Friday, 17 June 2011

The Girl Who Never Was written by Alan Barnes and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: 'Dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot. Someone's listening. Somewhere.' A ghost ship. A girl with no memory, adrift in time. An old enemy. This could be Charlotte Pollard's finest hour - or her last. Set course for Singapore, 1931. Journey's end.

Breathless Romantic: Alan Barnes is clearly very fond of holding up the very thing we fell in love with about the Doctor and his companion before ripping them apart – he does it here with Charley when they leap back into the TARDIS after this mind boggling adventure ready for some more jolly adventures together and he did exactly the same thing with Lucie in Death in Blackpool by allowing us one last joyful adventure with her before splitting the pair up. The Doctor has a permanent suite at the Singapore Hilton since 1872. Its one part sweet and another part sad that the Doctor cannot let Charley go and literally chases after her taxi trying to tempt her with more adventures. Does he witter at people or despite them? Hilariously the Doctor marches in on the Cybermen in 1931 all bluster and whispers his escape plan in Charley’s ear…not realising that she has been turned into their leader! It was the Doctor who through some temporal trickery stopped the torpedoes from striking – he delayed their advance but thought he might need a little distraction and so.... INCOMING! Sometimes you just gotta love this guy! Once again the Doctor enthuses about Mary Shelley – considering he is the most romantic of Doctor’s that is understandable but it is awesome that there were so many references before she actually became his companion.

Edwardian Adventuress: Well bugger me backwards with a pool cue…C’rizz leaves and suddenly the eighth Doctor and Charley are a combo that works a charm again! It’s like the entire nasty-taste-in-your-mouth Divergent universe never happened and everything that followed has been wiped away! This is the beginning of the end for Charlotte Pollard but it is also the beginning of the renaissance for a character who has been cruising along shamelessly for a number of years. From The Girl Who Never Was right though to Blue Forgotten Planet we get to experience and fascinating new take on the character and also her strongest run of adventures since she joined the Doctor. The big development at the end of this story will be discussed in The Condemned but needless to say suddenly that exciting, revolutionary character that thrilled and enchanted her audience back in the day (or at least from Storm Warning through to Neverland) is back and she’s better than ever. I love the idea of Charley heading off in a taxi to who knows where and relishing the thought of it, flirting with guys and running her own life for a change.

There is simply too much backstory for Charley that interesting things simply self-perpetuate from her very existence. Practical be blowed, Charley will get by on her own and she refuses to talk about the situation anymore with the Doctor. She’s stubborn but then she always has been and the Doctor’s heartless behaviour in the last story (especially in comparison with his agonised reaction when he thought he might lose her in Neverland) has knocked her for six. She promises with some venom that she wont do anything to damage the precious Web of Time that has caused so many problems on their adventures. It’s rather beautiful that Charley will see the Doctor off with a hug and then close her eyes, count to ten and he will be gone. As soon as she realises that she is in 2008 rather than her own time she accuses the Doctor of not trusting her with the responsibility of not going home to her family after she was announced dead. Charley has a Chopsticks moment with a piano. Clearly Charley has acquired a wealth of technical and futuristic know-how on her adventures and has a plan to get the telegraph working again using the lightning of an approaching storm. There are so many hints at the seaman being a woman in disguise which would have been irritating anywhere else but this story is constantly making the point of where Charley came from and how she might have ended up. You’ve got to love how Charley whips up Madeleine’s story by telling her own in a very blasé fashion – she has almost become a mouthpiece for the listener at this point. She thought she was rubbish but Madeleine’s story is even more tragic. It comes to Charley having to forget all of her adventures with the Doctor but as much as he tries to hypnotise her those wonderful, frightening, funny and joyous memories refuse to be deleted. Her fake Cyber-accent is hilariously awful! Proving what a tough bitch Charley has become she walks away from Byron as he is eaten away screaming by the temporal fungus saying ‘It hasn’t been fun!’ What a kick ass babe. In her note to the Doctor she tells him he was the best man she has ever known but they have chanced their luck a little too often. She can go anywhere and be anyone she wants and she asks him not to look for her. Charley will always remember him.

