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REVIEW: “Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor”

Over 30 years since his last on-screen performance as Sil, Nabil Shaban is back in The Devil Seeds of Arodor, an affectionate homage to 1980s Doctor Who that comments on the state of things in 2019.

Cover artwork for "Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor"
Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor (2019) dir. Keith Barnfather  Stars: Nabil Shaban, Christopher Ryan, Sophie Aldred, Janet Henfry and Sakuntala Ramanee

Reeltime Pictures latest straight to video spin-off (though two cinema screenings are scheduled in London and Derby) Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor is a tense courtroom drama, a love story, an incisive satire and, at times, absolutely hilarious. A few minutes into the first episode, you start to wonder why it’s taken so long for Sil to return to our screens.

Sil is one of, if not the greatest Doctor Who villain of the 1980s. His repulsive and vile business practices tapped into the ‘greed is good’ philosophy of Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s America. It’s disappointing on a political and societal level that Sil is more relevant than ever in the time of Boris and Trump. It’s further indicative of the morass we currently find ourselves in that Philip Martin’s script was completed at the start of the year, and could easily have been written yesterday. As depressing as all of that is, Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor is still very enjoyable indeed.

Martin’s work has always been fiercely political and the story he’s devised finds Sil awaiting trial for “damaging the future of the youth of the Eurozone” through serious drug trafficking offences. Soon enough, he’s abandoned by his employers, the Universal Monetary Fund (or Ooomf as Sil insists on calling them) and left to use all of his cunning and guile to avoid judgement. Sil’s repeated protestations of being set-up and unfairly treated could have been pulled from Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.

Placing Sil front and centre as simultaneously protagonist and antagonist affords Nabil Shaban the ability to show us hitherto unseen sides of Sil, cornered, desperate, with even the potential for Sil to be a romantic lead. The complex nature of Sil’s relationship with the enigmatic Mistress Na (Sophie Aldred) is one of the mysteries at the core of the story and provides it with one of it’s most memorable scenes.

Sil (Nabil Shaban) and love interest Mistress Na (Sophie Aldred)

Shaban is clearly having a ball exploring these aspects of the character and is vindicated in his long-held belief that Sil deserves his own show. Through the direction, editing and production design Devil Seeds of Arodor allows us to imagine an alternative 1980s where the BBC commissioned a four-part Sil spin-off.

Director and producer Keith Barnfather made the decision to split the 105-minute film into four parts during the editing process. Where it works well is in giving us our traditional Doctor Who cliffhangers but with a fresh spin. Sil’s villainy gives the audience some rather complex moral decisions about whether or not they want him to survive into the next episode. It’s less successful if you’re watching it in one sitting, as the cliffhangers and recaps can really hamper the pacing.

Due to the generic conventions of the courtroom drama, the studio sets and Devil Seeds’ modest budget, it can often feel like you’re watching a stage play. This isn’t necessarily a problem, given the strength of Nabil Shaban’s performance and his double act with Christopher Ryan, whose shambling physicality belies a furious and funny reprise of his role as Lord Kiv. Where it does bring things down is in the blocking of scenes where, in mid-shot, you can clearly see some of the actors patiently awaiting their next line.

Director Keith Barnfather and Nabil Shaban discuss a scene

That said, there is a clear attempt to lend some rich, cinematic texture to the world built by Philip Martin’s script. Phil Newman’s production design features lots of clean chrome and deep blues, photographed by cinematographer Rob Thrush, with the flair and atmospheric lighting missing from a lot of 1980s Doctor Who. Chris Thompson’s CGI lunar landscapes similarly lend a touch of sweeping sci-fi that establishes the location of Sil’s internment effectively. Some of this is momentarily undone in an early scene where a bloke in a Boba Fett costume walks down a corridor on his way to the departing lunar shuttle.

It’s impossible to be too harsh though because while there are some shortcomings in the production, the story and the characters more than makeup for them. The central story of big business believing itself to be untouchable and beyond reproach is so pertinent and Nabil Shaban’s fourth (have there really been so few?) performance as Sil is worth the price of admission alone. In the tradition of classic Doctor Who, it’s a lot easier to overlook an errant Star Wars cosplayer or some visible joins in Sophie Aldred’s prosthetics when the story is as gripping and the performances are as knockout as they are here. Barnfather should be very proud of their attempts to recapture and reimagine 1980s television for a 2019 audience.

Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor is released on November 4th and is available to preorder now.