Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Haunting of Thomas Brewster written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: Thomas Brewster is haunted by the ghost of his drowned mother. But she is not the only apparition to disturb his dreams. Every few years, he is visited by a mysterious blue box... Helped by his new assistant, the young Scots scientist Robert McIntosh, the Doctor struggles to unravel the twisted knot of temporal implausibilities which bind the TARDIS to Thomas Brewster. Meanwhile, lost in the stews of Victorian London, Nyssa must face a host of spectral creatures gathering in the fog.

An English Gentleman: Lost in the TARDIS corridors again. Looking for Nyssa the Doctor inveigles himself in Victorian science circles and is seen giving a lecture with bushy whiskers and an awfully posh voice. He has set himself up with a house and an assistant in a few seconds from Nyssa’s point of view but what is twelve months for the Doctor. Stranded with a broken TARDIS he manipulated his way into the Royal Society to gain access to certain materials that would allow him to repair his ship. Its such an inventive premise I could happily spend a trilogy in the company of the fifth Doctor about Victorian London solving crimes ala Jago & Litefoot. He constructs a device that can detect disturbances in the space/time continuum which was how he knew where and when Nyssa would arrive. The Doctor keeps his secrets from Robert and pays the price, after a year of knowing the Time Lord he realises he didn’t actually know him at all and insulted at his lack of honesty tells him after this adventure they will part company for good.

Alien Orphan: Its nice to see Nyssa get more of a character role than just spouting the usual science dreck she was lumbered with in the series and much like Circular Time Sarah Sutton is afforded some refreshingly deft material to sink her teeth into. I loved the difference between Nyssa and Brewster’s descriptive talents, of the gas creatures she describes them as ‘a life form based upon suspended gas particles’ and he calls them ‘a living pea souper.’ The Doctor always told Nyssa that the future was indeterminate. Morris finds a wonderful avenue for Nyssa to sympathise with Brewster since he has lost his parents too but she asserts that her mother and father wouldn’t have wanted her to waste her life as he has done. She has made a future for herself not to forget her parents but to honour their memory. When the Doctor and Nyssa discover a future TARDIS she is just full of good questions like where their future selves are and what if they are dead? There were only so many times that Nyssa could say ‘yes, its quite logical’ to the most brain bursting line of thoughts before I was laughing my head off!

Artless Dodger: Brewster made a real impact on me because he leaps from this adventure as the very Adric-done-right they were aiming for and then some. Played by John Pickard who could charm the hind legs off a donkey, there is none of the irritating petulance and immaturity that came with our favourite Alzarian but a genuinely roguish character that walks the fine line between ally and enemy. He only gives the creatures access because he thought he was helping out his mum and he is capable of abducting Nyssa and punching out the Doctor if the situation calls for it. His double of abduction of the TARDIS proves he is a kid of no small talent! The first thing Brewster remembers is his mother’s birthday at four or five – it’s hard to remember considering he has never had any birthdays. His only memory of her is dead in a box with a veil over her. He remembers the TARDIS lamp flashing at the funeral. When Brewster is offered an apprenticeship he gets the joy of sleeping in the bed where his predecessor died. On his first day as a Mud Lark Brewster is told to watch out for the corpses that wash ashore but to check their pockets for any valuables and cash. What a dreadful way to live a life. Listening to Brewster getting a vicious whack of the stick made me wince. From the point of view of a Victorian crook the white serenity of the TARDIS console room is akin to a chapel. He used to feel bitter that his mum died and that he should have done something.

Standout Performance: By allying the Doctor about town with a Scottish gentleman I sensed strong stirrings of David Pirie’s Murder Rooms series inspired by the case stories of Sherlock Holmes. Christian Coulson has the perfect voice of a Victorian gentleman and I really wouldn’t have objected to him stepping into the TARDIS with the Doctor and Nyssa. In a story packed with well acted characters the titular character is charmingly realised by John Pickard and I am glad there were more stories scheduled for him after this trilogy.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘She had been in the water five days when they found her’ – what a chilling cliffhanging line, telling you everything you need to know about this ghoulish spectre unveiling itself.
‘Somebody has just punched a whole in the universe!’
‘You were in the TARDIS in the year 2008 which will shortly be ending up at the bottom of the Thames. You are now inside the TARDIS that was in the Thames and that is currently inside the other, earlier TARDIS.’
‘I don’t believe it! He’s done it again!’

Great Ideas: Five years or so after her death Thomas Brewster was haunted by the deathly cries of his mother. There is a definite Dickensian feel to the early material that sees Thomas brought up in a squalid orphanage and press ganged into nefarious activity. Oliver Twist is one of my favourite Christmas films (the Ron Moody version, naturally) and so I this dark homage helped to bring the world of Victorian London in front of my eyes with ease. Mud Larks are lads who scour the low tide of the Thames and scavenge for whatever has drifted ashore; driftwood, flotsam, barrels of brandy, silk, lace, tobacco… There is something wonderfully evocative about dirty, scavenging boys heading out into the tide a midnight – if we were seeing this from the point of view of the Doctor and Nyssa they could very well be the very image of a Doctor Who monster wading through the misty shores. The TARDIS half buried in the sleet and the slime of the Thames is a fantastic image. Thomas is directed into stealing various scientific apparatus by the spectre of his mother. In one of the many potential futures that lay before us in an indeterminate universe the gas creatures control the Earth. It’s a remote possibility but if in that universe they have the ability to send information back through time like how to create a time corridor they can use it to travel through time and influence events so the future they rule becomes more likely. A bloody brilliant summation from Morris of the madness of alternative universes and their potentially disastrous consequences. Possibility becomes probability becomes certainty! Glowing mist reaching out for the people, an image so gorgeous Morris used it again in one of his strips. The very idea of a paradoxical menace from a future that cannot exist is awesome but as Brewster so eloquently says Nyssa and the Doctor question their nature with big words doesn’t escape the face that the menace is still there! Brewster stealing the TARDIS leads to the Doctor and Nyssa having to fulfil and explain their brief appearances that we saw in the first episode. Landing the future TARDIS inside itself in a previous time is so mind boggling I had to go and have a lie down to think through its implications but I was applauding the ingenuity of the concept. We get to visit a potential future 2008, the planet reduced to ash and clinker simply to generate the energy to summon this reality into existence!

Audio Landscape: Polite murmuring and coughing at the funeral, crows crying at the graveside, bawdy orphan house, the creepiest rendition of Oranges and Lemons you are ever likely to hear and church bells playing the same tune, water splashing, bubbling mud, boats honking on the Thames, Mr Creek being dragged down into the bubbling swamp is horrible, rowing in the Thames, dogs barking, Nyssa jumping from the train as it still clacks loudly along the tracks, electricity crackling through Brewster’s device, the whispering gas creatures, squeaky floorboards.

Musical Cues: It’s the weirdest musical score I have heard since Malcolm Clarke’s racket in The Sea Devils with moments of evocative underscoring but also plenty of intrusive bridging of scenes where the music draws attention to itself far too dramatically. The strangest thing about the repetitive cues is that after an episode or two I started to enjoy them and by the end of the story I was singing along with them! So its either the equivalent of a really irritating pop song (lets say Barbie Doll) getting stuck in your head because of its sheer infuriating catchiness or a song that you hated when you first heard but grew on you with time (for me a good example would be Leona Lewis’ Bleeding Love). You decide.

Standout Scene: Morris knows how to play with conventions and surprise his audience – Robert turns on the Doctor for concealing his true identity for a year and then moments later sacrifices his life for him. A shame to waste such a strong character but a total surprise. In a story was packed to the gills full of moments subverting the audiences expectations that duplicating the twist of Brewster stealing the TARDIS is a moment of triumph to close the story on.

Notes: A quick word about Nick Briggs and co inviting Jonathan Morris to contribute a wealth of adventures from this point onwards – pretty much the best decision they made since the new administration took over. His standard is so high and the stories under his belt - The Eternal Summer, Cobwebs, The Crimes of Thomas Brewster, Max Warp, Ressurection of Mars, The Glorious Revolution light up their respective ranges.. His is the only name I smile at when I see it coming up in the schedules repeatedly because you know it is going to be something a bit special. With Charley and the eighth Doctor having exciting new adventures independently to each other, the introduction of the trilogy format (of which this is the first), Brewster’s inclusion and C’rizz’s departure plus the welcome return of writers like Morris it really feels like this range is gaining a brand new identity.

Result: In sharp contrast to The Dark Husband which featured probably the worst first episode to a release since Big Finish have begun, The Haunting of Thomas Brewster opens on the most attention grabbing, moody and exciting first episode in many years. Set over Brewster’s miserable childhood with the TARDIS as a beacon of hope appearing many times across his youth, I was dragged straight into this opening instalment thanks to its focus on the strong guest cast over the regulars. Just when you think episode two is going to tell the same tale from the Doctor and Nyssa’s point of view Morris trumps your expectations again with a brilliant conceit of the Doctor spending twelve months in Victorian London waiting for Nyssa to arrive. A hint of Dickens, a splash of Holmes, scares, action and innovation and even room for a sweet unrequited gay romance, this is a story that never stops giving. Haunting has all of the atmosphere and chills of the New Series’ The Unquiet Dead but wins out with its stronger cast of characters, more intelligent narrative and the host of surprises that get more insanely engaging as the story progresses. Even the brisker running time works in its favour because the story never feels as though it outstays its welcome and finishing flourish of the Doctor and Nyssa losing the TARDIS caps off an ingenious and practically flawless puzzle. Again in contrast with The Dark Husband (where it was the best thing about it) the really distracting music is probably the only thing preventing this story getting full marks: 9.5/10

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1 comment:

David Pirtle said...

Having just listened to the first episode, I agree that it's one of the best in a while at this point in the range. Can't wait to listen to the rest if it's as good as you say.