Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Angel of Scutari written by Paul Sutton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: October 1854: As the British Army charges into catastrophe in the Crimea, the Minister for War sends Miss Florence Nightingale to take charge of the field hospital at Scutari. But there's already an angel of mercy working with the sounded at Scutari. A first-rate fellow who's turned up out of the blue. Goes by the name of Schofield; Thomas Hector Schofield... With the Doctor and Ace lost in the siege of Sebastopol, Hex has rediscovered his calling. But there's cannon to the left of him, cannon to the right of him - and a deranged spy catcher-in-chief on his case

The Real McCoy: This must be a record even for the Doctor who steps from the TARDIS and is greeted immediately by cannon fire! As usual with the historicals the danger of the situation seems to be far more real and the Doctor’s reaction to Ace’s head wound is desperate and almost hysterical and reveals his feelings for her more clearly than we have seen in an age. ‘Never mind the blue box!’ he screams when the choice comes between the TARDIS and Ace. I was astonished at Sylvester McCoy’s angry, growling performance as he condemned the war since this is exactly the sort of material that he usually sinks but instead it is extremely powerful. His dine with Tsars and danced with Tsarinas, crossed wits with Emperors and crossed swords with Kings! His conversation with the Tsar is unexpectedly powerful, he praises him for running the Empire so remarkably but tells him he is an outwardly unremarkable man. He refuses to broken free of prison until there has been official confirmation that he is a traitor to the crown – he likes to make sure all of the loose ends are tied up nicely in the continuity of the timeline. I think it’s a moment of genius that Paul Sutton allows the Doctor a finishing flourish of clever technobabble as though he has solved everything before the rug is well and truly pulled from beneath him and he comes face to face with the potentially tragic consequences of humans travelling with him. Talk about wiping the smile off his face.

Oh Wicked: Ace is back to playing the seasoned time traveller and having to cope with Hex’s inexperience, especially as he wants to introduce anachronistic items to history in order to aid the sick. When Ace smacks out a reporter and rescues the Doctor she hurts her hand and he reminds her smugly that violence always comes with a cost. Hex considers the Doctor and Ace a package deal, you don’t get one without the other and half the time you would think they were related. She is clever enough to use her feminine wiles to promise a kiss and deliver a punch and escape.

Sexy Scouse:At the moment I’m the only person here who can stop these animals dying in their own filth!’ The Angel of Scutari is the first of three back to back stories that handle Hex with real sensitivity and respect and prove that he was always a terrific addition to the series. Of all the companions Nick Briggs decided to keep on (because there was something of a culling when he took over) it was Charley and Hex who were saved and rather than simply continue to let them tag along with the Doctor both characters went on incredible arcs redefining their potential in the series. It is nice to see some follow up to the events in Enemy of the Daleks where Hex felt useless in the face of the Daleks homicidal fury, the Doctor has brought him somewhere where he can do some good. Hex’s reaction to primitive medicine is a real eye opener, he cannot believe they are cleaning wounds with filthy water and infecting wounds. He begins cleaning the ward and ropes in Ace as an extra pair of hands, he can’t stand by and watch people suffering even if it means stealing some supplies from the TARDIS to save a few lives. When the Doctor tells him they are going to head back in time a month to do some digging Hex opts to stay and tend for the sick…plus he wants to meet Florence Nightingale. Turns out they were being taught about Miss Nightingale the week the career officer came around and it was the first thing that came into his head. Since it lead to such a rewarding career choice he wants to meet and thank her. Being a nurse is who he is and what he’s got and he wants to help out in the only way he can – the Doctor understands that and gives him his blessing. He finds it incredibly frustrating that things that he takes for granted in his time (like cleaning up after yourself to prevent the spread of germs) aren’t adhered to in the past and he has to keep reminding people. Hex is described as the angel of Scutari who fell from the sky to minister to the sick and it is for that reason that Florence believes him even when he is a hunted fugitive. At one point he thought he wanted to get a lot closer to Ace but he isn’t so sure anymore (good lad). He has always thought of travelling with the Doctor as a temporary thing but it isn’t the same with Ace. He talks as though he will never see them again but he hopes they are still together before Florence tells him that the Doctor is dead and it completely floors him. He feels as though he belongs somewhere but he isn’t sure where that is. This is really impressive development for Hex and these question will soon be returning to haunt him. When he is shot he calls out Ace’s name and as his friends carry him away bleeding you wonder if he is going to survive this one.

Standout Performance: Aside from purely aesthetic reasons I really enjoy there being male companions in the TARDIS. Ian, Steven, Ben, Jamie, the Brigadier, Harry, Adric, Turlough and Jack all brought very unique drama to the series and the relationship with their respective Doctor’s was very different than that of the female companions. Hex is a particularly strong example of what a male companion can bring to the TARDIS dynamic and since Ace takes care of the machismo and violence it is doubly refreshing to see that the male companion isn’t a macho stereotype but a sensitive, resourceful young man. Philip Olivier wouldn’t have been my first choice to play Hex because I only associated him with soap operas but I would have been totally wrong and kudos to Gary Russell for spotting such a talent. Olivier is astonishing in the role, I can only think of one occasion where he gave a below par performance (in The Dark Husband and that is because the script mis-characterises Hex so badly he had no choice but to play the part up) but in his run of stories he is very often the most impressive performer – including the incredible guest casts. He brings a vulnerability and gentleness to the role that never would have expected and in scripts like Scutari he really gets to show Hex’s passion for nursing the sick. This really is a standout turn for a character that has really surprised me and this is only the beginning. With Project Destiny and A Death in the Family still to come I can’t wait to see what depths Olivier brings to those stories. Olivier alone kicked the seventh Doctor adventures into line and made them worth listening to and now this run of stories has finally been of the quality worthy of him.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I can live without love. I cannot live without my work’ – Florence Nightingale leaps from the page with passion and integrity.
‘So much for the independence of the press!’
‘All our heroes are dead…’
‘The way I see it Thomas Schofield was an angel already.’

Great Ideas: ‘At thirty-five minutes past eleven not a British soldier accept the dead and dying was left in front of these bloody Muscovite guns’ – starting with a quote from the Charge of the Light Brigade, The Angel of Scutari gets off on exactly the right foot for a gripping historical. You realise with some horror that hex has disobeyed the Doctor and taken anachronistic medical equipment from the TARDIS and nothing good can come of that. I love the way that the story double backs on itself so we experience the TARDIS falling into the sea and then head back to the point before the Doctor, Ace and Hex parted company. Then we experience their farewells and as soon as they have gone the TARDIS turns up again from Hex’s point of view, dragged from the sea and being chopped into firewood. Whilst these two timelines link up we are treated to the more dramatic shock of the TARDIS turning out to be just a shell and an axe can take a chunk out of it. Its very clever how Hex is shot at the end of episode three and the final episode is spent with the Doctor and Ace catching up with him at the climax.

Audio Landscape: Horses whinnying, galloping, a trumpet sounding, people screaming, flames rising, church bells, ticking clock, cannon fire, a mast snapping and falling, rubble falling, water running down a drain, the TARDIS being chopped into firewood, horse and carriage, guns exploding, bringing down a horse, crackling fire, the Doctor running between the trees as the soldiers blast at him, clashing steel.

Standout Scene: Hex tells Florence Nightingale that she is pretty hot meaning it as a compliment but she takes it as a blasphemy.

Notes: The TARDUIS has been growing a new shell in the vortex and is currently white – this may come in very important at a later date.

Result: Incredible performances and a masterful handling Hex see Paul Sutton return to form in superb style. His script for The Angel of Scutari is bold, packed with detail and not for those who are looking for a jolly old romp because it can be talky at times. But the important thing is that the dialogue means something, studying the war in some depth and getting under the skin of some awesome historical figures. It’s a story that expects an intelligent audience, needs you to keep up with its developments and cope with a non linear narrative. If that describes you then you will be rewarded with a driven narrative and some compelling performances, particularly by Hugh Bonneville, Jeany Spark and a star turn by Philip Olivier. Its engaging stuff for sure and if falls short of the last two tales that is only because they were of such high quality but ending on such a dramatic high it leaves you wanting more adventures with the 7th Doctor, Ace and Hex. I cannot remember that ever happening before so bravo to Matthew Sweet, David Bishop and Paul Sutton for this incredible trilogy: 8/10

No comments: