Tony’s seeing monsters.
There are many different ways of writing successful Doctor Who. You can fling your imagination wildly out to the far edges of possibility, you can turn ordinary things into dark-tinged terrors, you can extrapolate a satirical idea into sci-fi, or you can go mining.
Mining into familiar ideas or territory, to uncover new angles to those familiarities and fit them together in a way that makes for new storytelling takes.
Matthew J Elliott, writer of Zaltys, is a great miner.
Here, we’re in space-gothic/monster-movie territory, creatures the like of which we’ve seen before in Who given a new twist or two and crammed together to create a story that manages to hit all the landmarks we expect and still be brand spanking slightly barking new.
Elliott wastes no time in doing the thing you need to do with the Fifth Doctor’s full Tardis if you’re not to have a story with at least one companion standing about saying nothing while the others sing a couple of quick choruses of ‘What’s that Doctor?’ He gives us a bit of a twist on Tegan’s endless quest to get home to Heathrow, with the Aussie tempting the Alzarian brat-boy to try and get her home instead. When Adric fizzes and disappears from the Tardis, and Nyssa starts talking to someone who isn’t there, we’re off to the weirdness races. When Tegan disappears too, things start to get really interesting.
The Alzarian and the Aussie each take control of their own story-threads, with Adric zapping to the underground catacombs of the Zaltys (melodramatically known by some as the Planet of the Dead), where the locals are getting their Silurian on, sleeping in the deep freeze because there’s a big chunk of space-rock heading their way in just a handful of heartbeats. So…no urgency there then…
There are only a few of Zaltys’ natives left awake to monitor things, and when the time comes for the space-rock to hit the planet, they’re more than likely to go foom and be vapourised.
Oh, and there’s a psychic wolfman. Did we mention the psychic wolfman? Yep, there’s a psychic wolfman. See? Elliott’s a really good miner – taking the stuff of monster movies and re…erm…vamping it in a new way with half a twist that gives you something interesting to listen to.
Tegan meanwhile is Somewhere Else Entirely, being teased by a sadistic woman who wants her to run away, like a mouse from a cat, just for the fun of the chase. Or just possibly, as an amuse bouche. When she meets a deeply dried-out fish-woman, the vibe of Tegan’s story changes substantially, becoming rather more Die Hard-meets-Terminus as Tegan and Lusca the fish-woman start crawling through the ducting and waiting for a single very specific opportunity to escape from the taunting woman and her many many acolytes. Clarimonde the taunter, played with a delicious purr by Niamh Cusack, will bring memories of a late Tom Baker story to the fore, and indeed the strand of Zaltys’ story she embodies is another that takes us back to classic monster movies, and to gothic novels too, but evolved through Elliott’s imagination into a new science-fiction setting.
If that doesn’t make the story busy enough for you, the Doctor and Nyssa, searching for their disappeared comrades, are on the surface of Zaltys, meeting pink-haired, gun-toting grave-robbers and profiteers. As you do.
With so many threads in a single story, the real, palpable danger is that all you end up with is three independent stories running parallel. But this is where Elliott comes into his own – while initially the strands seem to be entirely separate, over the course of the four episodes of Zaltys, he weaves them into a triple-helix single story that works better than you initially imagine it ever could. At least the middle two episodes speed by from cliff-hanger to cliff-hanger while you juggle the elements and listen as they evolve and begin to circle each other, captured like asteroids in a planetary orbit.
Elliott’s big on references in this story too – and that’s another dangerous thing to do. The occasional reference to the Doctor’s past, anyone can get away with. The number of references that come to the fore here, there’s no actual need to throw in, and you run the risk of hitting the listener with the sense of ‘Look, look, I know my Who history’ – which has a high likelihood of feeling like protesting too much. Here, we get references to Mindwarp, Castrovalva, the Silurians, and more within the first episode, without even getting into the late Tom Baker story it would be spoilerific to name, or the fact that there’s a distinct whiff of Timelash in the DNA of this story too – it’s a later-Doctor sequel to an unseen story featuring the Third Doctor and Jo Grant.
But rather than beating us over the head with his Who-knowledge, Elliott works his references through the story simply, like things the Doctor or his friends would know, so it challenges you to ask why they wouldn’t mention them. It’s the sort of thing they’d have done in the on-screen show in the Eighties if they’d had more consistent confidence in their script editing, and because of that, it works.
As for the other story elements, Elliott works his psychic wolfman, Clarimonde and her army of minions, the fish-woman who’s a long way from her black lagoon, the Zaltysians (who also give an additional dimension, because they’re the ultimate isolationists, meaning they speak to the world in which we increasingly live, where we build walls and sever ties) and their impending asteroid tragedy like a symphony, pulling them together to deliver a story which makes a hell of a lot more sense than you ever imagine it will, and which also gives you satisfaction as a story of many mysteries intertwined. It’s true that when it starts, you won’t imagine for a second it’ll do anything like that, because there’s a genuine sense of not knowing what on Zaltys is going on. But to some extent, that’s the point – we discover elements as we go along with the Doctor and his companions, each taking a strand of the story and revealing those details piece by piece, meaning Zaltys, perversely for a story with so many elements and intertwined strands, feels less written than experienced in real time, the way the Doctor and friends experience it.
Elliott’s a relatively new voice at Big Finish, and Zaltys, like his earlier title Maker of Demons, is rooted in some core ideas, richly mined, and highly plotted while feeling very natural. There’s a point in each of his stories to date at which he brings you to a listener-crisis, a point where you think ‘This absolutely can’t work, the longer it spins the more it’s bound to fall apart!’
Neither of them do – they push on and on and on, making more sense as they go, and rewarding you more as you progress through them too.
There is a point, just at the very end of Zaltys, which feels like one twist too many, one arc completed in a way it doesn’t need to be, but Zaltys overall is a surprising, engaging affair that challenges the listener with its number of threads and elements and characters, and then blows your hair back by not only making them work, but pulling them tight into a single coherent story that punches above its two-hour running time with satisfaction and impact.
We said this after Maker of Demons, but more Elliott at Big Finish would be very pleasing, because he brings a tone, and an ability to keep a story spinning, that earns him a place that, if continued, will put him on a par with some of the best in the game.