McGanniversary Week: EMBRACE THE DARKNESS Review

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Tony flounders around in the dark.


The audio medium is a strange thing of those of us raised in the TV and video age. Frequently we need to re-train our expectations and our understanding of drama to make stories that would work in a visual medium effective in their audio versions. But relatively early in its career creating brand new Doctor Who stories with Classic Doctors for the audio medium, Big Finish took a big decision. It would release a story almost custom-built to prey on our human fears, and custom-built also to bring the uniqueness of the audio world to bear, using it to scare the living bejesus out of us all.

That’s Embrace The Darkness.

The title itself seems to be a tacit instruction: in a way the whole challenge of the audio medium is to be whatever it is – funny, dramatic, scary – in the dark, without the readily available visuals of other formats. We the listener have to supply all the props, the scenery, the drama, based on the bag of tricks available to audio scriptwriters and producers. Not for nothing is the audio medium described to the point of cliché as ‘the most visual medium’ – listeners actively enjoy doing that work, and because they conjure the world from their own imagination, it’s actively more effective than any visual designer’s work could ever be.

Nicholas Briggs’ script delivers a simple, scary concept – a world where the lights keep going out…or do they? A team of would-be miniature sun-builders have arrived on Cimmeria IV to play gods and do the whole ‘Let There Be Light’ thing as a preamble to colonising the world. But the lights keep going out.

The Eighth Doctor, still relatively young in his audio life in 2002, and as such not that different to his on-screen one-shot, full of bounce and Tiggerish enthusiasm for the universe, has a broader historical interest in the planet, knowing as he does that at some point in its history, the alleged inhabits of the world ‘put out’ their own sun, plunging Cimmeria IV into the darkness which is its most noticeable feature.

From a dramatic point of view, a planet of total darkness is scary enough for many listeners – the team of (ahem) sunmakers quickly finds life in such conditions is difficult in terms of stumbling around and finding their way to anything. It also makes the most of the audio medium by giving us precisely nothing to work with. Close your eyes and listen to Embrace The Darkness and you’ll feel the creeping panic of disorientation closing in on you quickly.

Episode 1 ends with a ghastly reveal – there are greater darknesses than the simple absence of light, and they’re waiting for you on Cimmeria IV. The Cimmerians, as you might expect on a dark planet, speak in whispers, and they are still, fourteen years later, one of the most creepy species in Big Finish history; their early dialogue including lines like ‘Let us taste your eyes’ helps them on their way to this memorable status. Really speaking, the set-up of the planet of darkness and their whispered dialogue of radical difference to us in terms of how they experience the universe are what still make Embrace The Darkness worth a listen – but only if you’ve got your big girl or boy pants on. Despite seeming like a whispery, ‘from the sidelines’ threat, in reality the Cimmerians anchor everything about the adventure, including its arc of eventual redemption, and these whispering ‘light-stealers’ will give you many a shudder en route to an ending that shows us more about how they ended up alone in the dark on a sunless world.

Paul McGann’s Doctor, as mentioned, is still in his relatively Tiggerish, bouncy phase, and in Briggs’ script throws him more than a handful of OmniDoctor phrases, with which McGann makes something fairly unique to his incarnation. His first friend in the world of audio Who, Charley Pollard, played by India Fisher, has a combination of upper-middle class enthusiasm (bordering even on gumption), which powers the script along where it’s necessary, without endangering the creepy, ‘fumbling down dark corridors without knowing what else is down them’ vibe. Fisher also brings a kind of proprietorial crossness to Charley’s relationship with her Doctor, feeling entirely able to chastise him for moments of Sydney Carton heroism, for the thoughtlessness they display towards her – potentially leaving her trapped in ‘goodness knows what century with a bunch of people I barely know!’ If you’re new to early Eighth Doctor adventures on Big Finish, Embrace The Darkness is a good one to get under your belt, because the set-up and the aliens are both utterly creepy and – thanks to the power of the audio medium – carry a very ‘visual’ scare factor to them, while there’s a strong bond between the Eighth Doctor and Charley, and the team of would-be sunmakers are used to good effect throughout, both as symbols of a humanity out of its depth and wanting to go home, and as engineers of a potential solution to all the terror of Cimmeria IV.

Perhaps interestingly, while it’s definitely the creep-factor of the Cimmerians and the darkness that stick inevitably and forever in your brain, a re-listen reveals how much toing and froing there is between the horrifying reveal at the end of episode 1 and the relatively happy ending of episode 4. That toing and froing largely involves persuading the ROSM (a kind of computer controlled system designed to rescue the crew of sunmakers, with a bunch of robotic servitors under its command) to do things it doesn’t want to do, or in some cases, can’t remember how to do. But there’s also screaming and pain and blindness and madness and short-tempered people and possibly wars to cram in, along with a handful of archaeology, and Embrace The Darkness rarely feels slack in terms of something to do or listen to. Certainly if you’re going to listen to the Charley Pollard adventures with the Eighth Doctor, Embrace The Darkness is one of the first handful to get hold of, if for no other reason than it showcases the difference between traditional on-screen Who and the breadth and boldness Big Finish was able to muster even early in its career delivering new Eighth Doctor stories. Not only would Embrace The Darkness be thrillingly difficult to bring to the screen, it makes active use of the rules of audio, making it something unique and special. A pleasure? Well, McGann and Fisher are a delight in their respective roles, but Embrace The Darkness is more like a really good horror movie – the thrills you get are often from the grimness it reveals as it goes along, even though the ending is less punchy than the premise seems to demand. This is something to beware of – there’s an overload of creepfest at the start, from which the story recedes steadily as the episodes roll on, meaning by the end, it’s not the darkness that’s the threat but the light and what it might bring with it, and the oomph of the ‘villains’ is somewhat squandered by getting to know more about them. Nevertheless, for an early McGann audio, it still packs a punch, fourteen years on.

Give it a whirl today, and Embrace your Darkness. Eyeballs optional.

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 day, he 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

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