Audio Visuals

Synopsis: The TARDIS arrives in a deserted subway. The trains are without crew or passengers. A shapeless horror is waiting to induce a ghastly compulsion. And the Doctor can't help - he's already late for work.


Fugitive from the Cubicle Police by Matthew Harris 1/4/08

Conglomerate, the third AV story (not counting the pilot), is unusual in a number of ways. The most immediately obvious is that there are no characters, apart from the Doctor and Greg. The only other castmember is David Sax, playing an officious little tannoy voice - like the periscope from Teletubbies has grown up, gone straight, and got a career in finance - but that's not really a character. This story, and the listener's interest therein, is basically in the hands of Nicholas Briggs and Richard Marson as the Nth Doctor and Greg Holmes, the world's oldest and most cynical 16 year old. Initially, this is slightly problematic as their voices are just that little bit too similar for their own good. Again, the transcripts on helped, but either way your brain eventually stops being a stupid git and you can figure out which is which.

The other aspect of this story that's unusual is the fact that it's simultaneously a filler story and a massively important foundation stone for the series. The Conglomerate of the title will return again and again, the keystone of a story thread that lasts all the way up to the last story. As opening stories to monumental story arcs go, this little two-hander goes past "modest" toward "apologetic". It's as if Lawrence Miles had written Interference as a Terrance Dicks pamphlet.

Not that this is a criticism - far from it. This is incredibly small scale, shockingly so when you realise where it led, but it's a good story. The AV team didn't know it was going to lead anywhere at the time, of course; Conglomerate was orignally planned, as mentioned earlier, to be a filler story of about half an hour. Eventually it ballooned into a two-parter, but remained about the same scale - no extraneous characters, only three voice actors, a story entirely told through dialogue and exposition - and they managed, by and large, to avoid the latter, mostly. It's an unconventional story: it has a monster, to be sure, but even that isn't what it first appears to be. For most of the story's running time, in fact, the bad guy is actually the Doctor, inexplicably transformed into the kind of career-minded, power-lunching douche that was getting to be everywhere in the mid-eighties. It's a very original form of mind control; instead of simply sublimating the will to a bearded adversary type, the Conglomerate actually engender a feverish sense of company loyalty, bolstered by the promise of moving up the career ladder. It's almost like the Cybermen, updated for the age of the Yuppie. As the Doctor himself puts it, "There's something reassuringly simple about a monster that wants to just blast you into oblivion. Things get needlessly complicated and sordid when it wants to bribe you into a change of lifestyle."

The acting is more important than ever with a two-hander, so it's just as well that it's the best so far. Nicholas Briggs, still playing the Doctor as a sort of grumpy Oscar Wilde, does a very good job of gradually underscoring the wrongness of the affected Doctor, slowly dropping his mannerisms and affectations until he's left with an almost characterless cubicle droid whose only emotion is an irrational love for the Conglomerate. Then, when the Doctor starts to come to his senses, we can hear the difference in his voice. Marson, meanwhile, who has to carry most of the story as the Doctor's away with the fairies, is occasionally broad but basically solid and identifiable, deliberately out of his depth as the story's only hero. It's worth noting that even in the concurrent Colin Baker era, the Doctor was never this plainly and clearly a villain. Usually, it's one of his companions - mostly Sarah Jane - who gets mind-controlled into joining the other side (or in the case of Adric, just does it because he's bored). When it happens to the Doctor himself, it's strangely and inexplicably shocking, almost on a visceral level.

If I have a complaint, it's that the story probably would have been better served in its original format; it seems kind of stretched out with the extra ten minutes, taking a while to get going. But that's my only problem. It even acknowledges, deals with, and uses as a major plot device, the shock death of Nadia in the previous story, quitely underling how much the AV team care about their product. A good piece of work.