Audio Visuals
The Space Wail

Synopsis: A big space liner with a crazy female computer.


The Big Start by Matthew Harris 20/4/07

Fandom was born in the 1970s with the establishment of DWAS. A new subspecies of humanity was identified, the Sad Doctor Who Fanboy (F. Tristus Quidoctor). First they started complaining about the show. Then they started writing it. In 1984, the simmering concept of fan productions became reality with the launch of the Audio Visuals. These represent the first widely-available Doctor Who stories made by someone other than the BBC. The people behind it are now household names, as far as fandom is concerned: Nick Briggs, Gary Russell, Bill Baggs (when he was still William), Richard Marson, Jim Mortimore for god's sake. Probably fortunately, they started off with a pilot.

As Finn Clark once said, as a general rule, pilots suck. This is mostly true. The Space Wail, the pilot for the Audio Visuals... well, it ain't bad, but it's more instructive than entertaining. Apart from anything else, it proved to Gary and co that it was possible not only to write, produce and record your own Doctor Who, but also to distribute it (with limits, to be sure, but still) without the BBC beating them up.

The plot (big space liner with a crazy female computer) is vaguely reminiscent of Slipback, although it predates it by a good seven months (so we're talking a long time ago here - Peter Davison had only just left the series and the newest episode was The Twin Dilemma - which might explain why Gary, Bill and co decided to start writing their own), which won't sound like a good thing to most people, but I quite enjoyed that story on its own poor-man's-Douglas-Adams terms - something Eric Saward was actually quite good at and should have done more often. The Space Wail, however, is written by Gary Russell (the cassette box said "Warren Martyn" but then only a handful of people ever put their real names to their A/V scripts). It's surprisingly humourless, although a lot of that is probably the result of the acting, which is inevitably mostly done by ordinary people rather than actors. The standout performance is probably BABE (credited as "herself" but actually voiced by a vocoded Marilyn Layton), and she's a computer, so it's hardly an energetic performance. Of course, as I said, the cast is comprised almost entirely of normal people, so criticising the acting is like kicking a puppy.

The plot can be a bit hard to follow at times, particularly in the early sections where the futuristic goings-on on this prison ship are intercut with the Doctor in medias res looking for his TARDIS in the present day - which isn't very clear - and picking up his new companion, a 17 year old boy called Greg (now they couldn't do that these days) but once the Doctor gets involved in the real story and things pick up, it's actually pretty good, with a genuinely creepy concept at the centre.

Stephen Payne (founder member of DWAS) seems to be overawed at playing the Doctor, and a lot of the Doctorish moments that Gary managed to put in the script are lost in his performance (such as the screwdriver gag), which is probably why he was replaced for the main series by Nick Briggs. Michael Wisher shows up in a completely superfluous role at the start of the play, which seems to be there simply so they could put his name on the tape.

Actually, the main problem with the acting is that so many people sound similar. I often couldn't tell Greg and the Doctor apart without the transcripts (on, for example. It doesn't help that Sally Baggs is cast as a character and her sister and uses basically the same voice (ie her own) for both. Eventually one of them dies, which helps a lot.

The production values aren't bad at all, especially considering that this wasn't a professional production with a massive studio and hundreds of knobs to twiddle so much as the product of some people, with things. Some things. The theme tune - surprisingly an original tune, as if it wasn't clearly Doctor Who and they weren't clearly breaking copyright already - is actually fantastic, if a bit datedly synthish (though arguably less so than the new version of the real Who theme two years later), and the overall incidentals and sound design actually feel more professional than anything else they ever made. Brian Marshall, where are you now?

The Space Wail is definitely worth your time, but it's more interesting for what it represents than anything else. It proved to the Audio Visuals crew that it was possible to create your own Doctor Who from raw materials, and to let people other than yourself hear it, without the BBC suing (although this was more because the BBC couldn't be bothered than anything else). Their ambitions were unshackled. From here it only got bigger until Big Finish was born, and then arguably grew bloated before finally calming down and going on a diet post-The Next Life. And other mixed metaphors. Anyway, the point is: in its quiet little way, this is one of the most important Doctor Who stories ever. It's pretty good as well. Quite a bargain if you ask me.