With a title like Minuet In Hell, I could see we were planning on treading some darker waters. Coming off last week’s Lovecraft Special, that might sound like a tough task, but considering how lackluster that story was, maybe it’s not such a tall order after all. This story opens with what sounds like the devil (not that I know from experience, but I can speculate) chanting and I’m nearly certain he is saying “Hellfire fire” repeatedly. This wasn’t a good start. I mean do people say “It’s freezing cold cold out there?!” I’d say not, but then maybe I wasn’t understanding this demon. Then things get really weird.
I hate criticizing a Paul McGann story. Each time I’ve met the man, I’ve thought it would be hard to be any nicer, so I want to say only good things about his stories just because of him. But that’s the problem with this story: the Doctor is absent for most of it. I mean, McGann is there, but he’s not in possession of his mind. Nick Briggs and Paul McGann are effectively both the Doctor which makes for an interesting, albeit strange, story. The role of the hero is left to Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Yes, I was delighted to have him back but I didn’t expect it. But that’s a problem too. It was only a few episodes back that he met the 6th Doctor and knew him instantly. Now he meets the 8th and has no idea it’s his old friend. That discrepancy is a real letdown. They went out of their way just a few stories back giving us a Brigadier who would know his friend anywhere. And there’s something special about the Brig knowing the Doctor at a glance, even when he’s wearing a different face. On top of that, every time a clue is about to be given to him, he talks over the clue-giver, like when Harley Quinn starts telling him about the big, blue… and he cuts her off! What? Harley? Oh, yeah, sorry… Becky Lee Kowalczyck sounds like Harley Quinn to the point where I spent half the story trying to figure out what I knew the actress from before it hit me that she sounds like a DC Villain! I mean, she nails it as Quinn, but she wasn’t supposed to be Quinn! Speaking of sounds, her “grand pappy”, Waldo Pickering, sounds like a caricature southern rascally old man, ya hear. You know what, sound is a big thing for this audio story, which I guess should go without saying, but the whole thing screamed at me: “this is what your cousins across the pond think of America!” It’s a deeply troubling thought but what’s worse is that it took 16 years before this story foretold the coming of Malabolgia. I mean, is America really that far from the fictional 51st state these days? (Ok, fair point, this isn’t a political commentary, but there are clearly those across the pond who felt we could be there 16 years earlier, so what must they think now?!)
Now, back to the main cast, the Doctor is split into two people, one played by Nick Briggs and he has a much darker personality. Think The Enemy Within from Star Trek; McGann is the gentle Kirk while Briggs is a bit darker. At one point, Briggs decides to ask 20 questions and I was more interested in that than the Dark America story line. When we get back to the questions around #18, there’s a question about when the Doctor and Turlough encountered werewolves and man, did I want to know about that story! (Maybe my wish will come true…) There’s also mention of a number of the Doctor’s earlier companions culminating with “dear, dear Susan”. (For the sake of continuity, I’ll mention that this adventure comes about because the Doctor wants to visit America to see Grace, which was a nice addition!) Meanwhile, Hell is a place known in Gallifreyan legends (which is, of course, ridiculous considering Capaldi’s season finale, where he tries to go to hell but this was the year 2000, long before there was any thought of a Capaldi episode.) As for the denizens of hell, there’s something comical about the way they speak. Not so much the deep, guttural voices but the casual things they say with those deep, guttural voices. I imagine Satan asking if you’d like fries with that. It’s incongruous and I can’t say it worked that well.
What it comes down to is that there are problems with this story, at least, for me. Barring the absent Doctor, the subject matter is very dark. I mean, Lovecraft is dark in a creepy way, but not dark like in Satanic Rites dark! The “Brothers in Satan” stuff is a little heavy-handed. The “gentleman’s club” with the “Satin-Bottomed Girls” all dressed in leather and stiletto heels is shocking for a Doctor Who story, but maybe that’s what happens when you remove the Doctor from our lives. See how off the rails Torchwood went?! I feel like the fact that they (almost completely) took the Doctor out of Doctor Who (almost completely) lost the fun-loving plots we come to expect out of a Doctor Who story.
I love hearing Lethbridge-Stewart and Paul McGann is marvelous, but I really hope for their next outing, we get a little something better. ML