Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Harvest written by Dan Abnett and directed by Gary Russell (is there any other directors now?)

The Real McCoy: Something has happened. Either somebody has whispered in McCoy’s ear that he needs to step up his performances or a conscious effort has been made to give him better characterisation but his last few appearances have seen a marked improvement on the stagy buffoon who has recently been standing in for the seventh Doctor. The Harvest takes risks with his characterisation (like Master) and I really like that, especially when he barely appears at all in the first episode (and yet, New Adventures style, his presence is keenly felt). He lives inside something the size of a public toilet but is in fact bigger than Hex’s grans house. McCoy does a terrible Scouse accent and should be threatened to never do so again on pain of death. I love his scenes with System, the way he talks about intimate contact when he is violently causing conflict in the computers systems by forcing it to adhere to his will. She begs for him to stop and he merrily continues to f*ck her up. He knocks up a stink bomb ‘full of sound and fury’ out of cleaning products in the hospital. Why has nobody ever thought to give the seventh Doctor another male lead to work with? It’s an intriguing dynamic; far less paternal than he is with Ace and he gives Hex quite a hard time about his reaction to the shocks this adventure exposes him to. ‘That may result in another of your “Oh my God” sessions.’ Harsh, Doctor. How much feeling does McCoy put behind his description of the Cybermen, you well believe that he abhors the creatures. At times like this the Luddite in the Doctor is hard to control. He scoffs that he doesn’t take orders from petty bureaucrats. Its great to see the Doctor so conflicted in his reaction to the horror of what is actually happening – Cybermen aspiring to redemption? He admits he is sympathetic to their causes and is appalled when he realises he has been duped. He walks away from the dying Cyberleader without even attempting to save him. Ace knows that he can’t win every time and he takes appalling risks. The Doctor isn’t very good at goodbyes. Intriguingly he lets Hex come aboard the TARDIS after discovering he was Cassie’s son. That will open a whole world of hurt in the future.

Just McShane: What has happened to Ace? The last time we heard from her (not including the New Adventures side step The Dark Flame) she was sinking under her own angst, shrieking hysterically at anybody who would listen and generally sound like a 40 year old attempting to pull off a troubled teen. Now she’s whipped into shape, gone is the wailing child and in steps the mature, experienced traveller. I don’t know if it was Aldred or Gary Russell who decided this would be wise (or perhaps because of fan reaction) but a conscious effort has been made to make Ace as intriguing as McCoy’s dark Doctor and against all the odds, just as all interest was dwindling, it works. Talk about a lifeline for the character. The dynamic of Ace being exceptional and Hex being ordinary really serves both characters really well – lets see how this develops. Needless to say Aldred is much more comfortable with this material and gives her best Big Finish performance to date.

Sugar is a long way down on the list of things that might kill her. She is posing as a human resources assistant and still insists its ‘just McShane.’ Ace seems to enjoy leading Hex on and recognises the look of grief in his eyes. He files her under ‘pretty, but mad.’ Its less cloak and dagger and more anaorak and baseball bat. I love how she tries to warn Hex away from their lifestyle, having experienced the worst of it herself. She is described as having far too much personality for her own good. Suddenly Aldred can play hysterical really well and her reaction to being cut open whilst she is still awake is genuinely horrific. She has been with the Doctor and surprisingly long time.

Sexy Scouse: It would be an overstatement to suggest that Hex’s arrival fixed all of the problems with the seventh Doctor and Ace since their characterisation has clearly been worked on independent of his character but it is a remarkable co-incidence that he turns up just as they get their act together. Trying to judge him by his acting rather than his looks (ooh this will be hard), Philip Olivier is still the most accomplished actor of the three and his presence seems to bring the best out of McCoy and Aldred. I really like how grounded Hex is, a modern day lad with a job and lots of mates, pootling around on a scooter and enjoying a full life. His reaction to events in this story (in particular walking into the TARDIS) is possibly the most convincing since An Unearthly Child (or at least Logopolis), sheer disbelief and mild horror. He refuses to believe what he is seeing and thinks Mark is playing a practical joke. I can’t tell you how refreshing this is after so many people just waltz into the console room and shrug ‘oh yeah dimensionally transcendental’ as though they are fans of the show.

