Sunday, 13 January 2013

Hunters of the Earth written by Nigel Robinson and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: Shoreditch, London, 1963. The Beatles have beaten John Smith and the Common Men to No. 1 and satellites are being launched in outer space. Back down on Earth, strange goings-on are occurring: the normally placid teenagers of Coal Hill are running riot and a master thief is stealing highly specialised equipment. Schoolgirl Susan Foreman just wants an easy life for herself and her grandfather, the mysterious Doctor. She wants to be liked and accepted by Cedric and all the other pupils at Coal Hill School. But there’s trouble in the streets and bombsites around Totter’s Lane. The teenagers are becoming dangerous… Their mission: to hunt down anyone different, or alien… Susan’s quiet life is about to spiral out of control. Having inadvertently started drawing attention to herself, she finds herself drawn into a desperate situation. Suddenly, the chase is on and she and her grandfather are now the hunted.

An Unearthly Child: Susan is young so she is far less paranoid than her Grandfather that anybody might be pursuing them. She’s something of an outcast at school, always on the periphery of groups of friends longing to be involved and to involve herself but never quite having the guts to do it. They’ve been in London since the beginning of the Autumn term and Susan slipped into Coal Hill School discreetly. She felt really out of place until one of the sixth formers, Cedric, made the effort to get to know her. Susan is the equivalent of a foreigner in London, even though physically she fits in perfectly there is something otherworldly about her. Susan is appalled to know that Cedric got close to her not because he was drawn to her but because he was directed by his Uncle. Susan proves that her mental abilities are very strong and the Doctor suggests that they work on honing those skills.

Hmm: The Doctor is a shifty, paranoid figure in this period of his life, shuffling through the foggy streets of London always looking over his shoulder. When Susan asks if he has been stealing again it sounded like she was accusing him of thieving the TARDIS. The Doctor has been half inching the parts he needs to repair the Ship, not wanting to account for the reasons he needs the latest in scientific equipment. It turns out that people are far more aware of him than even he realised, justifying his paranoia.

Standout Performance: Ford doesn’t quite have the ability to differentiate between Susan and the Doctor through tone and mood and so they both come across as sounding quite similar when that was clearly not the case on screen. When the Doctor gets angry Ford sounds like a petulant child stamping her feet rather than a firm old man standing his ground. Tam Williams is superb and has a really love voice to listen to.

Great Ideas: Roses was a popular after school coffee bar in London often frequented by the Coal Hill School students. The mention of Eagle brought back memories of the Dr Who & the Daleks. Something is affecting the children of London, turning them against the Doctor and Susan and the sudden flash of a knife in Susan’s face recalls a similar horror that was witnessed in season one. The appearance of the Magpie Shop from The Idiot’s Lantern made my heart sing for a moment, Doctor Who is one of those shows that has such a long history it can connect the old and the new in a gleeful fashion like this. Gangs of youths gathering together might feel like something that has only really caught in recent years but it all stretches back to the 50s and the 60s where youth culture gained its independence and confidence. There is something quite frightening about the uncontrollable nature of a gang of thugs egging each other on and enjoying the fear of the person they are bullying. Sometimes I think they don’t have that switch in their head that tells that enough is enough, feeding on the excitement of the moment and going too far. There’s something rather pathetic about the Doctor (in the guise of an old man) being terrorised by a group of kids who are prompted by racism. Just us disturbing is the scrawl on the TARDIS declaring ALIENS OUT. Suddenly the Earth is rejecting the travellers, highlighting their differences and turning them into dangerous foreigners. Rook has been monitoring the Doctor and Susan for some time, aware of their sudden appearance, the disappearance of the spare parts and his granddaughters uncanny intelligence and slips at school. He knows they are not of this world. Hypersonics are being directed at the children to encourage their tribal instincts and racial hatred. A German weapon to stir up hatred, falling to England.

