Saturday, 16 February 2013

Rat Trap written by Tony Lee and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: 1983: as the country goes to the polls, two ‘Urban Explorers’, together with a freelance journalist, break into the long-defunct Cadogan Tunnels, once a secret wartime facility… and later, so rumour has it, the site of an experimental laboratory with a nasty sideline in vivisection. What they find, in its twisting underground corridors, is something the most cynical conspiracy theorist could never have imagined: a highly-evolved society of questing, intelligent creatures, living right under humanity’s nose for decades. But there’s no way out of the tunnels – as the Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough are about to discover when the TARDIS brings them, too, into the complex. It’s a rat trap – and they’ve all been caught!

An English Gentleman: He’s a Doctor of lots of things that end in ‘ology.’ Giving the Doctor a little rest isn’t such a bad thing every now and again to spotlight the companions (although given Big Finish has an entire range to fulfil that purpose it shouldn’t really let it bleed into the main range as well) but giving him sod all to do in two of the three stories in the trilogy is a shocking oversight on the script editors part. Perhaps it should be called ‘The Tegan Adventures’ instead. The very idea! He’s so superfluous to requirements he doesn’t even appear in the last episode until nearly fifteen minutes in! Is this the first example of the ‘Doctor on holiday’ syndrome from the 1960s in Big Finish? ‘I wondered when you would show your true colours’ says the Doctor of the traitors in this story as if he knew all along. Do you not think he should have told his companions about his suspicions or is he genuinely trying to bump them off?

Alien Orphan (the Older): Nyssa wants to go home and take the Rictus cure with her but she has reached a dead end in her research. Her characterisation when the story gets going is one of the best things about this story. She has developed a nice chemistry with Turlough (they barely exchanged a glance on screen so this has been one of the more interesting consequences of the foursome reuniting) and takes charge in episode two in the absence of the Doctor. What would Nyssa rather do, save her friends or find a cure for Richter’s disease?

Mouth on Legs: Rather strangely Tegan sounds slighted by Nyssa’s confession that she wants to go home which seems a bit rich when that was all Tegan harped on about in her first year in the TARDIS. This new, productive, helpful, pleasant Tegan is a much improved version than the one on the television, I wont deny that, but how do you reconcile her with the return of the super bitch that is in evidence after this run of stories ends (its set between Enlightenment and The Kings’ Demons and Ms Jovanka is particularly horrid in the latter). Its not like with the other Big Finish innovations in character – there is a definite softness to the Doctor in Terror of the Vervoids that wasn’t there in Mindwarp so you can explain away that he has mellowed in the time in between with his adventures with Evelyn, Flip, etc. Mel herself has been treated to a great deal of development and maturity but since she was feisty in Vervoids and acts with a great deal of autonomy and spunk during season 24 it is that much of a leap between how Big Finish characterise her and the up and down treatment she had on television. The Tegan of this trilogy is so completely different to how she was on television (if she was as humorous and gentle as she has been in these last three then I would be declaring her my favourite companion rather than my least favourite) that I cannot see how this naturally fits into her time on the show. Its an improvement without a doubt but its also tonally very jarring. When Tegan was reminiscing about fun times back home in Brisbane and laughing about them amiably I thought I had been zapped into an alternative dimension where absolutely nothing made sense.

Alien Orphan (the Younger): Its nice that Turlough gets a larger share of the action again because he has been rather neglected in this run of stories for this team but like Kiss of Death the material is hardly going to set your world on fire. He does realise that Sally isn’t what she seems, but you’d have to be lobotomised not to realise that.

Standout Performance: I can only assume that they felt put on the spot because the entire regular cast seem to think that this cliché-packed script is the best one that they have worked on yet. Really?

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What does this all have to do with Rats because let’s face it everything else can wait at the moment!’ Tegan needs to stop making such sense! My brain cannot handle it!

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘I was born in London, the South West. Its supposed to be the posh part but there’s a lot of council estates there too. And when I was sixteen I left school, a lot of us did. Most of the girls I knew got pregnant, ended up on housing benefit or the social. But not me. I didn’t want to be one of the millions unemployed, worked my way up, four years typing letter, making tea…’ and there ladies and gentlemen is the perfect illustration of how not to introduce a character. I mean have you ever met somebody who has given you a potted history like this? Let alone making points about their social status and career? Its just ridiculous. Only people in fiction would ever vomit up this in their opening gambit…bad fiction.
Nyssa actually says in all earnestness ‘come out…come out wherever you are…’
‘A plague! That’s overkill on a massive scale!’ Tegan simplifies things for the audience. No different than putting down rat poison though, is it?
‘Are you going to throw me into a maze or something? Make me squeak for some cheese?’ Make it stop!
‘One puff from this and you’ll be back squeaking for cheese!’ – etc, etc…
‘He only came because of his stupid mid-life crisis!’ Nobody in this story talks naturalistically!
‘You let them in whilst I was making the tea, didn’t you?’

Great Ideas: Operation Daylight was a Second World War attempt at liberating France controlled from a set of war rooms deep in the cliffs under Cuduggen castle. Three glory seekers poking around in the ruins of an underground bunker – that is perfect horror movie material. The Rats join their tails together to form some form of telepathic consciousness that allows them to communicate with the humans. The Rats have been genetically advanced to the level of geniuses through constant experimentation, each generation larger in size and more advanced in intellect. Eventually they overcame the scientists and captured them. The idea was to create a spy that nobody would suspect…a hyper intelligent Rat that could scurry into places and listen to human conversations, to remember that information, bring it back and disseminate it. The ultimate secret agent. The Rat King is a communications hub for a genetically achieved Super Rat Hive Mind. I really enjoyed the idea of the Rats scurrying about in the TARDIS corridors, that is a genuinely innovative idea that would have looked fantastic on screen.

Audio Landscape: Scream, cocking a gun, rats scurrying down the corridors, explosion, crackling electricity, rat voices, walking in rat shit (yep, they actually bring that delightful experience to life aurally), running in a wheel, electric shocks, the tape running out, electric charge, rubble falling, screeching rats escaping.

Musical Cues: A waste of Andy Hardwick’s talents, this is an excellent score that really wants to get under your skin but the stories deficiencies fight against it. Again listen to this in isolation and you will appreciate it much more.

Isn’t it Odd: Perhaps skip the very first scene. The dialogue is so clunky and deliberately informative about the guest characters it never once sounds like anything a human being would say. The voices for the rats are simultaneously creepy (they definitely sound alien and unknowable), unintelligible (definitely unknowable because you can’t figure out half of what they are saying!) and very distracting. They also sound very similar so when they are talking to each other I found I couldn’t differentiate them. Isn’t the idea of hyper intelligent rats seeking revenge on humanity by attempting to treat them like laboratory specimens boiling this down to the most simplistic it can possibly be? The cliffhanger to part one is far too busy for its own good and then ends too abruptly. Putting humans onto a treadmill because that is what they do to the rats? Oh please. Come the end of episode two you have the Doctor being threatened by squeaky, histrionic Rats and groaning, mutilated scientists…yep, this is sophisticated stuff! Since there is nothing profound to be found in exploring the Rats and their desires, the only surprises that Tony Lee can offer is how they became so intelligent in the first place. That’s not the most satisfying of narratives, when the best surprises come before the story began. There’s nothing original in the characterisation of Dr Wallace, you’ll find this stock scientist character in a million of shows (hundreds of times over in Doctor Who). To say that one of the glory seekers was a plant for the Rats was not a surprise is the understatement of the century. This is dreadfully predictable stuff. No I take that back…I didn’t guess that Caitlin was Wallace’s daughter but that’s such a terrible soap opera twist that springs from nowhere that it is hard to even take that seriously (I had a similar reaction in Dexter season four, an otherwise peerless season of television marred by the supposedly knockout but actually completely daft twist that the Trinity Killer’s unknown daughter has been a major player in the season and we weren’t aware of the connection). I’m starting to wonder if Dr Mengale was the only misguided scientist on the planet because he is the only bugger that ever gets mentioned when comparisons are to be made. Sally is so stupid that she is told all about the temporal grace in the TARDIS and yet tries to attack Turlough anyway and is surprised that she gets a shock for her trouble! They don’t make henchwomen like this anymore…thank goodness. As if the conclusion wasn’t cliché packed enough you have the Doctor talking about contacting UNIT in one breath whilst a character walks into the TARDIS and declares ‘but its huge!’ in the next. There’s nothing new here. Move it along.

