Apologies for the lack of updates (I’ve been saying that a lot lately). I *am* working on the Batman posts, but they’re taking longer to write than I thought, and I keep having to do Real Life things. In the meantime, this week’s Big Finish A Week is one I chose because it has a lot of the themes both of Morrison’s Batman run and of his larger work, and so should fit nicely with those posts when they come.
“Are you my father?”
Rob Shearman’s The Holy Terror appears to me to have at the very least ‘inspired’ Stephen Moffat’s gasmask-wearing children in The Empty Child (along with Shearman’s Dalek the most critically-acclaimed episode of the first series of nuWho). I can’t blame Moffat – The Holy Terror contains a myriad ideas worth nicking.
The first dozen or so Big Finish audios had been pretty good (in fact those first few were among the most consistent runs Big Finish have had) but it wasn’t until this story, the fourteenth, that they started to move from accomplished pastiche of the TV show into their own style. Where most of the early stories had some kind of high-concept monster or other problem for the Doctor to solve, and otherwise followed a fairly predictable plotline, The Holy Terror is absolutely bursting with ideas.
The original seed for Shearman’s story was the old idea (arrived at independently by several medieval lunatics, though never, one hopes, carried out) that if you could raise a child completely without any outside influences, the language it would invent for itself, being innocent, would be the language of God. According to an interview I read with him somewhere but now can’t dredge up, he tried writing a play for the theatre based on this simple idea, but was told it was ‘a bit Doctor Who’.
It’s an interesting enough idea in itself, but Shearman layers on many, many extra levels of extrapolation from this. Almost all the ideas in the story come down to the question of responsibility – what responsibility does a parent have for a child, a monarch for a country, a god for a species, a writer for the characters s/he creates ?
The basic plot is quite simple – the Doctor and Frobisher (a companion from the comic strips rather than the TV show, a shape-shifting alien who usually takes the form of a penguin and works as a private eye) materialise in a castle which is, for its inhabitants, a whole universe which no-one has ever left. One of them has raised his son to become a god as described above, but the ‘god’ starts killing everyone, and it turns out that everything in the castle is an artificial creation of one man, who killed his son long ago and has been living through this fantasy over and over, every time having to kill the ‘god’ who has the face of his son.
The world Shearman creates is a fascinating one in itself, very reminiscent of some of Terry Pratchett’s more serious work (I’ve compared Shearman and Pratchett before – they’re very similar in their preoccupations and techniques, although the finished work is usually quite different). It’s a world populated by cliches who know, at least to an extent, that they are cliches – everyone knows that the younger bastard brother of the heir to the throne will conspire with the high priest to take his brother’s place on the throne, and both will be tortured to death, but that’s just the way of things, and it’s all thrown off when the new God-Emperor just announces that he’s not actually a god at all (a plotline that in its very general shape seems similar to Pratchett’s Pyramids – the name of the God-Emperor, Pepin, also sounds a little like Pratchett’s Pteppic). This allows Shearman to write some deliciously melodramatic characters – Childeric, the bastard son, quotes both Edmund from King Lear and Richard III at one point – but also allows for some tremendously effective writing, as Clovis, the high priest, tries desperately to rise above the evil cliche and become the good man he wants to be, but in the end can’t be anything other than what he is.
Despite the comedy elements which predominate, The Holy Terror is ultimately a very fatalistic piece of writing – the message isn’t just ‘as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/they kill us for their sport’, but that malicious gods may be better than utter indifference. Everything is predetermined, free will is an illusion, the only way you can break your ‘programming’ is by choosing death, and God, if he exists at all, is either an insane child who kills for fun, a senile old man who doesn’t even remember that he created the world, or a comic relief character who’s ineffectual when anything important happens. But having said that, the story does offer some hope, in that if there is meaning in our lives we must make it ourselves, and in a world where nothing ‘really matters’, what does matter is the kindness you show to others.
The Holy Terror is a really remarkable piece of writing, far more layered and nuanced than the typical Big Finish story, and is something that could only have been done as a Doctor Who story. It definitely repays repeated listenings in a way that many of the others don’t. There’s not much to say about the performances – they’re as variable as any early Big Finish – and the music is actually *awful*, but the lead performances are strong ones (Colin Baker excellent as always, and Robert Jezek turning in a wonderful Frobisher even given the dodgy accent) and the script is good enough to put this among the very best Doctor Who stories in any medium.