Audio Landscape: How could you start a series of audio adventures celebrating the shows 50th anniversary more vividly than with the bells of Shoreditch church striking in exactly the same way An Unearthly Child open aurally? Scooters roaring down the road, Coal Hill School bell, school chatter, the social burbling at Roses, whistling, rustling papers, the screaming mob, bricks being thrown, broken glass.

Musical Cues: There’s a lovely discordant feel to the score in the early stages of the story, Simon Hunt bashing on the piano when things startle the Doctor and Susan.

Isn’t it Odd: Early scenes evoke a strong feeling of nostalgia and excitement but they perhaps go on for a little too long, the plot failing to kick in for quite an extended period and encouraging the audience to wish for something to happen that might lead to some kind of excitement. The threat takes a long while to establish itself and explain itself…for a long while I thought that this was simply the work of a xenophobic group from the sixties rather than anything more sinister. Bringing in the character of Rook only serves to muddy the issue because he initially appears to be behind it all but when he starts accusing the Doctor of mind control and directing the kids I was really confused. The idea that the threat is something that has been caused accidentally by a weapon forgotten during the war is a pretty lame answer. It just happened to start malfunctioning now rather than being directed for a purpose. John Ainsworth is fantastic director but there is something tentative about his realisation of this story that is quite unlike much of his other work with Big Finish. It was most obvious in the climax which felt as though it should be far more claustrophobic and gripping than it was (children hammering on the shop shouting xenophobic cries) and the lack of music in places is really detrimental to some scenes. Looking at the script as a whole it is the characterisation and setting that stand out whereas the narrative and elements of the plot feel neglected and ill thought through. Rook is ultimately there to serve a plot point in the resolution rather than for any discernable purpose. A shame because somebody who has become aware of the Doctor and Susan’s unusual appearance and behaviour could have let to something far more dramatic (I can imagine another story playing out where the Doctor has to put an end to such a threat to their secrecy). He ultimately winds up being an ally whereas he would have made a much more interesting enemy. Goodness knows what Susan is talking about at the end of the story about the Doctor’s destiny…it feels like a bizarre attempt to shove in a reference to the Time War which is severely misplaced at this early juncture.

Result: As far as I’m concerned Nigel Robinson is something of an expert in the introductory period of Doctor Who as he was responsible for bringing some of the earliest television stories to print (especially the evasive Edge of Destruction) so vividly. Because this is where it all began (or even more enticingly – like Kim Newman’s Time & Relative – before it all began) it immediately has an atmosphere of its own and built in interest in a way that few periods of Doctor Who do. In a way that is a double edged sword though because you instantly expect something rather special from this establishing era. Whilst it does take a little while to get going (trading on nostalgia perhaps a little too much), Hunters of the Earth takes a disturbing contemporary fear (mob youth culture) and social issue (racism) and creates a genuinely chilling foe for the Doctor and Susan to face, one that feeds on their paranoia. That feeling of looking over your shoulder and being exposed is expertly realised but as a result this lacks the evocative fantasy of Time and Relative and feels a lot more ordinary. Robinson feels far more seduced by the chance to write for a pre-Unearthly Child Doctor and Susan than conjuring up a decent standalone story and a lot of his passion is injected into the former whilst neglecting the latter. Ultimately I think I prefer the far more intimate feel of the companion chronicles that really allows you to get inside the companions heads but I suppose third person narration is understandable when the Doctor is supposed to be the predominant figure in this series of adventures. It’s a personal issue too by I would have much rather had William Russell read the first Doctor adventure because he is not only a far superior performer to Ford (who does fine work here all the same) but his presence sums up the best parts of the early years of Doctor Who far more evocatively as well. I understand the focus on the unearthly child but its not what I would have chosen myself. The Doctor and Susan are faithfully characterised (and its nice to see Susan building a life independent of her grandfather) and the setting is very evocatively brought to life but this is perhaps too slow and stuttering to kick off the series. For a company as prolific as Big Finish there was something oddly insecure and tentative about this story: 5/10

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