Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Secret History written by Eddie Robson and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What's it about: The TARDIS brings the Doctor, Steven and Vicki to the Italian city of Ravenna in the year 540 – besieged by the army of the celebrated Byzantine general Belisarius. Caught up in the fighting, Steven ends up on a boat bound for Constantinople, the heart of the Roman Empire. Rescuing Steven, however, is the least of the Doctor's problems – because he shouldn't be mixed up in this particular adventure at all. Someone has sabotaged his own personal timeline, putting him in the place of his First incarnation... but who, and why? The truth is about to be revealed – but at what cost to all of the Doctors, and to the whole future history of the planet Earth?

An English Gentleman: The Doctor manages to convince Vicki and Steven in record time that he is a younger version of the Doctor, partly because he is such an amiable fellow that it is hard to distrust and partly because these companions ask intelligent questions. Listening to this story is almost enough to make you weep, Davison instantly raises his game when he is paired up with two such fine actors for his companions and it makes you wonder just how his era would have fared had he been travelling with characters of the calibre of Steven and Vicki rather than the drudgery of Adric and Tegan. The Doctor ponders that all of his problems back in his first incarnation seem to start with somebody wondering off...although that has been a problem throughout all of his lives, let's be honest. Does the Doctor have the weight of history pressing down upon him? During his first incarnation it would often seem to be the case. The difference between what the Doctor and what the Monk do is that the former cares about the consequences of his actions and the latter is relying on the knock on effects of the consequences of is actions. Saving one life could change everything, what a position to the overtly moral fifth Doctor in. The Monk suggests that the first Doctor was much more decisive man and would have made the impossible choice that the fifth refuses to make, the inaction of which results in calamity for the timelines.

Alien Orphan: Vicki manages to boil the setting down to the emotional level and wonders how people managed to live in these times, never knowing if they were going to be conquered and ruled by somebody else. Vicki is appalled at the very idea that she might be expected to perform services of a certain nature for anybody, men of status or otherwise. Vicki is the past mistress at poking her nose in other peoples business and being exactly where she shouldn't be and Robson captures that mischievous streak in her nature perfectly (and oddly enough when acting up like this Maureen O'Brien sounds just like a teenager again).

Aggressive Astronaut: I love the dramatic irony of Steven being paired up with the Monk but being completely unaware of who his companion is. Of all of the Doctor's companions to land on their feet when swept away from the Time Lord I think that Steven fares better than others. At times during his tenure he had to hold up entire adventures and learn to cope on his own. How cool is the notion of Steven as a chariot rider? He's used to handling much more sophisticated equipment than a horse and there was excellent scope for comic mileage in fitting him for this role. For once Steven has doubts that he will be rescued, he knows that his Doctor would risk anything to find and help him but isn't sure that his stand-in would do the same.

Standout Performance: I want hand out praise to Peter Davison, who is clearly stoked at getting such a rich script or Graeme Garden, who once again aces his role as the Monk. However it's Peter Purves and Maureen O'Brien who are going to get the plaudits this time around because they capture their exact voices from the 1960s in such a way that you would swear this was recorded when they were still playing the roles in TV. It's uncanny. Whereas Wendy Padbury and Katy Manning are noticeably older in their delivery, these two are utterly authentic.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'No man should trust himself around beautiful women.'
'Sometimes we need conflict. Often it's pointless and destructive, yes but it's also how tyrants are defeated.'
'Imagine Roman spaceships! Imagine how cool they'd look!'

Great Ideas: Much like the early Hartnell adventures, The Secret History starts educating as soon as the Doctor and company land in the selected period of history. The Astardi were exiled here in their form and blended into the world around them, sealed in stone and exiled here by those who resent their power. If the Emperor of the most influential Empire in the world is working under alien influence...well it could mean devastation for the established course of history. Staged like a true historical adventure of the early sixties, the Doctor and Vicki are separated from Steven but the plot conspires to bring them together at a dramatic point. In this case it is the chariot race but it could just as easily be the Doctor rushing in to Ian's trial by combat in The Aztecs of Barbara spotting Ian in the arena in The Romans. When there is money on the chariot racing, even the sick will forced to ride on. At this point in the Doctor's life the Time Lords are new to his very unique style of mopping up evil in the universe and when they spot a discrepancy in the timelines big enough they are ready to pounce on his and cauterise the wound to the timeline. Imagine the very idea of the Monk taking on the role of the Doctor and all the havoc he could cause wandering through his timeline and making alterations to his decisions. He could do a great deal of damage and have a great of fun. Listening to him advise the Emperor in all the worst ways is a great endorsement of the Doctor's lifestyle. The Monk genuinely thinks he is building a better universe but he is motivated by his love for somebody he has lost and that clouds the judgement. Mind you anybody who wants to rewrite the entire universe is clearly suffering from a monumental God complex in the first place.

Audio Landscape: Smashing on the door of the TARDIS, an excitable crowd, doors opening, the creaking deck of a ship, seagulls screaming in the sky, a horse screaming, an owl hooting, whinnying, cheering at the chariots, coughing patients, the Time Lords descending.

