Friday, February 17, 2012

Series 4 Odds and Ends

I was on a collision course to listen to the New Eighth Doctor Adventures as rapidly as possible so I could complete my paper about them. Paper done, I neglected Series 4, which kind of wasn’t a good idea as bits and pieces of Resurrection of Mars would have been good for the paper. However, there’s a big gap at the middle and the end of what I have.

An Earthly Child came highly recommended to me, and while I enjoyed it, especially for the performances, I can’t say I see what all the fuss is about. It is a lovely, unusual story of the Doctor having to go back and deal with the consequences of his actions—though, in fact, the end of the story sees him doing just the opposite, which makes him look extremely immature next to his granddaughter, Susan Campbell, who has more sense of responsibility in her little finger than the Doctor has in his (then) eight reincarnations! Carole Ann Ford as Susan was wonderfully heroic and really made the play worth listening to, being brave in an Earth 30 years on from “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” and trying to rebuild its society. Her son, the Doctor’s grandson, captured the ennui and shrug-your-shoulders attitude of the younger generation (all younger generations, I’m sure, as Alex is way beyond Generation X!). The casting seems brilliant—Jake McGann, Paul McGann’s son, who already had a small role in Immortal Beloved—yet young McGann is not yet the greatest of actors. On the other hand, hearing Carole Ann Ford call Paul McGann “Grandfather!” was fabulous!

I came to Death in Blackpool in an extremely roundabout way and as such probably didn’t do it justice. Despite the grim ending, it would have been highly preferable to listen to this story at Christmas. Did I say before that Lucie is on the edge of being a chav? Well, in Death in Blackpool, she proves that she is, in fact, a great honking chav. Her description on an ideal Christmas spent with Auntie Pat and the family in Blackpool is NOT mine (and reeks of chav-ness!), but she has so much joy invested in it I can almost get in the festive mood with her. The pigeons come home from The Zygon Who Fell to Earth to roost at Bramlington Service Station. There are some meaty characters (Santa being recruited at the end by the Polish (?) nurse was probably the best scene) but it’s Auntie Pat’s show. Unfortunately, I missed Track 9 and so somehow jumped from crescendo to denouement with no climax. Therefore, Lucie’s decision seems completely an overreaction and without sufficient motivation. Also, I totally missed where the villain was bested.

To me, Death in Blackpool is an enjoyable seasonal oddity for the fact that if you are British, you will nod in nostalgia at at least some of the references (Santa yelling “It’s Christmas!!!” over and over as well as the chorus of “While shepherds washed their socks by night” got stuck in my head in a most annoying fashion). If you are American, you will find yourself delightfully confronted with a slice of authentic British Christmas at its most visceral. There are some shocking moments to Death in Blackpool, and it really benefits from being “Christmas special” length.

I was very irritated at first with Situation Vacant. The music is very “Partners in Crime” and the styling is a bit similar, at least at first—it’s all meant to be a riff on The Apprentice and shows of its ilk, which I’m not really a fan of. The Doctor’s candidates for his companion du jour are all annoying people, and for about twenty minutes you wish they’d just bugger off and die. However, the plot begins to thicken in a most clever way, and by the end of it, I was reminded quite ruefully of Max Warp, which also was based on a British TV show phenomenon. There are numerous red herrings, among them Rachel the duty manager at the hotel where the “exercises” have been arranged (she would make perfect companion material, and the Doctor even says so). NONE of the candidates are what they seem (I’d love to spill the beans but don’t want to spoil you!), and it’s wonderfully teased out in good, old-fashioned storytelling. There are huge questions still left unanswered by the end, but quite coincidentally, the Doctor has picked up a new companion, Tamsin Drew (who I keep getting confused with Tamara Drew). Who’s really cracking the corporate whip, I wonder?

Then, due to reasons mentioned above, we scuttle over to Deimos and its sequel, The Resurrection of Mars. I really liked Phobos from the first series of the plays, and when I realized (er . . . almost at once) that Deimos was going to involve Ice Warriors[1], I was very pleased. I don’t really have a favorite recurring Doctor Who monster (Raston Warrior Robot, but they’re not exactly common, and while I like the chilling Weeping Angels, they really illustrate the concept of diminishing returns), but I do like a good Ice Warrior story. I like the design, I like the voice, and I like the fact they’re a mite unpredictable. On Deimos, they wake up a bit too early, making it your basic base-in-siege story. Or is it? We’ve taken pains to get to know the tourists on the base, including couple Harold and Margaret (reminded me of a common Eric Saward ploy), the security guard Gregson Grenville, and extremely bitchy Temperance Finch (Tracy-Ann Oberman, playing the same character she played in “Doomsday”), and leading Ice Warrior historian Professor Boston Schooner[2]. The Doctor wouldn’t just let them die . . . would he? SPOILERS from this point on, it’s almost impossible to talk about the next play without SPOILERS.

Tamsin’s faith in the Doctor erodes in Resurrection of Mars, and with good reason. She sees him sacrifice Grenville for the greater good, then seemingly on a whim he goes into deadlock with the Ice Warriors to save Lucie. Lucie?! Yes, she’s turned up on Deimos, and the first section of Resurrection of Mars goes to some lengths to show us how. I missed Book of Kells, unfortunately, but we learn that Lucie was there, recruited by the Meddling Monk (who was, indeed, the one behind the ad that brought the Doctor and Tamsin, however coincidentally, together). When they agreed to disagree, the Monk dumped Lucie on Deimos. It’s a great cliffhanger for the end of Deimos and makes a great set-up for Resurrection of Mars. I was quite impressed with this play, which posits all the messy moral questions that dog the modern Doctor, regarding “the web of time”/fixed points in time vs justifying attempts to save billions by letting millions die. It doesn’t go for easy answers, and in that sense the Meddling Monk—who at first, though I love “The Time Meddler,” I thought was rather a random and fannish nemesis for the Eighth Doctor—is the perfect one to pose the questions. The way he presents the Doctor to Tamsin causes her to switch her allegiances. It may sound corny, but the way it plays out really makes sense. To me, it raises all the issues of “Waters of Mars” and is many times better than that story. There are some great scenes between Lucie and Tamsin (Lucie not answering the question, “You really love him, don’t you?”) and there is no cuddly reunion for the Doctor and Lucie. /SPOILERS

There is, however, a brief stop-off in the form of Relative Dimensions, the Christmas 2010 release. I’m not gonna lie: I loved this play. Death in Blackpool had the edge in chav-nostalgia and holiday grit; Relative Dimensions is SO SWEET. I wanted to cry sentimentally through most of it (another play I would recommend listening to in December, not February!). On the face of it, it sounds saccharine and a bit strange: the Doctor wants to make up to Lucie the fact he ruined her last Christmas. As she’s so invested in Christmas[3] (and we suspect an ulterior motive from the Doctor), he wants to give her a TARDIS Christmas. He’s also invited his granddaughter Susan and her son Alex, whom we heard back in An Earthly Child. Jake McGann had much improved by this point, in my opinion, and the play’s simple (yet timey-wimey) problem[4] was the perfect backdrop for festive, awkward, family fun. This one was for the fans. Susan rightly berated her grandfather for always running away from his responsibilities, reminding him of his immaturity way back on Skaro that first time. There are some wonderful touches (references to Quinnis; all the companions’ bedrooms lined up next to each other in the corridor), and one just can’t stay angry at the Doctor. With Lucie doing the domestics, and the Doctor going off on his own, lonely way, it really goes straight to the heart.

And to complete this run of superb stories (as I’m missing the last three), The Four Doctors is one of the best multi-Doctor stories I know of. It’s beautifully plotted-out timey-wimeyness and could easily be called Lightning as that its thematic link. It brings forth an interesting new race of bionic beings called the Jariden; the commanding and memorable Colonel Ulrik is played with great panache by David Bamber[5]. Each of the Doctors has an important part to play. Like Sirens in Time, each has his own section of the narrative (though in an impressive back-and-forth, the Fifth and Eighth Doctors share a scene without actually seeing each other) and they briefly come together in one scene at the end. Now, I do not exaggerate when I say this is also one of the best Dalek stories with which I am familiar. Here, they maintain menace without emotion and do not stray off into silly plots. They are deadly and efficient and without mercy. Dalek fans will have the added bonus of the Dalek Prime and Special Weapons Dalek (in their minds’ eye at least).

Partially taking place on the Vault of Stellar Curios, partially in Earth’s past, and partially at the Jariden Battle of Bajorica, the Sixth Doctor gets to steal the show with a stunning monologue that will remind some listeners of Anghelides’ novels. The Seventh Doctor has a wonderful meeting with Victorian scientist Michael Faraday, which is basically an accurate portrayal as far as I’m aware (the Seventh Doctor getting stuck in the dumb waiter as Daleks fly around and set things on fire in the basement of the Royal Institute is a memorable image!) but WHAT IS GOING ON WITH THE HARPSICHORD MUSIC?!?! I found that really irritating and practically the only problematic point with the whole play.

That’s where it ends for me, I’m afraid. May I just say on record how much I love the Eighth Doctor?

[1] Nick Briggs is playing the Ice Warriors in this one, and . . . it just doesn’t cut the mustard for me.

[2] Now THAT’s a name! Take that, Minuet in Hell!

[3] The Englishness of this celebration is not in dispute, sprouts and all. However, why the Doctor should care about Christmas is only partially addressed. True, he describes taking Leonardo DaVinci to the first Christmas in Bethlehem, but wisely leaves an element of mystery, and faith, in it.

[4] Uncannily similar in some elements to “A Christmas Carol.”

[5] Who I will always remember as Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice.

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