Big Finish Productions
No Man's Land

Written by Martin Day Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Released 2006

Starring Sylvestor McCoy, Sophie Aldred and Philip Olivier

Synopsis: It is 1917 and the Doctor, Hex and Ace find themselves in a military hospital in northern France. But the terrifying, relentless brutality of the Great War that wages only a few miles away is the least of their concerns. The travellers become metaphysical detectives when the Doctor receives orders to investigate a murder. A murder that has yet to be committed...


Great Drama by Joe Ford 24/1/10

Featuring the best script since Chimes of Midnight and the worst production since Nekromentia, this is an odd beast of a story. Whilst I would have to recommend it because of the strength of the acting and the dialogue, it frustrates me that the overall production isn't more elegant. It annoys me greatly because I can point to any number of stories recently where the scripts are less than stellar and the productions are brilliant, why when a script comes along that is this good is it tethered to such lazy sound effects and music?

Aliens feature prominently in Doctor Who and provide a vital function in the series. Be it the Doctor's own people, unusual companions (such as Leela and Nyssa) or a race of monsters attempting to invade we have been treated a vast menagerie of creatures of the years. No Man's Land is one of handful of Doctor Who stories that features no aliens at all and it is all the stronger for it. The horrors here are the extremes that humans will go to in wartime and the atrocities they can commit when put under severe stress. I can say with my hand on my heart that I was frightened more times in this story, listening to the psychological torture of these soldiers than I have ever been by a horde of invading Daleks or Zygons.

It doesn't surprise me that this comes from the pen of Martin Day. What you have here is the gripping historical detail of Bunker Soldiers mixed with the psychological intensity and character drama of The Sleep of Reason. And if I'm totalling up past treasures, you've got a cracking seventh Doctor story too, just like The Hollow Men. What I found most impressive about Day's style here is how several stories have been set during the world wars now but this had a unique style of its own. During the first few minutes I was getting a Colditz vibe, but as soon as the intensity cranked up No Man's Land generated a refreshing atmosphere all of its own. It's a story that bothers to flesh out its guest cast as much as its regulars, a story that enjoys a slower pace than usual and allows its characters to talk about their loves and hates and fears, a story that poses interesting questions and hands out satisfying answers. Looking at it structurally, you have three terrific cliffhangers which really make you want to head on in to the episode and see how things turned out (something that many writers have forgotten lately) and reveal something new in the script (episode one ends on Hex experiencing just how far Brook is going to turn his soldiers into men of hate, episode two shocks by killing off Wood who I had pinned as the villain of the piece and episode three closes on a vital execution that sees that the mental manipulation really has worked). Disguised as a simple historical, Day's script proves itself against a handful of much more packed and complicated stories this year, proving that a little restraint and a good exploration of one strong idea can be just as effective.

It continues the seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex stories with great aplomb. They are developing quite a nice little run now with the spooky and clever Night Thoughts, intelligent and thoughtful storytelling in The Settling and now the intense emotional drama of No Man's Land. I am perfectly willing to accept when I am wrong and I believe I stated after Dreamtime and Live 34 that I was disappointed with this ensemble and that they would never amount to much. Clearly we just needed stronger writers and, thanks to a number of perceptive scripts, potential has been sighted and unleashed! What I like about these three is their dependence on each other but also their strong individual characters. The Doctor is never stronger than when he has a human tyrant to lock horns with, Ace gets to flirt and investigate and manipulate, and Hex is subjected to some real horrors here but still comes out a fighter. Usually you will find me complimenting Philip Olivier above McCoy and Aldred simply because I usually find his performance more believable and honest but all three do fantastic work with this script. If I had to single out one performer it would be McCoy; stories like No Man's Land are a revelation (like Master before it) for the emotion they demand from him as a performer and he acquits himself beautifully. Some audios see McCoy overacting hideously, garbling his dialogue and putting the emphasis in all the wrong places and in others he is simply exceptional. This is the latter. Thank goodness.

To be honest, the entire cast is fantastic. Michael Cochrane is the big name in this story and he doesn't disappoint. Brook is a superb "bad guy" because you are always on the verge of understand the madness of war that has made him go to such extreme psychological methods to find the perfect racist soldier. Cochrane plays the role entirely straight as it should be, starting out reasonable and friendly and slowly getting darker and more intense as the story progress before exploding with hate and emotion in the last two episodes. It's a virtuoso performance and when he screamed "I HAVE ABSOLUTE AUTHORITY!" I was walking along a train station platform and froze with fear, he was that good. When you let Sylvester McCoy and Michael Cochrane play a scene head to head, you get some real drama ("There is a line Lieutenant-Colonel, even in war, and you stepped over it long ago.")

