This box set consists of 2 adventures, ‘The Foe from the Future,’ and ‘The Valley of Death.’ Both follow the format of the show as it was in this Baker era, usually 4 or 6 episodes of 25 minutes each, complete with cliffhangers and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s theme music. For more on Big Finish, see here.
We’re Alive is a zombie apocalypse audio drama that ran for 4 seasons that ran between 2009 – 2014. A side story continuation ‘Lockdown’ finished has just completed as a podcast mini-series (April 2016).
And what a piece of work it is. Starting life in season 1 it immediately established its credentials as a high quality audio drama with laudable production values. An army sergeant Michael Cross (Jim Gleason) is pulled away from his studies on a college campus when he’s called up to deal with apparent violent riots. Said riots turn out to be the rise of the undead. Michael is reunited with his army buddies Angel (Shane Salk) and Saul (Nate Geez) and they realise that the established order is crumbling rapidly and they need to find a safe haven. Banding together with fellow survivors Pegs (Elisa Eliot) and Riley (Claire Dodin), and eventually stumbling across gravelly voiced veteran Burt (Scott Marvin), they hole up in a tower block which they turn into a fortress. This is the location of the first 2 seasons, which are centred on the defence of the tower block from monsters. These monsters are the infected, but also humanity at its most monstrous in the form of “The Mallers,” ex-convicts who occupied a Mall and represent human survival at its most vicious and violent. One of the Mallers leaders, ‘Scratch (Jenna McCombie),’ is a human nemesis whose battle with the tower dwellers becomes intensely personal when her brother is killed in an invasion of the tower. Scratch will take her battle to the very end of the finale of season 4.
So season 1 starts feeling pretty generic, survival horror with a military bent, a template that has been well established. As the story deepens over the next few seasons, however, we find that have bonded with main characters, and are engrossed with the developing lore and story arc of the series. The creatures mutate into a range of monsters, from lumbering behemoths to smaller faster creatures. They seem to be guided by a hive mind intelligence, and who is the tattooed figure who seems to appear as a watcher and leader of the undead army at key moments in the story?
The origin story of the creatures is hinted at in the early seasons and developed more fully in the later ones. Whilst I’m not convinced that all the strands of this hang together, it makes for an intriguing and suspenseful listen.
The series has some stand out set pieces that live in the memory; the initial outbreak; the discovery of a grisly arena where survivors are brought to die apparently for the creatures’ amusement; battles at the tower; encounters with the behemoths; a chase through a prison with hideously mutated creatures, and more. The story keeps its locations pretty tight and does not become too sprawling and fragmented. We move from the tower to a colony, a series of safe houses, and war-torn streets and locations in between.
The cast are uniformly brilliant. Michael is a solid lead, a sympathetic and very human leader who clings to his identity as a soldier. Burt is a memorable fan favourite. Gravelly voiced doesn’t begin to describe his tones. It sounds like he’s gargling with gravel. He’s an old school gun fetishist and veteran. There’s a scene where Scratch almost breaks Burt by torturing his gun (named Sheila after his dead wife) which is probably one of the series most suspect scenes. The female characters are varied and interesting and fight on an equal footing with their male counterparts (the apocalypse is an equal opportunities employer). Pegs is maybe overtly cookie at times but still someone you are always glad to get back to.
Scratch is a stand out performance, Hell-bent fury and icy cruelty.
What I love about this whole series is that it is an amazing achievement that is testament to the democratic creative power crowd funding today. Production values are cinematic in scope, and the intention to be a “theatre of the mind,” wholly immersive audio, is a successful one. The sound effects and musical score are solid and laudable and together with the top notch voice acting, pull you in. The snarls and roars of the creatures, especially the behemoths, are particularly memorable, and not what you want to hear in the dead of night. It’s great that we can enjoy the whole series free (get it here) and the whole enterprise deserves your support, if you care about stories and particularly love this genre. You can pledge support here.
I came to this ‘origins’ adventure with expectations that this would be a pathos filled tale of a scientist whose perhaps good principles are corrupted and through a series of terrible accidents becomes a monster. Superhero and sci-fi and other genre tales are full of such tragic falls from grace. They are what makes the resulting uber-villain or monster so compelling. From Batman’s Two-Face to Dr Jekyll, such stories abound. In recognising the humanity in the monster, we recognise a little of the monstrous in ourselves.
