Monday, 2 January 2012

City of Spires written by Simon Bovey and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: Arriving in a hail of musket fire, the Doctor unexpectedly finds himself in the highlands of Scotland, where the ruthless Black Donald and his band of rebels are fighting the Redcoats. But the highland warriors no longer fight for the Jacobite cause and the English officers answer only to the mysterious Overlord. What has happened to Scotland and why are its moors littered with advanced, oil-pumping technology? Reunited with his faithful companion Jamie McCrimmon, the Doctor must venture into the sinister City of Spires to find the answers. But standing in his way is the deadly Red Cap…

Softer Six: Its rare for the sixth Doctor to be travelling without an assistant, unlike the seventh he seems to only be alone during adventures when he eventually picks up an assistants (The Marian Conspiracy, The Girl Who Waited). Of all the Doctor’s he is the one that needs company the most and enjoys boasting about his many talents! Lonely forays are rare and see him at his most subdued (The Wormery, Davros). Will Guthrie describes him as a French dandy with an English accent! This Doctor calls a spade a spade and when a Jacobite guns down an Englishman in cold blood he reacts angrily to his murder. The Doctor is rather like a Doctor Who companion twofold when he first claps eyes on Jamie. Not only does he remember that the Time Lords stole away his memory and that he has regenerated several times since they last met but he is also giddily excited to see his old friend again. There was a special connection that the Doctor had with Jamie where they knew exactly how the other would react and embraced their companionship – I’m sure the Doctor has missed that. He drinks in the Scottish sunset, having forgotten how beautiful the landscape was. I love how the Doctor claims that the assembled Hordes of Genghis Khan couldn’t breach the TARDIS just as the ninth Doctor does in Rose – I like to think that he keeps that description on standby for every occasion the TARDIS is threatened. He’s become something of a gentleman on audio and leaps to Alice’s defence like a Jane Austen hero but still has time to taunt Redcap as though he is a playground bully. Jamie has a life to lead here now and the Doctor understands that and when he thinks the danger is too great he sends him on his way in a very selfless act. Jamie seriously thinks that the Doctor has a death wish the way he continually throws himself into danger. His hokey northern accent that seems to shift from region to region is great fun – his Geordie is especially gigglesome because I thought I had been transported back to The Mark of the Rani!

Who’s the Yahoos: Isn’t it lovely to hear Frazer Hines’ dulcet tones back in Doctor Who? His faux Scottish accent has a gentle lilt that makes him an easy listen and the return of this incredibly popular character from sixties Who was always going to be a cause for celebration. Re-introducing him as the villainous Black Donald is a fascinating new development since who is to say without the Doctor’s friendship he wouldn’t have gone on to become an infamous murderer. He was certainly quite feral and violent in their first encounter, a loyal protector of Colin McClaren at Culloden. The Doctor remembers his friend as being one of the most alive people he had ever met, full hope and now, despite his protestations, Jamie does trust the Doctor. It seems no matter how much time passes Jamie will always be afraid of the Phantom Piper! Alice suggests that kinship such as that expressed by the Doctor and Jamie takes more than a few days to develop. Giving his track record at falling into trouble Jamie is surprised that they ever managed to get out dangerous situations in the past. He decided a long time ago that he was ready to die for Scotland. It looks like Frazer Hines had the chance to add some of his famous Jamieisms throughout the course of the story – its usually Jamie trying to pronounce the name of something anachronistic very badly. When the Doctor is shot Jamie clucks after him like a mother hen. He had always hoped that when his time came he would go out with a claymore in one hand and a jar of whiskey in the other! I had no doubt that Jamie would jump into the TARDIS at the end of the story. After he had been given so many hints and whispers about his old life with the Doctor how could he resist?

Wee Lassie: Not such a gentle lassie after all as she tackles Will Guthrie after he insults her and aids the Doctor and Jamie’s escape. Jamie tries to be chivalrous when heading back to the Doctor and insists that Alice stays behind but showing her real teeth she refuses to be left behind like some useless girl. She has a journey of her own take as we learn that her husband is a collaborator, an engineer working for the Overlord. The Doctor touchingly suggests the fact the Scotland has become such an industrial landscape proves his love for his wife because their very existence is what keeps her alive.

Standout Performance: I was distinctly unimpressed by Georgia Moffatt’s turn in The Doctor’s Daughter because I was hoping for something a bit more intellectual and sophisticated and instead we got GI Jane, Time Lord style and frankly I think Moffatt would have played the former with much more aplomb. There was something very stiff about her performance there which is strange because her turn as Alice in City of Spires is really rather wonderful. She develops a fantastic rapport with Colin Baker and Frazer Hines and the character is extremely appealing. As the story progressed I kept secretly hoping she would climb into the TARDIS with the two of them even though I knew that wasn’t the case. I just thought my willpower could stretch back through time and influence Bovey and have a run of adventure with this three. Go back and listen to this story again and really focus on the chemistry between the three leads – it could have been great. Kudos to Moffatt for tossing away any resentment I had about The Doctor’s Daughter and giving a genuinely sunny performance.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Hello? Whom do I have the dubious pleasure of addressing?’ ‘Oh please don’t say it is going to be one of those sort of calls!’
‘Well well, we meet again, Doctor!’ ‘Oh Major Haywood forced bonhomie I can live with but please spare me that cliché!’

