Doctor Who – “The Roof of the World”

Tibet. 1917.

It’s a time of great exploration, with intrepid teams of adventurers heading blindly into uncharted territory, determined to beat inexplicable odds and overcome any challenge they encounter.

But some things are not necessarily that easy to defeat.

An ancient evil, perhaps older than time itself, is stirring deep within the heart of the Himalayas. It has always known it will return and finish off what it started so many centuries before.

But the time has to be right.

As the TARDIS materialises, with the Doctor determined to take full advantage of an invite to a cricket match, the catalyst that the dark forces need unwittingly arrives.

Peter Davison is the Doctor in The Roof of the World.

Cast
Peter Davison (The Doctor)
Caroline Morris (Erimem)
Nicola Bryant (Peri)
Edward de Souza (Lord Mortimer Davey)
William Franklyn (Pharaoh Amenhotep II)
Sylvester Morand (General Alexander Bruce)
Alan Cox (John Matthews)

Written By: Adrian Rigelsford
Directed By: Gary Russell

Trailer – http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/popout/the-roof-of-the-world-225

X X X X X

Flanderization – The act of taking a single (often minor) action or trait of a character within a work and exaggerating it more and more over time until it completely consumes the character. Most always, the trait/action becomes completely outlandish and it becomes their defining characteristic. Sitcoms and Sitcom characters are particularly susceptible to this, as are peripheral characters in shows with long runs.

The trope is named for one of the examples in The Simpsons, Ned Flanders, who was originally just a considerate neighbor and attentive father, with his devout nature simply being that he willingly attended and paid attention in church, all to make him a contrast to Homer, before becoming obsessively religious to the point of stupidity. (taken from the Urban Dictionary)

The Roof of the World is both the title of an episode of the First Doctor serial Marco Polo and the title of a Big Finish audio play featuring the Fifth Doctor, Peri, and Erimem encountering a supernatural force in colonial-era Tibet. The play is a bit infamous for its writer and his off-screen shenanigans, and really, that’s the play’s high point. The Roof of the World suffers from being incredibly traditional to the point of nearly plagiarizing from other serials, as well as portraying two of the TARDIS crew as little more than one-note characterizations for a good bit of its runtime. Its biggest fault, however, is that it promises to give the third character a chance to shine before shoving her into the background as little more than a MacGuffin in their own story.

1917, Tibet. Far from the turmoils and trouble of the Great War, a British explorer eagerly awaits his chance to climb a nearby mountain. But first, there’s English enjoyment to be had in the form of a cricket match. And, where there’s cricket, there’s the Doctor, who’s stashed the TARDIS on a train. Peri takes the Doctor’s love of the game in stride, but Erimem is a bit distracted. There’s a man that only she can see, that only she can talk to, and its unnerves her. This man knows about her history, about how she is currently out of time and far from home, but home is closer than she thinks. He’ll show her the truth of her past and just what her destiny is, high up in the mountains…

Adrian Rigelsford. I have never heard of him before reviewing this story, but apparently he’s a bit infamous over in the United Kingdom. He’s written several books on television and film history, but his claimed sources have been called into question…especially when one considers that one his Doctor Who histories completely omits Season 18 and that another contains unsourced quotes from Roger Delgado and William Hartnell! Rigelsford also claimed to have a tape of a “last” interview famed director Stanley Kubrick that was debunked. Most infamously, Rigelsford was convicted on 2004 for stealing and re-selling over 56,000 photographs from the archives of British newspaper The Daily Mail. He was actually sentenced and began serving eighteen months as Her Majesty’s Guest during the period The Roof of the World was published!

And my first thought after reading all this is, “and I can’t get Big Finish to look at one of _my_ scripts?”

(Seriously, I have a rough draft of an audio script. So if anyone from BF is reading this…what are you doing?!? Get back to work! We need more Tom Baker stories!)

But Rigelsford was also the man who offered to write a 30th anniversary special for Doctor Who called The Dark Dimension, and I highly recommend looking up the story and tribulations behind its aborted production if you’re in the mood for a sorrowful laugh. It was enough for Big Finish to solicit the writer for a script. The finished product shows that Rigelsford knows Doctor Who, but that he doesn’t GET Doctor Who. The classic story concepts are evident; exotic locations, a small cast of secondary characters, an ancient evil lurking unseen behind an accomplice. They’re placed into the story and just left there to sit and play their parts, as opposed to being woven together into the story’s tapestry. It’s very much a case of “tell, don’t show” for most of the audio and it leads to a story that lies flat overall. It definitely doesn’t help that the same type of atmosphere Rigelsford seemed to be going for, he didn’t establish so much as borrow/rip off from two other early Who serials; The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear, and both stories do a much better job of setting scene and tone than Rigelford’s writing. Heck, there’s even bits and pieces of Nekromanteia scattered throughout the audio!

The Fifth Doctor wears a cricket player’s outfit. He makes jokes about the game. He’s made his companions try to learn the rules. There’s even a scene in the television serial Black Orchid where he plays the game, and plays it very well. So what does Rigelsford do but spend the first episode of The Roof of the World making sure everything, every single damn thing, the Doctor does revolves around getting to a cricket game. It’s not joy, it’s obsession, and it’s VERY off-putting for listeners who are familiar with the Fifth Doctor. Cricket has been a one-off thing or a background reference, and to have it be full up, in the listener’s face, for 30 minutes just does not work. It’s almost like fanfiction, the way Rigelsford takes a small part of the Doctor’s personality and just blows it up and makes everything about the Doctor that one thing. It doesn’t last past the first episode, but it’s very jarring.

