...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Day 2048: DOCTOR WHO: The Feast of the Drowned


We have listened to another audiobook about Dr Who and Rose's adventures. This one was SCARY!

I think it was MORE scary because I was IMAGINING all of the monsters rather than watching them on the telly. They are scarier in my fluffy head! Anyway, I will let Daddy Richard tell you all about it…

This was so much better all all round.

I think that the quality may have lifted David Tennant as well – perhaps, like Patrick Troughton, he is an actor whose best work is inspired by the material – as his reading of the Doctor came across much more as a performance in character, and in general all of the characters felt much more alive. Not that either David or Pat are ever bad, as such, but occasionally you feel that they are doing it as a job of work rather than living it. Especial kudos this time goes to David's "Baron Silas Greenback" voice for sinister Commodore Crayshaw, which was both deeply creepy and strangely hilarious at the same time.

"The Feast of the Drowned" is a very traditional Doctor Who form: a classic ghost story with a science-rational twist. The premise of relatives haunted by their drowned loved ones is (probably literally) as old as the sea, but here is it retold with deliciously creepy imagery - delivered with relish by Mr Tennant – that quickly grips and intrigues.

Why are the ghosts appearing how are they doing it, who is behind them? Stephen Cole has clearly thought this through carefully as all of these questions are explored over the course of the tale – some of the answers are stock sci-fi clichés of course, but they are pleasingly deployed and well mixed with new ideas and perspectives.

Clues are nicely laid up in the early part of the story and the pace is well designed so that the Doctor remains just a little ahead of the audience – always the best way: if you are left thinking "ooh, I could have got there" but are still behind him it makes you think of him as a smart cookie; if he just knows the answer because of his outer space brain then you think he's just a show-off (or that the author is cheating!).

We are also given a very visual and richly describable nature to the more monstrous "water ghosts" (for want of a better term) who first appear about a quarter of the way in and gradually build in threat as a good monster should. Their ability to turn into a rush of water and reform – like a faster and more thrilling T-1000 – makes them very novel for Doctor Who (compared to most of the TV monsters that, notoriously, lumber). In the included interview, Steve confesses that he came up with the concept at least partly because it was something that TV series probably couldn't do. At the same time, of course, he's done the Robert Holmes trick of taking something so familiar that you forget it's there and turning it into a deadly threat: suddenly every dripping tap or discoloured patch of carpet is terrifying!

There's still a bit of outrageous hand-waving (space salts, indeed!) but it matters not, because you have followed the Doctor on a (fairly) logical path to arrive at the explanation. Unlike "The Stone Rose" the answer isn't "it's science that can do anything 'cos I say it can!" It also helps that the main thrust of the story is not a mystery of "how did that happen?" but a thriller of the "can they stop them in time" mould.

As you'd expect for a "trad" adventure, the story draws deeply on the rich legacy of Doctor Who's first twenty-six years. There are strong echoes of "The Sea Devils", "The Ark in Space" and "The Curse of Fenric", among others. That isn't a problem: the scenes that they echo are well remembered because they are iconic, and Steve reuses those memes to excellent effect.

Equally, he plays well the 2006 drinking game (how apt for such a watery tale!) with Ghosts in London providing a particularly strong resonance with the year's apparent themes of returning dead and emotional yearning. The story is entirely different from "Army of Ghosts" and yet still foreshadows it.

References for "impossible" and "oh my god" alongside scavenged alien technology also make appearances. Lose points if you took a drink for "I'm so sorry", though. Cheekily Steve gives the line to Rose as her first words in the novel.

He does an excellent job of writing for the Tenth Doctor, catching that quick as lightning mind and his ceaseless jabbering front over a deep strength and power, whether it is bluffing his way into Stanchion House only to find himself forced into the office he only claimed to be headed for, or when he's in the lab and under attack, or in the final confrontation. Rose too is recognisable as the strong and loving adventuress characterised by Billie Piper. This is the Doctor and Rose as we love them from the latter half of the 2006 season – even though the story obviously takes place before School Reunion again.

(Yes, it's another twenty-first century London story with Mickey as a guest, but somehow the scenario hasn't gotten old. I think it's that this is quite unlike the model of those TV episodes with this setting: rather like "Terror of the Zygons" is a UNIT story with a completely different zeitgeist.)

Apart from the regulars, the only real guest cast are Rose's friend Keisha, villainous Crayshaw and heroine-of-the-week Vida Swann who might as well be Grace Holloway with her serial numbers filed off. Great line though as Rose spots the Doctor approaching on a stolen out-of-control tug boat with another blonde: "where does he get them?" All the characters – even the watery ones – are fully fleshed out, with the possible exception of Keisha for reasons I'll mention in a moment. Even cameo characters, like Ann, another woman being haunted, or the cleaning lady detained by the security lockdown, avoid being written as ciphers, which is a nice bit of writing.

Having only listened to the abridged audio version, I had to turn to Alex to tell me if there are any crucial elements omitted. Jackie Tyler, I suspect, is the most obvious cut – after the Doctor she would surely be the closest "loved one" to receive a visitation from ghostly Rose, certainly before poor old tin dog Mickey, but she has been excised from the plot, which is a shame. We like a bit of Jackie! Alex also tells me that there is a stronger arc for Keisha, who has a history with Mickey and a more notable if less agreeable character. In the audio she is – I am sorry to have to say it – a bit wet.

Like "The Stone Rose", the two CD format is used to create a suitably gripping cliff-hanger when Rose herself appears as one of the ghosts. It's a terrific and suitably haunting moment, but there is a problem. As Alex pointed out straight away, this means that it's obvious that all the ghosts can be rescued since we know Rose cannot be dead. Still, most cliff-hangers are of the "how can they possibly escape that" variety and it doesn't spoil them to know that of course they will.

I must confess that I was not that impressed with "The Monsters Inside", Steve's Ninth Doctor adventure from last year, but with "The Feast of the Drowned" he's found his form.

Highest prise: this story fully deserves a place in the 2006 season. A great addition to the range.

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