THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Big Finish Productions
Red

Written by Stewart Sheargold Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Released 2006

Starring Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford

Synopsis: Subject [error]: Melanie Bush, designated companion of subject 3999. Subject [error] is not chipped and is a threat. Her ability to harm has not been checked, compromising the continued security programming of this Whitenoise system. She must be inhibited. Subject 3999: the Doctor. Subject has committed homicide. This subject now in constant redline. His propensity for violence remains unchecked. Analysis suggests synchronisation with the killer. The Doctor will attempt to kill again. He must be stopped.


Reviews

KillerDoctor by Joe Ford 18/7/067

Let's take a look at Big Finish's output since number 76. Singularity (which was full of fantastic ideas, a lush production and a cracking last scene), Other Lives (a hilarious walk around Dickensian London and the best eighth Doctor audio for years), Pier Pressure (a witty script with an atmospheric production let down by an appalling plot), Night Thoughts (a genuinely creepy story featuring the Doctor, Ace and Hex team at their finest), Time Works (a clever and concentrated story, a bit talky but worth it for the clever plotting), The Kingmaker (a witty and clever and enthusiastically played historical), The Settling (thoughtful and full of great character nuggets, Hex gets some incredible development), Something Inside (disappointingly vague and traditional adventure with terrible incidental music), The Nowhere Place (great to see the sixth Doctor scared, the best we have seen from Colin Baker in over a year) - and following Red you have The Reaping, which is a fabulous character drama that enriches the sixth Doctor era no end by providing Peri with a solid background.

Is it me or does Big Finish seem to be coming out of the doldrums lately? I greeted the news that Gary Russell was moving on with some joy, not because he was going but because I have felt (for some years now) that the series needs a new direction, now he has given us everything he has to offer. What is clear is that Gary is determined to go out in a blaze of glory and the last year's worth of releases have been of the quality he was providing regularly during the early years of Big Finish but lacked from year 4 onwards. His direction has improved immensely of late and suddenly the stories are proving witty, dramatic and entertaining again. For someone who has considered dumping Big Finish on more than one occasion (as my reviews will testify) I am pleased that I managed to hold on. And the new changes by Nick Briggs sound intriguing, we could be in for further treats to come.

Red is one of the most atmospheric productions we have had in ages, and with that I don't mean the atmosphere of the production itself, rather how the script and the direction marry so beautifully to produce a distinctive final result. The tone of the story is a grim one, focusing on violence and the sound design creates an almost clinical reaction to it, making the actual moments of homicide all the more shocking. The incidental music by ERS is definitely worth a mention because it shoots a million David Darlington scores to pieces. The atmosphere of the story is constantly enhanced by the pacey, stylish and (in places) shivers-up-the-spine creepy music.

Stewart Sheargold is one of Big Finis's A-listers if you ask me, up there with Rob Shearman, Jac Rayner and Joseph Lidster. Some might say he was confined to the Bernice series for too long but I am one of the few who champion that range and feel that his scripts (in particular, The Masquerade of Death, which is still one of my favourite and most re-listenable audios) have only enhanced the line. I hope now he is writing Doctor Who scripts he will not neglect the series that gave him his name. However, it is fascinating to see what he can deliver with a greater length and I am pleased to say with technical genius of this quality his script is brought to life with real vigour.

What struck me was how none of the ideas were entirely original. A society that has repressed its violent emotions, a computer which runs the lives of its citizens, an underworld environment of those who reject the idea of society chosen for them... but it is the presentation of these ideas that feels original. Whitenoise is a fabulous creation, a computer system that will erase all violent urges, no matter how severe it has to be. It is not evil, but it has the ability to erase and alter memories so you forget any murderous impulses you might have had or acted upon. When the computer admits in the last episode that it is scared, that it has gathered up so many violent impulses and it doesn't know if it can control them, you fear for the safety of these people. Listening to Whitenoise calmly and logically discuss killing Mel because she has not been chipped is terrifying.

Sheargold has highlighted one area of humanity we usually attempt to shy away from, pure, murderous rage. It is an uncomfortable idea, being at the mercy of your emotions and lashing out uncontrollably and something I'm sure everyone who is reading this review has been through at some point in their life. I love the irony of a society that wants to control these emotions being torn apart by them because they have tried to suppress them. As the Doctor says in the final episode, you cannot shy away from who you are and we all have violence inside us, whether we like it or not and trying to put a leash on these feelings only contains them, it doesn' get rid of them and sooner or later they will break free with devastating consequences.

