Doctor Who: Kingdom of Lies – Starring Peter Davison, Sarah Sutton, Matthew Waterhouse, Janet Fielding, Jonathan Firth, Charlotte Lucas, Harriet Thorpe, Tim Bentinck, Richenda Carey, Piotr Hatherer, Patsy Kensit & Harry Smith. Written by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky. Directed by Barnaby Edwards – 2xCD / Download (Big Finish)
Despite the malleability of its format, Doctor Who has only really dipped its toe in the water, metaphorically speaking, when it comes to comedy. In its early days, historical pastiches like The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters were often just confused for bad episodes, and although there were certainly jokes galore – particularly, for instance, in the Second Doctor’s and the Fourth Doctor’s respective eras – these isolated chuckles really didn’t constitute full-fledged comedies per se, save for a very few specific stories (The Sun Makers, for example, was certainly written as a full-fledged satire). Certainly, much has been written of more “unnecessary” comedy during, for example, eras dominated by the likes of Graeme Williams and Douglas Adams. But again, very few stories from this time – if any – could actually be considered “comedies” by the true definition of the word. Most serials were, rather, adventure stories with a few laughs thrown in.
A lot of that changed with Big Finish. One of the things the audio company tried – very successfully, I might add – was an attempt to resurrect certain formats that had not been used in the series for some time. A very good example of this is the “pure historical” – stories that took place in Earth’s history and were devoid of any science fiction elements at all. In the classic series, this format was confined, to all intents and purposes, to the First Doctor’s era, with only two other examples appearing in the entire history of the show – during the Second Doctor’s and Fifth Doctors periods respectively (specifically, The Highlanders and Black Orchid). Similarly, the revived 2005 series has yet to attempt that format at all. On audio, however, Big Finish has been coming out with pure historical stories ever since they tested the waters with the Sixth Doctor story The Marian Conspiracy all the way back in the spring of 2000. And they’ve gotten very good at them; some pure historical stories are some of the best tales the Main Range has ever produced (if you don’t believe me, check out 2016’s The Peterloo Massacre).
Comedy – not as an odd collection of jokes, but as an actual genre – is another format that Big Finish has experimented with and perfected over the years. As with all different series, there have been hits and there have been misses – for every One Doctor there’s a Bang-bang-boom! – but, generally speaking, there have been more successful attempts than failures over the years. The Kingmaker, for example, is usually right at the top of many audio polls, and who can forget the Python-esque humour of Castle of Fear?
Kingdom of Lies is, in some ways, subtler than some of these entries into the Main Range. Sometimes I wasn’t quite sure whether or not it actually knew it was a comedy; there are certainly times when the action gets deadly deliberate and austere. But from the setup at the very beginning, it was fairly obvious that this was a story that was not going to take itself too seriously.
The TARDIS brings the Doctor, along with Adric, Tegan and Nyssa to the nation of Cardenas, on the planet Cicero Prime. It is the first-year anniversary of Sebastian and Miranda, the Duke and Duchess of Cardenas, and all is not well in paradise. Ever since their marriage, the rulers have been bickering endlessly, engaged in petty squabbles that threaten to drive a wedge straight into the heart of the kingdom. Indeed, the effects of their trivial quarrels are felt in a decidedly tangible way throughout Cardenas; the The Duke and Duchess have commissioned the painting of a “line of demarcation” across the entire kingdom, separating the Duke’s world from that of his wife. Everything on the Duke’s side of the line has been painted an ostentatious red, while everything on the Duchess’ side is a gaudy blue, a fact that illustrates just how insane the situation has become. In fact, things have gotten so bad that Sebastian has gone as far as to commission an off-world assassin – the dreaded “Scorpion” – to take out his beloved bride once and for all.
When the Doctor and his companions arrive, he and Nyssa are mistaken by the Duke as the Scorpion and his faithful protégé, “Nyssa the Destroyer” (hearing Nyssa say, “he kills for money; I murder because I like it!” is one of the highlights of the entire CD). Similarly, Adric and Tegan manage to convince the Duchess that they are, actually, members of the “Grand Order of Alzarius”, a supposed organization of assassins sent to Cicero Prime to counter the actions of the Scorpion and protect the Duchess:
ADRIC: (Referring to his badge of mathematical excellence) My badge symbolizes our Grand Order. Each sharp point is laced with poison – and that’s not all. I have deadly weapons concealed all about my person.
TOMEK: Oh, really? How inconvenient for you.
