Monday, 11 February 2013

Cobwebs written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: “You know what cobwebs mean. Spiders…” In search of a cure for a sickness that’s so far claimed six billion lives, scientist Nyssa arrives at an abandoned gene-tech facility on the toxic planet Helheim. ‘Hellhole’, more like. Nyssa’s not alone. The TARDIS has also been drawn to the Helheim base – and in its cobweb-coated corridors, she soon runs into the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough, her travelling companions of half a century past. But who, or what, has engineered this strange reunion? The Black Guardian, perhaps? The answer’s here, in the dark. With the Cractids. In the cobwebs.

An English Gentleman: The one positive thing that has come of Tegan’s return to the fold is that Peter Davison is clearly getting off on the reunion of his old television team. He’s on fire throughout this story, firing off the one liners that Morris gives him with casual insouciance, fixing ten problems at once and crossing swords with his multitude of companions as though that was what he was born to do. Compared to the Key 2 Time trilogy that I have just listened to you might as we assume that a different actor is playing the role because Davison’s is completely re-energised. Listen to how he adjusts his performance when he meets up with Nyssa again, he’s not so much shocked as quietly elated. I think he’s always had a bit of a thing for her and now he can enjoy her company on a more even keel. Turlough trusts the Doctor and he thinks it would be ungracious not to return the compliment. Sometimes he feels that he spends half of his time chasing after that woman (guess who he is talking about?). The Doctor is genuinely shocked that Nyssa doesn’t want to travel with them again…he would do anything to drive a wedge between himself and Tegan.

Alien Orphan: Now Nyssa gets the top billing these days where she belongs. Back in the day she was a mere irrelevance unless they needed something to focus on during the filler stories (Four to Doomsday, Black Orchid) and by the time Mark Strickson was introduced Sarah Sutton had pretty much been consigned to the TARDIS full time whilst he and Fielding did all the interesting things (well, at least in Mawdryn Undead). Now Sarah Sutton has earned her place at the top of the billboard, having carved out a name for herself with Big Finish with her awesome run of stories since the company began (and some of those stories are fantastic; Spare Parts, Creatures of Beauty, Circular Time, The Eternal Summer…). Bonus points to the Big Finish team for thinking up something a little more imaginative than simply setting a bunch of stories between Undead and Terminus just so they can justify this team being reunited. Instead they went for the far more interesting approach of Nyssa’s character returning to the fold long after she left the Doctor, has grown up and found her place in the universe. It means she can be far more assertive with Tegan, far more on par with the Doctor (think of the 4th Doctor and Romana II) and give Turlough the benefit of her hindsight and wisdom.

I love the fact that Nyssa is introduced on her own adventure, piloting a ship to the facility with her robot in tow. She’s got real guts, exploring the rundown, darkened facility with the critical eye of a scientist whilst her robot guardian shivers in the shadows. Its been about fifty years since she last saw the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough but for them it has only been two days. Her work with the Lazars ended almost fifteen years ago, since she developed a vaccine there hasn’t been another case for almost two decades. Nyssa has been working on Rictus virus too, but she has been trying to find a cure for the re-engineered version that is about to be created now. That’s a really interesting ethical dilemma…she could stop it from ever being created but then she wouldn’t have wound up in the position of being able to if it hadn’t been created in the first place. An ethical paradox?

Mouth on Legs: ‘Great! Another gloomy old corridor!’ How could I describe my reaction of the return of Tegan succinctly? A bad case of gut rot, probably. She’s never been my favourite companion. In fact, Susan aside, she might be my least favourite companion so unfortunately I could not welcome the news of her arrival with any great excitement (unlike when I heard Katy Manning was going to turn up in the Sarah Jane Adventures where I was so excited that I called Simon at work just to tell him in a breathless jumble of words!). Tegan moans an awful lot, far more than is necessary (or believable), she’s brought to life by an actress of variable quality (I’m sorry but I just call it as I see it) and she literally took it upon herself to pollute the majority of the Davison era with her dreary, ‘can’t-we-get-back-to-the-TARDIS?’ attitude. She felt like she never wanted to be there, the Doctor felt like he never wanted her there and overall it was a terribly unsatisfying time if you wanted to enjoy the Doctor’s adventures through his companions. Its also quite galling that Fielding has been verbally slaughtering the series since she left all those years ago (check out the DVDs of stories like Kinda and Snakedance to see how she can really go to town on it) and has annually rebuffed Big Finish’s offer of a part in their audio series since day one. She doesn’t come across especially likeably (saying that I think Fielding rather likes that fact) and for me can be tarred with the same brush as Tom Baker, coming to the party later after sticking a finger to the series for many years. It just doesn’t cut it. Saying all of that, Big Finish have been known to revolutionise both Doctors (especially Sixie) and companions (can you say Melanie Bush?) but also turn some people off characters to (I was on the fence with Ace but now I actively dislike her at times). Which way was the delightful Ms Jovanka going to go…?

