In 1920s Los Angeles, screen tests for the talkie picture, “Fires of Fate”, are consuming actresses. Starlet after starlet from the silent film era is rendered mute when delivering the money-note scream for the climatic fire scene. The victims are whisked off for medical attention and seemingly disappear. Something sinister is afoot and shadowy creatures threaten a has-been actress in her Hollywood home…
There is potentially so much about this adventure to like – the time when “talkie” films were taking over Hollywood and silent films faded into the background is a perfect setting for Doctor Who. The regulars deliver strong performances as usual and we have a wonderful cast with Pamela Salem (The Robots of Death, Counter Measures) as Loretta Waldorf and Andree Bernard (Hollyoaks, The Shakespeare Code) delivering doing a delightful turn as studio owner, Lulu Hammerstein.
The Silent Scream didn’t really grab me on a first listening. Writer, James Goss has delivered some cracking Big Finish adventures in a number of ranges and the ingredients in Scream are full of promise. But overall it doesn’t feel like the classic it could have been. That said I did enjoy it more the second time round. The problem may have been some hurdles I found it didn’t quite overcome.
The first of these was, I just wasn’t convinced that we were in America. There’s something about the way we British deliver an iconic image of America – whether it’s accents, dialogue, music or soundscape, something didn’t quite transport me. This is despite Big Finish’s typically excellent sound design; this listener found it difficult to conjure the sun-soaked film lots and palm-lined boulevards the story requires.
The other gripe I have is the allegorical ambitions of The Silent Scream. The premise is that actresses from the silent film era are auditioning for a talkie but the process robs them of their voice such that they – quite literally – become shadows of their former selves. They are incapacitated and preserved as celluloid monsters. On the one hand, this is brilliant and perfect for Doctor Who. On the other, it felt like a forced metaphor – a little too contrived even for the playful end of the Tom Baker spectrum.
The underlying idea seems to be that a profit-focused industry will ultimately rob art (and artists) of humanity. This is played out in a science-fantasy plot whereby commodification from the far future reaches back to the 1920s with mysterious monster-making results. I should absolutely love this but it didn’t hit the mark. I’m not sure whether it took on an idea too complicated to put across on audio without losing the listener along the way or whether I was lacking somewhere! It feels as though this was a brilliant on-screen adventure we never had but as an audio it falters in making its point.
That said, there are some lovely moments, particularly with John Leeson’s K9 who never fails in reproducing his original on-screen self. Every line is perfection! Pamela Salem is one of my favourite actors but she felt almost a little wasted here: she has a wonderful voice so it seemed a little strange that she was playing an actor from silent films who had failed to make it in the talkies. Her character here is rather meek and I’m ashamed to say I initially didn’t recognise her – perhaps be because I’m so used to her alert and commanding characters. Alec Newman as the villainous Dr Julius ticks the boxes admirably, and Andree Bernard is a ballsy cocktail of fun who plays very well alongside the Fourth Doctor.
Tom Baker continues to have the time of his life (hurrah!) and Lalla Ward is given a little more to do. I do find Romana is kept rather dour in the Fourth Doctor range at the moment and I’m longing to hear her enjoying herself a bit more – a little bit of that Paris bouquet perhaps?
The Long and the Short of it:
This isn’t the best of the Fourth Doctor range despite a great setting and very Who-ish premise. The central conceit feels a little forced at times and I was left feeling that there were some missed opportunities. The regulars deliver as usual and the guest cast are strong enough but overall, The Silent Scream felt more Cricklewood than Hollywood.
The Fourth Doctor Adventures: The Silent Scream is out now from Big Finish, priced at £10.99 for a CD or £8.99 as a download.