Monday, 11 July 2011

Shadow of the Past written by Simon Guerrier and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: There's a secret locked up in UNIT's Vault 75-73/Whitehall. Dr Elizabeth Shaw is the only one left who knows what that secret is. Returning to UNIT for the first time in decades, she slowly unravels the past. The vault contains the remains of a spaceship that crashed in the Pennines in the seventies. For the young Liz Shaw, the priority is to ensure the thing's safe. But the Doctor is more concerned about the alien pilot. And the chance this ship offers for escape. Can he resist the temptation, or will the Doctor turn on his friends?

Intelligent Academic: This is such a responsible take on Liz Shaw it kind of puts a lot of the very good work that has been done with her character in the past to shame. For responsible do not read boring – read thoughtful, dark and adult. Liz has been called back to study the spaceship because everybody else who was there when it came down in the seventies is gone. Just a few weeks after Liz saw a plague fall on humanity she is terrified at what diseases or horrors this latest crash to Earth will bring but of course she doesn’t say anything. Liz is told that there are some half dozen Doctors these days, all completely different and all exactly the same but her Doctor was more than enough for her. She could barely keep up with the Doctor and barely make sense of all that he showed her and like an idiot she walked away. Liz genuinely thinks he could have taught them so much if only UNIT had listened. He had to save the pilot of this crashed spaceship because it could be his ticket off the Earth. When Liz says she has years of experience in preternatural research it reminded me of her future employment working for the government organisation PROBE. Liz helped to lug the console in and out of the TARDIS so many times and she still doesn’t have a clue what any of the controls really do. Proving that she isn’t just a dispassionate scientist Liz takes quite shine to Robin and finds that she can’t quite catch his eye when working with him.

Good Grief: Wonderfully Liz describes UNIT as trying to fill in the vacuum left by the Doctor once his exile was lifted – a whole army trying to live up to the legacy of one man. He has such an air about him, a Lord amongst his own people. Tall, elegant fancy jackets and capes – he had spent centuries swanning through time and space with the whole universe as a grand tour and then he was grounded. Stuck filling in time with the human race and Liz felt his frustration. Brilliantly described as looking down his great nose at anyone in authority and yet he was passionate and brilliant and funny. Of course the Doctor resents being stuck on the Earth but he doesn’t hide that truth from his friends and that is what convinces Liz that our Doctor isn’t the duplicate.

Chap With Wings: Liz heard that the Doctor and Brigadier were the best of friends after she left UNIT but you would never think so if you witnessed their relationship as it was in its formative year. In a moment that might make you spit out your drink the Brigadier orders his soldiers to break down the TARDIS doors. How much he still has to learn about the Doctor and his Ship. He’s usually a stuffy sort of man with a twinkling sense of humour but the cold, professional side to him is terrifying.

Standout Performance: There is a world of difference between Deborah Watling’s in the last story and Caroline John’s in this one. Some people are natural born storytellers and it is one of the joys of the Companion Chronicles to see which of the classic series actors who have that gift. John has both authority and a gentleness to her voice that makes you sit up and pay attention and she manages to make the dramatic moments sneak up and knock you for six. For the record the actors who I think have the most charming reading abilities are William Russell, Peter Purves, Caroline John and Katy Manning.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We can’t drop a H Bomb on Kent! Think what it would do to the house prices!’
‘There’s another man, Benton, ready to take Robin’s stripes. We get on with our work.’

Great Ideas: I love the idea of returning to an old UNIT vault and it being treated like a time capsule to the past since UNIT has changed so much. Now radar is so sophisticated you get a couple of days notice that something is approaching the planet but back in the seventies you had a couple of hours. It was all about the reaction and how quickly you mobilised. Back in the seventies they would have a spaceship sent back to HQ in an unmarked van covered in tarpaulin – how could they have been so brazen! And the ultimate UNIT solution to anything is a cup of tea or coffee. The Mim are made up of a gelatinous mass of nerves and fibrils not unlike a sponger. They can hurt it and slow it down but they are never going to stop the Mim even if they cut it in half. There is a strange amorphous shape cartwheeling through Bromley and Penge but there is a special division of UNIT trained to fob people off. Marshall is what is left of the Mim pilot and Robin and has only just managed to reassemble himself.

