Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Evil One written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The TARDIS lands in the cargo hold of luxury space cruiser the Moray Rose. The crew and passengers are missing. The agents of Inter-Galaxy Insurance are determined to find out what’s happened and the shadowy Interplanetary Police Inspector Efendi is showing a very particular interest. Caught up in all this, the Doctor and Leela find themselves facing a horde of metal mantis-like aliens. But throughout it all, Leela is haunted by terrible nightmares and the dawning realization that everything she knows about her life is a lie.

Teeth and Curls: He's going to solve the mystery of the Moray Rose because he has nothing better to do this morning. Where I find Briggs' handling of Leela to be a little vague and unsure he seems to be getting much better at giving Baker's Doctor some witty and colourful dialogue. I loved his overly complicated explanation of how he knows he way around the ship, secret passages and all ('Leonard who was known to be a grog-lover but he also loved cats too...'). For all his guile the Doctor is no match for a born killer. Clearly he doesn't trust Leela to not avail herself of Janis thorns again because he has knocked up a batch of the antidote in the TARDIS laboratory. Lucky for him otherwise he would be a dead man. That angry streak to his character emerges again, this time sending the hypnotising pulse back to attack the aliens and leave them all out cold. He's something of an avenging angel this season, vicious with his enemies. Perhaps that should be commented on. The Doctor asking Leela about her father and stopping to listen is a welcome moment. He is trying to understand her better.

Noble Savage: On the surface this is exactly what the 4DAs should be doing, looking at the regulars backstory's and using them to explore the characters further. It's been done very effectively with the regulars throughout the 80s in other Big Finish productions over the years; Nyssa (Spare Parts, Creatures of Beauty), Peri (& the Piscon Paradox, The Reaping), Turlough (Loups-Garoux) and Ace (The Settling, Afterlife). After playing it pretty safe throughout the first two season of 4DAs (with the exception of the probing Wrath of the Iceni), it appears that the writers are finally starting to shake things up a bit, drop the ultra traditional angle and explore the relationship of the Doctor and Leela a little more. When I read the synopsis of The Evil One I was quite excited. Could this be another Creatures of Beauty for Nick Briggs and a return to form after being the safest pair of hands in this range since its inception? Unfortunately not. Probing Leela by looking at her relationship with her father and comparing that to her relationship with the Doctor is a great idea in theory but it written so cack-handedly and with little to actually say on the subject I wonder why they even bothered to bring it up. This is characterisation, but it's scraps rather than anything meaty and searching. Leela is being persuaded to doubt herself and her role in her fathers death but the story never stops to ask why she should have an issue with that. Death is a way of life amongst her tribe and a reality that Leela has never shied away from the reality of. Was her relationship with her father an fractious one? Did she secretly want him out of the way? Did he stunt her growth? Did she live in his shadow and was she afraid to step out of it once he was gone? There are so many fascinating things we could learn about this most unusual of father/daughter relationships and the story never dares to shine a light on it at all. Why would Leela not tell the Doctor the truth about her troubling nightmares about her father? She is rarely as reticent about anything, least of all her fears. How rubbish is the concept that Leela has been an agent of Xoanon all this time? A sleeper agent unaware of her real instructions - to kill the Doctor! Louise Jameson tries her best to make this material work, spitting out threats to the Doctor as though she might rip his head off and shit down his neck but she's fighting a losing battle. 'I am the Evil One and you are dead!' How can you find the shades in dialogue like that? There is an attempt to provide a summary on Leela's experiences in this story at the climax but it pretty much boils down to 'I am stupid because the Master hypnotised me.' Her father meant a lot to her and he died because of her and her foolish words. The greatest revelation that The Evil One bestows upon is that Leela is her fathers daughter. Big woo.

The Scabby One: I wonder if the Master sits in his TARDIS with a ruddy great sheet of paper and writes out all of his ridiculous schemes to try and bring down the Doctor. A bit like the Meddling Monk and his 'to do' list. And then he ticks them off one by one as they are all crushed. What he needs is somebody to look over his shoulder and point out all the flaws - a bit like the way that Big Finish is in need of script editor who receives a script like this and tells the writer to go away and try again. This week his plan is to convince Leela via various hypnotic, dream-like suggestions that he is the great Xoanon that she has been working for all these years and that she is the Evil One who needs to murder the Doctor. Yeah, you read that correctly. If this was played for laughs it might just work. Let's be honest it is hardly his most insane plot - that probable sees him dressed as a fat genie screaming 'SHALOM! PESHWARI NAAN!' into a crystal ball or hanging out as a scarecrow for months during the Industrial Revolution. But it's pretty high up there in the desperation stakes all the same. Are his machinations so predictable that the Doctor can sniff him out a mile off like he does here? Tom Baker effects no surprise whatsoever during his reveal, only mild disdain. Perhaps he was picking up on the feelings of the audience. 'Rather a lame attempt at subterfuge, wasn't it? What ill fated scheme are you plotting now?'  For my money Beevers appearance in Joe Lidster's Master is still his shining Big Finish moment and most interesting interpretation (Lidster attempted to do something fresh with the character rather than rely on his pantomimic villainy) and all of his appearances in the 4DAs (the nonsensical Kraal four parter, The Light at the End and this), while fun on a superficial level, have been a complete waste of the character. He's not being used because there is a reason to do so to advance his character, it is because his appearance drives sales. Beevers is as silky smooth and seductive as ever but the characterisation is hollow. Why does he want to kill the Doctor? Why make it so personal by making Leela the instrument? 'Your hatred of the Doctor consumes you! All you wish for is revenge!' But why? It's no use telling us what we already know if you aren't going to dig beneath the surface and explain why or reveal something new. Instead he gets to say 'OBEY ME!' quite a lot. That's novel. His plan was flawed from the start because Leela was always strong enough to break the conditioning. The Doctor could see that...so why couldn't his foe?

