The Silent Scream
Tony’s watching movies. Bring popcorn.
Hollywood loves nothing better than printing its own legend – or at least that part of its own legend it thinks will make a good story.
Hollywood also famously eats its own, being a combination of the land of dreams and the land of broken hearts and never-quites, the glamour and the gruesome truth existing side by side in every would-be screen star’s heart.
The Silent Scream shows that duality, certainly – if you want it in Elevator Pitch form, this is Doctor Who Does Sunset Boulevard – but it does rather more than that too, showing a truth of human brutality both in terms of the march of progress and what that march can mean for human beings, and a troubling dark side to the avaricious need of the collector, something most Who fans will identify not in themselves, but in people of whom they’ve heard, people they know about. People who want to ‘own’ a part of what they love, irrespective of the feelings of those they seek to own.
It’s important to recognise quite how dark the villainy in The Silent Scream is, and quite how human, because the natural ebullience of Tom Baker and his Fourth Doctor is turned on to Full Beam throughout this story, and being set in old-but-not-quite-that-old Hollywood, it’s a story of surface jollity and production values, with the darkness moving in the depths underneath. You don’t want to let this story skim past you on just its surface level or you’ll miss half the point.
What we have here is Fires of Fate, the comeback movie of a lifetime, the chance for some of Hollywood’s silent stars to redeem themselves in the age of the talkie, especially when their careers have crumbled because their voices ‘didn’t test well’ – a real line that was used to consign those careers to history.
But like all the best Hollywood tales, there’s a dark side, superstitious actors talking about a ‘curse’ on the movie when leading lady after leading lady loses their voice while trying out for it or acting in it. Everything is fine until the cameras start rolling and then…
Then the Fourth Doctor, Romana and K9 arrive in Hollywoodland, following yet another of those famous ‘mysterious energy signatures’ that have driven many of their adventures in this series. They meet Loretta Waldorf, the sober and rather more likeable Norma Desmond of the piece, played with characteristic aplomb and a surprising lightness of voice by Pamela ‘makes everything instantly better’ Salem – the latest in a line of silent stars about to go in front of the cameras for Fires of Fate, and so, being an actress in the old tradition, terrified that her voice is going to be stolen.
When, despite the Doctor’s assurances, and Romana’s insistence that such a thing is impossible, her voice is suddenly stolen in front of them, both the Time Lords grit their teeth and make up their minds to stop whoever’s behind it all.
James Goss has a fantastic ear for this period of Doctor Who, and manages to divide the Doctor and Romana while still giving each of them their own voice, their own methodology, and enough to do across the course of this hour to make it feel big and bold and broader than the actual length of the cast list seems to allow. He also, not for nothing, manages to slip the same Victoria Wood homage into this story as he did in his ‘Beautiful People’ Companion Chronicle, and for that, frankly, we love him beyond measure. He gives us a fairly standard ‘menace’ here in terms of unlikely creatures from which to run away – even Romana raises her vocal eyebrows at their name – but there are single-story companions, there are power dynamics, and there is a powerful main villain controlling the creatures, for their own ghastly, deeply dark ends. Once the villain appears, it’s true there’s not much in the way of suspense or misdirection, and they quickly abandon all pretence of being ‘just another local from someplace else, trying to make a dream come true in Hollywoodland.’ But it’s a delicious, arsenic-bitter note in this story that the villain loves to talk, loves to explain themselves, exercising the right they steal directly from the silent starlets.
As you discover just how horrible their plans are, how much contempt they have for their victims, all the while claiming to love those victims for what they are, who they were and what they represent, The Silent Scream will fill you with a cold shudder of revulsion beneath all the trappings of TInseltown and Tom Baker on High, drawing as it does a line between respectful fandom and acquisitive, grabbing, possessive fandom, the need to own a piece of someone driving a market that the villain’s only too happy to serve. That’s the true moral of the piece. The love affair with old Hollywood feels genuine as a setting for that ice-cold understanding, and more than that it feels appropriate, Hollywood being that perpetual coin-toss between love and ownership, adoration and apathy. That gives The Silent Scream a sense of completeness in and of itself that could well make it a stand-out of Series 6.
Performancewise, there’s not a dud note in The Silent Scream – Baker’s on glorious, sunny form as the late-era Fourth Doctor, and Goss gives him some superb lines, which it would be a cruelty to spoiler for you. Lalla Ward, given Goss’s material, sounds much less grumpy and self-reliant as Romana than she did in, say, The Eternal Battle. Pamela Salem is a goddess sent to Earth to make drama better, so needless to say she rocks the central role of Loretta here. And in particular there are strong and meaty performances from Andree Bernard as Lulu Hammerstein, the studio head who never really liked movies, and Alec Newman as Dr Julius, provider of rest cures to Hollywood’s overstressed elite.
Overall, it would have seemed illogical to bet against a Sontaran story or the return of Jago and Litefoot to the Fourth Doctor’s life as the highlight of the Series, but in The Silent Scream, James Goss, and director Nick Briggs might well have snuck a story of deep darkness and celluloid glamour past both those other stories and staked an early claim on the series top spot.