Ssshhh, says Tony.
Question: What does ambition sound like?
Answer: Sounds like Whispers of Terror, that’s what.
For a company at the beginning of its journey to bring Doctor Who into the audio medium, Whispers of Terror is an almost ridiculously brave or foolhardy endeavour – a story using all the tricks up your audio sleeve, in which you actively invite the audience to pay extra special attention to those tricks, because it’s in those tricks that the villain lives, and where solutions can be found to every question asked. It’s the equivalent of saying ‘THIS IS WHAT WE DO…pay close attention to how well or badly we do it.’
It also goes above and beyond to deliver a villain that expressly works better on audio than it would ever do on TV, a setting out of the Big Finish stall that was later to be delivered in a similar way by the Eighth Doctor classic, Embrace The Darkness. If you were just three stories in to listening to these cracking new audio thingummies, this one gave you a brisk slap across the face, just to make sure you were really listening, and then it blew your hair back with invention and characterisation, to essentially kiss you better.
Whispers of Terror takes the Sixth Doctor and Peri to the Museum of Aural Antiquities – old recordings, to you and me. It’s interesting to note that while the Sixth Doctor appeared in the very first Who story from Big Finish, The Sirens of Time, in that first story, he’s already much mellower than he was on TV. Not so much here, when paired with Nicola Bryant’s Peri – here it’s very much business as TV-usual, because, to be fair, if it had been anything else, people would have lost interest, claiming it wasn’t true to the TV version of this especially spiky pair. If anything, writer Justin Richards makes them extra-spiky here, just to give the audience a double-shot of classic Sixth Doctor action.
Richards’ story of a dead actor who was just about to launch a shoe-in bid for the presidency when he apparently killed himself, and the consequences of his death, is a pleasingly deceitful one, seeming at first to be a base under siege, but having its motivation in affairs and events outside the Museum (slightly perversely, there’s never an actual nation named, nor a planet on which the Museum sits, but Richards and the cast ramp up the intensity of the political importance anyhow). It’s almost as though in an Agatha Christie story, somebody died in the big city, and their body was then driven out to the country and dumped in the library to be investigated. If a base under siege story can act as both a metaphor and an unstoppable Rubicon of conquest for a particular kind of villain, then Whispers of Terror achieves this double whammy, reflecting the external pressures and politics of the nation and the planet within the walls of the Museum, and building the battle of the Museum into both a first strike and the first domino in a fall into inevitable destruction. Clever, ambitious plotting and a brisk pace of escalating stakes mean you really don’t ask some of the obvious questions, like why an actor would be a particularly certain shoe-in for the presidency, or how he could have had the foresight to try what he tries (an event that leads to all that happens in Whispers of Terror), or if he did have that foresight, why he didn’t do anything more straightforward, certain and, shall we say, life-preserving than what he did. You don’t generally think about these things unless you’re faced with the idea of assessing the story critically and writing a review of it – at the time, it all seems perfectly reasonable, you’re so wrapped up in the tangled threads of the mystery.
Similarly, assessed with critical ears, there are a couple of fairly ropey 80s cliff-hangers in the style of ‘No, no, nooooooo!’ and ‘I really think this could be the end’ in Whispers of Terror, people screaming in agony, and then carrying on with their normal conversation immediately afterward, and those you’ll notice as you listen. Annnnd if you want to get really critical, there’s a sense that this story could be over and done with by the end of Episode 2 if it wanted to be, with the second ‘half’ more or less an extended semi-sequel to the first, bringing more of the political drama of the planet into play, and giving us plenty more potential suspects at whom to point a finger.
All that said, Whispers of Terror is tightly whipped along by director Gary Russell, and tightly framed in terms of its scenes and sequences. One or two shocks you hear coming, but there’s almost an invitation by the script to do precisely that, to hear them coming before the characters do, which could be said to be the key to any successful thriller mystery – make the audience feel at least as clever, perhaps just slightly cleverer, than the investigator, while still throwing them curve balls to keep them updating their premise of what really is going on.
In terms of ambition, there’s also the cast list to consider, which includes TV’s Nyder, Peter Miles, who surely has one of Classic Who’s most recognisable voices, and an early non-Benny role for Lisa Bowerman, showing her dramatic chops as political mover and shaker, Beth Pernell.
Big Finish has been rightly credited for a kind of rehabilitation of the Sixth Doctor, allowing Colin Baker to deliver in audio the journey he’d had in mind for the TV version. But as Baker knew in the 80s, and neither fandom nor the powers-that-be at the BBC had the patience to understand, these things take time. Whispers of Terror, his first ‘Sixth Doctor’ audio Who with Big Finish (as opposed to the multi-Doctor Sirens of Time), delivers exactly what it needs to – a reminder of the starting point, the loud, brash Sixth Doctor of fan memory from which he can eventually mellow. It puts us immediately back in touch with that TV version of the Time Lord, but delivers a story that’s almost infinitely better for being made in the audio format. It combines the tight claustrophobia of a base under siege story with the wider political machinations of a world under much more threat than it knows, (and, not for nothing, seventeen years on, it still feels fresh and relevant when it talks about politicians who believe the concept of democracy is feckless and that their right to rule supercedes any such notions). It invites the listener to listen harder and by delivering on the technical aspects of audio production, it disguises any cracks and joins that may be there, allowing the listener to focus on the tight and escalating sense of threat. It brings then-new audio voices to the fore in the likes of Bowerman, and matches them with superb and well-tested voices like Miles to deliver a rounded, believable, seemingly effortlessly real world. And above all, it proves that Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant together are still a workable team when translated out of their presumably visual comfort zones into the audio universe.
Still, almost two decades on, you can listen to Whispers of Terror with baited breath, and while the Sixth Doctor and Peri have changed over the intervening years, it still feels true to their TV origins, so it delivers a hit of televisual nostalgia that makes you want to pull out your DVDs of the likes of Vengeance on Varos and Mark of the Rani.
If you’ve never listened to Whispers of Terror, fill in the gap in your knowledge today. If you have, give it another spin – it may well surprise you with how much it delivers.
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