Isn't it Odd: As much as I was hoping that this story was going to be the one that introduced the idea of the Locum Doctors with some skill, the pre-credits sequences is as awkward and as unnaturalistic as the other two stories (but at least it gets straight to the point rather than labouring it like the first two). The feeling in this story seems to be less 'let's go along with this guy and hope that he proves himself to be the Doctor' and more 'he is the Doctor and we're stuck together so we may as well have an adventure together and see what happens.' It's not great but it's the more desirable of the two options. When we discover that the other stories in this trilogy were just 'practice runs' for the Monk's plan in this story the writer is as good as saying that those stories were irrelevant as he ploughs on and does something intriguing with the formula himself. It's the equivalent of having three Master stories in a trilogy and the bearded wonder making a grand speech in he final adventure declaring 'those last two schemes of mine were never meant to defeat you Doctor, they were just practice runs for this - my Masterplan!' I cannot believe that a trilogy that was designed to see in the 200th release of Main Range adventures was structured in such a retarded fashion. Should the Monk's actions in this story really be hinged upon his reaction to an event in the long defunct eighth Doctor adventures? I liked Tamsin and her inclusion in the range but an obscure reference to her being the sole motivation for his meddling in this story seems a little underwhelming. If you aren't aware of their relationship from the other range I could imagine you feeling mighty short-changed. I am aware of it and even I find it a little unfathomable. The story definitely switches to an eighties story in the final episode, the Doctor coming up with a less than clever technobabble ending to defeat the Monk. A shame because everything before that was rather smart.

Standout Scene: Savvy listeners will be aware that Graeme Garden played a vital role in the final season of eighth Doctor adventures, a villainous character from the Doctor's past who sold him out to the Daleks. Whilst his name has been left out of the credits, JNT 'conceal the mystery' wise, Garden has such an instantly recognisable voice that it is easy for the regular Big Finish to put two and two together. Especially in this adventure, a historical with time meddling aplenty where there is somebody influencing events in a very cheeky way. I really enjoyed that the reveal of the Monk wasn't a big cliffhanging moment but rather dropped in halfway through part three where there were enough inexplicable things happening that the uncovering of this meddlesome foe provides a perfect explanation for. It feels part of the structure of the story rather than something that has been included for shock effect like so many appearances of the Master did during the 1980s. It might sound like a criticism but the story that has been presented is strong enough to survive without the shock appearance of the Monk but I mean it as compliment in the best possible way. His inclusion adds colour and charm to the piece but it was doing very well before we found out who Quintus really was.

Result: The most assured of the Locum Doctors adventures by some margin but it's isolated nature renders the other, lesser adventures in this trilogy as something rather irrelevant and even addresses that they are. It's less of a culmination of the trilogy and more of an example of how good all three adventures should have been. The treats are manifold though; a rich an engaging historical adventure in the style of a Hartnell story, a challenging and engaging guest cast of characters affording excellent roles to the cast, the surprise return of an old villain that works beautifully well in this context and with these companions, the surprisingly charming team of the fifth Doctor, Steven and Vicki and typically gorgeous direction from Barnaby Edwards. It strikes me that the last time Eddie Robson and Edwards teamed up they produced magic (Fanfare for the Common Men) and this isn't far off reaching the same standard. Certain contributors to the main range (Morris, Dorney, Robson, Edwards) can always be relied to generate the best results and I wonder if perhaps they should be left in charge of a range that is shockingly inconsistent month in, month out. The last episode opens on the most glorious of conceits and plays about with it successfully to justify the awesome return of a baddie from the past. Appropriately enough, removing the Doctor from the action has the adverse effect of reminding us why we need him there in the first place (Turn Left did something very similar). The Secret History isn't the best of the best as far as Big Finish is concerned (and it's a shame that Rob Shearman couldn't have been tempted back to write the celebratory release because he is still the writer responsible for the ultimate audio knockouts) but it's a stonking good audio all the same from the ever reliable (and showing no signs of exhaustion) Eddie Robson. I was educated, entertained and surprised. The only story of this trilogy I would heartily recommend: 8/10

1 comment:

dark said...

I really enjoyed this one. Great appearences by everyone, a surprising historical period, and if your going to toss off an explanation for the prior stories, monkeyings by the monk is as good as any. Sinse I have really strong memories of the 8th doctor's adventures and the horrific events of To the death, I liked the idea of the Monk so affected by Tamsin's death myself sinse it made him more than just the stock "well I'm going to fudge up time because I'm eeeeeeevil!" sort of villain.

It's funny, I'm listening to the companion chronicles at the moment and it's almost weerd how accurate the historical period feels with Steven Vicky and the fifth doctor.
The emperor and the general were both superbly played, indeed I have extremely strong memories of the entire guest cast and sinse it's now a couple of weeks sinse I heard this one that is saying something.

My only really major issue with this one, is there really was enough plot there for two stories, the ending came so much out of left field it wasn't even on the pitch. I'd have loved to see more of the devastated timeline that was predicted, Architects of history style and have a better way for the Doctor to set matters right, perhaps even taking into account elements of the first two stories somewhere. Then again, sinse Bf seem wedded to the trilogy format whether or not it suits their plot, this probably wouldn't have succeeded and would likely have cost them more of the historical end. Still, I do rather feel that we'd have been better with starting this series with Last of the Cybermen, then having Secret history as a second part, and perhaps a doctor monk substitute story as the third, missing out the drectacula defectors, which is the only one of these Locum doctors stories I've really felt was an absolute clunker.