The Land of the Dead

Posted in Audio by - February 17, 2016
The Land of the Dead

Released January 2000

A new series can be expected to have some inconsistencies in quality early on, but Big Finish’s main range continued to improve with each of its three first successive releases. Written by Stephen Cole, the fourth entry ‘Land of the Dead’ looks to extend that pattern. While it’s not a perfect story and ultimately doesn’t have much lasting impact, the wanderings of plotlines and inconsistent performances that have manifested in the earlier releases have at least been improved upon greatly.

In 1964, the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa happen to see a plane take off from the Alaskan wilderness and, whether by chance or design, they then land at a cottage in roughly the same area thirty years later. Here they come upon a rather diverse group of characters: the wealthy Shaun Brett, the disagreeable Inuit Gaborik, the sassy interior designer Monica Lewis, and the half-Native/half-American Tulung. Introductions aside, the Doctor quickly discovers that the fathers of both Brett and Tulung were part of an archaeological expedition thirty years ago, one that cost Tulung’s father his life. The secret behind that expedition and the effect that is still present form the basis for the underlying mystery at hand.

Where ‘The Land of the Dead’ succeeds admirably is in creating a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere. In a sense, the house becomes a key figure just as much as the characters present. Unfortunately, there are some scenes that rely too much on lengthy dialogue to convey what is going on, most egregiously when the Doctor and Nyssa are on opposite sides of a locked door. This is the first Big Finish script that has fallen into this audio trap and, while it’s not so dubious as to detract from the proceedings, it is still noticeable enough.

Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton seamlessly slip into their roles, and it’s apparent that Sutton continues to gain confidence in her performance as the story progresses. While she is hindered to some extent by some clunky dialogue at times, she captures the sound of Nyssa perfectly and proves by the end that she can be a worthy addition to any Fifth Doctor audio. While the script also fails to capture the quintessential essence of the Doctor, it does still allow some fleeting glimpses of familiar glory to peek through, most notably when he is separated from Nyssa and playing off Lucy Campbell’s Monica. Of the supporting cast, Lucy Campbell and Christopher Scott are the standout performers, and while the other cast members never truly reach incredible levels, everyone is dependable enough to move the drama along reliably and believably.

Aside from a one-dimensional presence in Gaborik, the characterization overall is decent, and part of that is due to a conscious decision by Stephen Cole to keep the plot relatively simple in order to focus on the characters. The prospect of archaeologists awakening some ancient threat is by no means a new one, but fortunately the Permians are interesting enough to forgive this familiar trope. These are not supreme alien or supernatural beings but instead are just very powerful and adaptive animals acting by instinct, inevitably leading to many chase scenes that border on too overtly repetitive in the long run. This instantly heightens the tension since there is no real way to predict what they are going to do, but it also highlights the fatal flaw in both them and the audio play in general. It’s a bold choice to have the antagonists unable to speak, reduced to howls and roars, but this also means that it’s up to the Doctor and Monica to do a lot of verbal explaining of what is happening. Again, there are just too many instances of lengthy dialogue where action is needed instead.

In terms of production values, ‘The Land of the Dead’ is excellent, and it also successfully reintroduces the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa together. However, with no truly magnificent moment or performance allowed for by the script, relationships between characters not fully explained, and too much of the time filled with incoherent roaring that leads to lengthy exposition or repeated chase sequences, ‘The Land of the Dead’ is a definite step backwards and offers only a glimpse of what Big Finish is capable of going forward. The author’s notes say that the script was written in one week and unfortunately it shows all too clearly.

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