Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Chimes of Midnight written by Rob Shearman and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about? Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house not a creature was stirring... But something must be stirring. Something hidden in the shadows. Something which kills the servants of an old Edwardian mansion in the most brutal and macabre manner possible. Exactly on the chiming of the hour, every hour, as the grandfather clock ticks on towards midnight. Trapped and afraid, the Doctor and Charley are forced to play detective to murders with no motive, where even the victims don't stay dead. Time is running out. And time itself might well be the killer...

Breathless Romantic: Wow, and I thought Invaders of Mars would be the best we would ever see of Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor. This is a superlative piece of Doctor Who in every fashion you can imagine but in its drawing of the regulars it really does transcend the usual adventuring schlock and become a piece of drama that genuinely says something about the Doctor’s relationship with his companion and how much he cares about them. Not only that but it sees the Doctor at his most scared, terrified of the awesome powers at work within Edward Grove and yet he is still brave, intelligent, witty and thoughtful in his dealings there. Whatever way you look at it it was worth bringing back the 8th Doctor to see just how bloody fantastic he could be as exemplified here. If The Holy Terror and The One Doctor showed us the sixth Doctor as the best Doctor, The Chimes of Midnight do exactly the same thing for the 8th.

He loves the dark as it encourages the anticipation of the mystery of where they have landed. He has been far too methodical of late and remembers there was a time when he recklessly joyriding from adventure to adventure. In his last couple of incarnations he has played it safe and set the co-ordinates for places he knew he would arrive in. Now it is time for the TARDIS to decide where they go. He proves himself to be as proficient as Sherlock Holmes at deducing their whereabouts from the contents of the larder alone. He exclaims ‘how lovely’ when he realises they have landed in an Edwardian Christmas. The Doctor understands psychopaths; they are ten a penny in his line of work. Throughout the story he questions various members of the household staff and manages to keep up with their evasions, lies and red herrings. He needs Charley, without her he would be a lonely old man rattling around in the TARDIS with no one to talk to, his life going round and round without meaning.

Edwardian Adventuress: Aside from her appointment at the Singapore Hilton and her general lust for travelling and adventure there is little that we know about Charley Pollard. The Chimes of Midnight takes the brave steps of dealing with the consequences of the Doctor’s actions in taking Charley away from her fate in the R-101 and shows how miserable the family and friends of Charley were at the news of her death. It gives India Fisher the first chance to really grab hold of a script and milk it for all the pathos it is worth rather than simply going ‘golly gosh’ and boggling at the surprises the Doctor’s adventures keep throwing up.

Charley can’t quite drop her upper class attitude and reveals that her family had quite a sum of money, a large house and maids. Her cook always used to make too much plum pudding and put threpenny bits in it which she used to chip her teeth on. Throughout the story we realise just what an impact Charley had on Edith the cook. She was the only person who ever spoke to her, who remembered her name and who smiled when she had nothing to say – Charley did not consider them very close friends or that she even spoke to Edith very often but to Edith these moments of kindness were a lifeline. Edith considered Charley to be her best friend and was devastated when news returned that charley had run away from home and no one knew where she had gone. Her diary was found in the wreckage of the R-101 and it was brought home and the house went into mourning but Edith who cared so much for her was not allowed to care – she had work to do. Everybody forgot about her and one lonely night she went into the kitchen, took out a knife and slit her wrists because living without the one person who was kind to her would have been unbearable. Because Charley turns up in Edith’s past after she should have died it creates a paradox – the very reason Edith killed herself is no longer real and it is before she has committed the act. Charley experiences her death on the R-101, the people screaming around her and knowing that she only has seconds left to live. Without the Doctor she would never have tread upon the beaches of alien worlds or marvelled at the eclipse of new suns, the birth of new stars. The Doctor makes her realise that she has seen the universe and made a difference and convinces her to choose to live with him rather than die on the R-101. She promises that she will never forget Edith Thompson and she will make her life count for something.

