We’re back, with another Doctor Who audio drama review! Welcome aboard!
You may recall that my last audio drama review was far out of order for its range. In October, I reviewed the Fifth Doctor audio Tomb Ship, which is number 186 in the Monthly Range (aka the Main Range)—and we previously left off at The Creed of the Kromon, a much earlier number 53. So I feel compelled to say that the plan hasn’t changed; my usual pattern is still to take the stories in order, and I listened to Tomb Ship out of order just for a moment of variety. We’ll go back to doing things in order (and even pick up #51, The Wormery, which we previously skipped).
But not today! You see, my random selection of Tomb Ship created a problem. At that point in the Monthly Range, stories were being released in trilogies—three stories featuring the same Doctor and companion(s), which are consecutive not just in terms of release dates, but also in terms of the in-universe storyline. Tomb Ship happens to be the middle story of such a trilogy. Further, those three stories are tightly connected by the presence of temporary companion Hannah Bartholomew. As such, it behooves me go ahead and finish out the trilogy before we go back to the mid-fifties.
Which, in turn, leads to another bit of confusion. If you are reading this post somewhere far down the road, when I’ve caught up all the intervening stories, you can navigate using the “Previous” and “Next” links I place at the bottom of each post, and you’ll be fine. The stories will connect in release order. Obviously if you’re reading before I finish everything between, you’ll find gaps. But even if everything is finished, if you’re reading in posting order, then you’re going to have some confusion here, as you encounter Tomb Ship first.
Hence, this long-winded explanation. Which I will no doubt go back and add to Tomb Ship, as well.
Now: On to the show! Today, we’re looking at number 185 in the Monthly Range, Moonflesh, written by Mark Morris. Featuring the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and Hannah Bartholomew, this story takes place in Suffolk, 1911. Let’s get started!
As always, spoilers ahead! For a less spoiler-filled review, skip to the second dividing line; however, spoilers are present throughout this post!
Suffolk, 1911: The Doctor and Nyssa land at the estate of one Nathaniel Whitlock, a big game hunter who has turned his land into a private hunting ground. They quickly befriend the transplanted Sioux warrior Silver Crow, who serves as Whitlock’s retainer; they also encounter Whitlock’s daughter Phoebe, and his guests: Father and son Edwin and Hector Tremayne, and Hannah Bartholomew. Hannah is concerned with the Moonflesh, a rock in Whitlock’s collection, previously belonging to Silver Crow, who claims to have received it supernaturally while in a trance. Later, the Doctor, Silver Crow, and Nyssa find Bartholomew under attack by an energy being.
Whitlock shoots at the being, naturally failing to harm it, but causing it to retreat via the chimney. In the commotion, Hector checks on Phoebe, and they see the being escaping into the grounds. Upon questioning, Hannah reveals she is part of the Order of the Crescent Moon, a group obsessed with spiritualist artifacts, who want to study the Moonflesh. She had tried to scrape samples from the rock, which released the being from the stone. In the morning, everyone but Nyssa and Phoebe goes out to hunt for the being; but they are attacked by a gorilla, clearly under the control of the being, which attacks and injures Edwin. While the gorilla is shot and killed, the creature escapes. The Doctor takes Silver Crow to the TARDIS to analyze the crystal scrapings; they confirm what they already suspected—the being is incorporeal, but can possess and control other creatures. This is all familiar to Silver Crow; he says that his people have encountered the creature before, and nearly defeated it—and in fact, they must have captured it in the Moonflesh. Heading back to the group, they see a number of meteors strick the grounds, yielding a red mist like the disembodied form of the creature. Meanwhile at the house, Nyssa and Phoebe are attacked by a possessed dog; they lock themselves in a room, but the creature gains entry anyway.
The group returns to the house and puts the wounded Edwin in the drawing room; he demands immediate medical assistance, thinking only of himself. Nyssa comes to get the Doctor, and takes him to Phoebe; Phoebe is now possessed by the creature, which speaks through her. It says that its name is Vatuus, and that it is a political refugee; it says the other meteorites are an assassination squad coming to kill it. Committed to helping, the Doctor sends Silver Crow, Hector, and Hannah to barricade the house, while he and Nyssa take the news of Phoebe’s possession to Whitlock. The Doctor offers himself to Vatuus as a vessel to carry Vatuus to the TARDIS and whisk it away; however his mind’s natural defenses reject the creature. Instead, Nyssa carries Vatuus, and they depart on horseback. Meanwhile, upstairs, animals start to invade the house, possessed by the newly-landed creatures. Edwin bribes Bartholomew to take him to safety in Whitlock’s carriage, leaving even his own son behind despite the danger. At the TARDIS, Vatuus shows its true colors and tries to possess the TARDIS itself via its telepathic circuits, but the Doctor prevents this; Vatuus escapes into one of the horses. The Doctor moves the TARDIS into the house—where he finds Hector, Phoebe, and Whitlock, all possessed by the newcomers.
