Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Storm Warning written by Alan Barnes and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? October, 1930. His Majesty's Airship, the R1010, sets off on her maiden voyage to the farthest-flung reaches of the British Empire, carrying the brightest lights of the Imperial fleet. Carrying the hopes and dreams of a breathless nation. Not to mention a ruthless spy with a top-secret mission, a mysterious passenger who appears nowhere on the crew list, a would-be adventuress destined for the Singapore Hilton... and a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. There's a storm coming. There's something unspeakable, something with wings, crawling across the stern. Thousands of feet high in the blackening sky, the crew of the R101 brace themselves. When the storm breaks, their lives won't be all that's at stake...

Breathless Romantic: Verbose, optimistic and full of boundless energy, this is a superb re-introduction of the eighth Doctor which conveniently forgets all that amnesia nonsense from the TV Movie and ploughs straight ahead into a reasonably traditional adventure as though nothing had changed since Survival. It is odd how much he talks to himself but then if I had a voice as silky and gorgeous as Paul McGann I would talk to myself all the time as well! He is annoyed at the loss of the TARDIS but is practical enough to realise he will get it back no matter how bad it looks. Just to remind us this is our Doctor he name drops the Hyperion and Storm Mine Four. He immediately shows several differences from his predecessor by carelessly spilling out secrets of the future, he might harp on about the web of time later in this story but he blatantly disregards the rules of time travel here. It seems perfect to me that Paul McGann’s romantic Doctor should be the one Vortisaur hunting. He seems to get off on danger, luring the time beast in by slashing his arm and allowing it drink and armful of blood. Vortisaurs can smell the time vortex in his blood. He describes himself as a Doctor of most things and some more besides. A long haired stowaway! He successfully convinces Tamworth that he is a spy. He loves the thrill and the fear and the joy of stepping into the unknown. He enthuses about the Triskeli ship and enjoys learning about the castes of a new alien species. I loved it when he coaxed Frayling into letting out a defiant roar of anger. Punching is not really his sort of thing but when needs must he packs a smack that sends Rathbone flying. This is a superb opening story for the 8th Doctor giving him centre stage throughout and letting Paul McGann show incredible range, from his opening monologue through to his chemistry with India Fisher, his anger at Rathbone’s tinkering with history and his misgivings about saving Charley’s life. To say this new audio Doctor shows promise is an understatement.

Edwardian Adventuress: Well here’s a first - introducing a Doctor and a new companion in the same story, an unenviable task that Alan Barnes pulls of with incredible verve. What really works is how instantly perfect companion material Charley is without actually feeling as though she had been constructed for that purpose. Rather than meeting Charley at the Pollard household dreaming of escaping her dreary life and seeing the world, Charley has gotten an airman drunk, stolen his uniform and is posing as steward Merchford on the R-101. You are already going to love a character like that. I understand that some people find India Fisher’s eagerness and enthusiasm in the part a chore but I am not one of those people. Fisher injects a great deal of energy and emotion into the character and whilst she does over emphasise the thrill of travelling her reactions throughout the story often feel very real. Together with McGann they make quite a joyful combination. Her slipping accent is hilarious (‘Strike a light is that the time!’). Her first meeting with the Doctor is delightful, he is utterly eccentric and beguiling and you can see instantly why she is attracted to him and him to her. She doesn’t take any nonsense either, standing up to Rathbone and giving him a good hiding when he tries it on with her. Charley does not find the creature ugly like the others, she finds it beautiful and it makes her cry when it opens its eyes. It is like the wonder of the universe is opening before her and she can see her reflection of wonderment reflected in its eyes. She was on her way to the Singapore Hilton to meet a boy, one who laughed at her when she said she could make it there on her own. At the end of the story she invites herself aboard the TARDIS – with lots of giddy talking of mixing with Martians and dancing with Venetians.

Great Ideas: A stowaway adventuress who was supposed to die in the R-101 crash – surely that is one of the best companion specs ever. Vortisaurs picking over time ship debris in the vortex and following the TARDIS to the R-101 and attacking. It is a 5 dimensional predator and it leaves 5 dimensional wounds, if it bites your arm it will age it 30 years. The true purpose of the maiden voyage of the R-101 was to return the alien visitor home and steal an alien aircraft. Rathbone wants to take it back to the British Empire so they can rule the Earth forever. He steals the Triskellion which makes the Doctor realise why the ship has to crash land – if he successfully gets alien technology back to Earth in the 1920’s it will change the timeline in catastrophic ways. Rathbone is ultimately responsible for the crash by attacking the Doctor he causes damage to the gas bags. The ship descends for 30 seconds before raking across the French countryside and bursting into flames. The Doctor and Charley escape aloft Ramsey as the flames lick at the sky. Charley is now an anomaly, she was supposed to die and the Doctor ponders on whether he will have to put her back one day.