Great Ideas: Rob Shearman has such a twisted imagination you know you are in for a treat when his stories come around. This story is a melting pot of imagination, science fiction staples, Sapphire and Steel madness and clever quirks. Landing in the dark is a great audio device to have the characters explaining where they are. Charley thinks she has cut herself on glass but it turns out to be raspberry jam. They soon realises things are not how they should be when dust rearranges itself and Christmas crackers come back together after being pulled – it is The Space Museum all over again where they cannot make an impression on the world. The first episode builds up the character so we understand them very well and can see possible motives for murder before they have even taken place. Edith is drowned in the kitchen basin. The story assigns roles for the Doctor and Charley and spares them the inconvenience of having to explain themselves. Mrs Baddeley suddenly becomes Charley’s childhood cook and treats her like a child in some very creepy scenes. The Doctor interrogates Frederick and reveals some inconsistencies with time – he drives a Chrysler and knows about Agatha Christie but neither exists yet suggesting the discontinuity between Charley’s time and Edith’s. Mary brilliantly accuses Edith of her own murder because she has shifty eyes. Mrs Baddeley is suffocated to death with her own plum pudding after rattling on about it so much. Charley realises there is a killing on the hour that represents the victims job. The killer cannot be somebody that they haven’t already suspected because these sorts of stories have rules. Mary assumes the role of Edith who is promptly forgotten by all the staff in a terrific metaphor for her invisible life. The clock catches the Doctor and Charley looking at it and stops, the second hand quivering but then takes fright and starts running away going faster and faster. They go back in time before the first murder took place and Edith is murdered in a different fashion. Frederick and Mary own up to killing Mrs Baddeley before she has even been murdered. This is a murder mystery where the murders themselves are the red herrings – how bloody clever is that – to hide a suicide. The killer is revealed to be…number 22 Edward Grove, the house and they are all trapped within its belly. The house is given nothing but traumatic events and it feasts upon it and is given life by a paradox of Edith’s death that should never have happened because Charley is still alive. Edward Grove takes over the TARDIS in a surreal and terrifying scene, ripping away everything about Doctor Who that makes us feel safe and transforming the console room into the scullery. It is a temporal and spatial loop inside the TARDIS is the scullery with a TARDIS in it and inside that TARDIS is another scullery and so on and so forth. This is the beginning and the end of the Doctor’s travels with Charley, living forever in a looped two hours of life within Edward Grove. Edward Grove looks upon Charley and the Doctor as its parents because by landing in this time they have given it life by making the reason of Edith’s death impossible. The Doctor asks the house to commit suicide but instead it decides to crush existence down into one everlasting second when the time loops back at the chimes of midnight. By convincing Charley to live rather than die in R-101 and then Charley convincing Edith not to kill herself and promising to remember her ends the paradox and kills Edward Grove. Phew. That is one intense storyline.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Silent and fruity…sounds enchanting!’
‘I’m nothing, Sir, I’m nobody.’
‘Edith was so simple minded that she didn’t realise she couldn’t drown herself in the sink and so she did!’
‘He’s got shifty eyes…’
‘Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without my plum pudding. It just wouldn’t be Christmas.’
‘Edward Grove is alive, together my poppet, we make him so…’
‘He was most particular about what I could do to you with my knitting needle, Sir.’
‘It’s quite clear that Frederick brought the car into the house, ran himself over with t and put it back outside before he finally expired!’
‘I was wrong to think we could escape the house, instead we’ve taken the house with us…’
‘I died for you Charley because you were the only one worth dying for.’
‘It took me a long time to die but I did it eventually…’
‘How can I be dead and alive at the same time?’

Standout Performance: This is the strongest ensemble cast yet and they work together superbly. How can you choose between Lennox Greaves’ silky voiced bullying butler or Louise Rolfe who will break your heart as Edith the maid that nobody remembers. Sue Wallace provides an unforgettable Mrs Baddeley and Juliet Warner and Robert Curbishley convince as the lovers caught in the headlights Mary and Frederick.

Audio Landscape: The first few second convince you we are dealing with something very special; a sweet lullaby, a fiercely ticking clock, a heartbeat and something unnatural coming alive. I love the little details like the smashed jam jar, the chopping of carrots and the Christmas chill that runs through the kitchen. Time is playing about and fire comes to life suddenly and crackers come back together. Edith’s ghostly singing is both haunting and festive. Charley’s audio assault is defeaning – every character is talking at her at once as she finally enters into the story. Charley’s name is scratched into the dust by an unseen force. I was genuinely disturbed by Edith’s ghastly scream each time she was murdered and even more so when I found its origin. There is a comedy sucking and popping noise as the plunger is pulled from Edith’s face. The moment when we switch to Edward Grove’s point of view, the powerful heartbeat, the terrifying music and his laughing that sound uncomfortably like someone throwing up is enough to break me into a cold sweat – I remember listening to this story in pitch darkness when I first got it and this scene scared the life out of me. The kettle whistles on the stove like a ghastly scream. The re-enactment of the destruction of the R-101 with wood snapping, fire burning and people screaming is every bit as uncomfortable as you would imagine.

Musical Cues: A beautiful musical score, perfectly fitting the atmosphere of the piece and Russell Stone’s triumph. He manages to conjour up a perfect Christmas mood and then subverts it and terrifying us with the exact same music. Listen to the cue when the Doctor says ‘its mocking us’ in the first episode – utterly chilling. The clock moving forward towards the cliffhanger in episode two is exciting and surreal. Best of all is the music in the last episode as Edith gives Charley the knife to kill herself and then the piano score as the Doctor jumps in to rescue her from herself.

Standout Moment: Well two to be precise. I love the cliffhanger to episode two as time runs away and murder approaches and it is captured with dazzling performances and excellent music to trap you within that moment and make you desperate to hear the next episode. The climax of the story is unbelievably moving where the Doctor steps in and convinces Charley not to commit suicide. The pace and the performances are perfect and it remains the most touching, haunting and life affirming scene in Big Finish’s repertoire.

Result: As good as you have heard and then some, The Chimes of Midnight is one of those very rare Doctor Who stories that get everything right and even when you are told about how brilliant it is it still manages to surprise you. With peerless performances, a script that constantly plays with your mind and leaves you breathlessly emotional at the climax, direction that couldn’t be bettered and more clever concepts than both series of Sapphire and Steel I can’t think of a more accomplished piece of time twisting drama. Paul McGann is given more opportunities to prove just how right he was for the part and India Fisher finally comes out of her shell and rocks Charley up into the higher ranks of the companions. Like The One Doctor I have heard this story more times than it is probably sane to admit and I still find it as thrilling as I did on my first experience. This was a really good time to be a fan of Big Finish where they were producing some of the finest Doctor Who we had been privileged to enjoy: 10/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @