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.
Review: BBC Audio’s Hornets’ Nest was a series of interlinked audio dramas starring Tom Baker, who reprized his role as The Doctor for the first time in over 25 years. The series is performed in a format that BBC Audio described as “multi-voice”. What that means is that the majority of the story is narrated by either Tom Baker or co-star Richard Franklin who reprized the role of Captain Mike Yates. The other actors perform isolated, dramatized scenes within the narrative, to give more of a feeling of immediacy to certain segments of the storyline. At this point the Doctor has ascertained that he and the Hornets are encountering each other in a reverse chronological order and the Doctor is endeavoring to learn more about his foe by following them further back into time. As the third installment, this story carried the burden of upping the stakes. The first two stories in the series were dominated more by set pieces and left the Hornets’ plot ambiguous. This story needed to move the plot along and reveal a little more about the motivations for the Doctor’s new adversaries.
Overall The Circus of Doom succeeds in progressing the story of the Hornets forward. After the missed opportunity that was The Dead Shoes, this story needed to move the plot forward in a significant way. The Hornets shown here are not just animating dead objects or accidentally influencing a ballerina. Here the Hornets act with purpose and show enough of an understanding of humanity to be able to manipulate on the micro-scale. It’s this element really, rather than any others that makes this a darker tale. The Hornets have found a human ally and rather than simply possessing them, they have offered him everything that he wanted in exchange for his willing servitude. This really promotes the Hornets into a higher class of villainy. Playing on the subtler aspects of humanity and getting people to give in to the dark sides of their own desires – Antonio craves revenge on those who ridiculed him and Francesca craves power – reveals these creatures as a far more primal form of evil.
The imagery in this story is also of a much darker nature. The Hornets are depicted as driving people to their death with greater feats of performance in the circus than their bodies can handle. The Doctor talks about the Hornets moving around inside human bodies, chewing on the brains, and wonders if anything would be left if they truly abandoned one of their hosts. The idea that the smoke that billows from Antonio are thousands of tiny hornets flying so close together that they seem like smoke is horrifying. Antonio’s description of the TARDIS as a box of wonders that lead him towards performing magic is an interesting way of showing how someone of that time would perceive the TARDIS. The idea of the Doctor locked in by fate and unable to change what happens to Francesca is a normal trope of the series that’s used to up the stakes here, although there’s a plot hole in that the Doctor has no way of confirming if the feet that he found in The Dead Shoes really did belong to Francesca. The idea of Farrow obsessively tending to and embalming Francesca so that parts of her would still be preserved 100 years later is still fairly disturbing.
The story itself in some ways benefits from the backwards nature of the story telling. The Hornets need to be defeated and their defeats seem more and more silly each time as they simply leave each time they encounter the Doctor. Yet it also means that certain revelations can take place that are a complete surprise. This story has the Doctor learn how the Hornets got to this time and place and it’s a surprise that ups the stakes for the future stories and will give the listener some pause to wonder how such an awful thing will occur. However, this also means that the stories continue to require narration, which continues to marginalize Richard Franklin. Yates barely puts in an appearance in this story and really only stands out in having an overly-excited reaction to the Doctor proclaiming that there’s “always a sting in the tale”. It’s a shame because Franklin’s performance brought so much to the first story and having him marginalized in the middle 3 makes them less interesting and seems a disservice to his wonderful performance.
The story continues with the same basic style as the previous story. There’s a strong soundscape with sounds that show actions, reactions, and settings. There’s some nice music such as the circus theme that evokes the idea of freakish playtime or the music as the Doctor arrives in Blandford. Tom Baker continues with his wonderful narration. The man could read the phone book and have it drip with meaning. Michael Maloney is convincing as Dr. Farrow, who wants nothing more than to save his sister from the mad life that she’s living. He comes off as an enthusiastic, straight-arrow of a man. His feelings for his sister seem convincing and it’s nice to have a character for once who takes the Doctor’s revelations at face value. Jilly Bond plays the sister, Francesca. She performs “mad” well and Francesca is a power hungry person who doesn’t care who gets hurt on her way to that goal. Stephen Thorne, a man who played several roles on the classic series of Doctor Who, here plays Antonio. He turns the mad dwarf into a sympathetic figure who is full of rage and vengeance but also regret and a childish wonderment that has been twisted to fit the Hornets’ desires. While Thorne’s Italian accent doesn’t exactly convince the performance as Antonio is genuine and well done. Susie Riddell is the only weak performance as local girl, Sally. The yokel performance is a little overly strong, but thankfully Sally isn’t made to do to much in the story and overshadowed by the much stronger performances in this piece she can easily be ignored.
Recommendation: Finally, the Hornets’ Nest feels like it might be going somewhere with The Circus of Doom. The Hornets finally seem to be a serious and deadly threat and with a story that’s heavy on human drama rather than bizarre set pieces there’s a far longer emotional roller coaster that will help to make the story resonate with listeners. I wouldn’t say that this redeems all of Hornets’ Nest but if you’ve already gotten through parts 1 and 2 and are thinking of giving up then I recommend continuing to the third installment since it may change your mind.
Directed by Kate Thomas
Produced by Michael Stevens
Written by Paul Magrs
Runtime Approx 70 min.