Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Transit of Venus written by Jacqueline Rayner and directed by Nigel Fairs

What’s it about: The year is 1770, and daring explorer Captain James Cook and his crew on the Endeavour are navigating the Pacific Ocean. Into their midst come strangers: the Doctor and Ian Chesterton, who are believed to have come from Venus. But the TARDIS is lost to them - along with both Susan and Barbara - and Ian makes an enemy of the ship's chief scientist, Joseph Banks. Why is Banks acting strangely? Could it be that the travellers are not the only visitors from the stars?

Science Teacher: I so often forget what a debt we owe to Ian and Barbara in that first season of the show we adore. More than introducing us to the Doctor it is their journey that we invest most of our time in, they are our anchor as we set sail in the time ship dressed up as a police box and experience horrors and wonders in equal measure. William Russell is a fine actor and Ian maintains as strong a protagonist now as he was then and his turbulent but evolving relationship with the Doctor still one of the finest the show has developed. Jac Rayner taps into that rich vein of the unknown that permeates the first season as we lose Susan and Barbara and see Ian and the Doctor sailing the oceans with Captain Cook and grieving the loss of their friends and family. A scientist and something of a student of the stars. His life has not been an ordinary one, it was ordinary enough for the first few decades but then he met the Doctor. He couldn’t believe the TARDIS to start off with despite the evidence of his five senses. They encountered everything from aliens to Aztecs. Ian has such a cavalier attitude, standing in front of Barbara and telling her to get back to the ship whilst he holds them off. In his mumblings Ian has wished citizenship of the planet Venus on himself and the Doctor. The food on board the Endeavour makes Ian think back fondly on post war rationing! It’s quite a different experience in a storm lashed sea than it is in Coal Hill Municipal Pool! He hated Banks for giving him terrible nightmares more than he hated him for trying to kill him. Ian is reluctant to meet Captain Cook, meeting somebody so famous is like meeting a pop star of his time and he wanted to be careful not to alienate Cook after convincing him he is an alien. Ian always dreamed of visiting Australia but never imaged of doing under these circumstances. So much for Banks trying to meddle with history, it turns out that the meddler is Ian planting ideas in people’s heads for future historical events! Over the last few weeks Ian realised how much he had come to rely on Barbara’s calm guidance and how much he needed her to lead him back to the person he used to be. He needed her so much.

Hmm: Prone to be rather short tempered and vowed to dump Barbara and Ian at their next stop. He was an extremely stubborn man. He was neither a careless nor a wicked man but his curiosity had once almost led Ian, Susan and Barbara to their deaths. There’s an astonishing sequence when Ian walks in on the Doctor and he spots a tear glistening on his eye and they sit in silence and share their loss of Barbara and Susan. Ian had never seen the Doctor look so human. How long had he and Susan been travelling together? How many years had it been since they had been apart like this? Did he have any other family, any friends? Ian looked upon him as the person who dragged him away from his home, as the owner of a ship that took them from pace to place but he had rarely though of him as a person, someone with feelings as acute as his own. Ian has never seen such joy in the Doctor’s eyes than we he spotted Susan again but he hides it with his usual gruffness.

Simply Susan: Ian thinks Susan’s emotional behaviour had come from her recently discovered gift of telepathy. Experiencing the thoughts of others had had a considerable effect on her. She was told this empathy would not exist outside the Sense Sphere but a few remnants had been in evidence. She refused to leave until she saw the their friends settled.

Standout Performance: Astonishing that just a few seconds into this story listening to William Russell bring to life Ian Chesterton enchanting us with his nostalgic memories at the high seas during his travels with the Doctor brings the glorious atmosphere of the first season flooding back. His storytelling is masterful and he brings the script to life with a quiet passion. I can remember Ian Hallard quite vividly as Mr Mouse from Invaders of Mars and Sabian in Primeval and its great to see him playing against somebody as skilled as Russell. Together they make this an enchanting experience.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘A woman! A woman on board!’
‘Who knows what he might have gone on to discover if his passion had not been given a killing blow at such an impressionable age’ – Ian’s story of his pupil who could have cultivated his love of a scientific mystery is a small but powerful moment of character drama the likes of which Jac Rayner is superb at.
‘Sometimes, even today I get flashes of the horrors that haunted my mind in those days. Barbara sunk to the depths of the ocean suffering a sea change, her bones becoming corral, her sightless eyes turning into pearls and then her soul, released, would soar upwards breaching the surface becoming a bird, as an albatross, free and magnificent!’
‘What use is knowledge if there are no men to share it?’
‘I was on Captain Cook’s Endeavour and I was going to miss the discovery of Australia!’
‘That tall blue police box perched on a sandy ridge…then he started to grin again and he couldn’t stop.’
‘I have lots of stories, you know, more than you can ever imagine…’

