Audio Visuals
Cloud of Fear

Synopsis: The Doctor and his companion Greg are trapped in a labyrinth of underground tunnels. They discover a deadly foe which lurks in the darkest recesses. Can the Doctor defeat an unseen enemy that will strike at the very heart of his resolve?


Going Underground by Matthew Harris 8/5/09

The best AV yet. Everyone is at the top of their game here, and the script is genuinely powerful and interesting in a way that puts the contemporaneous likes of Timelash and even Attack of the Cybermen to shame.

Said script was the result of an ad placed by the AV team to get some interesting strips from outside of their own circle. The main respondent was the late Alan W. Lear. If that name rings a bell it's because he was initially one of the AV old hands brought back for Big Finish, with his AV original Minuet in Hell being remade for the Eighth Doctor. I haven't been able to hear the original yet, but I have heard the much-derided remake and... well, that's another review altogether but suffice it to say that it's simultaneously fantastically original and painfully rubbish, and would have been 500 times better in its original setting of Lawrence Miles Land (ie late 18th Century Britain). Its "Americans" genuinely said things like "what in tarnation", for heaven's sake! Whether it was Gary Russell's idea to relocate it I don't know, but relations between the two of them eventually broke down to the extent that he never wrote for Doctor Who again. And that's a shame, because this (ie Cloud of Fear) is a genuinely great script.

Just as the Doctor's character was being examined, undermined and questioned (sometimes deliberately, sometimes as an inadvertent result of bad writing) on the TV, this story practically psychoanalyses him. Lear was quite well known as a writer of horror novels, and this is absolutely a horror story, one which starts inside its characters. It's a classic setup: the Doctor and Greg land in these creepy catacombs o'fear (which incidentally was the original title of the play; the "cloud" actually plays relatively little part in the action and was only raised to titular status because "Catacombs of Fear" didn't fit on the tape box), and basically have to figure out where they are, what's happening, and how to get out before they die of fright. While Greg's fear is your usual fairly prosaic animal fear, what the Doctor is faced with is genuinely fascinating on a number of levels. It's not so astonishing on the face of it: it's his tomb. Yes, just like in Revelation of the Daleks at the same time, but there it was used as a bit of black slapstick. This takes it seriously, with the Doctor musing on mortality, travel and in one astonishing monologue even contemplating going home to become curator of his own museum. There's also a great depiction of what happens to a TARDIS once its owner is dead.

Obviously, All Is Not As It Seems..., and all this morbid contemplation is woven into a coherent plot in which the catacombs themselves occasionally almost take on the role of antagonists. There's a genuinely claustrophobic feel to this play, courtesy of sound design by Jim Mortimore on a budget of about 15 pence (many of the sounds come from his bathroom, apparently, although precisely what this entailed was not an avenue I felt inclined to pursue). There's even a succession of plot twists, none of which should have come as any surprise in retrospect but did anyway (although that might just be my pathological credulity).

The acting is the strongest in an AV so far, with the weakest performance still being head and shoulders over your average town hall production. It helps that many of the lines they're given rule. Here's a selection:

In case you hadn't figured out, I think this play is great. In fact, the only real criticism I have is that the monsters' voices (of course there are monsters) are practically inaudible; without the transcripts I might have mistaken the first scene (which, now I think of it, doesn't make sense in light of the final plot twist, but I forgive it) for a wind sound-effect accompanied by some tape distortion and a sobbing man.

Alan W. Lear died on Boxing Day of 2008 at just 55, having suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for several years. Listening to Cloud of Fear has convinced me that this was a greater tragedy for Doctor Who than we might have realised.