Standout Scene: There’s a terrific moment that came completely out of the blue when Nyssa is talking with the Rats and she declares their treatment of the scientists to be obscene, even if they did experiment on them and kill their families. They turn the tables on her and ask what she would do if she could get her hands on the Master after he has murdered her father, her step mother and destroyed her entire planet. Its something that I long wish somebody would explore in more depth because there is so much dramatic potential in Nyssa’s backstory. This is barely touched upon here but I really appreciated the mention.

Result: Rat Trap tries to mix politics, social commentary and action adventure to brew up a potent tale of Rats (they are so latitudinous they deserve the capital) turning the tables on humanity. Unfortunately in the first two cases the script barely scratches the surface and with the latter the plot fails by resorting to a lot of rather tedious running around. The villains of the piece are so ineptly handled in both their realisation and their motivation I was longing for somebody to just toss down some poison pellets so we could get on with something more engaging. The location is ideal to tell an effective, claustrophobic Doctor Who story in but beyond some insistent (read: raucous) sound design it fails to live up to that promise. It strays into torture porn territory with characters being tormented, wading through rat shit and mutilated but that’s just a tasteless layer of nastiness to distract the audience from the fact that the plot is failing to shift. Proof that Ken Bentley suffers from the same affliction as Gary Russell, his direction is only as good as the script and if it is a particularly fine example he will produce magic but if it’s a duffer he can barely find the enthusiasm to inject any existence into it. With Rat Trap he seems to have lost control, the performances are hysterically over the top for the most part, the sound design gave me a headache with its ceaseless echoes and inaudible rat voices and the (excellent) musical score is lost amongst the cascade of noise. With its attempts to brew up an attention-grabbing situation but fudging it spectacularly in the realisation (both scripting and direction), this might be the finest interpretation of season 20 yet. The human characters aren’t what they seem? Check. The evil scientist that created the Rats is actually a misguided good guy who sacrifices himself at the end? Check. There is a Rat who wants to help humanity and works against his own kind? Check. The Doctor turns up in a last minute triumph and defeats the Rats with a quirk of technobabble? Check. Its just so routine on every level. Some people might say that I should cut Rat Trap some slack because it was a last minute replacement for something that fell through which would be a reasonable argument if The War Games, The Shadow in the Glass and Midnight weren’t also last minute concoctions that just happened to be brilliant. If you want to experience a truly chilling story about rats taking on humanity than check out James Herbert’s Rat Trilogy. Its more imaginative, horrific, exciting and satisfying than anything here. I’m so bored of criticising this run for the Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough…there must be a decent story for them soon. Rat Trap is a noisy, empty affair that climaxes another disappointing trilogy for this team: 4/10


2 comments:

Gus Fallon said...

Of the first six stories with this TARDIS crew, this and "Cobwebs" were the only ones that I really liked. It was also great to hear Terry Molloy play a character other than Davros. He's brilliant as Davros but I tend to forget how good an actor he is when it comes to other parts. Dr. Wallace is really the anti-Davros!

16yearoldwhovian said...

You know, the basic idea of lab rats using humans for an experiment is hardly new. Douglas Adams did it in The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy.