Review: Doctor Who – Red

RedAs promised yesterday, here’s my review of Red, the latest of the Big Finish Doctor Who audio plays.

Sit down. Be calm. Brace yourself. This one stars Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford.

I do appreciate that to most people of taste and distinction, those words will strike the same kind of terror in your heart as phrases such as “biological warfare”, “plague of rats” and “a very special episode of Blossom”. But, I’ve said it before and I think it’s worth re-iterating again, Bonnie Langford is actually pretty good in these Big Finish stories. It comes to something when you look forward to her stories more than Ace (Sophie Aldred) stories, I know, but the producers really have done wonders with her character: I don’t think she screams once in any of her appearances, and in just about every story, the fact that Mel was supposed to be a computer programmer has come in extremely handy. She’s actually probably the best and most consistently written of all the audio companions at the moment (possible competitor: Charley Pollard, but she’s not been the same since C’rizz arrived).

So don’t be too afeared. Red is quite a good story and Bonnie Langford is rather a good companion.

What’s that? “What about Sylvester McCoy?” Oh. I was hoping you weren’t going to ask that…

Plot (half-inched from the Big Finish web site to save me time)

Subject 2660 Celia Fortunatè, designated citizen of the needle. Subject experiencing traumatic, violent delusions during waking moments. Subject remains passified and under control of Whitenoise. Medication has been prescribed.

Subject 0357 – Vi Yulquen, designated Matriarch of the needle. Subject is under constant surveillance due to her wish to experience harm. This is in direct contravention of Whitenoise’s programming. Also supplier of the drug classified as Slow. Editing is required.

Subject 0841 Chief Blue. Technician in symbiotic relationship with this Whitenoise system. Knowledgeable in human psychological evaluation. Subject has been diagnosed a voyeur, and has a dangerous obsession with the Red Tape. Machine augmentation is favoured to curb this defect.

Subject [error] Melanie Bush, designated companion of subject 3999. Subject [error] is not chipped and is a threat. Her ability to harm has not been checked, compromising the continued security programming of this Whitenoise system. She must be inhibited.

Subject 3999 the Doctor. Subject has committed homicide. This subject now in constant redline. His propensity for violence remains unchecked. Analysis suggests synchronisation with the killer. The Doctor will attempt to kill again. He must be stopped.

Is it any good?

As you can tell from the Big Finish plot-grab above, Red is another one of the Big Finish sci-fi civilisation stories (cf Something Inside, The Natural History of Fear) where everything’s a bit futuristic and it takes some time for you to grasp how everything works. Which is nice, I like that.

For three-quarters of the play, we’re led on an interesting journey through this weird world (well, building, actually – it’s called ‘The Needle’) where everyone has chips in their head to prevent them from committing violence, no one walks anywhere since the building just reshapes itself to take you where you want to go, and people take drugs that give them a new nervous system that slows down time. All weird and whacky. Great.

That building, incidentally, is run by a computer called Whitenoise that’s connected to all the chips. It’s noticed that some of the inhabitants of the Needle are starting to experience a condition called ‘Red’ in which they start murdering people – while saying ‘Red’ a lot. The Doctor and Mel turn up and before you know it, there’s a chip in the Doctor’s head. Oh dear.

So the basic plot of the play is an exploration of this strange society where violence is suppressed but not eradicated, and an attempt to work out what Red actually is. As I said, that works for about three-quarters of the play. At that point, it just gets a bit too hardcore sci-fi. “It wants to turn you into machine code, convert you into a digital signal and replace you in your body!” and other offputting things that Russell T Davies quite rightly bans from the Doctor Who TV series suddenly start emerging from people’s mouths in place of comprehensible dialogue.

Hein? Quoi? Qu’est-ce qui se passe? I have no idea, personally.

So effectively, when the baddie is revealed, there’s an “Ooh, that’s clever!” moment combined with a feeling that you still don’t really have a clue what’s going on. All the same, it’s an intellectually stimulating piece of work.

As mentioned, Bonnie Langford is very good. Some of the supporting cast aren’t brilliant, but they’re not awful, either. Sandi Toksvig (for me, she’ll always be Ethel from Number 73, but your mileage may vary) turns in a very “luxurious” performance as the Needle’s matriach, although at times she comes across a touch too much like Richard Griffiths in Withnail & I for comfort.

Then there’s Sylvester McCoy. Imagine an outboard motor. Now imagine it has a Scottish accent. You now have the sound of Sylvester McCoy repeating the word “Red” for ungodly large portions of the play. It’s almost like they deliberately called it Red for a laugh, just to get him to say it. It’s the audio equivalent of getting Jonathan Ross to present a show called “Round the Rugged Rock the Ragged Rascal Ran”.

Red also requires McCoy to be angry and express deep emotions. Bad mistake. If you remember his on-screen performance as the Doctor, he was great doing subdued and subtle, but absolute rubbish at angry, etc You get the feeling that this could potentially have been a Colin Baker play at the planning stage, because there’s a man that can do loopy violent Doctors well. Then, whoops, they made it a McCoy play, forgetting what that would mean. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

All the same, he’s tolerable and the script is interesting for the most-part. If your vaccinations and inoculations against McCoy are up to date and you quite like weirdy sci-fi stuff, Red‘s quite a good play. Otherwise, maybe give this one a miss.

Listen to the trailer.


The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy)

Mel (Bonnie Langford)

Nuane (Denise Hoey)

Chief Blue (Sean Oliver)

Draun (Peter Rae)

Celia Fortunaté (Kellie Ryan)

Vi Yulquen (Sandi Toksvig)

Whitenoise (John Stahl)

Uviol (Steven Wickham)

Writer: Stewart Sheargold

Director: Gary Russell

Release Date: August 2006

RRP: £14.99 (international £15.50)