Oh dear. She’s whinging her head off from the first second of the story to the last. I don’t think there was one line of dialogue that Janet Fielding didn’t interpret as needing to ‘say like you’ve just stepped in shit.’ Tegan is moaning because she doesn’t like the idea of Turlough travelling with them (and no its isn’t because she wants the Doctor all to herself, pipe down all you shippers at the back!) and whilst she makes something of a compelling argument she is simply so shrill and unapproachable that I wanted the Doctor to best her anyway. Its true that she is at least very honest, there is nothing that she would say behind Turlough’s back that she wouldn’t say to his face. More’s the pity…because now we have to listen to it twice. Then once all the bile is extracted from her gut she turns round and tells Turlough that he should stay! You know when hackneyed male figures in fiction stick their hands on their hips and cry ‘women!’ at something exasperating…I think that should be adopted here but the word changed to ‘Tegan!’ She’s about to deploy her fruitiest language when the Doctor tells her not to scream but then she points the maintenance spiders… Tegan suggests that if they landed anywhere halfway decent that you wouldn’t hear a peep out of her but he’s taken her to worlds specifically designed to recuperate, English manor houses, a 1920s fancy dress ball, back to Heathrow where she wanted to go more than anywhere, a public school and a leisure liner…and she managed to moan at all those too. What a fibber. I loved the moment when Tegan tried to catch up on fifty years worth of gossip with Nyssa because for once she comes across as a real human being and not an approximation of one (a bit like Ian Levine). The Doctor tolerates her to point but when she is being irrational he finally snaps at her (‘how much more evidence do you need?’). I would be upset if I was confronted with my own skeleton and my mortality stared me right in the face…but I wouldn’t start erupting like an emotional volcano, blaming everybody in sight, threatening to tear down time itself to prevent that future and wailing like a banshee in pain. This woman is simply so unconvincing. The Doctor continually tries engaging with her but I would just abandon her, or possibly have an accident when passing an airlock and go back to the others and shrug my shoulders and say ‘shit happens.’ How could she suggest that the Doctor wants people to die when he has a chance of warning them of their impending doom? Strangely enough when Donna made similar objections in The Fires of Pompeii it wasn’t half as objectionable (the emphasis was on Donna wanting to rather than the Doctor not wanting to which makes all the difference). ‘There’s nothing you could say that would make me less furious right now!’ Oh shut up you inbred harpy! Considering the Doctor has already taken them back in time then remaining in the TARDIS like a chicken shit seems a little cowardly. Better to go out and face the future, whatever it holds. Who wants to die knowing they spent their last hours acting like a scaredy cat? ‘I’d like to know how things could be much worse!’ – so would I, they would only get better if somebody shoved a sock in your mouth. ‘Why do I always have to be the one who gets tied up and left behind?’ – because it’s the only way to get rid of you! Nyssa as good as tells Tegan to shut up when she proves irritable during a tense moment…its about time she did that! ‘Pulled the legs of any spiders lately?’ – she couldn’t be less helpful in an emergency.

Another Alien Orphan: Turlough is in this too. Although you could barely tell with Tegan hogging the limelight (as usual). He’s fine, but then Strickson always comes to these stories with such enthusiasm for the part its really hard not to like both the actor and the character (Doctor Who going for a potential murderer in the TARDIS was hard hitting for the time…nowadays you’ve nobody if you haven’t wiped out at least one Dalek army). He had the opportunity to kill the Doctor over and over but didn’t and tried to end his life to cut off his allegiance with the Black Guardian. Tegan just sees that as incompetence (naturally). Anybody can make a mistake. Turlough feels as though he has to prove himself to Tegan (personally, I wouldn’t bother!), he doesn’t want to be a third wheel or a gooseberry. The Janet Fielding shield ensures that Mark Strickson barely gets a look in. Honestly, I don’t remember him doing anything of note in the first half.