His name is Thomas Hector Schofield, he’s a staff nurse and it’s his birthday. His present is his best mate mangled up in a motorbike accident and naturally he is gutted. He doesn’t like being set up with the other nurses but seems to enjoy a nice flirt with Ace and admits that he does fancy her. After being so gentle in his early scenes it is wonderful to see him losing his rag, screaming ‘Bloody nutter!’ I loved how he turned on the Doctor and snapped that he was coping pretty well considering the madness he has seen. Hex is really hard on himself for running away when confronted with Cybermen (I call it common sense). He thinks the Cybermen history is tragic and feels sorry for what they have become. The Doctor steps in to comfort him when he spies Damo’s corpse amongst those harvested telling him its always harder when its personal. It’ll be nice to have a nurse in the TARDIS, Hex’s frantic attempts to staunch Farrer’s bleeding and fury at Mark for not helping makes for some great drama and his efforts are rewarded in retrieving the password that saves the day. Apparently he was considering a change of career and stepping into the TARDIS he has no idea what he is getting in to.

Great Ideas: Homicidal eight-foot speeding bullets chase Ace and Hex. The Doctor insists there should be no relentless chases down hospital corridors (obviously he hasn’t spoken with the tenth Doctor about Smith and Jones). The Cybermen are described as ruthlessly logical, merciless, damn near immortal, incapable of feeling, implacable in war and impossible to reason with. The idea of the best and brightest volunteering for conversion to ensure they will win the space colonisation race is terrifying. Imagine astronauts that don’t require nourishment and can exist in Zero-G. Bodies harvested of organs and body parts and kept alive in stasis, a tissue bank of organic spares. A Cyberleader swapping metal for flesh, six Cybermen who want their organic identities back. Cyberkind want to overcome their one weakness, the rigidity of their logical thought. This facility contains the raw materials to covert 30,000 Cybermen and t would only take 6 weeks for total global conquest. The Cyberleader experiences pain and fear before he dies.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Don’t threaten me with your rentagoons!’
‘I can keep your organ banks fed…’
‘You’re needed. Well bits of you anyway.’
‘And you why? Because you will all be soulless silver monsters marching to a sterile alien logic a long with you and the rest of humanity!’
‘Doctor, please, don’t hold our lives to ransom.’
‘Sometimes Cybermen resistance is all that counts!’
‘The flesh is weak, isn’t it?’

Audio Landscape: Big Ben, heavy traffic and hospital chatter…this story opens to a very modern feel. I like the drunken madness in the pub, sounds authentic to me! Ace is almost run down by a speeding Merc. Coughing motorcycle leads to an echoey parking garage containing the TARDIS. I love the end of episode two, the hatches scream open with an almighty bang the Cybermen advance. The Doctor’s explosion causes mayhem in the atrium. The marching Cybermen is very NuWho! Gunning down everybody in the hospital is as horrific as it sounds. The flat lining Cyberleader.

Musical Cues: I’m really not sure about the techno inspired music for this story. It bridges the scenes far too insistently. After the superb scores for Arrangements and The Wormery David Darlington’s repetitive jingles are no longer good enough. One sting sounds alarmingly like a Chumbley humming along from Galaxy 4!

Isn’t it Odd: There are quite a few moments of a character explaining the room around him which reveals inexperience in audio writing on Abnett’s part – Hex talking aloud to himself and describing the laboratory is a particularly cringe worthy example.
I’m sick to death of seeing Gary Russell’s name on the directors credits…this is story 58 and the next time we get a new hand directing is story 70! Just call it Gary Russell productions and have done with it!

Result: With the arrival of Hex the seventh Doctor and Ace go from being hopelessly dated to bang up to date. This is an impressively dramatic production which achieves the near impossible (for me) by making the Cybermen interesting. The first episode shown entirely from hex’s point of view has a nice Unearthly Child vibe to it and whilst the first half is atmospheric it is distressingly short of incident. The second half picks up the pace considerably and gives the seventh Doctor (and McCoy) his best role for an age. My biggest complaint is that Matthias is supremely annoying and perhaps conversion would have been for the best. Scouse babe Philip Olivier gives and impressive debut performance and makes sure the story has some real emotional beats. The Harvest continues the run of confident, atmospheric stories: 8/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @

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