Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Empathy Games written and directed by Nigel Fairs

What’s it about: The present: Leela is doomed, trapped inside a prison cell of a dead race. The past: After a disaster aboard the TARDIS, the Doctor and Leela arrive at the capital city of Synchronis, a world renowned for peace and civility. But an attack by a vicious creature leaves the Doctor in a coma, and Leela is persuaded to fight in the forthcoming Empathy Games, where she discovers that nothing on this world is as it seems.

Noble Savage: Empathy Games reminded me strongly of one of Chris Boucher’s BBC novels where the story was a bit meh but his handling of Leela is superb. Fairs wrote an excellent Leela in The Catalyst, my favourite companion chronicles thus far and so my expectations were quite high for this story. With Louise Jameson once again highlighting what a superb actress she is (I paused this one minute into the story to enthuse to my husband about her, that’s how good she is) Leela once again pushes to the ranks of the best companions. There’s such mileage for her I could imagine these first person stories going on and on. Leela is still imprisoned by the Z’nai and what she once thought of as a blessing, her body, is old and a curse. She doesn’t fear death and she has been denied that release by the Time Lords. Leela thinks it is good to know what you fear because once you have faced it you have truly become a warrior. When an elder of the Sevateem died it was customary to guard the body against the evil spirits of the night. When Leela thinks the Doctor is dead she does so but also weeps inconsolably. I love how she talks in metaphor (‘once the moon had been swallowed…’). She admits that the Cathartics show strength and skill that rival the best of the Sevateem. Leela is branded the co-ordinators champion. Its great to finally follow Leela on a hunt, she is the only companion that you could tell this type of story with. The Doctor considers her bright and quick to learn. Leela really surprises by taking the rodents’ side and fighting against her trainers, she has a real sense of justice and will not be made to kill just because she is told to. When she was a child she saw her mother struck down, she held her as she bled, protecting her body and soul, told her stories about the first warrior of the Sevateem. Although she does not fear death from that day on she is afraid to be alone. She knows she will see the Doctor once again, some day.

Teeth and Curls: After his excellent characterisation in The Catalyst it is a crying shame that Fairs chooses to take the Doctor from the action for over half the running time and concentrate squarely on Leela. Jameson gave him a real gravelly mood in the last story (very Horror of Fang Rock) but there really wasn’t much chance for him to contribute anything here – he explains where they are, gets knocked unconscious and then pops up at the end to save the day! Leela has only seen the Doctor afraid once when the console room was in flames and he admits that he once saw an entire world go up in flames, the death toll inconceivable and he was powerless to stop it.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘This money must be a powerful God to have so many servants!’
‘The Empathy Games, an annual purge of your sins.’

Great Ideas: It astonishes me that with all the spin off fiction and audios that nobody has ever explained what happened to the gothic season fourteen console room! After all every other gap has been plugged! The story opens with a raging fire devastating the room and the Doctor, after getting over his fear of the flames, is very blaze about the whole thing suggesting there are plenty of other console rooms! Synchronos is a world with no war, no poverty and no crime; it boasts attractions such as the palace of golden tranquillity and the waters of empathy (the largest water sculpture ever created). Rodents live in the pit, they are savages, vermin that scurry about the tunnels under the city and every year the gates are opened and the Cathartics are allowed to hunt them down and wipe them out. Leela is trained to hunt the creatures and if she fails the selection the waters will take her. You form a telepathic link with their prey so you can see through their eyes and watch yourself brutally murdering them. Leela turns on her trainers and refuses to fight the Rodents, allowing them access to the city. The Rodents turn out to be all of the diseased thoughts, the evil, guilt, fear and criminal impulse injected into the creatures as embryos. Like a disease they are wiped out. Imagine your darkest thoughts coming back to haunt you? A new race to share their world with. The people of Synchronos need to conquer their fears on their own.

Standout Performance: Louise Jameson once again has great fun with her many characters, especially her cockney Cathartic and the impish Rodent.

Audio landscape: The production values are very strong and Fairs directs with a dramatic touch. There is a heart monitor, pitiful cries of despair, crackling, ranging flames, market traders selling their wares, exotic creatures and wares, chickens, eerie telepathic contact from the Doctor, the waters of empathy swooshing by, submerging in water (that was really effective, I gasped for air!), underwater with bubbles floating to the surface, horrific screams, the growling Rodents, tearing flesh, the wood tunnel snapping dramatically…

Musical Cues: There is some jolly carnival music as they step from the TARDIS. The 4th Doctor’s theme is played mournfully on the piano when Leela thinks he has died. A new world is dawned with a gorgeous burst of song.

Result: Empathy Games is the first companion chronicle that I felt needed more time to tell its story. Unlike The Catalyst where Nigel Fairs managed to sink the characterisation into the narrative and perpetuate the plot this is an awkward balancing act of world building and developing Leela, which for the most part barely connect. Annoyingly the Doctor turns up at the end after being absent for practically the whole story and waves a magic wand and reminds us of the moral at the heart of the story. On the plus side Louise Jameson is superb as ever and the story is beautifully realised with some very effective set pieces. I love all of the insights into Leela’s character (and I especially enjoyed joining her on a hunt in the first person) but the story lacks the punch it needed to allow it to really take effect: 6/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:


Tony Jones said...

I just listened to this today having picked it up in a recent sale. I think your review covers the bases well - while Leela is wonderful the plot is a bit fractured and does jump between elements randomly.

Having heard The Child I get a flavour of that from the unexplained wrapper with Leela dying in a hospital bed. 6/10 feels about right

dark said...

While I agree that more time on this story would've been nice and that the Fourth Doctor didn't contribute much, at the same time I have to confess I love! this one.
The artistic imagery, a world that feels alien, David Warner as both a mentor and an untrustworthy leader (though to be honest I could listen to David Warner reading out the stock markit prices).

I love how littel throw away lines in the plot hint at such a richer and larger world, like the idea of nobody in the city of Syncronus thinking about anything outside it sinse out there is endless desert which gets covered by ocean. And I have to say there wasn't an image here, from Cathartics alternating between happy servitude and ruthless killers, to how the crowd revels in the deaths of the mutants especially the talking ones.

There are occasions where Doctor who doesn't need to explain, and this is one of them, particularly sinse the beautiful poetry of the water filled sky is backgrounded with pretty extreme and nasty violence, bones breaking and spears through the head, which of course makes Leela, a person who can appreciate both the perfect companion to explore this world.
I also felt the two stories connected well, and I have to say I was a little teary myself at the final moment (backgrounded with a reworking of that superb score from the catalist), where Leela, old, unable to die but unable to be free of the Z'nai's torture devices, alone, afraid at the end of her life reveals that it's her own frightened younger self, a self who still fears being alone who she is comforting with memories of her travels with the Doctor.
Indeed, I admit a lot of the idea of Leela not becoming like the people of Syncronus and funnelling all her negativity into a mutant self is one I can get behind personally, indeed maybe it's just that so many of the images and themes of this one push my own personal buttons that I like it so much.

Whether I'll feel the same about the Time Vampire or The Child when I reach them again, ---- we'll see.