I really enjoyed how the writer presented the different sides to this society. You've got Celia Fortunate, an unfortunate victim of Whitenoise's editing, desperately trying to remember what she has done and why she feels so wrong. Matriarch Vi Yulquen wants to experience violence and seeks illegal methods to feel pain and aggression. Chief Blue is responsible for watching over Whitenoise and is perfectly happy with his lifestyle, but finds the idea of violence unusually pleasing. Draun and Nuane are brother and sister and live outside the Needle, they chose to reject the effects of the chipping, have experienced terrible violence and learnt now to control those urges themselves, without computer assistance. By choosing his characters well we get a thorough look at how this society works... or rather why can never successfully work and why it is falling to pieces.

Enter the Doctor and Mel, Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford proving once again what a better team they make on audio than they ever did on the telly. It pleases me to think of there being a second season with these two, probably starting with Bang-Bang-a-Boom! (of which will have to fit in between Delta and Dragonfire) but continuing on to darker classics like this and The Fires of Vulcan. It would explain McCoy's sudden darkness in season twenty-five. Whatever, it is great to see these two (especially Bonnie, who once again proves how much better Mel can be as the 7th Doctor's assistant than Ace) getting the sort of material they were denied in season twenty-four.

I have always been under the impression that (when he wants to be) the 7th Doctor can be the scariest of the lot. Red goes some way of proving why and McCoy (whilst overacting in a few scenes) manages to restrain himself for the most part and (especially during the scenes where he redlines and kills) provides some real scares. It is terrifying to think how much rage must be locked up inside the Doctor and when he admits that he has wiped out races, pushed people down the stairs - that he might actually enjoy the power of these things - it is controversial statement to make but a realistic one. The scene I found most powerful was with the Doctor linked to the killer being forced to witness and experience the murder attempt on Mel, it was horrifyingly well done and a blistering cliffhanger. Better still, though, was the Doctor's sure confidence in himself, when he threatens Whitenoise in episode one you feel he has the situation well under control and suddenly he releases the most skin-crawling scream...

Bonnie continues to improve with every audio she does. There is little or no trace of her characte'rs bubbly persona here, just a desperate woman trying to survive. I adored her method of subduing Draun when he threatened to hurt her: flirting outrageously and then smashing him over the head with a bottle. Her reaction when he asks her to do it again is beautiful. It is lovely to see Mel having to cope with an alien society on her own; although scared, she never screams and manages to make friends in a terrifying situation.

My one complaint about Red would be that the last episode doesn't quite match the quality of the others. While the Doctor's plan for capturing the creature was clever, and the reason why the creature existed even more so, suddenly the story feels like a normal Doctor Who story where the Doctor is in control, whereas for the most part it has felt dangerous and different. The performances don't falter (in fact several go up a notch, especially Sandi Toksvig whose character's lust for violence takes on a new life of its own) and the direction remains strong but I just felt mildly disappointed that there wasn't a scarier conclusion. Everything is tied up neatly, as the Doctor says but when you have just freed people from control of their murderous impulses I should imagine there is a lot of learning yet to be done.

Despite this qualm, Red remains a powerful and atmospheric audio, certainly one I will listen to again. Keep this quality up Big Finish, you are on a roll!


A Review by Ron Mallett 23/10/07

Red by Stewart Sheargold is an excellent example of latter day Big Finish, albeit one laden with one of the Doctor/companion partnerships which struggled on-screen. The deep, creatively fertile atmosphere is much more Season 26 than 24 (which was one of the lowest points of the classic series and, with few exceptions, saw the show decline to the level of a pantomime in a way that hadn't been seen since the final days of Graham Williams' tenure as Producer in Season 17). The story mainly explores the importance of free will in human society. While the director, Gary Russell often stated that he preferred stories which could best be realised in the audio medium, this one definitely has the potential to be translated to screen and in a sense feels a little constricted. This story could visually be spectacular and could probably benefit from having an expanded cast. While in its present form, the story certainly would have been impractical to deliver to a television audience in the eighties, due to the restraints of budgets and perhaps even subject-matter, I feel it would be ideal to realise today, considering the benefits of CGI and an adequate budget. The only drawback might be that this story may be a little too cerebral for the mainstream audience which currently determines the teenage content of the new series.