It's scenes like those in the hate room and Hex being strapped down and forced to listen to the screams of women mourning whilst being electrocuted that give this story its dramatic weight. It's all very well telling us about the lengths that Brook is going to but having to experience these firsthand is another matter and makes for extremely uncomfortable listening. I like that; like all the best audios it pushes the listener into a place outside of their comfort zone and gets you thinking about issues you would usually rather ignore. If pushed to it, would you turn on a friend? Could you kill someone unquestioningly? Could you stand up to psychological torture? It's great stuff.

John Ainsworth will always be one of my favourite Big Finish directors. He seems to me to be the sort who wants to push your buttons, to get you to experience the story rather than just listen to it. Much of this story features a minimalist soundtrack and sound effects and that is a smart move for the most part as the director lets his strong cast carry the script. It's nice to be able to see that good dialogue and performances is all you need to make a decent audio, you don't need a lavish score or sound design. The music is just odd. It's quite distracting and there is one piece which sounds like someone spitting onto the camera which I can't quite get to grips with no matter how many times it is repeated. I did quite like the hypnotism music though, as Brook tries to convince a soldier to kill the Doctor; it has a nice disorienting effect. Certain sound effects such as guns firing are loud and effective but others, such as the motorbike in episode four, drown out the actors. It's only really in this area that the story feels uneasy, but the acting charges through such bumps, barely giving you time to pause and notice.

I really did love this story. It's different and exciting because of it. This is the 89th Doctor Who audio release and it proves that there is still so much more ground to cover. As for the cast and the writer, a damn good thumbs up on both counts!

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Another Lost by Jacob Licklider 15/11/21

Taking Hex and putting him into historical bloodbaths seems to be becoming a recurring theme, with The Settling showing him why he cannot change a lot of history and now No Man's Land showing just what can be changed. The story, set during the First World War in a hospital, shows just how desperate the Allies were to win the war after trench warfare caused stalemate after stalemate as well as painting a grim picture of hospital morale in the story mixed in with urban legends of experiments occurring on soldiers. The plot is the Doctor and company trying to figure out who a murderer may be before a crime is even committed, which is just an excuse to keep them stuck at the hospital. It's a standard Doctor Who plotline that has your standard mystery element from the offset, but what the hospital is hiding underneath the facade of healing is what really drags you into the story, almost kicking and screaming.

Before getting into the standard acting performances, note must be made of John Ainsworth's wonderful direction of this story and David Darlington's sound design. They both make the period come alive, especially on Darlington's end, as Darlington did not write a single note of music for this story. Instead, samplings of public domain music were taken from the period and converted onto vinyl for playing in the story itself. It really adds layers to the episode, as, whenever something bad happens, this music starts playing in the background, which allows the subconscious of the listener connect with the conditioning long before the characters do. It's an extremely interesting concept, and Ainsworth has it implemented at just the right times for it to really matter, and he pulls off the reveal of the twist of who the hospital staff are working for brilliantly.

Brilliant however cannot be said about the supporting cast. While they all have characteristics of soldiers who are tired of war, there really isn't much else to be interested in, as they are cut outs of the wonderful characters as seen in Steve Lyons' excellent Colditz. The exception is the villain, played by the wonderfully disturbing Michael Cochrane. Cochrane imbues Lieutenant-Colonel Brook with this sinister sense of Britishness, with the whole stiff-upper-lip gambit; all the while, the experiments he is performing on the wounded soldiers are completely immoral. He's trying to condition them not to become shell shocked and never give up fighting, and the wording of that plays a big part in his downfall, which is gloriously portrayed at the end of the story.

While the supporting cast doesn't make any real impression, which heavily lets the story down, the main cast does. Sophie Aldred honestly gives a powerhouse of a performance here, as while Ace doesn't do much, her presence is felt throughout the story. She actually provides a little bit of comedic relief near the beginning, which is all right, but honestly she doesn't do much, which is a testament to how Martin Day can only write one companion. That one companion is Hex, who shines as the one who actually wants to help out at the hospital, being a nurse, and the Doctor allows him to do so in whatever way he can, as long as he doesn't let anything slip about the future. We also get quite a bit of setup for the arc that is beginning with Hex as he asks about his mother, who we and the Doctor know was Cassie, but he doesn't know that. Yet. Philip Olivier gives a great performance, and I'm really warming to his character more than I did in his last performances. Sylvester McCoy is also great here as the Doctor, as he is up against probably his best match, which (even at what is an early stage) is not an individual, but an organization withenough resources to out-manipulate the manipulative Time Lord.

To summarize, No Man's Land has some great ideas and works really well as a period piece and is a great setup to what is going to be happening with Hex, but as an actual story it fails with almost all its characters on some level. It is by no means a bad story, as the conditioning plotline actually works really well for the most part. 65/100