Monday, 24 October 2011

The Elite written by Barbara Clegg and John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

BIG SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED...

What’s it about: The Doctor offers Tegan and Nyssa a trip to the paradise world of Florana, but instead the TARDIS takes them to a domed city on a planet scarred by warfare. A world where everyone is young, and fighting for the glory of the Elite... Hidden away in The Cathedral of Power, the High Priest is watching. It knows the Doctor, and his arrival changes everything…

An English Gentleman: Turns out the Doctor let them stay in Amsterdam for a few days to explore because there were still a few beds spare at the hostel (perhaps he was hoping Tegan would change her mind or that he would be able to dissuade her giving his look of utter pleasure at the end of The Arc of Infinity!). Even Nyssa picks up on this and asks him outright if he is glad that Tegan is back and he just sighs and says it has been lovely and peaceful without her! Even Nyssa says ‘we’re doomed, aren’t we?’ I love the idea of the fifth Doctor ganging around these swotty kids and corrupting them with naughty indulgences like chocolate, it is exactly the sort of anarchic behaviour that we never saw him get up to on screen that would have made him feel less bland and more cheeky. The Doctor wonders if he should write a thesis on Mind Probes because he does see an awful lot of them. He’s a lot witter than usual in the hands of John Dorney (‘Doctor I have not completed your interrogation!’ ‘Haven’t you? That’s a shame. I have!’). The Doctor has been fighting intolerance and xenophobia for so many years and to be confronted with it here in its purest form he has to admit that all he sees in this city is sickness and he is going to stop it. When he realises that the High Priest is a Dalek he admits he should have recognised their philosophy. Stemp has disarmed infants with more difficulty than the Doctor, which goes to show how inept he is at handling a gun. Sometimes the Doctor’s softly softly approach yields results but as Ella proves sometimes you just cannot ask somebody nicely to get the answers you seek. Mind you at times it feels as though he has swap one pessimistic antagonist for another!

Alien Orphan: The Doctor is concerned of the effect that chocolate might have on Trakenite biology – some characters just don’t get to have any fun! She fears he is pocketing it for himself for later. Considering the lush foliage and rich architecture of Traken, Nyssa finds the domed city austere and soulless. A place to exist, not to live. Poor Nyssa is sidelined as was the case during her television tenure, brainwashed and betraying the Doctor.

Mouth of Legs: Janet Fielding has been quite a revelation on audio for me. On screen I have always considered her one of the weakest actresses to have ever played a companion simply because there was a sense that she simply read the script (it feels like it is under duress at times for all the fun it seems she s having) and imbued Tegan with all the charm of a Tory MP with a stinking attitude problem. The best actresses would take the material they have and spruce it up with their own personality and quirks and make it into something special – Elisabeth Sladen and Lalla Ward are great examples but there are many more. During her three year stint on the show it Tegan feels robotic, unrealistic and depressing to be around and tellingly Fielding gives her best performances when she is out of character (Kinds, Snakedance). However I feel that coming back to Doctor Who after so long (and by her own choice) has mellowed Janet towards the programme somewhat and she is happy now to give the character some humour and personality and Big Finish seem far more determined to make her character likable whilst retaining that spiky edge than Eric Saward ever did. In the hands of somebody like John Dorney who can pulls sparkling lines out of thin air she works a treat and it might come as no surprise that the Sparkling Dialogue section is packed full of great Tegan moments in this story.

