Monday, July 23, 2012
The Holy Terror
We can't talk about this story without first mentioning its companion Frobisher. Originally, a companion to the 6th Doctor from the comics, I didn't know a thing about him prior to this audio. For those who don't know, he's an alien shape shifter who spends most of his time looking like a penguin! When not traveling with the Doctor, he's apparently a private eye in New York city! How completely, barking mad! Like (apparently) many fans, I was quite skeptical about a story featuring such a seemingly silly companion from the comics, but it ends up working out brilliantly. Frobisher is played with much aplomb by (Canadian actor) Robert Jezek (previously heard in "Red Dawn") even if I don't find his New York accent that believable (it's still light years ahead of he southern accent he will deliver in a future story. More on that when we get to it). The truth is, this story wouldn't work nearly as well with any other companion.
The story takes place in some sort of medieval-ish castle. The opening scene sets one of the tones of the story right away when an old man is roused in a prison cell and told he was arrested in the middle of the night for blasphemy. When he is told about the painful death he is about to receive for his crimes, unless he wants to repent, he wisely repents right away! He is then freed (only after filling out several forms). This scene is hilarious, and it feels more like you're listening to a Monty Python sketch than a Doctor Who audio. There is a lot of comedy throughout the script, but there's much more to the story then just laughs.
The story explores the notion of the Emperor as a being of divinity, and what happens to the society's religion when one Emperor dies and another takes his place. It also explores the notion of how human language corrupts humans and how a god can be created by never allowing a new born to hear the language of humans. That by living in isolation, the child creates his own language and achieves a closer connection to the heavens because he would speak the language of God. (This idea actually intrigued King James I.) The consequences of one actually carrying out this quest for divinity end up beyond terrifying.
The Doctor and Frobisher end up stuck (after the TARDIS apparently goes on strike) in this castle where the people worship their Emperor as a god . There are tons of traditions around the cycle of crowning a new Emperor after the old one commits the sacrilege of dying (proving that they were not in fact, divine after all). These traditions are pretty hilarious, with the "proof" of the new Emperor's divinity, to the treatment of the former Emperor's widow. But, there's also a disturbing element to the pointless cycle this society is stuck in. Every time a new Emperor is crowned, the Emperor's brother tries to overthrow him. In this case, the new Emperor's brother Childeric, ends up making his child divine by never letting him hear a word of English, until it's time for his plan to usurp the throne. Once the child is unleashed, the story becomes terrifying.
I can't say enough about the cast for this story. They are simply magnificent. Sam Kelly is brilliant as Eugene Tacitus and is both hilarious and disturbing. Peter Guiness just oozes menace with his voice as the plotting Childeric. Stefan Atkins is hilarious as the unwilling new Emperor Pepin. And, let's not forget about the regulars. Jezek is just a riot as Frobisher, and the chaos he causes within the kingdom is a delight to hear. Finally, Colin Baker is magnificent as the Doctor. Any dislike I may have carried over for his TV characterization of the Doctor is now obliterated by this story. The scene when he goes back to confront the godly Boy is wonderful. He knows that if he is correct on his theory of who and what the Boy is, he will likely be killed. The interplay between the Boy and the Doctor gives me goosebumps as you can hear the controlled, utter fear in the Doctor's voice.
What's most amazing is how creepy and funny this story manages to be. That's what I think ends up making this story so brilliant: Shearman balances the two perfectly. It would be so easy for all the humor (and believe me, the humor is still around almost to the very end of the story) to undermine the horror, but it never does. You go from chuckling to shuddering from scene to scene, and the experience is fantastic. The ending is also pretty moving, and wonderfully ties back to the first TARDIS scene between the Doctor and Frobisher. If you've never heard "The Holy Terror", you have quite simply denied yourself one of the finest Doctor Who stories ever crafted.