Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Catalyst written and directed by Nigel Fairs

What’s it about: The pride of the Z'nai matches that of Leela of the Sevateem. Why would the Doctor imprison one in such an unlikely place, and what terrors will be brought about by letting it loose?

Noble Savage: Combine Leela’s fascinating character and Louise Jameson’s outstanding performance and you have the most interesting companion chronicle yet. As Jameson says in the interview afterwards this is a script that affords her fantastic opportunities to explore all aspects of Leela’s character and also to stretch her wings by playing other strong characters as well. I particularly liked her squeaky voiced, prudish Jessica – amazing that she can build up such a fascinating, uneasy atmosphere between them when she is playing both characters! She dresses like a noble woman but lacks fear. Leela wishes people would speak plainly and not bury their words in pretence. The world that she called her home (Gallifrey?) is dead and with it everything that stood between her and death. Thanks to the Doctor and his people she had lived longer than she had ever dreamed possible. She has seen so much, grown and become unenlightened and unafraid. The Doctor cut her free of the ignorance and the superstition of the Sevateem. His rules include no hunting, a steady course of reading and writing and how to hold a knife and fork – he is trying to turn her into something called an Eliza Doolittle. She’s got a bit of pluck on her! Leela tries so hard to eat with decorum but is still laughed at for her poor table manners by the gentry and so she heads off to eat in the servants quarters with her head held high, sheathing a knife from the table! By the taste of the animal she can tell that the creature was old when slaughtered. In a golden comedy moment Leela slaps Jessica to get her to shut up. She has killed to protect herself and with honour but no longer kills for sport. The Doctor doesn’t always give his blessing when she takes a life. Leela knows not to cross the Doctor. When Leela realises she has become the catalyst for the disease she deliberately infects the Z’nai by spitting at them. It would appear that he warrior instinct cannot be neutered.

Teeth and Curls: The fourth Doctor is notoriously difficult to get right in print so it is with some relief that both companion chronicles to feature him so far have got him spot on (The Beautiful People featured an irreverent and madcap wandered from season seventeen and The Catalyst sees him dark and thoughtful just as he was during the late fourteenth season). He wishes to teach Leela some table manners. Leela wonders if he saw a kindred spirit in her because like him she also rejected her beliefs of her people and dreamt of stepping onto other worlds. The Time Lords only wanted to observe but he want to touch, to feel other worlds. Jessica wonders if the Doctor belongs to a gentleman’s society where each member caries a blue box because the last she met him he had white hair. A man of learning, he dined with Humbrackle at the royal palace of Kremnon on the day the wall fell. He claims to fight for universal truth but in some ways his mind is as closed as those he professes to protect. The Doctor is an authority in killing, he is steeped in blood. In company he seems disinterested and remote as if all their worries were nothing compared to his. He travelled with Lord Douglas for some time – I really love it when we hear about companions that we knew nothing about. He had a choice to make about the Z’nai and Lord Douglas disagreed with him. He looks so furious at one point Leela fears he will strike her! Jameson really sells the Doctor’s anger, adopting a throaty fierceness and pulls off his dialogue with a frightening intensity. He commands Leela to stay like a dog! The Doctor was offered a position of power within the Z’nai but to become an advisor he would have to become like them. He was naïve to think he take a warlike species and revert them back to what they had once been. When they are slaughtered by an unfeeling Leela his face is grey and unmoving, not saying a word to his friend. The ending is superb drama with the Doctor declaring he has failed his friends, his people and even the future.

Sparkling Dialogue: None of this can ever happen again.’

