Doctor Who - 168. 1001 Nights
The last anthology for the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa was the superb Demons of Red Lodge, a collection which built from a solid baseline through gradually more creative and offbeat stories to the inspired culmination of Dorney’s Special Features. It was the art of a good mixtape applied to a compendium of short stories. 1001 Nights, however, feels more akin to last year’s slightly forgettable Sixth Doctor anthology, Recorded Time - A collection of middle-of-the-road tales which aren’t ever bad per se, merely rather transient. 1001 Nights would leave similarly little impression, were it not for the attempt to bring something new to the table by framing the short stories in a larger narrative. A few previous collections dabbled this way, but Nights goes further, situating each individual tale within bookend scenes and giving the whole final episode over to the meta-story.
I definitely appreciated the attempt to innovate the anthology style (which I am a fan of generally), but I feel it could have used greater commitment. The sub-stories have no real relation to the arc story, and the Arabian Nights thematics are somewhat incidental. In fact, the moment which perhaps trades best on the Arabian Nights theme is the very first sequence - ultimately treated as a fleeting gag in the context of the rest of the release, I feel Beeby didn’t realise what she’d got there - the potential existed for something cleverer and more cohesive, with shades of the superlative Urban Myths. Something that could have better utilised the scope offered by each individual story, and traded more on the fact that Nyssa is serving as narrator (she’s not even present for stretches of some stories). In a release where the stories are, specifically, /stories/, only the third installment really tackles that even slightly. A really compelling package would have seen each story reflect the larger theme, and the meta-story pay off elements set up in each individual tale. I hope Big Finish continue to develop their new takes on the anthology release in future years, and realise the seed of an idea that’s planted here.
Taking each installment on its own merits, the first story has a pleasing idea at its core, and manages a nicely paced build up and pay off. It’s a decent sort of baseline for a story, enjoyable but transient. There’s nothing remarkable to it, but no great weaknesses either. A little more character in the jailor and the prisoner could have elicited a more emotive response to the situation, but it remains interesting to consider.
The second story is terribly thin. For a start, it plays as a take-off from The Exorcist for no apparent reason beyond Barnes’ whim, the most evident example of the way the anthology fails to form a whole. It also feels like Barnes had trouble with the one part format and slashed their ideas down too heavily, leaving a story too sparse to fill half an hour, better suited to a ten minute short trip. It attempts to mask this by alluding to off screen events past and future, conjuring up a wider story beyond what’s presented. The allusions don’t cohere sufficiently for that, though, instead feeling like an arbitrary collection of odd plot points that are left trailing unsatisfyingly behind. The story also tries to trade on atmospherics rather than plot, but it just isn’t atmospheric. It shouts and screams and threatens to little sense of tension, not helped by the over mannered performances of the two guest characters, and a lack of restraint from Sarah Sutton. Strange, as Sutton has proved very good at such roles in the past.
The third story, like the first, brings another compelling concept to the table, but it never really runs with it. As with the opening of part one and some of the later moments in the framing story, part three hints at what might have been. The idea is great, and you can see where it could go, the fun that could be had with it, and the way it would reinforce and inspire the larger meta-story. Again, I’d nod towards Urban Myths as an example of what could be achieved (as well as Ringpullworld and Master). Harvey’s content with a fairly trivial treatment of the idea though. It is an entertaining tale, and she jokes with its potential at times, but as with Beeby and the opening sequence, I felt like Harvey didn’t realise that she had the material for something much more intriguing than a couple of jokes in a straightforward story.
The final story clearly wants to be a full four-part play. It’s half-cognisant of the fact with the way it frames each earlier story, and had those stories been more entwined with the framing, further reinforcing and referencing each other, I think the meta-story could have succesfully felt like a full four-parter whilst still being an anthology. (Like I say, I hope Big Finish continues to experiment with this sort of area; the potential is there.) There’s a lot of great stuff in the final part which, if expanded, could have sustained a decent depth and breadth of story. We see other worlds and whole other TARDIS dynamics, play in other atmospheres and ask intriguing ‘What if?’ questions. Several individual moments are promising in their own right, like the ending which reminded me of Ursula K Le Guin’s Diary of the Rose. Even in compressed format, it’s fairly good and enjoyable, and adds a lot of good stuff to the Who mythos. It’s the one thread that really feels genuinely colourful in the whole tale, and had the release been as tightly woven and multifaceted as it might have been, I think this story could have been potently exciting, amusing and tragic. In its compression and the failure of the release to be more than the sum of its parts, it’s robbed of the characterful zenith it might have reached.
Such is the one large weakness which holds back the collection as a whole and each individual episode, whose problems are largely manifestations of the wider issue - there is a severe lack of character. The quality of the stories varies from episode to episode, but even at best they lack any spark of drama, and it’s because the characters were just sketched in. Each episode feels more like reading a storyboard than watching a movie - the plot and ideas are there, but the personality is still being waited on. Peter Davison barely feels present and Sarah Sutton’s performance is limp even when handling material she usually excels at, not to mention in the all important framing scenes. She is no Scheherazade, though this is as much writing as performance. As mentioned earlier, the play never acknowledges the significance of Nyssa serving as narrator.
Big Finish have experimented with the trilogy format and the anthology format over the past few months, and in each case I feel they’ve not been entirely successful, but never because the idea lacked merit. Rather, in the case of the Drashani Empire and here, it seems a case of not properly supporting and committing to their vision. Whilst I may not give glowing reviews to either endeavour, I do actually hope Big Finish continue to work in these directions, because I’m sure there is something great they can achieve in each case. 1001 Nights is a release with great but unrealised promise, and what remains is a collection of passable but unremarkable tales. The individual stories I rate a 6, a 4, a 6, and a 7 respectively. As a whole, I give it a 6/10.