The creatures express no intent to harm, and release Hector and Phoebe as a show of good faith. They say they were sent to track Vatuus, who is a “rogue element” in their society; they plan to capture and reabsorb Vatuus. But there’s a catch: If they haven’t succeeded by midnight, the entire cluster of their people, a billion strong, will come to join the hunt. Meanwhile, Vatuus, in possession of an element, attacks the coach leaving the grounds, and kills Edwin; Hannah escapes, and is not seen again. The Doctor realizes it was Silver Crow’s ritual Ghost Dance that caused Vatuus to be trapped in the Moonflesh. They perform the ritual again, and fall into a trance, their minds transported to a different plane of existence. The other survivors keep watch; they are soon attacked by Vatuus in the elephant. Whitlock kills the elephant, but Vatuus has leaped to one of the group: Whitlock himself. In the other world, the Doctor and Silver Crow locate a new Moonflesh rock, and return with it; Silver Crow draws Vatuus out of Whitlock, and traps it in the new Moonflesh.
Afterward, no one can account for Hannah’s whereabouts; however there is one good outcome: Hector decides to remain with Whitlock—much to the delight of Phoebe—and he has some ideas about turning the estate into a profitable safari park. The Doctor and Nyssa exit, taking the Moonflesh—and Vatuus with them to be returned to Vatuus’s people.
Moonflesh strikes me as a story with a great potential to go badly wrong. I’m not suggesting that it did go wrong, but that it could easily have done so. First, there’s the matter of big game hunting. That’s a topic that is very much out of style these days, and for good reason—just ask any of the relatively few remaining rhinos in the wild! It’s a topic that, while not exactly sensitive, is very much out of step with where we are as a society these days. But, this story is a pseudohistorical; and so it gets something of a pass by merit of being set in an era where big game hunting was not only accepted, but considered a point of prestige. I admit I was a little surprised that the topic is hardly even mentioned in the story, in terms of the social issues involved these days; I expected some sort of conversation between the Doctor and Nyssa about the barbarism of the practice and how it was common in that era. But there’s nothing of the type (possibly because Nyssa isn’t from Earth, and who knows how Trakenites would view the subject?).
Second, and much larger, there’s the matter of Silver Crow. Silver Crow is Native American—Sioux, to be precise—and portrayals of Native Americans, especially in a historical context, are very much a sensitive issue, at least in the USA. (And I admit to some ignorance here of how it’s viewed in the UK, where this story was written and recorded, so pardon me if I’m reading through too narrow a lens.) Now, I think that everything played well in the end; Silver Crow is portrayed as an intelligent, civilized man, not at all stereotypical. But he’s voiced by a white actor, which I think even now—just ten years after this story’s November 2012 recording—would be a highly questioned move. (John Banks did a fine job; I’m commenting more on the social situation than his performance.) As well, there’s the portrayal of the Ghost Dance ritual, which is very downplayed—and that’s probably for the best, because it would have been difficult to avoid cliché territory otherwise.
So, overall, I’m pleased with the outcome—but there’s a feeling in hindsight of dodging a bullet with regard to things that could have gone wrong, had the production been done by less capable people.
It’s a satisfying story with a solid resolution, which feels very contained—and not just in the sense of being the typical “base under siege” story. We never get a species name or an origin for Vatuus and the other creatures; they refer to the collective of their people as the “Prime Cluster”, but that’s hardly informative for us. Put another way, they could have come from anywhere, which in turn allows the action to focus on the here and now, the Whitlock estate.
Most interesting, of course, is the character of new (and temporary) companion Hannah Bartholomew. This story doesn’t actually establish her as a companion; but we’ve already reviewed the next entry, and we know that she’ll be joining the TARDIS crew. Hannah is strong-willed, stubborn, and motivated by her own agenda, which doesn’t have much in common with the Doctor’s plans. There’s potential for her to be a villain, though I don’t expect she’ll go that route. She’s not reluctant to join the Doctor—as we saw in Tomb Ship—but she’s the kind of person he would be reluctant to take on if given the choice. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here.
Continuity References: Not much at all here. In fact, this is one of the barest stories I’ve ever found with regard to continuity nods. Nyssa mentions the deaths of her father (well, sort of death—at least she thinks of it that way) and stepmother on Traken (The Keeper of Traken). Aaaaand…..that’s about it! (The wiki does mention a loose connection, but it’s hardly enough to count as continuity; Whitlock’s father was a Crimean War veteran who fought at the Battle of Inkerman, where Mollie Dawson’s uncle was killed—see The Evil of the Daleks.)
Overall: Not bad at all! I enjoyed this one. It’s not anything groundbreaking or revolutionary, but it’s solid and well-paced, and uses old tropes in new ways. If you want a good, middle-of-the-road story, you could do much worse.
Next time: That depends on how you’re finding these posts! As I mentioned, I’ve already covered the next story, Tomb Ship; if you click on the “Next” link below, it will take you there. But in terms of order of posting, next time we’ll be covering the third and final entry in this trilogy, Masquerade. See you there (either way)!
All audio dramas in this series are available for purchase from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below.