Blurb: Visiting the English seaside town of Cromer in the summer of 1932, the Doctor happens upon the strange world of the Cromer Palace of Curios.
The young Ernestina Scott is unusually beguiled by one of the museum’s exhibits, and when the Doctor befriends her, they unwittingly embark upon a terrifying escapade. Chased by animated dolls through a nightmarish model house, the Doctor realizes he is being hunted by a familiar enemy. The unmistakable sound of hornets is in the air, and they are keen to speak to him. Overseeing this game of cat and mouse is the Palace of Curios’ curator –a certain Mrs Wibbsey…
Review: The Dead Shoes is the second installment in BBC Audio’s Hornet’s Nest storyline, which saw the return of Tom Baker to the role of the Doctor. The series surprised most listeners due to its format. Rather than a full-cast audio play, the story is described as “multi-voice”, which means that it’s like the Doctor takes on the role of a narrator who reads the story to the listener with only a few of the scenes dramatized to convey some of the action that occurs between the Doctor and some of the other characters in the story. Richard Franklin reprises his role of Mike Yates and within the context of the story Mike is narrating the story of his trip to Nest Cottage to some undisclosed person, and within his story, the Doctor narrates his prior adventures with the Hornets to Mike. Mike doesn’t make much of an appearance in this story. He mostly just interjects a few comments to remind the listener that he’s there and his own narration is not present in this release as the story here goes deep into the Doctor’s tales about his prior encounters with the Hornets.
It has to be said that dropping Mike Yates almost entirely from the story is a real let-down. After Franklin had revived the character and given him such a sympathetic return as this character who had reached the bottom of a life full of regret only to have purpose return when the Doctor decided to get back in touch with him all these years later. Franklin did a wonderful job of conveying a lot of emotion with very little dialog. Mike also became the “voice of the listener”, giving the audience a figure to identify with and someone whose point of view would help to explain these bizarre events in a way that the listener can understand. Having him as a guest star in all five installments, one would expect that he would be an integral part of all five stories. Yet, in The Dead Shoes he is barely there and is only mentioned to remind the audience that he is the person to whom the Doctor is narrating his tale. It also is disappointing that the majority of this series happens within a nested past tense that takes away from the immediacy and sense of the threat. It also means that Yates becomes obsolete for much of the tale, depriving the audience of more wonderful performances and a very relatable point of view.
If someone came into this hoping for an explanation of the Hornets’ motives then they will be deeply disappointed. The Hornets’ motivations seem incredibly obscure. The main event which draws the Doctor to Cromer in 1932 seems to have only been an accident as Ernestina came into contact with the Hornets. It was not part of their plan. While several awful and grotesque things happen after that, they only seem to be there to offer interesting set pieces for the Doctor to have adventures in. Why do the Hornets possess dolls in a model house for instance? What reason do the Hornets have for endowing a pair of slippers with power in the first place? They seem to do a good job with possessing people on their own and it doesn’t seem like a ballerina would have access to the key positions that they’d need to weaken the human race. As these were sold individually, each story should exist as a complete narrative separate from the others and this one is missing too many details for that. Even then, listening to the rest of the series will not help as many of the elements here are never explained.
So many elements of this story just smack of laziness. The Doctor rescues someone. Then towards the end of the story he rescues the same person from the same danger in exactly the same way. At one point the Doctor is shrunk. Then after a little runaround being menaced by tiny creatures he decides that the sonic screwdriver can just return him to normal size. Even given a clue as to when to go next, the Doctor reveals a new “bloodhound” function to the TARDIS that allows him to track an object through time. It all serves to give credence to the notion that Magrs really had nothing for this one other than a few set pieces and a character – Mrs. Wibbsey – that he wanted to introduce and then needed to pad the story out with additional material to keep it at its proper running length. None of the other installments in this series give that impression; only this one. Perhaps this was just one story too many out of the plotline of the Hornets.
The real improvement here is in the production values. Perhaps because this story only has one lead, there seems to be more budget for dramatized scenes as well as a richer soundscape and some music. While the constant refrains of The Nutcracker get kind of old, it must be said that it definitely gives the story more of the musical preference that was lacking in the previous story. There are also many sounds used for a variety of reasons. The sounds range from conveying location (birdsong and the lapping of waves) to conveying action (the noise of breaking into an attic and the sonic screwdriver) to sounds to indicate an event (the sounds of a murmuring crowd at a performance). There are even the scary sounds such as the buzzing of the Hornets, which sounds far more sinister than it has any right to do.
The performers give it their all, but Tom Baker really should be given credit for his performance. This time the Doctor within the story seems to act far more like the Doctor on television, which seems to give credence to the theory that the mental stress at Nest Cottage is having him act bizarrely even for him. Yet, Baker really shines in his narration. He has a dark sense of humor, which comes out in the way that he delivers his lines and he’s done this long enough to be able to keep up his energy and only slightly change his tempo/tone to separate the truly silly elements from those that are meant to be dark or scary. This is no easy feat as Magrs insists on writing with flowery, whimsical dialog, which would be hard going for anyone, but Baker proves that he’s a consummate professional and how well-suited this style is to him by making it work. Susan Jameson ends up coming to the fore here by taking on the character of Mrs. Wibbsey, a character with very little to do in the first story. Here the audience is shown the origin of her time with the Doctor. Jameson has a lot of fun as the no-nonsense Wibbsey who appears unphased by any of the strangeness that she’s exposed to and doesn’t like being trifled with. Clare Corbett also does a nice job as interim companion for the Doctor, Ernestina Scott. Her performance as a regular person who has been drawn accidentally into the Hornets’ world is sympathetic and well appreciated. Christian Rodska is perhaps a little to over-the-top as the Reverand Small, but his role is far more minor than the others. For the most part there is far more dramatization in this one and the energy of the actors working with each other helps to keep the pace a bit better than The Stuff of Nightmares, which dragged far too much.
Recommendation: In a similar study of style over substance, Magrs creates a series of set pieces and some characters for the Doctor to interact with. Unfortunately it all gives the impression that it’s just 70 minutes to mark time as this was supposed to be a five-part story. Nothing new is learned about the Hornets here and there’s a lot of repetition and to many deux ex machina for any story to be healthy. It’s a little more pacey than it’s predecessor but that isn’t enough to save it when it has so many other failings. I strongly recommend skipping it unless you loved The Stuff of Nightmares.
Directed by Kate Thomas
Produced by Michael Stevens
Written by Paul Magrs
Runtime Approx 70 min.