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19 August 2020

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Robert Valentine

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: July 2020

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

"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?"

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. You have been warned!

Boy, is this a difficult one to review. The Lovecraft Invasion was intended to be Big Finish’s monthly audio play for June 2020, but ended up releasing at the end of July 2020. Bizarrely, Big Finish went out of their way to not tell people it had been delayed: think of that scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with the stairless cellar and sign reading ‘Beware of the Leopard’ and you’re close to their approach. Anyhow, now it’s out the question has to be, was it worth the wait?

The answer to that should be a resounding yes… but unfortunately there are huge caveats, which we’ll come to in a bit. Before that though, let’s look at the positives because they really deserve highlighting.

The Lovecraft Invasion is not the range’s first brush with H.P. Lovecraft, having ridden his tailcoats before back in Lurkers at Sunlight’s Edge, a play which was doomed from the off by following the superb A Death in the Family, but which didn’t help itself either by forgetting to be any good. This time around though, rather than pay homage to/parody the author and his creations, we tackle them head on.

We start at the end of another adventure entirely, with Flip, Constance and the Doctor joined by Calypso Jonze, a bounty hunter from the future. In the way these things often go, a terrible something, a mind parasite called the Somnifax, has escaped and travels back through time, with our heroes and Calypso rushing through space and time in the TARDIS to hunt it down. It lands in America, 1937, and latches onto Lovecraft, making his world and creations come to life. The Doctor and Flip journey into Lovecraft’s mindscape to tackle the Somnifax, whilst Constance and Calypso look after their unconscious bodies and help Lovecraft to deal with manifestations of his works in the real world.

First up, the cast: this is the best we have had from Big Finish for ages now. Alan Marriott is fantastic in his duel roles as Lovecraft and Randolph Carter, differentiating the two subtly and with nuance. The real standout though is Robyn Holdaway as Calypso. They are brilliant from start to finish and I’d gladly see Calypso back in a recurring supporting role: not something I say lightly given the overabundance of companions in Big Finish. Their performance and the character are just that good.

Secondly, the story. This one cracks along at a fair lick, with a lot of action well-executed. Little in the way of say-what-you-see clunkiness is on show and the runtime of just under two hours mostly flew by and proves yet again that less is more with episode lengths. This is Robert Valentine’s first story in the monthly range and I dearly hope he has more to give us of this strength on the evidence shown here. You don’t need to know Lovecraft to enjoy it (I’ve never read a word and only really knew Cthulhu was a big squidy god creature), with explanations feeling organic.

A good script, a great guest cast, good action and good pace. What could go wrong? Thus we turn to the elephant in the room. For the most part, the script engages with Lovecraft’s racism really, really well. It doesn’t shy away from his xenophobia but it also doesn’t milk it or make it monotonous, tackling it with maturity and recognising that people are flawed and can hold horrific views, but that in itself does not make them horrific people. It’s the best way they could have dealt with Lovecraft.

But then rewrites have clearly happened and new scenes bolted on: and I mean bolted on. The sound quality in these moments is totally different to the sound quality elsewhere, which only helps to betray their after-the-event nature, and the scenes added are so out of touch with the rest of the play and so ham-fisted that they drag you right out and had me looking for the off switch.  

Calypso punching Lovecraft on the nose in a retread of Thin Ice? Good, and followed up with a superb line about their background and characteristics. The Doctor telling Lovecraft he’s a terrible racist at the end of the play, just in case we haven’t got the point? Bad.

The worst offender, however, comes roughly 22 minutes into the first episode and has the Doctor and Flip discuss problematic authors. In theory this should be fine, but it isn’t. It’s not given the same mature approach as elsewhere. It reduces the subject of “can/should I enjoy the work(s) of ‘problematic’ content creators?” to the Doctor saying no, you can’t. By the time the Doctor is alluding to a children’s author whose work he can’t read because of their personal views (wink wink, see what they did there?), I had to pause the play and go do something else for a while lest I delete the download there and then.

It’s a simplistic answer to an incredibly complex question, reducing it to the most patronising, didactic fluff Doctor Who can possibly give us - worse still, it betrays every point made in the script elsewhere.

Do I understand why Big Finish did this? In part. There is a lot of anger and argument online at the moment around the subject, but much like a lot of Twitter outrage, it’s a far tricker subject than a Tweet or two can deal with and by falling into the trap of trying to appease this, Big Finish drag play to the lowest common denominator, badly at that. There is a healthy and serious discussion to have on the subject of artist vs. work, and everyone will have their own mileage and limits (goodness only knows it’s something I’ve thought about a lot with various authors or musicians whose work I like, or liked, not least including the alluded-to children’s author), but reducing it to “bad viewpoints make people just bad” is as reductive and poor a way of tackling this as you can get. (And to stave off any accusations now, no, I am not far-right-leaning politically or think people are ‘snowflakes’ (god, I hate that term) or ‘virtue signalling’ by wanting to discuss these things. They should be discussed, but with decent writing and scope, which was the case for the play as was, but which was not the case when it comes to these extra scenes.)

I long for the original cut of this play without these additions: it would be a far stronger work for it. They tackled the subject well, then they panicked and tackled the subject terribly. It makes it a difficult one to score. The good largely outweighs the bad, so that in the end influences the score (which would have been higher without these scenes). I just dearly hope that future releases do not settle for simple preaching as has been inserted here. We, all of us, deserve better.

+ The Lovecraft Invasion is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!

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