Standout Performance: I suppose I can’t say that Janet Fielding doesn’t throw herself into the script but her hit rate with the lines sounding convincing is about one in three. Early in part four she has trouble making ‘so?’ sound plausible (seriously…check it out). Sarah Sutton provides a studious older Nyssa who is much more believable but since Sutton has been able to develop the characters confidence in the wealth of stories she has appeared in to this point its not as big of a leap as you would expect. Davison gets the plaudits here, especially in his breathless frustration at having to deal with the Australian wench.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Do you think it could be a Black Guardian trap!’ such a delicious parody of Tegan and the series penchant for unnaturalistic story-affixing dialogue at the time. Davison’s reaction is especially amusing.
‘Tegan your capacity to complain never ceases to amaze me!’
‘It seems the future has a habit of happening whether we like it or not!’

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Surprise surprise! You’re on the Doctor’s side as usual!’ – I hated this piece of dialogue so much that I created this little section simply to spotlight it. What is Tegan? Four years old?

Great Ideas: I find it hilarious that the Doctor is stuck with the cheerful as ever Tegan and the don’t turn your back on him Turlough and Nyssa is travelling with a camp, nervous as hell robot. If I had a choice I would much rather pick the second team to have adventures with. Loki sounds like a man in a suit, proving that a robot companion could have worked had they not tried to be too ambitious with the design. The key is in giving the thing a personality that the audience can hook onto (like K.9) rather than focusing on technical trickery. The news that the TARDIS crew arrived over forty years previously causes a sinking feeling in the gut…have they caused this devastation in their own personal futures? Four bodies, or at least four skeletons that resemble the fifth Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough. It’s a great cliffhanger because it captures you in the moment although if you have seen enough of these types of stories then you’ll know this sort of thing can be set up to make them appear as though they will die here in the future. Probably by themselves to ensure the chain of events plays out as it should. Nyssa mentions that the bodies could be from an alternate timeline like the ones they encountered in Stockbridge (The Eternal Summer, also written by Morris) and I’m glad he mentioned that because anybody with a long enough memory would remember that the last time this situation played out (bodies of the Doctor and his companions discovered by the real ones) in The Space Museum that was absolutely the case. At one point Tegan actually makes a good point (I know, I’m as surprised as you are!) that the best way to prevent this timeline from taking place is to not go back in time and allow for its possibility. But the author decrees (by way of the Doctor’s temporal rules) that it must be so. It strikes me that Cobwebs is the perfect script for televised Who, taking the same location (one set) and showing it at various stages of (dis)repair. The objective of the mission is to genetically re-engineer and new and more powerful strain of Rictus virus, one which can only be cured using a product licensed to the Company. Standard marketing practice; create a product and then create demand. Others call it economic mass murder. There is something very sinister about having your memories stolen and not getting them back until you complete the mission. Perhaps this is what happened to Captain Jack. There are two rival consciences inside EDGARs head trying to vie for supremacy over his brain. EDGAR downloaded a copy of himself into Loki’s mind after he had travelled back with them in the TARDIS – two EDGARS in the same brain. He is the cause of his own madness, a self perpetuating loop. Bragg smashing the memories of one of his team is spectacularly cruel. Imagine losing your past forever? If Bragg leaves now then the whole course of history will be changed when he releases the virus 30 years too early. Bragg is the sample, the virus is coursing through his bloodstream. The TARDIS crew thought their bodies were covered in cobwebs because the maintenance spiders were trying to bring them back to life. EDGAR believes that when the four of them return to the base, it’ll be able to travel back in time and make amends. With ruthless computer logic its decided that if it can’t wait for them to return it will have to make them.

Audio Landscape: Nyssa’s spacecraft entering the atmosphere, Loki’s bleeping, spacesuit, the TARDIS having a massive paddy, lights clicking on, the hull breathing, horrid scuttling, screaming spiders, clanging metal, alarm, EDGAR shutting down, Loki smashing and fizzing, jungle assault, airlocks opening, the Cractids tearing away at flesh.

Musical Cues: It’s a great Steve Foxon score that really captures the energy of the story and the excitement (or not) of the returning companions. Check out the isolated score independent of all the Tegan grousing to see how effective it really is. 

Isn’t it Odd: There’s definitely an atmosphere to the Doctor and his chums trying to prevent their deaths in the first half of the story but there isn’t a great deal of incident. Perhaps a few less scenes of Tegan lamenting and a bit more action might have helped speed things along a little. You could argue that this is Jonathan Morris’ audio version of his very popular novel, Festival of Death. Both stories deal with paradoxes, both stories deal with the Doctor having to confront the possibility of his death, both stories feature a computer with psychological issues (guilty for a decision they had to make in the past) and both stories have a non linear narrative that allows the TARDIS crew to see the results of their interference before they head back to do something about it. And both see the villain outfoxed and cursing the Doctor and co at the end. However one of them features the 4th Doctor, Romana and K.9 and the other features the 5th Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough. The former wins through for that reason alone but it is also much more intricate, satisfying and funny. Cobwebs has a good story, Festival of Death has a great one.

