“Scarcity doesn’t imply value…it can represent a lack of interest.”
And with those sage words of warning to the detestably opportunistic eBay/’storage wars’ scavenger-reseller crowd, we begin a rather odd entry in the Fourth Doctor Adventures.
Recurring author John Dorney (Justice of Jalxar, 1963: Assassination Games, King of Sontar) offers a gothic-tinged adventure with more than its fair share of witty banter and interplay between our heroes and those they encounter…and yet…
We’re drawn into what amounts to an effective murder mystery cum horror entry, adding in elements of the fantastic and (by inference from the presence of the Doctor) the barest hint of sci-fi as well. So much does it fall under the realm of the mystery, in fact, that author John Dorney actually calls out authoress V.C. Andrews (Baker refers to local constabulary Ellis Andrews by the rather formal designation “P.C. Andrews” at least twice during the running time).
Like the excellent James (‘Tommy Beresford’) Warwick telefilm The Nightmare Man, it centers around a series of bizarre killings in a nigh-deserted shoreside area* whose perpetrator turns out to be something more than human…
* in the case of the former the setting was a waterlogged Scotch isle, but you get the basic idea.
With both the loveably eubellient madness of the Tom Baker Doctor and the amusing naivete of Louise Jameson’s Leela somewhat sidelined amongst the overly prominent airtime given to the residents of the unnamed quaint seaside town all this takes place within the confines of, there’s a bit less to write home about for Whovians this time around.
While the titular entity is quite sinister and composer/sound designer Jamie Robertson provides a suitably atmospheric and creepy taste of a chilly, nigh-abandoned off season shore village, several of our guest stars this episode (or more precisely, the roles they’ve been recruited to inhabit) come off rather bland…no, let’s be blunt about this – fairly unlikeable.
As with the tropes of the heyday of the slasher film back in the 1980’s, the characters alternate between paper thin ciphers (pun intended) and sufficiently detestable, leaving the viewer practically cheering on their assassin in his efforts to relieve us of their presence…
“I do not like her. She thinks very highly of herself.”
“If everyone tells you you’re special, sooner or later, you start to believe it.”
It’s almost a game to figure out who the most irritating character here may be – the murderous yet prissy Celia Turner, the usurious used bookseller Rance, the soullessly “perfect” Simon Corbett, the Corbett’s screaming baby or the Crooked Man himself…but it’s a safe bet to give honors to an extremely annoying and vain television personality named Leslie King…
When I hear the Crooked Man described, I picture some variant of Mr. Nobody from Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, particularly with the nigh-schizophrenic lack of distinction between the world of myth and fiction and ostensible reality.
In fact, in terms of subtext, there’s a related message to the audience about fantasy and reality to be found herein, with Laura Corbett’s pursuit of an ideal man being taken a step further than one might expect, leading to a somewhat grim if realistic denoument about accepting people, and the world we live in, for all their and its intrinsic faults. Probably not what listeners to a science fiction/fantasy by way of horror series want to hear, but true enough regardless.
“Ignore me much more, Ellis, and I’ll have to start calling you Leela.”
To the extent they get their percentage of airtime, Baker and Jameson continue their increasingly easy banter and newly warm relationship we’ve seen developing over the course of recent Fourth Doctor Adventures such as King of Sontar and particularly last month’s White Ghosts. Each gets their fair share of zingers, and it’s becoming a decided two (wo/)man show as opposed to the more particularly grandstanding Doctor and somewhat lost student-companion relations that their televised iteration was oft prone to fall back upon. Leela proves quite direct and incisive with her assessments of various characters and their motivations, belieing her apparent “savage” simplicity.
“Leela and I will keep this door shut as long as we can. Is that alright, Leela?”
“If I say no, do you have another plan?”
“Exactly, so why do you ask?”
Further, Baker gets to essay the nigh-Holmesian role he fulfilled so brilliantly in any number of Philip Hinchcliffe/Graham Williams era Who offerings (Talons of Weng-Chiang, Horror of Fang Rock, Seeds of Doom, Pyramids of Mars and Terror of the Zygons spring immediately to mind, among many).
On the lighter side, there are several affectionate but knowing digs at the comic book/D&D/fantasy crowd (the exchanges between Baker and Richard Earl’s Constable Ellis are rife with them…), and these, and more particularly Ellis’ obsession with the unreal, further mirror the subtext of the story.
“You’re single, aren’t you?”
“How did you know?”
“oh, call it a hunch.”
Beyond Baker and Jameson, due credit should be given to the aforementioned Richard Earl, whose geeky small town policeman provides some of the more amusing moments herein, and a nod to Sarah Smart’s Laura Corbett, whose rather pronounced personal and emotional issues drive the entire narrative. Perhaps tellingly, it is these two who come to a (relatively) happy ending – the comparatively likeable characters are the only ones to survive. Dorney himself must have realized how positively horrible the other characters were…
Were the rest of the supporting cast not quite so prominent in the running time or their roles not scripted to be so particularly aggravating, The Crooked Man would in fact have been a clear winner, suffused in atmosphere and bearing all the hallmarks of the gothic overtones that made Baker’s earlier run stand out above those of most or all of his predecessors and successors.
Unfortunately, it really is quite hard to stomach some of these folks…