Sunday, November 20, 2011

The New Eighth Doctor Adventures 1 & 2

The New Eighth Doctor Adventures – series 1 & 2

For some of you, this will make you completely glaze over. Some of you will be wondering what the heck took me so long. For another paper I’m working on (as well as for my own enjoyment) I’ve been listening to the Eighth Doctor plays which Big Finish produced starting in 2007, which shortened the format, updated it a bit to the style of the new TV series, and teamed up the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) with a new companion, Lucie Miller (Sheridan Smith), influenced both by the style of the Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler (with some important parallels with her direct contemporary Donna Noble, but we’ll get to that). I had caught the first series on BBC Radio 7 (as it then was) as well as parts of series 3 but missed crucial pieces in between. Series 1 and 2 I can definitely say are some of the best Doctor Who on audio I’ve heard.

I like Lucie Miller, which is kind of strange considering that though I appreciate Donna, she’s not one of my favorite companions. They are similar in many ways, though Lucie is younger and instead of being annoying-London, she’s annoying-Blackpool. She’s very “girl-next-door” in the sense that fashion, pop culture, TV soaps, and the like interest her; she has a gritty youth that is in part influenced by Ace, in part by Rose. She isn’t quite a chav, but she’s teetering on the edge. This makes quite an interesting contrast to the Eighth Doctor. I don’t pick favorites but if I did, the Eighth Doctor would be high on my list; Lucie is his complete opposite in many ways. Donna and Ten were like a screwball comedy duo, but in many ways they had the same kind of superficial energy. Eight and Charley were much more of a pair of soothing jewel-tones; Lucie is bubblegum pink to the Doctor’s royal purple. It’s a relationship that defies categorization more than most; they’re “mates” to the best definition of that word, but occasionally, and surprisingly, there is flirtation. I still think I like Charley better, but Lucie could be considered the direct inheritor of Ace’s role: her youth and capacity for growth both helped and exploited by the Doctor, her worldview expanded by him (though that’s noticeably true for Ace, Rose, and Donna).

Series 1 benefits from some cracking scripts. Though Lucie was being developed concurrently to Donna, her appearance in the TARDIS is eerily reminiscent of Donna’s, and Lucie reacts in a similar fashion. The vagueness of this entrance, in which Lucie seems very blithe about being put there by the Time Lords for a “witness protection program,” slightly dogs the credibility of the first story, but not for long (and besides, it’s wonderfully revisted in the final story). As can be imagined, she and the Doctor do not react well to each other, which is mostly the Doctor’s fault. He’s extremely grumpy (think of Four reacting to Romana being forced upon him as an assistant) and looks down upon her snidely and snobbishly. Unfortunately, Lucie has joined the TARDIS crew in Blood of the Daleks (absurd title, though I see the significance) in a harrowing moment as they have landed on a barren wasteland of a planet. Humanity has mostly failed in this environment, and some very interesting characters are unearthed among the wreckage. Kenneth Cranham, who was Spirodonov in Life and Fate, memorably plays Tom, who wears tin foil on his head. It takes Lucie awhile to both trust the Doctor and adjust to his compassionate and unrelenting modus operandi. But at heart, as every good companion is, she is empathetic, quick-thinking, and she doesn’t just lie down and die. Like Donna, she’s a bit of a Super-Temp as well. By the end of Blood of the Daleks, Lucie and the Doctor have grudgingly admitted they like each other’s company.

Horror of Glam Rock was, to my surprise, the weakest point of series 1. I generally highly regard Paul Magrs’ entries in Doctor Who audio, but this just seemed light on story. Once again, Lucie’s attitudes toward time travel basics are a bit flippant—she isn’t in the least weirded out by seeing her Auntie Pat in the 1970s, long before Lucie was ever born—the timeline (or potential damage) never seems to enter her mind. Despite the great title, there is very little “glam” about this story, and while it does have atmosphere (a motorway diner in a blizzard in the north), the musicality wasn’t really there. The monsters are difficult to visualize, the Tomorrow Twins are difficult to take seriously, and though Bernard Cribbins makes a U turn playing greedy and self-centered producer Arnold Korns, there isn’t much meat to that role either. Much was made of getting the late Stephen Gately to play Tommy Tomorrow, but the single isn’t great nor, it must be said, was his acting.

I wondered if Immortal Beloved would suffer from a second hearing, but I think I can still appreciate its clever manipulation of the audio soundscape. There are some good guest actors in this, and in tone it is somewhat similar to The Holy Terror, though not quite as cynically dark as that. I don’t want to spoil the crux, but Jonathan Clements always offers a script quite different in flavor to all those around him. Lucie’s behavior in some ways mirrors that of Donna in “Fires of Pompeii.”

Phobos, too, I was worried would grow stale upon a second listen, but to be quite honest I couldn’t remember the final twist so it was almost as good upon the second hearing. The setting is not one I would have expected to like—a deserted snow and ice planet where adrenaline junkies go to get their kicks—but Eddie Robson ended up being the surprise hero of series 1, both of his scripts I thought were great in unexpected ways. As the title suggests, the climax has to do with fighting fear, and it’s perhaps a path that has been retreated too many times in Doctor Who. Nevertheless, the take is fresh and inspires some soul-searching in both the Doctor and Lucie (à la the Time Lord Victorious). This is part of their maturing relationship which is handled very well and on a much more consistent basis than was EVER done on TV. And to all you naysayers who might think a planet like this would suffer on radio, it does exactly the opposite. Some good performances from Nerys Hughes and Timothy West, as well.

No More Lies does a complete 180-degree turn in tone and setting, taking the unusual tack of beginning toward the end of what we assume has been an exciting adventure for Lucie and the Doctor. While I think the story could do with some judicious cutting, on the whole, it was quite as intriguing the second time, despite what would seem a very simple plot (which I won’t spoil you with). Suffice it to say, the atmosphere—like a BBC costume drama done on radio, quite a feat!—and the dialogue with the garden party characters and the mad scientist holds interest.

Human Resources part 1 would definitely qualify as the best story of the series; I’m not so sure if I like how part 2 is wrapped up. Nevertheless, this is such an incredible idea (and so satirical in the current working, 9-5 world) that I will encourage you to listen to it, rather than me blathering on about it. Donna wondering why she was special, the Eleventh Doctor wondering why Amy Pond kept cropping up—it’s all peanuts compared to the way Lucie has been wrapped up in the conflict from the beginning of Blood of the Daleks. Yes, the role of the pesky Headhunter is finally revealed; there are some great comedy moments in this serial, and in some ways the social commentary reminds me of “The Beast Below.” The Doctor and Lucie both get to shine, with Lucie seeming to take the most risks. And things are set up for a second series, in a non-obnoxious way.

Series 2 is, if possible, even stronger than series 1. Dead London by Pat Mills was a stunning debut. Not only was it a historical piece, it was a multiple historical piece. Again, I can’t give too much away, but it works wonderfully and knowingly with the audio medium. I always reserve the highest praise for writers who use this medium creatively, and Mills has done it. A wonderfully atmospheric and genuinely creepy story with hints of “The Celestial Toymaker,” and a quasi-companion in the person of a tightrope walker (no, really). Once again, some superb guest actors and great sound effects. Good slice of London history, as well!

Max Warp is another story I did not expect to like. Jonathan Morris does some of his best work to date with a surprisingly simple, yet effective, murder mystery set at a Top Gear-esque rally, only with spaceships. The Doctor indulges in surprising spaceship lust (“Boys and their toys,” grumbles Lucie), and there are wonderful stabs at just about every relevant pop culture reference you can imagine. James Fleet turns in a great performance, and once again the sound effects help tell the story. I enjoyed the detective work more than I did in “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” and Lucie has a go at being the token female Max Warp host. And, not to spoil it too much, but there’s a Ninth-Doctor-punching-fist-in-the-air moment at the end.

Brave New Town feels quite traditionally Doctor Who, though told in a strange and creepy way. Grand Theft Cosmos is a delightful ride, incorporating Sweden (where we’ve never been to in Doctor Who, as far as I’m aware), steam trains, art collectors, aliens in the fourth dimension, and the return of a character from the first series. There are also some hilarious moments as Lucie helps stage a heist, using her best “posh” voice “for an hour!” In fact, in this story, Lucie really comes into her own and can’t really be called “companion”—she is the Doctor’s equal in almost every matter. It’s refreshing and seems to bring out the best in her. A jolly good show.

The Zygon Who Fell to Earth makes up for the lackluster Horror of Glam Rock, which follows the story of Auntie Pat into the 1980s. As Zygons are in the title, it won’t do much damage for you to know that they are involved, and the Doctor gets a surprising lesson in tolerance. The story has some very funny moments, some wonderfully atmospheric moments which Zygon fans will delight in as they imagine the Skaresen and the Zygon underground lairs (as some of my favorite monsters, I certainly took delight in it!). There are also some extremely poignant moments, with a surprising conclusion.

Sisters of the Flame sees the return of the Sisterhood of the Flame, a somewhat wishy-washy cult from the planet of Morbius, with the obvious caveat that Morbius will appear too (see the next story). This story benefits from the introduction of a great character, Rosto the centipede-like alien who is also a dedicated law enforcement officer, who is played with considerable flair by Alexander Siddig, he of Deep Space 9 fame (and also the Daroga in the Big Finish Phantom of the Opera). Lucie, separated from the Doctor, imprisoned, and worried that she will never see him again, reacts with xenophobia to Rosto at first, but eventually they make up a great team.

I personally think Morbius (and “Morbius”) is overrated, so although the two stories inspired the right degree of terror in me, as the story and actors worked their darndest to make Morbius’ resurrection about the worst possible event, looking back on it, I’m not sure how well it would bear repeated scrutiny. Nevertheless, Lucie meets her old friend the Time Lord Straxus once again, although in what could be described as trying circumstances. Pictures are beautifully if abstractly painted, and what’s really impressive is Lucie’s reaction at the climax to this serial which is a literal cliffhanger. Lucie’s loss can really be felt and understood, and understanding her journey from her first moments in the TARDIS in Blood of the Daleks makes that all the more satisfying.

I seem to recall that series 3 fared rather less consistently, but I hope to soon give you a full review.