Standout Scene: Whilst I like the end of part three because it shows the escalating tension of the pre-determined future coming true it is essentially exactly the same cliffhanger to part one.

Result: The first episode of Cobwebs is purely designed to get everybody in a state about the return of Tegan and Turlough, re-introduce Nyssa as an older character and enjoy that 1980s atmosphere of exploring a derelict location (Mawdryn Undead,  Terminus and Enlightenment feature similar explorations in their first episodes). For the most part this succeeds admirably and with some fine Jonny Morris dialogue steering the action its probably the most energised Davison adventure for some time (although your reaction will be determined on your opinion of Tegan, as exemplified above and below). The central mystery is a good one (if not entirely original to anybody who has put themselves through The Space Museum) although there are times when the script is seriously lacking incident and seems to allow too much time for characters to stand around arguing with each other. Barnaby Edwards’ direction is as stellar as ever, he builds up a terrific atmosphere in the early episodes and he gives the more animated moments of the script a real sense of urgency (aided by a superb Steve Foxon score). The second half improves with the pace picking up as the future catches up with our friends and Morris mines the morally bankrupt economy of the time to provide some tense scenes. Unfortunately the nuts and bolts of the story are a little too close to Morris’ earlier Festival of Death for my liking. Terrance Dicks has been mining his oeuvre for ages now…I just expect something more original from Morris. My one serious complaint about Cobwebs is a personal one. I don’t like Tegan and I find Janet Fielding’s approach overly hysterical and unpersuasive. At times I desperately wanted to skip to the next track just to get away from the characters horrific, unceasing wailing (‘you might want to stick around and get killed but I’d rather not if its all the same to you!’). For Cobwebs and me that is a bit of a problem because Tegan is specifically spotlighted here and she poisons great swathes of the story. Somehow this is even worse than her appearance in The Gathering. Without that dermatological (she made me want to itch all over) hindrance it would score an easy 8 but as it is: 6/10

11 comments:

Paul said...

Haha! I just KNEW you would hate Tegan's return :) To be fair I'm not that keen either, I preferred Nyssa back in the day and I still do. She's far more interesting and, frankly, better acted.

Having said that, I love Cobwebs. In fact, I love this whole trilogy.
It's just a shame that because Janet Fielding has come back this apparently means we're stuck with this TARDIS team for the forseeable future (and the trilogies since have been of variable quality). I would like to have seen Nyssa come back after Tegan had left so it was the Doctor, Nyssa and Turlough.

Joe Ford said...

Oh isn't she just AWFUL? I think I suffered a headache listening to her drone on in this story. Like you say the story itself is a good one (but in no way original as I highlight in the review) and the production side is excellent. Unfortunately I can't fully endorse a story where I wanted to skip tracks quite as often as this one.

Gus Fallon said...

Personally, I've always really liked Tegan and was delighted when she came back. Things are certainly lively with her around!
On the other hand, I've never been a big fan of Nyssa. Sarah Sutton's performances are always good but the character is just too nice and calm to be interesting. She's quite a dull character, though admittedly a likeable one.

The lack of variety in the Fifth Doctor stories is a source of irritation to me, if I'm honest. My usual reaction to Nyssa being in a new story is "Oh great. A Fifth Doctor story with Nyssa. What a novelty." I wish that they'd make more stories with the Fifth Doctor and Peri.

Joe Ford said...

You might say lively - I say bloody annoying! But its all subjective at the end of the day. With Nyssa I always felt like there was more potential than what we saw on screen because of her back story and Big Finish have set out to prove that. I find she compliments the Doctor rather than always rubbin against him. Tegan is just too shrill and too argumentative to be entirely believable to me. I have never in my life met anybody this objectionable...and Doctor Who has never shown us somebody who enjoys her travels with him so little. She's just not terribly likable.

Mind when you say about variety does that extend to the recent run of stories for this team then? Since Tegan and Turlough's return it has been four trilogy in a row for them. Surely the 'same old Doctor/Nyssa' should extend to the same old 'Doctor/Nyssa/Tegan/Turlough' now? I'd love to see some more variety in the fifth Doctor stories...especially since somebody out of this foursome always tends to be forgotten because four is an unwieldy number of regulars to handle.