It’s a bit of shame, because it’s a strong performance that Peter Davison gives, one definitely better than this story deserves. The Doctor’s enthusiasm has always been one of his strong suits, along with his wordplay, and throughout The Roof of the World Davison gets a chance to indulge in a good bit of verbal sparring, especially in the third and fourth episodes. There is also Davison, as he did for a bit in The Axis of Insanity, playing a “darker” version of the Doctor that tries to mentally break Erimem and taunts Peri about her inability to save her friend from grievous bodily harm. The fourth episode sees Davison give a standard and strong “Davison Speech” to beat back the villain, but while Davison was solid in the scene, there was something off about it which I will talk about in a bit.

Viewers and listeners know that Peri Brown is loud, brash, snarky, sarcastic, and mutters under her breath when things aren’t breaking her way. She’s also smart, confident, and incredibly supportive of her friends. When it comes to the first set of quantifiers, Rigelsford once again turns it all up to 11 during the first part of this story. While she traded acidic barbs with the Sixth Doctor during her time with him (and she showed a hint of that side to the Fifth Doctor during their only televised story together), here Peri has a comment for everything, usually delivered in a grousing, smart-ass, or dismissive tone, whether she’s complaining about climbinb up a ladder or even helping to save the day during the climax. She plays big sister to Erimem, but it’s not the kindly, gently ribbing big sister we saw in The Church and the Crown or The Axis of Insanity. It’s a very jarring misstep in the long-term relationship between the two women that Rigelsford gets completely wrong. However, Peri’s meanness serves a very strong purpose in episode two, when Nicola Bryant just cuts loose and buries poor Erimem as a whining, sniveling brat who let her die. While some might see it as just a natural progression of Peri’s characterization within this particular story, those of us who are more familiar with Miss Perpugilliam Brown will be taken aback by just how truly venomous she can be. Bryant deserves a round of applause for just how nasty she plays it in that one scene.

On one hand, The Roof of the World focuses on Erimem and just how important she is in the grand scheme of things. On the other hand, it also easily dismisses her for not being very important at all. Caroline Morris gets the second episode nearly all to herself and does her very best with the material, giving an outstanding performance in the process (aside from her silly “possessed voice,” which one forum poster pointed out sounds like Butters from South Park doing his evil supervillain voice). She has to do the heavy lifting and carry the episode, and she does so by being bold, brave, and emotional when she realizes about the true nature of her family’s history, and how it relates to what has happened to her and what she needs to do. The second episode could have been, with some tweaking, a Companion Chronicle ala Charley Pollard’s solo adventure Solitaire. But after giving it her all, the very end of the episode sees Erimem becoming a background player in her own story. She meekly gives in to the malevolent force to become just a megaphone for the piece’s villain. Aside from Peri luring a possessed Erimem into the TARDIS by playing on their friendship, the third and fourth episodes are about the Doctor facing off against the villain, who has taken over Erimem en route to reawakening its brethren to take over the world…and the Doctor talks him to death. It’s a great “Davison Speech” as I mentioned earlier, but it barely involves Erimem herself, just the Doctor and the spirit inside of her. It’s a disservice to both actress and character for Miss Morris, as in the hands of a better writer it could have been one of the strongest scenes in Erimem’s story arc.

The supporting cast, much like the setting and the plot, are just…there. Edward de Souza holds the unique distinction of starring in the only episode of Doctor Who not to feature the Doctor at ALL, Mission to the Unknown. Here, he plays Lord Mortimer Davey, the physical representation for the evil spirit that haunts the mountain. His gravelly voice makes Davey stand out and he does his best with the material, but he ends up coming off at just another boring galactic the Doctor defeats. Sylvester Monrad and Alan Cox are the stereotypical British high-society explorer and exasperated newspaper reporter for the time period, and that, aside from some light flirting with Peri from the reporter, all the characterization they get. And the best way to sum up William Franklyn’s performance as the Pharaoh Amenhotep II, Erimem’s father, is as such – “I am a white English actor playing an Egyptian Pharaoh.”

It’s a shame, because the sound work for The Roof of the World is top notch and Garrett Jenkins’ work deserves a much better story to surround it! Although I do wonder how a cricket pitch in India at the foot of a large mountain could be so rowdy, the crunch of snow and the howling of the wind puts one right in the Himalayas. The TARDIS materializing on a train full of cows and chickens is a nice touch, as is the banging of the reporter’s typewriter. The whispering voices and the sounds of decay in Erimem’s mind can cause a twitch of a nerve or two…but I have to ask, while it sounds ominous, can writers stop using the Cloister Bell all the time? It’s quietly (some pun intended) turning a sort of “boy who cried wolf” situation with how often it seems to be used in the audios.

But the use of the Cloister Bell in such a fashion shouldn’t come as a surprise, really. The Roof of the World is weaker than the sum of its parts because its parts are simply laid out side-by-side. It’s like an engine that’s been taken apart; the pistons are here, the fan belt is here, the spark plugs are there, and while it’s incredibly obvious that one is looking at an engine, the engine itself isn’t much use unless the pieces are put together properly. To continue the analogy, this audio is stock parts put together to form the most basic of engines, one that will get someone to their destination, but with the barest amount of horsepower or gas mileage. Rigelsford takes several basic concepts and puts them together, but he does so in a way that fails to engage the listener and comes off as very bland.

Synopsis – Bland, run-of-the-mill, paint-by-numbers, and otherwise forgettable, The Roof of the World reduces its characters to one-note players by using a number of standard story characteristics to the barest minimum of effects. 2/5.

Next up – When accidental tourists the Doctor and Evelyn Smythe stumble upon one of Britain’s most lurid, illuminating chapters in history, a simple case of interest in the work of dedicated man of science Doctor Robert Knox, quickly turns sour…

Colin Baker is the Doctor in…Medicinal Purposes.

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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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