We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to The Land of the Dead, the fourth in the Main Range of audios. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!
It’s 1964, briefly at least, and the Fifth Doctor has just recently left Tegan Jovanka at Heathrow Airport in the wake of Adric’s untimely death. Traveling alone with Nyssa of Traken, he materializes the TARDIS in the icy north of Alaska. I say “materializes” rather than “lands” because he doesn’t land; the TARDIS arrives in midair, giving it a close call with a small plane. The TARDIS seems to have a mind of its own, locking in on an odd energy source and disappearing back into the vortex; it rematerializes in the same location, but thirty years in the future, in 1994. Here it does land, and the Doctor and Nyssa find themselves chased by a dangerous creature across the tundra to an unusual house, and an odd group of individuals.
Multi-millionaire Shaun Brett (which sounds like a pro wrestler name to me, but what do I know?) has made a fortune in Alaskan oil, but at a price: the death of his father in 1964. He is now building and furnishing the house—sourced from local materials, which is a desecration in the eyes of the local natives—as a shrine to his father’s memory. He is matched with Tulung, a half-Koyukon native hired by Brett to liaise with the locals, whose father died in the same incident as Brett’s father. Each blames the other’s father for the tragedy (spoiler alert: Tulung is correct). Brett is assisted by Gaborik, another Kolyukon, who is secretly sabotaging the work so as to ensure his own continued employment, and is also stealing pelts from the house to sell. Also on site is Monica Lewis, an interior designer who has been working at the site for three years, crafting the interior of the house.
As the plot unfolds, the creatures—for there are more than one—are found to consist of only bone, and ancient, mostly-fossilized bone at that. They are held together by a bio-electric field, which seems also to be their weapon, as it exerts damaging effects on the minds of those around it—especially Nyssa, who seems to be particularly harmed, although not controlled by the effect. The Doctor determines that the creatures are much older than the dinosaurs, although still somehow living; they date, in fact, to the Permian era, and thus he nicknames them “Permians”. Further, they consume sources of energy, including living beings, as revealed when one of them manages to kill and devour Gaborik.
The situation devolves, as Brett and Tulung each try to confirm their own version of history—and discover that Nyssa, somehow, was there, when she identifies the plane she witnessed in 1964. With the Permians’ electric field affecting his mind, Tulung decides that Nyssa is supernaturally powerful, and kidnaps her to protect himself and Brett from the creatures as they make their way to the site of their fathers’ deaths. Once there, Tulung discovers the truth: That their fathers unearthed a Permian and were attacked—but that Brett’s father fled in the plane Nyssa witnessed and left Tulung’s father to die. He defeated the Permian, but died in the process, and his remains are still on the ground inside the dig site. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Monica are forced to battle the monsters in the house, and escape via a shortcut, arriving at the dig site.
Brett refuses to believe the truth about his father, and attempts to destroy the Permians with dynamite, sacrificing himself in the process. However, the attempt reveals that they are vulnerable to fire. The Doctor and the others rig the house to burn, then trap the creatures inside and burn it to the ground. With the threat eliminated, Monica and Tulung—now free of the field’s influence—leave in the site’s transport, and the Doctor and Nyssa depart in the TARDIS.
While interesting enough, this story was a bit hard for me to follow; there were several long stretches of dialogue with very little action, a portion of which was awkwardly written; and I also admit that I was a little distracted while listening. Still, it’s an interesting plot, although I couldn’t help wondering if it would come across as culturally insensitive to anyone of actual native Alaskan descent. To its credit, it doesn’t try to delve too deeply into that culture or its mythology, just touching on the parts necessary for the sake of the story; otherwise it would probably have come across as hamfisted. Tulung is a bit of a caricature, as is Gaborik, but only mildly so; and some of their fanaticism in the story is explained by the effects the Permians had on their minds.
Brett is a bit of a stereotypical power-mad villain here; he’s very much in the same vein as Henry Van Statten from Dalek, although not so over the top. He, too, however, is made worse by the Permians; he is much more restrained at the beginning, before the creatures start to affect him. Monica Lewis is mostly annoying, but she does get some good banter with the Doctor (their constant argument over tea is understated and hilarious), and she proves to be both honest and very useful in the end, being instrumental in the burning of the house. There’s a hint of a possible relationship between Monica and Tulung, but it’s shoehorned in at the end, and not really supported by anything preceding it. The plotline involving Gaborik and his thefts and sabotage had potential, but also felt extraneous to the story; and I can’t help thinking that the writers agreed, as they killed him off early.
The Permians are odd villains; there seems to be a streak of somewhat-unbelievable monsters in the main range at this point, and the Permians fit right in. They have no flesh—in fact, they historically consumed their own flesh—and yet they keep living, with the nebulous concept of a bio-electric field maintaining them. They’re certainly menacing enough, but difficult to grasp.
Nyssa is delightful as always, although she’s a bit underplayed here as compared to her television appearances. I’ve often said that she’s a match for the Doctor in intelligence and skill; but that is mostly unseen here, and she’s more of the damsel in distress that so many other companions have been. It’s unfortunate, I think, as she had an excellent opportunity to shine, being the only companion on hand for a brief time. The Doctor, too, is a little different than usual, at least toward the end, in that he’s more than willing to destroy the Permians mercilessly, whereas typically he tries to save his enemies. He justifies it by saying that they had their time millennia ago, and can’t be allowed to master a time that has moved on without them; while it’s true, it’s a bit out of character for him.
Overall, this audio is middle-of-the-road, in my opinion. It’s certainly not great or memorable, but listening was not a chore, either, and it made for a fun couple of hours. Peter Davison is always a pleasure to listen to with regard to dialogue, and the plot wasn’t bad, only stretched. While it’s not one of the greats–Phantasmagoria and Whispers of Terror, the two preceding dramas, were both better, in my opinion—it’s still worth a listen.
Next time: A possible sidestep into another range, or, barring that, Main Range five, The Fearmonger! See you there.
All audios reviewed in this series can be purchased here from Big Finish Productions; link to this story is below. This and many other audio dramas are also available on Spotify and Google Play.