“If I’ve learned anything from being a historian it’s that death and torture are inevitable. Best to just grin and bear it.”
The TARDIS lands in a forbidding castle in a time of religious upheaval. The old god has been overthrown, and all heretics are to be slaughtered. Obviously it isn’t the sort of thing which would happen there every day – just every few years or so.
Soon after the Doctor and Frobisher are hailed as messengers from heaven, they become vital to opposing factions in their struggle for power. But will they be merely the acolytes of the new order – or will they be made gods themselves?
Evil is growing deep within the crypt. And the pair soon find out that they will be lucky to escape their new immortality with their lives.
Some people consider the Big Finish plays fit into Doctor Who canon because the original actors are reprising their roles in new, officially licensed, stories; this tale would suggest that the comic strips can also be considered canon. Let the debate commence…
After The Shadow of the Scourge, we have another Doctor Who story that breathes life into a character created for the ‘extended universe’. Frobisher was created for the comic strips, which means everyone would have their own idea about how he would come across ‘in the flesh’ as it were..
I think they got him right, Robert Jezek does a good job and portrays Frobisher exactly how I imagined him. Unfortunately, Frobisher is the Doctor Who equivalent of Marmite; you either love him or you hate him. And I hate him. To be fair, I don’t have a problem with a shape-shifting private eye becoming the Doctor’s companion; it’s just the whole penguin thing. He chooses to stay in the shape of an emperor penguin, which automatically makes him a comedy character destroying any tense, serious or dramatic scenes because you can’t stop thinking “talking penguin, TALKING PENGUIN!!!”. The inclusion of Frobisher automatically means the story will incorporate some form of comedy.
And this is the main problem with The Holy Terror, it’s the only problem but it is one hell of a big one; not Frobisher but the fact that the story unsuccessfully mixes almost farcical comedy with grim, violent terror. The themes behind it are excellent; a belief system based on the Roman idea of kings becoming living gods, the theory that completely separating a child from society at birth would lead them to create a pure language, bringing them closer to God, and an insane murderer trapped in a fictional world, forced to relive the guilt caused by his actions over and over again. All great stuff, wonderfully done…eventually.
It’s completely inexplicable to me why Part One is done purely for laughs. It goes so overboard on the comedy it’s embarrassing, because it’s just not funny. A member of the royal family is elevated to the status of living god and must perform a miracle but because everyone knows he can’t be a god, and can’t perform miracles, the high priest does a card trick and they all go “ooh it’s a miracle” It’s just rubbish. Part Two is where the story starts to come out but is still hampered by the silliness factor and the fact they all start to worship a TALKING PENGUIN!!! as their god. “All hail the big talking bird” (‘I’m reminded of Blackadder the Third “All hate the big talking bird, all hate the big talking bird”).
Humour is subjective. It all depends on the viewer/listener as to whether they find it funny or not. It is my general opinion that humour in Doctor Who is fine but comedy is not. Doctor Who has always had humour in it, right from the very first episode. But whenever the series went down the route of comedy, it failed miserably; The Romans part three, pretty much all of series 16 and 17, the trial scenes in Trial of a Time Lord, the shoe scene in Smith and Jones… all trying to inject comedy into the show but actually making them embarrassing to watch. And the first two episodes of The Holy Terror can only be described as comedy, rather than humour. Yes, perhaps, in this case, the comedy is there to act as a contrast to the horror and to highlight some of the more ridiculous aspects of politics and religion but it fails to do that for me – it’s just funny that isn’t funny.
Parts Three and Four surprised me. They are awesome. I can’t go on enough about how good the second half is; the Doctor finally gets to take centre stage, the story proper kicks in, there’s a complete u-turn in the tone and the humour gets relegated to just a couple of Frobisher scenes, which helps immensely. This is a grim, violent half with some really nasty characters, it’s tense, dramatic, thrilling and chilling, it just doesn’t come soon enough.
Pepin is a wasted character; purely comedic, he doesn’t feel like a living god, he doesn’t want to be a living god and he does nothing at all but float around like a hankie in a wind tunnel following the bloody penguin wherever it goes (ironic, given that he’s such a wet fish). High Priest Clovis is massively irritating to start with, mainly due to his frequent – and probably unintentional – impression of Kenneth Williams during Part One but he settles down and becomes a much better character as the story progresses, fulfilling the role that tradition has set for him.
The two women in the story, Livilla and Berengaria are both strong characters; Livilla is Pepin’s wife, the living goddess-to-be and a medieval WAG, she’s there because of her looks but she’s after the fame and the money. Berengaria is Pepin’s mother, the ex-living goddess who hates her son and is destined to be executed according to tradition. The two women hate each other, one is world weary and desperate to die because she’s fed up of living by pointless traditions, while the other refuses to see it and just wants the power. Neither character is served well by Part One, indeed their main scene together could have been excellent if it didn’t sound like it was trying to be funny and nasty at the same time, but they both get much stronger in the second half, particularly Livilla in her final scene when she practically begs to be physically scarred for life by the evil, hunchbacked madman so that she can become his consort and a living goddess. The response she gets is the grimmest, most gruesome part of the whole thing.
Aside from the Doctor and Frobisher, the two main characters are Tacitus and Childeric, played by the fantastic Sam Kelly and Peter Guinness. They are both excellent throughout – Peter Guinness has a wonderfully sinister voice and makes Childeric a truly mad, evil villain to die for (as in fact most people do). So when his five year old son turns up with the power to turn people inside out, snap bones and be as creepy as hell, it gets even better! Sam Kelly is also excellent as Eugene Tacitus, the historian who’s forgotten something rather important. He’s sympathetic, compassionate and the only non-regular character you actually want to survive, so when you find out what’s really going on, it makes it all the more tragic.
Russell Stone does a good job with the music; if I had a talking penguin in my Doctor Who story, I’d want some cheesy plinky-plonky piano music that says “This will be funny” so a good job, well done.
I could go on for a lot longer than I already have about how excellent the second half is and equally how disappointed I feel by the extraordinary awfulness of the first half but I won’t. Apparently, Rob Shearman was specifically asked to include Frobisher (Mr Russell, what were you thinking?). Remove Frobisher, make Pepin a better character and a lot of the comedy would go, leaving us with a dark, sinister, occasionally humourous, adventure and possibly the best Big Finish story. Instead, in my opinion, we get one of the worst because it could – and should – have been SO much more
If it makes you want to turn it off before it gets to the good bit, then it’s failed. P-p-p-put down a penguin. 2.5/5
The Doctor: Colin Baker | Frobisher: Robert Jezek
With: Stefan Atkinson (Pepin); Peter Guinness (Childeric); Dan Hogarth (Captan Sejanus); Sam Kelly (Eugene Tacitus); Bruce Mann (Arnulf); Helen Punt (Livilla); Jacqueline Rayner (Woman); Gary Russell (Guard); Robert Shearman (Sculptor and Guard); Peter Sowerbutts (Clovis); Roberta Taylor (Berengaria)
Writer: Robert Shearman | Director: Nicholas Pegg | Music: Russell Stone | Release Date: November 2000 | Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes | Number of Episodes: 4
Set Between: DWM comic strips The World Shapers and The Age of Chaos