Tegan has been away for a few months but for the Doctor and Nyssa it has been considerably longer (including their entire wealth of Big Finish stories). She is shriller than ever and appalled that her stuff seems to have vanished (actually it is in storage). Oh how the Doctor has missed Tegan’s cheery optimism, I really enjoyed that he is happy to gripe at her as much as she gripes at him. Its about time he even the stakes a bit. Tegan can be a force of nature but describing her as pond life and an obstreperous simpleton with mental acuity that would embarrass a louse is a bit too much even for me! I love the fact that she makes all the noises from hell when she is locked up and is threatened with death not by the guard but by her fellow cellmate if she doesn’t shut up. Rather than suggesting that they try and make peace Tegan actually encourages further attacks on a larger scale! Has she turned into Leela now? She proves to be quite an effective terrorist telling her gang of rebels to act calmly pretend that nothing is wrong so they invisibly make it to their target. She soon realises she is playing with fire because she wanted this to be a bloodless revolution with no casualties.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Oh no no no! I know how this story ends! The Doctor tells us to stay put, we wander off, we get captured, lots of people are shot and it all ends badly!’
‘You can’t scare an Australian with imprisonment – it’s in our blood!’
‘We are making…’ ‘…a Master Race!’
‘It would be a war on God!’
‘Helping a Dalek – has it come to this?’
‘Pity me…’
‘Let me guess you’re going to be quite cross with me for a while. Funnily enough I don’t find that a terribly frightening prospect. Pretty much business as usual!’
‘I’ve tried to kill him three times and only one of those was when I was possessed!’

Great Ideas: The first episode was an absolute joy because it indulges itself completely in the simpler adventure storytelling of classic Who of the eighties that made it feel totally genuine. I’m not suggesting that the story is unintelligent or not trying hard enough because nothing could be further from the truth – it is a refreshingly unpretentious piece that has the TARDIS land on an exciting new planet with secrets, introduces some appealing concepts (children playing war games to focus their minds) and has the crew separate and accused of all and sundry. Unlike the linked stories of the current series of the show this really feels like a fresh standalone adventure, a glorious trip to another world for the Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa and I cannot tell you how uplifting that is. Perhaps the new series could do with a bit of the classic series approach but in the mean time it is making the Big Finish stories all the more engaging. The weakest intellects are disposed of because they cannot have these children weakening the state. The war games are actually live footage, bombing raids on small pockets of resistance with the occasional attack on a larger target – a war controlled by a computer. Eleven years ago this was just a regular city with regular people doing regular things but then the High Priest came, the Emissary of the Gods. He told them that they were the Chosen Ones, the Elite, born to rule. The other cities wanted to know why they weren’t chosen, why this city had to rule and the High Priest said that everybody who resisted were blasphemers and should be put to the sword. The other cities fought hard and still do attempting to outsmart their superior array of weaponry. The ignorant and strong are sent to the factories and they refuse to subsidise those who hold back advancements so the elderly and infirmed are refined through eugenics to create superior beings. The Dalek’s casing was damaged in the crash and he got the primitives to create a substitute casing but it proved unsuitable. Ten years ago his ship was hit in battle and lost control and the time core ruptured. It crashed, the ship damaged beyond repair and not being a civilised planet they made the natural assumption that it was a God falling from heaven. It wanted to develop their mental acuity until they could create another time ship but now the Doctor’s arrival changes things and there is no need to wait. Thane is such a deliciously insane madman bringing in the Daleks like a religious army you cannot help but wish him a very painful death. The final awesome twist comes when we realise we have been on Florana all along (I wondered why the planet remained unnamed) and the roses that they plant for the dead now grow into the fields of the future.

Audio Landscape: Obliteration, something as simple as the very basic console room noise can bring back 80s Who in an instant, the wibbly effect of being caught in the wave of another time ship, I never fail to admire the amount of glorious computer voices Big Finish have offered up – their modulator works overtime to creature some memorable mechanical tones, a transport slowly and armed guards jumping out and cocking their guns, alarm, children tapping away on computers, scribbles on paper, breaking up chocolate, the voice for the High Priest was mischievous and child like but its source was a little obvious (the monotone ranting), a train chugging along, coughing, squeaking wheels on the tracks, firing a laser, all out war breaks out with plenty of gunfire and explosions.

Musical Cues: One of my biggest complaints about the McCoy Lost Stories (a Big Finish black spot I am still trying to force myself to forget!) was that the music lacked any kind of authenticity with regards to the era it was trying to represent. That is not a problem with The Elite which features a very memorable synthesiser score that could have composed by Paddy Russell himself featuring all the wall to wall presence the music had in the early eighties and moments of wonderfully melodramatic drama. Its astonishing how something like the musical score can drag you kicking and screaming back to the era they are trying to evoke but this is absolutely on the nail. There was the odd sting that felt as if it had jumped directly from The Kings’ Demons and some whistles that reminded me of Castrovalva that made me grin from ear to ear! Hurrah to Fool Circle Productions.

