We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re looking at Main Range #19, Minuet In Hell, featuring the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!
It’s the very early twenty-first century, and the USA is about to admit its fifty-first state, Malebolgia. Two men are competing to become its first governor: former senator Waldo Pickering, and television evangelist Brigham Elisha Dashwood III. However, Dashwood is more than he seems: he is the head of the American branch of the infamous Hellfire Club, composed of the rich and powerful…all of whom are dedicated Satanists. Dashwood is also the founder of a psychiatric institution, the Dashwood Institute—and its newest inmate is the Doctor. If only he remembered who he was…and if only he didn’t believe he was in Hell…
Elsewhere, Charley Pollard has also lost her memory, though bits of it begin to return. She is in a dormitory full of other girls around her age, including one Becky Lee Kowalczyck. They were brought here against their will, and are in the charge of Dashwood’s associate (and secret mistress), Dr. Dale Pargeter of the institute. They will serve as hostesses—with all that that may imply—at the Hellfire Club.
The next day, a group of VIPs tours the Institute, including Senator Pickering, and one Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, who is here to assist with Malebolgia’s statehood process (having successfully helped Scotland with a similar procedure). Dr. Pargeter shows them the PSI-859 psionic matrix facsimile regenerator, the technological marvel that she uses to cure her patients, which stores and transfers memories, allowing the then-empty brain to have surgery without risk of personality damage. On the way out, they encounter two patients who were brought in the night before. One, dubbed “John Doe”, declares himself to be Gideon Crane, a reporter from the London Torch; his lucidity gets him freedom from the cell. The other, dubbed “Zebidiah Doe” for differentiation, is the Doctor; but he doesn’t remember himself, and the Brigadier has never seen the Eighth Doctor’s face. Both of them, however, seem to vaguely recognize him. He leaves before pursuing it further. As, elsewhere, the Hellfire Club prepares to literally summon up demons, “Zebidiah” is taken to the machine, where Crane is now assisting, and connected up—but his mind overloads the machine and causes feedback to strike them both.
Zebidiah flees the facility, and runs into the Brigadier in an alley. They are chased by quite literal demons, dispatched by Dashwood, who has come to distrust the Brigadier. Elsewhere, Becky Lee and Charley escape the club; Becky Lee makes a strange chant that disables a number of members. Becky says that she is a member of the Order of Saint Peter, which exists to fight supernatural evil; however, she is also the granddaughter of Senator Pickering. They go to him for help. Meanwhile, Pargeter confers with Dashwood, and tells him about Zebidiah, which leads him to make new plans for the escapee. He calls off the demons, which have just cornered the Brigadier and Zebidiah. However, not realizing the connections, the Brigadier returns the weakened Zebidiah to the Institute. He returns to his hotel and requests additional help from his superiors, who have secretly sent him to investigate Dashwood and the PSI-859 machine; but they are indifferent to the situation.
Becky Lee shows Pickering a confiscated security tape from the club, which is quite incriminating. Pickering takes it to blackmail Dashwood, but Dashwood drugs him, and summons a demon named Marchosias to possess the senator, using the machine to extract Pickering’s mind first. He returns to Pickering’s home, where Charley’s memories have returned. In discussion, he tells them about Lethbridge-Stewart, who may connect Charley to the Doctor. Meanwhile, “Zebidiah” is back in his cell, as is Crane, and a few of his memories have returned. However, Crane believes that HE is the Doctor…and he has more of the Doctor’s memories than Zebediah does.
