The Backbone of Night


Ben Chatham

March 2008

Plot:

The Doctor and Dara visit San Fransisco and immediately a bloodsucking servant of the extinct Great Vampires, Renata, detects this disturbance in the force. No sooner does the TARDIS crew discover famous magician Carter Evans is a Van Helsing wannabe then Renata sinks her teeth into the Doctorís neck. Even Dara begins to notice the Doctor starts to act strangely, as Renataís sale pitch about being an undead immortal of the night becomes very attractive, and she bites him again Ė the third time heíll become a vampire himself. The trouble is, he likes it. Dara teams up with Evans to stake Renata before she bites the Doctor a third time, but in a moment of realism, these two ineffectual morons are bushwhacked by Renata, who hypnotizes them, ties them to a chair and prepares to eat them. The Doctorís dark side is not to be messed with, however, and he grabs Renata and shoves her into sunlight. She turns to dust and the Doctor returns to normal... well, heís not a vampire any more.

Story:

On the face of it, it is strange that Doctor Who would not have featured more stories about vampires. Only three stories feature anything approaching proper undead (State of Decay, The Curse of Fenric and Smith & Jones) and two of those only feature humanoid creatures that just resemble vampires, not the genuine article. Of course, the concept of vampires Ė inhuman creatures that drain the life out of others Ė is almost one of Doctor Whoís foundations, with everything from the Cybermen to the Fendahl to Axos working as a variation on the theme. Whatís more curious is that the Great Vampires, established as a core part of Time Lord mythology, never appeared in the TV show again, only being referred to once more, in The Infinite Quest.

The Backbone of Night picks up on the threads left dangling by State of Decay (Terrance Dicks writing a full three sequels notwithstanding), that the human servants of the Great Vampires would be left alive even after all their masters were dead (itís often mistakenly assumed that any servants would die with their master, but the Three Who Rule are actually killed by dawn breaking with its usual dramatic irony), faithfully waiting for new orders. The implication at the end is that other servants are still around and creating a new race of vampires, which gives the concept a nice open ending.

Jamie Lawson starred as Serena in Empire of the Daleks, and here she not only gives a similarly composed performances as Elizabeth Renata , she also writes a cleverly constructed audio drama. Limited to a few familiar stock locations on a foggy downtown San Francisco, the plot is focused on four characters (the Doctor, Dara, Renata and Evans) and the way they interact with each other. We also have demonstrated rather than described Daraís loyalty to the Doctor, and Evans' vendetta against Renata, and the whole plot revolves on the dynamics between the Time Lord and the vampire Ė theyíre understandable mutual hatred compromised (on Renataís side) by loneliness and (for the Doctor) a desire to be free. The plot also has a neat resolution as the Doctorís darker instincts get out of control, with ambiguity over whether Renataís seduction of the Doctor was just revenge, a genuine desire for his companionship, or one that developed into the other. The moral of the story is to accept no one is perfect, and Evansí mindless quest for vengeance is as every bit as soul destroying as Renataís millennia of waiting for the Great Vampires. Obsession is bad Ė not particularly original or deep, but undeniably true.

The Backbone of Night is also interesting in it is at no point self-aware or mocking of modern vampire stories Ė similarly there are no attempts to bring out Ďnew sidesí to the vampire myth, or reinvent them as either warriors or the damned which it seems no one can bring themselves to do nowadays. After all, in the one proper vampire story Doctor Who did, they were revealed to be mutant servants in a spaceship on another planet in a different universe. Backbone is satisfied with what it has to work with: the fact that vampires, like werewolves, are archetypes of human beings giving into their baser instincts. With Fictional Hypothesis demonstrating how far the Doctor would go to forget his past, what would be more natural than for the series to tempt him with an easy way out?

This small scale adventure is hardly earth-shattering, but the high level of competence and the tight plot raise The Backbone of Night among other DWADS, while Jeff Coburnís haunted performance proves himself one of the best unofficial Doctors around. The best story of the Eleventh Doctorís era so far, and undoubtedly one of the best things Everlasting Films has produced.

Personal Appreciation: *****
Why the hell arenít the DWADs bragging that they did this?

Character Stuff:

The Doctor, desperate to learn some magic skills, decides to seek out famous magicians from Earth history to teach him how to do it and heís willing to pay cash (very different from other incarnations, who would refuse point blank to admit they could be taught anything). His olfactory senses are more powerful than a humans, and he disapproves of opium use. Further evidence that he is a future Doctor is that he has experienced the events of State of Decay (or a story very like it). He has a personal key to the TARDIS databanks, meaning that only he can access certain areas. He has no qualms about following Rassilonís jihad on the vampires, is mature by Time Lord standards, and he seems to think claiming he was attacked by a wild rat would convince Dara that he wasnít bitten by a vampire. Heís done things heís not proud of, and the long-buried memories of them are starting to return under Renataís presence, and he knows what itís like to be hated and feared by all he meets...

Daraís snobbery and dislike for non-pristine environs has not left her even after all her time travelling in the TARDIS. She recalls the events of Dark Dreams, proving to be unusually quick on the uptake, though she automatically rubbishes the idea that vampires are real despite the fact the Doctor has just TOLD her that he believes in them cause they are an ancient enemy of the Time Lords, and heís not normally wrong about these things. The Doctor taught her to use the TARDIS medical unit and she can just about work it in an emergency, so sheís not utterly useless this week. She really seems to be worried about him for once as something other than a chauffeur. For once Dara actually seems to be from London rather than America and she not only recognizes a retina print scan-lock, she knows the accurate name for it. Her dad is a great fan of the James Bond films, and loves car maintenance. In her most surprising moment, she decides to dwell on the nasty side of the adventure rather than forget about it.

Observations:

That is, hands down, the best **** title for a vampire story Iíve ever read.

Right. So, itís 1401 years, six months and 11 days for Renata to start a diary? You think she would have found something worth writing down after the first few centuries...

ďI may be any number of things...Ē Oh ***. Seriously, new dialogue canít be that difficult to write, can it? Is it in the writerís guide to have nonsensical quotes from The Five Doctors in every story?

Man, I dunno where that woodwind music is from but is one **** of a good tune, and a lovely cynical counterpoint to Renataís psychosis. The honkytonk piano tunes work pretty well too. And the seduction scene at the end of part two... the phrase ďBig Up, Rachel Sommers Since I Assume Youíre Responsible!Ē springs to mind.

Iíd love to see David Tennant react to Renataís offer of immortality. I might have seen it already in School Reunion, but Iím prepared to take the chance.

Thanks for that narration, Dara, Iíd never have guess youíd disobey orders and follow the Doctor...

Jeez, that is one long recap for part three... three and a half minutes. Long time... or short episodes, I forget which.

A monkís outfit in the TARDIS wardrobe? That sounds ominously fanwanky, and in any other story Iíd be worried that David Segal would be about to arrive, credited as ďPeter ButterworthĒ... but Iím seeking help about that. Don't worry.

Odd that the soulless Doctor sounds just like Trent Lane from Daria...

ďIt even looks like something out of a gothic novel!Ē Thanks for that Dara. Weíd never have suspected.

Smooth talker, that Evans. I now know whenever Iím putting the moves on a chick in a school girl outfit to discuss the cannibalistic consumption of spiral fluid, itís bound to get them in the mood...

ďNot while Iím eating.Ē Itís a complete non-sequiter... but a scary non-sequiter.

I am really not sure if the infodump in episode four as Dara points out to Evans heís standing in a dimensionally transcendental alien time machine fighting ancient alien bloodsuckers is really good writing or really bad. Either way, Jym DeNataleís wasted acting suits Evansí burned out character.

Hmmm. You wander up to a vampire nest, very loudly chat about how youíre here to kill the vampire, kick down the door, discuss very loudly kicking down the door, then act surprised when the vampire has realized youíre at the front door? Did Dara and Evans stop for some opium on the way there?

ďYou owe me everything!Ē OK, I am officially freaked out. Burn With Me has nothing on this, and the Gregorian chants in the background... dear ***, this is actually better than some Big Finishes I can name!!

Preposterous Plot Points:

Renata apparently manages to drain all the blood out of her servant in less than three seconds. While talking loudly as she does it. On a similar theme, a few hours seem to pass during a minute between the Doctor and Dara chatting about Chinatown.

Why isnít the Tong words for vampire translated into English?

Notable Dialogue:

Gratuitous use of the title:
EVANS: Every culture has its own name for the stars, thereís even different names for the Milky Way... The Chinese call it The Backbone of Night.

DOCTOR: Immortality is a trap Ė a curse!
RENATA: Not if you have someone to share it with.

You didnít forget that bit from Fictional Hypothesis, did you?
DOCTOR: So much has come to mind. All the things Iíve... tried to forget. All the things Iím not proud of. Itís all coming back to me at once...
DARA: Oh, come on, Doctor! What have YOU got to be ashamed of?
DOCTOR: More than you will ever know. You think you know me, Dara? You donít. I only show you what I want you to see.

RENATA: Do you have any idea what itís like, to know only people who hate and fear you?
DOCTOR: I...
RENATA: You do, I know it. I know you, Doctor, I know your whole life through your blood.
DOCTOR: What?! No... So long ago...
RENATA: The blood remembers, Doctor. It always remembers.

DARA: How can you say that? Youíre a good, kind person...
DOCTOR: So I fooled you too... Itís not true. You donít know me, Dara, not a bit. The past is littered with my sins.
DARA: What could you have possibly done that was so awful? Youíre a friend to people all over the world, the galaxy, all through time!
DOCTOR: It... hasnít... always been that way... Iíve done things in my life, quite dreadful things. I pretended ever since, they never happened. Oh, youíd hate me if you knew...

DOCTOR: So long ago... I swore Iíd never... be like that again.
RENATA: Doctor, you may try to disown yourself, but it doesnít go away. It waits. As I have waited.

DOCTOR: "Help"? They all said help. They were all frightened. Just like you. All over time, space... and I was there.

Sometimes people just totally miss the obvious...
EVANS: Could you come back tomorrow night, after the show? Say, eleven?
DARA: Thatís awfully late. Why not during the day?
EVANS: Actually, I generally work at night. I sleep most of the day.
DOCTOR: Ah! Perfecting your latest illusions when no one else is awake to disturb you?
EVANS: ...something like that.

DOCTOR: Tea and crumpets, thank you!
DARA: Guh... Youíre awake!
DOCTOR: And you were asleep.

Dunno about you, but Dara didnít convince me and I know sheís right...
DARA: Iím not a child, Doctor, and Iím not stupid! You were bitten by a vampire last night and youíre under her influence now, arenít you?

The Dark Sideís scary because itís so easy to cross over to...
DOCTOR: I only show you what I want you to see Ė and now Iím thinking Iíve done the same thing to myself. I have to start looking at it again, face what I am. It must... I must... be free.
DARA: Letting your darker side have free reign... itís dangerous! Didnít you ever read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
DOCTOR: (LAUGHS) Iím not human, Dara, Iím a Time Lord! I can control my base instincts perfectly well Ė look at all the times Iíve defeated the Master, the Daleks, all sorts of evil across time and space! I think I can manage one pathetic remnant of a race we destroyed aeons ago...
DARA: Itís not the vampire Iím worried about. Itís you.

DARA: This isnít you!
DOCTOR: Oh, but is, Dara. Thatís the frightening part. I have... felt things that I havenít allowed to even admit I was capable of feeling for a long time, touched a part of my soul that I thought I shut out forever, a part of myself... a part we all have, deep within... that I keep locked up, shut away because itís so dark and ugly. I can feel it surfacing again. I canít fight it because... because itís... me.

Cliffhangers:

  1. The Doctor is lured to Renataís lair, and throws his cloak at the vampire. But before he can stake her, she decks him and prepares to drink his blood. ďHow ironic! The blood of a Time Lord shall now give life to the ancient enemy!Ē she shouts and bites him! You scared yet?
  2. Since the Doctor needs to be bitten three times by Renata before he becomes a vampire, he can afford to let the starving woman feast on his blood once more without ill effects... and he does so. ďYouíve made me very happy, Doctor,Ē she says and sinks her fangs into his neck, causing him to cry out in pain. Youíre sure youíre not scared yet?
  3. Dara blocks the Doctorís path as he tries to leave the TARDIS. The Doctor insists that he doesnít want to hurt her, but itís too late for that. ďFar too late,Ē he adds, suddenly hissing through fangs as he attacks the screaming Dara. It may be a little bit like The Keeper of Traken cliffhanger three, but I donít care, cause Iím too busy being scared...
  4. Dara reminds the Doctor that everyone has a choice about to do right or wrong, and she doesnít think any less of him for acknowledging that choice. Reassured, the Doctor sets the TARDIS in motion.

Miscellaneous:

The plot of The Backbone of Night changed so much from development that one of its illustrations turned out to be totally irrelevant and dropped. I like to think said illustration involved an Alien Vs Predator-style all out war between the Ergons and the Myrkas. But then, Iím weird.

What Could Have Been Done To Improve It:

- Lose the info dump at the start of part four.

The Party Line:

They say that in order to appreciate the gems, you must endure the rocks. This is one of those stories that will help you appreciate the gems. What looked good on paper turns out to be a mess on air. The dialogue is terrible, the incidental music grating, and the acting is all around a crime. Even Jeffrey Coburn and Sheri Devine, who normally shine like stars in the night, turn in dreadful performances. The only saving grace is the church scene in episode four. Speaking of vampires, someone should have staked this one in the heart before it got out of its coffin.

The Awful Truth:

Proofpositive that the party line is not being written by someone with both feet on the ground. The story takes the vampire genre absolutely seriously, and gives proper material for the Doctor and Dara as they try in different ways to help each other, and the small cast allows greater characterization. The music score is wonderful, and the straightforward plot is refreshingly unpretentious. Even Chip Jamison is decent in this story. What more needs to be said?


Last updated: Tuesday, March 25, 2008