❉ This is Season 18 in stealth mode; a fizzy, minty-fresh romp.
With Big Finish’s latest brace of adventures in their main Doctor Who range, we’re firmly in the neon-logo, spangly synth themed Doctor Who of the early ’80s. Each season of Doctor Who has its own distinct flavour and producer John Nathan-Turner’s first two years were no exception – as part of JN-T’s ‘new broom’ approach to the series – and Big Finish’s team finally get their hands on the toybox that is Season 18, the “prog rock concept album” season of Classic Who. Call me a trad fan but this particular listener has been anticipating an evocation of its motifs – entropy, decay and regeneration; fairytale kingdoms in decline; tonal elements foreshadowing Four’s imminent demise and regeneration… All that jazz.
But it wasn’t always like this. As Silent Scream writer James Goss noted in a recent issue of Doctor Who Magazine, the rather dour, sombre aesthetic of Season 18 steered by Christopher “H” Bidmead only kicks into gear with Full Circle – the self-aware sci-fi of The Leisure Hive is the most Hitchhikers-y episode not actually written by a man called Douglas, and Meglos is almost a throwback to the undergraduate panto of Season 17.
It’s in this ‘pre-entropy’ period of Season 18 that The Silent Scream takes place, with the burgundy-clad Doctor accompanied by Lalla Ward’s Romana and John Leeson’s K9. No Alzarian orphans or bearded, monastic elders in sight, although a nifty approximation of Powell and Kingsland’s jaunty, twinkly, squelchy analogue synth scores is delightfully present and correct.
So, if the Doctor sounds more fruity and cheerful than the haunted figure of the E-Space and Master trilogies, it’s not that out of place: And let’s not forget, in the Big Finish canon, our friendly neighbourhood Gallifreyans are fresh from a rendezvous with Jago & Litefoot, so little wonder the Doctor, his taste buds flavoured with all things theatrical, embraces the opportunity to meet a starlet of the silver screen, in this adventure set during the transition from silent to talkies.
Witness the Doctor breathlessly fangasming to faded starlet Loretta Waldorf (Pamela Salem), “Cinema is the chance to see the world through the eyes of a child and when you’re as old as I am that’s wonderful. Films can be magical.”
Even so, Doc 4 has form here. We’ve seen how the Fourth Doctor turns to goo when confronted with a grande dame (Think Amelias Ducat and Rumford), but his keen flattery turns out to be a feint, warning our damsel in distress (after namechecking Wilson, Keppel & Betty!) “Something is very wrong.” (There’s a suggestion that the Doctor and Romana are in 1930s Hollywood on unfinished business anyway, curiously – is a noir audio on cards?).
Meanwhile, as Romana, Lalla Ward sounds so ageless and characteristically imperious that it’s almost like she’s been time-scooped from TC8 circa 1980, as haughty as ever (“I don’t have time for charming”), Timelordsplaining to the literal-minded K9 with some meta dialogue about acting, and handling Bidmead-esque bafflegab with her usual plucky aplomb (“Some kind of psychic barrage, pulling my head inside out.”)
Lalla does much of the heavy lifting here, particularly in the middle episodes where – in an echo of the prematurely aged Doctor of The Leisure Hive – the Doctor’s voice is stolen by the story’s mysterious antagonists, the Celluloids, his booming voice reduced to a dry croak.
The Silent Scream makes for a fascinating contrast with its Main Series bedfellow, Zaltys: Zaltys is a faultless recreation of Season 19’s sci-fi fantasy that is 1982 in a bottle, whereas The Silent Scream takes the Brainiac trio of early Season 18 and transplants them into the orange groves of golden age Hollywood.
Or is it that different? As I noted earlier, Season 18 had a singular obsession with atrophied kingdoms teetering on the edge of obsolescence. It’s not on a starliner or a defunct alien planet but Tinseltown, as its struggle to adapt with the move into “talking pictures” saw a host of its talents consigned to the scrap heap, its former stars haunting the Hollywood lots like living ghosts, as memorably portrayed in Sunset Boulevard. Clearly up on his references, Goss lampshades Billy Wilder’s 1960 film noir as Loretta Waldorf sighs, “This crumbling house – I don’t even meet my own gaze in the mirror”. As a further hat-tip, Loretta’s nick name Lulu echoes silent cinema’s biggest star, Louise Brooks.
So don’t be deceived by anachronistic references to Hemel Hempstead (much worse than hell, according to the Doctor), cloud storage and fish and chips. The Silent Scream is Season 18 in stealth mode. It’s also terrific to have Pamela Salem – The Robots of Death’s Toos, Remembrance of the Daleks’ Rachel Jensen, and one of my first childhood crushes as Belor in Into The Labyrinth (“I deny you the Nidus!”) – back from Counter-Measures duties for a day shift in the main range giving it some Gloria Swanson as Loretta Waldorf.
As a sidenote, Big Finish’s cover artwork rarely gets mentioned in reviews, but The Silent Scream’s sleeve art establishes the setting neatly, with the panel art evoking the Expressionist poster art of ‘20s and ‘30s movies whilst the familiar sidebar is bordered with film sprockets.
James Goss has written a very clever, witty script which evokes the drama and delight of Golden Age Hollywood staying just the right side of full-blown camp pastiche, and the cast rise to the occasion. One amusing aspect of Goss’ script are a number of “biting the hand” in-jokes that must have tickled the Big Finish head honchos when they signed this script off: Of the villain’s MO, the Doctor groans, “Voices trapped forever, re-enacting their lives, how ghastly”, whilst elsewhere film collector Julius talks in the same terms of fantitlement as the worst kind of Doctor Who fan as sent up in The Greatest Show In The Galaxy (“Something of a curate’s egg but I’m sure it had its fans” ) and is parodied in one line that renders all 45 minutes of Love And Monsters redundant: “There are many kinds of collector. Some do it because they really love it. And there are those who collect because in some strange way they want to own it”
This is a fizzy, minty-fresh romp that enlivens one of Doctor Who’s most humour-free seasons without feeling out of season.
❉ ‘Doctor Who – ‘The Silent Scream’ was released by Big Finish Productions on 22 March 2017 and can be bought for £8.99 on Download or £10.99 on CD – or as part of the entire sixth series Subscription: all nine stories for just £65 or £75 respectively.