BBC Audio
The Runaway Train
Read by Matt Smith

Written by Oli Smith
Produced 2010

Synopsis: The Doctor hires three outlaws to help him find an alien artefact.


A Review by E. John Winner 22/1/12

For the past couple years, BBC has been releasing a series of Doctor Who adventures written expressly for the audiobook market, frequently read by actors connected with the new television series. These are not readings from the BBC book series, nor are they audio dramas, although occasionally they involve more than one reader. Although the series began with David Tennant's Doctor, I have only heard four with Matt Smith's Doctor.

The Runaway Train is presented as the first of the Matt-Smith-era audio exclusives. It's a hard story to like. To begin with, it's set in the American West towards the end of the Civil War. This is a setting British writers should steer clear of unless they have a degree in American history. Anyway, as every American knows, there could never be any train scheduled as the "3:25 to Arizona," because Arizona is not a destination, it is a state containing destinations, otherwise known as towns and cities.

Matt Smith's reading compounds that flaw, demonstrating that even excellent British actors should avoid doing American accents. Generally I find such attempts merely amusing (ie., e.g., Nicole Bryant's Peri Brown), but Smith's effort to capture four different voices using Southern drawls is nearly painful. To make the transition from British English to any American accent takes considerable practice and experience; Smith evidences neither, and of course Oli Smith can't write them for him, especially since he can't evidence these himself.

So I tried to pretend that this story takes place on some planet across the galaxy. But this didn't work either. The story, though relatively simple, is difficult to follow. The breakneck pace with which it's presented doesn't help.

The story starts well: the Doctor, in the future after the story, has gone back into the past before the story, to hire three outlaws to help him find an alien artefact. The story opens when the outlaws meet him at a rendevous, except he doesn't know who they are, unaware that he will hire them to meet him there. That could be the basis of a decent 'time paradox' story. But this isn't it. The whole issue is completely dropped, only suddenly appearing as a tag in the end of the story! This sort of narrative feint recurrs with unnerving frequency.

Having effectly endangered his audience's attention span in the first 6 miniutes, Oli Smith then goes on with a series of chases, captures, escapes, while the Doctor and his companions try to evade a band of Confederate soldiers and, later, an invading alien. All of this is resolved with a final confrontation that is aborted by an explosion that we already knew was coming, and with nobody the worse for wear (give me a break!).

Oli Smith knows how to set up high-risk situations, but has no idea how to carry them through to satisfying conclusions, partly because they are culturally too loaded for the format. For instance, he twice places Amy Pond in a situation in which she could easily have been raped. The first time this is averted by an explosion, the second by redirection into a new chase. It is true that female companions in even the classic Who series found themselves in similar situations, but the writers of those series were clever enough to understand that conflicting cultural codes could be deployed, not only to spare the endangered woman, but also to sidetrack the audience's awareness from subjects they didn't want raised. In The Time Warrior, had Irongron taken a liking to Sarah Jane Smith, the whole tone of the story would have been damaged beyond repair. Fortunately, he perceives her as a loony and as such dismisses her from his mind. The implications of having a young woman surrounded by possibly randy barbarians thus got shuttered off from the audience's attention without ado. Oli Smith isn't up to this sort of narrative sleight-of-hand; explosions and chases do not resolve such issues, and consequently can't take the sour taste out of one's mouth, even if everyone comes out relatively unscathed.

All of the situations in this story are somewhat distasteful, largely because, except for the Doctor and Amy, the characters are distasteful. They don't end up shooting each other, they don't manhandle Amy, and even the invading alien is allowed to leave unharmed. But in anything like the real world they'd all be dead; and comparison with the 'real world' is not amiss, because almost no use is made of the alien and only a little more is made of the Doctor's interaction with the alien device. The bulk of the story is really a 'spaghetti Western'; the Doctor seems tossed in to motivate the narrative. This is certainly starting the Matt Smith series off on the wrong foot.