Blurb: The circus has come to town - and so has the Doctor! Watching the parade pass by in 1832, he finds the people of Blandford strangely drawn towards the garish big top. He knows something is terribly wrong. The only thing to do is pay a visit. Meanwhile Adam Farrow finds his sister caught up with the circus and its sinister ringmaster. What is behind Antonio's almost hypnotic power, and how is it connected with an event in the Doctor's future?
Seized by clowns and forced into the centre of the ring, the Doctor encounters the fiercest of all circus acts. Yet something much more terrifying lurks in the wings - and the sound it makes is horribly familiar. Lives will be lost before the circus moves on - and the Doctor will face his own doom on the high wire.
Format: Multi-voice audio drama starring Tom Baker and Richard Franklin published by BBC Audio and released November 2009.
Setting: Blandford, England on the planet Earth in the year 1832. The story is narrated by the Doctor at Nest Cottage, Sussex, UK on the planet Earth in 2009.
Continuity: This story takes place between The Invasion of Time and The Ribos Operation and immediately after the audio story The Dead Shoes. The Doctor mentions that he can't change history (see The Aztecs). He recognizes the ballet slippers from the Cromer Palace of Curios (see The Dead Shoes). He has seen the Hornets animate stuffed animals before (see The Stuff of Nightmares).
Canonicity Quotient: This story inherits the problems of its predecessors. 0.75
Discussion: The Hornet's Nest series continues with the Doctor telling Mike about how he tracked the Hornet's further back in time to the town of Blandford in 1832, ostensibly the point of time when the ballet shoes from The Dead Shoes originated. Once again Richard Franklin is marginalized and relegated to just a few lines to remind the audience that the Doctor is telling this story to him. Much of the story takes the form of a reading. Despite the fact that the Doctor is talking to Mike Yates, there is very little discourse between them while the Doctor is telling the tale and the Doctor's story flows much more like he's reading a book then speaking conversationally. There does seem to be more dramatization this time with more scenes acted out by the various actors. This could be perceptual by me as if you read below you will see that I think that this story is far better than the rest of the Hornet's Nest.
So finally, after two stories where the Hornet's seem to be some of the most aimless and least threatening villains ever in Doctor Who history there is finally a story where their threat is made clear. The idea of possession is one of those basic primal fears that everyone has. We are ourselves. If someone else to control us it would shatter our personalities. Where would we begin and the other end? It's a really basic threat that is realized well here. Why? Because the Hornet's just don't control human bodies like a puppeteer. Here the Hornets offer power to those who will be their vessels. Many willingly take it, allowing themselves to take on the miniscule creatures in return for power over others or merely for petty revenge. The reason why Antonio is both sympathetic and a far more interesting character is that so many people can relate to him. If you were offered the ability to get back at everyone who had ever wronged you would you take it? What would you give up to do that? This isn't just the inhumanity of aliens on humans. There's an inhumanity of man himself, which is always far darker and more interesting fair. It also leads to the very human drama of Dr Farrow trying to save his sister and not realizing that she has already made a Faustian bargain in the hopes of achieving power. The attempt to redeem Francesca is a large part of the final act of the story and it's another very human emotion that many can easily relate to.
The body horror is well described here as well. The Doctor describes the hornets clawing and chewing their way through the people that they possess. What looks like great, billowing clouds of smoke come out from Antonio only to turn out to be waves of Hornets. When the Hornets leave him he is left as a husk, but the Doctor takes that husk back to his cottage. Does that mean that he is alive and only dormant or is it simply lifeless remains? Body horror is another one of those atasvistic terrors and while the Hornets have been described as being inside people before it was never as graphic as this nor did they force people to use their bodies up until they were spent and broken before, causing the threat level to escalate.
The Hornet's plan here also seems well thought out. They use the circus to entice people to enter. They then possess any that they need to swell their numbers. Eventually the circus would grow and split until it travels the world possessing everyone that the Hornets need. Sure it's not the greatest plot ever but neither was an invasion through plastic dolls and daphodils. Doctor Who doesn't always rely on complex plots when using the mundane, like a circus, can be so much scarier. The fact that the circus characters are already considered freaks only helps to give it a more sinister air than any other kind of grouping created for having fun.
There are also plot holes. First there's one around the idea of the Doctor not being able to change history. First, he seems adamant that Francesca has to die. Yet, this bothered me as no one had confirmed whose remains were in the shoes in 1932. It's perfectly possible that it was someone else even if those were Francesca's shoes. It seemed that the Doctor should have checked better before making such fatalistic assertions. However, that lack of checking did help to heighten my tension as I thought it might be possible to redeem Francesco and for Dr Farrow to rescue her and then have someone else put on the shoes and die. The second part is that after the Doctor is so sure that its impossible to save Francesca that suddenly he changes his mind. "Well maybe not." Well gee, it would have been nice if you'd given a little more hope at the outset, Doctor. Maybe that would have helped you and Farrow to come up with a plan that actually would have rescued her. While that does give us a nice moment when the Doctor fails it seems forced based on his earlier certainty that what he's trying is impossible. The second plothole is why the Hornets seem to think that now is the time to hibernate within the shoes rather than continue their plan of spreading throughout the country with circuses. It's not like the Doctor can run around netting them all up and throwing them in a jar of some kind. It seemed like they were defeated far to easily and made their earlier actions seem strange in comparison.
Tom is clearly relishing these performances now. This storyline is written far darker than the previous two and Tom enjoys getting into the dark mood of things. He already knows that he's following the Hornets back in time and seems resigned to the fact that he'll only be able to observe them and not stop them. When at the end he decides to try and save Francesca he's imbued with a kind of dynamic energy that shows the Doctor literally racing against time and against all that he holds dear. I really love that and thinks that Tom does a great job of bringing what could be very static scenes to life. Stephen Thorne is the other standout performer in this. He's known to many Doctor Who fans as Omega and he gives a great sympathy to Antonio the dwarf. It's horrifying and also understandable that a young boy who was considered a freak would work with the Hornets if it meant paying back those that ridiculed him. Thorne has Antonio revel in his power as the ringmaster but then when the Doctor is talking to him quietly in the tent he seems tired and spent, looking back at a life that he enjoyed but also seeing that it caused him to be banished from his hometown. He conveys that sort of half regret so well. It's a shame that he had to put on that silly Italian accent but it works ok. Michael Maloney takes on the role of companion here with Dr Farrow. He's the sympathetic voice of the viewer and his motivations are simply to save his sister. There's nothing more honorable than trying to save a loved one and the Doctor's contempt for the idea is shades of Pyramids of Mars. We watch as Farrow attempts to save his sister again and again only to lose her more and more. It's a real tragedy and the idea that he lived on only to protect her remains, mummifying her to preserve her longer just seems somehow sick like he had an unhealthy love for his sister, which just makes this story a little bit darker. Francesca herself is played by Jilly Bond. She makes her a selfish and power hungry creature who is far under the Hornets' influence and that makes a delightful counter point to Farrow's genuine love for his sister. Susie Ridell rounds out the cast as local girl Sally. Sally gets to be scared a bit and seems a little superfluous, but Susie does what she can with the part.
The production seems a bit more polished here. That just may be rose tinted glasses because the story is so much better, yet there appear to be more dramatized scenes and they appear to have more energy between the cast members. There seem to be more sounds. The whole thing is starting to feel more like a full-cast play. It's a wonderful step in the right direction.
Final Rating: 8/10
Recommendation: Finally the Hornet's Nest story is starting to achieve some interest! Magrs' style is the same but he's finally interjecting the right kind of elements and finding the darker tone that gives this story real imagination while also making it relatable to real human emotions. The Hornets have never appeared this sinister and the Doctor is trapped by a fate that he is unable to escape both in saving Francesca and in a revelation on how the Hornet's were able to possess Antonio in the first place. It's marvelous and it's to bad that you have to listen to the first two to get to this one. It's great but I don't recommend that anyone slog through the first two to get here. If you already have then this is your payoff.