Doctor Who – “Minuet in Hell”

The twenty-first century has just begun, and Malebolgia is enjoying its status as the newest state in America. After his successful involvement with Scotland’s devolution, Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart has been invited over to Malebolgia to offer some of his experiences and expertise.

There he encounters the charismatic Brigham Elisha Dashwood III, an evangelical statesman running for Governor who may not be quite as clean-cut and wholesome as he makes out. One of Dashwood’s other roles in society is as patron of a new medical institute, concentrating on curing the ills of the human mind. One of the patients there interests the Brigadier – someone who claims he travels through space and time in something called a TARDIS.

Charley, however, has more than a few problems of her own. An Amnesiac, she is working as a hostess at the local chapter of the Hell Fire Club, populated by local dignitaries who have summoned forth the demon Marchosias. And the leader of the Club? None other than Dashwood, who seems determined to achieve congressional power by the most malevolent means at his disposal…

Paul McGann as the Doctor in Minuet in Hell.

Paul McGann (The Doctor)
India Fisher (Charley Pollard)
Nicholas Courtney(Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart)
Robert Jezek (Brigham Elisha Dashwood III)
Morgan Deare (Senator Waldo Pickering)
Helen Goldwyn (Becky Lee Kowalczyck / Catatonic Woman)
Maureen Oakeley (Dr. Dale Pargeter)
Nicholas Briggs (Gideon Crane)
Hylton Collins (Orderly)
Barnaby Edwards (Scott / Catatonic Man)
Alistair Lock (Guard)
Jacqueline Rayner (Catatonic Woman)
Nicholas Pegg (Catatonic Man)

Written By: Alan W. Lear and Gary Russell
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs



Ah, Minuet In Hell.

If Storm Warning is the audio that 99% of Doctor Who fans recommend at the drop of the hat, Minuet In Hell is the one that sees fans pick up the hat, jam it firmly back on their head, and stalk away, quietly mumbling to themselves. As the “season finale” of Eight’s four-audio run, Minuet in Hell suffers from major padding, too many plots and plot holes to keep track off, inconsistent portrayals, and jarring editing. Minuet in Hell had a rough production, with Alan Lear having chronic fatigue syndrome while writing a script that was needed as soon as possible, and Gary Russell doing a complete rewrite on the second half. Very few people were happy with the end result, Lear, Russell, and Nicholas Briggs included.

Malebogia, the soon-to-be-51st state in the Union, is about to secede from Maryland, and the charismatic evangelist Brigham Dashwood III is angling not only to be its new Governor, but its primary care give as well, thanks to his new institute dedicated to the care, study, and treatment of “alternative mentalities.” Dashwood, however, is also the leader of the local Hellfire Club, a gentleman’s club with a membership list of Malebogia’s finest civil servants and business owners, dedicated to the worship and advancement of Lucifer himself. Into this mix walk three individuals.

Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, retired from UNIT, has arrived as Her Majesty’s representative to observe the formation of Malebogia’s new state government. At least, that’s the official story.

Charley Pollard has awoken, along with several other young women, to find herself alone, suffering from memory loss, and impressed into service at the Hellfire Club as a “Pretty Little Satin Bottom” for the amusement of the Club’s male members.

And in the Dashwood Institute, a man sits, suffering from amnesia, not even knowing his own name, mumbling to himself about a legend of a place where man’s darkest fears come to life, a place of brimstone, and fire…and the name of this place is Hell…and the legend comes from the planet Gallifrey.

This is easily the “edgiest” serial that I’ve ever recalled Who doing, either on television OR on audio. We have Satan worship. We have forced prostitution. We have scenes of torture. We have a depiction of Hell. We have an insane asylum. And, near the end, we have Charley dressed in a BDSM outfit and sent to Hell so she could be possessed by a demon and come back to Earth as Dashwood’s “Demon Queen.” At times, it came off like a piece of fan fiction where the female companion is put into horrible, yet “sexy” situations for no purpose at all.

