I approached this story with some apprehension. Its gained almost universal acclaim by the fans, or at least the ones that write reviews on Outpost Gallifrey. I’ve learned the hard way that such acclaim doesn’t always translate to a good story. I’ve been burned twice now, first by the praise heaped on “Minuet in Hell” when it first came out, and then by the praise generally given “The Adventuress of Henrietta Street”, both of which I found to be abysmally bad, and as far from brilliant and enjoyable as they could be. The question is, will “The Holy Terror” turn out the same way?The fact that Rob Shearman is the author of this story is cause for optimism. He wrote “The Chimes of Midnight”, one of my favorite McGann audios. “Jubilee” contains some grotesque imagery, but the story is quite good regardless, as is its TV adaptation, “Dalek”. The subscriber freebee “The Maltese Penguin” is amusing but forgettable. So Mr. Shearman has a good track record and I was interested in going back to hear his first story for Big Finish. Spoilers follow. Don’t read if you don’t want plot points revealed. I’ll be reviewing this an episode at a time as I listen to the story.
Episode One starts out in an almost Pythonesque fashion, with an old man responding rather carelessly to threats of extreme torture. Then he recants and is told “oh, that’s alright then”, is given a recantation receipt and told to find his own way out. Black humor is the order of the day here, whether it’s expressed in the form of the empress Berengaria who forces the servant girl to polish her toenails for four hours, or that same empress being declared a false goddess and carted off to the dungeon for torture, to which she has a blasé attitude. It’s all very exaggerated behavior by vile people, with only Pepin and Tacitus coming across as remotely sympathetic at this point. The acting is superb from just about everyone.The Doctor is as good as ever. Colin Baker always produces a good performance for these plays, so that’s no surprise. Robert Jezek has produced a strangely fitting voice for the penguin-shaped Frobisher, a traveling companion of whom I’ve had little prior experience. I’ve read a couple of comics with him, heard “The Maltese Penguin” and read “Mission: Impractical”, but in none of the above has he really made a lasting impression on me. However, the oddball notion of an alien shape-changer who chooses to spend his time as a penguin fits right into the tone of the story so far (although the idea that Frobisher was going to be in it may have led to the oddball tone of the story rather than the other way around for all I know). Jezek acts well through the accent, and Frobisher is a good strong character, as he needs to be to play opposite the sixth Doctor.As so many people have written, it becomes obvious very quickly that some commentary on religion is taking place. Being a religious person myself, and in fact a committed Christian, I’m tempted to be offended, but I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve heard more of the story and see where the commentary is headed. The religious practices certainly resemble nothing I’m familiar with, so nothing’s hitting close to home. Perhaps the Church of England is the target, or perhaps the Catholic Church. It’s hard to tell at this point, though I suspect a broad brush is being used to paint all religion in the same unflattering light. Clovis, the priest, performs a magic trick at the coronation, and this is evidently accepted as a miracle by the masses that are attending the coronation ceremony. When the superbly evil-sounding Childeric demands a real miracle, the TARDIS arrives and Frobisher emerges, which I was expecting to happen at just such a crucial moment.The verdict so far: a strange mix of humor and cruelty, with some outright mockery of religious traditions. I’m entertained to a point, but not terribly enthused so far. Three episodes to go.
Episode two starts with ye olde ceremony (that all involved know is a fake) to prove that the new god is immortal. It’s beginning to look as if Mr. Shearman is going to go all out with “religious types are all mindless hypocrites”, which will be terribly clichéd and disappointing if that’s all “The Holy Terror” has to say. The nagging feeling that this is the message of the play continues as Frobisher and Pepin watch the people mindlessly tear down all of the statues of Pepsin’s father and predecessor, as they apparently always do when an old god dies and a new one takes his place. And there are other thoughtless traditions. The empress always tortures her predecessor to death. She has a child by one of the guards so that there will always be an heir and an illegitimate half-brother who will try to take the throne. The high priest always sides against the emperor. All of these actions lead the person who follows them to a pretty horrible death, and yet no one seems to care. No one thinks about what they are doing, they just do it.The story does take an upward turn when the Doctor visits the home of Tacitus and begins to read the ‘bibles’ of all the emperors and finds that each book is exactly the length required to chronicle the life of each individual emperor. There are no pages torn out, meaning that it’s not a case of the books being made to fit the time span they chronicle. This hints that there’s more going on in the castle than simple repetitious religious tradition. Ominously, Pepin VII’s book is very short, and he’s only just been crowned, hinting that he won’t last very long. Whether that means he’ll die, or whether it’s referring to his actions in abdicating to Frobisher I don’t yet know. After a nasty encounter between Berengaria and Livilla, the episode ends with Pepin ‘passing the buck’ to Frobisher, who all the citizens immediately accept as a god. Childeric leads the Doctor and Tacitus into the depths of the castle and begins to reveal his motivation and plans. Things are taking an even nastier turn than we’ve seen so far with the revelation that Childeric’s son has been locked away in the catacombs for five years, and I’m forced to wonder if I really want to listen to the rest of the story and subject myself to the unpleasantness.
Episode Three is certainly the most disturbing so far. There’s precious little to enjoy, and if it weren’t for Frobisher adding some levity here and there, the tension would be difficult to tolerate. The plot certainly kicks into high gear, with another round of revelations about the castle and the child, who puts in an appearance and starts killing people in horrific ways. Here is where the production takes a dive off the deep end. If you’ve always wanted to hear someone literally torn apart in an episode of Doctor Who, this is the episode for you. Lots of wet tearing and plops and gushing liquid sounds. Lovely.There’s more exposition about the nature of rituals from Berengaria, and why she believes them to be necessary. As I suspected, it’s more characterization of religious tradition as mindless rituals, designed merely to keep people in their place. There’s nothing new or particularly profound here. The most interesting material is still the fact that Frobisher is not only immune to bullets, but that he can apparently heal wounds. It’s entirely possible that he and the Doctor are the only real things in the environment, apart from the child and apparently Tacitus. It’s begun to appear as though the castle is some type of simulation, although all the answers about why it’s been set up and why it runs the way it does are yet to be apparent. I’ll give Mr. Shearman this: despite the fact that I’m pretty disgusted by this play, and find the philosophical and religious observations trite and clichéd, he’s worked his usual skill with the plot. This is far from a straightforward scenario, and it’s not without twists and turns that keep me interested. Having come this far, I’ll stick it out and see what the final episode reveals, but I doubt this is a story I’ll want to hear again.
Episode four begins, and the Doctor has revealed that the child is a torture machine. The child wants his father, and begins rummaging through the Doctor’s mind to find out who his father is, but in a clever move is unable to do so due to the Doctor’s vast memories. There are simply too many people in the Doctor’s mind for the child to find his “father” among them. The Doctor manages to talk his way out of being ripped apart, but the slaughter begins at this point, with every other character that’s been introduced thus far in the play apart from Tacitus killed by the child, one by one. The ending is both sad and disturbing as we are told that the entire environment is nothing more than a prison for Eugene Tacitus, as a punishment for murdering his son. Tacitus apparently created the people and the rituals as a place to hide and forget his guilt. However, there are certainly some unanswered questions. Who imprisoned Eugene? Did he do it to himself? Is the Doctor hinting that the prison is a TARDIS of some sort? The Doctor says that Eugene’s been imprisoned for hundreds of years, far longer than the lifespan of a human would allow. Is Eugene even human? Why does a manifestation of his son appear every so often and destroy Eugene’s world? A number of things are never explained, which is unsatisfying.And the motivation for all of the fabricated rituals as well as the murder of Eugene’s son? The most clichéd and disappointing way out imaginable: Eugene is mad. No, I’m not kidding. I can understand the idea that years trapped in the castle would have driven him insane, but he was evidently insane beforehand. After all the imagination Mr. Shearman has displayed in the rest of the story, such a lack of imagination in attributing motivation is doubly disappointing.
The final verdict: a script that is well performed and excellently realized. The actors, sound engineers and musicians give it their all. Sadly, all of the best ingredients in the world don’t always produce a dish worth sampling, and such is the case with this story. Unlike “The Chimes of Midnight” or “Jubilee”, both of which contained some gruesome elements and still remained enjoyable, “The Holy Terror” carries the gore and death too far. As such, my enjoyment of the positive elements of the play is ruined by the torture and mutilation of characters, and the pointless nature of the whole exercise. The critique of religion is so far off the mark that it also renders the play unenjoyable. I’m still waiting for someone to write a critically acclaimed Doctor Who play that gives a scathing critique of atheism. I suspect we’ll never hear it.
If you want something resembling Doctor Who that you’d enjoy again and again, and be happy to share with the family, this is not it. This is a dark story, and I regret listening to it. I won’t be listening again. It’s a sad waste of all the talent involved, and given that Rob Shearman is one of my favorite writers in recent years, I’m sorry to have to say that.