Tony Fyler could really go for a prawn cocktail.
There are villains and monsters that immediately cry out for a repeat engagement with the Doctor, and then there are villains and monsters that, with the best will in the world, simply don’t. But if Big Finish has proved anything recently, it’s that it can take the least promising creatures (the Voord, say), and completely revolutionise what we know and what we think about them. That said, the company’s track record in doing this has had its downs as well as its ups – The Exxilons, recently, fell rather flat in terms of adding great swathes to our understanding. So when you write a sequel to 1977’s The Invisible Enemy, which was rather let down by some of its visual realisation on screen, you have two choices. You can adopt the idea that what we saw on TV in 1977 was 1977’s translation of the real Swarm, the real Nucleus, and that in 2015 it actually looks so much cooler than that through the medium of audio, or you can jump in with both feet, keep referencing the points of design and make-up naffness from 1977 and well and truly get stuck in to a world where a microscopic prawn wants to take over the universe.
So which is Revenge of the Swarm – triumph or tragedy?
Honestly, it’s not really either. But just possibly, it’s both.
First of all, let’s clear up any speculation – we’re in ‘gosh that’s naff, it looks like a giant prawn’ territory. In fact, the joke is played rather too often for a laugh that depends on the audience a) Knowing what the Nucleus of the Swarm looked like in 1977, b) finding it endearingly funny, and c) having enough of a sense of humour to chuckle at the idea of taking it seriously. Even those who err on the Graham Williams/Douglas Adams side in the ‘seriousness’ debate though will laugh with exponentially decreasing frequency as the naff prawniness of the Nucleus is used for riff after riff.
The Revenge of the Swarm is, according to writer Johnathan Morris, the ‘Godfather II’ to the Invisible Enemy’s original. What he means by that is that the first two episodes act as a prequel to The Invisible Enemy, and the second two episodes act as its sequel. The danger, with a story like that, is a bittiness of tone, and of ending up with a story that’s more like two half-stories welded together than a coherent, rounded, full-bodied and involving tale. After all, Morris himself describes The Godfather II as the ‘deleted scenes from the first movie, and some stuff that never made it from the book into the first film’. While The Godfather II has had great success and is even (with a straight face, no less) regarded by many critics as better than the original, thinking of it as a bunch of deleted scenes is perhaps not the most coherent strategy to adopt when writing what could be an updated, new, challenging story for the Swarm.
Sadly, the cut-and-shunt feeling not a danger that Morris particularly avoids. The first two episodes show the Nucleus of the Swarm not in fact having been defeated at all by Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor but hiding out in the Tardis itself, just waiting for the right moment to emerge and – and this is a thing that never particularly makes much sense – witness or ensure its own creation in the first place. None of that philosophical ‘I think, therefore I am’ cobblers for the Swarm, oh no – it wants to ensure its own creation, for some reason not trusting that its current existence predicates that creation. It’s a bit of a storytelling reach, mostly to show us the listener the moment of the Swarm’s creation.
Which is all very nice as far as it goes – it would have made a great subscriber’s extra as a simple two-parter, with the Seventh Doctor, Ace and Hector unable to actually defeat the Swarm’s plans, because they’re as aware as it must be of its own creation as a fact, but they appear to get this idea rather more than does the Swarm itself.
But then for episodes three and four, we’re catapulted forward in time to after The Invisible Enemy, when the Swarm has become not a biological but a computer virus, placing itself in the hub of all information flow between the colony worlds of Earth in a vast number of systems. That means the Doctor, Ace and later Hector all being digitised and fighting the wretched thing in a computer-generated environment that feels like it should be much more scary. The Nucleus is reborn in the physical world and then sets about absorbing energy to grow to the size of a planet, necessitating a two-pronged attack which eventually renders it probably not quite extinct again.
As stories go, episodes three and four could work, but because they’ve been cut and shunted onto the prequel episodes, there’s no time to really get to know or understand the characters we meet who befriend the Tardis team, so they end up feeling like little more than ciphers to a plot never given the space to develop.
In essence, Revenge of the Swarm feels like a fun, frivolous giveaway two-parter called Genesis of the Swarm (and yes, the Swarm actually uses the G-word about itself) and what should have been a full, separate four-parter, released at a later date, but instead has had two crucial episodes cut out and been welded onto the prequel. The tone doesn’t really connect and the accelerator seems to be stuck on from the word go in episode three.
A roaring success, then?
No, sadly not. It does tick a lot of fan boxes though - after all, it’s the Swarm, and John Leeson reprises his role as the Nucleus as though it was just last week he originally played it. What’s more, everyone likes an origin story, even if it’s not a particularly good or original one. But in a second half full of ‘who-the-hell-are-you-again’ moments, there’s very little development of Ace or Hector – and what there is feels repetitive from other Hector stories; Ace trying to get him to remember being Hex, him flying off the handle and saying ‘don’t compare me to him’ in exactly the same intonation as Hex would have used. McCoy’s Doctor is also given surprisingly little to really do – the story appears to unfold at his feet, with one or two useful moments that could have been delivered by an OmniDoctor.
Ultimately, Revenge of the Swarm could have been significantly better had the two ‘halves’ of the story not been forced to act as a single entity, because in that process of turning two stories into one, the second story is left with too much to do, and too little time in which to do it well.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk