In the depths of space a little known district harbours a terrible secret. Long known as a place of death, it claims thousands more lives as a great corporate space-fleet goes to war. As the fleet screams out in fear and pain, an irresistible voice calls out to three travellers and a macabre mind sets a deadly trap.
The Doctor, Peri and Erimem face the terrors of Talderun and the wrath of a corporate empire as they struggle to understand the hideous secret of the domain of the dead, ¬a district known in legend as Nekromanteia.
Peter Davison is the Doctor in Nekromanteia.
Peter Davison (The Doctor)
Nicola Bryant (Peri Brown)
Caroline Morris (Erimem)
Gilly Cohen (Jal Dor Kal)
Glyn Owen (Commander Harlon)
Ivor Danvers (Wendle Marr)
Kate Brown (Tallis)
Nigel Fairs (Yal Rom/Guard)
Andrew Fettes (Salaysia)
Simon Williams (Paul Addison)
Gary Russell (Thesanius)
Jack Galagher (Comms Officer)
John Ainsworth (Soldier)
Written By: Austen Atkinson
Directed By: John Ainsworth
X X X X X
Sometimes, a story just plain and simply gets it wrong.
There are stories that suffer from being boring (Red Dawn). There are stories that fail to follow through on interesting plot points or themes (The Sandman). There are stories that have too many ideas jammed in to their run time (Minuet in Hell). And there are stories that just don’t come together and click in the right way (The Rapture).
But then there are stories like Nekromanteia. What could have been a neat story about witches, corporations, and lost artifacts instead becomes the worst Big Finish story I’ve reviewed thus far. Instead of simply being derivative and dull, Nekromanteia is a story that attempts to portray “adult” themes such as gore, excessive violence and brutality. The result is a serial that goes against nearly everything Doctor Who has ever stood for.
The Doctor has taken Peri and Erimem to the Garazone Bazaar (the same market heard in the Eighth Doctor story Sword of Orion). As he conducts his own business in an effort to repair the TARDIS’ telepathic cicruits, the two ladies find a blind Pakhar beggar. Using its teeth, the Pakhar carves a sculpture out of a block of wood, and gifts the finished piece of art to Erimem; a centaur god, a demon of both life and death, that the sculptor once laid eyes upon during its former days as a soldier fighting in the Nekromanteia district of the galaxy. Erimem and Peri convince the Doctor, once they’re back on the TARDIS, to travel to Nekromanteia, and the Doctor cautiously agrees after noticing the marks on the sculpture’s side appear to be galactic coordinates…
These coordinates are to the planet Talderun, the heart of Nekromanteia, and site of a great space battle between the witch-sisters of Shara and a fleet of a corporate spaceships. As the witch-sisters capture the survivors of the battle and feast on their flesh, Commander Harlon and Lieutenant Cochrane set off to search for a means to escape Talderun, unaware that they are being watched by a figure who has taken great pains to hide from the witch-sisters these past week weeks.
The TARDIS lands on Talderun amidst a violent temporal distortion, materializing in the crash of a corporate battleship, surrounded by corpses. As Harlon and Cochrane stumble onto the trio, the witches attack. In the confusion, Peri is kidnapped by the witches. It turns out that the mental and spiritual machinations of high priestess Jal Dor Kal are what brought the Doctor and his companions to Talderun, for Peri is to be the sacrifice that summons forth “The Other,” the object of worship for the witches of Nekromanteia…
While listening to Nekromanteia, two things kept coming to mind. One was the recent video game Dead Space 3, where the protagonist first navigates the ruins of a naval expedition in orbit above an arctic planet before descending to the planet and fighting off both creatures comprised of dead tissue and a mad cult dedicated to their worship, all before finding the remains of that planet’s civilization deep underground. The second thing was how this story was heavily influenced by Eric Saward’s run as script editor during Colin Baker’s first season as the Doctor in 1984. Saward oversaw several scripts during his time on Doctor Who that were criticized by the moral guardians of the day for being incredibly dark and violent for a “children’s show,” such as the Doctor choking Peri during his regeneration and a pair of guards falling into an acid bath while the Doctor quips “Sorry to not be joining you.” Austen Atkinson, the writer of Nekromanteia, seemed to take the “excesses” of Saward’s era and turn them all the way to 11, learning all the wrong lessons in the process. We have men hitting women, we have flesh eating, we have decapitations, and we have corporate greed to the highest ends. Atkinson doesn’t take his foot off of the “darker and edgier” from start to finish, and it’s very much to the story’s detriment.
Normally I avoid revealing major plot points as best I can in my reviews. However, in explaining the flaws of Nekromanteia, and in an effort to convince other people to avoid this serial, there will be spoilers from this point on.
This is definitely one of the weaker outings for Peter Davison in his Big Finish run. The Church and the Crown was very light-hearted and played to the strengths of the Fifth Doctor, but in Nekromanteia, Atkinson swings the other way. Here, we have a Doctor where nearly everything is out of his control and he reacts to everything with a lot of shouting with a strong dash of “you better listen to me” thrown in. There is very little wit or banter from Five, with the high point of Davison’s turn being in episode 3 where he meets Shara, the object of worship for the witches. Beyond that, one can tell Davison is going through the numbers with this one. The first big complaint I have with this story comes from the Fifth Doctor’s fate at the end of the second episode. He’s gone to the temple of the witches to confront them and have Peri returned to him, along the way discovering that there’s a massive temporal disturbance that needs to be stabilized…but the witches respond by ripping off his head and feeding on his corpse. There’s no sleight-of-hand, there’s no “oh, it’s not the Doctor,” it’s the actual Doctor having his actual head pulled off and his actual body devoured. It’s the most gruesome death I’ve ever experience in Doctor Who after the death of David Tennant’s character in Colditz. But that character’s death served as a point of character development for Dorothy “Ace” McShane in her future stories. The horrifying death of the Doctor in the middle of the play is undone by some timey-wimey-Cup-of-Soup hand-waving down the road, but…the Doctor is dead and dispatched in a manner that could have come straight out of a video nasty. Even Saward at his “worst” never went down this road. It’s completely unnecessary and the point of having the Doctor meet Shara could have been done in several other ways, but Atkinson went the “bloody and shocking” route in a way that doesn’t even serve the story, since the Doctor pulls a John Cena-esque “I’m ok, everyone” later on. Because coming back from decapitation is just that easy.
