shivver13 (shivver13) wrote,

TDA "No Place" (review)

New Tenth Doctor Adventures from Big Finish! Review inside. I shouldn't have to give a spoiler warning, but here it is.

I hate to have to say this, but "No Place" was a big disappointment. Going into it, this audio had all the ingredients that should have made it great. It was written by James Goss, who did "Dead Air" and "Death and the Queen" and is one of my favorite DW authors. This story brings in Wilf and Sylvia, which is just heart-melting (well, Wilf anyway, perhaps not Sylvia ;) . I had not read the teaser for the story, so I had no idea what to expect going in, except that it must be set on Earth to involve Donna's family to any real extent.

The premise of the story was certainly novel. The main guest character, Justin, is the host of a home-improvement reality TV show. His guests renovate old "haunted" houses into modern homes, and his camera crew follows them to try to unearth evidence of the supernatural. This week, he's with the family of Dr. John Smith - his wife Donna, mother-in-law Sylvia, and gramps-in-law Wilf - renovating an old manor which had, in Donna's childhood, been a community centre. Thus, a good fraction of the dialogue was Justin doing the usual kind of voiceover you hear in this kind of show: "Today, we're in the music room of the old manor. Donna is hoping to turn this into a sun room where the family can enjoy summer afternoons. Let's see what she can do with cracked flooring..."

Justin is absolutely a skeptic: he doesn't believe in ghosts and spirits and aliens, and his aim on his show is to prove that everything that happens can be explained by common phenomena or by his guests trying to pull a hoax over him. As the filming goes on and things happen - discovering strange bones in the strange pit they unearth, whispering voices in dark rooms, oppressive presences that spooks his crewmen into fleeing, etc. - he becomes more and more convinced that the Doctor has concocted this whole thing, setting up the entire house to make it look like it was haunted.

Of course he's wrong. (And this is the major spoiler, though you really shouldn't have read this far if you didn't want to be spoiled.) The Doctor deduces that sometime centuries ago, a couple of aliens landed with the intention of helping the local populace, but the humans killed them, and their angered spirits have lingered, haunting the manor. When Justin was younger, he'd become caretaker of the manor when it was the community centre and the spirits latched onto him and drove him mad. Later in life, he'd recovered by blocking out the memories, and in his new career, the spirits had inadvertently helped him by causing the phenomena his cameras had captured while he was visiting all of these old houses. When Donna had seen his show, she remembered him as the kindly caretaker who'd gone mad and asked the Doctor to help him, by bringing him back to the manor to put the spirits to rest.

This story sounds exactly like the kind of DW story I love the most: one focused on the story of the guest character. So what went wrong?

I will say that the atmosphere was suitably spooky, with intense sequences of babbling voices and panicking crewmen. However, they were all rather short and strangely devoid of danger, which destroyed the tension. I never felt that any of the characters were actually in any peril, and that's probably the crux of the problem. It was rather obvious from the outset that though the Doctor didn't know what the exact problem was, he had a pretty good idea of it and never felt that there was anything actually harmful here right now. Similarly, Donna also had some idea that there wasn't anything that would eat them. Sylvia, of course, had no idea, so she got frightened when something happened, but as the listener, once you suspect that there isn't any real danger there, the spell is broken.

Justin was also a strangely vanilla character. Because the story hinged on revealing his history at the very end, no backstory came out about him during the first 45 minutes, and he didn't have much of a personality otherwise (other than firmly not believing in ghosts and aliens, a strange attitude in the era of Sycorax and Cyberman ghosts). Thus, though the story revolved around him, it wasn't engaging.

It did spend most of its time following him around, which meant less time for the Doctor, Donna, Wilf, and Sylvia, which should have been the audio's draw. I think the home-improvement show format, though not used exclusively through the story, is partly to blame. Having much of the conversation being done in a reality-show format, with the host asking questions of one or two characters at most, meant that there was little real interaction between the four recurring characters, and a lot of it was filtered through the marriage charade and what a person would say when he/she knows it's being filmed. Thus, there was little actual meaningful conversation or interaction between the main characters.

As an example, at one point, Justin is filming some work Wilf is doing and he expresses his belief that this is an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the Doctor. Wilf responds with a gorgeous little piece about how the Doctor can't just sit by and likes to help. I should go back and transcribe it, because it was beautiful. But that's really the point. It was a sound bite about the Doctor, a wonderful quote, but it wasn't an interaction with the Doctor. Similarly, Sylvia talks a lot about both the Doctor and Donna, but has very little screen time with them. It's really not what I envisioned when I heard that Wilf and Sylvia were in this audio.

That said, there was a bit of banter early on in the audio, when the Doctor and Donna are trying to pretend they're married, and the Doctor/Donna shippers are going to go crazy for it. There's also a point where Donna, again in response to Justin, says something to the effect of, "I suppose he is the love of my life" - a statement meaning that she's realizing how much the Doctor and what he is giving her means - but it also works as a tremendous amount of fanservice.

However, the sense of excitement and fun for the actors, which was so obvious in the first set of TDAs, was completely absent. A lot of it may have had to do with both the Doctor and Donna having to try to appear normal to keep Justin from suspecting anything, and this dampened the chemistry between the two. The need to keep the Doctor down-to-earth exacerbated another problem, that Mr. Tennant sounds less and less like his Doctor every year. His voice is noticeably lower and more growly than it was in 2009, or even when he recorded the first TDAs in 2015. With sedate dialogue, he's almost unrecognizable. This isn't a deal-breaker for me - after all, Peter Davison also sounds little like his Doctor but I have no problems with his audios - but it was a noticeable hurdle to enjoyment. Note: I've started listening to the second audio in the series, and both the chemistry and the Doctor's voice is much better.

All in all, I came out of this audio wondering what had just happened, why it had felt like I hadn't been listening to Doctor Who at all. There'd been no adventure, no witty dialogue and banter, no meaningful character development of either the main characters, the recurring characters, or the guest characters - none of the things that make the show great. Any one of the three would have been sufficient, but sadly, all were lacking. I suspect I'll like the audio more when I listen to it again, but that won't be any time soon.
Tags: doctor who, review

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