Monday, 10 May 2010

Colditz by Steve Lyons and directed by Gary Russell

The Real McCoy: I’m at crossed purposes with the seventh Doctor at the moment. He is the ultimate marmite Doctor, even more so than Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor. Some people adore him and think his juggling with planets and magic tricks and mind games are the ultimate expression of what the Doctor is about. Others abhor his era and consider Sylvester McCoy the worst actor to embody the part, seeing his characterisation as an embarrassing juxtaposition of comical madness and shadowy psychosis. I’m somewhere in the middle, not entirely convinced but intrigued by his possibilities. The trouble is that the majority of his Big Finish stories build up his Godlike persona masterfully but McCoy is at his absolute worst during these plays…often garbling his dialogue and sounding like he has never seen the script before in his life. Can good writing be sabotaged by a poor performance…of course. I don’t know if it really matters here because the material is so good but in future releases I wont be quite so forgiving.

The Doctor wants to leave as soon as he realises where he is – almost as if he knows how the events are about to spiral out of control. He menacingly suggests that he hopes the Nazi’s are ready for his secrets and pushes Kurtz’s buttons by revealing just how impotent he is to the Nzai party. He reveals Klein as an impostor, picking her pocket and destroying her papers. In one of their many moral debates on their different methods at dealing with time Klein accuses the Doctor of picking and choosing which fights he intrudes on. Their relationship is fascinating (I can fully understand why Big Finish chose to bring her back in a trilogy of stories in the future) as she represents everything that he loathes, a killer, a paradox and someone who wants to keep a tight reign on peoples freedom. He plays mind games with her but she bests him as much as he does her. This is literally a game of chess with the timeline as the prize. I love his glib line, ‘I think I can hear your golden age beginning to crumble away.’

Ace of Hearts: This is where the rot really started to set in for Ace. I can understand why Gary Russell wanted to try and do something fresh with the character and giving her a new name kicks things off as Ace is hardly a name an adult would choose to call themselves but aside from this how do they represent this bold new dawn for Ace? Well she hates Nazi's for one thing. No wait, Old Ace hated them too. Erm... she stands up to authority and mouths off to the wrong people! Nope, she used to do that too. Oh gee this is hard... she is resourceful and cunning, managing to get in touch with the escape committee and blackmail her way out of Colditz... well she always was good at escaping from places. The worst aspect of Colditz is just how intensified New Ace is presented which is not really different from Old Ace except she is exaggerated to such a degree she seems to be a parody of her old self. However despite some truly embarrassing dialogue/acting (‘Not Nazis! I hate Nazis!’) Ace is actually vital to the story's success, she is the gambling chip that Klein has to manipulate the Doctor with. By introducing Klein, a character who exists from the universe where Germany occupies England, the audience has definitive proof that that outcome is possible and the will she/won't she death of Ace is a distinct possibility. It makes the cliff-hanger to episode three especially good, so much emphasis is placed on the escape attempt, Tim's betrayal, the Doctor's desperation, Ace's determination that the moment Kurtz is pointing a gun her heart and the music cuts off the action I was frantic to learn the outcome. Frankly she is lucky that she has writers like Steve Lyons trying to inject some life into her but these narratives tricks would have worked with any companion.

If the Doctor doesn’t know where they are she cannot be walking into one of his masterplans. Aldred really does spend a great deal of time shrieking in this story with ‘You killed me friend!’ the worst example. She listens to Danny Pain. She is really quite naïve at moments wondering why the Nazi’s are so upset that she has tried to escape! Aldred is fine during the quieter moments but at any time when she has to emote we are on shaky ground (she is a lot like McCoy in that respect). Ace likes to get her own way and often does. .Klein threatens to murder her to keep history on track. Her condemnation of Tim Wilkins almost gets him killed and we really do see the nasty side of her character that cannot bear to betrayed. Schaffer shames her by suggesting that she might have turned coat if she had been stuck in Colditz for as long as Tim has. The conclusion of the story really shakes her and she asks for some time off to think about things. She doesn’t want to be called Ace anymore – ‘its Dorothy McShane now.’

Great Ideas: Three cheers for somebody finally setting a story in Colditz, the most secure prison in Germany. Doesn’t the idea of the Nazi’s getting their hands on the TARDIS chill your blood and using Ace’s life as a bargaining chip how can the Doctor refuse? I loved Klein’s bluff to get him to hand over the key (‘She attacked me. Sadly it has become necessary to shoot her’). The TARDIS is described as the ultimate weapon of war. Whilst it is hardly a great idea, the character of Schaffer is really well conceptualised and presented, a kind Nazi office who turns a blind eye to the worst of the British offences and smuggles in biscuits and jam to the British officers. The cliffhanger to episode two is priceless where we learn that Klein is from another time and she travelled back to 1944 in the Doctor’s TARDIS. She is from an alternative 1966 and was in charge of examining the captured TARDIS. The Germans winning the war is described by the Doctor as the oldest paradox in the book. The whole scenario of Klein knowing that Ace dies provides some great tension at the end of part three. Wilkins betraying Ace is one of those hold your breath moments and his excuses (‘I’ve got my asthma to think about’) and toadying makes you want to leap into the story and punch his lights out! In Klein’s timeline Ace died and the Doctor left but returned 10 years later and the SS were waiting. They took the machine and he took 6 bullets. Ace’s CD walkman, introduced early in the story and forgotten about, rears its head in the finale giving the Doctor ultimate answer as to how the Nazi’s won the war, utilising laser technology and creating the A bomb. The idea that the Doctor and Ace have tipped the balance and created this potential future is chilling.

