What’s it about: Business is bad for intergalactic media mogul Augustus Scullop, whose Trans-Gal empire is on the rocks. But, having retreated to his own private planet, Transmission, Scullop is about to gamble his fortune on a new show, made with an entirely new technology. And the name of that show… is Laser. Back in the real world, far from the realms of small screen sci-fi fantasies about monsters and aliens, the Doctor is interested only in watching Test Match cricket… but finds himself drawn into Scullop’s world when his new travelling companion, Flip, is snatched from inside the TARDIS. So, while the Doctor uncovers the terrible secret of Trans-Gal’s new tech, Flip battles to survive in a barren wilderness ruled over by the indestructible Lord Krarn and his pig-like servants, the Warmongers. And the name of that wilderness… is ‘Stevenage.’
Softer Six: I’m not sure who gets to make the most scathing remarks about the nature of melodramatic television, the Doctor or John Dorney, but they’re both bloody funny and together make a great team. How unusual for the sixth Doctor to be so interested in a game of cricket. Its nice to see some remnants of his predecessor spilling over into his current incarnation. He’s not as involved in at as he once was but you never lose the taste for it. He finds some of his other iterations astonishingly irritating! He is astounded at how many of previous companions are pre-disposed to ambulation. Its really amusing to have the Doctor knocking the astonishing technological feats of Dr Shepherd because he either has equipment like it himself or his people have been using it for more sophisticated purposes for aeons! For a moment I wondered how the Doctor could possibly be so upset about a young lady he had only just become acquainted with but it didn’t take me long to recognise that he was mourning all the lost potential of their friendship and the great times they could have had together. It actually makes their relationship more fulfilling when Flip does return to his side because the thought of having lost her makes him more determined to keep her close. He had no idea how old she was and wanted to show her the universe and he admits with a heavy sigh that he got her killed. It’s a dreadful responsibility, the way he carries death around with him and he thinks it is only a matter of time before another of his friends is sacrificed to his happy go lucky existence. The Doctor knows that he isn’t dead because he failed to cancel the milk! I don’t know if this was another sly comment but the sixth Doctor allows the hopelessly melodramatic Jack Laser beat up the Porcians because of the spanner they have thrown in the works. The way he barely batters an eyelid (and actually suggests it should go ahead) to this is almost a statement about the sixth Doctor’s much criticised violent streak (‘and the Oscar for the biggest git goes to…’). The Doctor wants to reach inside the bubble dimension and create ludicrous weapons of their own – something as insane as a sonic screwdriver perhaps? He would like to remain intact when all this over with if its all the same to you. ‘Who really is a hero in this day and age?’ he asks – something that was asked of him during his television period. He intends to look after Flip.
Flippin’ Marvellous: Could we judge the sixth Doctor and Flip’s relationship on the basis of The Curse of Davros? Not at all – the very nature of that masterwork meant that they didn’t meet in the flesh (so to speak) until the end of the very last episode which leaves a lot riding on The Fourth Wall to get their new dynamic right. Flip has received a lukewarm reception and in a way I can understand that. She is a chirpy cockney girl with no life and if you met somebody like that in real life they might annoy the hell out of you. As people have suggested she is comparable to Rose Tyler in most respects except one – Rose isn’t played by Lisa Greenwood who imbues the character with a great deal of sweetness and charm that is extremely appealing. At least to me. It strikes me that you could stick anybody in the TARDIS with Colin Baker’s effervescent sixth Doctor and it would work (and that isn’t to criticise Flip in anyway saying that) and the early scenes of popcorn and cricket prove that these two will enjoy a relaxed relationship. Its basically the sixth Doctor and Peri without all the whinging.
She considers football and bunch of idiot millionaires playing kick around in the park and finds the Doctor’s insinuation that she might be interested in footie rather than cricket class prejudice! When she realises she can watch any event in history on the time and space Visualiser (what with this and The One Doctor it would appear the sixth Doctor is getting the most value out of this delightful device!) she asks if it even picks up black and white as though that is a medium from the ancient dawn of history! Flip has a point when she mentions that day one of her time in the TARDIS featured the Daleks, Napoleon and Davros – how could day two possibly top that? I love the way she takes the piss out of his over active vocabulary – she should be grateful she isn’t turning up in a Pip’n’Jane script! A great way to impress with the new companion is to pair her up with a screaming harridan to show how hard she is (it also worked a treat in Horror of Fang Rock). Speaking as somebody who has just taken a highly enjoyable trip to Edinburgh I howled Flip’s line about climbing all the hills. Fortunately Flip is on hand to point out the flaws in the villain’s florid threats (‘how will we be able to smell our putrefying corpses if we’re dead?’). She cannot bear a continuity error and points out that the villain knows Jansey’s name without ever being told it! Flip is savvy enough to figure out that this is a fictional environment, recognising that the alien henchmen of the villain are just making up a load of sounds and pretending it is a language! Flip’s return to the story in a moment of cliché reversal couldn’t have been more triumphant if they tried (‘you just saved the universe!’). Flip chooses to watch the Doctor’s truly melodramatic performance in LASER on the Visualiser – as an actor he is dreadfully hammy! Hahaha! The Doctor asks Flip to never take risks like that again and she refuses to change who he is but agrees to be careful.
Standout Performance: With a playful script that allows the actors to luxuriate into two very different roles (except for our heroes of course) this is a great chance to see what the cast is made of. Fortunately they are more than up to the task and the awkward silences between the cast members in the first episode (clearly appalled at what they have just brought to life!) gives way to far more sympathetic portrayals as their characters become self aware and realise their true potential. My hat goes off to Martin Hutson who pulls off with rare pathos the intergalactic super villain Lord Krarn who in a few spectacular moments goes from being the least convincing baddie to one of the most touching and well realised (‘Why didn’t you write me good? I could have been happy…’). He realises with some horror that he exists not as a person but as a cancer to destroy all life across the galaxy and that makes him one of the most chilling villains of all because he understands that. Howland being beaten and murdered by the character he portrayed is a shocking moment. When Krarn has killed his performer he then has to step into his shoes to convince the Doctor he is still his ally – the character portraying the actor? I’ve just gone boss eyed!
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What? Like the Death Star?’ ‘The Death Star? Hopefully nothing so ominous!’ and ‘It looks like a quarry!’ ‘That doesn’t exactly narrow it down!’ – the only story I can think of with this much clever referential dialogue is Mindwarp.
‘How does killing everyone on Earth help you towards that anyway? I can’t work out how that is a logical step in the process?’ ‘Everyone must die at my hands!’ ‘Yeah but why? You must have a reason!’ ‘Because…because…oh SHUT UP!’ – We seriously needed Flip around to question the Master in the mid eighties!
‘So they’re totally indestructible in all circumstances unless they’re hit in the face by that gentleman?’
‘They’ve stolen our intellectual property! That look is copyright!’ – it’s the Nation Estate!
‘Death isn’t entertainment!’ is a scornful line where Krarn really becomes a person in his own right. ‘If you wanted mercy you should have written me more three dimensional!’
‘The more demented and all encompassing the better!’ ‘Such as?’ ‘Why don’t we go the whole hog if you’ll pardon the expression…an anti fiction but reality unaffecting bomb!’ ‘That’s ridiculous!’ ‘Thank you!’ and ‘I believe you ordered this on the internet? A fantasy nullifier!’ – the Doctor at his improvisational best!
‘Fiction has power, remember that.’
Great Ideas: Needless to say opening the story on such a media related note instantly reminded me of the Colin Baker era on television (Vengeance on Varos) and had me grinning. I love the idea of a television boosting a channels reputation so spectacularly because it reminds me of a certainly family sci-fi show that made a magnificent comeback in 2005. Squeezing through the gaps in reality at the precisely the same time they are being pulled apart…the sounds like a very nasty way to travel! I love the idea of the Doctor being able to track down Flip via the Visualiser, proof that it isn’t just a telly box with a few sparkling knobs on. Nobody enjoys taking a left turn at Delta Magna, it would appear, not just fanboys. I got the impression very early on that Flip was in some way involved with the television programme LASER without any indication to the case. Something about the nature of the story, the cover and blurb and the fourth wall breaking dialogue led me to believe that we would be watching the TV show ala Vengeance on Varos and commenting on the action. The entire backstory of the ‘game’ is comprehensively brought to Flip’s attention in about three verbose sentences. A reality generator converts electrical impulses into events, three dimensional shows materialising around the viewer. Rather wonderfully Flip can hear the exciting music (appalled as the dramatic stings punctuate every turn of events, Star Trek original series style!) that us being piped into the programme as the hero leaps in and rescues the heroine! To be fair Jack Laser is less macho a name than Jack Bauer from another similarly action packed, testosterone fuelled television programme. The characters within the story stick to the script but they have been programmed to improvise if a new element is added (like Flip) and the resulting drama makes for great television because nobody knows where the story is going. Isn’t it marvellous how the godawful flowery dialogue utilised by the villain can be traced back to the style used by one particular Doctor Who villain in stories such as The Kings’ Demons and The Mark of the Rani. What make me chuckle is how what is parodied here was taken deadly serious in the classic series (‘Finnito TARDIS! How’s that for style?’). Every time Flip asks for some more backstory to fill in the plot holes that hasn’t been in invented yet we are stuck with a speechless villain who makes terrible excuses (‘That’s not important now!’). The actors watch their performances back and comment wryly on how handsome they are, what they bring to the role and how menacing they manage to be. Who saw the twist of the characters leaving the programme and threatening those behind the scenes coming? There is something freakishly imaginative about a writer creating a race of monsters that are impossible to destroy and them leaking out into the real world! John Dorney has achieved the impossible – an invincible threat and he isn’t even to blame for the implausibility of that! The leading man leaping out of nowhere with ridiculous karate moves brings back many happy memories of Jon Pertwee going through a midlife crisis. Cue scenes of the actress arguing with her character that has entered reality wondering why she ever agreed to play her because she is such a vacuous stereotype! I’ve seen fictional characters questioning their veracity before (on television in Castrovalva and on audio in Legend of the Cybermen) but that doesn’t stop it being any less powerful. In fact it might be moreso here because these characters started out so one dimensional and Krarn seeing himself for the unsophisticated villain that he is manages to heartbreaking. Asking why he is the bad guy when the hero killed his wife rather made my heart leap out of my mouth. Scullop’s insane plan was to allow the characters to escape all along and blast Drexel and his corporation to dust – tearing down the fictional walls just to take revenge on his one time business partner! Howland was never very good at improvisation so when he has to try and get his evil horde to calm down he attempts to fool them by suggesting it is dress down Friday! Its great how they manage to formulate a plan to get one over on Krarn by utilising the oldest tricks in the book because that is exactly the sort of cliché he has been programmed to accept (and go ‘curses!’ naturally). Like some tatty old bit of set design the bomb simply has to be something tangible with a big button they can press. The idea that an actor improvising away from the script is hilarious – it reminds me of a Terrance Dicks tale about Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton working together in The Three Doctors (you can imagine Pertwee’s look of horror when his predecessor frequently ad libbed his lines!). Listening to John Dorney's remarks in the special features reveals further depths that even I hadn't considered - the commentary of an authors responsiblity to his characters. When he mentions the way some authors crassly massacre their characters (hi Eric Saward!) and disregard life (even fictional life) so violently it confirmed me rock solid suspicions that we were dealing with an extremely thoughtful writer. John is unwilling to murder his characters without a reason and even regrets it when he has to and so scenes such as Krarn killing his actor (Dorney has been an actor himself) take on a whole new dimension.
Porcian Power: I used to have a friend (we parted company because we couldn’t come to an agreement about the BBC Books novel The Crooked World – joke, although it was a bone of contention between us! The irony is that this story takes more than a little inspiration from that book) who hate overdone comedy elements in Doctor Who and in particular comedy aliens. Fortunately it is me and not him who is writing this review and I found the Porcians to be an utterly charming alien menace erring on the right side of parody to be effective within a story with these themes. The sad fact is that there are more truly inept monster races in Doctor Who than we care to admit (even some of the ‘big guns’ like the Cybermen qualify but they can be traced back as far as Voord, Zarbis and Monoids) but this is the first intentionally rubbish monster which means we can laugh with them rather than at them and that adds a whole new appeal to the Porcians. ‘The problem isn’t them invading planets! The problem is they aren’t very good at it!’ is a line that should have been said in Revenge of the Cybermen and Silver Nemesis! They’ve been known to accidentally blow up their entire invasion fleet (Silver Nemesis again)! Imagine wiping out the majority of your species through one harebrained scheme after another in an incompetent attempt to conquer the galaxy? They are a species who aren’t a danger to the universe at large but to themselves! ‘Are you saying we all look that same? That’s a bit racist!’ For a honking great pig race I love the fact that their curse is ‘oh swill!’ They are so idiotic the only password they can think of is ‘password!’ Their space is an absolute shithole with decks smeared with muck! ‘You know how I deal with failiure!’ ‘A stern word and a request not to do it again?’ ‘That’s the one!’ The Doctor gets to show the Porcians the apotheosis of their ambition when the invincible nightmares escape LASER and asks them if they really want to reach that level of atrocity. They cannot answer. They are so ineffective that during a climactic moment Chimbley’s subordinate reveals himself to be his son by screaming ‘Dad!’
Audio Landscape: I cannot imagine bringing together three individuals with such skill in their fields than John Dorney, Nicholas Briggs and Jamie Robertson. Needless to say, expectations were high. The story opens with all the shallowness and brashness of an intergalactic news broadcast, time/space Visualiser on the blink, popping corn, polite chatter, screaming alien winds, a scream in the distance, water running at the end of a tunnel, crackling fire, laser guns, jackbooted footsteps.
Musical Cues: I really enjoyed the two additional scores that come with this release because their separation is a moment of cleverness on the part of the director who specifically makes the point of one being a comment on the other. The first is the hopelessly overdramatic LASER music which punctuates the action from within the programme and has the feel of a Dudley Simpson score on acid and the second is a more stylish affair which adds atmosphere to the story when fiction bleeds out into reality. Comparing one to the other is almost a wily statement of the difference between the music of classic Who (which by demand had to be melodramatic) and the soundtracks of the audio adventures (which is reaching for the lofty ambition of a cinematic experience).
Standout Scene: The second cliffhanger is a fantastic moment when Flip dies within the scenario after teasing the villain she has slowly been pulling to pieces throughout the first two episodes. The way the story suddenly shifts a gear from comedy to drama is so tonally jarring its like being punched around the face and the compliancy I have been feeling gets snatched away with whiplash. A great cliffhanging moment.
Notes: With its metatextual dialogue, laugh out loud commentary on science fiction conventions and clever parodies The Fourth Wall has a lot in common with Steve Lyons’ novel The Time of Their Life. But whereas that was an over baked, horribly violent and unsubtle approach, John Dorney manages to infuse the right level of excitement and humour into this tale that gives it a bubbly, sparkling tone. It allows all the cleverness to float to the surface and dazzle without overwhelming you.
Result: John Dorney has written a superb sixth Doctor story which has a unique flavour and doesn’t so much break down the fourth wall but blow through it with dynamite and then stamps all over the debris so it can never be sealed up again. It’s a delirious mixture of clever observations, broad comedy, strikingly dramatic moments and laugh out loud reflective dialogue that begins deliberately predictably and then defies your expectations at every turn. I loved the commentary and inclusion of melodramatic plot devices (hysterical heroines, florid talking villains, karate wielding heroes and lack of motivation and backstory amongst them) that can be traced back to many points in the series because the observations don’t just serve to point out these absurdities but also smile affectionately at the gleefully silly moments Doctor Who has offered us over the years. The subversion of all of those cliches had me chuckling away at the ingenuity on display. Dorney introduces the Porcians who are the first deliberately duff alien race (as opposed to all the intentionally terrifying aliens that wound being duff!) and I hope this isn’t their only appearance in Doctor Who because they are hysterical and might just have you honking with laughter! Flip gets some fantastic dialogue in the first two episodes that really helps to sell her as a confident companion with a brain and by having the Doctor lose her so soon into their relationship I was convinced of the bond between them far more than I would have otherwise. There is more than a touch of Pleasantville about this (one of my favourite films) with the fictional characters coming to terms with their roles and as such evolving into real people and it tinges the comedy with tragedy and depth that makes it a far more remarkable tale. If William Gallagher can produce something magical with the Wirrn in the last of this trilogy it might just be the best threesome we’ve had in over a year because The Fourth Wall kept me smiling throughout with its fiendish ingenuity and riotous spoofing and coming so soon after The Curse of Davros which I also directed this praise at this is another story that could happily sit in season seventeen alongside City of Death. Quite brilliant: 10/10