Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Farewell Great Macedon written by Moris Farhi (adapted by Nigel Robinson) and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: The TARDIS materialises in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, in the year 323 BC. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan meet Alexander the Great – but their excitement is tempered by the realization that these are the final days of Alexander's life. As the travellers become embroiled in the tragic events, the inevitability of history unfolds around them. But can they – and should they – change it?

Hmm: Whilst the companion chronicles have touched on the joy of the Hartnell era (and in most cases faithfully recreated it), to have a real six part Hartnell historical where the original Doctor is this authentically characterised – well it’s a dream come true. I love it when the first Doctor is a right grumpy bastard and when he chastises Susan for thinking they are dead and in heaven because ‘he doesn’t know the way’ I was laughing my head off! For the Doctor to tell anybody that they have shown a great deal of common sense is a rare gift at this stage and Alexander should feel proud. Given time he can do a lot of things including extracting heavy hydrogen from oil! You begin to understand the responsibility the Doctor has with such incredible knowledge and ability travelling to less enlightened cultures when Alexander demands that he save the life of a poisoned man. He is given his choice of any Empire if he succeeds. Naturally once he has extracted the hydrogen from the oil he has to boast about how extraordinarily clever he is…and Susan feeds that ego in the way only she can. When asked by Alexander to prove his innocence in murdering Hephaestion he tells him it is the other way around and he should prove their guilt. The Doctor shakes his fist defiantly as Ian is sentenced to death but as soon as Susan screams that they should all die together he rather brilliantly changes his mind for a moment: ‘now just a second child…’ Because he cannot fight he is asked to prove himself by the test of walking on hot coals and the Doctor is only too delighted to accept the challenge. The Doctor being the investigative genius that he is manages to figure out who the culprits are with all the theatrical flair and deductive reasoning of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. He’s such a wonderful show off that he doesn’t just walk across the hot coals once but he dances back and forth to the delight of the crowds! The Doctor took a Hippocratic Oath when he was studying medicine and promised to save life under any circumstances, even if that means altering the course of history. Its interesting that this development never actually made it into the TV series and I wonder if David Whitaker would have edited it out of the transmitted version had this made it to the screen.

Schoolteachers in Love: Barbara was a perfectly formed companion from the off but she really came into her own in the historical stories and her enthusiasm for their visit to Babylon and meeting some of the iconic figures of the time shines through. Clytus has never heard a sincere word uttered by a female and the King was used to compliments from his people but he judged Barbara’s praise to be genuine and heartfelt. She used to daydream of Alexander the Great but never guessed she would meet him in the flesh. Barbara’s assertion that sympathy doesn’t bring back the dead but it does exalt their memory is gorgeous. The relationship between Barbara and Alexander is full of wonderful nuances, he seems to trust her implicitly but reacts violently to things and she cares deeply for him and tries to soothe his pain. She was always taught to look at history objectively but now she is experiencing it she finds herself emotionally involved. She was hoping to be spared witnessing Alexander’s death. Barbara has to maturely drive the point home to Ian that the future is a direct result of the past and that Alexander did not lead a full life as much as it pains her. Barbara remains honest with Alexander right up to his deathbed when she tells him that many people have had his dream of brotherhood but humanity doesn’t seem capable of it. When asked if she can see the future she remains silent.

Even when Barbara assures Ian that Clytus would have died anyway because it is historical fact he cannot stop himself from feeling instrumental in his death. The differing opinions over the Callanus’ suicide channelled through Ian goes to show just how strong these characters were conceived. Give them a strong enough subject to explore and the drama flows free like water down a lake. Ian states you don’t judge a gift by its value but on how it is given. Ian is incredibly brave, trying to suck the snake’s poison from the wound but it is too late. He shows real strength of character when asked to sacrifice himself to save the rest of his friends. When he faces Selleucus in the arena and defeats him at wrestling he is declared Hephaestion’s champion. He uses cunning and his other opponents strength against them even though they are more powerful, meatier blokes.

Standout Performance: William Russell conjures up Ian Chesterton effortlessly but seems to have even more fun playing the villainous characters in Macedon; growling and cursing with such passion I was quite terrified in places! Russell’s narration was extremely engaging as was Ford’s especially when they pick up the pace during the moments of excitement. There is an action sequence in part four where Russell and Ford are hurriedly finishing each other’s sentences and driving home the pace of the moment. Rather than vanish into the shadows of such an impressive duo as Russell and Ford, John Dorney delivers an unforgettable performance as Alexander the Great imbuing him with real strength of character, good humour and a fierce anger. Dorney’s wealth of talents in the acting and writing department continue to impress me and it would be very easily to dislike such a talented bloke if he wasn’t such a nice guy in real life too! The scene where Alexander lets his good friend Calanus die is extremely touchingly played by Russell and Dorney.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Up to the great city walls of Babylon itself. The crenulated walls of the city towered a hundred feet high and were built of bricks the colour of lapis luzui. Huge bronze plated doors of cedar formed the entrance to Babylon which was guarded by bronze statues of bulls of dragons’ – I have no doubt in my mind that designers such as Barry Newbery would have made this story look a million dollars on screen in the most cramped and resourceless of studios. However I quoted this in full to show that you don’t lose anything of the visual by translating this to audio – the descriptions are remarkably lush.
‘And like most beautiful things in the world a rose too has its sting’ and ‘When admiring a rose one should first of all feel its thorn and let pleasure follow pain.’
‘A man must die when death becomes more attractive than life.’
‘If it will help the world then I will become a God!’
‘The rays of the sun are worth more than all the gold in the world’ – there is some treasurable discussion of Diogenes.
‘The end of Alexander the Great! Not with a whimper but with a bang! Farewell Alexander! Farewell Great Macedon!’

Great Ideas: Plants like lyre chords producing a heavenly music, the musicians of this world – I just love the blissful imagination of the early Doctor Who stories. You really felt as if you could end up anywhere. The Bernice New Adventure Walking to Babylon featured the Hanging Gardens of Babylon but it is wonderful to see such an iconic and poetic location making into a Doctor Who story. Within Babylon all was law and order and outside was nothing but chaos, Barbara gets to show off her historical knowledge to the nth degree in this setting. As ever the TARDIS is incapacitated to allow the adventure to take place. Blood and roses are the same colour because they live such very short lives? The most insulting act you can bestow upon a man is to give him a woman’s death. Selleucus and Antipitas make for such an insidious and gleefully murderous villains you can’t help but admire them whilst you are hissing at them. In true villainous fashion when they are exposed they turn and try and point the finger at each other. Unfortunately there does seem to a huge amount of evidence against the TARDIS crew simply by being present when Alexander’s friends and advisors start dying. It is not difficult to build a case against them. There are three things that Alexander values deeply about in this world; love, wisdom and courage. You would think that after several hours of listening you would be bored come episodes four and five but they are the best of the lot with the wonderful scenes of gifts being discussed and exchanged and the gorgeous sequences of the Doctor and Ian showing off their prowess at the games! History protects itself, you can no more change the past than you can the future and the Doctor will not save Alexander if this is the day history decrees that he dies.

Audio Landscape: The original console room hum, the heavenly sound of the plants, people of the streets, chickens clucking and calling, battling with swords and shields under the hot sun, insects humming in the heat, people laughing and dining, dancing and clapping, snoring, the crackling fire of the funeral pyre, the marching army, a hissing black asp slithering, a rustling in the leaves, the trumpets sounding the games.

Musical Cues: An outstanding music score from Toby Hrycek-Robinson which captures the wonder and the danger of the Hartnell historical. There is a beautiful guitar score as the Doctor and his friends meet Alexander and his. The music during the dining scenes really makes you want to pick your feet up and have a jig! The dramatic sting at the end of episode is unforgettable and the subtle violin stirrings as the Doctor tries to save a mans life really adds to the atmosphere of the scene.

Isn’t it Odd: This is the longest Big Finish adventure with six episodes ranging from 30 to 40 minutes apiece and yet it doesn’t drag for a single second. I bring this up simply to show once again where Zagreus got everything wrong – this is literally the antithesis of that tale and proof that an extended story can be the most gripping thing ever. Big raspberry. I don’t know why this bugs me so much but it just does but I read a review where somebody stated that bringing to life this sort of story is defunct because things have moved on. Are you kidding me? This is what the lost stories are all about, their raison d'être – there is literally no point in listening to this range if you don’t want to capture the essence and lost potential nature of the era. In the extras you hear that this script was passed over again and again in various eras and its one of those occasion where this simply screams of having to be made just to show what those eras have missed out on.

Standout Scene: The end of episode two was truly shocking, Clytus murdered in a misunderstanding and opening a world of trouble for Alexander the Great who tries to take his own life. Superbly written and performed, I was chomping at the bit to listen to the next episode. The funeral pyre sequence that slides from day into night is astonishingly well directed and emotive. The moment the Doctor (who is trying to get Ian to build an iron lung for Alexander) is told by Barbara and Susan that this is the day he is supposed to die took my breath away. Would the Doctor change history? Alexander’s decision to commit suicide when he realises his dreams of the future are futile is the powerful conclusion this story deserved.

