Big Finish’s three new Tenth Doctor Adventures kick off with No Place by James Goss. Goss is well known to Big Finish fans and has a notable literary CV. As well as his own original fiction, the author and producer has written numerous novels and audio dramas in the Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Class milieus. Goss novelised Douglas Adams’ scripts for classic era stories City of Death and The Pirate Planet and his Dead Air was named 2010 “AudioBook of the Year.” It should surprise nobody, then, that No Place is a confident, enjoyable hour of drama.
The set-up is as familiar but welcome as your front door at the end of a long day: a haunted house. The Doctor (David Tennant), Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), her mum Sylvia (Jacqueline King), and Grandad Wilf (Bernard Cribbins) are renovating the husk of a 15th Century manor house, Morley Mance, and have invited Justin Valentine, the presenter of the reality show Haunted Makeovers, to film there with his crew. In an adroit piece of opening exposition, which might otherwise have lain heavily upon dialogue, Goss has Valentine, via a piece to camera, recount the house’s supernatural pedigree: it was formerly a lodging house for a monastery, then a Victorian workhouse, a school, and latterly a community centre. Throw in a mysterious fire and a shadowy caretaker and we’re firmly on the north side of the churchyard.
Goss captures the slick vacuity of this type of daytime pablum well, furnishing Justin with glib lines about the house needing “a lick of paint with some elbow grease” and having him inform Sylvia that deciding how to wallpaper the hall is “one of the most important decisions of your life.” With admirable economy, Goss also skewers such shows’ stock-in-trade: “film in a draughty old house for long enough and you’ll catch enough moments. Odd reflections, noises,” says Justin candidly. Composer Howard Carter also deserves praise for replicating precisely the type of music that bookends and punctuates such fare.
Of course, this is Doctor Who and the house is haunted by something more than the immediately explicable. Goss takes us through a checklist of haunted house tropes that I, as a lover of the genre, found familiar but never tiresome. We get an ossuary under the garden, dripping ectoplasm, an eerie attic room, poltergeistic spasms, and a bruising encounter with a piano. Deep cold and a deeper sadness suffuse its dry, mottled walls. There’s a whole lot of foreboding going on.
The regular cuts between the action and Justin’s commentary, complete with camera beeps and snaps of static, evoke the ‘found footage’ genre while Carter’s accompaniment recalls James Newton Howard’s shimmering score for The Sixth Sense. Overall, it’s efficient and well-produced, with strong sound design and a number of the “jump points” (too) common to the modern genre. That said, there’s nothing here to trouble the seasoned supernatural fan.
Audio horror like this is challenging because it requires characters in moments of stress to describe what they’re seeing so the listener sees it too. These declarations mostly work fine although, during one tense scene, Catherine Tate is required to imbue a verb with more terror than it can reasonably be expected to bear when she gasps “the chandelier: it’s- it’s swaying!” Nor is this the only awkward dialogue, to be fair. At one point, Wilf gives a modest oration about the Doctor that recalls Son of Mine’s closing monologue in Family of Blood but, where that worked well in a very stylised voiceover, similarly florid phrasing here overbalances a ‘normal’ conversation.
The main characters are all on good form if, to my ears, at first a little muted. In particular, Goss captures the crackle and scrape between Donna and Sylvia very well and they have some amusing exchanges, as do Sylvia and Justin. Jacqueline King plays the different sides of Sylvia well; by turns bewildered, frustrated, antagonistic to Donna and yet protective of her, while keeping her always just the right side of sitcom battleaxe. Tennant slips back into the blokish amiability of his Doctor as readily as one would expect of such an accomplished actor and delivers some sharp lines with aplomb. I particularly enjoyed his knowing riposte to Justin that it doesn’t matter what the sonic screwdriver is, “the trick is to point it like you mean business.” Catherine Tate and Bernard Cribbins are less well-served but deliver what they have with polish.
No Place is an entertaining hour in the company of the Doctor and the Noble family ̶ I found just hearing them again a pleasure ̶ but it is by no means flawless. At times, it almost feels like the frights and chills are merely barriers to keep us from getting to the end too soon. Some 40 minutes in, the Doctor says to Justin “There’s something I should tell you ̶ ” before Wilf and Sylvia quickly interrupt, presumably to prevent an embarrassing case of premature elaboration. While it didn’t really dilute my enjoyment, the problem with the story dramatically is that none of the characters does much to push the plot on. A series of moments unfolds within the house and our heroes merely react to them. We’re used to seeing the Doctor drive events but here he mainly sets them in motion and observes. That, and the catharsis of the story’s denouement, reminded me of the Seventh Doctor’s darkly therapeutic manipulations of Ace. At least Goss seems aware that his characters are mostly passive in this story and, when an explanation is offered, it makes logical sense.
Justin is the only character to get an arc and it’s pivotal. Joel Fry plays the part well and both writing and performance give us a character who is multifaceted: a television persona as purveyor of cheap chills, an off-camera cynic who, unusually, briefly appropriates the rational voice that normally belongs to the Doctor, and the Justin to whom we eventually bid farewell.
This being Doctor Who, a ‘rational’ explanation of the strange phenomena is given that will surprise only those most casually acquainted with the series. It doesn’t bear much scrutiny but then such explanations – as often with Russell T. Davies’ oeuvre and certainly with most horror ̶ seldom do, so I don’t offer it as serious criticism. In sum, No Place is solidly crafted, funny, and well-acted. It’s time spent in the company of good friends. The destination is a familiar one, but the journey is a pleasure.