Standout Performance: Tracey Childs deserve kudos for creating such an intriguing character in Klein, not so much a villain as a woman who know what she thinks is right and will go to any lengths to achieve it. I love how Childs can switch from incredulous victim to smug victor in the blink of an eye. We will see great things from her in the future. David Tennant also deserves a mention for taking on the hissable character of Kurtz, a frustrated, horny and sadistic Nazi Officer. His voice is unmistakable and he pulls off a German accent with some skill. Kurtz is a nasty guy and Tennant plays up all of his nastier tendencies to ensure we are rooting for his death by the climax.

Sparkling Dialogue: There is one dialogue scene quoted in full which sums up the story beautifully. Whilst some of the dialogue is unsubtle in places on the whole Lyons fascination with time paradoxes lends the story some great lines.
‘I think people learning how to be free, learning new experiences, new forms of self expression, bandying together to combat inequality and injustices…I can’t imagine that your world is very similar?’ ‘Are you trying to imply that my time shouldn’t come to exist? That Germany should never have won this war? You are wrong?’ ‘Am I?’ ‘You want to change history!’ ‘ Not change it! Put it back on the right tracks!’ ‘According to whom?’ ‘According to what I’ve seen.’ ‘And what about the world I’ve seen? The world of the future, Doctor. An efficient, prosperous world. A golden age.’ ‘Built on how many corpses? Oh I’m sure your trains run on time Klein but was it worth the bloodshed? Was it worth the slaughter of millions?’ ‘Yes’ ‘No! It’s never worth it Klein. There’s no excuse for genocide!’

Audio landscape: Okay seeing Gary Russell’s name on every single story is starting to grate now. Give another director a chance! Besides this is one of his off days where the story’s content is much more gripping than its presentation and besides a few moments where everything gels there is an awkwardness to the whole production. There aren’t actually that many sound effects in the story and those that we do get are used over and over…the sound of the men chatting in Colditz genuinely sounds like people mumbling rather background conversation and the only real indication that characters are outside is the sound of trees blowing in the wind. Many of the dialogue scenes are drowned out by the reverberation of the voices echoing from the stone walls. I did like the slow lead in to the dogs hunting Ace. The conclusion of the story sees the production finally coming to life…bullets firing and the time vortex tearing Kurtz apart.

Musical Cues: Really weird stuff happening here. I can see why Toby Richards and Emily Baker were never used again because music has never seemed less incidental outside of a Malcolm Clarke score. However much like a Clarke score there are moments of experimentation where their style actually pulls off some very memorable moments. Tim and Ace’s escape plans are accompanied by some sneaky percussion instruments and the end of episode three has an angry forcefulness to is just like Kurtz’s rage. The dramatic punch as Kurtz is murdered really drives home the horror of his death. The music is never really at odds with the action but it is often way too loud, competing with the echo sound FX at obscuring the dialogue.

Result: Far better than its reputation would have you believe but this is still a major step down from Lyons’ masterful Fires of Vulcan. A mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous, this is a story that has come in for a lot of unnecessary flak since its release that I'm not sure is entirely justified. There are some gaping flaws in Colditz but there is also so much that is good about this story; the excellent plot, the thoughtful dialogue (on the whole) and some unexpectedly powerful moments. It doesn't help when Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred are the weakest performers in the play. He continues to overact, spitting out emotional speeches and rushing where he should really be driving home some valuable lessons. She over emphasises every line and shouts just to prove she is a girl with attitude and bullies her way through another story. I find it gets better as it goes along and the fascinating plotting outweighs the uneven production. Defeaning music and lazy direction wound the story but it is still worth it to meet Klein, one of the more interesting characters to walk free from a Big Finish story and well worth a return: 6/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @


kurumais said...

i enjoyed i love the cover art you posted

Joe Ford said...

Simon has put together loads of great covers - check out his link above :-)

Ed Azad said...

Every Doctor (and some of his companions) has a double, but I wonder what it says about the Doctor that he chose to regenerate into a Nazi!

Tennant is fun. I kept picturing him as Hellstrom from Inglorious Basterds. An utterly smarmy prick.

I'm still not sure how he got caught in the TARDIS door, though... And wouldn't he get sucked into the time vortex, not cut in half? Isn't this the exact same fate as Ramon Salamander, but bloodier? (Anyway, it's only a minor quibble.)

Very funny, how Ace views this entire jailbreak as a board game. As an American, I'm not at all familiar with Colditz castle. It sounds like a fascinating place.

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