Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Creatures of Beauty written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about? A planetary ecological disaster! An incurable, disfiguring, genetic disease... Aliens, in breach of galactic law! Nyssa, under arrest! The TARDIS, inoperable! The Doctor, facing interrogation! Another situation of dire peril is unfolding for the Doctor and his companion. However, what if it is not clear who is right and who is wrong? Who is ugly and who is beautiful? Where does the story begin, and where does it end? Sometimes, it is all a matter of perspective.

An English Gentleman: One of the cleverest things about this story is how it sets up its consequences before revealing its dilemmas. In doing so and having the audacity to have the Doctor not even realise his role in this story’s affairs it ironically says more about his character than if her had found out and we had explored his reaction. Creatures of Beauty holds the Doctor’s choice to leave Gallifrey and explore the universe up to the spotlight and dares to make the suggestion that it might not have been the best idea. I love that. After being brainwashed by the TV series which has the Doctor applauded (literally) for his heroic antics into thinking that the Doctor can only be a force for good here is a cautionary tale that threatens that cosy image. The Doctor, however accidental, causes the near genocide of an entire species; he leaves a planet of people scarred and mutilated and full of bitterness and hatred. Its such a shocking concept you have to applaud its boldness, to have the Doctor and Nyssa whisk of to their next adventure not cottoning on to their involvement and think ‘Oh those poor people…’ – it dares to turn them into the unwitting villains of the piece. This throws up all manner of questions. Has this sort of thing happened before? Has the Doctor made changes to a planet that would ultimately end in their annihilation? Did the Times Lords do the right thing in condemning him for his interference, however well intentioned? Would Katerina, Adric, Peri (hmm not sure about that one) ands a whole host of secondary characters still be alive if it wasn’t for his interference? And to have the fifth Doctor play this role is paramount because he has always been the most genial, the most approachable Doctor. To turn him into a killer on this scale is inconceivable.

Of course, I don’t think that way. But in a story that daringly plays on perceptions it is fascinating to think that the fictional characters within the stories we are told could justifiably think that way. We all know that ultimately the Doctor has always done what’s best, even if it has consequences. They could easily be perceived differently, if portrayed in the right light. Its really interesting stuff. The Doctor questions what is the right thing to do, that everything is a matter of perspective. He’s in a very philosophical mood. The Doctor is a really bad cover name and he admits the TARDIS is hardly of orthodox design. He has highly developed intelligence. He questions if he really did leave Gallifrey to make a difference. He doesn’t want to talk about his role in the universe or too study each place they visit too closely, like a painting studied too closely he is scared that all he will see is brush strokes and that it wont mean anything. He thinks they were swallowed up by the situation they fell into and they had no impact on events at all. He promised to overhaul the TARDIS some day. He cannot keep his curiosity under control, perhaps that, ultimately, is his greatest downfall?

Alien Orphan: Briggs has hit upon a formula that really makes Nyssa work here, put her in the worst situation imaginable! Seriously, by having sweet, gentle Nyssa exposed to such vicious interrogation, violence and horrific images we get to see her stand up to authority, ask the right questions and become a truly sympathetic character. It’s the same sort of development that Spare Parts was going for but that story didn’t really push hard enough, Nyssa’s reaction to her friends processing was shadowed by the gripping unfolding story of the genesis of the Cybermen. Creatures of Beauty strips away all of the trimmings and focuses tightly on the drama of the situation, Nyssa witnesses Veline stabbing herself to death. Nyssa is beaten before her interrogation. The interrogation scenes are stark and brutal and Sarah Sutton is extraordinarily good at playing frightened. Its terrifying stuff.

She doesn’t smoke (well, duh). Nyssa is considered mad because she claims she is from another planet. She is beautiful. Her horror struck admission that she couldn’t stop Veline from committing suicide is gripping. She says it was like she was trying to cut something out of herself. When they reach the TARDIS at the end of this adventure the Doctor is ready to hop into the next one and Nyssa is appalled, she wants to know if they made a difference. Oh boy did they.

