Monday, 5 December 2011

Survival of the Fittest written by Jonathan Clements and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: The hive of the Vrill bears the scars of a terrifying cataclysm. Only a handful remain alive, hatched after the holocaust of the mysterious Winterlack. The Vrill seek a new Authority. They find the Doctor, a two-legged creature who can lead them to survival. He must solve the mystery of the Carrion beast that haunts the lower chambers. He must face the Winterlack that still stalk the mountains. And he must find a path that does not lead to extinction…

The Real McCoy: Its such a Doctorish thing to do when faced with a cave to starts hollering just for the sheer joy of hearing his voice echoed back. He’s super cheeky this week and when the Vrill chants ‘someone is here’ over and over the Doctor suggests what it means is ‘someone is here!’ The scent of the Doctor’s name is one of helping, healing and giving information. He’s like a childish pied piper the way he excitedly tries to encourage the Vrill to leave the nest, it reminds me of just how cute the seventh Doctor can be when he is given the chance. He talks to them in a very soft, singsong voice that is almost hypnotic. When Ace called him an ageing hippy in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy she was not wrong as he gives the Vrill he meets names like Rose and Lily. He thinks they are incredible creatures with their memory hardwired into them, there before they are even born and is devastated when Butterfly is killed after protecting him. The Doctor refuses to listen to a lecture about taking the moral high ground from Klein of all people. He’s declared a condescending hypocrite because he thought he could change Klein’s philosophy by seeing the universe through his eyes. By jiminy these two make an exciting pair!

Reformed Nazi: Survival of the Fittest is unique in that it is the only story of the trilogy to actually see Klein travelling as a companion of the Doctor and enjoying an adventure in the tradition sense of the term. A Thousand Tiny Wings re-introduced the character, the aptly named Klein’s Story explains a great deal and Survival of the Fittest sees what happens to time after she half inches the TARDIS at the end of this story so this is the only peek into how she would turn out as an assistant had they taken her down this route for a longer period. Unfortunately for us, she’s rather impressive even on those terms.

When stepping from the TARDIS she is awe struck by the sight of the entire galaxy swirling around her, experiencing the wonder of the universe for the first time. She has always found it is best to negotiate with the highest possible power. The more time she spends with the Doctor the smarter she realises that he is but in her own unique way she only sees that as a missed opportunity for the Reich. She really is a woman after her fascistic political party. The Doctor jokes that Klein would like the Vrill because their mantra seems to be that they are just following orders but the difference is that they don’t have a choice or free will to do otherwise. She makes a massive mistake by realising that the Winterlack are human beings and voicing that she is one of them too, a snippet of information that sends the Vrill into a frenzy and is repeated over and over throughout the nest. The story takes the unusual approach of putting Klein very much in the sympathetic category, shoving one the humans in a headlock to make him realise that they are exterminating the native species on this planet. She doesn’t care who is the inferior race in this situation only that there is an alien race to be studied so she is still thinking like a scientist but seems to have dropped her Nazi morality for the time being. Klein hears another culture claim to be the Master Race and she is shocked, almost as if she can finally see the paucity of those words. Almost as astonished as she is that she is actually pleased to see the Doctor when they are finally reunited. Klein is extremely smug at having the knowledge that the Doctor’s incredible universe at large is small enough to contain its own fascists. She is willing to let Stefan die a horrible death by poetic justice, torn apart by a hundred Vrill. Klein believes the common good comes before the private good. Klein is smart enough to figure out that the Vrill consider the truth to be whatever they hear and they stay calm as long as they like the sound of it…so she convinces them she is the Doctor and with the TARDIS key whisks herself away with the power to gut the timeline and turn it back the way she remembers. She’s still furious with the Doctor for tricking her into obliterating her own timeline and she plans to put it back exactly as she remembers it.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It made the tunnel’ is not a great line on its own but it is repeated when Klein discovers a diamond drill head that has sliced through from the surface into the nest and that is how the Vrill have tries to justify its existence.
‘Oh Klein if you want fascists I’ll get you a date with a Dalek!’

