September 18, 2012 by Aidan Brack
The Plot: The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Mary Shelley to the continent of Zelonia, on the frontier world Draxine – where, many moons ago, the twin citystates of Garrak and Stronghaven bore testament to mankind’s colonial spirit.
That was before the sinister death cult of Garrak’s President Harmon took hold – and Garrak annihilated itself, utterly, in an apocalyptic explosion. Before the bones of Garrak’s dead came back to life, and its skeletal citizens began marching, marching, marching on Stronghaven itself.
But what do they want, this army of death? And can anything stop them? In search of answers, the Doctor and Mary must journey into the dead heart of a dead city to face a terrifying adversary, whose ambitions transcend the stuff of life itself.
You cannot stop death. Death is relentless. Death never gives up until it gets what it wants.
The Production: I found the first two releases in this initial trilogy of full-length adventures for the Eighth Doctor and Mary Shelley to be frustratingly inconsistent. After getting off to a fabulous start with an imaginative and atmospheric outing in Vienna, the second installment fell short of the mark for me lacking the complexity and vibrancy of the first.
Still, in spite of some of the disappointments one of the successes of those first two stories had been the character of Mary and her friendship with the Doctor which, to my pleasure, turns out to be a strong focus for this story which is just as well because its skeleton hordes invading a city plotline never really grabbed me.
The dead, Sir. The dead are coming!
The idea of reanimated skeletons is perhaps a well-worn one, but I think that it when Who is successful it can take a generic horror premise and provide a new twist to give it new life. Unfortunately this story’s use of the skeletons as a generic menacing horde never really provides the scares or tension that I think Arnopp surely envisioned them having, partially I think because they are such a visual monster and partly because of their familiarity.
‘Generic’ is also the word that comes to mind when I think about the characters that the Doctor and Mary interact with throughout the story. Though I think the actors did a good job with the material, many of their lines are pretty functional and several of the characters seemed to blend together to me. In particular I think having three male parts all referred to as the President was an ill-advised decision, making some scenes a little hard to follow.
In spite of those shortcomings I did appreciate the way Arnopp uses misdirection throughout his story and makes it pay off quite well. Though I found the plot and setting a little dull, I think the script manages to make its action serve the greater arc of the relationship between the Doctor and Mary which I see as the release’s true focus.
People always come up with such dull names for these things. I’d go for something snappier. Flybots! Yes, that sounds good. ‘Dispatch the flybots
to bring back their bodies.’
McGann does a good job with the material he is given, particularly with the script’s sillier and more humorous elements. I enjoyed the ‘flybots’ running gag in spite of myself, largely because McGann sells it so well with his enthused inflection and high energy levels.
He is at his best though in the more emotional, personal moments that he gets to share with Mary in this story. In particular I appreciated the story’s concluding scenes in which he discusses his travels with Mary, hoping to persuade her to stay with him. I think it is clear in that conversation how much the Doctor has relished travelling with Mary and how much he has come to care for her.
As for Julie Cox, I think she maintains the high standards she set in her previous two performances in this release. I appreciated the way the story really places her conflicted feelings towards the Doctor at its core and I think Cox handles those moments of doubt and indecision wonderfully, making her character’s journey feel very credible.
Mary, I’m constantly amazed that anyone chooses to join me on this rollercoaster. The highs are about as high as you can get. But the lows…
This story marks the third and final installment of the first set of Mary Shelley and Eighth Doctor releases and I think it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the trilogy as a whole. While the arc did get off to a very colorful and entertaining start with The Silver Turk, the two releases that followed never quite matched the personality or excitement of that first story.
In a sense both The Witch from the Well and Army of Death have suffered by comparison as they each share similar themes yet I think handle them a little less stylishly. Moreover, where The Silver Turk stood out for its combination of colorful elements, the two later releases used more tired and familiar staples of the horror genre such as witchcraft and walking skeletons, albeit with their own twists on them.
Where I think the trilogy has been successful is in its portrayal of the growing friendship and hints of romantic interest between the Doctor and Mary. Clearly this has not been fully explored yet and I think there is a lot more they could do with Mary as a companion but the warmth of their friendship and the chemistry the two actors share makes them an entertaining partnership. I can only hope that at some point we will get a second trilogy of stories to continue their adventures together and realize some of that potential!
In Review: Army of Death works quite well as a conclusion to this first trilogy of Eighth Doctor and Mary adventures, dealing with their relationship nicely. As an adventure in its own right though it lacks the punch its title suggests, failing to deliver much in the way of either scares or excitement. Still, it is competently written, directed and acted and quite listenable, if a little forgettable.
This story can be purchased directly from the Big Finish website as either a CD release or as a digital download.