Gus Fallon said...

Well, I certainly prefer the more recent run of Nyssa / Tegan / Turlough to the ones where the Doctor only travels with Nyssa (as I've always felt that Tegan and Turlouh make for more interesting companions) but I'd still like stories featuring other companions occasionally. If you look at the Sixth Doctor stories, they've had him travel with Charley, Jamie, Evelyn and Brewster, Flip and now Mel since 2009.

The Fifth Doctor stories just don't have that variety anymore. Prior to 2008, they at least had stories featuring him travelling with Nyssa, Peri and Erimem and (very occasionally) Turlough. The only Nyssa-less stories since "The Bride of Peladon" in January 2008 have been the Key to Time trilogy and "The Burning Prince", none of which I would say were better than just okay.

Joe Ford said...

I have to say I am looking forward to The Emerald Tiger and The Butcher of Brisbane but I've already heard the middle trilogy and would probably say it was the weakest since the Key2Time one (with Kiss of Death and Rat Trap proving particularly bad bu Sontar not far behind. I completely agree about the lack of variety - old Sixie seems very lucky in that respect but I do think the same rule should apply to the current fifth Doctor line up which will have been twelve stories in four trilogies in a row. I have to say I really enjoyed Demons of Red Lodge and The Burning Prince. Mind I wish we could get some sort of running story going with Sixie again like they did with him and Evelyn...that's why I really want to see Flip back.

I *know* Tegan calms down a bit because I recall her being really rather amusing in Sontar and Tiger but I do think this was a bit much for her opening story. She always was an inveterate moaner but this was taken so far it was almost a parody.

Gus Fallon said...

The irritating thing about the Fifth Doctor trilogies is that they hardly ever seem to have any proper story arcs attached to them. The only real exceptions are the Key to Time trilogy and, at a stretch, the Stockbridge one. Even before the trilogy format, he didn't really have any, though he had plenty of great stories. When he was part of one, it was usually only as the opening story in a multi-Doctor arc.

Contrast that with the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Doctors' many great story arcs, my personal favourite being the Cassie / Hex one across the Sixth and Seventh Doctor releases. By the looks of things, this season of the Fourth Doctor Adventures is going to have a story arc. Even the First Doctor has a few in the Companion Chronicles! The Fifth Doctor is really the odd man out in that respect.

Joe Ford said...

Do you know I had never thought of that. Odd man out syndrome. Poor Davison. I often find that his stories are the runts of the litter (although I have a friend who would strongly argue that point!) these days, although i know some reviewers who would level that criticism at Sixie (the very idea). A really strong story arc for Davison would be really refreshing...shall we start campaigning, Gus?

Gus Fallon said...

Indeed. I think we should picket Big Finish!

That's not to say that I don't love many, many of Big Finish's standalone stories but, perhaps since I've been spoiled by American sci-fi shows from the 1990s onwards, I expect a bit of serialisation every now and then! It seems odd that Peter Davison has never really gotten a strong story arc whereas all of the later BF Doctors have at least two or three to their name.

Paul said...

Oh God, Tegan is so annoying. I have always preferred Nyssa. The Doctor clearly gets along far better with her than Tegan too. Her backstory is more interesting, her character more appealing and she genuinely wants to explore space and time with the Doctor. Unlike a certain mouthy, complaining old boot we could mention.

I feel that BF have given Nyssa the same sort of boost they gave to Colin's Doctor and Sarah Sutton has very much risen to the challenge.

I sort of agree about the trilogies, although I quite like the looser feel to the Fifth Doctor tales. I'm actually rather fed up of the trilogy set-up now. It worked for a while but I think it's hindering the range a bit - particularly with some of the lacklustre entries we've had.

I personally find the Seventh Doctor stories to be the most hit and miss of BF's entire back catalogue and the Cassie/Hex storylines have been tedious and over-extended.

If we go back to individual stories per month, we'd probably get some Doctor and Peri stories back in the mix. As it stands with Janet Fielding back on board, I suspect we won't be getting anything different for some time to come...

Anonymous said...

One problem with this "old Nyssa arc" is that the character does not seems to have changed much because she always acted like an adult, and it was worse when she was rejuvenated. Many of these stories could easily be for young Nyssa and Tegan (and even with Adric in Season 19), but without constantly ignored Turlough. I would have liked to see Nyssa be more assertive with Tegan and give "Turlough" the benefit of his wisdom and hindsight like you said but unfortunately that did not happen.