Standout Performance: It's not fair to typecast just because an actor has appeared in a memorable role in another series (after all Colin Baker turns up in everything over at Big Finish) but Michael Keating is definitively Vila from Blake's 7 that I cannot help but think of him every time I hear his voice.

Great Ideas: The crew of the Moray Rose reduced to a powdery residue. Nasty.

Audio Landscape: Jungle sounds, the Horda creatures, screams, glass smashing, the hydraulics of metal spiders scuttling about the ship, cocking a gun, robotic limbs, alarms, hypnotic signal.

Musical Cues: All praise to Jamie Robertson (sounds like I have joined a Following style cult devoted to the sound engineer and musician) without whom this might have been an intolerably traditional yomp around a spaceship. It most certainly is little more than a jaunt about the Moray Rose but with Robertson at the helm it skips by very pleasantly with some pacy music that ensures terrific momentum and sound effects that plant you straight into the action. I particularly liked the dramatic use of the xylophone. Very Dudley Simpson. The soft, hypnotic music that ensnares Leela is subdued and really effective, it nearly lulled me into a dreamlike state.

Isn't it Odd: You can't say that Briggs doesn't capture the theatrical and artificiality of the opening scenes of The Face of Evil to a tee...it opens beat for beat in exactly the same style. Whether that is a good thing or not depends on whether you like your Doctor Who being played ridiculously stagy or not. How did the Master meet up with these aliens? Why don't we learn anything about them beyond what the plot needs to give us to explain Leela's brainwashing? In the extra features it becomes apparent that the return of old monsters in the 4DAs is simply a marketing ploy rather than a storytelling necessity. David Richardson comments that he wanted a Master story and Nick Briggs comments that he wanted to write the story and struggled to come up with for it without copying something that was already done before. Which means there is no narrative reason to bring these old monsters back - it isn't because somebody had a fantastic way to innovate them. I think this absolutely the worst way to approach storytelling - wouldn't it be cool if so and so was brought in...oh shit now we have to find an idea to make it work. The idea should come first and the cheap marketing ploy afterwards. Sorry if that sounds overtly negative but it might go some way to explaining why critical reception of the first two series of 4DAs was mixed.

Result: How seriously can you take a story that can be summed up with: Leela is hypnotised by the Master to murder the Doctor. If that doesn't sound like the most appalling fanwank imaginable then I don't know what does. Even so, if you were a writer of terrific dexterity and intricacy you might be able to pull this off, abandoning the shows adventurous roots and going for something insanely dark and psychologically destabilising for the characters. Like having Leela beat the Doctor beyond recognition in her insane lust for his death and having to deal with consequences. Or the most stalwart of Doctor's being genuinely frightened of a supposed ally. Or Leela examining a disturbed relationship with her father. Instead this is a typical Nick Briggs script in the 4DA range with lots of running about and talking plot, very little substance and personality. It does try and pretend that it has something profound to say about Leela by linking her brainwashing trigger to the death of her father but it doesn't bother to scrutinize her relationship with him or explicate why his death might weight heavy on her mind in any great depth. Instead it's just a plot device, a way of flipping a switch and turning Leela from noble savage to mindless killer. On the basic level of sticking on a Big Finish story and being swept away for an hour of casual frolics with the Doctor, Leela and the Master this is enjoyable enough (I was certainly never bored...incredulous but never bored) but don't go in expecting anything revelatory because you will be sorely disappointed. I remember a time when Briggs conjured up an insidious and dark character drama that pushed the regulars to the edge and featured an astonishingly vivid guest cast. It was called Creatures of Beauty. This had the potential to be as hard hitting and unforgettable as that story but somewhere along the way Briggs has lost his nerve. Tidy, traditional, inconsequential - pick an adjective: 5/10 (I wanted to score one lower for being so unambitious but the production is too good to punish it like that - all praise Jamie Robertson!)

1 comment:

Peakius Baragonius said...

Crap, I knew as soon as I saw the phrases "Master" and "Nicholas Briggs" together on the Big Finish home page that this was going to be exactly what it has turned out to be judging by my most trusted reviewers. Pity - unlike my cherry-picking from seasons 1 and 2, I was actually considering buying Season 3 as one batch if it turned out alright - which I still might if the rest are awesome, but considering Briggs is also writing stories featuring a) the latest Big Finish marketing ploy and b) another return of an old monster, I highly doubt that I will. Maybe season four will be better...ah screw it.