Doctor Who – “The Land of the Dead”

Landing in Alaska, the Doctor and Nyssa encounter a group of people in a most unusual house, cut off not only by the harsh climate but by their individual secrets and obsessions.

Millionaire Shaun Brett is utilising chunks of the local area to construct a shrine to his dead father. But when deadly creatures start roaming outside, and a terrifying discovery is made inside the house, the Doctor realises that Brett has unleashed an unimaginably ancient force.

Peter Davison as the Doctor in The Land of the Dead.

Cast
Peter Davison (The Doctor)
Sarah Sutton (Nyssa)
Lucy Campbell (Monica Lewis)
Alistair Lock (Supplier)
Christopher Scott (Shaun Brett)
Neil Roberts (Tulung)
Andrew Fettes (Gaborik)

Written By: Stephen Cole
Directed By: Gary Russell

TRAILER – http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/popout/the-land-of-the-dead-622

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The Land of the Dead took a while to grow on me. It’s an old Who scenario familiar to any long time fan of the show; a “base under seige” story. The Doctor and his companion, along with a handful of others, trapped in an isolated location with a mysterious creature trying to kill them. The companion is put in peril, the Doctor finds his life on the line a time or two, a character or two get killed, there’s a brilliant realization and a stunning climax before the Doctor and companion make a hasty exit, leaving the survivors to pick up the pieces. It’s a familiar, well-used plot line because it’s easy to pull off, but it’s a hard plot line to pull off WELL. After a lackluster first episode, the story picks up in the middle of the second and holds the listener all the way to the end with a solid mix of comraderie, charm, and well-written dialogue and subtle atmosphere.

The TARDIS is acting up again as it follows a series of strange energy readings. After almost colliding with a small airplane over the frigid landscape of Alaska, the Doctor and Nyssa find themselves 30 years later a few miles away from an isolated mansion, built on the frozen tundra. Inside, eccentric millionaire Shaun Brett is overseeing the final construction of what is a mausoleum for his late father, overseen by Miss Lucy Campbell. Brett’s father made his fortune from Alaska, and his memory will be enshrined in much the same way. Carved out of the ground, each room is comprised completely from the native Alaskan soil, Alaskan ice, and Alaskan stone, all the way to the faux saltwater shoreline complete with actual seals and walruses. Tulung, the half-Inuit, half-white right hand man to Mr. Shaun, struggles with his dual blood; the money provides for his tribe, but at the cost of possibly disturbing the ghosts of this desolate land. When a buried specimen comes to life and attacks the inhabitants of the manor, is it an alien lifeform the Doctor has dealt with before? Or, as Tulung believes, have the spirits of the dead come to seek revenge against the living?

Peter Davison is in fine form. The politest of the Doctors, able to deflect a question with a simple “yes, isn’t it,” and the most curious of them as well, Davison takes charge of the situation even when no one asks him to. Even when he’s put into peril, he’s stoic and brave. Davison’s performance in this serial is very low key and full of dry wit, like the way he weaves exposition into an actual lesson about Alaskan geological history to Nyssa. It actually took a second listen for me to pick up on several nuances of his performance, like the way he changes the topic of conversation with the utmost politeness and manages to take charge of a situation even when absolutley no one else wants to.

The Land of the Dead marks the return of Sarah Sutton as Nyssa to the TARDIS. Even though Peter Davison has said that Nyssa was the “perfect companion for the Fifth Doctor,” I always felt Nyssa was overshadowed by both the snark of Tegan and the annoyance of Adric. But much like Turlogh in Phantasmorgoria and Peri in Whispers of Terror, Sutton steps right back into the role of Nyssa without missing a step. She’s smart enough to provide assistance to the Doctor, she’s clever enough to match wits and witticisms with him, and she’s not of Earth, which allows the Doctor to provide a little exposition. There are clever references to the ends of Time-Flight and Earthshock in the dialogue, but more importantly, Nyssa is not just a piece of “ear candy.” Her much-mentioned-but-rarely used background as a scientist to good use in the second episode, all the way to the end of the serial, as she studies the creatures and, even while in distress mode as a damsel, comes across as strong instead of pleading. The only time where she does “swoon,” near the end of the first episode, is actually a bit of foreshadowing that only becomes apparent in future audios, specifically Winter for the Adept and Primeval.

With only four characters besides the Doctor and Nyssa, Stephen Cole takes the time to develop them in scenes away from the Doctor and Nyssa. A good bit of the story’s background is developed between two characters or between one of them and the Doctor/Nyssa by themselves, to solid effect. Lucy Campbell is your standard witty female, but Monica Lewis imbibes her with the right amount of charm and worry during her time with the Doctor to raise the character a notch above stock. Christopher Scott, as the slimy Shaun Brett, is your standard “rich villain” who talks big, chews the scenery, and comes to his tragic realization at just the right time. Gaborik, sadly, is pretty much the “Tonto” of the story, a stereotypical Indian/Inuit with a thick accent who drags the scene down for the brief time he’s in the serial. It’s Tulung, voiced by Neil Roberts, who shines as part of the supporting cast, with a unique accent that draws your ear but not your laughter. He manages to portray the tortured half-breed, torn between two civilizations, with JUST enough worry to push him slightly into “whining” territory, which is right where such a character should be; “yes, we get it” vs “OH MY GOD WOULD YOU SHUT UP?!?”

The director of The Land of the Dead, Gary Russell, should be commended on his use of sound. The biting winds of Alaska, the low-key howling that can be heard even inside the mausoleum, are always prevalent. The music is very low and very moody, almost right out of the TV series, and the howls, cries, and screams of the monsters, be it the Big Bad or its tortured pack mates, are a sharp, cracking contrast to the quiet sounds. The creature kills its victims in a unique, horrifying way that sounds very chilling as well.

Drawbacks? The Land of the Dead is a very, very, VERY slow build that takes a while to get going. The first episode and the first half of the second episode are slogs. I first listened to this audio while on a long car ride during the 4th of July, and several times during my trip I’d switch during a scene change from the CD to music or a baseball came. Once the creature makes its appearance, the story kicks into high gear, but the listener has to make it to that appearance. The stereotypical Gaborik might also be a turn off for listeners, as least until his departure from the story.

Final Snyopsis – If you can make it through the first 40 minutes, The Land of the Dead will reward you with great atmosphere, good dialogue, a unique monster, and Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton picking up right where they left off. 3/5.

Next up – One would-be assassin is in a mental ward. Another’s on the run. Their intended victim is stirring up the mobs. Terrorists are planning a strike of their own. A talk-radio host is loving every minute of it. A Whitehall insider whispers about a mysterious UN operative, with a hidden agenda. Everyone’s got someone they want to be afraid of. It’ll only take a little push for the situation to erupt – and something is doing the pushing. But you can trust the Doctor to put things right.

Can’t you?

Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor in…The Fearmonger.

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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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