|The Game by Darin Henry|
Some years ago, DWM ran a list of ten or so humorously worded 'things to avoid when submitting a Doctor Who book proposal'. One of these warned potential writers against including a dull or politically arduous back story - I think the example went something like "The Narg and the alien Fadge are fighting a long war for control of the Lupha. The Narg want to fight for control of the Lupha, but the Fadge favour negotiating a peace. At length."
The backstory of the Game is as follows: "On Cray, the Gora and the Lineen are fighting for control of Naxy. The Doctor and Nyssa meet Coach Bela Destry and Ockle Dirr. They must join Ambassador Faye Davis and Lord Darzil Carlysle and negotiate a peace between the Gora and the Lineen over Naxy. At length." I may be getting cynical, I may not always be fair, but even the softest heart at this point would sigh at least a small "oh dear".
Saddled with such an awful premise, "The Game" struggles on, mostly successfully, feeling to all the world like it should be an episode of "Futurama" and not Doctor Who. At least, it doesn't make things any MORE difficult for itself after it starts - given that all the Naxy business also requires Big Finish to have yet another stab at depicting a slice of contemporary youth culture (namely the space equivalent of football hooliganism), it almost fails to disgrace itself. Sure, this isn't "Mean Machine", and supposedly gritty characters wage a war against lines as bad as "It's our global past-time innit?" and "I read it in my ancestors diary!". Worse, a very visual story requires a very clever writer to relay to us what's happening on audio without us becoming aware of the method of exposition. Using a sports commentator to feed us laboured descriptions of what's going on is fooling nobody, and later on Nyssa has to loudly point out to somebody that they have just distracted the enemy away from her.
But - and bear with me, because once we've got all this out the way there is light ahead - these aren't the story's biggest failings. They lie in the sheer scope of what we're expected to believe. It's all very well pointing out that it's a Universe of infinite possibilities, but that doesn't excuse the frankly ridiculous scenario proposed here; that a society could somehow accept the cold-blooded, gruesome murder of hundreds of people every day in a game. The story expects us to believe that somehow thug violence got so interesting that suddenly nobody minded when it became the main spectator sport. The whole play rests on this silly notion; later on we're asked to believe that the whole population of the planet are waiting at the foot of the hill for Morian. I suspect this story would have been more believable in a 'Lord of the Flies' sort of a way if it had been set within a small colony or settlement, rather than encompassing an entire planet.
But it has to be said that it's not a completely lost cause. Once you've got past all of the above, a passable adventure emerges. Dividing it over six episodes was a masterstroke, fooling the listener into absorbing a speedier pace simply by maintaining a long four episode running time but inserting more breaks. William Russell is superb as Lord Carlysle, and the device of the Doctor becoming his best friend in the future was inspired (which Doctor did you imagine giving him the worried glances? For me it was the Sixth), as is the addictive 'scent' given off by Merion - imagine a person themselves becoming a drug and causing cold turkey by their absence. Super!
But then, this is a story which is brimming with ideas, so perhaps we should expect at least a couple to hit their target. Some (including, unfortunately, the biggest ones) are stinkers. A few seem to have been included simply because the writer thought of them (you can just see him watching a football match and thinking "What if the commentator had to narrate his own death? What if the after-game violence became more important than the match itself?"). Some are more worthy. And perhaps someone else should have insisted that Morian not be allowed to simply escape at the end, depriving the story of a proper resolution just so a (heaven forbid, in all fairness) sequel can stick a foot in the door.
Ultimately "The Game" rises above the low expectations of its ill-advised plot, and I hope you'll appreciate the comparison I'm making when I say the Naxy stadium reminded me of a similar one once required to be populated by thousands of Killer Cats. If only they had script writers on Audio, this story might well have suffered the same fate.