Doctor Who: The Masters of Luxor
Are men becoming machines, or machines men? It's an ontological puzzle for the First Doctor and chums in a long-winded tale that never, thank God, saw the light of day…
Writer: Anthony Coburn, adapted by Nigel Robinson
Starring: William Russell, Carole Ann Ford, Joe Kloska
When I'm lying in bed at night, unable to sleep, I am often hounded by such insoluble puzzles as: why is there no money to spend on libraries but there is on lighting up office blocks at night? Where do all the ice cream vendors go to in the winter? And why isn't there a project that combines restoring old Doctor Who adventures with finding a cure for insomnia?
Well, thanks to Big Finish, that last puzzle has now been solved. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Masters of Luxor, a six episode story written by Anthony Coburn and originally meant for the second-ever slot for the show, replaced — thank the Lord — by Terry Nation's The Daleks. It's been adapted for audio by Nigel Robinson and directed by Lisa Bowerman. I say six episodes, but it seems like sixty-six. According to the Big Finish website, it has a running time of two hours. According to iTunes it's three and a half hours. According to my brain, it's at least ten.
I read this story as a Titan script book back in the early 1990s and I can remember enjoying it, but also finding it hard going. And this was with the considerable advantage of reading it at my own pace. Having to listen to three actors painstakingly narrating the whole thing is a different kettle of fish. I have a theory that the best drama, audio or otherwise, is when the story trots along at your own 'brain speed'. Too fast and you struggle to keep up, too slow and you're always one step ahead of what's happening next. The latter is the case with Luxor. It would be hard to adequately describe the abject boredom I experienced while waiting for either Carole Ann Ford or William Russell to finish speaking their lines, be it narration or dialogue. There's a stultifying dullness to the whole plodding story that makes one yearn for the heady excitement of The Sensorites or The Wheel in Space.
The summary for the story sounds great: a desolate planet, a massive crystal building perched on a mountainside, a legion of dormant robots waiting for…life? It's the execution that's problematic. After a very slow opening episode, Coburn's story just runs out of steam. It's also aimed at totally the wrong audience. As a Radio 4 late night play, its endless highbrow discussions about identity, free will, God, what it is to be human etc would play fine. But in a Saturday teatime slot for, let's face it, kids, it's totally wrong. Along with cutting an episode from Planet of Giants, knocking this story on the head was one of Verity Lambert's greatest decisions. If Luxor had gone ahead, I don't believe the programme would have survived more than a year.
As mentioned, narrative chores are shared by William Russell and Carole Ann Ford. They take it in turns to read out the stage directions as well as voicing their own characters of Susan and Ian Chesterton. They also give voice to Barbara and the Doctor respectively, with slightly less success. A least their interpretation suits the material — workmanlike, but never exciting. Ford suffers particularly from a clumsy and loquacious script and you can sense her own awkwardness at having to navigate the word "Derivatrons" several times per episode. The third member of the cast is Joe Kloska who plays the robots and their inventor Tabor. He's good and brings a bit of life to proceedings. But it's an uphill battle and it's two against one, so he doesn't stand much of a chance.
The Masters of Luxor would be significantly improved if great big script editor scissors had been taken to Coburn's script. As a two-parter this could have been quietly impressive. But at six episodes, the dearth of characters and tonal variety — there's simply no light and shade — makes this dull, dull, dull. The occasional attempts to lighten the tone (with some excruciatingly '60s 'comedy' turns of phrase) show how portentous this script really is. Whether its Robinson or Coburn who've written these jokey asides it's hard to tell. They're steps in the right direction, but too few and too patchy to make any real impression.
As an aside, the subject matter of this story — brain swaps and the like, the subjugation of 'lesser' races — was done far more successfully three years later with Ian Stuart Black's The Savages. That sounds marvellous on audio, and pretty much offers us everything that this story so comprehensively fails to deliver on. Speaking of audio, Toby Hrycek-Robinson's sound design does its job well and his music is appropriately gloomy and minimalist. But even with a soundtrack by The Who, this would be pretty hard to liven up.
So, not a cure for cancer or the common cold perhaps, but certainly The Masters of Luxor is a cure for sleeplessness. And for that, Big Finish should be praised.
Click here for the trailer, muthafunster!
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