Nicola Bryant gives it her all in this one, and it’s frustrating to see her waste her time trying to elevate this story. Peri’s chemistry with the Doctor, Erimem, and her rescuer, Yal Rom, is apparent. Sadly, this is a story where Peri is nothing more than a plot device or a McGuffin, something to be rescued and fought over. During her capture and preparation to be sacrificed by the witches, we experience Peri’s confusion and dream-like state in a very…interesting manner that Peri is…somewhat enjoying. And when she is rescued by Yal Rom, these are Peri’s first words.
“I’m completely naked!”
And apparently, this was a “and the fanboys rejoiced” moment to some.
Doctor Who has never been about titillation…which makes it somewhat ironic that Peri is involved in this scene, since her introduction to the show in Planet of Fire was her in a bikini that made the pants of Britain’s boys grow three sizes that day…and the “care” that Atkinson gives to this scene is obvious, and completely and utterly out of place. I’m a 36 year old man listening to a (at the time) 43 year old woman play a college-age girl going through something that could have come straight out of Barberella and it just felt like the author was sitting over his desk going “heh heh heh” while off to the side, his Mel and Ace action figures were reenacting a “deleted” scene from Dragonfire…
Erimem has been shown as a strong female leader in both The Eye of the Scorpion and The Church and the Crown, but in Nekromantiea, she’s a victim. Caroline Morris plays the star-struck wanderer very well, wanting to see and experience the universe and coming off as very keen and joyful when she sees something new, but what happens to Erimem is the biggest drawback…and drawback really isn’t the right word. How about, what happens to Erimem is the encapsulation of every single thing wrong with this story. No beating around the bush here – Commander Harlon tries to rape Erimem. There’s no doubt about the actions he is taking with the way the dialogue both before and after is written. If there’s one thing that should never, ever, ever come close to Doctor Who, it’s rape. The first episode of Torchwood saw a character use an alien device to convince a girl and her boyfriend to come home with him, and that one scene tainted the character throughout his entire run; no matter how sympathetic, remorseful, or heroic he was, he was still “the frog-faced rapist.” Here, Erimem’s dialogue after the act says that she fought him and will live with her pain. It’s not made clear whether or not she successfully fought him off. If a writer is going to throw rape into a script, then they need to make it clear that the victim managed to thwart the attempt before anything happened. But Atkinson doesn’t, and while the uncertainty, in any show other than Doctor Who, could have served as some sort of long-term character arc, here it’s swept under the rug. It’s a disservice to Erimem AND the fans that such a brutal, nasty concept is brought up in a direct manner…and then handled in a second-hand way that doesn’t even resolve the issue!
And it’s not the fault of the actor who plays Harlon. Glyn Owen plays Harlon as someone the audience doesn’t know whether to cheer for or boo against. In any other serial, that would be a strength; an anti-hero who is only interested in his own survival, where we don’t know his true stripes until the climax of the entire story whether or not he’s a bastard or has a heart of gold. But here, it’s very off-putting, as we’re still expected to cheer for him (according to the writing) after he’s tried to rape Erimem. Even though the act is barely brought up after Erimem says she will live with the pain…and that’s a MAJOR disservice to the act and its victims, having it used in such a casual way without repercussions one way or another. That’s all I’ll say about it, since I try not to soapbox during these reviews.
Jal Dor Kal, played by Gilly Cohen, plays it over the top, cackling, gleefully evil, and dedicated fully and wholly to the service of Shara. Nigel Fair, a writer for Big Finish, fills in as action-archaeologist Yal Rom, who’s whole purpose is to rescue Peri and then have his tongue and heart ripped out. And Simon Williams, from Remembrance of the Daleks, plays Shara, the immortal entity who the witches worship. He has a nice turn as an immortal who has locked one moment in time in an eternal loop to live forever in a very unique way. But the performances, sadly, get lost in the shuffle as the story’s greater flaws take precedent. It’s a bit of a shame; the sound work is solid, if one can enjoy the ripping and tearing of flesh from bone, and the sci-fi aspects of the story itself would have been better served with a better script…even if, in the end, the day is saved by the action of Erimem’s cat. Yes, it’s Antranak who turns out to be the true hero of the story. While the justification is appreciated, such a meaningful, semi-light-hearted felis ex machina is completely out of place in this dark, gruesome tale. It’s a script that goes against so many concepts of Doctor Who that, instead of pushing the envelope, it sets it on fire and throws it in a rubbish bin half-full of gasoline.
Final Synopsis – Nekromanteia’s attempt to be a dark, brooding, and edgy serial goes much too far and, much like the sector of space it’s named after, should be avoided at all costs. 1/5
Next up – An archaeologist and his robot are on the poisonous world of Sorus Alpha, where they will uncover a hideous relic. The Doctor and Ace are on their way to the deep space research centre Orbos, where Professor Bernice Summerfield is soon to start the countdown to universal Armageddon.
Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor in The Dark Flame.