Great Ideas: The framing device is excellent, an interrogation between Leela and one of the Z’nai that will see one of them die. The Tro-Faroon is where the greatest warriors of the Sevateem go, a cavern in the depths of the forest where the ancient founders of the tribe had buried their first and most noble warrior. Symbols of battle were taken to the cave and now it is glutted with the spirits of the dead. The forest itself rings with their howling. The Doctor takes delight in telling her that the Tro-Faroon is the Trophy Room. Leela discovers room in the servants quarters filled with alien ephemera, which turns out to be a TARDIS camouflaged. Humbrackle was an officer of the Z’nai, a mighty Empire that has fallen and he is the last of his kind, trapped in this room by the Doctor. They were a peacekeeping race devoted to stamping out intolerance in the galaxy and the Doctor destroyed them for the greater good. I love how the story builds up the Doctor as dangerous, unforgiving character and Leela returns to the cellar to find him silent and menacing in the darkness. The truth of the matter is the Z’nai stole a time capsule, a primitive one and the Time Lords sent the Doctor in to stop them. Humbrackle is their Emperor and after leaving her at his mercy he murders Jessica. Lady Douglas is also killed in his revenge slaughter. The Z’nai consider it their right to purify the system of deviants, purging the universe of homo sapiens. If the Doctor lets the Z’nai die he would be no better than them. They were once a truly noble, peace-loving race when Humbrackle’s father was in charge but his son bullied and brainwashed his people into unspeakable crimes. They call their spaceships Angels of War. Humbrackle wishes to convert the humans into clones of himself and the Z’nai will rise again. Humanity and the Z’nai stood in battle in war but the humans betrayed them. The scenes of Leela spreading the virus by spitting at them are really dramatic.

Audio Landscape: The pain device, forest creatures, bubbling swamps, spirits of the dead, crackling embers, a grandfather clock ticking, ghostly whispers, water dripping, TARDIS hum, screams, windows smashing, the emerging spaceship ramp, thunder and wind, furious flames.

Musical Cues: There is some really tense music as the armour comes to life. Some terrific use of the piano to underscore the tension. Another deliciously exciting, evocative score.

Result: My favourite of the series so far, just beating Frostfire because it held my interest so firmly throughout. I loved how the story played on the fascinating and uneasy relationship between the Doctor and Leela, tensely suggesting that the Doctor might have killed in anger after criticising Leela for doing so over and again. Its longer than usual but uses that extra time to drive home the drama of the piece, the racial cleansing of the Z’nai makes the Daleks look tolerable and the script takes a strong look at an issue that is very important today. A superb piece of drama, the script paces itself beautifully and builds up its revelations with consummate skill. Louise Jameson is one of the best actresses we have been fortunate to have as a companion and this gripping slice of theatre really shows you how good she is: 10/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

1 comment:

dark said...

I loved this one first time around, and second time around I still do!
I wondered if Leela would be less of a breath of fresh air now we've seen so much more of her on audio, from her returns with the 4th doctor to her, from gallifrey chronicles to further travels with the fourth doctor, not to mention her occasional guest turns. Well no! she's still as irreverant, honest and chilling as ever.
"Galifrey gone?" was this the time war before the time war? And the idea of an older leela recalling the trials of her first encounter with the Z'nai after leaving gallifrey and becoming a prisoner of their empire at the heart of their power, yet still not only defiant to the last but giving them the same choice the Doctor did all those years ago. Wow!

I do recall this Z'nai storyline got a bit wiffy round about the time vampire, but I love the Z'nai as a race. I remember hearing they apparently turned up in some commic or other, but to be honest my mental impression of them as leonine and golden burnished armour like war gods just created such a strong image with me. Timothy Watson also has the perfect voice for villains, indeed he's one of these actors you keep hearing cropping up and he always brings so much gravitas, hearing how calmly he talks about purification camps and the Z'nai's moral justification is lovely.

What I also like about this story is even second time through I couldn't predict where it was going. It starts out as quite literally a comedy of manners and you think it's going to predictably end with leela and jessica becoming bffs, hugging and going all girly.
Then it turns into a horrific exploration of a synister house, then it turns into questioning the doctor's motives, finally it finishes with invasion, temporal paradox and a roaring fire giving a down beat ending where only the Doctor and Leela walk away, yet none of these turns seem forced, each one is natural and beautifully played.

I must admit I've been questioning my relisten to the companion chronicles sometimes, especially through stories like helicon prime, but this reminds me exactly how good and artistic and amazingly beautiful and chilling this range could be, from the amazing score (which is definitely stuck in my brain), to Louise Jameson's acting, a triumph all around.