Doctor Who: Static – Starring Colin Baker, Lisa Greenwood, Miranda Raison, Scott Chambers, Pippa Nixon, Jo Woodcock, David Graham, Brian Protheroe & Chris Dale. Written by Jonathan Morris & Directed by Jamie Anderson – 2xCD / Download (Big Finish)
Damn. I love Doctor Who when it’s scary.
And that’s what we all really remember from our childhood, isn’t it? The creepy mummies making their way across the landscape of an abandoned estate. The fog rolling in off the sea as our heroes realize that they are trapped in a claustrophobic old lighthouse with a murderous shape-changing alien. The ominous carnival music rising to a crescendo as the Fantasy Factory comes to life around the Doctor. The ancient skull with the pentagram etched onto its surface, beginning to glow. The malevolent figure staring straight into the Doctor’s soul as he introduces himself for the first time: “My name is Aukon,” he says ominously. “Welcome to my domain.”
And the audios have done it too. The Chimes of Midnight’s disturbing cast of characters, who keep coming back to life, portentously insisting that, “We are nothing. We are nobody.” That bell in The Nowhere Place that conjures up a such a feeling of unspeakable, ancient horror. The thick, impenetrable fog in The Last Adventure hiding identical train cars…identical, that is, except for the fact that one is horribly smashed up, bearing the scars of an attack that had not yet befallen its twin. And in Night Thoughts, the gruesome image of a decades-old body come back to life, sewn up inside some taxidermist’s nightmare…
Static – in particular during its first couple of episodes – delivers that same level of visceral terror felt in many of these classic stories. It begins as a typical “bottle” story; that is, it sees the Doctor, his companions and a handful of other characters isolated in a lonely, remote location – in this case, a secluded caravan park in the desolate English north near a place called Abbey Marston. It is the mid-1980s: long before mobile phones and sat-navs, a factor that only builds upon the already-oppressive sense of claustrophobia. But the sense of isolation is only the beginning.
As they get to know their only neighbours for miles around – a young couple attempting to exorcise some demons from the past and an enigmatic, overbearing park supervisor – Flip and Constance quickly realize that something is very, very wrong here. To begin with, Percy – the mysterious site manager – seems to know the Doctor. In fact, he actually seems to be expecting him. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because the young couple they are sharing the park with – Andy and Joanna – seem to be here on even more mysterious business of their own. All this, combined with a set of mysterious rules that forbids any electronic or communications equipment at all – televisions, cassette players, radios and so on – sets the stage for the loneliest, bleakest and, more importantly, the most frightening Main Range audio since the aforementioned Night Thoughts, released all the way back in 2006.
Hoping to correct a terrible wrong that befell Joanna a year earlier, it is Andy who acts as the catalyst in this story. While Joanna believes that they are simply here to talk through the intense emotions that were the result of this calamity, Andy has other ideas in mind, ideas that stem directly from his own research into this locale, and the ancient druidic stone circle that lies nearby. As Andy sets events into motion, the couple is graced with the arrival of an impossible visitor. Only then does the Doctor make a terrifying discovery that involves not only the old stone circle, but also a secret World War II project destined to end in catastrophe.
When it comes to Big Finish, sometimes one can tell just from the opening strands of a story that…this one is going to be different. That something special is happening here. Static is one of those stories. And although creating a strong audio drama does not demand the same involvement as does, say, a television episode or a movie, there are still many components that need to be perfectly aligned in such a story. Of course, it all starts with the writing, and Jonathan Morris’s script is so tight you could bounce a ping-pong ball on it. The performances certainly play a part; the regulars are all in fine form, with Miranda Raison’s Constance and Lisa Greenwood’s Flip taking centre stage more than usual. In addition, it should be mentioned that, when faced with insurmountable odds – particularly ones that could affect all of humanity (and beyond) – Colin Baker’s Doctor has also always been able to convey the extreme gravitas needed in such a situation. But the guest stars also shine here: David Graham is both enigmatic and unnerving as site supervisor Percy Till, and it’s not until much further into the story that his true motivations become known. Scott Chambers and Pippa Nixon have a wonderful chemistry as couple-in-mourning Andy and Joanna, and Jo Woodcock’s performance as the deeply troubled Susannah – the visitor who arrives beyond all boundaries of possibility – also deserves a mention. Finally, Brian Protheroe’s Captain Hardwick acts as a solid grounding element for the story; it is through Hardwick that all the various plot threads are finally tied together, and the true nature of Abbey Marston becomes known.
Ultimately, it is Jamie Anderson’s moody, atmospheric direction that acts as the final peg in such a well-built structure. The bleakness of the English wilderness is almost tangible, and Anderson – having just directed the two other stories in this, the most recent trilogy of Sixth Doctor stories – uses the sense of loneliness to his advantage. Occasional periods of almost “dead air”, when only the fierce wind can be heard, blowing endlessly, serve to emphasize the feeling of isolation and remoteness. Joe Kraemer’s music and – together with Josh Arakelian – his sound design evoke not only a sense of forlorn longing, but also a feeling of impending catastrophe. In fact, the music is almost a character in itself, and practically acts on the listeners’ subconscious, drawing them into a terrifying world where the dead walk, terrifying doppelgängers abound, and the mist closes in like a horrifying neurosis, preventing even the most steadfast from escaping.
If Static has any weakness, it’s the slow return to normality that begins to occur in episode three. And while there’s no doubt that the horror is diminished as the grand design is revealed (a process set in motion by the Doctor’s decision to travel back in time in search of answers), the true nature of Abbey Marston’s secret is no less appalling than the initial buildup. And the overall theme, or at least the lesson that becomes more obvious as the story progresses, is characterized by the Doctor’s disgust when the military is prepared to do absolutely anything – even actions that shatter all bounds of morality – in order to win a war and defeat the enemy.
And it’s this factor that firmly places Static in the category of not just a “good” story, but an “all-time classic”. Not only is it scary – and I mean really scary at times – it is also an extremely relevant comment on a very basic question: is it ever right to do absolutely anything – even at the cost of one’s own soul – in order to defeat a truly abhorrent enemy? But although Doctor Who is at its best when faced with these kinds of questions, they should never be asked at the cost of the telling of a good story. They should never interfere with the drama. Ultimately, Doctor Who is about morality, but it should never hit its audience over the head with such a holier-than-thou attitude. In fact, this is an aspect of the television programme that has come under increasing criticism in recent years. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with a story having a message; it’s when that message becomes all-encompassing that the storytelling suffers.
Static doesn’t do this. If anything, Static could be seen almost as a template, a tale that puts the story, characters and atmosphere first, and hides the exercises in morality deep down within its framework. When a good story does this, the lesson becomes less imminent and more transcendent, and the story is allowed to remain in its purest state – a legend, a history, a memoir and a tragedy… but in the end a story that chills the blood, and makes the hair on the back of the neck stand up. There’s a reason that much of classic Doctor Who was watched from behind the sofa, and occasionally it’s good to be reminded of that. Static channels many of those mid-1970s serials admirably, while still forging ahead in a bold new direction. Peter McAlpine