A subject of some controversy in this story is the third episode which are pretty much all exposition surrounding Barnes’ new alien race, the Triskeli. I did not object to this episode at all simply because I found the ideas quite refreshingly different and well presented. Their symbol is the Triskellion – the sign of the three and their race is divided into three castes. The Engineers are the rational thinkers, the brains behind the operation. The Uncreators are the dark heart of the Triskeli, the urge to destroy. The Lawgiver is the free will of the Triskeli. They used to be destructive individuals with all three of these elements combined but they divided themselves so they could control themselves. It is a benevolent autocracy; nobody can do anything unless the Lawgiver gives his permission. They walk without touching the ground and the decks of their vessel move around the people. The Lawgiver is dying and the engineers sent the Engineer Prime to Earth to find an earth man to be the new Lawgiver. The cliffhanger to episode 3 sees the Lawgiver shot dead by Rathbone and the monstrous and deformed Uncreators now have free will. Brilliantly it is not bullets that hold them back but a good roar. As they have never been threatened by a new species for so long they don’t know how to react to such aggression.

Standout Performance: Beyond the two regulars who do sterling work it is Gareth Thomas who shines here, shamelessly stealing any scene he is in as Tamworth, the upper class Brit with a flowery turn of phrase. He is ambitious, driven and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He sends the R-101 up to meet the Triskeli under no illusions that he will walk away with one of their magnificent aircraft. His character makes the most interesting journey as he soon realises that the Triskeli do not deserve to be dragged into human affairs and elects to stay behind as their new Lawgiver. It is a superb performance by Thomas and it is just a shame that his decision at the conclusion rather prevents any re-appearances.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Why is it I’m reminded of Jonah in the belly of the whale? It’s like a giant ribcage stuffed with obscene pulsating organs as far as the eye can see!’
‘The R-101 airship took to its skies for her maiden voyage to India early in October 1930 and crashed in flames in France during a storm in the early hours of the next morning killing everyone aboard.’
‘A million planets circling a million suns Charley where the starlight makes colours the human eyes have never seen.’
‘Can you imagine the glory of descending from the clouds with a prize like this? Imagine what mastery of science behind a craft like this would mean to the world? To her security! No more wars. No more dissent.’
‘Keep it up Rathbone, you’re making history.’
‘You know nothing about time. Do you know about the web of time? Hmm? Do you know history can’t be changed? You take an alien energy weapon back to England now in 1930 and then what? You strip it down, you study its design and master ion beam emission in a few short years. By 1940 you have spitfires mounted with laser canons. Fight the Battle of Britain that way. The British Empire is supposed to be falling apart, her colonies gaining independence. With weapons like these nobody would dare oppose her. You’ve learnt nothing today.’

Audio Landscape: The opening is just lovely as we fly through the vortex with the TARDIS before moving inside to reveal the unearthly heartbeat hum of the McGann interior. The time ship crashes over and over again with the Vortisaurs circling and screaming. There is a fabulous popping and crackling radio broadcast that introduces us to the R-101 which merges seamlessly on board the craft itself sailing through strong winds. The TARDIS materialises in the windy hold and the Doctor steps in lots of puddles. Doors squeak in true 1930’s fashion. Lightning cracks and a Vortisaur smashes through a window letting in the storm with it. The Engineer Prime’s high pitched voice is creepy and sweet at the same time. The descending flying saucer is very dramatic. Army boots march across Triskeli space as Rathbone prepares to attack. The gas bags creaking is very ominous, the beginning of the end of the R-101.

Musical Cues: This is a truly filmic musical score for an epic adventure in the skies. The music captures the scale and the wonder of the story. I love the piece where they finally reach 5000ft – bold and dramatic with a military drumbeat. The story gets a second wind when the R-101 departs Triskeli space and the music reflects that, it is wonderfully upbeat and exciting.

Isn’t that Odd: I’m still not sure about that version of the theme tune. It still sounds like someone farting the Doctor Who theme to me. Rathbone’s accent is astonishing but I’m not certain in a good way.

Result: A sublime re-introduction of the 8th Doctor and a wholly welcome step in a brand new direction for Big Finish. It feels like everything has been thrown at this production to make it as memorable as possible and we have a strong script with some great set pieces, an astonishingly good musical score, sound effects that convince you that you are experiencing the story and some wonderfully memorable performances. Storm Warning sees Paul McGann and India Fisher grab the parts of the Doctor and Charley and milk them for all the energy they are worth and from this story alone it is clear that this is going to be a partnership well worth following. I found the much criticised third episode quite enjoyable but I have to concur that it is the weakest of the four but the final episode that sees the Doctor stand up for established history and yet break the rules so cavalierly is one of the strongest conclusions to any story so far. Full marks to Gareth Thomas for his unforgettable Lord Tamworth: 9/10

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