Doctor Who – “The Wishing Beast/The Vanity Box”


What can it mean when the Doctor and Mel are drawn to an asteroid by a message from the strange, elderly Applewhite sisters? The travellers are promised that they will receive their dearest wishes when they enter the frozen forests of this benighted shard of a world.

But the ghosts that haunt this place are desperate to warn the Doctor about the sisters’ promises. Only the ghosts know the true nature of the legendary Wishing Beast.

Colin Baker is the Doctor in The Wishing Beast (A Three-Part Story).

X X X X X

A strange beauty parlour has opened its doors for business in a dowdy Salford terrace circa 1965. Monsieur Coiffure is the talk of the street with his fabulous make-overs. When the Doctor arrives, however, he knows at once that there’s been some unnatural titivation going on.

Colin Baker is the Doctor in The Vanity Box (A One-Part Story).

X X X X X

Cast
The Wishing Beast
Colin Baker (The Doctor)
Bonnie Langford (Mel)
Jean Marsh(Maria)
Geraldine Newman (Eliza)
Sean Connolly (Ghost/Mildew)
Toby Sawyer(Daniel/Ghost Brother)
Toby Longworth (The Wishing Beast)
Rachel Laurence(Female Ghost)

The Vanity Box
Colin Baker (The Doctor)
Bonnie Langford (Mel)
Diana Flacks(Nesta)
Christine Moore (Winnie)
Rachel Laurence (Bessy/Barmaid)
Toby Longworth (Monsieur Coiffure)

Written By: Paul Magrs
Directed By: John Ainsworth

Trailer – http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/popout/the-wishing-beast-263

X X X X X

The Wishing Beast is a three-part fairy tale done in the style of Doctor Who – a house full of witches, ghosts in the forests, and a fantastic creature who can grant someone their heart’s fondest desire. Sadly, the story suffers as it bounces back and forth between a “Disney” style fairy tale and a “Brothers Grimm” one, causing a tonal dissonance. Add to it some weak material given to Bonnie Langford, and even though the one-part story The Vanity Box actually serves as supplemental material to its parent story, both stories fail to truly click as a cohesive whole.

The Doctor and Mel land on an uninhabitable asteroid soaked in radiation to investigate a strange message. The message welcome visitors to the asteroid, saying that they’ve been expecting visitors for a very long time…and as the message concludes, the TARDIS’ instruments show that the asteroid is now free of radiation with a breathable atmosphere! The Doctor and Mel find their way through a dark, twisting forest towards a small cottage inhabited by two old women – the Applewhite sisters. Both women are eager to welcome their guests, gushing about how long they’ve waited to meet them. But hospitality is not the only thing the sisters have to offer. Deep in the forest, past a village of ghostly spirits, is a fantastic creature who is able and willing to grant an individual’s dearest wish. And this creature has been waiting a very long time to grant the wish of the famous traveler of time and space…Melanie Bush!

Paul Magrs – writer, lecturer, creator of the renegade Time Lord Iris Wildthyme, writer of the Big Finish audios The Stones of Venice (eh…), Excelis Dawns (um…), The Boy That Time Forgot (oh, dear…) and The Wormery (Well I liked it!). The Wishing Beast attempts to channel the best parts of The Stones of Venice in terms of a wonderful setting with all kinds of familiar trappings, eschewing the romantic aspects of the Venice for those of a fairy tale. On one hand, we have the creepy aspects of a traditional fairy tale – ghosts in the woods, witches in the kitchen, and a beast who ensures wishes are best left unspoken. But on the other hand, there is the silly, scenery chewing, over-the-top performances of the Applewhite Sister – Jean Marsh (best known to Who fans as Morgaine from the Seventh Doctor story Battleground and as quasi-companion of the First Doctor Sara Kingdom in The Dalek’s Master Plan) and Geraldine Newman. They bounce back and forth from being creepy and sinister to silly and laughable, but in the process fail to come off as either, especially when their biggest threat is to gleefully and menacingly wield a ghost-sucking vacuum cleaner. And the ghosts themselves are the positively charged remnants of souls (providing a scientific explanation to a “supernatural” concern, as per everything else in Doctor Who) that have dealt at one time or the other with the Wishing Beast. The concept of “half-ghosts” is unnerving and the Applewhite Sisters coming for tribute is geninuely disturbing stuff, until the vacuum cleaner comes out, and no matter how scary you want it to be, having a character say they’re switching the cleaner from “suck to blow” will always be funny, and in this case ruin the tension of the moment.

Magrs’ script can’t decide if it wants to be a comedic story with a few creepy moments or a intensely unsettling story with moments of tension breaking laughter, and it truly suffers for it. It’s only during the climax, where the truth of the Wishing Beast is unveiled and the Doctor make a sudden sacrifice that the story firmly commits to the “tense and creepy” side of fairy tales thanks to a solid performance by veteran Big Finish actor Toby Longworth who channels the helplessness of the Wishing Beast into his own personal desires. But by then it’s a bit too little and a bit too late…especially with the Doctor’s decision, once the Wishing Beast has been conquered and the Applewhite Sisters given their just desserts, the Doctor’s final decision with regards to the Wishing Beast is to…just leave it on the asteroid, where no one will ever find it since no one would ever have the need to land on the asteroid without the Applewhite Sister’s message. It’s a very weak and passive ending, especially since the events of The Vanity Box take place immediately after…

I’ve been a fan of Bonnie Langford’s time with Big Finish as Melanie Bush. The programmer from Pease Pottage has had a variety of layers added to her character through ten audios alongside both the Sixth and Seventh Doctors. The Wishing Beast would be Langford’s last audio with Big Finish for five-and-a-half years, until the superb The Wrong Doctors. And I’m bummed that this would be the story Mel would “go out” on. Langford does a great job with the material she’s given…but much like The Juggernauts, the material she’s given in this case is just not worth her best efforts. Put simply, in The Wishing Beast Mel holds the proverbial Idiot Ball for most of the story’s runtime. She suspects the Applewhite Sisters are up to something, but never ACTS like it, merrily going along with them into the woods without a care into the world and then acting SHOCKED when things go sideways. I hate using this phrase to describe any character in a story, but Mel is completely worthless save to be the MacGuffin that drives the story forward towards the confrontation with the Wishing Beast. And once the Doctor has confronted the Wishing Beast, Mel…steps into the background and does nothing other than refuse to let the Applewhites into the TARDIS and freaking out when one of the sisters goes all Scott Summers with her eyes on a ghost. It’s a good performance with bad material, and as I said it’s a shame that this is Langford’s last story for a good long while. She deserved much better.

One of the standard pieces of advice told to writers is “show don’t tell.” Magrs’ script and dialogue consistently tells the listener that the Doctor is freaked out about everything that’s happening to him. But Colin Baker’s performance is jaunty and lighthearted! It’s not a case of “brave heart, Sixie” either. The Nowhere Place was a great example of a Sixth Doctor freaked right the [BLEEP] out, where the story and Colin’s performance just got more and more unnerving as the story went on. The Wishing Beast sees the Doctor confident in his decisions and bravely walking through the woods with only a bit of enhanced speed brought on by the spooky nature of the forest. Towards the end once the Doctor confronts the Wishing Beast and the Applewhite Sisters for all their sins we get the “I was scared but now I’m PISSED” Sixth Doctor we all know and love, but there wasn’t any sense of “I was scared” to help set that moment up.

This is John Ainsworth’s last directing job for the Big Finish main range, and while The Wishing Beast moved along quickly enough there was still a sense that it could have moved even faster. A few minutes could have been cut here and there to either make the story more/less creepy or more/less humorous. He definitely could have also fine-tuned Baker and Langford’s performances to better match the tone. The sound work was pretty solid as well; the listener could easily feel like they were in a haunted forest or a cozy little cottage, mixed with the haunting voices of the lost souls or the roars of the Wishing Beast.

The Vanity Box ties into the events of The Wishing Beast as the Doctor and Mel take a trip to 1960’s England to recover from their encounter with the Applewhite sisters. There’s a new salon in Salford, where older women are walking out looking YEARS younger. It turns out, no surprise, that the source that powered the Wishing Beast is the same thing that peels away the years like a parasite, sucking up memories and life energy. But the “Wishing Beast” hasn’t met the Doctor before…

It turns out the Doctor, when disposing of the energy source by throwing it into the Time Vortex, throws it along the TARDIS’ flight path, which puts the box on the asteroid where the Applewhite sisters will eventually find it, thus creating a predestination paradox – the Doctor has to put the Vanity Box on that asteroid “by accident” in order for the Wishing Beast to come to life and devour countless souls until the Doctor defeats it.

Well that’s a bit of a freakin’ downer, ain’t it?

I wish The Vanity Box had somehow tied directly into The Wishing Beast. Instead, it comes off as “deleted material” in a way, a mini-episode that was put on a DVD to flesh the story out. There are a few humorous moments such as Toby Longworth as a beautician who bounces back and forth between a Northern accent and a French one and the Sixth Doctor trying to pass as a 1960’s housewife (seriously, the Doctor in drag…that’s just brilliant! Why hasn’t it been done before?!?), and as a one-parter the story works very well. But as part of the overall story of The Wishing Beast it would have been better had the Doctor been dealing with the Applewhite and Mel investigating the ins and outs of the Vanity Box! Although then we wouldn’t have gotten the Doctor in drag…

The problems with The Wishing Beast mainly come from the script failing to decide what type of story it wanted to be. Add to it a supplemental tale that would have been better served rolled into the main portion and some poor direction and dialogue given to Bonnie Langford and Colin Baker, it’s a shame that The Wishing Beast turned out how it was. It could have been a very neat fairy tale from Paul Magrs that could have improved upon The Stones of Venice but instead turns out to be a story forgotten once the pages are turned.

Pros
+ That’s one hell of a CD cover
+ Toby Longworth is great in both stories
+ Colin Baker in drag!

Cons
– Mel firmly holds the Idiot Ball
– The Doctor keeps saying he’s scared, but Colin Baker’s performance says otherwise
– The story can’t decide whether to be “Disney” or “Brothers Grimm”
The Vanity Box should have been better integrated into The Wishing Beast

Cobi’s synopsis – Blame it on the script and some poor character direction, as The Wishing Beast is a fairy tale barely worth skimming over.

Next up – Something else lies in wait in this awful place, something from an era before humankind set foot on the continent’s cold soil. A menace frozen in time.

Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor in…Frozen Time.

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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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4 Responses to Doctor Who – “The Wishing Beast/The Vanity Box”

  1. Cygnia says:

    Magrs is a crap writer. :p

  2. cobiwann says:

    What makes you say this, aside from this story?

    • Cygnia says:

      He wrote “Sick Building” with Ten and it is just ugggh… A poorly done “Kill ‘Em All” plot with Martha getting shat upon that she’s not as good as (and will never be as good as) Rose and the Big Bad getting defeated by BURPING.

      My dream is Paul Cornell replacing Moffat. My fear is either Magrs or the guy who wrote “Kill the Moon” taking over instead.

  3. Aidan says:

    I think Magrs is one of those Marmite writers that it’s impossible to not have a reaction to. Some of his work really frustrates me, others I find utterly charming (Mad Dogs and Englishmen & Excelis Dawns are two of my favorites). This release is a mess for the reasons you describe though I was surprised to enjoy the one part story more than the three.

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