Audio Landscape: It has become something of a repetitive statement to praise Richard Fox and Lauren Yason for their superb sound design and music for the Companion Chronicles series but looking back I only ever half heartedly comment on their excellent work whilst concentrating on the plot elements and characterisation. So I thought I would take a breather to give them a huge round of applause for once again making this story as effective as it can possibly be with their extraordinary postproduction work. Between them they fill their stories with a mixture of menacing, funny and realistic sounds and how they tip their hat to so many styles of music leaves me pretty agog. As an example of their work go and listen to the climax of Shadow of the Past where the fake Mim Doctor bursts free and wraps its oily tentacles around Robin and drags him into the ship – both the sound design and music is working full throttle to make this as shocking a conclusion as possible. I hope they continue to provide their services for Big Finish because they will be pretty hard to top.

A clanging door, the buzz of the strip lighting, tracking scanner, the ship crashing into the Earth, Bessie growling through the country lanes, tearing up the hillside on foot, gravel crunching underfoot, helicopter, police sirens, the pilots remains melting away, a fire fight of spraying bullets and bombs, the gurgling screams of the Mim, I love how the Time Lord trickery is achieved with a cheek pop, showers.

Standout Scene: The cliffhanger is so good because this is the one period of the Doctor’s life where you can genuinely imagine him being so desperate to escape the Earth that he would go to any lengths to set himself free. Even join forces with a race he previously implored the Time Lords to force an intervention on and hand them the Earth as a prize for his freedom. Season seven saw a fraught and at times unlikable third Doctor who wasn’t comfortable with settling in one tiny planet and in one time – the possibility exist that he would go to any lengths to shake off his bonds and Guerrier wonderfully capitalises on that. Also the closing scene that sees Liz trying to cope with the loss of life in this story and washing away her sins in a UNIT shower is startling. Afterwards she is dressed and professional again but for a moment her life is shattered and inconsolable.

Notes: The appearance of the bowler-hatted man must be the same bloke who turned up at the beginning of Terror of the Autons.

Result: What I found most impressive about Shadow of the Past was how Simon Guerrier managed to expose all the unique elements about season seven that make it such a cornerstone of quality in the classic series’ run. The Doctor and the Brigadier have dramatically opposing viewpoints, Liz Shaw is an intelligent and considerate woman in her own right and not just the Doctor’s assistant, alien incursions are something to be genuinely feared and there is a strong element of the spy thriller genre mixed in with some gripping science fiction. It’s a heady brew and Guerrier utilises it to explore a race of aliens who have caused a real stir in another spin off series. Shadow from the Past isn’t the best storytelling I have ever experienced – it is quite a simple piece with the Doctor causing the problem and providing its solution – but it’s through sharp insights into its era and strong characterisation that this story succeeds. Caroline John is a natural storyteller and her dazzling portrayal as Liz whisks us back to season seven effortlessly. One thing I have noticed about the third Doctor Companion Chronicles is that the performers reading for the third Doctor (be it Caroline John, Katy Manning, Nicholas Courtney or Richard Franklin) treat his character with a certain reverence that is impossible not to be charmed by. As they read for his character you can literally feel that they are grateful to have had the chance to work with the late, great Jon Pertwee: 8/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

1 comment:

McK said...

I've only listened to two Caroline John Chronicles. This and The Blue Tooth and been riveted to both. I'm not much of a fan of the 3rd Doctor stories for some reason, so his Companion Chronicles are a rare buy for me. However I adore Spearhead, Inferno and Ambassadors (always thought Silurians was overrated though). So for me, Liz Shaw Chronicles have a lot to live up to. So far, so amazing.

I'm glad I bought this one. :)

You're right in how the story presents Liz as mature and not dull. This is important. You get the impression here she'd've been awesome to have around in the TARDIS. I didn't mind the logic of her being written out - I can understand Letts' and Pertwee's reasoning even if I disagree - but it was stupid she never got a final story.