Standout Performance: As Barnaby Edwards says in the extras it is definitely one of the best casts assembled for a Big Finish Production with the likes of Danny Webb and Anna Massey both making the most of this trippy script. However the performer who stood out for me in this was India Fisher who gave her best ever performance as Charley - topping probably even her career best in Neverland. It must have been nigh on impossible to play out those early scenes where Charley has to thump home that she doesn’t want to travel with the Doctor anymore and somehow Fisher manages to make these scenes both likable and draw the audience into her excitement at what they future might bring. She’s an authorative presence with her own narrative strand and her scarce scenes with the Doctor reveal those sparks of chemistry that wowed us in the first steps of Big Finish’s main range. What’s more she is about to be paired up with my personal favourite Doctor and who knows what magic they will create together.

Sparkling Dialogue: Alan Barnes conjures up Singapore Harbour beautifully: ‘The Harbour has hardly changed since the East India Company set up shop. Steamers up from Jakarta bringing spices and teak. Junk boats defying the South China seas. Smells of coffee and cuttlefish over the water. And firecrackers on New Years Eve making dragons tails in the air.’
‘In the absence of a cleverer idea…leg it!
‘Tin cans with squashed people!’ – sums up the Cybermen quite nicely.
‘Cybermen do not discriminate by gender’ – whilst I am not suggesting for a second that we should turns ourselves over for conversion for enlightenment I found this line particularly chilling because it shows a side to their uniformity that is preferable to our individuality.
‘Careful they’re made of iron but they don’t do irony.’
‘Charlotte Pollard fell through the Web of Time. Charlotte Pollard died and still lived. The future can always be changed.’
‘You’re the Doctor! You might just be the oddest man I’ve ever met!’
‘I’m sorry…I was expecting someone else.’

Great Ideas: Oh dear, the Doctor got the time wrong and landed Charley in 2008 rather than the 1930s. Temporal corrosion is a fungus that lives in the vortex (Charley brilliantly says ‘I didn’t bring it here!’). The fungus eating through a ship and chasing them to the TARDIS is an awesome moment of drama; it is one of the few things that can eat through the Doctor’s ship. The first cliffhanger is exactly the sort of (I was going to say game changing but that word gets everywhere and I really don’t like it so lets change it to…) narrative hinging (which isn’t much better) moment that made Son of the Dragon so effective – suddenly we are introduced to Charlotte Pollard senior, an older woman with a son which is a perfectly reasonable situation considering the TARDIS has just taken Charley back in time. The older Charley smacks him in the mouth when he is impolite, just the sort of tough old bird you would expect her to become! It is wonderful to have Charley as the cause in one time zone and the Doctor witnessing and figuring out the effect in another – she is the cause of the Batavia vanishing every time a storm blows up. They discover bullet ricochets in 2008, which begs the questions what in 1931 made them open fire? The HADS operate and Charley loses the TARDIS, which means the ship has detected a fatal event and upon hearing the Cybermen the older Charley remembers their approach in the earlier time period – this is some fine build up to a cliffhanger and no mistake. Rusty, rotting Cybermen who have gone slightly insane but still remember their one purpose in life to convert others like them. Cybermen swimming through the ocean towards the ship (mistaken for submarines) is a dazzling idea. They were forced to leave the vortex in a hurry and could not communicate with their spearhead (‘They’ve taken the phone off the hook!’). So naturally they planned to continue their and convert away and create a Cyber Conversion Facility in 1942. The Cyber Planner consciousness is injected into Charley when its frame is infected with the temporal rust. Madeleine has to escape because the Web of Time says so and as such she has to get into the escape vessel and not dive overboard with everyone else. She will lose her memory and meet up with the Doctor again in 2008. Ooh I’ve gone boss eyed. Charley’s consciousness gets poured into Madeleine’s head so that the timeline is beautifully, pitch perfectly restored. Byron is such a sleaze he tries to stowaway aboard the TARDIS and force the Doctor to take them to 5002 and loot a Cyber Spaceship. Awesomely the infected Cyber planner passes on his temporal fungus to the rest of the ship and Byron and they are all destroyed. The HADS have been prevalent throughout the story so what could have been a convenient plot device to sweep away the TARDIS at the conclusion becomes a moment of brilliant inevitability and Charley is left to her own fate as the ship is about to be destroyed.

