Sunday, 26 June 2011

Auld Mortality written by Marc Platt and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: In a marble mausoleum, deep in the cisterns beneath the Capitol, Gallifrey's favourite author faces his ultimate destiny. Who is the woman who claims to be his granddaughter? Who is the sepulchral figure in robes of night? Which path should Hannibal's army take to Rome? And on a snowy mountain high in the Alps, the Doctor remembers the ultimate question: What if he and Susan had never left Gallifrey?

Alternative Hmm: I cannot imagine anything more devastating than the thought that the Doctor never left Gallifrey and simply dreamed of his adventures from afar. Its such a stirring idea I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire series of Unbound adventures wasn’t commissioned on the strength of it. Think of all those adventures undone, all those people he never would have met and all those companions living dreary lives without the joy of travelling through time and space. Think of your own childhood without the Doctor. It’s too devastating to contemplate and Auld Mortality whips me up into an emotional state quicker than most stories take their entire running time to achieve.

The Doctor is writing an exciting novel featuring himself on the planet Earth observing (not interfering with the course of history) the crossing of the Alps by Hannibal. His characters always get uppity and start writing their own stories. His manservant Badger is programmed for the lowest form of wit. The Doctor doesn’t give a damn about Presidential policies but instead obsesses over the reports from the observatories. He could drink a Macedonian under the table. He is studying the planet Earth because intoxicatingly it has an ongoing history unlike Gallifrey, which stop evolving so long ago. It is just like the Doctor to make an embarrassment of the family, ass over ceremonial tit in his robes! No one else in the family ever showed so much promise. He’s living in a crypt underground down in the cisterns under the Capitol but he thinks he is in rooms in the Capitol. He always wanted to travel and had his eye on an old TARDIS that was retired and due for the breakers. Time is a concept that has gone out of the window within his fantasy life. He’s made his fantasies real but sometimes he can’t tell where reality stops and imagination begins. Once he thought he saw himself spiralling between worlds in an old TARDIS just like he had always planned to but he can’t because they wont let him.

Simply Susan: All of his family disowned him…or possibly he disowned them and there was only one person who saw things his way. Dear little Susan who was always full of wonder and looking for the best in things. When she starts spouting out the usual Time Lord propaganda the Doctor wishes he had taken her education in hand. She worked hard at the Academy and if she becomes President she will open the windows and blow out the stale air and if she can’t open them she will throw stones at them!

Standout Performance: If the Unbound series is the embodiment of ‘what if…’ then Big Finish have triumphed one of my all time wishes – to see the superb character actor Geoffrey Bayldon play the Doctor. There are shades of William Hartnell in his performance but Bayldon is too good an actor to merely rely on mimicry. What we get is a gentle, thoughtful but still bitingly controversial (at least in the eyes of his people) Doctor who has so much potential. I love how the tale tucks him into a fantasy land of adventure, driving home his need for exploration and giving the audience a massive shock of joy when he finally gets his wish at the end and plays the role he always should have done.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We have the gift of time travel but do we visit the universe? No! We just catalogue it!’
‘I want to understand other worlds, Susan! The historical figures I can never meet! I want to know what the aliens think and eat and smell like.’
‘Possibility theory and imagination – two of the relative dimension we’ve hardly come to explore!’
‘You don’t know if it is impossible until they tell you it is impossible!’
‘Time’s roses. Scented with memory.’

Great (Unbound) Ideas: Half a galaxy has gone down to the Thalek Empire but nobody on Gallifrey batters and eyelid because it doesn’t threaten them. The Doctor refused to even entertain the idea of campaigning for the Presidency – he knows full well that they never survive a second term! Quences is long dead but is still manipulating the Doctor’s life via Badger in his fantasy. He snuck his brain in Badgers positronic minds, the servant that he gave the Doctor. Any unscheduled excursion into the universe disrupts the Web of Time. Later today Susan takes her first steps as a candidacy of President of the Supreme Council. The Doctor genuinely believed that there was a TARDIS in the generator but it was just a literary conceit to get his characters from one place to another. There are paintings in the Presidential office, pictures of investitures going right back and Auld Mortality is there. Sometimes only a shadow but he is in all of them, always in dark robes just behind the President as if he is whispering in his ear. The generator was a TARDIS all along and he was inside it all this time…buried under all the paper! The idea that we don’t know if the TARDIS really was there or just another illusion is the perfect finishing touch.

Audio Landscape: Elephants trumpeting, birdsong, marching beasts, footsteps crunching on snow, crackling fire, a screaming blizzard, sheathing swords, banging on door, water running.

Musical Cues: It’s been so long since I have heard the music stirrings of Alistair Lock that I had (almost) forgotten what a talent he was during those early days of Big Finish. His music is unmistakable and I recognised the light and dark underpinning of events instantly without having to look at the sleeve. I wont complain too much – we currently have musicians such as Jamie Robertson and Steve Foxon delighting us with their scores – but it does as well to remember that Lock and Russell Stone were as important as Murray Gold is to the new series in their day.

Standout Scene: The moment the Doctor realises who Susan is my heart melted. The two of them putting their minds together to whisk away somewhere completely different left me beaming. The melding of two fantasies – the Panopticon and Hannibal’s expedition makes for a very memorable scene.

Notes: Drafting Marc Platt to write the opening instalment was a clever idea and anybody familiar with the New Adventures will recognise the plot elements and characters from Platt’s Lungbarrow. It is a lovely way of bringing those ideas alive in audio without suggesting it is established continuity.

People have complained that Big Finish haven’t released another series of Unbound adventures (aside from a sequel to this adventure and the next one) which I find a little odd because all of the spin of material is pretty much ‘what if?’ stories brought to life. What if Jago & Litefoot had their own series? What if there was a political drama set on Gallifrey? What if the Daleks fronted their own series? What if a companion headed off for her own adventures after leaving the Doctor? That is not to say that I do not consider these series’ canon (or whatever word is bandied about to suggest something is real Doctor Who or not) but the Unbound series is still going strong today in all manner of spin series and that should make all of us smile.

When the Doctor fell into the generator with Susan I honestly thought that Platt was going to suggest that his adventures with Susan and beyond were all a fiction and he had lost his mind inside his fantasy world. Just imagine that – all those adventures we shared with the Doctor and in all that time he was a decrepit old man slowly dying in a crypt underneath the Capitol on Gallifrey. Dreaming. What a chilling prospect.

Result: Proof that not all stories set on Gallifrey have to be stuffy political dramas; Auld Mortality is one of the most sensual and emotional dramas yet. Bristling with imagination and intelligence and taking the idea of ‘what if?’ to its most extreme (what if the Doctor never left Gallifrey?), I was impressed how this unique production sucked me in so completely. The potential for this to stretch into a series of adventures is irresistible with the gorgeous Geoffrey Bayldon giving a beautiful performance as the Doctor and accompanied by Carole Ann Ford who gives her best ever performance as Susan. The line between fantasy and reality is one that we all have to face and I have rarely seen it handled in such an optimistic and creative manner. The last scene splits the drama two ways that really shows that the possibilities truly are endless and it remains one of the best scenes in Doctor Who. Ever: 10/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

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