Review: Doctor Who The Lost Stories – The Masters of Luxor

dwls0307_themastersofluxor_1417_cover_largeBlurb: The TARDIS is drawn to a mysterious signal emanating from a seemingly dead world. Trapped within a crystalline structure, the Doctor and his friends inadvertently wake a vast army of robots that have lain dormant for many, many years. Waiting… for the Masters of Luxor.

The Perfect One wants to become more than just a mockery of a man, and will stop at nothing to achieve it. But will the cost prove too great?

The travelers are about to uncover a horrifying tragedy. A tragedy that threatens to engulf them all.

Review: When Doctor Who began, one of the strategies that the production team came up with was to have each writer work on two stories. That meant that after the first few initial stories that they would begin to have a mix of veteran writers, already familiar with the series and characters, and newer writers that they could work in as they saw fit. Anthony Coburn, who wrote the initial story, An Unearthly Child also wrote The Masters of Luxor. Originally, this story was called The Robots and would have been set on Earth in the year 4000 AD when robots have killed off the human race. Thankfully, the production team saw the limitation that would be imposed on the storytelling to wipe out humanity only a couple of thousand years in the future and asked Coburn to change the setting to a far off planet. Initially, this story was intended to follow on from An Unearthly Child, but script editor, David Whitaker, wanted rewrites, so Terry Nation’s The Daleks was moved up in the schedule and The Masters of Luxor was moved back. Eventually, they decided not to pursue the story and Coburn decided not to submit any further storylines for consideration. The scripts were released by Titan Books in 1992, but the Big Finish production as part of its Lost Stories range gives some idea of what the televised story would have been like, especially since two of the original leads – Carole Ann Ford and William Russell – gave their performances to the audio drama.

The format of these stories differs a bit from Big Finish’s normal offerings. Like Farewell, Great Macedon, The Masters of Luxor has been adapted into what Big Finish calls an “enhanced talking book”. Both Carole Ann Ford and William Russell provide narration at various times in the story, but they also generally speak the lines “in character” for Susan and Ian, respectively. Carole Ann also doubles as Barbara and reads some of her lines in character while Russell does the same for the Doctor. The only other actor in the production is Joseph Kloska who plays the voices of the various robots as well as Tabon.

The enhanced talking book format can make it a bit difficult to have an immersive experience with the story. It’s somewhat jarring when the characters alternate between narration and speaking lines in character. Sometimes they add “he said” or “she said” to the dialog that they’ve spoken even though it’s clear who was speaking. While it’s clearly a cost-savings measure and a means of getting around the controversy of having to recast Barbara and the Doctor as other actors it does have the drawback of making a lot of the story feel unwieldy and wordy. That being said, it helps considerably the The Masters of Luxor has a much smaller number of parts than Farewell, Great Macedon because it is always clear what character is speaking in any given occasion. There are also a lot fewer switches between narration and dialog within any given scene, which helps to keep the story’s pace from falling so low that the listener loses all interest. Still, it’s a real shame that the Early Adventures format couldn’t have been adopted earlier as this story would have greatly benefited from a bit less narration.

The story itself deals with themes of the fear of AI, how automation affects society, slavery, and what constitutes a soul. None of this is particularly groundbreaking for sci-fi, but for Doctor Who it’s a bit darker and deeper than the series generally went, especially in those days. If this had been made instead of the Daleks the series may have ended up very different. Instead, the story deals with the idea of a society that has turned its back on its spiritual side, to become an automated society ruled by its scientist “masters.” Automation and spirituality are presented as opposites, with the latter leading to a society drawn along eugenic lines that treats its less genetically and ideologically pure citizenry as nothing better than prisoners or experimental subjects. The former links spirituality, compassion, altruism, and love together. This society creates robot slaves who create their own messiah in the form of a machine almost indistinguishable from a human being and who is obsessed with obtaining a soul for itself to achieve “enduring life” that isn’t dependent on an external power source. If there’s a flaw in this, it’s that Coburn’s script makes it clear that the Perfect One never has a chance of attaining its goal. While it doesn’t lessen his ruthlessness or threat, it does limit the story and makes him an oddly tragic figure despite the atrocities that he has and is willing to commit. It also makes the TARDIS team seem needlessly cruel as they taunt him over this fact. For the most part, though, the story combines these sci-fi staples in a unique way and with a Doctor Who spin on it becomes something unique and fresh.

The story is paced very well. The opening two episodes deal with exploring the strange structure, which the travelers have found themselves trapped within. It’s an element that’s been mostly missing from Doctor Who since the 70’s, but the exploration and sense of wonder really make these opening episodes exciting to listen to. There’s also a great device used to trap the main characters and ensure that they get involved, a necessary trope back in the 60’s when the TARDIS team were more explorers than adventurers. The story maintains the pace right up to the sixth episode, but sadly drops the ball there. Usually, it’s one of the middle episodes where things flag, but here that last episode has about 7 minutes of story stretched out to 30.

From an adaptation perspective, Robinson has done a mostly great job trying to incorporate this story into the existing cannon while leaving as much of the original text as he could. For anyone familiar with season one, the characters will be recognizable although Ian and Barbara seem much more harsh than they ever did on TV. Oddly, the Doctor seems much closer to the temperament that Hartnell would adopt later on in the series, rather than the much harsher version from An Unearthly Child, so it does seem a bit strange that Coburn would flip-flop. The original story called for the travelers to mention having come from “The Cave of Za” several times, but Robinson instead changes that to references of Macedon, putting this story directly after another Lost Story, Farewell, Great Macedon. The only strange part is that Robinson states that there were many Christian allusions that he removed from the story, feeling them inappropriate in a 21st century production. Yet, he leaves in the Doctor saying “God be with you,” to Tabon, a very blatant reference that feels jarring because it’s The Doctor who’s saying it. Robinson never explained why he left that in, but apparently took the rest out. Certainly, if Ian and Barbara had referenced a religious belief it wouldn’t have been that strange. They come from the 1960’s and that wouldn’t have seemed odd or out-of-place there.

The production itself is a mixed bag. William Russell puts in another wonderful performance as the first Doctor, being very faithful to Hartnell’s performance and getting all of the vocal mannerisms correct. Of course, it’s impossible not to notice that he’s aged and although he gives Ian as much force and youthful vigor as he can manage, it’s clear that he’s aged too much to sound like he did back in the 1960’s. Still, he makes a wonderful narrator and he knows how to give the lines the right emphasis to give them their best impact. Ford seems to be less on-point than she typically is for the Companion Chronicles. She makes a fair narrator, but her Susan seems to be an effort at over-compensating for her age rather than performing at the level that she did fifty years ago. For someone who generally puts in a better performance for The Companion Chronicles it was very noticeable. Her Barbara fairs better, probably because it’s an older character. Her respect for Jacqueline Hill comes through the performance and one get the impression that since she’s playing Hill’s role that she gave it a much stronger effort than she did for her own. Joseph Kloska really impresses as the Derivatrons, Proto, The Perfect One, and Tabon. The fact that all of the robots are based on Tabon gives plenty of reason for them to sound similar, but he plays the various levels of humanity and intelligence in a way that is enhanced by the sound design rather than reliant upon it. The Perfect One and Tabon especially feel like completely different characters and he’s able to veer from the pettiness of the Perfect One to Tabon’s remorse with ease. Unusually for a Big Finish production, the music seems very out of place. Whereas other Lost Stories try to present music that would fit the era in which they’re set, this one has a sorrowful violin which is both out of place and doesn’t seem to fit the story. The sound effects also come off as tacky. The robots move with a heavy hydraulic sound, which definitely would not have been of the 60’s and the bleeps and boops of the robots don’t sound radiophonic at all. Overall, the sound design did not come off as effective and felt very amateurish.

Recommendation: It’s an opportunity to experience a version of Doctor Who that will never be. It’s a bit deeper and philosophical than Doctor Who normally gets and the characters lack some polish, but The Masters of Luxor delivers with some good world-building, an interesting blending of its themes, a decent pace, and the kind of adventure that would become part of Doctor Who. I recommend giving it a listen.

8/10

2012

Audio Drama

Big Finish Productions

Directed by Lisa Bowerman

Produced by David Richardson

Written by Nigel Robinson from a script by Anthony Coburn

Runtime Approx 180 min.

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