Big Finish: Doctor Who - NIGHTMARE COUNTRY Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Doctor Who - NIGHTMARE COUNTRY Review

Matthew Kresal unearths a lost gem.

Back in 2013, Big Finish closed down the Lost Stories, their range bringing to life Doctor Who stories formulated for TV but never filmed. Some six years later, as part of a company-wide celebration of two decades of Doctor Who audio dramas, the range has experienced a mini-revival. Nightmare Country, a story first conceived for Peter Davison's last season as the Fifth Doctor, is one of the stories to benefit from that fact, and it certainly deserves the chance to be heard.

Nightmare Country comes from the mind of Stephen Gallagher, a writer whose name might be familiar to fans of Eighties Doctor Who. His stories include the Fourth Doctor tale Warriors' Gate, which saw out both Romana and K-9 in a high-concept piece that continues to be a Marmite tale among fans, and the Fifth Doctor tale Terminus, which saw Nyssa bow out of traveling in the TARDIS. Though both stories had production issues that served to stifle Gallagher's vision of them, he pitched a third story to the production team, only to receive word back that what he had was a "million-dollar movie," and something beyond the capabilities of the show's makers. So, the script went into a drawer for more than thirty years.

Which is a shame because it might just be the most accessible story Gallagher wrote for the series.

Make no mistake: Gallagher is still playing with big ideas. The titular land refers to the world in which an amnesic Fifth Doctor finds himself, full of wreckage and ruins. Of course, nothing is what it seems, and it isn't too far into the opening installment before the listener (and the Doctor's companions Tegan and Turlough) find out that this landscape is all part of an effort to bring a virtual world into being. But why isn't it the paradise that's expected by those who worked to create it?

Nightmare Country is, essentially, a cyberpunk tale set in the TARDIS. That is one that came into being just as that subgenre was still emerging, making it all the more remarkable to think that this story might have aired the same year that William Gibson's novel Neuromancer was published. But, rather than being a relic from another era, it's hard not to find pre-echoes of things like the film Dark City or episodes of Modern TV Who such as Extremis and even The Doctor Wife, with its combination of the wrecked alien landscape with TARDIS interior shenanigans, in Gallagher's concepts and storytelling.

How he puts all that to his audience is what makes it the most accessible of Gallagher's trio of scripts. Nightmare Country is something of a runaround, taking characters and the listener in a continuous headlong rush that serves as the audio equivalent of Graeme Harper's direction on screen. Most importantly, and perhaps this is Gallagher learning from his experiences on Warriors' Gate, he takes the time to both show and explain things which those big ideas make sense within the narrative's context. It also helps make certain twists late in the story work, the groundwork in place for the "aha!" moment.

It also helps that the characters feel right, giving the cast good material to play from. Of the Season 21 main cast, it is Davison and Janet Fielding as Tegan, who comes across the best. Davison is on fine form as the Doctor, albeit one with his memories missing but living up to Terrance Dicks' adage that "the Doctor is always the Doctor." Tegan is still feisty as ever, but both Gallagher's writing and Fielding's performance give the character something she so often seemed to lack on TV: heart. The interactions between the two of them in the latter half of the story, and their last scene together, in particular, rank as some of the best work either of them has done in their respective roles. Taken with the rest of the cast, including Big Finish regulars Tracey Wiles and Beth Chalmers, and it's as strong a cast as you're likely to find anywhere in the Big Finish library.

The icing on the cake is the score from Andy Hardwick. The 1980s was an electronic period for the show, with the Davison era showing the great range in terms of composers and how effective their work was. Hardwick taps into the better scores of that era, such as Roger Limb's for The Caves of Androzani, to produce an immensely evocative audio soundscape. The result never takes one out of the period feel while also doing what any good score should do: underscore the action underneath. The inclusion of an eight-minute music suite is an added delight, especially for fans of Doctor Who music, allowing listeners the chance to enjoy Hardwick's work on its own.

While one might not go so far as to call Nightmare Country Gallagher's Whovian magnum opus, it is very clearly the work of someone familiar with the show's early eighties' limitations and doing their best to play it to their advantage. What was a loss for viewers in 1984 is most assuredly a win for listeners more than thirty-five years later. As realized by Big Finish, through returning cast members of the era and an evocative music score, it could well be one of the best Doctor Who stories never made.

Until now, that is.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places. 

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