Thursday, June 9, 2011

Invaders from Mars

Invaders from Mars is a very good, though perhaps not great, Big Finish Eighth Doctor audio drama. It features what is rapidly becoming one of my favorite Doctor/companion teams, the Eighth Doctor and Charley, and is set around one of my pet interests (and part of my PhD focus!), Orson Welles’ Halloween 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. It features Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson (Hynes), who would eventually have guest roles in the TV show, in the only Doctor Who that was available to them in 2002, and prove able to hold their own on radio. Interestingly, the aliens in what would otherwise be a pure historical don’t come in until the third act; their presence is amusing and wonderfully ironic given the circumstances, but the plot would have been just as full without them, which you can’t often say.

The only criticism I have of Invaders from Mars, which is by seasoned professional Mark Gatiss, is that it’s got too many characters for audio. Even without the actors doubling, which is by necessity because of the way audio works, it’s very confusing trying to tell all the American characters apart. Listening to it a second time, I realized how much I had missed the first go. Since the mob world is a bit of a pastiche, the actors’ American gangster accents just about cut the mustard; it wouldn’t be genre, too, without various Russians and Nazis running around (and a cutthroat fey businessman—certainly this has Gatiss written all over it!). As the Doctor says, “. . . that’s the trouble with cliché.” Perhaps most ambitiously, War of the Worlds is written very skilfully into the narrative, and in the end the 23-year-old Orson Welles and his colleague John Houseman end up helping the Doctor (Welles’ biggest fan!) and Charley. (Though I wonder if the real Orson Welles would have been willing to play second fiddle even to someone with the charisma of the Doctor!)

On two very minor points I can niggle , but overall, Welles, Houseman, and the entire production are lovingly and accurately represented. I loved all the references that only Welles aficionados would recognize (the Doctor mentioning The Magnificent Ambersons, assigning the breaking-news format to Houseman, the theory that everyone was listening to CBS because they were bored with the other network’s dummy show, and CBS threatening to pull the plug if the Mercury Theater—which is today see as the cream of the crop of US Golden Age radio drama which swims with soaps and thrillers like The Shadow—doesn’t give the public what they want). The actors playing Welles and Houseman are very good at recreating the voices (in all the roles they play as Welles and Houseman), and Gatiss’ use of verbatim lines from War of the Worlds is in particular very effective (as is the constant grounding on Halloween). Gatiss is very good at capturing the ambivalence that must have been present at the time: some people taking the story at face value, others realizing it was just a play.

The audio is ingeniously plotted (which is the hallmark of Gatiss’ fiction in novel form, if not his Doctor Who TV episodes). Aurally the aliens (who would be at home with Captain Jack’s style of conning) sound a lot like those in Spectre of Lanyon Moor, which I must say detracts from my enjoyment of their hilarious feuding. The Doctor himself has some wonderful lines, and I absolutely loved when he “played gumshoe.” His role here, however, is mostly referee. Charley, in true companion style, does a lot of running around, but shows the courage and compassion (as well as some smart-alec remarks) integral to her character.

I don’t know, I think I might even listen to it a third time!

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