All in all, it’s a fun setup: TARDIS party gets split in two, and each half is involved in complementing cases of mistaken identity. As the Doctor and Tegan try to convince Sebastian that they are actively attempting to assassinate Miranda, Adric and Nyssa are similarly trying to convince the Duchess that they are trying to stop the Scorpion, hied by Sebastian, from killing her. Initially, they don’t realize “the Scorpion” is actually the Doctor. But when they do find out, the dynamics of the story change yet again. And when the real Scorpion finally shows up, right when Miranda’s parents arrive from the neighbouring kingdom of Galleria, things heat up indeed…
As mentioned above, Kingdom of Lies is a funny hybrid of a story. It definitely qualifies as a comedy, but there are times – particularly during the cliffhangers – when things seem to get deadly serious. This is the first of a couple of issues I have with the story: it’s always wonderful to have a Doctor Who serial that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but if you have been laughing at a rather bumbling character over the course of a 30-minute episode, and then that character is suddenly gunned down in cold blood (or, at least, seems to be gunned down) it changes the overall feel of the story very quickly. It doesn’t matter that the resolution of the cliffhanger may show that character to be really alive after all; if we are treating this as a traditional Doctor Who story, the cliffhanger marks a point where the listener stops and reflects on the events up to that point, and a brutal death can change the comedic feel very quickly. Most of Big Finish’s successful comic audio plays stick with using simply the threat of danger as a cliffhanger catalyst, thus ensuring that the tone of the story doesn’t sway back and forth too much.
One of the other problems I felt I had to work through with this story was the portrayal of the Doctor himself. Many successful Big Finish comedies have utilized the Fifth Doctor, possibly because Peter Davison seems to be most comfortable in that genre. But in all cases, the Doctor has continued to appear competent. This is much less true of the Doctor in this story; he arrives in the midst of a case of mistaken identity, and takes on the mantle of another character. This is something he has done many times before, and he usually does it quite successfully. Here, however, the Doctor seems to be constantly stumbling over his words, making silly faux pas that continually almost reveal his subterfuge. While it’s totally true that Nyssa’s portrayal of “Nyssa the Destroyer” is hysterical, the Doctor appears to be almost incompetent, a fact that doesn’t serve his character well. (It’s actually hard not to imagine how the 7th Doctor would function in the exact same situation; at the very least, he would appear to be capable in the job of assuming someone else’s identity.)
There is one final aspect of the characterization in the story that needs to be considered as well. Both the Duke and Duchess are intensely dislikable characters, and I found myself looking forward to the end of the audio just so they could get a comeuppance that, frankly never comes. Indeed, there is very little character development among any of the guest stars this month; most of them end up right back where they were at the beginning of the story. Again, with the Duke and Duchess, this is done with the intention of providing humorous overtones (the final scene in the play, in particular). But it just doesn’t really work: if there’s not going to be any growth, then one expects that a character should suffer the consequences. But this doesn’t happen, and unfortunately it makes these characters all the more unlikable.
Having gotten the bad out of the way, there are many things that Kingdom of Lies does right. In particular, the pacing is extraordinary; it races along at breakneck speed, a factor that can only contribute to the comedic tone of the story:
TOMEK: Are you loyal to the Duchess?
ADRIC: Would that be a good thing or a bad thing?
TOMEK: The Duchess is the true ruler of Cardenas, while the Duke is a godless glob-chicken of a man, whom all right-thinking people despise.
TEGAN: We can’t stand him either!
ADRIC: God save the Duchess!
In addition, despite the point previously made about the Doctor’s characterization, it is very nice to see our intrepid time travellers as “fish out of water”. In this story in particular, it’s something that’s even more evident, as all four members of the TARDIS crew are impersonating assassins!
There’s also a certain amount of self-reflection and commentary that both the Doctor and his companions engage in that adds to the overall mood and tone of the story. It’s not quite a metatextual examination of their circumstances, but it’s certainly close:
DOCTOR: I thought it was rather elegant. The Duke thinks we’ve done his dirty work for him, the Duchess plays along for the PR boost, and in the confusion we find Adric and Tegan, get back to the TARDIS, and rematerialize somewhere much more civilized…like the Spanish Inquisition.
Once again, it is Peter Davison’s experience in the comedic genre that really makes this work. In many ways, Davison has received a bit of a bad rap when it comes to his audio stories; because both Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy never really got the chance to explore and expand their characters on television, many people comment on the way they have “reinvented” their characters on audio. Similarly, before Big Finish, Paul McGann had only ever appeared in the television movie, and has similarly been lionized for using the audio medium to expand his own exploration of the Doctor. And people were so thrilled when Tom Baker finally gave in and agreed to play the Doctor on audio at all (long after the others have been doing it for many years) that he became the product of similar adulation. This left only Peter Davison, who really just continued to do what he did for the three years when he was the Doctor on television: play a strong, consistent part with a perfect combination of gravitas and humour. As a result, this reviewer has always held Davison’s audio stories in the highest regard, and even some of the more salient points mentioned earlier are definitely not enough to bring Kingdom of Lies down. Although the writing may have hit a few stumbling blocks along the way, it’s absolutely saved by the performances and, as a result, is still a fun, fast-paced story. It’s also an incredibly imaginative tale, absolutely unique among the Peter Davison era. This, perhaps, is where the writing redeems itself; although there may be a few specific issues with characterization, the idea itself is quite wonderful. In the end, it’s nice to take a break from monsters and planet-killers and the Master trying to rule the universe yet again. As stated in the extras, this is basically “Doctor Who does The War of the Roses” (the 1989 Danny DiVito/Michael Douglas/Kathleen Turner movie, not the ongoing story of the Plantagenet dynasty!) and, if anything, it just goes to show how flexible Doctor Who’s format is, yet again. Peter McAlpine