Sunday, 3 July 2016

And You Will Obey Me written by Alan Barnes and directed by Jamie Anderson

What's it about: The Master: wanted for crimes without number, across five galaxies. The Master: escaped his pursuers. Last known location: rural Hexford, England, Earth. The Master: dead and buried in an unmourned grave, in a lonely churchyard. Apparently.
An English Gentleman: It's unusual to enjoy a solo fifth Doctor adventure, usually he is encumbered with companions and it's rather pleasant to see him left to his own devices. Amazing how much easier things are without argumentative kids getting in his way. The Doctor thought he had the Cranleigh cup already. He forgets the golden rule of an auction house, don't bid too high, too quickly otherwise everybody thins what you are after is valuable. The fifth Doctor is the one incarnation I can imagine seeking out the Master for reasons other than to ensure that he is up to no good, simply to do a good deed by his old friend. They might have had their differences but there is an element of concern. When the Doctor attempts to exhume the Master's body he assumes he is the closest thing to the next of kin to him than anybody on the Earth. The Doctor's TARDIS was parked down the road in Little Hodcombe, which dates the story very nicely chronologically (I've noticed that Barnes more than any other writer likes to position his stories within the TV series).
Batshit Crazy: The Master was handsome once, maybe even twice. The idea of the Master living out his days in a dilapidated cottage in the country, a ghoul in a forgotten shell of a building is an alluring one. I felt sorry for him, relying on this bunch of not terribly interesting kids to facilitate his recovery. As soon as he appears the story automatically lifts, he's so unapologetically evil he gives the tale a massive kick in the teeth. The Master as some kind of cut price Fagin sending his little gang of teens out onto the streets to do his bidding? I'm not certain that is an exercise worth investigating. He's desperate and a little scared of being discovered.

Standout Performance: There's little that is convincing about Sheena Bhattersea's performance, regardless of which character she is playing. Frankly I lost track of who she was supposed to be after a while and didn't care to backtrack and find out.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'The clock is a time machine!' 'What clock isn't?'

Great Ideas: The Doctor is trying to buy an ornamental grandfather clock that he believes to be the Master's TARDIS. The building that the Master was holed up in was burnt to the ground and all that was left was a body and a grandfather clock. The Doctor cannot let the Earth become a battleground for intergalactic assassins. Why did the Master hide himself away 30 years ago? Was he hiding from assassins? Has he regenerated and in his post-regenerative state he has forgotten that he was evil (wishful thinking, Doctor).

Audio Landscape: A stunned auction house crowd, traffic, a car on gravel, birds wheeling in the sky, travelling in a car, a staser. Do you think sound designers get thrilled or dismayed when they are asked to bring to life giant dragonflies that can talk?

Isn't it Odd: Barnes does have a bad habit of including some very strange, unnaturalistic dialogue at times. A very minor example is the Doctor opening the glove compartment of a car and declaring 'Gummie sweets!' in a very casual manner. I just don't know a soul on this planet or anywhere else in the cosmos for that matter who would say that. And the story is littered with such examples, moments where characters say some pretty unusual things to add unnecessary detail or simply to be a little quirky. Some people have a knack of pulling naturalistic dialogue out of their ass (Russell T. Davies), others don't (Moffat) but have their moments. Others simply struggle and I would put latter day Barnes in the third category.  By the end of the first episode (with a pretty limp cliffhanger) the story has already started to falter and singular lack of the Master in a story that signposts his presence is annoying. The dragonfly assassins really aren't as memorable as Barnes seems to think they are, they remind me of the Terravore from Jonny Morris' script but put together with half the imagination. The Doctor doesn't much care for violence and as such sucks a pair of giant dragonflies out the main doors? Seems a little out of character. 'Staser not laser?' 'Taser not staser?' It feels like the 'Brickyard' gags in Trial of a Time Lord, a joke that is flogged to death. The Doctor makes the kids realise that the things that the Master promised them were in their power all...they are a gullible bunch, aren't they? Davison gives an impassioned performance but this material really is obvious. 'You Will Obey Us!'