With the Davros in this series, however, there is no such light and shade. None to speak of anyway. Davros starts in Part 1, “Innocence,” as a cynical and sadistic and sociopathic child, and really just degenerates further from that. It’s just a descent from one kind of moral darkness to another. As such, although there is much to thrill and entertain in this series, it did not quite have the impact I hoped for.
The whole thing is explicitly and knowingly framed in an “I Claudius ” world of a dysfunctional, powerful family, ruled over by a scheming matriarch, Lady Calcula, Carolyn Jones here channelling SIan Phillip’s Livia. As in Robert Graves tale and the BBC drama, the good characters are culled ruthlessly by a cynical elite. It’s framed in such a world but this is very much the Skaro heading towards the blasted Hell of ‘Genesis of the Daleks.’ A delight is how especially the later episodes reference the music and sound-scape of Genesis. In part one Rory Jennings plays Davros in short trousers. The kind of boy who will pull the legs of a spider not out of enjoyment but out of a detached scientific “fascination.” Warped by his world and his family, we her see him already locking teachers in radiation chambers and other such hi-jinks.
In Part 2 Terry Molloy takes over the reins (he played Davros in a number of the tv show adventures) as Davros, here a soldier desparate to join the scientific elite. He is sent on a seeming suicide mission with a team, and displays real courage, and shows the most human range of characteristics in the series yet. He does get to rant, though, in true Davrios fashion, over a crippled comrade, shouting at him for his weakness.
Part 3 picks up the ‘Shan’ plot-line first sketched in the Colin Baker adventure ‘Davros.’ What begins as a very human attraction and flirtation develops, in true Davros fashion, into denial, murderous betrayal, and bitter contempt (on the part of our titular scientist). He also has his body changing accident.
Part 4 brings us nicely to about the year before the events of Genesis. Davros has near perfected his experiments on people with radiation, creating genetically evolved mutants. Here he meets Nyder, a classic character from Genesis, and it’s a treat to hear Peter Miles reprise his role, and the two get on like a city on fire. Davros demonstrates his love for children by turning them into radiation soaked monsters, the first Dalek creatures that will go on to pilot the ‘travelling machines.’ The story ends with the demonstration of the Mark 1 travelling machine (Genesis has him just finishing Mark 2 when Tom Baker arrives).
And during all this his family, friends and country men die and are massacred around him. It is an entertaining, well produced and clever tale, and it’s a powerful and logical extension of the world of ‘Genesis.’ But it is also a bit depressing in its catalogue of atrocities, and eh Davros origin tale, as I have mentioned, is I think harmed by the lack of subtlety or human change. He just goes from monstrous to more monstrous to experimenting on children scale monstrous. You miss the light touch of the Doctor, any Doctor, and the sparring that would bring, which is what Genesis captured so well.
There’s also a disc of ‘extras,’ interviews with cast and crew which are good and illuminating, but I did wonder at the discussion on whether Davros was at all misunderstood. Er…no?
I remember just before I started university going to the local cinema to see a film I knew next to nothing about called “Hellraiser,” intrigued that it looked both horrible and unpredictable by its poster of a grimacing demon looking like it had been overdoing the acupuncture, holding something like a Rubik’s cube, and underneath the tag-line “It will tear your soul apart.” I emerged from the cinema a few hours later reeling from the film’s impact and power, it’s swirling orchestral score full of doom and foreboding, it’s vision of a very real Hell breaking into our world in the form of highly stylised sadistic demons, all mixed up with a kind of violent eroticism. I had never quite seen anything like it.
Later I read some of Clive Barker’s other works on the strength of this film, including the short story series “Books of Blood” from which this tale was culled (Hellraiser was based on the story “The Hellbound Heart”). One of my favourite of Barker’s other works was “Cabal” later made into the disappointing film “Nightbreed.” Cabal’s strengths included a fierce imagination, sympathetic monsters, human monsters worse than the visibly monstrous, and a touching portrayal of the devotion of human love. But It also shared the weaknesses of other Barker works I ventured, not all of which I finished. These included “The Great and Secret Show” and “Imajica.” All of the above books have powerful and imaginative openings that pull you in and promise much. But the books themselves can become baggy, too episodic, and leading to a false conclusion where the intention was to develop a trilogy or longer. But this, in all of the above cases, never happened.
