Doctor Who – “The Nowhere Place”

2197. The fighter-carrier Valiant has just crossed Pluto’s orbital path. Its captain is expecting trouble from alien raiders. She is not expecting the Doctor and Evelyn.

She does not believe members of her crew when they say they can hear an ancient bell ringing. A bell that strikes terror into their hearts.

1952. The Turret Class locomotive Ivy Lee is hurtling through the night. On board, there should only be two passengers: both of them carrying documents from the War Office.

But now, there are also two unexpected visitors on the train. One is the guard with ill-fitting trousers, the other is an excessively dotty old lady.

The Doctor and Evelyn have arrived and ‘Time’s End’ is approaching.

Colin Baker is the Doctor in The Nowhere Place.

X X X X X

Cast
Colin Baker (The Doctor)
Maggie Stables (Evelyn Smythe)
Nicholas Briggs (Trevor Ridgely)
Martha Cope (Captain Oswin)
Stephen Critchlow (O’Keefe)
Andrew Fettes (Master-at-Arms)
John Killoran (Palmer)
Benjamin Roddy (Operations)
John Schwab (EXO Moore)
Andrew Wisher (Armstrong)
Philip Wolff (Hayman)

Written By: Nicholas Briggs
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs

Trailer – http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/popout/the-nowhere-place-250

X X X X X

I’m a sucker for horror stories set in or involving space.

Alien. Lifeforce. Pandorum. Sunshine. Dead Space. Moon. Hell, even Jason X. And to go a little more niche, I love stories involving just how screwed up hyperspace and faster-than-life travel can be, which is best laid out in one of my favorite horror movies, Event Horizon..

Space is really, really, REALLY big. It’s 384,400 kilometers from the Earth to the moon (238,900 miles for those of us who still use the archaic Imperial system) and for all of that distance, there’s nothing. No air, no water, not even a WaWa or a Sheetz. It’s four hundred and fifty million kilometers from Earth to Neptune, considered by NASA to be the edge of the solar system. And Voyager 1, the furthest man-made object ever launched into deep space (not counting The Power of the Daleks) is 19,549,473,900 kilometers from Earth.

Doesn’t this freak anyone else out?!?

The Nowhere Place plays upon the concept of something waiting for humanity at the edge of the solar system; something so unfathomably alien and deadly that even the Doctor finds himself inexplicably frightened by it. The incredibly neat idea at the core of this story is sadly watered down by a third episode that brings the proceedings to a screeching halt, a poorly written and acted antagonist, and an ending that is wrapped up in a way that’s just a little too neatly pat.

In the year 2197, the space carrier Valiant is stationed at the edge of the solar system ,sending its elite squadron of Damocles fighters to battle against alien raiders preying on human shipping. However, its ace pilot is grounded by a case of nerves, the only symptom a ringing bell that only he can hear. The Doctor, taking the TARDIS and Evelyn to visit some friends at her college, is worrying his companion. Not just because they’ve heard a mysterious bell, but because Earth’s history, something the Doctor knows like the back of his hand, has been altered. Past 2197, there is nothing, absolutely nothing. And that fact flat-out frightens the Doctor. As the Doctor tracks the source of the bell, he discovers that while the bell is being heard in 2197, the source of the bell is from 1952; a train carrying orders from the British War Office. Whatever the origin of the bell, its sound is enough to drive anyone who hears it mad, compelling them to fling themselves out of a mysterious door onboard Valiant – a door that leads in absolutely nothing. And more and more crewmen are hearing this bell…

Nicholas Briggs has been a vital part of Doctor Who for years. He’s been part of Big Finish since the very beginning (as well as working with Audio Visuals, the precursor to Big Finish) as a writer and a director, eventually becoming executive producer for the entire range of Big Finish audio dramas. Oh, and he just happens to be the television and audio voice for the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Judoon, Ice Warriors, Zygons, and the Nestene Consciousness. For Big Finish, he’s penned The Sirens of Time, The Mutant Phase, Sword of Orion, Embrace the Darkness, and Creatures of Beauty.
Briggs’ earlier stories were solid efforts that aimed very high, but flawed enough that they just missed grabbing the brass ring. One could definitely see the improvement from story to story, however, with Creatures of Beauty being a true standout for the Fifth Doctor. Briggs, wearing all five hats with The Nowhere Place (writer, director, actor, producer, and sound guy!), once again leaves it all in the recording booth with this story, with mixed results. The sound on this story is amazing; the sterile environment of a naval ship, the shaking and clanging of a British Railways train, the sounds of people throwing themselves through a doorway into nothingness, the angry, bitter, hopeful voice of Hayman, and the simple but ominous clanging of a bell heralding the unstoppable feelings humanity must submit to. The story unfolds at a nice pace as well. With Briggs at the director’s helm the listener never feels lost or confused, or most importantly, bored. The story is a unique one, and the big reveal in act four is epic in scale and one that catches the listener off-guard. Everything in the script does have a place…but some of those places should have been skipped over by the train on the CD cover.

Three episodes of The Nowhere Place take place primarily on the Valiant. But the third episode takes place on 1952, on the mysterious train that is the source of the bell that compels humans to do whatever it takes to throw themselves through the doorway and gives even old Sixie a moment’s pause as it’s the most deadly thing in the world to him; something HE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND. Something that freaks out the Doctor is a great story idea, but when the Doctor and Evelyn go to 1952, the story comes to a screeching halt. It makes sense why the Doctor and Evelyn go back to 1952, and what they find out there does tie into the story’s overall plot. The Doctor’s efforts to “blend in” by acting as a train conductor, especially when confronted by the soldier on the train, are amusing. And we get to see Evelyn use her intelligence to discuss matters with the lone passenger on the train, Trevor Ridgely, and how he relates to events in 2197. But the sudden shift in tone, pacing, and setting is incredibly jarring, almost as if the Doctor and Evelyn are dropping into another story altogether. The plot-relevant details from this third episode could have been revealed on board Valiant and kept the serial moving, instead of coming off as a 1970’s/1980’s BBC exec saying “we’ve got a set left over from Murder on the Orient Express, try to slide it into your next Doctor Who story so we can get our money’s worth, that’s a good chap.”

Even if using Valiant as a third-episode setting meant a shorter run time, the time could have been made up by expanding on the Doctor’s moral dilemma that comes up during the story’s climax. The big reveal of The Nowhere Place is an interesting one that immediately brought to mind the fate of previous species from Mass Effect or Dead Space, with the physical descriptions of what is beyond the door straight out of Warhammer 40,000 and its representation of the Warp . The reasoning behind this fate is one that’s based from anger, regret and jealousy, and while the scope of if might not hold up under scrutiny, especially for a Time Lord with access to a TARDIS, it works within the framework of the story…although I’m willing to buy that someone who could build a hole in space that compels people to willingly walk through it would have the technological abilities to hide the truth of the big reveal from the Time Lords…

The supporting cast can be split into two parts. In 1952, Briggs plays Trevor Ridgley, a scientist of some sort on his way to an early version of a military think tank to assist with the British efforts in the burgeoning Cold War. His mindless doodles about a faster-than-life propulsion system are vital for the Doctor’s understanding of what’s going on in 2197. Briggs plays the cocky scientist who is coy with Evelyn and cocky towards his military escort Armstrong (John Killoran, who is as military and reliant on orders as they come), charming but just smug enough for the listener to be wary about siding with him. He also plays alongside during the climax, showing up as Ridgley to provide someone for the Doctor to talk to, since Hayman, the alien beyond the door (played with great fury and anger by Philip Wolff) is too busy screaming after eons of imprisonment.

Even when the door is hanging in deep space thanks to an explosion, the crew of Valiant will tear down bulkheads and break out of cyrogenic freezing to answer its call. The pilots and XO of Valiant (Stephen Critchlow, Andrew Fettes, John Schwab, Benjamin Roddy) are all solid as military personal who begin to panic as their military discipline break down as the bell begins to affect them. But the Commanding Officer of Valiant is the weak link in terms of acting. Martha Cope appeared as the Controller in the Ninth Doctor television story Bad Wolf. In The Nowhere Place she’s Captain Tanya Oswin, and she is the furthest thing from military discipline and decisiveness. Cope doesn’t give Oswin any sense of being worthy of being the captain of one of Earth’s finest ships. She hems and haws, raises her voice, and comes off as incredibly panicky and indecisive the second things go sideways. Her orders seem more like “wild guesses” and less like “sound judgments.” Now, if these traits applied to the Captain AFTER Evelyn and the Doctor come back from 1952, then I could buy her characterization. But she’s like this the MOMENT the Doctor and Evelyn are brought before her…and she’s also exactly like this AFTER they return to Valiant from 1952 after being away for two months. Oswin comes off like she was already on the edge of sanity in a very Third Doctor-esque crazed military type way. It’s the same problem I had with Peri and Erimem’s two-year “vacation” in The Kingmaker, where they remained the exact same people at the end of the time period as they were at the start. Two months of losing her crew should have put Oswin on the edge of sanity…but she’s the exact same person as she was when the first crewman threw himself through the door, except that now she has access to the rescue fleet’s nuclear weapons.

Thankful, Maggie Stables and Colin Baker easily make up the acting deficit. I could listen to an entire audio that was nothing more than Evelyn and Six having a conversation in the TARDIS control room, as the chemistry between both the actors and the characters is simply amazing. It’s still a little weird to hear an Evelyn story after listening to her final story, Thicker Than Water, a few weeks ago. However there are still plenty of Six/Evelyn stories left for us to enjoy. I would slot The Nowhere Place, in terms of continuity if you care about that sort of thing, in before Project: Lazarus, as Evelyn goes through the emotional wringer in this story and I could see it contributing to her conversation with the Doctor about needing a break. We hear Evelyn’s concern for Six through a simple statement – “you let your tea get cold” – that says volumes about their friendship. And she’s right there alongside the Doctor, playing along with his schemes and backing up his insane attempts to prove that they belong on both Valiant and the military train. The true highlight of the story, however, is when Evelyn hears the bell. It’s sheer terror in Stables’ voice as she knows the fate that awaits her, but there’s also a sense of finality as she keeps repeating herself – “I must, I must, I must, I must.” It could have easily been another “brain worm” moment, but Stables is on top of her game, with the fear in her voice as she describes what lies beyond the doorway making the moment chilling instead of cheesy.

And what can we say about Colin Baker? Once again, he proves just how great he is as the Sixth Doctor encounters something that he doesn’t understand…and it scares him. The loud, bombastic braggart is reduced to a scientist bumbling about in the dark. He knows what’s going on, but he can’t explain it, not even to an extent that would cause Captain Oswin to place any faith in him. She accuses him of wanting nothing more than to get in the TARDIS and leave…and Baker crushes it as Six explains that there’s nothing more he wants to do, but only to solve the mystery of why a bell from 1952 is causing Oswin’s crew to kill themselves. The anxiety is Baker’s voice is palpable, hanging thick in the air. While the third episode is a dramatic shift from tension to a bit of comedy, Baker’s attempts to fake being a train conductor provide a moment of levity that would fit perfectly into any other serial. During the climax of the story, Baker seems to channel (foreshadow?) Ten a little bit as he apologizes profusely to Hayman for what’s happened to him, but the quiet anger is still there for what Hayman has done over all those years. The Doctor has to make a very difficult choice, and Colin Baker does what he always does (hint – it involves being amazing) with it…but a little more time should have been given to that scene, to let the weight of the decision be felt by the listener a little more. And the story’s ending, where Evelyn asks the Doctor what’s wrong and the Doctor softly plays it off, robs the decision of its emotional value. A little more hand-wringing and monologuing from Six would have been the best possible ending for this story. While Baker does sells the moral quandary the Doctor faces, I wish Briggs’ script would have given him a bit of a chance to sell the aftermath, once the potential consequences of the decision have had a moment to set in.

The Nowhere Place is worth a listen. It’s a story that, with a copy of tweaks, could have been a true classic. The concept is interesting, with Baker and Stables once again strongly on point and most of the secondary cast backing them up, and the reveal is one that could have had some strong consequences going forward for Big Finish if Briggs wanted to go that way. But with Oswin’s poor characterization brought about by a weak performance from the actress and a third episode that brings the proceedings to a screeching halt, The Nowhere Place ends up just short of being one of Big Finish’s most memorable stories.

Pros
+ Interesting and unique concept
+ Great acting from Colin Baker and Maggie Stables

Cons
– A poor performance from Captain Oswin’s actress
– Third episode out of place with the rest of the story

Synopsis – Original ideas and some terrifying moments get lost by The Nowhere Place being derailed due to a weak military antagonist and an out-of-place third episode that adds little to the rest of the story.

Next up – Subject 3999 – the Doctor. Subject has committed homicide. This subject now in constant redline. His propensity for violence remains unchecked. Analysis suggests synchronisation with the killer. The Doctor will attempt to kill again. He must be stopped…

Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor in…Red.

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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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