Pickering smashes through Charley’s bedroom door and attacks her. Charley realizes he is not actually Pickering anymore; and she smashes a window and flees. With no idea where to go, she returns to the Hellfire club for clues. Meanwhile, Becky finds the Brigadier and exchanges stories with him; he is intrigued by her story, and suggests that the Doctor may really be involved. The Doctor, however, is indisposed; Crane is telling him a very convincing tale, in which Zebidiah was too close to the TARDIS when it crash-landed, and absorbed some of the Doctor’s memories. Zebidiah doesn’t believe it, but he agrees to use the machine to re-establish his own memories. When Pargeter comes for him, he doesn’t realize that she and Dashwood intend to split his mental capacity among twelve other patients…
Charley is captured by Pargeter and Marchosias. She is put back in with the other girls; but when Dashwood sees her, he separates her out to be a central figure in his rituals—the Queen of Hell, who will be possessed by a demon and married to Dashwood. Pargeter becomes jealous, and her jealousy is fed by Marchosias. Charley, however, is beginning to suspect that Marchosias is not what he seems…
Becky Lee and the Brigadier return to the Institute. They are caught by Pargeter [who seems to be EVERYWHERE—my note], and demand to see Zebidiah, but are denied. They see Pickering/Marchosias on television, withdrawing from the gubernatorial race. Becky Lee slips away, and meets Crane, who still thinks he is the Doctor. They come up with an escape plan. Meanwhile, Pargeter uses the machine on Zebidiah. At the Club, Dashwood displays Charley, and uses a device called a trans-D, which sends her through a dimensional interface to Hell…
In the Institute, each of the dozen new patients believes he is now the Doctor. Becky Lee sets off a fire alarm. Gideon escapes his cell and heads to the laboratory. Pargeter meets Marchosias, who tells her the alarm is false, and that Dashwood has abandoned her for Charley. Pargeter leaves as Becky Lee arrives, and realizes that Pickering is not himself—just in time to be knocked out by Marchosias. At the club—or rather, in Hell—Charley is surrounded by demons; but they reject her, as they claim she is already dead. She awakens back in her body at the club. The Brigadier arrives to rescue her, and confronts Dashwood. Pargeter arrives as well, and the Brigadier and Charley escape as she occupies Dashwood, but he then expels her from the room. He prepares to make a public broadcast regarding securing the gubernatorial race.
Crane finds Zebidiah, who claims to be an empty shell now. Crane genuinely wants to help Zebidiah re-establish his own memories (as opposed to the Doctor’s), and hooks him back up to the machine; but the minds already connected are not strong enough to trigger the machine. Crane connects himself—and Zebidiah forces him to stay connected. His memories of his life as the Doctor are stripped away, along with all the fragments in the other patients, and returned to Zebidiah, their rightful owner. Gideon and the others are knocked out, but restored to themselves. Moments later, the Brigadier and Charley arrive, and have a reunion with the Doctor.
Becky Lee wakes up, and finds that Marchosias has chained her up in the club’s torture room. She tries to turn his fears against him, as she did to the other clubgoers on the first note, but he has no fears to exploit. Pargeter bursts in, angry and full of fear; as Marchosias feeds on such emotions, he is enthralled, and pushes her to vent her rage on Becky Lee. Becky Lee is forced to turn Pargeter’s fears against her, and the woman’s heart gives out, and she dies.
As Crane recovers, the Doctor rewires the PSI machine to return all its stored psyches to their proper owners, even over a distance of a few miles. Crane, with some residual memories from the Doctor, is able to operate the machine when signaled to do so. The others go to deal with Dashwood, and Crane sends Pickering’s mind back to his body. This expels Marchosias, just as he is about to attack Becky Lee with a chainsaw. Crane then sabotages the machine.
The Doctor, the Brigadier, and Charley meet Dashwood at the broadcast studio, but the Brigadier collapses as they enter, apparently worn out. The stage manager, Scott, escorts him to the control room to cool off. The Doctor confronts Dashwood, who arrogantly brags about his plan; but unknown to him, the Brigadier has activated the equiptment, and Dashwood’s “confession” went out live on national television. In a single moment, he has destroyed his own career. While he won’t be arrested, the investigation that will surely result will spell the end of both the club and the Institute. Outside, they meet Becky Lee and Pickering; and Becky has the trans-D device. Dashwood snatches it away and flees, threatening to send anyone to Hell if they interfere. Also, Charley realizes that the displaced Marchosias has to have gone somewhere—and Crane is with the machine…
They chase Dashwood back to the lab, and barely manage to save Crane from Marchosias, who takes form of his own. Dashwood intends to use the machine to place himself in Marchosias’s body and rule Hell. However, Marchosias is not a demon; he’s a Psionovore, a creature from a realm of cometary dust, which feeds on negative emotions. Drawn to Earth by the Hellfire Club, he appeared as a demon to deceive Dashwood, giving him the design of the machine in order to stir up more trouble and give the Psionovores a continual feast. He’s feeding now, and Crane admits that he set the machine to overload. The Doctor and his friends flee; Dashwood fires the trans-D at them, but its interaction with the adjacent PSI machine causes everything in the lab to be swept back through the dimensional gateway to the realm of the Psionovores. The others escape, but Marchosias and Dashwood are pulled in.
The Doctor has a brief moment of reminiscing with the Brigadier, and then he and Charley leave so as to avoid any questioning. In the TARDIS, Charley asks what the Psionovores meant when they said she was dead—but he dismisses it as nonsense, and they are off again.
