|The Land of the Dead by Stephen Cole|
There is a lot of good stuff in Land of the Dead. It’s one of the early Big Finish plays, written by one of the "insiders" and it delivers Doctor Who that is both recognisable and yet couldn’t have been done on TV. The brief, in short, for the Big Finish range.
The setting is a very unusual house in Alaska. Insanely rich Brit, Shaun Brett, has built a house made from local materials. Each room is made from a different "thing" – the ice room, the stone room, the timber room and – most sinister of all – the bone room. The layout of the house is handily explained with a diagram of the ground floor included in the CD packaging. Just like something in one of those Agatha Christie stately home murders.
The rooms would look magnificent on TV today. Back in the early eighties they would’ve been badly CSOed, cramped and unthreatening places but today we could see a vast chamber which would look less like a chromakeyed cupboard and more like being inside a giant rib cage.
The house is a magnificently grotesque creation but it isn’t just a gimmick – it is the abuse of the local area that the house represents which gives the play its first dramatic nudge. The wealthy outsider arrives and begins a wholesale disturbance of the local area. Using and abusing the people, disrespecting local customs and making himself loved or hated depending on how easy each native is to buy off. Just like something in one of those Agatha Christie stately home murders.
The main characters are well drawn – Brett is rich but unbalanced. He has become so used to getting exactly what he wants that he is blinded to the consequences. Monica, the interior designer, is nicely irritable and sarcastic. Though, unlike Orllensa (Embrace the Darkness), they don’t over do it. She’s just someone who was intrigued enough and paid enough to come out to Alaska and indulge a billionaire’s folly but when things start getting out of hand she just wants to have a cigarette and let them play their stupid games.
The clash between pro- and anti-Brett Inuit is represented by the characters of Tulung and Gaborik. Like everyone else in this play, neither is entirely good or entirely bad. It’s just different sides of a complicated argument. It is to the play’s credit that it neither ignores nor over-indulges this debate. It is enough to give the Inuit a three-dimensional culture and move on to the bones of the story.
Which was a pun because this is where it all falls apart. We are presented with the monsters of the story – because it has to have monsters doesn’t it – the Permians. They lay dormant in the Alaskan wastes for millions of years before Brett disturbed them. They are made of bone, they were the dominant species on Earth during their era, they can absorb the qualities of other beings by eating them and they are unstoppable killers. I’m not sure why I find them so unsatisfactory – it might be that so powerful a species should, by rights, have exterminated all other life on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago so there wouldn’t be anything left as they would’ve consumed each other once all other food sources had been exhausted. It might also be that the monsters were so unnecessary and a rather more grotesque version of the previously mentioned Agatha Christie stately home murders would’ve been better. I know – why listen to Doctor Who if all I want is murder mysteries? Well, the whole point of Doctor Who is variety – sometimes aliens are the monsters, sometimes robots are the monsters, sometimes viruses are the monsters and sometimes human beings are the monsters. They assembled a cast of characters with so many interlacing hatreds and resentments and trapped them in a setting that inspired the imagination of the listener. Why turn it into just another monster run-around? Especially when the writer had no big idea as to how to use the monsters in a creative way. They just smashed things and killed people and in the end they were blown up. Wow.
Some Big Finish plays are disappointing because there is no imagination on display. Land of the Dead is ultimately disappointing because there IS imagination on display – it’s just that it is used solely as a backdrop for something so painfully formulaic.