Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Mother Russia written by Marc Platt and directed by Nigel Fairs

What’s it about: It's 1812 and the Doctor, Steven and Dodo get ready to spend their winter in a Russian village. The French are on their way, but that's not the only invasion the travellers will have to deal with.

Aggressive Astronaut: I am a huge fan of Steven Taylor and think Peter Purves is extremely underrated as an actor. People readily remember his career as a presenter but I think if they took the time to study the remnants of the excellent season three they would find a fine dramatic performer. His desperation to save Katerina, his solemn look back at the death toll in Daleks’ Masterplan, his decision to leave the Doctor because he finds his researches into the past too cold…some of the finest moments in Doctor Who have been channelled through this companion. Peter Purves proves to be a terrific narrator, managing to capture the poignancy of the character drama and the evocation of history with real style. This is the first companion chronicle I have listened to whilst never once looking at how long it had to go since Frostfire and that’s mostly down to Purves’ stunning narration.

Throughout the story he is being interrogated by a creature who is trying to take on his persona. Even when he was small Steven had never been able to stay still. He joined the Space Corp and couldn’t wait to get out there. The Doctor tells him to have a rest and this time he takes him up on the offer; walking the estate, reading (love the gag about Homers Iliad), mushrooming, making kites for the kids and fishing, just him a line and book. He is taught the trade of tracking and hunting by Semian and they become firm friends to the point where he asks Steven to be his best man. Steven loves the quiet but he knows it cannot last. He is loyal to his friends and when the villagers turn on Semian he is willing to fight for him. Finally he feels he has found somewhere that he belongs but he’s not sure if that’s the village or the TARDIS. I love it when Steven explodes with anger at the first Doctor; he has the stature and forcefulness to really butt heads with him. Here he takes on the responsibility of standing up for history in the face of another alien incursion. He would really like to see Vicki again. Steven is on the side of the oppressed, the Russians and he tells Napoleon so after he has just invaded Russia! He has been alone before, a lone pilot on deep space missions and a prisoner on Mechanus but he has never felt so alone as when he faces the firing squad in this story, thinking his friends have betrayed him.

Hmm: Once again Marc Platt writes an authentic first Doctor and Purves brings him to life with the panache that only somebody who adored working with him and observed him could. These first Doctor stories are so spot on they really do feel like missing adventures that we only have the soundtrack left. The Doctor feels there has been far too much excitement lately and it is time for a holiday (although they have just been to Tombstone for a chill out session!). He rarely has the right currency and is hired as tutor (a role I think Hartnell’s Doctor would be very good at). He really wants to see Moscow before Napoleon invades! The Doctor stabs Semian in the gut when he turns on Steven and outstares him with his hypnotic, black orbs. The Doctor points out the Doctor is a scientist, not a magician but Steven says he is much more than that. He doesn’t warn anybody of the oncoming army marching towards Moscow, another example of how he is a slave to history. Hardly at the top of his game on the surface. Steven could just imagine the Doctor stopping an entire army for a chat so imagine his surprise when he arrives in Moscow and sees him in conference with Napoleon, advising on strategies! A devil in human guise? Nothing can keep him tied up for long.

Dead as a…: As ever Dodo doesn’t make a huge impression but Platt does write for her responsibly and gives her a couple of golden moments to stand out. She is something of a tomboy and when informed about a stag do she declares ‘I’ll have a babycham!’ before the Doctor drags her away from the revelry. The Earth smells like home for her, which is precisely the sort of observation you can make when you travel through time and space! She is excellent with a grieving Steven, holding his hand and standing in silence.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The Holy City of Mother Russia, abandoned for Napoleon to just walk in.’
‘Spies and golden onion domes, cathedrals and palaces…’ – Platt has not lost his touch for evocative descriptions
‘One day Napoleon, Emperor of France will be Emperor of the World!’
‘I saw rifle barrels like eyes, all accusing.’
‘Ever seen a mirror argue with itself?’

