When is a friend…not a friend?
That’s the question at the heart of Penelope Faith’s short adventure for the Seventh Doctor and Mel. The Doctor hasn’t heard from a particular pal in a while, and suspects that the Reverend HT Ellacombe may be hiding a juicy fossil that he doesn’t want the Doctor to see.
Naturally enough, being the Doctor, he decides to drop in on the Victorian vicar for tea, fruit cake and discoveries.
Except they’ve barely landed when they spot some footprints in the snow.
Footprints that make no sense in a quiet Victorian village.
Footprints that are cloven, but which belong to no local animal. Because no local cloven-hoofed animal stands on just two feet.
So – in the season of snow dreams, ghost stories and traditions set in stone in the Victorian era, Penelope Faith gives us a proper dose of mystery that turns a touch gothic, with mumbling, superstitious villagers aplenty, bewailing the dark evidence that the Devil has come to their home, and will be striking cows dead and blighting crops like billy-o any minute, just you wait and see if he don’t.
And standing between his village and the forces of darkness, there is their vicar, the Reverend Ellacombe.
Oh, well except nothing, really. It’s just that, as far as Mel’s concerned, the Reverend HT Ellacombe is a bit… well, he’s a bit… well, she’s sure on a good day he’s an absolute delight, but to Mel, it seems that the Reverend HT Ellacombe is really… a bit naff.
And this, mind you, from a nicely brought-up Pease Pottage girl.
The question is whether the Reverend Ellacombe is up to the job of protecting his village from the forces of Satan, or at least whether he’s up to the job of putting his parishioners’ minds at rest that Satan wouldn’t be seen dead in their village.
There’s more to it than that of course, including a lovely bit of Seventh Doctor twiddly-pokery, but it’s Christmas – you want some surprises left, don’t you?
Penelope Faith focuses the story of The Devil’s Footprints well on a few core elements – the vicar who’s both a bit naff and a fossil-collecting pal of the Doctor’s, the impossible footprints in the snow and what could have made them, the rising grumbling swell of discontent in the village, and perhaps most successfully of all, the curiosity, the history, and the fundamental personality of Melanie Bush. We even get a mental dip into Mel’s young childhood, when she would constantly sit on things she wasn’t supposed to sit on (stop sniggering in the back or you’ll stay after class!), a habit she carries through into adult life in this story (alright, that’s it, go and stand in the corner!) – with somewhat surprising results.
The nature of the actual menace threatening the Reverend and his village tempts you down a Pertweean garden path, but is rather more esoteric than anything the Third Doctor would have had the patience for. In fact, it’s pretty fitting for the Elder God-battling, transtemporal chess-playing Seventh Doctor, and a really neat idea into the bargain. Director Helen Goldwyn keeps the story moving, making sure it hits its chilling beats without ever going to the dark side of scenery-chewing Hammer horror. Perhaps there’s a touch of Dennis Wheatley around the edges, but the story’s called The Devil’s Footprints, you want at least a touch of that vibe just for the schlock-shiver of dealing with the Devil.
Bonnie Langford – well, it’s difficult. You want to say ‘Bonnie Langford continues to show why she’s an underrated national treasure’ – but Bonnie Langford’s been an underrated national treasure since she was six years old, so let’s be less generic and dull: Bonnie Langford turns in a performance that once again shows her energy and commitment to drawing her listeners in and telling a good story really well. Here, her reading makes you believe every word she says, as every character who says it, although you can be permitted a giggle at her ultra-Scottish Seventh Doctor. If you think believability’s a given, bear in mind we’re talking about the possibility of the Devil invading a Victorian village here – that takes a certain level of vocal clout to sell, especially when you are Bonnie Langford, and your main character in the Who world is Melanie Bush, the – and I apologise for this one in advance – the very quintessence of effervescence.
The Devil’s Footprints is a vigorous slice of chilly gothic horror, with a twist of The Daemons, a cleverly delivered villain, and a solution that’ll make you think about it afterwards for quite some time. There are no witches per se in this story of a risen Devil, but not to worry – three wise women, Penelope Faith, Bonnie Langford and Helen Goldwyn, have got you covered, and between them, they deliver a short trip that’s not in the least diabolical, but is actually more than a little bit magical. Tony Fyler