Big Finish Review: Doctor Who: The Lovecraft Invasion
After a production delay prevented its release in June, the end of July saw the release of the final Sixth Doctor, Flip and Constance story for 2020. Following their adventures in Cry of the Vultriss and Scorched Earth, Colin Baker, Lisa Greenwood and Miranda Raison return with The Lovecraft Invasion.
Written by Robert Valentine and directed by Scott Handcock, The Lovecraft Invasion is available to purchase on the Big Finish site here, before going on general release on the 31st August. Here's the synopsis...
The Doctor, Constance and Flip join forces with 51st-century bounty hunter, Calypso Jonze, to hunt down the Somnifax: a weaponised mind-parasite capable of turning its host's nightmares into physical reality. Chasing it through the time vortex to Providence, Rhode Island in 1937, they arrive too late to stop it from latching onto a local author of weird fiction... Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
With time running out before Lovecraft's monstrous pantheon breaks free and destroys the world, the Doctor must enter Lovecraft's mind to fight the psychic invader from within.
Can he and Flip overcome the eldritch horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos? And will Constance and Calypso survive babysitting the infamously xenophobic Old Gentleman of Providence himself?
I'll be joined by regular Big Finish reviewer and massive Doctor Who fan - my 14 year old son Ben - to review this latest release...
It feels like forever since Scorched Earth came out; fortunately The Lovecraft Invasion is well worth the wait. Robert Valentine's script is packed with vivid imagery and high octane moments that would never be achievable in 80's televised Doctor Who. But like Scorched Earth, it is also a story that challenges and provokes a response from the listener. Lovecraft himself is a troubled figure - a racist and a xenophobe - and Valentine certainly doesn't shy away from that.
The question of what it means to both enjoy someone's work and recognise that the creator is not a good person is not an easy one to wrap your head around. It's what makes The Lovecraft Invasion such a timely release in this troubled 2020. The fight against racism and xenophobia is something on all our minds, good people trying to bring fundamental change against those, like Lovecraft, who would channel hatred. As the creator of beloved works, the angst over whether to embrace the beloved world of Lovecraft if reflected in current discourse - JK Rowling and her anti-transphobic comments, or enjoying the work of an actor like Kevin Spacey, who has been exposed as a sexual abuser; can you still feel comfortable enjoying the work when you know the minds of the men and women behind them?
Valentine's script embraces that discourse; Flip as a lover of Lovecraft's work is faced with the man who goes against everything she stands for; the Doctor's recount of discovering a beloved author of childhood books is a monster is a watershed moment. He can't enjoy those books and Flip finds herself faced with the same dilemma. The examination of hatred and bigotry is explored further through the brilliant guest character, Calypso Jonze (Robyn Holdaway). As a mixed race, pansexual, trans, non-binary 51st-century bounty hunter, she is the antithesis of everything Lovecraft stands for. She is coupled with Constance - a person of the same era as Lovecraft but shaped by her experiences of the universe. The story of how these characters handle Lovecraft makes for one of the most fascinating aspects of the story.
"I've journeyed throughout time and space and in all my travels I have never encountered anyone that professed a doctrine of hierarchical bigotry who didn't place themselves at the top of their social order. It's a blind, hateful, cruel and cowardly arrogance. It is the rankest of stupidities. And the truth of it is, the people who hold such views make themselves the worst of humanity. They are always the real monsters."
Colin Baker's speech, as the Doctor rants against Lovecraft, is quite simply sensational. The Lovecraft Invasion doesn't shy away from exposing the man and his hatred and it's fitting that the Doctor, particularly one often seen as aggressive and cruel in his televised episodes, should be the one to challenge Lovecraft over his beliefs. Yet again, Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor is served extremely well by Big Finish.
While the exploration of hatred and bigotry is at the heart of The Lovecraft Invasion, Valentine still gives the listener and love letter to his worlds, daring to explore a more well-rounded view of the man and his creations. There are numerous moments, brought to life by strong performances and the vivid direction of Scott Handock, that bring to life elements that could not possibly have been achieved in the TV era of the Sixth Doctor. From ocean skies to terrifying ghouls to the inevitable arrival of cosmic entity Cthulhu, this is a grandiose story from beginning to end.
The extra element of the Doctor and Flip travelling into Lovecraft's mind and working with Lovecraft's more heroic persona detective Randolph Carter (also played by Alan Marriott) adds another fascinating element to the story, exploring both the darkness and beauty of Lovecraft's imagination. The idea of the Somnifax, a weaponised mind-parasite, is another fascinating concept by Valentine through which to explore the elements at play.
The Lovecraft Invasion really is something special. It examines the man that was HP Lovecraft, exploring the beauty of his imagination and the darkness of his hatred and bigotry, challenging both the characters involved and the listener. With strong performances from all involved, vivid direction by Scott Handcock and and wonderfully layered, thought-provoking script by Robert Valentine, this is something quite special indeed...
The delay in the release of this, quite frankly, thought provoking and sensational story may have irked some people, but in all honesty this was well worth the wait, and not only to see the wonderful team of the Sixth Doctor, Flip and Constance again.
You can't much talk about this tale without mentioning the xenophobic elephant in the room (ear?). The core of this story delves deep into the unpleasant man that Lovecraft himself actually was, and I applaud the way it doesn't shy away from or sugarcoat the elements that made this man what he was. The questions that are raised here are some quite complex moral issues that certainly make you think, like it did for me, and I'm glad, as Doctor Who should do this sort of thing more often.
The question of enjoying the works of a problematic creator is one that is all the more relevant in current times, with the recent backlash to JK Rowling, which might make this a lot stronger than it might have been otherwise. The fact that Lovecraft's racism was translated into the texts he wrote is a core point here, prompting the Doctor to reminisce about a similar experience he had with his favourite author as a child which stopped him reading his favourite books, and really can divide views and opinions, and not always in a nice way.
The way Lovecraft has to deal with what's happening around him, while having to stay with the literal embodiment of everything he despises is another embodiment of this issue, just a little more subtle. And the Doctor's glorious way he talks down too Lovecraft in one of the final scenes is very much a highlight, brought to fruition brilliantly by the ever wonderful Colin Baker, and in a way that fits his incarnation perfectly.
The cast themselves are on top form in this release, the regulars just as phenomenal as ever (Although Constance gets slightly less to do), and the supporting cast is very strong. The character of Calypso Jonze. is fun enough for me to half want her to stick around on the TARDIS in forthcoming adventures, and serves as a brilliant temporary companion. Lovecraft himself is wonderfully portrayed also, in a way that certainly makes you get a feel on what this man was like in his time.
The main plot is a brilliant idea, the Doctor and Flip going inside Lovecraft's mind and encountering a whole host of Lovecraft creations, culminating in the most famous of, Cthulhu. The Somnifax is a delightful villain (With quite a satisfying name), but it's a shame we never got to see quite how it was created. The element of starting midway through an adventure is one that Big Finish don't use too often, and acts as a brilliant way into the main story without being caught up in the usual 'Arrive, captured, escapes' scenario, though it does mean we are sadly robbed of the first meeting between the TARDIS crew and Calypso.
The ending itself is another key moment, with the story being wrapped up with about 10 minutes left to go, and gives Calypso another thought provoking line that you can be tempted to agree with, about not being able to truly hate Lovecraft, just feeling sorry for him. The way the Doctor notes that their could have been a chance for Lovecraft to change his ways, as indeed with all people of the sort he meets in his travels which keeps him going, is a final beautifully delivered touch from Colin Baker, which once again cements him as one of the best Doctors. And I must say, the cover art is gorgeous...
The ten minute music suite from composer Andy Hardwick is a delightfully twisted, atmospheric piece, opening with creepy clownish themes and building to a Tim Burton-esque score with strained strings and heavy chords that wouldn't be out of place in a horror movie. Hardwick really makes the most of the nightmarish, dream-like quality of Lovecraft's work, with gothic, soaring melodies and ominous, quieter moments that are a delight to listen in isolation with the story. The are some delightfully creepy moments that are sure to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. It certainly is one of the most striking and atmospheric music tracks on any Big Finish release I've heard recently.
A trailer for Fifth Doctor story Time Apart, which co-incidentally was released a day after The Lovecraft Invasion, takes Peter Davison's Doctor in a new direction, separated from his companions after the events of last year's Warzone / Conversion. The trailer - for those yet to listen to the full release - promises a series of creepy, introspective stories for the lone Doctor
Almost sixteen minutes of behind the scenes interviews round off this release. Colin Baker and Lisa Greenwood embrace the different dynamic between the Doctor and Flip away from Constance, while Miranda Raison delves into the psychological dynamic of the story. Guest actress Robyn Holdaway delights in Calypso being the coolest character she will ever play while guest actor Alan Marriott contrast the performances of playing both Howard Phillips Lovecraft and the more heroic Randolph Carter, a role Greenwood compares to Robin Williams. Actor David Menkin and Colin Baker tap into the challenges of bringing Lovecraft's made up languages to life and achieving an authenticity to the performance. The most intriguing discussion surrounds the differences between Constance and Lovecraft - two people from the same time differing by their experiences of the universe.
Scott Handcock talks stepping in as director for the latest Sixth Doctor story and the challenges of bringing the world of HP Lovecraft to life. Colin Baker delights in the weirdness of the story, drawing on his memories of Sapphire and Steel and how much fun it was to bring to life. Writer Robert Valentine talks the challenges to bringing HP Lovecraft to life, tapping into his racism and bigotry and contrasting that against his better human qualities. From the comments of performance and the nature of the story itself, it is clear that everyone involved has a passion for the story and the thought-provoking challenges it brings.