Great Ideas: The villainous Overlord lives in a castle over yonder and has Redcoats and English soldiers as sentries. The Doctor mistakenly thinks that he is an oil baron and sucking the substance from the land. Its like Texas with pump jacks as far you can see and factories greedily guzzling up the black water of the land. The City of Spires is like a future nightmare version of New York, an industrial compound the size of a minor metropolis. Putting aside the consequences for the environment, the damage to the timeline on such a scale is precedented.

Audio Landscape: Horses whinnying, wagons overturned, a screaming crowd, a piercing gunshot, screaming highland winds, it literally sounds like Nicholas Briggs has placed a microphone next to a pitched battle and sneaked away with the recording – its that convincing, a cockerel crowing, screaming cavalry, Redcoat drums sounding as Redcaps soldiers march past, the squeaking pump jacks, Redcaps clomping footsteps, dripping water, Redcap falling over a cliff, fighting in the distance, horse and cart, crackling fire, the bubbling filtration plant, coughing, rebellious cries, the leeches swarming from their host into the Major, the sibilant alien voice of the Hiridin, the Doctor jumping into the black water and swimming away, the Doctor washed down into the overflow pipe, pump jacks burning in the distance.

Musical Cues: The opening cues are highly atmospheric and Andy Hardwick makes gorgeous use of the violin throughout. Playing out on the Scottish Highlands there is a chance for some rowdy bagpipe playing too and the enter the fray poignantly as the Doctor tries to remind Jamie of their first encounter.

Isn’t it Odd: It’s a good thing that the performances, characterisation and direction are so good because not a great deal happens in the first two episodes between the Doctor, Jamie and Alice meeting and the three of them discover the factories. The end of episode tries to relive the first Androzani cliffhanger but doesn’t quite have the same ring of doom to it.

Standout Scene: I’m a soppy sod for nostalgia at times and when the Doctor and Jamie are reunited in episode four and he gave him a massive bear hug I felt as if somebody was giving me a massive fanboy cuddle.

Notes: The Doctor names checks Polly and Ben.

Clues: I’m looking at these adventures in hindsight, having already listened to all three (four if you include Nights Black Agents) and so this time I am on the lookout for the clues that suggest the Doctor has stumbled back into the Land of Fiction. I’ll save the actual discussion of the return to that most illusory of lands for the story in which it is most relevant – Legend of the Cybermen. The Doctor is shocked to discover that he has found himself in the time of the Highlanders because he didn’t think he was anywhere near this time or place. The Doctor mentions the Cybermen which links in with the final story. Redcaps machines suck the blood from the land, the black water which Jamie thinks is the blood of Scotland but rather wonderfully turns out to be ink (the life blood of the Land of Fiction). ‘The Redcoats have finished all of my kind. The blood, the essence, the wellspring of all things is being drained. All we are. All we have become…’ Fake mythic monsters, fake spooks and also Rob Roy! The Doctor’s reaction to what appears to be the perversion of the timeline makes for good drama and the writers doesn’t even need to ‘get out of that one’ because we simply aren’t where the Doctor thinks we are. Anything could happen here, as will be explored in The Wreck of the Titan. Its 1784 in the Highlands but 1884 where the factories, sky scrapers and monorails are. The Doctor slowly starts to figure out how this place works – just as he was seeking to discover what sort of species might want to suck the mineral blood of worlds and the alien reveals that he is working for the Hiridin Corporation. It’s a world that appears to throw together anachronistic elements but will give you a explanation when you try and seek one. Hirudinea are a type of blood sucking leech which the Doctor has heard of and their agent declares that he is well read. Almost as if they had extracted that information from a book and brought it to life. Once he has jumped into the black water the Doctor is perturbed that it doesn’t taste, feel or smell like oil… Jamie wonders where Alice has got to and she turns up immediately – which the Doctor suspiciously thinks is an uncanny co-incidence. They had the Doctor pegged as one of the heroes that had sabotaged many of their corporate divisions in the past – heroes such as we would meet in Legend of the Cybermen. ‘Did she send you?’ asks the corporate leech, suggesting that the Doctor knows who he is talking about because he arrived beyond this land just like her (he’s talking about Zoe, the Mistress of the Land of Fiction). As the salt burns through the leeches the Doctor is still asking questions about the black water, what is in it and who buys it. All in good time, Doc.

Result: An odd story for sure because not a lot seems to take place and yet in hindsight there is an awful lot of building up of the central arc of this trilogy. Which makes this the rarest of stories, one that might seem inconsequential and even a little dull on your first listen but becomes more enjoyable once you know where this story leads. Colin Baker seems more gentle than ever in the title role but I think that has more to do with the return of one of his best friends rather than a weakening of the character itself and I was always very pleased that the Doctor doesn’t know what is going on until very late in the day and even then he doesn’t have all the answers. Mysteries can be held in check as long as satisfying answers turn up eventually. Frazer Hines excels as an older and gruffer Jamie but he still has that touch of Highland charm that made him such a joy in the sixties and he is ably supported by Georgia Moffatt’s marvellous turn as Alice. I really wish she had gone with them at the end. It’s a story that scores highly on atmosphere and the chemistry between the actors but you might find yourself drifting off somewhere in the middle episodes because the story doesn’t want to spill its secrets until episode four which means a great deal of running on the spot (otherwise known as escape/capture/escape). City of Spires is a entertaining piece but perhaps better listened as the first part of a trilogy rather than a story in its own right. Because each story relies on what follows if you take the fourteen parts of the ‘Jamie trilogy’ as a whole Trial of a Time Lord style epic it is far more satisfying than judging the individual elements. As such its probably the best trilogy because it tells a truly ambitious novel with the weakest individual chapters. If that makes sense: 7/10

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