It’s April of 2001. Hear’Say are at number one with “Pure and Simple.” Emma Bunton unseats them a week later with “What Took You So Long,” which lasts two weeks before Destiny’s Child take it with “Survivor.” Lil Bow Wow, Janet Jackson, Gorrillaz, Robbie Williams, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, Madonna, and O-Town also chart. In news, a Chinese fighter jet crashes into an American one, resulting in an international incident, which leads to George W. Bush’s first major foreign policy crisis. He manages not to completely whiff this one. Give him time. Also, Slobodon Miloševi? surrenders to the police, and the Netherlands become the first country to legalize same sex marriage. All of this happens on the same day, April 1, at which point the month gets tired and overworked and decides not do anything else.
Oh, yes, and Big Finish releases Minuet in Hell. Let’s start with the bit that if I ignore I’ll be rightly scolded in comments, and that if I pay attention to everyone will say that I’m being tiresome and imposing my personal issues and values on the story. The story is frightening in its internalizing of misogyny. Charley is kidnapped off the streets and turned into a “pretty little satin bottom,” where she’ll cater to the whims of the customers of a “gentleman’s club” and submit to their physical punishments whenever they want to administer them. This is treated as little more than another obstacle for a plucky adventurer to overcome. As is usually the case with things like this, the problem comes when the fantasy horror is far too close to a real one. Human trafficking and sexual slavery happen to real people. Treating a thinly sanitized forced prostitution as generic adventure filler is grotesque. And it sets a nasty tone for the whole piece.
That admitted, let’s move to the other thing that jumps out about this: its portrayal of the United States is ludicrous. I’m actually not quite as bothered by this as the consensus is. Yes, the accents are awful, but I avoided skewering Nicola Bryant or the entirety of The Gunfighters on those grounds, so starting now seems silly. The premise rather painfully strains credulity – I’m at a loss for why the subplot of forming a fifty-first state called Malebolgia is included, as it is at once ludicrous and pointless. But under the surface is an idea with some teeth, particularly coming four months after the inauguration of George W. Bush. This was surely on Gary Russell’s mind as he revised Alan Lear’s Audio-Visuals script during the 2000 campaign.
The Bush administration, barely four years in the ground, is a difficult thing to historicize, not least because it was, in fact, so disastrously bad. Its failures were in many ways worse than even the most pessimistic predictions in 2000. And thus in many ways the horror of what was has erased the sense of horror at Bush’s election in the first place. On top of that, the election itself was overshadowed by the fact that its results fell within the margin of error of voting itself. And, for around half my audience at least, and, for that matter, myself, there’s a difficulty in seeing outside the country. But from an external perspective, the very prospect of electing Bush was an existential nightmare.
It wasn’t merely that Bush was an idiot, although he was. Rather it was that he conformed to a particular American stereotype: someone who was proud of their ignorance. What was terrifying about Bush was that he didn’t know much about the world and, more to the point, didn’t care to. He was eager to play the cowboy: decisive, independent, and beholden to nobody. While the rest of the world stared, slack-jawed, and tried to figure out if America realized that westerns were works of fiction. Added to this was the bizarre system of power Bush represented. The very fact that he was a contender for the Presidency was clearly down purely to the fact that he was the eldest son of someone else who had been President. There was no other way that a failed businessman and drunken frat-boy fuckup was going to have ascended to those levels of power except for the basic fact that when you’re from a family as rich and powerful as the Bush family the rules don’t apply to you.
Fine. Aristocracy is hardly unfamiliar to the international audience. It’s not like anybody is labouring under the illusion that Prince Charles’s qualifications for anything whatsoever extend beyond what uterus he incubated in. But Prince Charles at least has the common decency to consistently act like a rich, entitled aristocrat. What was bizarre and terrifying about Bush was that he not only acted like a common “man of the people” sort, he seemed to genuinely believe that’s what he was. The idea of an upper class twit is easy enough to deal with, as is the idea of an ignorant yokel. But their combination and equation seemed, to anyone outside the US in 2000, a particularly unnerving and dangerous prospect. Unlike Ronald Reagan, who was at least blatantly an actor, Bush gave every impression of being sincere in his identity, despite hte identity being an incoherent impossibility. And so to most of the world the biggest story of the 2000 election was how this was even happening in the first place.
All of this feeds tangibly into Minuet in Hell. The main antagonist, Brigham Elisha Dashwood III, is at once a populist with mass appeal and tangibly a scion of old power. His citation of the historical British Hellfire Club as inspiration and his touting of how he’s descended from Sir Francis Dashwood positions him firmly in the George W. Bush tradition. And there’s a careful play with religion here. Dashwood’s style is firmly in the American Protestant tradition that Bush hailed from, save for the detail that he’s a Satanist. But that really I just a detail – as Penn Jillette is fond of pointing out, Satanism is just Christianity where you knowingly pick the losing side. That is, in the end, the point the audio makes, contrasting Dashwood’s foolish credulity and belief in his Satanism against Sir Francis Dashwood and the original Hellfire Club’s use of the “black mass” as little more than an ostentatious acting out in an attempt to be shocking and decadent
On paper these ideas are gorgeous, and they come close to justifying all of the over the top portrayals of America. If the point is that Dashwood is a ludicrous figure who reflects a fundamental failing of American society then the grotesque exaggeration of America makes sense. I mean, if we’re basically accusing George W. Bush of being the Reverend Harry Powell then we may as well go whole hog. The details are perhaps a bit sloppy, but there are moments of real cleverness in amidst it all – particularly the litany of deranged killers in the asylum and their “ripped from bad American tabloids” crimes.
