Friday, 7 January 2011

Old Soldiers written by James Swallow and directed by Nigel Fairs

What’s it about: Old soldiers, comrades in arms - the Brigadier saw many fall during his years with UNIT, but perhaps none more tragically than those at Kreigskind. Called to help when a friend falls ill, how can Lethbridge-Stewart fight an enemy that can breach every defence?

Splendid Fellow: For ages now this is a story that has demanded to be told, one that delves into the Brigadier’s character psychologically and reveals something of his military past. Old Soldiers is everything that Deadly Reunion should have been for the BBC Books range, dark, gritty and revealing for Lethbridge-Stewart. His dad told him the day he joined the army that there are old soldiers and bold soldiers but very few old bold soldiers. If you are in uniform long enough the truth of that bears out eventually. The years take their toll on those left behind. His decision to wipe out the Silurians had not sat well with the Doctor and after a fiery exchange of words he stormed out of UNIT HQ and the Brigadier didn’t think he was coming back. He saw a threat and removed it; it is a soldier’s job to make the tough choices. Sometimes it is very useful to have your reputation precede you. He doesn’t claim to be a learned person but he always prided himself on his sense of the rightness and wrongness of things. He had used the euphemism ‘training accident’ many times to describe the deaths of soldiers at alien hands to grieving widows. He’s seen hand to hand and has seen panic and fear in his opponent’s eyes. The Brigadier does the only thing he knows how to do well, taking the fight to the enemy. Damned if he wasn’t going to go down fighting. Could he kill a man in cold blood, a comrade in arms to end all this slaughter? Thankfully the Doctor takes that decision out of his hands. I love how he gives command back to his friend so he can die with honour and make the choice to sacrifice his life.

Good Grief: Nicholas Courtney manages to channel the ghost of Jon Pertwee, adopting a middle class, effete voice for the third Doctor. He has always had an eye for theatrical entrances and he parachutes into a German UNIT base! The Doctor has an amazing ability to look completely disinterested in every the Brigadier says and yet experience tells the old soldier that he takes in every word. In his velvet coat and ruffles he looks as though he is ready for a night at the theatre. To the lower ranks the Doctor is practically a myth like a campfire ghost story. He leaps into action, coattails flapping, poking his peculiar device into every nook and cranny. I love it when we see the Doctor from the point of view of the army that has to put up with him during his exile and here he is described as an extra terrestrial and a security risk, an agent for alien invaders. He was never one to suffer fools gladly. The Doctor is far more valuable to UNIT and the whole bloody universe than one Brigadier and his friend wont allow him to sacrifice himself. Theirs is an ambiguous relationship, still growing and they don’t entirely trust each other at this point.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘His type were like weeds sprouting in every army I’d ever seen. Sharp faced, acid little men, forced into the uniform as if they could hardly contain them.’
‘The military mindset. Can’t blow something up without a form signed in triplicate.’
‘We met them with courage and they threw it back at us…’
‘If we sacrifice everything we are then there’s nothing worth defending anymore.’

Great Ideas: UNIT garrisons across the world are keeping an eye on the skies for potential invasions, paranormal events and unexplained anomalies. The bases experiment on the debris from previous invasions. UNIT looks after its own, conventional psychiatric medicine was out of the question. A Roman legionary, translucent and ephemeral, appearing in the future. There is a fight in the great hall between Roman legionaries and UNIT soldiers. They are isolated from the outside and subjected to the simplest of military equations, attacker and defender. The Doctor guesses that a time fracture is bringing the Romans from their own time. There is a foreign alien compound in the blood stream of the soldiers that have died. German soldiers from World War II, the ghosts of warriors past are invading. The Brigadier thinks they have crossed the line and you cannot help but agree with him when he reveals what project 995 was all about. A plant was discovered in South East Asia, alien in origin and dwarfing the most dangerous weapons in the world. Human trials, using soldiers as test subjects to create super soldiers. There was an arms race in operation to create weapons that could repel alien invaders with technologies centuries ahead of their own. A new breed of soldier, one that can fight the aliens on their own terms. Arklight is UNIT’s scorched Earth policy, the order drafted by the Brigadier to have UNIT bases sanitised if the facility is in danger of falling into enemy hands. A bomber air strike will wipe them off the face of the Earth. The plant taps into the psychic potential, the development of uncontrolled mental ability. The phantoms are being conjured from the very stone of the castle, a captured echo. An ancient place captures the emotions spent within it and if those energies are strong they linger. When the alien plant altered the soldier’s minds they reached out to the soldiers of the past, like called to like. Part of history made flesh. Colonel Conrad is keeping the nightmares alive being the last of the test subjects alive. UNIT wanted to defeat their enemies by becoming like them but ultimately unleashed an even greater danger. The facility and Conrad perish together, this whole sorry experiment brushed under the carpet. Both the Brigadier and Conrad had to make powerful choices and had to face the consequences of their actions.

Audio Landscape: A dark production and the sound effects push that frightening environment. The story opens with the Brigadier pouring a drink, the sound of reminiscing about old times. The persistent German rain and thunder gives the story a melancholic air. Squeaky doors, whispering flashbacks, rattling gunfire, clashing steel, the screaming whine of jet engines, ash and flames in the air.

Musical Cues: There’s some skin crawling, grim music, the sound of war and the drumbeat of battle. The closing piano score closes the story on a poignant note.

Result: Torchwood before its time, we head to a UNIT base in Germany and discover what dangerous and frightening experiments they have been undertaking. The Brigadier is precisely the kind of character these stories should be channelled through since he is precisely the sort of man who would pour a drink and reminisce about old times. Season seven was a great time for the Doctor and the Brig’s relationship, pushing them through some very frightening experiences and making some hard choices and I love how this story deals with the aftermath of the Silurians. Nicholas Courtney’s delivery is a little too relaxed in places but the grittiness of the story still shines through. Old Soldiers has a dark, defeatist atmosphere, depressing and gripping in equal measure: 8/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:


dark said...

I remember being a bit underwelmed by this one first time aroun, just because for a story with so much battle against ghosts and a plot to create super soldiers and a conflict with the Doctor and the Brig post Silurians it all felt pretty tame. I don't know why, whether it's the muted gunfire, Courtney's relaxed delivery, or the fact that for all this has a huge battle and a theme of war it feels like it crawls in places, indeed the pacing, score and narration is more that of a ghost story.

Secon time around, I confess that again the elements of the story, thee Colonel's death, the airstrikes etc just didn't impact, but one thing made this one awesome for me. Courtney's speech on old soldiers and absent friends, and the feeling of losing comrades in arms.
In 2010 I was honoured to meet Nicholas Courtney and found him exactly what I would've expected, a grand, dygnified old campaigner and a true gentlemen. Ever sinse I first heard the three Doctors at the age of five, ws bought Doctor who and the Silurians on video tape when I was 8 and later started watching the third doctor stories from when I was eleven onwards, the Brigadier has always been there, a constant presence and almost a friend.
To hear the late great courtney give a respectful yet understated dialogue on the theme of old absent friends and old soldiers was just too close to the mark, and I confess I got a bit teary at that.

Context aside, I absolutely love the Brigadier's understated yet heartfelt emotion in this story, and that was what cut through everything else for me and shone out the second time around.

so here's to old soldiers! in all senses.

David Pirtle said...

With regard to the previous comment, I think understated yet heartfelt is as good a summation as any for the character in general, let alone here. It is one reason he was a fan favorite.

Anyway, I echo his sentiment that Courtney's inner monologue is more interesting than the story itself. Still, the story is serviceable enough.