Great Ideas: The story opens with Lady Forlean revealing that she has been trying to find a cure for the Dyestrian poisoning for years and has invested her families money into zero gravity treatment. The poisoning caused distorted skin tissue and abnormal bone structure. There are a number of brilliant character reversal in episode one, first between Nyssa and Brodlik which starts with him as a professional psychiatric and turns him into an unbalanced racist and secondly between Brodlik and Gilbrook which shifts from giving a report to an investigation. These two handers between the actors are paired down to the bone and more riveting because of it. The sky over Veln is green due to raw Dyestrian fallout. Gilbrook obtains a search warrant for Lady Forlean’s estate and discovers a sealed basement with experiments running. There wasn’t a planetary disaster; the Koteem chose to use Dyestrian and their primary source of energy, which polluted their planet. There was an accident with a transport ship holding Dyestrian waste toxins, which was supposed to be going to uninhabited areas. The ship exploded in high orbit above Veln and the atmosphere was terminally polluted. After the fallout hit the Veln atmosphere it meant the end of agriculture, the collapse of food production, global and economic meltdown, poverty and endemic crime and every nation on the planet labouring under paranoid government institution. The Koteem will be guilty of genocide in a few generations time but they are trying to prevent it. They aren’t offering a cure but they can burn away generations of disease and ugliness by giving the Veln their life essence. The Koteem are also dying of Dyestrian poisoning and tried to develop a survival suits, which failed. They offered reparations to the Veln but all were rejected. A Koteem extremist group contacted Lady Forlean and together they are trying to create a hybrid race. They will sacrifice themselves to make the Veln stronger. Two dying races combined to make a new one. What a fascinating idea. Sometimes the Veln reject the Koteem essence = Veline. It’s the birth of a new civilisation. We discover just as we leave the story that the TARDIS once landing in the Veln system just before the accident emitted a warp distortion field and caused the accident which kick started everything. By changing the structure of the story, taking a linear narrative and telling it in a scattered, crazy paving way it changes the emphasis on the story. Had we had the Doctor’s TARDIS near miss at the beginning of the story it would have completely ruined the ending. And by revealing the effect of their short hop in Veln space Briggs manages to hide the biggest twists at the beginning of part four invisibly. Clever bastard.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Should both races suffer because of the sins of their forefathers?’
‘Our civilisation isn’t dying, its already dead. All that’s left is a rotting corpse.’
‘As for making a difference? I don’t think we influenced anything at all.’
‘Like paint spilling across the table. He said it was almost beautiful.’

Audio Landscape: What has happened to Nick Briggs? Since he took a break from the main range to write and direct Dalek Empire his handling of Jubilee and Creatures of Beauty have been nothing short of masterful. His grip on direction has tightened considerably and he really does get some fantastic performances here and his experimentation with the narration is applaudable too. The opening really makes you sit up and pay attention, an ambulance, a heart monitor and some terrifying screaming make this a dramatic introduction. A snowplough chews through the snowy wastes and you can really hear the gears screaming, in desperate need of a good oiling! A cigarette is lit and puffed. Boots crunch very satisfactorily in the snow and the wind whips about with some force. Birds shriek in the night. The bioscan the Doctor and Nyssa are put through has an audibly nauseous effect on them. The Koteem’s voices are shrill and powerful. The guards crunch through the gravel in the driveway. Bullets are unleashed upon the snowplough. Listening to Gilbrook breaking Brodlik’s bones and beating the living hell out of him is extremely discomforting. The TARDIS beeps and screams, fizzles and explodes! Nyssa hears Veline screaming in the distance. Briggs’ mastery over the flashbacks in the last episode which come together to form the answers in the final part is flawless.

Musical Cues: Understandably Briggs opts to make the music as scarce as possible to really drive home the drama of this story. The silences can be very uncomfortable. Ironically the lack of music in some places really emphasises his superb sound effects.

Result: A forgotten masterpiece and a stunning experiment in fractured narration that results in grit your teeth suspense. It’s a piece which opens up some disturbing questions about the Doctor’s effect on the places he visits that wisely leaves you to come to your own conclusions. I love how the story’s climax is the end of part three and its beginning is at the start of part four, Briggs has clearly put a lot of thought into making this experiment work and manages to save a whoop-ass twist until the final few seconds which demands you give the story a second listen. David Daker gives the performance of a lifetime as Gilbrook; he is sinister, sadistic and yet rather wonderfully departs the story on a moment of pure poetry. Creatures of Beauty is not afraid to make its audience feel uncomfortable and in doing so it manages to be one of the most thought provoking stories yet. I cannot fault this story: 10/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:


kurumais said...

this was gripping from start to finish. and you are right about nyssa and the interrogation. of all the companions im familiar with she is the one i want bad things to happen to least. there is something fragil and nobel and sweet about nyssa like a fairy tale princess.

David Pirtle said...

A unique and harrowing story. Instead of the usual heroic tale, Creatures of Beauty plays out like a Greek tragedy, and Davison's most passive of Doctors is a perfect choice for such a story. Where Colin Baker or Paul McGann flying away, oblivious to the disaster they'd wrought, would feel unsatisfying (McCoy would have sent himself a note from the future to avoid the system entirely) it somehow works with Davison's Doctor. That the cautious, compassionate Fifth Doctor is almost certainly the one fans would pick as least likely to commit a random genocide fits perfectly with the tragic narrative.

David Pirtle said...

I also think it's pretty darn clever to have this follow Doctor Who and the Pirates, whose message was all about people blaming themselves for deaths they could in hindsight have prevented. The pair of stories make for an interesting dichotomy.

Alistair.servan said...

This really upset me. What Nyssa was put through was deeply disturbing to witness and Sarah Sutton's performance was, well, just too damned good not to have it affect me.
This gave me actual nightmares. Brilliant for sure, but I wouldn't let anyone with a nervous disposition listen to it, that's for sure!