What’s it about: What can it mean when the Doctor and Mel are drawn to an asteroid by a message from the strange, elderly Applewhite sisters? The travellers are promised that they will receive their dearest wishes when they enter the frozen forests of this benighted shard of a world. But the ghosts that haunt this place are desperate to warn the Doctor about the sisters' promises. Only the ghosts know the true nature of the legendary Wishing Beast.
Softer Six: Think back just a handful of sixth Doctor releases ago when he was confronted with the inexplicable wrongness of The Nowhere Place. Throughout that story Colin Baker adjusted his performance so the Doctor was nervy, creeped out and just a little bit off kilter so the audience was thrown off key as well. Unfortunately nobody bothered to attempt that kind of spine tingling apathy in The Wishing Beast and what we have is an actor who is out of kilter with the script – Colin Baker sounds as confident as ever but it is clear from Magrs’ script that he is supposed to thoroughly spooked but I never got that impression. His reckless days are long over. When they received the transmission he felt something tangible but curiosity and cats don’t always mix well and he is feeling distinctly feline today. He finds the haunting a pretty poor display of cheap theatrics. Cats have all their best adventures at night.
Generous Ginge: I really enjoyed the sequence where the Doctor and Mel are pursued by phantoms in the woods and are trying to convince each other to walk fast, hold each others hands…run! Melanie is the brave explorer of all time and space…what a boon he must be to her on her adventures. Mel is made to look a bit foolish as the sisters manage to lure her into the woods. Mel bursts into tears when she thinks the Doctor was dead – the one moment of genuine emotion during this tale.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I knew this would happen some day but I just didn’t expect it to be today…’ – Mel on the Doctor’s death.
Great Ideas: A rock floating in space that looks like a skull and as soon as they are contacted by the witches the noxious atmosphere becomes breathable and the barren landscape transforms into a large house in the woods. The woods are alive with ghosts and macabre presences. The TARDIS is jammed and cannot take off. Sucking up spooky nasties…with a vacuum cleaner? It takes an immense amount of self will to hover above the ground and simulate walking for a ghost. The sisters lure in unsuspecting travellers and supplicate before them as heroes and tempt them to see the Wishing Beast which sucks away their existence. The witches were washed up on this asteroid in the wreckage of a space cruiser. Many years their parents were killed in the attack and their brother Daniel was badly hurt, radiation acting on his tissue and his injuries. He mutated into a dragon, the Wishing Beast and still they feed him. Daniel wanted to be able to stand up to his older sisters and his wish was to be a monster. His wish as an adult is that he should die. The Wishing Beast is a highly advanced being from another dimension.
Audio Landscape: An owl hooting and strong wind instantly whips an atmosphere of the Brothers Grimm, twigs snapping, crackling fire, washing up, smashed crockery, banging on the TARDIS door, the door slamming, glass crashing, a vacuum cleaner, chiming clock, a lullaby, the stomping footsteps of the dragon, growling.
Musical Cues: I tend to find the latter day Andy Hardwick scores very samey. He made a great impression with Zagreus (lets face it someone had to come out of that story with some credit) but since then each successive score sounds exactly like the Zagreus one – sweeping, violin, breezy sort of music which doesn’t elicit much excitement. I could just imagine this story being underscored by Russell Stone and providing some super scares or some sudden shocks from Jamie Robertson.
Isn’t it Odd: Although Jean Marsh is a given to play any supernatural witchy type character I found the performance erred on the side of Tabby and Tilda from Paradise Towers – entertaining but not very threatening. Its most peculiar that John Ainsworth should be able to make Valhalla so atmospheric but fails to do so with The Wishing Beast – Paul Magrs’ deliciously creepy script is packed full of slamming doors and ghostly spectres and whispering voices but with such subdued direction and an unsympathetic score none of that dark fantasy is allowed to truly connect and unnerve the audience. The Stones of Venice saw a perfect marriage of Magrs’ sensuous wordplay and Russell’s romantic direction but this story isn’t quite macabre enough to scare even if it was partnered with a fiendish production. These are moaning, hard done by ghosts and that’s just not scary. Geraldine Newman’s Eliza starts to grate after the first episode, there’s only so much repetition I can stand.
Result: Despite some lovely dark fairytale trappings this is far from Paul Magrs’ finest work and after listening to his superb Hornets Nest series with its delicious phrasery and insidious atmosphere this unaffecting tale of sibling rivalry doesn’t cut the mustard. Somehow even with Colin Baker, Bonnie Langford and Jean Marsh this story never really comes alive, the story lacks pace and the chilling and magical atmosphere a story like this craves. Frankly I would much rather have the rather wonderful Sick Building brought to life as a full blooded audio adventure: 4/10
The Vanity Box written by Paul Magrs and directed by John Ainsworth
What’s it about: A strange beauty parlour has opened its doors for business in a dowdy Salford terrace circa 1965. Monsieur Coiffure is the talk of the street with his fabulous make-overs. When the Doctor arrives, however, he knows at once that there's been some unnatural titivation going on.
Softer Six: Mel knows the Doctor is fond of melodrama but he really had her worried when he fed himself to the Wishing Beast. He was never very good at catching a barmaids eye. A funny fella who has been let out of somewhere. The Doctor has a look about him of a clever fella! He howls with maniacal laughter as he feckles the Wishing Beast with his many long lives and centuries to roll back.
Generous Ginge: ‘Somewhere fabulous indeed!’ says Mel which was what she asked for at the end of The Wishing Beast which makes this the first one parter with an indication that it follows on directly from the three parter it follows. She was hoping for Ready Steady Go and Carnaby Street when he said they were visiting the sixties! Mel is a Southerner with a day glow outfit and a funny accent! The Doctor doesn’t think that anybody would believe that Mel would need a makeover. There is something very human about Mel’s wishful thinking but she has to start seeing the bigger picture.
Standout Performance: Toby Longworth’s accent veers hilariously between cod French and Northern in every single sentence! It is worth listening to this tale just to see how that is possible.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘In the creation of beauty one must suffer!’
‘Is it creating an army of provincial dolly birds?’
‘I want you to drag me up!’
‘How did you get to be here…in Salford!’
Great Ideas: The Vanity Box can take mutton dressed as lamb and turn it into lamb dressed as lamb! The Wishing Beast is inhabiting the regression machine in the salon. A parasite living of the hopes and fears of human beings. It takes years of them, literally shortens their life (‘…but they look fabulous!’).
Audio Landscape: Seagulls screaming in the air, kids screaming on the streets, footsteps on the cobbles, a rowdy pub atmosphere, the machine exploding.
Standout Scene: The Doctor dressed up in drag and sticking on a cod Northern accent and heading off to the salon for the ‘full shebang that Bessie ‘ad!’ had me in stitches! ‘I want to a slip of a girl again!’ Colin Baker is hilarious as a dolly bird!
Notes: This story is remarkably similar to a Brenda and Effie story in Paul Magrs’ first book in that fabulous series. You even have Nesta and Winnie who are pretty much stand ins for the leads of the book series. One of my complaints about The Wishing Beast was how it doesn’t elaborate on the actual creature aside from a throwaway comment – how nice to see a niggle addressed and elaborated. Want to know how the extra dimensional creature wound up on the asteroid in the previous story…the Doctor threw back along his previous time path!
Result: Fluffy and fun and full of Northern charm; once again the mini episode looks back at the main release on the disc and sticks its fingers up at it. I’m not pretending that this is a dazzling release that will change your understanding of audio adventuring but it is cheeky and quirky and everything I like about Paul Magrs’ idiosyncratic style. Frankly I would have paid for the whole CD just to get the chance to hear Colin Baker drag it up! The Vanity Box would have made a far better main release fleshing out its lovely characters and extending its running time of something this bubbly: 7/10
Buy it from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/97-Doctor-Who-The-Wishing-Beast