So where does it go wrong? For the most part because as good an ideas as all of that is, it gets lost in a smorgasbord of other ideas, not all of them as good.
Like The Sword of Orion, Minuet in Hell is an adaptation of an old Audio-Visuals story. But there’s a difference. The Sword of Orion was nearly a line-by-line remake of its source material that matched the structure more or less perfectly. But the original Minuet in Hell had what could only be described as an idiosyncratic structure: its first episode was nearly forty-seven minutes long, followed by a seventeen minute episode that hurriedly squared away the plot. Unlike The Sword of Orion, which ran at about the two hours Big Finish shoots for, this meant that Minuet in Hell was too short in its original form. On top of that, its second episode was bizarrely mispaced, packing its revelations in far too tightly.
On top of that, the Audio-Visuals Minuet in Hell was set in the 18th century, around the original Hellfire Club in London. This is a “five minutes in the future” style story set in the United States, and with the Brigadier thrown in. Clearly this is going to take some reworking. And yet the level of reworking was in some ways strangely minimal. The original cliffhanger is maintained as the cliffhanger of episode two. This results in an absurd mushrooming of the story: three of the episodes are over half an hour long, and the first one is a brutal forty-four minutes, almost all of which is just introducing the profusion of plot lines and characters that the story trades on.
The problem is that for all the plot lines, there’s not actually a plot as such. Structurally this works like a bad regeneration story: a crisis brews on one end, the Doctor wanders around trying to become the Doctor on the other end, and as soon as the Doctor gets his act together he dispatches the villain pretty effortlessly. So for three episodes and change – the length of most Big Finish stories – all the Doctor spends his time doing is conspicuously failing to encounter the plot or deal with it. He spends the whole story amnesiac and in an asylum, in fact. Charley gets the plot together faster, but that mostly means she gets to fail to find the Doctor at great length. And the Brigadier mostly serves to have the plot explained to him. The story this all resembles most? The Twin Dilemma.
All of this means that you have an audio with too many things going on. The original Minuet in Hell was mostly a psychological character piece about the Doctor having an identity crisis. And this seems to have been the angle they pitched to McGann. Fine – it does sound like a meaty acting role. But that sort of high concept “let’s do something challenging” ethos drags the production away from Big Finish’s actual strengths, which is storytelling. The Doctor locked up having an identity crisis is a neat concept, but it’s not one that has a story. There’s nothing for him to do while he’s fretting that he might not actually be the Doctor. In this regard doubling the length of the story is a staggeringly poor idea because there’s not actually story.
But more to the point, this doesn’t match up with the over the top camp satire of America. One is grotesque and overplayed, the other is supposed to be intimate and psychological. They just don’t go in the same story. Doctor Who can do both, and that’s its strength, but they aren’t going to work in the same story. In this regard, quite unlike The Sword of Orion, the decision to be based on an old Audio-Visuals script is where it goes wrong. Freed from the confines of being a remake this could have been a modern day The Happiness Patrol. But the need to retain fealty to a story structure that doesn’t serve it just kills it.
On top of that there’s the Brigadier, whose presence is flagrantly down to the old logic of “The Brigadier should meet every Doctor.” That’s the only reason he’s here: to tick off a box. He’s delightful, because Nicholas Courney is, and he gets all the best bits, but he’s only there because they didn’t know if they’d get McGann again, so they wanted to give him a Brigadier story. It’s easy to criticize this logic, but we’ve been doing it since at least Dimensions in Time, and really since the Saward era. It’s still around, it’s still occasionally influential, and this time it adds more straw to an already paraplegic camel.
So what we have here is an odd artifact. The things that were advantages for Big Finish in the first three audios turn to disadvantages. Part of that is just bad luck. It’s certainly possible that someone could have been given the brief “This old Audio-Visuals, a commentary on America’s relationship with aristocracy, and the Brigadier” and made something that worked. Instead we got Gary Russell, who was never going to manage that. But it still highlights the fundamental problem of overtly traditionalist Doctor Who. “Just like you remember, only in a way you’ve never seen before” is still beholden to a long memory of the series. What Minuet in Hell direly needed was someone to take the actually quite interesting new ideas that they had and rescue them from the burden of the old ones.
Instead we got a flaccid mess of ideas that didn’t know what to do with each other: a troubling confirmation that the old demons of Doctor Who that have haunted it since the 1980s still apply. And this is the paradox of the early aughts for Doctor Who. The framework was snapping into place faster and faster, but no matter how much progress was made the problems of Doctor Who seemed progressively more and more intractable, finding ways to reassert themselves again and again. So much so that the point where the show’s revival was announced and the point where it looked the most utterly hopeless would end up coinciding almost exactly. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.