Great Ideas: Languages that are composed entirely of scent markers you are hearing words that aren’t there and the residual smell is like an accent. A language made of scents, what an imaginative idea to base an alien species on. The Vrill have a caste system based on size with small ones to watch and warn, medium sized ones to work and build and large ones to fight and protect. Their language leaves them no room for things that aren’t true because their words are something physical. They hatch in the centre of their nest and right in the heart is the authority. Eggs sit in boiling nutrients until it is time to hatch and then they are taken from the shallows until the new Vrill emerge. They do not have names to tell each other apart, only jobs, different functions to tell themselves apart. Shout with a human voice and you can hear an echo but if your language is a scent you can be track very easily. Its like you are constantly saying ‘follow me.’ The Winterlack are an outside agency that have been trying to systematically destroy the nest, an agency of human beings. Without a new authority they cannot make a new one and no more eggs can be hatched, by destroying her the Winterlack have brought the Vrill to edge of extinction. The story the humans spin to Klein is that their homeworld is drastically overpopulated, the air dirty and the food getting more toxic by the day and they have decided to colonise the Vrill homeworld. There aren’t the resources to search further for another inhabited world. All the Vrill were murdered in one monstrous half hour and now the only Vrill that will be hatched are the ones that have already been laid. Vrill workers are female and they hatch from fertilised eggs. There are 4000 eggs left in the hatching yard and because they are to hatch unfertilised they will all be born as warriors. There is a fine line between exterminating and farming another species, isn’t there? Vrill nourish their eggs with super concentrated nutrients and grow to a huge size in a matter of days, it’s a super food that can be diluted to feed humans. Undiluted it could be used as a wonder drug or a hoer growth hormone and this is a fringe military smash and grab organisation after the nutrients. By leaving with the TARDIS Klein is denying the Vrill and the humans the ability to communicate with each other and the Doctor knows that it will mean further exploitation and murder.

Audio Landscape: John Ainsworth has done a phenomenal job in giving the Vrill a unique realisation on audio with their wings that beat so fast they sound like a motorbike engine, their repeated language and the gorgeous voice modulation. He’s basically been given a Web Planet style story to realise and it looks as though he has attacked the challenge with his usual vigour and enthusiasm. The different sized Vrills are given very different tones of voice and you can hear their mouth mandibles twitching. There’s a lovely sequence where we hear the overlapping voices (smells) of the Vrill crying out for the warriors and wondering why they are burning. Its such an imaginative way to tell a story credit has to go to both the writer and director for making the Vrill so instantly unlike any alien species we have met before and enjoyable. They discover bodies of dead Vrill blocking a passageway, burnt and choked by the Winterlack and the Doctor still being able to hear their distress by the smell of their burning corpses translated by the TARDIS. The bubbling hatching yard, firing a machine gun at the Vrill, creatures screaming in the jungle. tearing apart Stefan.

Musical Cues: The music is wonderfully odd and perfectly matches the unfamiliar tone of the story with discordant themes bridging the scenes and unusual sounds trickling into scenes and vworping out of them.

Standout Scene: How wonderful is it when the Doctor convinces Lily that he is an authority and can sanctioned the creation of a new Adam and Eve to create a new nest of Vrill – he sounds so giddy with excitement its impossible not to get whipped up into his frenzy.

Result: Completely different from the opening story of this trilogy (and a bit) of adventures but just as assured, Survival of the Fittest is a weird and wonderful foray into an alien culture that is brought to life with some skill. It reminds me of The Web Planet not only because of the unusual focus on an exotic alien race but also because it tells a traditional Doctor Who story in a very unconventional way suggesting a colonists versus natives tale and then twisting into a story of greed and genocide. Its worth mentioning here just how superb Sylvester McCoy has been in the last few years of Big Finish adventures and this trilogy sees him at his peak. Survival of the Fittest is a story that allows us to experience him at his best; desperately sweet with the Vrill, locking horns with Klein and trying to save as many lives as possible. Four episodes and this might have outstayed its welcome but at three it is fast paced and exciting (great editorial decision) and there is even a juicy cliffhanger ending that should be all the excuse you need to dive into the next story. Its our one chance to see Klein as a travelling companion rather than an enemy and it works so well its agonising to think that their adventures are almost over already. They make such a gripping, antagonistic pair the distinctive dialogue trips naturally from their tongues and the final face off before she steals the TARDIS is a fantastic moment. Unlike anything else and hugely enjoyable: 8/10

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