Wednesday, 4 August 2010

…ish written by Phil Pascoe and directed by Nicholas Briggs.

What’s it about? A conference of lexicographers: bromides in tweed. But the leading expert in the field is found dead by her own hand - and by her hologlyphic assistant. Is he responsible? Does the death fit any conventional definitions? Can the Doctor realise who wrote the suicide note and why, exactly, it was riddled with spelling errors? Peri should help out, but there's a guy. Someone who loves language even more than the Doctor. Maybe, she realises, enough to kill for. Or perhaps just enough to ask her out to dinner. Unless, of course, he's already spoken for... Is it madness? Seeking transcendence in the complete lexicon? Having the right words on teh tip of your tongue but never quite knowing when to use them? If so, how? ...ish

Softer Six: Sometimes once I have listened to a Big Finish story I imagine what the actor’s reaction must have been when he first read the script. One of the highlights of the audio series has been the incredible range that Colin Baker has been able to bring to his stories and one of his greatest strengths has been his skill with verbose and tongue twisting dialogue. So imagine his (horror or delight) at opening this story that features very few characters and such a dazzling array of verbal wordplay. Not only does Baker rise to the challenge but also he makes this story positively comprehensible and enjoyable. Whilst I will always praise his more emotive performances this is an astonishing display of technical language. I can only imagine the horror had Sylvester McCoy been given this script to roll his tongue around.

The Doctor and Peri have landed on a planet of words and the Doctor is in his element. Can you imagine any other Doctor enthusing quite so gleefully about the English language? The Doctor is known quite ubiquitously for his mastery of English but he likes to reverse that compliment and say that English has mastered him. He battles with Peri regarding Noah Webster’s reforms to the language and her dreadful Americanisms. Peri describes him as a scholar but his language blows poetic and pedantic at times. He asks rhetorically, ‘When will violent death ever make sense?’ He declares with some certainty that he has a fairly broad understanding of evil. A raconteur and bon vivant of bons mots! He boasts that Peri’s ability to resist infection from the …ish creature is entirely down to him. The Doctor usually disapproves of censorship. In a quiet moment he mourns Osefa and wonders with some sadness what could have drawn her to the omniverbim. Described as a man whose love of language has never gone unrequited! The way he dresses and looks does not distinguish him but when he speaks there is something different involved and comes into use in the situations he finds himself in and allows him to defeat whatever obstacles he faces. How can the Doctor talk his way out an enemy that is language itself? He thinks the purpose of language is not exactitude but expression! In one of those joyous moments when you see just how a Doctor and companion fit together so beautifully the Doctor and use English and American colloquialisms to baffle and bewilder the …ish creature. It is the differences between them that allows them to save the day.

American Attitude: It shocked me to realise that this is only the second story to feature the sixth Doctor and Peri and that she had been paired up with the fifth Doctor in twice as many stories. Their bitchiness and bitterness towards each other seems to have vanished completely and what we have here is a pleasant post Trial peek at their relationship. Had they worked this well together on the television perhaps Grade would have re thought his cancellation. She and the Doctor are joined and divided by a common language. She falters over telling Warren that Botany is her major in college, the word she actually uses is was. Peri used to go on expeditions with her stepfather and study the subject before they left so she could impress him on the plane. In a revealing moment she says it was the normal words that they had trouble with. This story is not a very deep exploration of Peri but she still comes off very memorably because she waltzes her way through the story with the intelligence and humour to understand everything that is going on. Her scenes with Warren and Book are a highlight. Nicola Bryant continues to impress in these audio adventures by providing a plucky and resourceful Peri she was denied on the telly.

