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Audio Review: Doctor Who: Hornets' Nest Part 1: The Stuff of Nightmares 
19th-Sep-2009 07:05 pm
language, voyage

Doctor Who: Hornet's Nest, Part 1 - The Stuff of Nightmares Doctor Who: Hornet's Nest, Part 1 - The Stuff of Nightmares by Paul Magrs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Fans of Doctor Who on audio have been hoping for years that Tom Baker would return to play the part on audio, since he's the only surviving "classic series" Doctor not to have reprised the role in a full-cast audio drama. So, when Hornets' Nest, a series of 5 linked audio dramas featuring Tom Baker, was announced, the anticipation quickly mounted. This story would have had to be an absolute classic to live up to fan expectations, and it doesn't quite manage that.

The reactions of many fans, myself included, were complicated by the fact that this isn't the style of Doctor Who audio drama that we're used to. This is produced not by Big Finish Productions, who've held a license to make Doctor Who audio plays for years, but by the BBC themselves. The BBC, probably wisely, chose to not try to beat Big Finish at the game they've been the undisputed masters of for a decade. This CD is a more stripped-down production than a typical Big Finish play. Large sections of the plot are narrated by Tom Baker (within a framing device of the Doctor recounting a recent adventure to Mike Yates), with only selected scenes being fully dramatized with other actors and sound effects. Some sections of narration also get spruced up with music and sound effects. (The obvious point of comparison is Big Finish's Companion Chronicles range - this has a bit more actual dramatization than a Companion Chronicles release, but the sound design is sparser in the narrated sections.) I found myself wishing that the balance had tipped towards a slightly greater degree of dramatization. (Writer Paul Magrs has indicated that future releases in the series will trend towards more full dramatization and less narration.)

The story has the kind of spooky weirdness that Paul Magrs excels at, though I found the pacing a bit leisurely. It's hard to judge the plot in any case, because this isn't really a complete story in its own right. It's more of a setup for the later stories in the sequence. I think the setup itself is quite intriguing: Magrs has set up a scenario where the Doctor will battle the same enemy across different places and times. It's just kind of a pity that you have to wait almost until the end of the first CD to really see where it's all going.

You also have to wait a little while to get the full thrill of "Wooohooo! The 4th Doctor is back!" that fans were really anticipating. The Doctor we meet initially sounds rather subdued. There are reasons within the drama for this, and by the time the story gets to the climax, Tom Baker is playing the part with all his old energy. But it is initially disappointing.

So, this isn't an unmitigated triumph. But it could be the start of something promising. At the very least, I'll buy the next CD in the sequence on the basis of this one.

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20th-Sep-2009 11:48 am (UTC)
I found myself wishing that the balance had tipped towards a slightly greater degree of dramatization.

You and me both; the problem with having Tom Baker carrying the story is that he made it rather clear that he didn't want to. I was as kind as I could be in the USF review because for all I know, this will end up something brilliant... but right now, it's only the introduction to a story and, while an interesting idea, not a very good execution.
20th-Sep-2009 03:38 pm (UTC)
Yes. I can't help but think that even though many of the quirks of this audio were clearly the product of deliberate artistic choices by the writers/actors/production people, the end result probably wasn't what they really hoped for. Given that it might be the only audio drama we get with Tom Baker as the Doctor*, I'm really hoping that they pull it together in future installments.

*Then again, it might not. There are rumors going around that Tom enjoyed doing Hornets' Nest so much that he's willing to do more, maybe even with Big Finish. I'll believe it when I see it.
20th-Sep-2009 06:58 pm (UTC)
If he wants to work with Big Finish, he'd better bring it. I may not always like their storylines, but the production and acting quality* is top notch.

I hope they pull it off if only because I've paid for it; I want to be able to listen to it more than once!

*Well, except any Brit trying to play an American.

Edited at 2009-09-20 07:00 pm (UTC)
21st-Sep-2009 05:31 am (UTC)
Here via who_daily.

I actually thought it compared unfavourably even to the Companion Chronicles I've heard (which must be nearing a dozen by now).

I was disappointed by the style of story-telling although my expectations weren't that high to start with. As far as I can see, Big Finish haven't lost anything by TB refusing to do any of their scripts.
21st-Sep-2009 02:16 pm (UTC)
I'd agree on the Companion Chronicles - I listened to the one narrated by Richard Franklin ("The Magician's Oath"), and thought it did a much better job of keeping the narrated sections engaging than "The Stuff of Nightmares" did.
21st-Sep-2009 02:17 pm (UTC)
I must give Magician's Oath a listen - I've got it but not got around to it yet (my audio listening's been a little slack lately). It'd be interesting to compare the two.

I think BF can rest easy that they're not going to lose droves of customers if this is the best BBC Audio can do.
21st-Sep-2009 11:13 am (UTC)
"The BBC, probably wisely, chose to not try to beat Big Finish at the game they've been the undisputed masters of for a decade."

Appologies in advance for what is about to be a rant, I hope you don't mind me ranting it here, I'm not meaning to offend anyone.

I don't disagree that BF's dramas have been more consistently good than the BBC's Doctor Who dramas as far as story goes. However, this doesn't really have anything to do with the structure and production, in which the BBC have always excelled. We all know where Death Comes to time failed, but it was one of the most brilliantly produced dramas I've ever heard.

In technical terms, the BBC should always outstrip Big Finish. Firstly, they can afford to record the actors in the same room rather than in isolated booths, which, while it requires actors to know their scripts, does allow for a much more natural sound. More importantly, they can afford better studios, more time for post-production and better sound designers.

Knowing all this, the lack of resources they've invested in at least the first of these audios seems inexcusable to me. Everyone has noticed the lack of sound design in general, but what's there has been given less attension than all but the worst Big Finish productions. It's inconsistent, which is bad enough, but the mixing, and especially the music, sound almost slapdash.

Doctor Who is now obviously something worth investing in, and this series, thanks to Baker's return, wider distribution and in general better marketing, will sel a lot better than most Big Finish audios. It doesn't seem wise to me that despite the proven success of Doctor Who and the resources at their disposal, the BBC should choose to provide something that sounds cheaper than the products of a comparitively poor company with a much smaller market.

this is especially disappointing to me because I think these will probably be the BBC's most consistently good Doctor Who audio dramas. They're written by Paul Magrs, who deserves better. The boy that time forgot was brave, clever and did a lot of interesting things with the format. Even those who don't like him might have preferred his version of "The Ghosts of N-Space". Most importantly, all his previous Doctor Who audios have been written for Big Finish, and it has worked for both of them.

Even if they had insisted on this half-and-half format, I think it would have been much wiser for the BBC to have outsourced the production to Big Finish. I think I would have been much happier with them if they had been produced with the same attension to detail and by the same people as the Companion Chronicles. Of course, they could still have had the same distribution. Win/win.

Very sorry! I'll shut up now.
21st-Sep-2009 02:38 pm (UTC)
Hey, rant away! You raise some good points. I certainly shouldn't have implied that the BBC can't keep up with Big Finish in the production sense - "Death Comes to Time" was gorgeously produced, positively cinematic.

What I really meant by "not trying to beat Big Finish at their game" is that Big Finish appeals to a hard core of fans who like audio drama. As you point out, "Hornets' Nest" will have better distribution and the appeal of Tom Baker to help sell it, which means that they're probably hoping that a lot of fans who don't normally listen to much Doctor Who audio beyond the occasional audiobook might pick it up. (They may even particularly be thinking of American fans - audio drama is generally very low profile over here.) So, I think that's what lead them to this particular style.

Still, whether the decision to do the half-and-half style was down to commercial or artistic considerations, it still doesn't explain why it all sounds rather half-hearted compared to the Companion Chronicles. (In fact, I think I even prefer the sound-design on some of the recent BBC Tenth Doctor audio exclusives.)
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