This story is a first for me: An audio that I didn’t like at all. I’ll go ahead and make my complaints up front, and then list some good points; I don’t want to ruin the experience for anyone else. As I understand it, the audio was well received in general. It’s over the top in many ways; in addition to lasting approximately two and a half hours (very long for a main range audio!), it drags in places and races in others. Set in America, its characters are mostly caricatures, and painful to listen to; I don’t know where exactly Malebolgia is supposed to be, but it appears it’s in the deepest, darkest, most stereotypically hokey part of Texas, a region which I am reasonably sure doesn’t really exist in real life (not Texas, just that part of it). In a recent comment on one of my other posts, someone compared Elisha Dashwood (or maybe Waldo Pickering, it’s hard to say) to Foghorn Leghorn, and as much as I hoped it was a joke, it seems to be an accurate assessment.
It’s a caricature of Satanism as well; and though I am a Christian myself, and don’t want to lend too much credence to Satanism, at least we can go for believability. The members of the Hellfire Club are a cartoonish version of Satanists; they unironically substitute satanic references for common theological ones (e.g. “Lucifer, no!” instead of “Lord, no!”) and engage in literal drunken orgies (slightly glossed over for presentation, but only slightly). I won’t get into the demon-summoning rituals, as those at least make sense in context; but Marchosias is a joke in nearly every respect. Even the name of the prospective state, Malebolgia, is a reference to Dante’s Inferno; that’s perhaps one Hell reference too many.
The story is not kind to the Doctor, dragging out his ordeal in the institute until the final chapter. Even then, it gives no good explanation for how he conceived and executed his plan to recover his mind, as his brain was ostensibly blank at the time. Really, this story is far more the Brigadier’s story, and Charley’s, than the Doctor’s; that’s not a bad thing, of course, but it seems strange in the execution. This isn’t the Brigadier’s best outing, though it’s not bad (really, no Brigadier story is bad on that count, in my opinion). It’s late in his lifetime, but it seems that he is still taking on the occasional undercover assignment (see The Spectre of Lanyon Moor and Battlefield for comparison). Charley puts in a good performance here, recovering her memories in much better fashion than the Doctor, and accomplishing a fair bit on her own; but I can’t help feeling that we’ve seen this before…oh, wait: she’s becoming Lucie Miller. That is, the idea that there’s a terrible, time-related secret about her, which the Doctor is covering up, has been done before. (I realize that this audio predates Lucie’s appearance, but in my own listening, I came to Lucie first, so it’s a bit backward for me.)
Perhaps some of this is understandable, given that this is not an original Big Finish story. Instead, like The Mutant Phase, it’s an adaptation of an Audio Visuals story by the same title; in fact, the Psionovores originate from yet another Audio Visuals story, Cloud of Fear, by Alan W. Lear. It’s unfortunate that this story plays out badly, when The Mutant Phase was so good; but not everything can succeed, I suppose. It’s impressive that we’re almost twenty stories in before hitting a dud, at any rate.
On the positive side: This story gives a nod to movie companion Grace Holloway, who can’t be properly used by Big Finish due to licensing issues (she is mentioned by Crane, drawing on the Doctor’s memories). Ramsay the Vortisaur features here for what I imagine is the last time; in fact, an accident during his release to the vortex is what precipitates the TARDIS crash that begins the adventure. There are many, many real world references, tying this story firmly to real world continuity (with the exception of that pesky 51st state). There’s a veritable feast of references to past stories and companions, many of which are mentioned by Crane (and more than I have time to mention right now, which bothers me, but you can check the wiki and discontinuity guide entries if you’re curious). The references cover all media, from television to audio to novels (perhaps I shouldn’t say “all”; not sure about the comics). Interestingly, there’s at least one direct future reference, as one of Crane’s questions to the Doctor involves the events of the very next audio, Loups-Garoux (I won’t give the details, as I’m covering it next week). Less specifically, it’s reminiscent of a few particularly good television stories: the Institute scenes and the machine are strongly reminiscent of The Mind of Evil, to the point that I briefly thought Crane might be the Master; and Crane’s acquisition of the Doctor’s memories is very similar to Jackson Lake in The Next Doctor.
So: Not a particularly good story, in my opinion, but with a few good points; and it is probably necessary for future stories involving Charley. Check it out; opinions may vary.
Next time: It’s a busy week; tomorrow (if I have it ready in time), we’ll look at the VNA novel Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible. Wednesday will have the second BBC Demon Quest Fourth Doctor adventure, The Demon of Paris; Thursday will have the Tenth Doctor’s contribution to the Destiny of the Doctor series, Death’s Deal; and Friday, we’ll continue Series Three with Human Nature, The Family of Blood, and Blink. Thanks for reading! See you there.
All stories featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below. This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.