Great Ideas: A transit is when one heavenly body moves across another, in this case Venus moving in front of the sun. A bit like a solar eclipse but Venus doesn’t completely obscure the sun. The TARDIS being heaved over the side of the sailing ship – what a glorious image that is – with Susan and Barbara trapped fathoms deep beneath the ocean! Having recently observed the Transit of Venus Captain Cook has recently left Tahiti. Banks is not whom he seems to be, quoting the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner despite the fact that Samuel Coleridge wont be born for another two years! ‘We would land on the coast of Australia in two months time’ – this is a time when Doctor Who stories could take place over vast periods of time, when landing in a period of history wasn’t just a jolly adventure but a way of life for as long as the travellers were there. Travelling along shores as snow capped mountains rose up to greet them – this really is an evocative tale. The rocky hand at Five Point Fingers waving at Ian as they depart! The man who is to recommend that prisoners be transported to Botany Bay is Joseph Banks…after Ian has put the idea into his head! Imagine the TARDIS filling with seawater, Barbara treading the water in the console room. Susan has maintained a measure of the telepathic powers she discovered, transmitting Barbara’s words to Banks and possibly a degree of paranoia to Ian.

Audio Landscape: The opening TARDIS doors, the winds of the high seas, the commotion amongst the sailors that Barbara causes, the creaking decks of the ship, albatrosses whirling in the air, shooting it down, Banks scratching at his parchment, Ian being manhandled overboard and hitting the surface of the sea with a splash, dolphins diving in and out of the water, the ship listing to one side, seagulls screaming on the shore.

Musical Cues: An eerie whistling music as the Doctor steps into the light and reveals his presence on the ship. There’s a mesmerising moment when both Ian and Banks start singing Botany Bay in harmony and we realise with horror that once again the mysterious passenger is predicting the future.

Standout Scene: As a long supporter of the obvious chemistry between Ian and Barbara (and since satisfied with the novel The Eleventh Tiger which brought their feelings to light and Death to the Doctor in the Sarah Jane series mentioning that they are married) the moment he realises how much he needs her and then as if by a miracle she is waving at him from the shore – I had goosebumps all over. What a remarkable scene.

Notes: Susan tells Ian stories about the planet Quinnis. Was the story in preparation at this point? What with both Relative Dimension and The Transit of Venus mentioning the planet you can’t say that the Marc Platt penned story didn’t have adequate advertising!

Result: For fans of the Hartnell era of which I am a massive aficionado it doesn’t get much more authentic than this. Returning us to the dangers of the unknown and the remarkable characterisation of the regulars in the first season, Jac Rayner has written a powerful and involving script that gives Ian the rare chance to stand centre stage. There’s a pleasing amount of history thrown in and after listening I looked a little more into the voyages of Captain Cook and Joseph Bank’s debt to botany – I love it when Doctor Who piques my interest in times past enough to get me to read up about it. Nigel Fairs directs the story delicately, never letting the terrific atmosphere of the piece pull us away from the central relationship between the Doctor and Ian and the mystery surrounding Banks and the answers when they come prove satisfying and build the characters. A superb snapshot of the past written with care and performed beautifully, Transit of Venus restores my faith in this range and then some: 10/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:


Anonymous said...

I absolutely love this one. William Russell is so excellent at these audios. I just recently had my wife listen to this story and she didn't realize that there were only two actors. Russell's performance of the other characters had her convinced they were other actors providing those voices.

ejays17 said...

Another favourite - I love the historicals. Apart from what I thought was a piece of horrendous historical inaccuracy (it turned out to be part of the plot in the end), the whole thing kept me gripped until the end.

As someone from Aus, I knew the history of Cook & his voyages, so this was an added bonus to have something that was about my region of the world, which rarely happened.

Joe Ford said...

It's nice to see that our tastes in historical audios are the same, this one really is a corker.

dark said...

I loved this one too first time around, and guess what? ---- second time around I still do!
I remember in one of the Bf interviews (I think it was on the extras for Angel of Scootari), one of the writers said that historical periods should be as alien and dangerous as any far future planet.

This is definitely the feeling I got here, particularly with Ian getting paranoid, little clues to the future and such a wonderful atmosphere of suspicion, only compounded by the amazing landscape.
In another writer's hands the telepathy explanation for all the weerd goings on would feel like a copout, but Rayner is such a master and plays things so lightly that it really doesn't.

This one also really feels like a companion! chronicle with a capital c. Ian is the central figure here, and though the Doctor is present and Ian's relationship with this untrustworthy old fellow is explored in detail, this is not a Doctor saves the day story, also was it me or was Susan not useless for once? :D.

A rousing triumph, and one that certainly didn't lose anything for a second listen, hurrah!