Result: It almost feels like a deliberate subversion of the norm in the Davison era. The Master is usually trussed up in a disguise and pops up completely unexpectedly halfway through a story. And You Will Obey works in the opposite way; everybody knows about the Master but he is nowhere to be seen and the surprise is that he doesn't show up for the length of the bible. I prefer the original approach. And You Will Obey did little for me until Beevers did show up, the story proving to be a typically confused, continuity ridden mess that I have come to expect from Barnes of late. There's little in the way of engaging characters, plot or dialogue, indeed each of these things was clunky in the extreme, testing my patience throughout. I started doing weights halfway through episode two just to give myself something to do. I realise this is part of a trilogy and plot points here may be vital later down the line but that doesn't mean that this has to be such snooze fest in its own right. It reminds me of The Defectors in the locum Doctors trilogy, a tedious misstep at the start of a three part epic that gets things off on the wrong note. Realistically, this could happily be cut down two episodes and start with episode three where all the exposition begins. The whole Master/Fagin angle with his army of little tykes has potential but it takes ages to get to the point of the story and the characters are insufficiently developed to make their liberation from his influence worth investing in. It should be triumphant but it's written in such an obvious way. Beevers gets the short shrift, this is supposed to be his showcase in the trilogy and he's barely gets to appear. The main range has proven that it can pull it socks up with the recent fifth Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa threesome (oo-er) but it is stories like And You Will Obey Me that do little that is fresh and interesting and instead rely on popular villains being written for in ineffective ways to generate sales. By any stretch of the imagination this simply is not good enough. Borrow it from a friend: 3/10

Saturday, 2 July 2016

The Trouble With Drax written by John Dorney and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Altrazar. The temporal Atlantis, a place lost to time. Believed by many to be a myth, it has long been the perfect location for the rich and powerful to hide away their most dangerous secrets. Until now. Because the somewhat crooked, not exactly honest, wheeler-dealer cockney Time Lord known as Drax has found a map that leads to its location. And, at the behest of a manipulative businessman, he's going to use it. When the TARDIS is dragged out of the space-time vortex, its crew aren't best pleased to see the Doctor's old school friend, even less when he pressgangs them into joining a raid on the most secure safe-house in history. However with Romana and K9 held hostage, the Doctor has little choice but to agree. With Drax in tow, he heads for the planet.  Which is where the trouble starts.

Teeth and Curls: He think the Black Guardian is long bored with them by now. If he's risking his life to get something then he likes to now what he is risking his life for. Being press ganged at gun point rarely puts him at ease. By re-introducing Drax you have the naughty schoolboy fourth Doctor of season seventeen shoehorned into the role of the responsible one by default. The Doctor might be frivolous but Drax is downright irresponsible and he's forced to lay down the law. It was the same with the first Doctor (who could be very naughty) when he met the Monk and the third Doctor when the Master showed up. These larger than life characters force the Doctor to behave and try and marshal them. In this period the Doctor might play the fool but he is usually the smartest person in the room and has the whole thing figured out from the start. Here he has met his match. Drax might be a rogue but he's a rogue with an enormous imagination and an incredible amount of affront, enough so that his plans even shock the Doctor.

Noblest of them All: Romana is spending far too much time worrying about the Black Guardian these days. She's such a bossy miss when the Doctor just wants to play in the universe and tramp down wherever he wants. As soon as Drax described Romana (thinking that she is Princess Astra, naturally) as a stuffy old ice queen I was on edge waiting for her to unleash that tongue that could cut through steel. In true season seventeen style, Romana is one step ahead of the Doctor. He has to have the twist spelt out to him but she figures it out for herself. And no matter how lecturing the Doctor might be, it's nothing compared to Romana when she gets going on temporal responsibility.

Remember Me to Gallifrey: 'You Mockney maniac!' I was always rather keen on Drax in The Armageddon Factor but then I was always rather keen on The Armageddon Factor in general despite it's lowly reputation. One of Bob Baker and Dave Martin's final collaborative ideas was to come up with this cockney wheeler dealer in space, a Gallifreyan Del Boy who will involve himself in any seedy operation if he thinks that he will earn himself a quick buck. It seems a shame that Big Finish keep missing out on the original actors who played their parts on TV because they dream up stories for their characters a little too late; it happened with Elisabeth Sladen and the 4DAs, Kate O'Mara and the Rani and now Barry Jackson and Drax. Jackson's interpretation was all charm and twinkly eyes, he's an easy character to remember (and another contender for 'I wish they had hung around in the TARDIS for a while...'). Ray Brooks (the boy with the knack who doesn't find life so easy in the year 2150AD) steps into his shoes effortlessly and gives a winning performance. He might be one regeneration on but Drax hasn't changed that much between incarnations. He's still a rogue, still talking in archaic slang and still up to his neck in mischief. When he was in the TARDIS in The Armageddon Factor Drax fitted a recall device in the TARDIS so he could summon it whenever he wanted - child splay to an engineer of his standard. As the twists pile on and we realise the full extent of Drax's duplicity it is clear that the further down his regenerations he travelled, the more formidable his intelligence became. Each incarnation is distinct and memorable.