Result: A great loss to the TV series but a huge gain to The Lost Stories range, Farewell Great Macedon is a stunning six-part epic that only the format less Hartnell era would attempt. Like Marco Polo the story takes place on an impress canvas with months passing during the episodes and visiting some extraordinarily vivid locations. A huge round of applause should go to William Russell, Carole Ann Ford and John Dorney without whom this blistering tale would not be brought to life so vigorously and the mixture of narrators (I especially love how scenes are cut up dramatically with different voices) makes this a heady, memorable experience. I just happen to find the Hartnell historicals the pinnacle of Doctor Who’s televised achievements so this feels as though it has been made specifically for my tastes. The regulars are treated to some great material, the Doctor is grumpy, morally ambiguous and gets the wonderful sequence of walking on hot coals, Barbara enthuses about being able to experience history and enjoys a strong and affecting relationship with Alexander, Ian is the picture of bravery and protects his friends to the nth degree and Susan emotes like an emotional firework. Lisa Bowerman has been one of the standout directors to have emerged from Big Finish in the past few years (A Thousand Tiny Wings, Jago & Litefoot) but her work on this story is nothing short of masterful. She extracts all the sensuality and emotion from the script and encourages the blissful performances of the cast. Her work should be recognised for its incredible consistency and quality. Honestly at some points during this story you will think you are listening to a wiped story recording, that’s how authentic it feels: 10/10

Buy it from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/201-Doctor-Who-The-First-Doctor-Box-Set


Anonymous said...

This is one that I have a lot of mixed feelings about. On one hand I feel that the format was just awful. The mix of narration and speaking with the swapping of which person reads which lines was confusing. William Russell was forced to do so many parts that while Alexander's generals are all distinctive, the conspirators all seem like the same man which is problematic when you're trying to figure out who is speaking in a scene. There are continuity problems too of course and I'm not just talking about how to slot it into the televised adventures. Character continuity is a much bigger deal then fact continuity and this story has the Doctor acting completely out of character. It feels like BF didn't edit the script at all, even though I know for a fact that some things were cut. There's no way that David Whitaker would have allowed this story to pass as written and indeed Fahri apparently pulled the story because Whitaker wanted to many rewrites but I have a real problem with a Hartnell Doctor trying to change history and cannot imagine the iron lung and blood transfusions making it into a televised story.

Then there's the good. The music is fantastic and really evokes that season 1 era. In some places I think they actually might have taken some of the early music. John Dorney is AMAZING as Alexander. I'm confused as to why they didn't let him do some of the other male voices to give William Russell a little bit of rest. Not that Russell and Ford aren't both great here. They are but the voice casting is fantastic aside from the villains all sounding the same.

There are some things to recommend the script. I really enjoy the depiction of Alexander which is perfectly valid based on what we know of him. He was a man with a great vision but prone to passion and losing his head. I also like the darker sides of this story. I think that another reason why this one was cut was that having two main characters commit suicide was probably a bit much for Saturday tea-time viewing. I also love some of the staging and the scene with Ian and the Doctor overcoming their various trials was inspired.

In the end I found this one a little dry in a way that I don't find any of the televised Hartnell historicals but definitely want to see more of John Dorney.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you for the most part on the story. However, wasn't it Ian who took the Hippocratic oath, not the Doctor?

Joe Ford said...

More than likely, I get so excited writing the reviews of stories that I enjoy that the odd little mistake creeps in. It just gives me the excuse to go back and listen again and revise.

Newgen said...

This is one of the highest rated stories on timescales.com! If I recall properly almost 200 listeners have given it an AVG rating of more than 9/10 (a truly monumental achievement!). It holds the top position (out of all of the BigFinish Lost Story Series). I'm sure the first commenter's comments are valid; however, they are NOT shared by the vast majority of ppl. This is one of BigFinish's listeners' all time favourire stories. And ∴ I recommend it, along with almost everyone who's listened to this production - very highly and recommend it to anyone looking for a truly fantastic first doctor era story or for that matter, simply a brilliant Doctor Who Adventure. It's such a terrific treat to get given a 3+ Hr audio drama. Stories of this length are a very rare treat indeed. Perfect for a wintery weekend afternoon, relaxing and listening to this near perfect adventure. (PS - I had absolutely no idea there were only 3 actors! I thought it had a full cast, that's how good the characters were!).

David Pirtle said...

As a devotee of ancient history, I should be annoyed by how badly this story mangles it, compressing years' worth of deaths into a few days, getting the circumstances wrong, confusing Ptolemy with a Nubian, etc...

But I absolutely love it! I would have give it near full marks for just how well it was written and, eventually, (THANKS, BIG FINISH!) produced. You mentioned Marco Polo, and that's the story that most quickly comes to my mind when I think about this one, namely how it dragged in the middle as we watched (or listened to, since the audio is all we have left) Tegana try and fail over and over to kill the title character. Here, instead, we listen helplessly as the villains successfully bump off Alexander's allies one by one. Darker, but far more engaging.

It's a shame Farhi never got one of his own scripts onto the TV show, because he so obviously gets these characters' voices. And speaking of voices, hats off to the remarkable job done by Russell and Ford, who seem to have even more fun reading their departed costars' lines than they do their own.

One of the other comments mentions how the Doctor wouldn't change history, but that's one of the things I find interesting about this story. It was obviously written before The Aztecs was produced, and it's intriguing to see the Doctor and Barbara's positions almost entirely reversed here. That's part of the fun of the lost stories, in my opinion, exploring might-have-beens.