Monday, 9 September 2013

Shockwave written by James Swallow and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: In the far future, the inhabitants of Tarsus Six face a desperate struggle to evacuate their world before their sun, Tarsus Ultra, collapses into a cataclysmic spatial anomaly. When the Doctor navigates the TARDIS to a space station orbiting Tarsus Six, Ace assumes that he intends offer their assistance. But it soon becomes clear that the Doctor has an agenda of his own. With the TARDIS immobilised, Ace realises that their own lives are as much in danger as those of the fleeing inhabitants. The race is on to escape the destruction of Tarsus Six and the devastating shockwave that will follow, reaching out and destroying everything in its wake.

The Real McCoy: Swallow wisely keeps the Doctor in the shadows throughout his story, capitalising on that dark, purring observer that made such an impact in season 26. Ace doesn’t think that he is a magnet for trouble but more rather trouble was a magnet for him. This is a Doctor with no need for psychic paper, Ace wasn’t sure if he knew how to hypnotise people into giving them an appropriate cover story or if he just knew the right thing to say at the right time. Trying to keep up with the Doctor’s plans is a full time job and one that Ace did not sign up for. His latest incarnation considers this period one of his more circumspect eras. How interesting for the Doctor, her Doctor, the master manipulator to be manoeuvred by a future incarnation of himself. I wonder how it feels when the boot is on the other foot and you are on the receiving end of a good sharp kick.

Troubled Teen: As soon as Sophie Aldred starts belting out that cringeworthy slang that Ace was so often lumbered with you are instantly transported back to late eighties Who, a time of extreme naiveté in some ways and a time of exciting experimentation in others. When you travelled with a Time Lord and were a wanderer through time and space, every day was different from the one before. She has picked up a fair amount of technobabble on her travels and could just about understand what the Doctor was going on about when he got lost in Time Lord speak. Probably about as much as he understands her cod street talk. She still winces at the sound of her real name. For Ace to suggest her nickname is a title like ‘Your Ladyship’ is hilarious because she really is anything but. Whilst I find the enormous rucksack that she carries about hilariously cumbersome on screen in her early stories, it makes perfect sense for one of the most resourceful companions the Doctor ever travelled with to step out of the TARDIS with so much gear for every eventually. Step ladders, explosives, a baseball, water…she’s got something for every occasion. For Ace, having to leave a young girl behind to die is failiure on her part despite the fact that none of this disaster is her fault. Although she has heard the word bandied about a lot back home, you really can’t understand what the word awesome meant until you have watched a world in its death throes. Even with the worst monsters you can understand them, perhaps even reason with them but the blind destruction of the shockwave is devastation in its purest form. Not thinking or feeling, not working to a plan. Just demolishing everything in its path. That would be a shock to anybody’s system, the sort of fear you might feel if facing the force of an oncoming tsunami.  Ace learns a terrible lesson about saving the wrong person, giving a girl the gift of life because of her presence in this time zone who then abuses that kindness and spells out certain death for everybody. Her relationship with Nine Jay twists and turns unexpectedly, forcing some dramatic reactions from the tortured teen. The eleventh Doctor reminds Ace of a quirky geography teacher. She undergoes something of a spiritual experience, questioning whether the shockwave genuinely changed Nine Jay or whether it simply consumed her. The fact that she is questioning shows that she is open to the possibility of enlightenment. That feels very season 26, Ace experiencing a crisis of faith and the story refusing to insist on a direction for the character either way.

Standout Performance: I don’t want to be hard on what is generally an extremely passionate and good-natured reading by Sophie Aldred but I do have to question the overdone Scottish accent that she adopts to play the seventh Doctor with. His Scots brogue was never that pronounced on screen (its more of a calming soft lilt) and at times I was reminded strongly that this was an interpretation of the character rather than with some of the other readings of the DotD series (especially Hines, Ward and Bryant) where I was so convinced by the translation that they simply came alive in their own terms. This aside though, Aldred comes to the story with all the vigour and energy that she approached the TV series with in the late 80s and as such it is as effortless to lose yourself in as the best of Ace’s era on screen (Remembrance, Greatest Show, Ghost Light). It’s probably the weakest take on the eleventh Doctor though, especially coming after Nicola Bryant’s spot on interpretation.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The space station blew apart like a fist full of glitter thrown into the air…’ – sign this guy up, Big Finish, this is top quality description of the kind I haven’t heard since Paul Magrs at his best.
‘All you could to was try and outrun it.’