Great Ideas: There always seemed to be more time to explore history in the sixties, to get lost in its romantic and dangerous atmosphere rather than history being an attractive backdrop for an action adventure that it is nowadays. Mother Russia enjoys a slow but magical first fifteen minutes building up the ambience of the time period and the travellers settling in. A crashed escape pod from an exploding ship, a half shattered globe with its occupant vanished. A bear with a voice as deep as the woods. The French Army are advancing on Moscow and they are right in their path, they are an indomitable machine. The TARDIS dematerialises without Steven and Dodo on board! In any environment the creature evolves into the ideal life form, the ultimate infiltrating agent, designed to fit in anywhere and programmed to head straight for the top. In the TARDIS who could it become but the Doctor? It holds Napoleon hostage and takes on his guise. It can’t escape its nature and its sick of running, as a bear it didn’t know its own strength and it murdered Semian. It blames the scientist for creating him in the first place. Disguised as Napoleon and with the army having retreated he is carried away by the people of Moscow and set aflame.

Audio Landscape: The TARDIS landing, woodland animals singing, villagers getting on with their business, talking and walking around, Steven splashing in the water, flares in the sky, screaming, a barrage of bullets, burning houses, the marching boots of the French army, galloping horses, crows, bells ringing…another realistic Earth bound adventure.

Musical Cues: Wow, Dodo’s piano playing is excellent and extremely emotive in places.

Standout Moment: The moment Steven feels like giving up, his friends turning their back on him and facing a firing squad, you really feel his pain and emptiness at that moment.

Result: Why does history feel so dangerous in the first three seasons? Mother Russia is another gorgeous first Doctor companion chronicle and like the novels I get the feeling this is going to be the norm (there are some similarities between this story and Martin Day’s superlative Bunker Soldiers but they are both stealing from the atmosphere of season three). My favourite section is at the beginning as the travellers relaxing in Russia of the past and make friends, get jobs and chill out. The introduction of science fiction elements initially made me groan but Marc Platt uses this to study the reaction of Steven once he feels that his friends have given up on him. Peter Purves performs admirably and really hits the emotional moments just like he used to in season three's highlights. This series continues to deliver: 9/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:


Anonymous said...

This was a great story. However, what impressed me the most was how spot-on Peter Purves' impersonation of The First Doctor is. Excellent!

More stories with Steven are quite welcome. Oddly enough, I had completely forgotten Dodo was in this story. The really is the forgotten companion in many ways.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, didn't mean to make that last comment anonymous.

Steven said...

Did it again. Now feel like an idiot. That will teach me to not use the preview button.

Doc Oho said...

Hi Steven,

Don't worry about it! You're right, this was an incredible story and Peter Purves really does manage to get Hartnell's Doctor spot on. I can't wait to listen to more first Doctor stories.

dark said...

Yep, I loved this one also, particularly because it's one of the times you really get close not just to the history, but to the culture as well with little details like glasha's wedding shift and the ritual braiding of her hair. Plus this is one of the few times I can think of where a story does the "And they spent months doing such and such" where I actually felt like they'd been there for months, just from the wonderful writing and the descriptions bought to life by purves.

I really do wish we could explore Dodo more though, especially with her importance to Steven in the massacre (about the only thing I can remember about her), and the companion chronicles would be the place to do it but oddly enough whenever I think of Steven I always think of him with the Doctor and Vicky, not Dodo.

I also love the way we get so little explanation of the infiltrator, it's just there, synister as something created and we learn enough to know what it is, plus I completely agree that not just turning history into yet another scifi romp made this an amazingly strong story, ---- Napoleon's wonderful "At least you are honest so must have an honest punishment" felt absolutely spot on to the period and the character while also being one of the most scary bits of Jeopardy I've seen for a while because of how real it felt.

I've got no complaints with the story about length, it fitted together perfectly, though I actually was sad to finish sinse this one was great, indeed rehearing this makes me remember all the bits I enjoyed of the companion chronicles, introspective, colourful and fascinating, especially sinse they just use evocative music and performance to tell the story.