The story is in fact a little (and probably purposefully) disorientating at first. The listener needs to acclimatise to the physical concepts of this new world as well as the jargon (ie. the needle, to be edited etc.). Sheargold has hit on a very novel concept though of a world where society is divided into two halves, one where the citizens live in "the needle" and under the care of a computer known as Whitenoise, where the chips implanted in their brains make it impossible for them to commit violent acts. The other half of the population live below the organic habitat known as the needle, with their chips deactivated and with the ability to make choices concerning their own behaviour. The nice twist is the fact that those who exist in "the needle" and in accordance with human nature, yearn for what they don't have, longing to experience violence. However, when the Doctor and Mel arrive, it is discovered that "the needle" is not as free of violence as the population believes and Whitenoise is editing his charges in order to hide the truth; namely, that someone or something is causing bouts of uncontrollable violence. This is an excellent concept for a Doctor Who story, plenty of action and tension and additionally a nice serving of philosophy as well.

There is one stand-out performance in the production: Sandi Toksvig is noticeably excellent as the bird-like, snobby Vi. The scenes where Vi is simply thrilled to meet Mel, as she is a person who is unchipped and therefore could potentially actually hurt her, are highly enjoyable and thought-provoking. Peter Rae as Druan is deliciously menacing in some early scenes with Bonnie Langford. John Stahl is very limited though by the constraints of the mono-tonal Whitenoise and the rest of the cast simply put in competent efforts...

This story (perhaps with a less ambitious setting and perhaps toned down violence) would have made an excellent substitute for the tragic Paradise Towers of Season 24. It is, in short, a very enjoyable, thought-provoking story which, like much of Season 26, makes a great deal more sense on the second listening. This may mean that those who are casual fans may simply get confused early on and give up on it.


A Review by Brian May 17/7/14

Red is a fascinating story, firstly because of the diverse assortment of influences detectable. It's a disquieting picture of a future urban dystopia in the literary sci-fi vein (Huxley, Orwell and many others). Then there are two films, one you'll know of, the other probably not. The first is the 1998 demonic thriller Fallen, which Red updates with a technological angle. The second is an early 1980s Australian sci-fi/horror flick called Crosstalk, which I actually haven't seen. I was too young at the time, but I did view the trailer on television. A number of graphic images combined with the tagline "Only the computer saw the murder and liked what it saw" lodged in my mind. Listening to Red brought it back vividly. (As writer Stewart Sheargold is Australian, I'm hoping he's actually seen Crosstalk, or at least the ad, so I can boast I'm correct in discerning it as a source!)

There's also some previous Doctor Who on show. There are echoes of Paradise Towers (future urban dystopia again), deriving the best, or rather the potential unseen best, from that season 24 tale. The masochistic, voyeuristic and bloodthirsty characters are wonderfully grotesque in a true Sawardian way, although there's no cynicism, just sympathy and repulsion.

Anyhow, Red brings to mind all the above. What's even more impressive is that the finished product is a strikingly original story. It's difficult to summarise concisely but, in a nutshell, it's about the consequences of relinquishing responsibility for your actions; in this scenario, a community has divested theirs to a computer. While the wider concern of general accountability remains pertinent, Sheargold concentrates, as he attests in the author's note, on the removal of violence. This implies, of course, that Red will be a violent story. And it certainly is. It also contains some truly disturbing moments and some real freak-out ones (which the technical staff go to town on!), but overall retains the sense of humour you expect from Doctor Who. It's complex but never convoluted and contains strong dialogue, including some great speeches for the Doctor as he condemns what he sees around him. The cast is an excellent one, and for once I am unable to nominate a favourite. Like Colin Baker, Bonnie Langford has been given some great material to work with by Big Finish and she responds accordingly. Sylvester McCoy has one of his better turns, getting to be sinister and express righteous anger, both of which are his strengths. While over-emoting isn't his forte, he does a pretty good job at it here, with some creepy moments of possession.

If there is one weak aspect to Red, it's the actual murder mystery itself. Despite the Fallen-esque nature of the murders, a single culprit is frequently hinted at, whose identity you expect to be revealed at an appropriate moment; i.e., an episode ending. This duly occurs, but the unmasking isn't the result of any clever detective work. It just sort of happens, with a bit of clever but superfluous wordplay thrown in. But if that means Sheargold is no Agatha Christie, then he's not alone in the Doctor Who world; The Robots of Death, the story always equated with the famous crime author, reveals its guilty party in a far worse way.

But that's a minor complaint. This is very good, well worth the effort and stands up to repeated listening. 8.5/10