Great Ideas: Even if you don’t like this story you have to admire the way it tackles its theme of language so creatively. As somebody who studied language for pleasure I found the skilful use of words in this story an absolute joy. Dialogue is one area the audios can excel in and the wordplay on display in this story is scalpel sharp. …ish is almost a word, not quite, a fragment. Peri points out the dictionaries don’t care about transatlantic differences. Osefa is an old friend of the Doctor’s and she has been working on the Lexicon for years, a compilation of every word known to man. She commits suicide upon its completion. Book is the Lexicon’s artifical intelligence, fully sentient and trawling through the vast mass of all information, collecting every word and linking it implacably to another. Are we constructed from the words we know? Significance is a commodity on this planet; you can pay your way with words. Warren is described as a guerrilla post structuralist! Book has collected to the fringes f culture, the ragged edge, literally as far as language goes but now something has collected him. The Lexisphere is a particle accelerator for meaning. The …ish creature targets the language centres of the brain and causes you to repeat without meaning, losing the link between sound pattern and signification. The longer a word, the less often it is used therefore the more precisely focused its range of meanings. Extend a word to infinity as transcendentalists theorise and nobody knows what it means. The Omniverbam is literally a singularity of significance and in its presence meaning would warp and collapse. I adore the idea of the …ish censor which treats the word ish like a swear and bleeps it out. Whilst her death is treated like a murder for a while it is revealed that Osefa did commit suicide rather than face her nightmare, utter meaningless. Warren describes dictionaries as monsters, monuments, and an authority at the centre of its linguistic Empire. He wants to cause the disarticulation of language so it is free from the prison of definitiveness. Warren is another hologlyph that Cawdrey has been using as a language thief. He’s an appendix to Book and connected to the Lexisphere. The Omniverbam was the extent of a culture that worshipped language; it was their pantheon, the longest word being the most sacred of all. Some amongst that culture believed that the universe has never stopped pronouncing the Omniverbam. It was a linguistic nexus drawing in other terms where the …ish fed until Book granted it access to a whole new swathe of word stock to consume. It was cunning and adapted to its new context, realised the conference was coming up and could satisfy its hunger on the linguists attending. Osefa knew about Cawdrey’s sideline in language theft but let him continue because she felt sorry for him, she knew he could never create anything of worth on his own. The …ish creature is gorgeously described as a metavore! It’s an affix to the longest word and if the Omniverbam is articulated it would threaten the composition and structure of the universe. The Doctor uses the one weapon at his disposal, the one thing that is vaster than the longest word, the English language. At the stories close Book gets to discover the whole universe of language all over again. I envy him.

Standout Performance: Its such a small cast and everybody acquits themselves very well but the plaudits have to go to Colin Baker for his mastery of such tongue twisting, definition bending lines.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘English! What a remarkable, versatile language! Ever expanding, adapting, surviving but never compromising its integrity nor its poetry. One of the foremost achievements of human kind, a living language in the truest sense, and a language worth living!’
‘Add a final gloss to the glossary.’
‘Is that term loaded?’ – love that one.
‘Here we are at the your species first encounter with a fully sentient meme and all you care about is me me me me me!’

Audio Landscape: Surprisingly for a Nick Briggs directed story this is not an assault on your eardrums (and I mean that in the nicest possible way!). In fact he steps right back from distracting the listener with too many sound effects to allow the ideas to spill forth and overwhelm you. What I did like was how he allowed the music to tell most of the story and in throughout it is quite tranquil and calming, easing the inspirational imagination into your mind. Book is a soothing and creepy voice. When the Doctor and Peri arrive it’s sounds like a gorgeous summery park with birdsong, gentle swaying trees, bikes shooting past and people shouting to each other. The …ish creature attacking Peri in the Lexisphere was certainly eye opening. The cliff-hanger to episode two is fascinatingly (and slightly hilarious) where all of the inane chatter becomes one synchronised …ish. I loved Briggs’ magical depiction of the inside of the Doctor’s mind, it seems endless and wondrous.

Musical Cues: As stated above the music does a very good job of taking over from the sound effects for the majority of the story and it is very mellow for the most part. Saying that I loved the spooky sting at the end of episode one.

Standout Moment: It really isn’t that sort of story. It doesn’t have dramatic spikes but more an endless exploration of a strong theme. However the end of episode one is very good, I got chills at Books very calm ‘What makes you think you’ll get out of here alive…’

Result: I love the English language. Words are the most powerful force any of us will ever come into contact with. Our entire perception of the world around us springs from words. That's why we read books, words have to power to capture our imagination, to make us laugh and to make us emote. Never before has language been used so interestingly and with such scope. Philip Pascoe has written a comprehensive, literate script that impresses with its ability to make you think and to entertain you wildly. You need a little patience with this one, as it's no average Doctor Who monster story but a very thoughtful piece that uses words to capture a sense of wonder and power. Brilliant on every level, this is Doctor Who at its imaginative and experimental best. It reached into my mind and expanded my knowledge and it kept me captivated until the last ...ish: 9/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @

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