Let’s start with the high points. There ARE seeds of a good story in here. The Doctor suffering from amnesia is a story that has been done before. After all, a man is the sum of his memories, a Time Lord even more so. While there’s no doubt that Paul McGann IS the Doctor, the way he portrays having lost his memory and his deep concern at not being able to remember comes off very well. McGann also shows this concern as the Doctor slowly begins to remember who he is, but instead of a blinding flash of inspiration, it’s done very slowly and gradually, and happens “out of order.” It helps that, opposite the Doctor in the looney bin is one Gideon Crane, played by Nicholas Briggs, who insists that HE’s the Doctor, not McGann. There’s a brief segment where Crane and the Doctor play “Twenty Questions” that serves as a gift for long-time fans. If it were just this storyline, with the Doctor along, without a companion, struggling to remember who he was, it would have made a solid one-hour outing.

The other two plots, however, fall apart. India Fisher is once again Charley Pollard, who does her best with the material. From the very beginning, however, she’s forced into two things – a low-cut nightdress, and a friendship with Becky Lee Kowalczyck. I’ll get to Becky Lee in a moment. Charley has also lost her memory, and slowly regains it over the course of the serial. Charley spends most of the serial separated from the Doctor as well, finding herself at the mercy of both Dashwood and the demon Marchosias.

Oh, God, Marchosias. Where the situation with the Doctor is played for drama, Marchosias is straight out of an open mic night in Hell. He constantly throws out cheesy one-liners and casual comments that throw the mood of the scene completely off balance, almost as if this was an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead of Doctor Who. The actor is going for deadpan snarker, but comes off as borscht belt. When he’s in “demon mode,” he is actually a bit terrifying. But he spends too much time in “sarcasm mode” for my tastes.

Battling Marchosias is Becky Lee Kowalczcyk, of the Order of St Matthew, who had been raised since birth to fight evil. Yes, she’s a Slayer in all but name. And her accent is HORRIBLE. The actress’ idea of an American accent in the Bible Belt Heartland is a mix between 1920’s flapper chick and 1930’s gumshoe . And she cracks just as wise as you’d expect…and this leads me to her grandfather, Senator Waldo Pickering, aka “Foghorn Leghorn.” He’s the walking, talking, Deep South American stereotype turned up to 11, and both he and Becky Lee have the vocabulary to prove it, with “tarnation,” “varmint,” and “hoo-wee” sprinkled liberally throughout.

The third storyline involves the Brigadier investigating the Brigham Elijah Dashwood Laboratory for Alternative Mentalities. With the Doctor tied up for most of the story, it falls on Nicholas Courtney to carry the male lead. He does this in just as solid a manner as you’d expect, but he’s not given very much to work with. He only meets the Doctor a few times, not really teaming up with him until the very end. He serves more as a bridge between the “Doctor has amnesia” plot and the “something’s up with Dashwood” plot. While I’m always happy to have the Brigadier in action, he ends up being a bit superfluous to the overall story.

And this story is long. It’s one of the longest productions Big Finish has done for Doctor Who. Listening to it, I kept looking at the clock. It could have benefitted from some better editing and a scalpel to the script. For a secret organization, the Hellfire Club had no security and the Pretty Little Satin Bottoms could make a break for it without any consequences. For a secure insane asylum, anyone could just waltz in and out as they pleased.

There are a few good points, however. The reveal of what the “demons” actually are is well done, with the resulting technobabble enough to make a listener go “ok, that makes sense.” And the cliffhanger at the end of Episode 3 and its resolution at the beginning of Episode 4 set up a major overarching plot for the next series of Eight/Charley audios. But it’s not enough to save this serial, sadly.

Final Snyopsis – Written and rewritten in haste, with characters played WAY too over the top and too many plotlines and the padding that goes along with it, Minuet in Hell is the low point in McGann’s run as the Doctor. It’s much too dark and can’t decide on a light mood or a somber one. Only completists and fans of the Brigadier should pick this one up. 1/5.

Next up – The Doctor and Turlough become enmeshed in the hideous plan of Sir Nikolas Valentine, a gambler at the mysterious Diabola Club who always seems to have a winning hand…

Peter Davison as the Doctor in Phantasmagoria.

About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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