The above strengths and weaknesses (apart from it not being the false start of a trilogy) are on show in Barker’s latest, “The Scarlet Gospel,” which takes the demonic protagonist of Hellraiser, “Pinhead,” and the protagonist of other Barker stories, the detective of the supernatural Harry D’Armour, and pits them against each other in a tale set both in Hell and Earth. Characteristically, we have a strong start, with a cabal of contemporary magicians in emergency congress as they are being slaughtered one by one for their arcane knowledge of magic by Pinhead himself. Pinhead crashes their party and engages in some imaginative slaughter and sadism before taking one of their number (the unfortunate Felixson) as his slave.
We then move to Harry and his world. Tormented by the memory of the grisly death of his detective partner at demonic hands, he finds that one of his dearest friends Norma Paine (she sees dead people) has a job for him in New Orleans. The job is a trap, a set up to get Harry to lay his hands on the puzzle box that summons demonic forces called “The Lament Configuration.” This brings Pinhead and Felixson (now sporting some imaginative hellish re-constructive surgery) and Harry has a narrow escape. He discovers that Pinhead is at war with Hell and wants total dominion over the infernal regions (and of course he won’t stop there). He wants a witness for his “Scarlet Gospel” that will tell his story and has chosen Harry because there is a delicious irony in Harry being a scourge of Hell in previous struggles, giving hope to the damned. A sequence of events has Norma dragged to Hell as bait by Pinhead and Harry, with his friends Kaz, Dale and Lana in tow (dubbed “The Harrowers”), gives chase.
This is a very physical and corporeal Hell. No extended metaphorical interpretations here. It’s a physical world and has at its heart a real solid city called Pyratha. This is a fusion of epic Byzantium and Roman epic structures with physical improbabilities that could be from the mind of Escher, and drab squalor, shanty towns settlements, Stalinist terror and poverty and politicking. There are forests and seas, although any life form is of course twisted and monstrous. The strength of this Hell as a narrative and imaginative creation is that it gives a tangible and visceral reality to the setting and story, and it’s entertaining to discover new regions and torments. As a weakness you can’t but help expecting something more from Hell.
The pace of the narrative always quickens when the Hell Priest Pinhead is at large and this is very much his story, as he takes on not only his own Cenobite order but Hell itself. Some of the most entertaining passages in the story are the various coups that Pinhead stages. In one grotesque sequence he unleashes a plague fog that mutilates anything it touches, causing new monstrous growths to form on bodies that it touches. In an imaginative flourish Pinhead also releases curse bearing paper birds fashioned by Origami! Then there are the concluding scenes in Hell as Pinhead battles a very Miltonic Lucifer, after dispatching various of Hell’s armies and generals. These passages relegate Harry and friends to the sidelines as horrified bystanders as various blows and mutilations are traded. The amount of false endings to the battles where one of the protagonists comes back from their demise in the style of 80’s cheesy horror sails close to farcical, but in my judgement gets away from it.
Less successful are the human protagonists. Their banter often does not convince and the playful profanities seem forced. The psychic detective that Armour represents feels a little overused now, witness various US series such as Angel, comic book heroes such as Hell-blazer. Lucifer himself seems too close to that as depicted in the “Sandman” graphic novels. And another main weakness in the book is the imaginative integrity of Barker’s world. On what is it based? It mocks Christianity but embraces some of its archetypes from its history, such as most obviously Hell, Heaven, Angels and Demons. And what kind of God would be mocked by its bored Angels? And how do the worlds of the dead and its ghosts work? Who gets to be damned? The role of magic is also not convincing, with its recipes and conjugations. In all, this is world-building where the parts do not constitute a convincing whole.
But it’s a wild and enjoyable ride of pulpy horror. Those expecting meta-physical greatness (as some were judging by the bitter disappointment of some Amazon reviews) will be disappointed. And it does not have the impact of that first Hellraiser film I previously describe. But as fast paced gory tale with demons it entertains. I listened to the audio-book and an honourable mention must go to John Lee for his splendid narration. I loved Pinhead’s sardonic tones.