Thursday, 2 February 2012

The Many Deaths of Jo Grant written by Cavan Scott & Mark Wright and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about:"I wasn’t going to let this happen. After all we’d been through, the Doctor wasn’t going to die like this, on his knees, in the mud." When Jo Grant was very young, her grandmother told her that there was a time for everything. A time to laugh and a time to cry. A time to live and a time to die. Since meeting the Doctor, Jo has laughed till she thought she might burst. She has also shed a few tears along the way, but has lived more than she ever thought possible. But now, as a strange spaceship materialises over UNIT HQ and a heavily injured Doctor returns to Earth, it is Jo's time to die. Again, and again, and again…

Dippy Agent: You know I wonder if I haven’t misunderstood Jo Grant all these years. She was never one of my favourites growing up because I always found her a bit useless and constantly under the protection of the Doctor’s flapping coat. But my last couple of marathons (I finished watching the Pertwee era about four weeks ago) have revealed a very different character then the one I remember with a very charismatic performance from Katy Manning and some genuine development from an awkward rookie in her first year to a confident and capable young woman in her last. Her re-appearance in the Sarah Jane Adventures was a joy and Jo’s characterisation in gems such as Find and Replace reveals that there is much more to say about the character than was on screen at the time. Interviewing Katy Manning reveals a real passion for that period of her life and a sense of gratitude to have been able to work with such fine actors and production staff so early in her career. I think the fact that she preceded by Sarah Jane doesn’t do Jo any favours at all because Elisabeth Sladen’s lands on her feet and is a much stronger performer but for these three years that Jo was around the show saw a consistent, comfortable atmosphere the likes of which we would never see again (all other companions that have lasted three seasons or more have seen a change in Doctor at some point – Sarah, Tegan, Peri). Yes, I think there is a lot more to Jo than I ever gave the character credit for and Big Finish seem determined to prove that.

Jo refuses to believe that the Doctor would abandon them because the Earth is his home these days but the Brigadier knows that that isn’t true. Something that has always been a memorable characteristic of Jo’s is her willingness to sacrifice herself so that the Doctor can live and Scott & Wright have cleverly woven that into a narrative over and over to prove that it is almost a suicide complex! You get the sense that Jo genuinely loves this man and couldn’t bear the thought of losing him or going on living without having done everything in her power to save him. She realises that even when she has the choice to get away that she cannot just leave him to suffer on his own. After everything they have been through together Jo refuses to let the Doctor die on his own, bleeding in mud. There’s a lovely moment when Jo blinks away tears at the thought of the Doctor sacrificing his life to save a whole planet and she has so much to say and thinks that so much has gone unsaid between them. It makes you realise that this is no ordinary friendship, that this girl that tripped into his laboratory had become not just a good friend of the Doctor’s but there was something much deeper than that going on. Jo is disgusted when she realises that her mind has been mucked about with to discover her most intimate thoughts. Jo knows the Doctor is so strong and so inhuman but that would never stop her throwing herself in front of an alien weapon for him. She wonders what her life would be like if the Doctor ever chose to leave the Earth and she her life went on without him.

Reverse the Polarity: The Doctor has been forgiven by the Time Lords and cannot wait to take the TARDIS on a test ride as soon as possible. Whilst he is undoubtedly a gentleman he’s the only the Doctor who could get away with something as blatantly sexist as writing a note to Jo that says ‘be a dear and put the kettle on!’ Who else but protective Pertwee could be found struggling from the TARDIS filthy and bloody clutching an alien in his arms that he has saved from a dictatorship. Its almost the perfect representation of the Terrance Dicks script edited Pertwee era to think of the third Doctor working desperately to stop a planet from destruction encapsulated in his fiddling in some wires in the sonic screwdriver! Jo describes her hands a brushing against ‘comforting, familiar maroon velvet’ and you get the sense that she always considers herself safe as the Doctor holds her close. Like his appalled reaction to the Miniscope in Carnival of Monsters, Jo can see the disgust on his face when talking about mindscapes. The Doctor believes (probably rightly so) that the way with bullies is that all it takes is for one victim to make a stand for them to crumble.

Chap With Wings: The Brigadier’s moustache is said to ‘twitch with frustration’ when he talks about the Doctor! The Brigadier knew that it was only a matter of time before the wanderlust got the better of him once the Time Lords had forgiven him. I would have loved to have seen Nicholas Courtney blasting away inside the Doctor’s laboratory with casual abandon! Trips to alien worlds had been so scarce since he was exiled to Earth that missions for the Time Lords felt like holidays regardless of how inhospitable the planet was!

Standout Performance: I always look forward to the Katy Manning companion chronicles because she is spot on when she says there are many different voices in her. Whilst the Doctor and the Brigadier don’t sound like the originals she manages to capture the flavour and personality of both characters in a way that only somebody who was there at the time could. She definitely has that wonderfully optimistic, squeaky voice of Jo Grant locked inside her still too.

Great Ideas: There’s some nasty fungus growing on the side of Big Ben and the chap who was sent to examine has been infected! The way the story keeps cutting to another location and a new jeopardy is very intriguing and the fact that there are no answers in the first episodes means we are kept guessing until the conclusion. A colony on the verge of extinction with people going missing and a leader called Rowe…that sounds awfully familiar to a season eight story. Lets do a Terrance Dicks and call it an homage! Rowe turning up in each of the tales as a different character is a lovely linking mystery with the truth being snatched away from Jo every time she managed to get close. My favourite story is the one that sees Jo and the Doctor in a cavern that turns out to be a giant alien maw, thrashing and spitting from the floor! Like Jonathan Morris’ Tales From the Vault there is a lovely sense that Scott & Wright have had the chance to use lots of unused creative ideas in a story that requires lots of mini tales. The cliffhanger that features Jo slipping and sliding towards the rancid breath of the hungry cavern creature would have been joyous to see realised in the seventies! An Armageddon barge converted from a cargo freighter packed with another destructive force to destroy a whole planet! Jo has been held for some time in a mindscape generator, an abhorrent form of mental manipulation to create artificial scenarios within the mind. Rowe is the scientist torturing Jo within these environments. When the Xoanthrax vanguard came to Earth and Jo threw herself in front of its weapon that action intrigued them because the concept of self sacrifice is alien to them. Jo has faced death in 412 scenarios and in all of them Jo gave up her life for the Doctor. Oh damn - after going on about how I am always one step ahead of the ‘reality fuck’ episodes of science fiction shows and am able to predict that there will always be one last ‘phew we’re back to reality…oh no wait we’re not’ before the end credits I was completely hoodwinked in this story when Jo woke up one final time! Rowe never was evil, it was just one last mindscape scenario. The Doctor offered to enter the mindscape generator to save Jo and experienced many scenarios of his own and in each one of them he sacrificed himself for his companions. Rowe is a scientist, not a murderer and he is not unsympathetic to the revolutionaries.

Audio Landscape: The TARDIS materialisation noise, a gurgling, coughing alien, a spaceship grinding into orbit sounding like a hundred jet engines firing at once, the fluidic voices of the Xoanthrax, deafening gunfire in the lab, Jo’s heartbeat beating in her chest, life support machine, lightning, biting winds, the hungry maw of the cavern creatures, footsteps on metal grating, banks of computers whirring and clicking, banging on glass, door hissing open, exploding doors and hissing smoke, marching boots, the ticking, burbling mindscape device.

Musical Cues: Daniel Brett provides a memorable score and one that manages to convey the many different tones of the story. I loved his xylophone madness as the alien ship attacks UNIT HQ and there’s a heroic tune at the beginning of episode two as the Doctor and Jo rush into action.

Isn’t it Odd: I did wonder that Scott and Wright might have been trying to grind out their plot too quickly when all hell breaks loose within five minutes of the story but then the real premise started unfolding throughout the first episode and I realised that the pace was economic to fit in a number of vignettes rather than just trying to squeeze in as much of one plot as possible.

Standout Scene: I loved how Jo screamed with defiance that she will stop the Armageddon barge that you believe absolutely that she is firm in that intent and sense of triumph when she succeeds. Feisty, resourceful, naïve and a little bit stupid. That’s our Jo.

Result: Jo Grant, the suicide Queen, gets a story of her own to prove just how many times she would be willing to give up her life for the Doctor. I really enjoyed The Many Deaths of Jo Grant for its unusual storytelling techniques and snatches of storylines that feel as though they were genuinely scripted edited by Terrance Dicks. Katy Manning is as wonderful as ever and with each story I get the impression that she is pouring more and more of her love for the late, great Jon Pertwee into her stories. The dialogue isn’t always as memorable as it could be but the pace is relentless and if one storyline doesn’t float your boat another will be along in a few minutes that might be more to your tastes. As somebody who enjoys the comforting familiarity of the Pertwee era it was agreeably disconcerting to have reality playfully abandoned for a more schizophrenic piece and throughout all the myriad of locations there is the constant remind of the bond between the Doctor and Jo. I initially thought the conclusion was a bit pat but that was when I thought the ‘Rowe is evil’ reveal was for real…I laughed my head off when I realised I had been hoodwinked one last time! The journey is great fun and for a chance to listen to Manning show off her talent it is another excellent showcase. If I ever need reminding that the Pertwee era was a time of great comfort I will stick on Find and Replace and Many Deaths back to back: 8/10

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