Red Dawn by Justin Richards

I wasn't, to be honest, much inclined to ever listen to "Red Dawn" again. Quite apart from its reputation, and acknowledged failure by Russell/Richards (like Jagger/Richards but with less womanising), I didn't remember it as being in the remotest bit exciting or interesting. But Mr Cragg made it sound so much better than I remembered it in his recent column, well, I thought the day would have to come round sooner or later, and so why not today?

"Red Dawn" is now notorious as the first big 'flop' of the Big Finish series. To get statistical for a moment, it was the seventh audio to be released. Before working that out, I thought it would be interesting to see how many stories the New Series managed to knock out before its first 'backlash'/clunker/'novelty wearing off' point. Or, to put it another way, which story was in the equivalent release position as "Red Dawn". Week 7 of the New Series. That would be "The Long Game", then. But this is slightly coincidental. "Red Dawn" wasn't just a disappointment because it came seven stories in, or because it followed a run which featured several early popular stories. The reason, quite simply, was that it was formulaic and therefore unsurprising and unlovable.

Had Richards invented the concepts on show here, it might have been a different story. In fact, the tale isn't painful to listen to. It all feels very atmospheric and "real", Episode 1 has a real aura of "proper Doctor Who" about it, as the Tomb of Izdaal is explored and a cliffhanger emerges (an odd four seconds of silence late) from the event of ice cracking open to reveal the Commander Zzarl and things appear promising from there. But the first problem is that the Warriors themselves are very generic. Zzarl even sounds like an Ice Warrior name you'd swear they used on TV. And never going two minutes without finding an excuse to press home the "novelty" of them being good guys, Richards contrives to weave something about "honour" into their every move. Not only was this done in "The Curse Of Peladon" thirty years ago, but here it's laid on with a trowel. Not a moment goes by when Zzarl seems to spout some catchy vignette involving the wretched word "honour", and if I had the script to hand I suspect most of them would contradict each other. If Zzarl wants to fight, he purrs gracefully about battle being honourable. If, later on, he wants to surrender, he sagely notes that surrender can be honourable as well. It all gets a bit tiring by the end, especially as this story is essentially one long hostage negotiation between Zzarl, the Doctor and the insane Webster, whose like we have encountered too many times in Doctor Who. He's mad! He wants alien technology for himself so he can rule the world! And his prime motive turns out to be to escape with Tania and and some organic Martian tissue (i.e a Warrior), despite the fact he came armed with both those things to start with.

It's also tediously slow. The action all takes place either in Izdaal's tomb, or on the Martian surface, or in a vehicle or spaceship on the Martian surface. As episode 3 "dawns", the Doctor is still stuck where he was at the start of Part 1, lots of talking about honour later. To be fair, the story works best as a morality play, and there is some mild entertainment to be gained in trying to second-guess Webster and work out the play's one, somewhat disappointing, secret - that Tania has been cross-bred with Martian DNA, a revelation with the single consequence that she inexplicably knows how to drive Ice Warrior armoured trucks. One senses Richard's hasn't got much of a grasp of genetics at this point, or one would automatically inherit all one's fathers driving skills and, bizarrely, his knowledge of football results and the like.

The best one can say about "Red Dawn" is that if you haven't heard it before, it entertains throughout it's (thankfully not too drawn out) running time, on the basis of being a character based play. But even then, the supporting characters are clich├ęd and unmemorable, no-one providing that essential spark or experience to make things come alive - Commander Forbes might just as well be James Warwick from "Earthshock", and there's no discernable difference between Georgia Moffatt's bland portrayal of Tania (whose attitude and strength of character should betray her Martian blood, not the fact she can instinctively operate a few Ice Warrior gadgets) and the other girl who's killed at the start. Richards is a workmanlike Who scribe - he wants the Ice Warriors, he wants them to be honourable and there will be a talkative adventure with a twist in the tale to put them in. That's what kind of level we're working at, and there's no hint of genius, originality or spine-tingling surprise here. At all. Richards is simply an average Doctor Who writer, and "Red Dawn" is an average story. Cheers, Mr Cragg!