Big Finish BBC Audiobook A Week – Hornets Nest: The Stuff Of Nightmares
This CD only came out today, so for once I’ll precede my review with a Spoiler Warning. I don’t actually have a *lot* to say about it, but it’s worthy of comment, so…
Have you been adequately warned?
Then I’ll begin…
Hornets Nest: The Stuff Of Nightmares, by Paul Magrs (who I’ll be talking about in a future hyperpost, incidentally), has been getting a lot of publicity, because it’s Tom Baker’s first ‘proper’ return to the role of The Doctor since he left in 1981 (he did a thing for the godawful charidee Dimensions In Time excrescence, and he reads some of the audiobooks of the Target novels and narrates some of the soundtrack CDs of lost stories, but it’s the first actual new story he’s done since Logopolis).
Rather surprisingly, he’s chosen to work with the BBC rather than with Big Finish, who up to now have produced every legitimate Doctor Who audio story since 1999. This caused a huge amount of worry among some people, until it was announced that Big Finish’s license had been renewed. Judging by this, they needn’t have worried – rather surprisingly, the BBC can’t compete with Big Finish when it comes to producing audio drama.
Partly, that’s because that’s not what they’re really trying to do here. The format isn’t like Big Finish’s regular range – an audio play with dialogue, sound effects and music. Rather it’s closer to their Companion Chronicles format – a narrator or narrators doing what amounts to reading a prose story, but with dialogue supplied by other actors, along with background effects.
This similarity is unfortunately exacerbated by the fact that this story has two narrators and a storyline about inanimate objects coming to life – just like The Mahogany Murders, a recent and rather better Companion Chronicle.
In fact, the story, while well-written (some great lines, like “I opened the badger’s brain, using very tiny brain scissors”, from the Doctor) , is surprisingly generic. In fact, it ‘reads’ like a Pertwee (or first-Baker-series) story – the plot (a factory owner, originally motivated by environmental concern, is brainwashed by evil insects and used by them to turn stuffed animals into drones controlled by the insects, which then kill prominent political figures) sounds like someone’s half-remembered the plots to The Green Death and Spearhead From Space and turned them into one story. It’s Generic Pertwee Plot #12, and feels like something Bob Holmes (and Holmes is definitely the influence here, with the mind-control and inanimate objects coming to life, but it’s the comparatively restrained Holmes of the Pertwee years rather than the Gonzo Gothic of the Baker era) tossed off in five minutes as a gap-filler.
It also doesn’t play to Baker’s strengths – Baker does a great job here in the bits where he’s narrating (the narration switches between Baker and 70s companion Mike Yates, played by Richard Franklin, another link back to the Pertwee years), but he’s always been at his best when interacting with others – the contrast between his Doctor’s eccentricity and the normal characters around him always being a big part of his appeal. By having so much of the story told as infodump, that appeal is largely lost – there is very little actual dialogue in this (and for the first long chunk of the story it seems horribly like the Doctor will be confined to the odd line here or there, before he takes over the narration).
For an audience coming to this from the other BBC audiobooks – straight readings of novelisations of TV shows – this will be a pleasant change, but compared to Big Finish’s productions it seems slightly underwhelming – it’s just not using the medium well enough.
That said, I will still be buying the rest of the series – it’s definitely entertaining, and while the story is not up to the standard of Big Finish’s best, it’s definitely not *bad* either – it’s a pleasant, diverting hour-and-ten-minutes of entertainment, with Tom Baker getting to do his thing again. It’s firmly aimed at a casual nostalgia market, rather than being aimed at either hardcore fans or people who are interested in innovative drama, but that’s not a bad thing. On its own terms it’s enjoyable enough, but I hope if Baker does any more, that he will turn to Big Finish…