Standout Performance: At first I wondered why Big Finish would throw quite so many impressive guest stars at a throwaway story but the reason soon became clear. It's a lovely conceit, Ray Brooks, John Challis, Hugh Frazer and Miranda Raison all playing the same character. Or different incarnations of the same character.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'It's such a silly name for a profession. What do you do? I'm busy for a living. It's like they picked the first thing they could think of.'
'A bit of an 'and?'

Great Ideas: The earliest the ruse is planted is in the first scene, Dorney starts his subterfuge there with two versions of Drax appearing in different guises but way before the notion is even apparent. There's a bird flying about in the TARDIS that is mentioned here (and heard) but we have no idea why as of yet. It sounded like a crow and with mentions of the Black Guardian left, right and centre I can only imagine that there might be link as we lead up to the finale. One thing is for sure...if the Black Guardian is up for a rematch he is going to use a weapon more formidable than a mop. The Rutan's Tendril is a drinking hole that the various incarnations of Drax hang out in throughout his life. By creating his lure around the location of a temporal Atlantis, Drax builds in a wonderfully mythic quality to the con. A cautionary tale for Tim Tots nobody really believes that Altrazar is real. A dumping ground for all the secrets that nobody wanted you find; incriminating evidence, unfortunate personal histories and even people. Who could possibly resist going looking for something as mysterious sounding as The Enigma Casket? A planet that is experiencing all of its potential futures at the same time - I can only imagine how that would be visualised but in my head it is a catastrophically beautiful affair of possibilities. I really love how Romana explains the idea of regeneration, not assuming that everybody listening will understand it. It's the writer making concessions to the fact that there might be somebody out there who isn't a hardcore fan of the show and anybody can listen and still understand the big twist. A Blinovitch Limitation Effect Limiter, try saying that a few times after ten pints. The sheer nerve of holding an auction where everybody is different versions of the same person simply to convince the Doctor that a ploy is real is pure Drax.

Audio Landscape: A spaceship screams into view and lands, a crowded scene in an alien bazaar, craft flying overhead, the Fuzz firing their alarm, firing on a law enforcement vehicle, the TARDIS coughing and struggling and landing, pub atmosphere.

Musical Cues: The music doesn't sound that much like the fourth Doctor era, there is a distinct feeling that the range is pushing away from the kisses to Dudley Simpson. I don't think that is such a bad thing at this stage as there is the danger of the that side of things becoming repetitive. Instead this opts for a hyper camp, outer space yomp style of music that let's you relax into the tone of the piece immediately.

Standout Scene: I remember John Dorney once discussing the nature of cliff-hangers and how they have a specific purpose in the plot, not just moments of false jeopardy but hinges in the narrative that can twist the story in a fresh direction. He builds his entire story around the cliffhanger of The Trouble With Drax, at the point in which the truth about Drax is revealed it feels like an arbitrary shock (it comes from nowhere because there is no indication whatsoever before then). Then later in episode two it becomes clear that the entire narrative is constructed around the idea and it had to be revealed at this point in order for the rest of the story to take place. Basically I'm saying that he's a clever bastard.

Result: 'Oh you have got to be kidding me!' John Dorney must be applauded for squeezing such a memorable story into the fourth Doctor adventure 50 minute format. The Trouble With Drax is essentially a one trick pony but it is a trick that is repeated over and over again and gets more outlandish and hilarious as a result. I can only imagine to make a tale like this work that he began with the final scene and worked his way backwards - a truly bizarre maelstrom of multiple personality's and attempting to figure out how he could possibly reach that point. It's one of the best scenes in this range to date, perfectly articulating the out there nature of the Williams era. This is terrific fun, more fun than about 90% of this range has been so far and one that carries you through with it's infectious sense of brio. By reuniting Tom Baker and Lalla Ward and bringing the focus on the madness of season seventeen the incredibly backwards thinking and clich├ęd fourth Doctor adventures have been able to let their hair down. Drax is a delight, Ray Brooks paying lip service to Barry Jackson's interpretation and the big twist making me ask the question of why no production team tried to do this sort of thing with anybody else but the Doctor before. Drax always struck me that he liked to be the centre of attention and he goes to extreme lengths to ensure that that happens here. What I really love about this story is that Drax has dreamt up a ridiculously complicated scheme to obtain something that makes the whole piece possible...and quite throwaway as a result. But don't mistake that for something that isn't worth listening to because this is a more enjoyable experience than countless 4DAs that are full of their own importance. Full of zip and zest, fun and imagination, The Trouble With Drax provides a riotous ride that loves to surprise: 9/10