Isn’t it Odd: Its not like I want to do Mark Strickson out of a job or anything because Turlough is one of my favourite 80s companions but it is remarkable how much more manageable the regulars are when you take just one out of the mix and have three of them travelling together. It’s kind of unavoidable these days because there is such a wealth of material but there were kisses to lots of other Doctor Who stories (but since this material was presented in such a vibrant way it doesn’t really matter). There is the focus on religion being used for dark purposes (Faith Stealer), an evil intelligence operating things behind the scenes (akin to Timelash), brainy children being slaved to computers (School Reunion), a moralistic argument for the fifth Doctor (very reminiscent of his row with Striker in Enlightenment) and an excitable Dalek mutant out of casing and held in reverence (Dalek & The Stolen Earth). Plus there were echoes of Blakes’ 7 with the guards storming the train and taking Tegan prisoner. There was one moment when the Doctor suggests that if anything happens to Tegan and Nyssa he will make them pay that simply fails to make an impact coming from this amiable fellow (had it been the sixth Doctor I might have sat up and paid attention!). Oddly the second the Dalek mutant is revealed as such it no longer talks like a boy with a bad smokers cough reading pornography but a normal ranting Dalek and that is a shame because the former was far more effective.

Standout Scene: There is a debate that handles racism and discrimination with some very powerful dialogue that should be the final clue as to the identity of the High Priest. With the cover illustration and the voice of the creature also point us in the right direction it shouldn’t come as such a shock to hear the truth revealed but it is still a great moment. What’s great is the reveal is made entirely through atmospherics by use of the Dalek heartbeat rather than have a character spell out what it is – it makes the cliffhanger so much more effective and if you hadn’t guessed, shocking. We definitely wouldn’t have seen a torture scene with somebody begging for absolution on screen but it sure makes one hell of an effective audio moment. I never saw the Dalek being killed so early in the story once his Godhood is revealed to be a sham – it’s a fantastic scene and really pushes the story in an unpredictable new direction. Suddenly hearing the creed ‘Exterminate them!’ coming from the mouth of a warlike and religiously fanatical general is terrifying. Clearly the Dalek has taught them too well.

Result: An excellent script that is recorded as though it is a missing 80s soundtrack that is lacking the pictures, this fulfils the remit of The Lost Stories range by giving the listener a massive dose of nostalgia and also a bloody good story. Because it starts like an archetypal Doctor Who story (TARDIS going wibbly, landing in a war zone) I thought I knew exactly how it is going to develop but it twists and turns with alarming frequency until I reached the end of episode three and was gasping with tension and had no clue how this could end (except bloodily). It’s a shame that Nyssa is sidelined so much but both the Doctor and Tegan get some fantastic material with the former allowed to unleash some real anger and the latter being the voice of common sense which is lovely because it is usually the other way round. None of the guest characters are especially memorable but they fulfil their functions in the plot well and dance around the High Priest who is pulling their strings and all the performances are energetic. The last episode reminded me of the latter parts of Inferno, incredibly fatalistic and too much for the Doctor to handle which makes his solution all the more impressive. If this story had aired as it is presented here (and production wise it wouldn’t be far off because this really is authentic 80s Who) it would be considered a minor classic. The best Davison story for ages: 8/10

3 comments:

Chad Moore said...

Wonderful review! I adored this story, too. Only downside was how Nyssa disappeared from the story for great stretches of time.

rumblebars said...

I listened to this one yesterday - and damn if BF didn't pull this one off! As good as the best of Old Sixy's Lost Stories in evoking the era.

And in reading the review, totally agree, this one is a cracking good one, not to be missed for fans of the early 80's Who.

-Andy T.

kurumais said...

this was a great listen . davidson is
terrific. ive heard 2 of 3 5th doctor lost stories and i cant imagine why they weren't made for tv im starting really like tegen thats to these and 5th doctor boxset. get these 3 stories.