's the cheapest type of production imaginable, the human mind is. And this, in particular, should have been a treat by bringing together Pertwee, Courtney and Sladen twenty years after they left the roles and giving fans an extra dose of the Third Doctor. Instead it all falls apart and dissolves into a mess. There is an extra layer of disappointment here as well since it was Pertwee's last turn as the Doctor. One can't help but wish he had gone out on a triumphant note.

Unless you are an ultra-fan or a completist it is best to just skip this story. Since the story has never officially been recognized as Doctor Who canon it's safe to just pretend like "The Ghosts of N-Space" never existed.

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