Big Finish Folly, Part 132 – Red, by Stewart Sheargold
When the Tardis arrives in a tower block whose residents are also part of a grand social experiment to control and mute rage and violence, things are bound to go wrong. And indeed, it’s not long before the Doctor and Mel trip over the first bludgeoned corpse. But while Mel escape by virtue of falling out of a sudden window, the Doctor finds himself an involuntary addition to the experiment, chipped and bound to the Whitenoise system that oversees the project. There’s a serial killer on the loose in the Needle – and now it’s loose inside the Doctor’s head….
A computer that may or may not be homicidal, a voyeuristic supervisor, loads of suppressed violence, and Sandi Toksvig – ingredients that should add up to a red-hot Who adventure. But this one is definitely a case of a script that doesn’t live up to its promise.
Let’s start with the killings – after all, the play does exactly that. They’re on tape, replayed over and over for Chief Blue’s gratification (although he’s also supposed to be working out why they’re taking place, given that Whitenoise should be able to edit and pacify the Needle’s residents). As the killer screams “RED! RED! RED!!” over and over again, I think the listener is supposed to be appalled by the violence. Okay, that much is fair enough, but it really doesn’t make me want to continue listening. With the killings referred to several times over the course of the play, what I got was several scenes where I could simply have bailed from the play and left it unfinished. The chip in the Doctor’s head forces the Doctor to echo the killer’s words and emotions – a neat device, but one that is overplayed to the extent that hearing Sly roll his r’s is painful.
Mel spends much of the first half of the play falling out of the sky and then being forced to take a “slow” drug, a plot point that only begins to make sense in the climactic showdown with the Red killer, but both the plot point and that resolution feel a bit unnatural after all this emotive shouting. By this point, the killer has head-hopped several times and everybody’s busy shouting primary colours. Mel’s nifty deconstruction of Whitenoise and creation of some kind of virtual loop gets her the PC World bonus badge (still better than she ever seemed to manage on the tellybox, but unfortunately not as much as she was doing in Unregenerate).
Thoroughly traumatised by the time I got to the end, I only considered the guest characters and players after the fact. If all the shouting is off-putting, then the characters of Vi Yulquen (Toksvig) and Chief Blue (Sean Oliver) are the queasy topping on the cake. Not that they’re badly acted, far from it, but while they aren’t necessarily “bad guys”, but a story like this needs someone to actually root for – and since the Doctor’s finding all the different ways to shout a single word, Mel’s outside the tower being shouted at, and the only other potentially sympathetic character gets the heave-ho after some info-dumped backstory revelations, the fact that Vi and Blue are both very disturbed individuals (“hurt me! hurt me!” – “yeah, I’ll watch!”) doesn’t give the listener anyone to wave a flag for.
Are there plus points? Well, it’s not as bad as Nekromanteia, but that’s not a stellar recommendation. The idea of The Needle, the idea of a sealed social experiment, the voyeuristic elements, the murder mystery – all good genre elements that could have been combined far better without the emphasis on pain and violence. It just doesn’t suit the Doctor – not even the Seventh Doctor.