Great Ideas: In a few moments of various audio environments, James Swallow manages to capture just how diverse each day was when you agreed to travel aboard the TARDIS. A gigantic angry bruise in the sky…Swallow has a real gift for descriptive language (his novel The Peacemaker was beautifully delivered with similar descriptive beauty).  A sun that is falling into a spatial anomaly (for a moment I thought I had wandered into Star Trek: Voyager), throwing out a lethal space/time energy effect charged with artron particles. The Senders are considered a doomsday cult by many, believing that the collapse of the star was pre-ordained and waiting for the Shockwave to arrive. They believe that when it hits they will be transformed by the energy, ascend into a new form higher being. The writer leaves the audience with no illusion that if the populace didn’t make it onto one of the ships that were engorged with refugees, they would be left behind to die when the Shockwave consumes Tarsus Six. The thought of a space race for survival is terrifying, each ship trying to outmanoeuvre the others to try and survive the awesome speed and destruction of the shockwave. Swallow adopts a trick that was so favoured during the shows first two seasons cutting off the Doctor and his companion from the TARDIS. This time the artron energy that the shockwave emits would poison the ship if they attempted to escape, leaving the travellers stranded in a very dangerous situation and hanging on for their lives until the end. In the vault are the contents of art galleries and museums, rescued from the fires of destruction. The Doctor’s mission is to obtain after the Voice of Stone, a small cube discovered by the colonists of Tarsus four centuries ago. He needs to listen to what it has to say. It is from Gallifrey and recognises Ace, one of the communication cubes that featured in The War Games and The Doctor’s Wife.

Audio Landscape: Lapping waves, alarms, screams, a desperate crowd attempting to escape, the low chanting of the Senders, a destructive wave bouncing off the shields, a screaming baby, a T-Mat capsule activating, the door breaking.

Musical Cues: Daniel Brett deserves a massive round of applause for not only capturing the horror of Keff McCulloch’s synthesised dance beats in his score but somehow managing to mould that style into something rather catchy. Of all the stories in the series, Shockwave is the one that most describes the era that it came from through the soundtrack and left me beaming because of it.

Standout Scene: The eleventh Doctor’s cameo in this adventure is the very reason that the Doctor got involved in the first place, trapped inside the cube and calling to his former self to rescue him. It’s another delightful appearance and I am really looking forward to seeing how these jigsaw pieces of cameos come together.

Result: Another enjoyable offering, although perhaps not quite as strong as the last three. Shockwave opens with an incredible first fifteen minutes, presenting the audience with a dramatic disaster scenario and realising it through some strong characterisation of Ace and plenty of evocative description. It is almost too good an opening that the rest can only feel anti-climactic in contrast. Once we get on board the spacecraft trying to escape the path of the shockwave, the story becomes a much more routine affair albeit buoyed up by Sophie Aldred’s brisk, peppy narration and plenty of strong dialogue for all the characters. Unlike some of the other entries in this series, Shockwave feels as though it is being told entirely from Ace’s point of view, highlighting the unknowable alien quality of the seventh Doctor. It is at this point in the series that I think a huge round of applause should go to John Ainsworth who has not only made each story an enjoyable experience in it’s own right (even Hunters of the Earth, which I have found the weakest of the series to date but still with much to recommend it) but also captured the essence of each Doctor’s era with a real sense of affection and authenticity. Shockwave perfectly slips into the style of late 80s Who; straight to the point, fast paced, somewhat melodramatic and a little synthetic. The score is excellent, channelling Keff McCulloch but managing to be rather good in spite of that. I have never made a secret of the fact that the seventh Doctor and Ace aren’t my favourite of audio bedfellows (adding the sexy Scouse to the mix worked a spell on me for much of their run together though) and I have to admit this was the story I was looking forward to the least in this run. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be this pleasurable to listen to, Aldred’s lively narration, the more complex than it initially appears characterisation and the concluding appearance of you know who helped this to fly by like a dream. If space opera isn’t my favourite variety of Who, this is still a superior example of the genre: 7/10


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