Saturday, February 26, 2011

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Haunting of Thomas Brewster"

It's my first review of a true Big Finish original audio drama! That's right, no joint effort with the BBC, no flash animation on the computer, just a CD. "The Haunting of Thomas Brewster" was produced in 2008.

As I've mentioned before, Big Finish had and still has the license from the BBC to create Doctor Who audio stories. They began doing so in 1999 with their first story "The Sirens of Time" which featured the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors teaming up for the story. Nothing like starting with a bang with a multi-Doctor story.

This was also something of a way of letting listeners know what they would be doing -- which was mostly past Doctor stories featuring these three. Shortly after "Sirens of Time" Big Finish also added the Eighth Doctor to their roster. While most of their stories have been Fifth, Sixth, Seventh or Eighth Doctor tales the company has expanded and did a range of adventures featuring former companion Sarah Jane Smith (before the BBC ended up doing something similar by spinning off a TV series for the character), a series set on Gallifrey where former companion and Time Lady Romana (actress Lalla Ward) became Time Lord President and former companion Leela (actress Louise Jameson) became Romana's personal bodyguard and the two had to weather Gallifreyan political intrigues, and even a series that featured rotating companions telling stories of unchronicled adventures with the Doctor.

Also, as was mentioned before in my review of "Real Time" the idea behind the audios is that they take place in between the adventures fans saw on TV. In the case of "The Haunting of Thomas Brewster" the Fifth Doctor is traveling only with Nyssa which places this story as taking place somewhere between the TV episodes "Time Flight" (in which the Doctor accidentally left Tegan behind back on Earth) and "The Arc of Infinity" (in which the Doctor picked Tegan back up).

Now then, shall we go a'haunting?

The Plot: In Victorian London Thomas Brewster is orphaned at a young age when his mother commits suicide by jumping off a bridge into the river Thames. Abandoned by relatives Thomas grows up and is caught up in the horrible and broken system for dealing with the poor as well as those who live on the edges of poverty, society and legality. But Thomas is not like countless others -- his life seems to be haunted by a strange, blond haired man, a pretty young woman, and a tall, blue box. Oh, and Thomas is haunted by something else -- the spectral image of his mother begging him to save her. Only Thomas's mother is more than she seems and if Thomas obeys her wishes he may be condemning the entirety of planet Earth to a horrible future.

My Take: There are things that this story does exceedingly well, and there are things that it does not so well.

Obviously, with this being an audio story visuals are not a problem and the writer takes advantage of this by having the villains of this piece be creatures seemingly made of smoke or mist. Also, there is no need to try to find locations or build sets that resemble Victorian London and it's environs -- all of that is left up to our imaginations with just a few lines of dialogue to set the stage for us.

When one does not have visuals, though, the sound effects have to be stronger in order to make up for it... and here is where things sometimes work and sometimes don't. There are things which come through very clearly -- for example, during an attack by the mist creatures church bells sound strangely and ominously. At another point foghorns sound along the Thames as Brewster and his friend try to row to safety -- and we hear the sound of water and oars. Other things, however, such as a scene set in the early Victorian subway system don't ring quite so true. The voices never sound as if they were underground and the sounds of the trains don't seem right either.

I also had a problem with the music here. The composer opted for the most part to try to ape the music of the TV series during Peter Davison's (the Fifth Doctor) time on the series. During this time period the series relied heavily on synthesizer and electronic music -- which just doesn't fit as well with the Victorian setting of this tale. For another thing, the composer relies on just a few musical cues and one gets really, really tired of hearing the same little fiddly tune being repeated again and again.

As for the plot... eh, I had some issues. The writer here did an excellent, really, truly excellent job of capturing Victorian London in all of it's squalor. The slang terms ring true as does the life Brewster leads going from poor house orphanage to "apprentice" to a river scavenger. The Doctor also revels in the science of the time. The characters are also, while drawn with broad strokes, very entertaining and seem fairly true to their time period -- from Brewster himself to his friend Pickens to the river scavenger, to the Doctor's Scottish assistant Robert Mackintosh, which he acquires while being forced to live in Victorian London for a year.

The way the writer plays with time and time travel is also nicely done. We have the Doctor getting stranded in Victorian London for a year and we get multiple trips to the past and present and elements of the Doctor setting up time loops. For example, at one point Brewster and his scavenger cohorts find the TARDIS washed up from the Thames where it has been trapped in the mud for over 30 years. But where is the Doctor and Nyssa? And why is the TARDIS there 30 years ago? Later the Doctor must use this version of the TARDIS when his present version is stolen and then must send this version of the TARDIS back 30 years so it will be where it needs to be when he needs to use it... it's all very twisty and turn-y and time travel-y and if you think about it too much your head will explode and that's always fun in Doctor Who.