Audio Landscape: Busy Singapore Harbour, a clock chiming, phone ringing, cars whizzing by, seagulls screaming, rotting wood snapping, an aircraft screaming through the air spraying bullets, a rumbling storm, the rain lashed deck and whistling wind, the door squeaking open and the Cybermen marching, sonar beeping, oooh it’s the fabulous Cyber Planner (!!!), lovely clumpy Cyber footsteps, scenes of Cybermen succumbing to the temporal rust and literally crumbling to metallic dust, the Doctor diving into the water and dripping over the deck, the ship blowing up with insane destructiveness, the rust cutting through the Cybership,

Musical Cues: The most Zagreus score since The Next Life. I guess I should explain that statement. If you go and listen to the soundtrack of Zagreus (if you can bear to put yourself through Doctor Who’s very own more irritating than pubic lice story) and then each of the stories that ERS scored afterwards without many exceptions you will find a general copy and paste nature to the music. Certainly The Next Life sounds exactly the same. Like the new series it feels like they are trying to create character scores that run through the stories which does work to a degree and at least the music from Zagreus was pretty much the best thing about it. As well as those familiar stings, the music here is bold, cinematic, tuneful and highly atmospheric. It’s probably the best job from ERS yet.

Isn’t it Odd: What a shame that the Cybermen appear on the cover (it’s a great cover by the way) because their inclusion is a complete surprise.

Standout Scene: The Girl Who Never Was is packed to the gills with standout moments but what really struck me where the number of well hidden surprises. The twist that the older woman isn’t Charley but Madeleine is expertly hidden by the wealth of distracting and brilliant stuff that is going on elsewhere. Charley witnessing the Doctor’s death and hearing his silenced heartbeats will haunt her for the rest of her travels. The ending makes it appear that Charley is dead and the Doctor has been duped her note into thinking that she is living her life away from him and then the real shock comes…the TARDIS lands to whisk Charley away but it clearly isn’t the man she was expecting. And Sixie’s theme music starts playing…

Notes: There are some fabulous old-fashioned Cyberman voices in use that whips you back to the 1960s effortlessly.

Result: Take Gary Russell and his poison pen out of the equation and suddenly Alan Barnes delivers a peerless script. Go figure. The Girl Who Never Was has a wealth of goodies to offer and is more evidence that the main range is pretty much back on track. You’ve got some gorgeous exploration and finishing touches to Charley’s long running story, a dual plot that by its very nature ramps up the tension, a dramatic and welcome return of an old foe and a number of exciting and beautifully directed action set pieces. There’s even time for a jolly old singsong! The story is plotted with all the expertise of an orchestra coming together, the first episode setting up the two disparate time zones, the second exploring the nature of cause and effect from one year to another, the third featuring the bold and unforgettable return of the Cybermen before the final episode splits up our long running team with brave and format-breaking certainty. The ideas juggled up in this story are worth the admission price alone, the character work is Barnes back on Neverland form and Barnaby Edwards continues to excel in the directors chair making this a truly cinematic and evocative audio experience. I was gripped throughout and didn’t know where this story was going…its really pleasing to have a story that promises big changes and has lots of fun with it along the way and delivers. When the time comes the parting of the eighth Doctor and Charley is tragic because both are under a misapprehension (she thinks he is dead and he thinks she is happily living her life somewhere away from him) and both characters are about to take an extremely positive step into new territory. Sixie and Lucie here we come! Tremendous: 10/10

Buy it from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/103-Doctor-Who-The-Girl-Who-Never-Was
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