The Pinehill Crest Hotel in Kent is host to three very different events: a cross-stitch convention, an experiment in time travel and… the summoning of the scourge.
The Doctor, Bernice and Ace find themselves dealing with a dead body that’s come back to life, a mystical symbol that possesses its host, and a threat from another universe that’s ready for every trick the Doctor’s got up his sleeve.
This time, has the Doctor gone too far?
Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor in The Shadow of the Scourge.
Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor)
Sophie Aldred (Ace)
Lisa Bowerman (Bernice Summerfield)
Michael Piccarilli (Michael Pembroke)
Holly King (Annie Carpenter)
Caroline Burns-Cook (Mary Hughes)
Lennox Greaves (Brian Hughes)
Nigel Fairs (Gary Williams)
Peter Trapani (Scourge Leader)
Written By: Paul Cornell
Directed By: Gary Russell
X X X X X
Having taken the sidestep into the world of the Doctor Who comic strips with Frobisher and The Holy Terror, Big Finish does the same into the continuity of the Virgin New Adventures. After the show was cancelled in 1989, the team in charge of novelizations for the TV series began to write a series of books that continued the stories of the Seventh Doctor and his companion Ace. Until 1997, 61 novels were written, aimed primarily at adult readers. While this allowed the authors to touch upon topics and create plots that couldn’t be done otherwise on the BBC, the line also has a reputation for being very much “darker and edgier” than even the most controversial television episode; swearing, violence, and a good bit of gratuitous sex. Not only did the series see Ace turn from a “messed-up-but-cheerful schoolgirl” to “dark Space Marine who bangs anything that moves,” but it introduced several new companions as well. One of these companions was popular enough to eventually receive her own Big Finish line, one Bernice “Benny” Summerfield. Created by Paul Cornell (writer of Human Nature/Family of Blood), the adventuring archaeologist from the 26th century who had lost her parents to the Daleks travelled with the Doctor for 44 novels, and as mentioned above, is currently the focus of her own line of audio plays from Big Finish. The Shadow of the Scourge could have come right out of the Virgin New Adventure line; a devious plan by the Doctor to save the Earth from an extra dimensional threat backfires, placing himself, his companions, and the resident of a resort hotel at the mercy of an alien race. Fans of the Virgin New Adventures should feel right at home with this audio, while those who haven’t read the novels might turn off of this dark, grim tale.
There’s three ingredients for a good fire, and all three are prevalent at the Pinehill Crest Hotel in Kent; an experiment in time and space, a mystic and her followers summoning their patron spirit, and a cross-stitch convention. The arrival of the Doctor, Ace, and Benny just moments before the discovery of a dead body is simply the wind that flares the spark; soon, the Doctor is handing control of the planet Earth over to the Scourge, a race from another dimension who can only exist in our dimension by investing their spirits into the body of a host that has been racked with despair and hopelessness, slowly turning their bodies into insectoids. Of course, the Doctor has a plan…but when it backfires, guests start dying, Benny and Ace are put into danger, and the Doctor himself becomes host to one of the Scourge. Can the Doctor fight back the invasion of his own body and mind to save the day?
I’ll start with this – I mentioned in an earlier review that Minuet in Hell was one of the darker Who stories in any medium. The Shadow of the Scourge ranks right up there. It’s dark, grim, violent…change a few of the main players and you have yourself a Torchwood story. The hotel staff and guests die in horrific ways – disembowelment, self-suffication, being torn apart up by a mind-controlled mob, and the sound guys have a field day with it, with effects that will make the listener wince more than once. They also do an amazing job with the sounds of body modification. The way the Scourge invade a dimension is to find a host who is full of despair and depression and invade their body. The more depressed and hopeless the victim feels, the more their body begins to turn into a Scourge; they will develop extra eyes, their skin will become chitinous, and they’ll even develop extra limbs. The state of being half-human, half-insect drives them further into despair, meaning that it doesn’t take long for the Scourge to full invest their victims. It sounds horrible on paper, but the screams of an infected victim, mixed in with the sounds of clothing ripping as they grow a third arm, is absolutely chilling and very disturbing.
A disturbing story, in order to be little more than torture porn, requires a good script and a strong cast in order to pull it off. We’ll start with Lisa Bowerman as Bernice Summerfield, or Benny for short. Bernice is smart, she’s quick, she’s loyal, and she’s brave. That very easily comes across in Bowerman’s performance, as she does whatever she can to both help and protect the Doctor during her time with him. She gives her all in this performance, the first audio that Benny has been a part of, mixing charm and humor with ease. Even though she has such great chemistry with McCoy and Aldred, it’s easy to see why Bernice Summerfield was spun off into her own line of audios; she’s too strong a character to be a full-time surbordinate to the Doctor and his schemes. While this can be a good thing, there are times where the script just brings Benny across as TOO strong and TOO likable for my tastes – a scene where she infilitrates the circle of mystics and asks to be put in touch with her two dead turtles, mocking and laughing the entire time, should have offended the mystics, but instead, the head mystic takes her into her confidence almost immediately. It’s just a tad too much like how “awesome” River Song was. But that’s more the fault of the script than of Bowerman, and I still enjoyed her presence in this story.
For those of us used to Ace as a young adult with a chip on her shoulder, Sophie Aldred’s performance as Ace in this story will come as a surprise. Ace has always been tough, but here she’s almost jaded, but not as badly as she was in the books. In the Virgin New Adventures, she seemed almost burned out, but here, she still has her sense of humor and is much more than a large energy weapon with a killer rack. There’s a great scene where Ace figures out a way to counteract the power the Scourge can have over human minds, even at an immense physical cost. The sound effects once again made me wince, but it was a plan I approved of once I heard of it (especially because it didn’t happen to ME). Aldred plays the part just right – tough but humorous, always optimistic unless the situation is REALLY a toss-up.
Sylvester McCoy fights himself, a battle in his own mind, as his plan goes horribly awry. McCoy, once again, gives a fine performance, especially when he realizes how it’s all gone horribly wrong and he’s now at the mercy of the Scourge. It’s great to see, for once, the Doctor’s plans backfire, as it adds a sense of drama to the proceedings that’s normally lost because, well, it’s the Doctor. His panic, his pleading, and his madness as he fight off the invader is very well done, and I think McCoy enjoyed the chance to ham it up a bit, going through several voices in rapid order to show his internal struggles. And in his mind, the Doctor finds out that his other incarnations, both past AND future, aren’t fans of his choices and how he treats his companions. This script really drives home just how much of a bastard the Seventh Doctor could be, and even though I had some problems with how it was done, it’s a great touch.
The supporting cast, sadly, doesn’t stand out too much. As they bounced between their human nature and their Scourge form when it was in control, it’s tough to keep track of who’s who, especially with the voices of the Scourge. As the scientist experimenting with faster-than-light proton, as the psychic who makes contact with the Scourge, and as the President of Cross-Stitchers of Kent, Michael Piccarilli, Holly King, and Nigel Fairs are too interchangeable; two are having an affair, one is embezzling, and their fates, even as they play a part in the climax, aren’t well fleshed out. Peter Trepani, though, deserves to be pointed out as the Scourge leader. He’s bad to the exoskeleton, no doubt, and how he deals with some of the humans, even as he taunts the Doctor, is sickening and shivering.
Paul Cornell is a writer who tends to get to the heart(s) of the Doctor, and with this script, he dives into the darker side of Seven, namely his plots, schemes, and uses for his companions. The Doctor’s secrecy isn’t always quirky or endearing; sometimes, it’s dangerous and leads people directly into harms way…but it’s just TOO dark for my tastes and I’d imagine for most people who didn’t enjoy the New Virgin Adventures. People die, horribly…but the end of the audio is almost a “everyone laughs, freeze-frame moment” in sound-only form. The Doctor’s plan collapsing lead to several horrific deaths, which are just waved off. One of the characters make a major life choice at the very end in such a casual manner, it’s like “wait, you were what?” The defeat of the Scourge is well-done, but the denounement and wrap-up deserved a more emotional level of writing and performing, which we sadly do not get. It’s very much in the style of the books, but it somehow even manages to go beyond what I think is the darkest ending in the entire series, that of Warriors of the Deep. There, the Doctor states “there had to have been a better way” as he stands amidst the dead bodies of the entire underwater base. Here, the Doctor gets a zinger line right into the final theme. It’s jarring and out of place, I feel, in Big Finish. The rest of the script is fine and terrifying, but the repercussions just aren’t felt in any way, shape, or form, and it drags down the story’s emotional payout.
Synopsis – If you were a fan of the Virgin New Adventures, then The Shadow of the Scourge will be like old home week for you, with the Doctor, Ace, and Benny in top form. But for those newcomers, the dark, violent story and the casual way it ends might be a turn-off. 4/5 for VNA fans, 2/5 for everyone else.
Next up – Two intruders are captured in the grounds of Colditz Castle, the most secure POW camp in Germany. At first, the guards think they’re dealing with British spies. But the strangers arrived in an advanced travelling machine, the like of which they’ve never seen before.
Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor in…Colditz.