There are also lots of little in-jokes -- tips of the hat to both the history of Doctor Who as well as tributes to the works of Charles Dickens. There is also some really nice banter among all the characters and the writer particularly seemed to have a good handle on the Fifth Doctor -- showing him as ever the scientist -- ever fascinated by all things scientific even if they be primitive by his standards. Showing the Doctor's occasional forays into getting off the subject and being distracted and also the Doctor's gentle side -- the part of him that remains haunted by the cruel vagaries of the universe and the propensity of people around him to end up dead.

The biggest problems come with Brewster, the villains, and the ending. Brewster is a very interesting character and he actually narrates most of the story so we become well acquainted with him. And it is a little different twist to get a Doctor Who story from the viewpoint of a more "ordinary" person who has (at least at first) very little contact with the Doctor and his life but the problem is that it goes on a little too much. Brewster starts to slide a little bit towards being a "pet character" or a "Marty Stu" (which is the male variation on a Mary Sue character). Brewster actually kind of overshadows the Doctor and the plot and in the end really doesn't leave the Doctor with much to do at all!

The other issue is with the villains. We never get a real explanation for Brewster's mother -- is she a real figure who puts on an image of Brewster's mother pulled out of Brewster's memories? Or is she wholly nothing more than a psychic projection? And the other antagonists -- the story plays them as beings who *might* take over the Earth in an alternate 2008 and who are trying to manipulate the past to make *sure* that their version of 2008 actually comes to pass. But to do that they have to *know* that they are only a potential future and then they have to have the technology to reach back through time to manipulate things and we're never properly informed how they can do all that. In point of fact, we don't really know who they are or where they come from other than an alternate 2008. Are they alien beings which conquered the Earth in this potential reality? What are their aims? Their goals? Why Earth? We never get any of this information -- the group never has a leader and they never even speak. We know nothing about them other than... they're made out of mist, they suffocate people, and they're scary 'boogy-boogy-boogy!' It's seriously hard to give a care or even be that scared by monsters that you know nothing about. Although, I will give props to the writer for integrating the monsters into the setting -- London pollution in the Victorian era was horrible and fog often combined with smog to create a noxious pea soup that actually killed the elderly and those with respiratory problems. So having alien creatures which are, in effect, a killer London fog is actually pretty darn clever.

Finally, there is the ending. I try, even though I say my reviews are spoilery, not to give away too much about the ending most of the time but this time I'm afraid I do have to give away a bit because the ending is incomprehensible. Above I mentioned a stable time loop -- the Doctor losing one version of his TARDIS and going and getting another version seemingly left behind at an earlier era and then arranging for his current version to be send back in time so it will be there when he needs it. The show has done similar things more recently. There was the mini episode "Time Crash" in which the Tenth Doctor accidentally met his Fifth incarnation and it caused a space-time crisis which the Tenth Doctor fixed then announced that he knew how to fix it because he remembered being his fifth self and seeing his tenth self fix the problem. The loop has no opening but it is closed and it actually works -- a self-perpetuating time loop. The problem with the ending of "The Haunting of Thomas Brewster" is that Brewster seemingly *changes* his past. Nyssa and the Doctor tell him that everything which happened to him still happened -- it was part of his past -- but now the aliens would never conquer Earth -- at any time. But that makes no sense! If he made it so the aliens didn't contact him and feed him information then events *couldn't* play out the way they originally had and all the people who died wouldn't have died and.... AAARRRRGGGHHHH!!!! Makes. No. Sense! A stable time loop only works if you're not actually altering history! This. Alters. History!

Okay. That's over. Looking at the performances, there is no getting around the fact that Peter Davison's voice has aged. The 30-some-odd years that have passed since he first played the Doctor have left changes -- his voice is a little deeper and a little rougher and it is disconcerting at first for a fan who has the memory of the sound of the Fifth Doctor's voice frozen in amber at that time period in the 1980's. After a little bit, though, you get used to the difference and you realize that Peter Davison is still able to *play* the Doctor as he was then -- capturing the nuances of the characterization if anything actually better than ever. Sarah Sutton as Nyssa has suffered less the changes of time on her voice. As such it is very easy to accept her portrayal of the character. Although it is a shame that Sutton's Nyssa isn't really given a terrible lot to actually do in this story. The voice actors for Brewster and Mackintosh also do a tremendous job -- really getting the accents for the time periods just right without overplaying them into stereotype.

Taken on the whole, "The Haunting of Thomas Brewster" is a great story from a Victoriana standing. It captures the spirit and flavor of it's time period and provides a fun little twist on a ghost story theme, playing with various Gothic elements and marrying them (sometimes awkwardly) to a Sci-Fi sidecar. There are, however, gaping holes in the plot, things which don't make sense, not enough for the Doctor and Nyssa to actually do in the story, and the villains just don't get enough time in the story. If one wants to get a flavor of what a Big Finish audio is like you can do a heck of a lot better than this one. If you're into Victoriana though then "The Haunting of Thomas Brewster" is maybe worth at least one listen through but certainly not worth a repeat.

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