Friday, 21 December 2012

UNIT Dominion Part One

What’s it about: The universe stands on the brink of a dimensional crisis – and the Doctor and Raine are pulled into the very epicentre of it. Meanwhile, on Earth, UNIT scientific advisor Dr Elizabeth Klein and an incarnation of the Doctor she's never encountered before are tested to the limit by a series of bizarre, alien invasions. At the heart of it all is a terrible secret, almost as old as the Time Lords themselves. Reality is beginning to unravel and two Doctors, Klein, Raine and all of UNIT must use all their strength and guile to prevent the whole of creation being torn apart.

Part One written by Nicholas Briggs & Jason Arnopp and directed by Nicholas Briggs

The Real McCoy: What I found hilarious was that a Doctor from the future should pop back and give McCoy’s Doctor some advice and he has the front to suggest that it might not be wise for him to do so! Are you having a laugh with me? This is the sort of thing that the 7th Doctor gets up to all the time! He even goes on to suggest that if he indulged in this type of temporal tinkering then he wouldn’t be the Doctor as we know him…a complaint I have often made about this particular incarnation. I can only assume that McCoy’s Doctor has had his irony chip switched off for this one. Its one of the more amiable meetings between the Doctors, despite the fact that you can tell that the 7th Doctor entirely mistrusts his namesake (and probably with very good reason). He finds it irritating when anyone other than he cross his time stream and interferes. As you could probably imagine, McCoy is the weakest link in the cast (he veers between genius and diabolical with alarming frequency as usual) and his delivery of the line ‘if I ever say LATER kindly shoot me between the eyes’ made me want the ground to swallow me up. You never forget the death of a friend, especially if its your own fault. There are parts of the TARDIS that are hidden even from the Doctor. The way he is so spectacularly fooled by the Tolians makes this usually cunning little fox look like a bit of an idiot.

Art Thief: Because she had so little opportunity to impress in the 7th Doctor Lost Stories range (mind you, didn’t everybody?), Raine gets another opportunity to prove herself in UNIT Dominion. My biggest compliant was that despite the fact that Raine was the new companion in that range the emphasis was constantly on Ace who is so old hat these days she’s a battered old trilby that nobody loves and very few wants to wear. I think they included the Ace cameo just to get those who had similar feelings in a tizzy. What I found strange about her treatment here was how she kept stressing how utterly irrelevant her opinion was almost as if to explain why she is so forgettable before we have already had the chance to make a judgement ourselves. Its either stressed that she is a newbie and therefore experiencing everything through naïve eyes or that the Doctor has completely forgotten about her in the future in which case she barely made an impact on his life. The first thing that Raine mentions is ‘gorgeously decadent luxury biscuits’ to highlight one of the two things that are important about her character (that she’s posh, the other being the title of this section).

The Other Doctor: One of the most exciting things about this box set is the thought of having a new Doctor to explore. Its something Big Finish wanted to market because their trailer went all out to highlight the point and why not? It’s a very exhilarating idea. Alex McQueen might step out of the TARDIS with his ‘smug mode activated’ (as Kryten would say) but he soon settles down as things get serious. I was worried I wouldn’t take to him after those initial few scenes but he’s no more sarcastic than we’ve seen Pertwee or Baker be in the past and he certainly proves to be a formidable presence by the end of the first disc. He steps from the TARDIS brash, bold and just a little bit camp. He displays formidable powers of hypnosis which might be a clue to his identity to those in the know.

Nazi Scientist: Tracey Childs returning to Big Finish was always going to be something to celebrate and she is every bit as magnificent as you would imagine. Klein hasn’t lost her touch, even after the character has been neutered by the Doctor she is still cold, crisp and bitingly intelligent. By taking Klein who made an instant impression in the Main Range and placing her in the heart of this story you have a dramatic framing device that draws the listener straight into the action. There is so much drama inherent in the Doctor manipulating her life and leaving her to work with UNIT in our reality that it astonishes me that nobody has capitalised on that before now. Has the Doctor been spying on her all these years, making sure that she doesn’t revert back to her old ways? Klein put in a request for an assistant many years ago which was summarily denied. I was laughing my head off when Klein suggested that the noisy trumpeting that the TARDIS makes doesn’t exactly match its already dubious disguise! Klein is clever enough to pick out precisely why this Doctor has come to visit (the Node) and refuses to allow him to make a mess and be forced to pick up all the pieces when he buggers off again.

Its Always the Innocents That Suffer: Pete Wilson is such an obvious identification character. A new boy to UNIT, a man with a kid on the way and an innocent amongst the towering intellects on display – if a character as green as this doesn’t scream of victim I don’t know who does. What salvages the character completely is the performance by Bradley Gardner who takes all of these weaknesses and turns them into strengths, highlighting the characters naiveté but in doing so making his accomplishments throughout the box set all the more impressive. The accent is refreshing, there aren’t enough Geordies in Doctor Who on audio and like Molly O’Brien in Dark Eyes there seems to be a real effort on Nick Briggs’ part to bring a larger national presence to his stories. Wilson gets up close and personal with his first alien menace in this story, losing friends and proving his mettle in the field.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’ve missed some top notch ding dongs I can tell you!’
‘Its hardly blackmail to suggest a tit for tat arrangement’ ‘Except in this case you’re refusing to give me the tat I require unless I give you some…umm, bad analogy.’
‘Then…Raine will fall!’

Standout Performance: I’d say the one to listen out for at this stage is Alex McQueen who has the most to prove as a potential new audio Doctor from the future. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere he is a little full on in his first handful of scenes (almost as if he deliberately wants to alienate people) but soon settles down towards the end of the disc to a quietly menacing persona with the odd burst of arrogance.

Great Ideas: Referencing the UNIT vaults could be a pointer towards the Black Archive from the Sarah Jane Adventures or the vault that featured in the Companion Chronicle Tales from the Vault. Either way, it gave me a little fan boy glow. I never trusted the Tolians from the outset – there is something about aliens that try and package themselves as victims that really illicits suspicion. Things are never quite what they want you to believe. Telling the same story from either side of the dimensional divide has a lot of potential, showing cause and effect and vice versa. The Doctor finds the idea that the Time Lords might not be around in the future absolutely ridiculous. The Dimensioneers are a mythical race of awesomely powerful travellers, pioneers who dared to bestrode the dimensions, to seek the ultimate balance of the powers of eternity. They are otherwise known as the Time Lords. Dragging us back into the Doctor/Raine storyline with a shocking bump, Raine is dropped from an obscene height at the Doctor’s request. A chain reaction of interdimensional corridors, a stampede of lifeforms forced to abandon their dying dimensions (at least there is a good reason for all these alien threats on Earth all of a sudden), seeking refuge and energy from other realms. Its what the Time Lords feared years ago and why they forbade interdimensional travel. That’s a terrific concept to fuel the set, reaching for an epic feel and achieving it in spades. The Sky Head appearance at the climax is just bizarre…like the Face of Boe filling the skies over London. Let’s see how things develop.

Audio Landscape: Some of the transitioning between the dimensions is especially memorable and the sudden cut to a deafening whine when the bullets scream during the conclusion is very memorable too. There’s the feeling that Martin Johnson is approaching this material in an entirely fresh way to try and make as involving an experience as possible. Big Ben, trains zooming past, splatters of rain, the TARDIS buffered by time winds, clinking tea cups, alarm, bad static, the alternative Doctor’s new TARDIS materialising, a biting wind, walking on gravel, heartbeat, background chatter, the metallic screeching of the Mind Leeches, releasing a volley of bullets, Raine’s shocking scream as she falls to her death, the echoing landscape of the dimensional divide, the hideous scream of the Sky Head.

Musical Cues: I love the mad choral sting when the Doctor and Raine are dragged through the Dimensional Divide, it adds a touch of the epic to proceedings.

Isn’t it Odd: This is a real case of ‘we can’t win’ but the very idea of Ace winding up on Gallifrey really bugs me. Not because that is what they decided to do but because Big Finish didn’t have the courage of their convictions and not go down this route because certain vocal fans made their feelings perfectly clear that they were appalled that the Lost Stories dared to deviate from what they considered to be her natural end. Big Finish may deny that this was ever the case but that is the only reason I can imagine the ending of Thin Ice showing a complete rejection of the idea that Ace winds up on Gallifrey and then for her to be there at the beginning of this box set. Pandering to the fans like this is never a good idea and by doing so you threaten to fall into the same tap that JNT did all those years ago. After the stack of opening developments (the other Doctor, the return of Klein and Raine, the dimensional divide) I drifted off during the unengaging second half. The Mind Leeches are a good idea but they aren’t explored in a particularly winning approach here and there is plenty of untapped potential wasted in their short appearance. We spend so much time away from the 7th Doctor and Raine during the middle sections of this story that they feel irrelevant to the events that are taking place.

Standout Scene: There’s a gorgeous moment towards the end of the disc where Klein takes the Node from the Doctor that reminded me of similar events between the Doctor and the Brigadier in Spearhead from Space. In fact there is a terrific season seven vibe to a lot of their relationship. A smug, but essential Doctor, an assistant called Liz who works with him out of necessity and a military leader who doesn’t always make the right call.

Result: A quiet introduction that gathers some impressive credentials and has lots of clever detail and intriguing character interaction. Briggs understands that these discs need to be an hour long so as not to outstay their welcome and to leave the audience wanting more (whereas his fellow producer Gary Russell has no conception of economical storytelling and let every tale in the Gallifrey IV box set grow to monstrous proportions). It’s a bit unfocused in places and deals with one threat too many rather than spotlighting one, really memorable menace. What the constant bombardment of danger does highlight is how busy UNIT are these days but it does that to the detriment of this being treated as an individual story (to be fair to Briggs & Arnopp they never pretend that this is anything but one epic tale chopped up into four discs). Where UNIT Dominion scores (and scores big) is in assembling so many memorable characters that offer a great deal of interest to fans of the audio adventures (especially with Klein and Raine returning) but will also provide much curiosity in anybody coming to the company afresh. Tracey Childs and Alex McQueen make the biggest impact and their relationship looks set to evolve into something quite special and the only weak link in a very impressive cast is Sylvester McCoy who veers alarmingly between brilliant and appalling. There is a real sense of an epic being set up at this point and it certainly makes far more of an impact than the UNIT miniseries that was attempted before. There’s a great deal of promise to this set up, let’s hope the box set goes on to deliver: 7/10

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