Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Suffering written by Jacqueline Rayner and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: The TARDIS materializes in England in the year 1912, a time of great social change. The Suffragette movement is lobbying for votes for women, and the skull of the so-called ‘missing link’ has been discovered in Piltdown. While Vicki falls victim to a strange influence, the Doctor and Steven investigate the fossilized remains. The Suffering has been unleashed. Can the travellers survive its rage?

Alien Orphan: Vicki is a plucky young thing (in her own words) who isn’t afraid of monsters and thinks of herself as a sensible girl! When Vicki is asked to stick out her tongue she almost laughs – she had no idea that medical practices in the 20th Century were closer to the Stone Age! Interesting that Vicki pities the naiveté of the sexual politics of this period where Constance finds her unacceptance of that being the norm even more naïve. She was looking forward to seeing more of the 20th century from what she had heard from her good friends Ian and Barbara and the memory machines back home. When told to go home and play with her dolls Vicki replies that she has fought hostile aliens, abandoned in space, stowed away on a Dalek time machine, mixed up in the political machinations of Roman Emperors and English Kings and led a successful uprising on a distant planet! When she met the Doctor she had lost everything, both her mother and her father and she didn’t even have a home anymore. When she was offered the TARDIS as a home and its occupants as friends she jumped at the second chance of life. Since then everything has been an adventure for her – they have faced danger many times but it has never worried her because there are no horrors left. She is never going to let fear in again, all she has left to lose now is the fun of her new life.

Aggressive Astronaut: He’s very impressed when Vicki introduces him to the story as the handsome Steven Taylor. Steven studied basic anatomy and as far as he is concerned a bone is a bone. He finds it extraordinary that women aren’t allowed to vote in this time and judges it to be primitive. Steven wonders if he went a little crazy during his solitary two years in prison on Mechanus. He’d never seen a vehicle that he hadn’t wanted to climb into and race straight to the moon! He’d survived takeoffs and re-entries, he’d been shot at by the enemy and crash landed in an out of control space craft but it was nothing enduring the Doctor driving the primitive motor car! Steven walks along the cliff tops of Beachy Head and in the stillness of the night with the stars out around him it is almost like being out in space for him again. Steven blanches when the Doctor makes him wear a topper – a top hat which makes his head look twice as tall as it was and finishes him off with a hideous thick fake moustache!

Hmm: He senses a terrible feeling of foreboding and gets the shakes in his hands. One moment he is looking at Steven with all the pride of teacher watching a student and the next he is giving him a look of condescending pity. Steven feels he owes the Doctor respect as the pilot of the Ship. At the news of a discovery that will shape human history the Doctor’s eyes gleam with curiosity and excitement. Listening to the feminist objections to caring for Vicki, the Doctor brilliantly cuts right through her cynicism and tells her that they aren’t asking her to care for a sick girl because she is a woman but because she is a human being capable of compassion. The Doctor is about argue about Steven’s criticisms of his driving skills into he points out how they have picked up a birds nest, flags and even a couple chickens on their journey! Although later when the flags and the car save his life Steven resolves never to criticise his driving ever again! The very idea that the Doctor could be wrong is scoffed at with great mirth!

Standout Performance: I was always fond of the Steven/Vicki dynamic and was terribly sad when I realised they only enjoyed four stories together. What is uncanny is that listening to the first scenes of this story it was just like listening to the same Steven and Vicki who were arguing with each other in The Time Meddler – Peter Purves and Maureen O’Brien sound almost exactly the same. Purves creates a cheeky and exuberant Doctor who attacks each problem with real gusto and intelligence.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘When did you last eat?’ ‘1066’ I muttered.
‘Men believe that women are uneducated, illogical and intrinsically feeble minded and therefore incapable of understanding political topics and making rational decision about them. They believe that our brains are smaller than men’s and if we work them too hard our wombs will atrophy and therefore the species will die out!’

Great Ideas: I love the way Jacqueline Rayner cuts away all the ambivalence of the companions narrating the story and dumps them down in front of a recorder in the TARDIS and has them literally tell their own story. It allows them to take the mickey out of their accents and how effect they are at storytelling. Coming so soon after Ringpullworld this is exactly the sort of narrative commentary I would expect from Paul Magrs and just as fun (‘I just reached quite a dramatic moment!’ ‘Well obviously you’re alright because you’re here now!’). A house on an abandoned planet? Human anthropology is about to be turned on its head as the fabled ‘missing link’ is discovered. A halfway stage between thinking man and savage beast. However the Doctor is determined that the bone that has been found is alien. Cheekily the Doctor plans to go to London and steal some human remains from a ‘Death Shop’ and fake a missing link to take the place of the alien artefact. However a fragment of the skull was sent for analysis and if any female comes into contact with the alien will break free of its bonds. When the creature found Vicki she drew strength from her and found a voice.

Audio Landscape: Birdsong, scrabbling at stone, a horse clip clopping on gravel, cranking the handle of a car and the engine coughing to life, the honker, swerving past a duck pond, a gust of wind, chickens clucking, ticking clock, the screeching brakes, seagulls squawking, shop bell, church bells in London, steam train chugging on the tracks, glass shattering, screaming on the street, screaming women.

Musical Cues: The violin strings as the ladies recount their appalling treatment are very emotional.

Isn’t it Odd: It strikes me as odd for a company that can produce some spine chilling dramas that the ghostly attacks in this story are as flat as they are. The feel surprisingly underdone as though the postproduction work hasn’t been finished. The Massacre is one of my all time favourite Doctor Who stories for its willingness to push political drama to the fore and sell its period through some weighty and emotional scenes – The Suffering had the elements to be just as powerful as that story and I could imagine a far more uncomfortable tale about the mistreatment of women and the political machinations of scientific circles trying to uncover the missing link but in both cases Jac Rayner chooses (unwisely in my eyes) to dress both topics up in a less than successful alien guise. A shame, there was so much potential in this story. We hear the tale of a woman from a far off planet who was treated shamefully, who when objected to her treatment was given nothing but pain and welcomed death as an alternative to her suffering – its interesting but too far removed from reality to really drive the point home. Had that been one of the Suffragettes being punished for her ‘controversial’ opinions it would been far more compelling. This is one of those rare times when reality would be far more effective than imagination. When the Suffragettes reveal their horrendous mistreatment it should have been a very powerful moment but coaxed on by alien intervention it just feels like another scene and considering what they are discussing that won’t do at all.

Standout Scene: It has to be the Doctor’s reckless driving – its such fun!

Notes: Forgive a little moment of excitement as Beachy Head is name dropped as Steven walks along the cliff tops to throw away the jawbone. Its where I live you see and I walk up to Beachy Head a couple of times a week for some bracing sea air. I always get excited when my home gets a mention! Vicki states that Steven needs a haircut which leads into the beginning of Galaxy 4.

Result: I’m not certain that the plot of The Suffering needs the double length to play out since the actual events of the story are quite thin but at least it changes narrator halfway through to keep things interesting. What really stands out are the lovely period touches that the extra time on this release affords. I would pay good money to see Hartnell’s Doctor roaring through the countryside in a vintage old banger, Steven creeping his way through a macabre shop devoted to the dead and Vicki heading off to a Suffragette demonstration. Peter Purves and Maureen O’Brien sound as if they have stepped back in time, effortlessly capturing the voices of their characters and making the skeletal story far more entertaining than it deserves to be. During the paranormal moments the direction lets the side down which is strange for the usually reliable Lisa Bowerman but once again the period touches of church bells, steam trains and growling cars help to invoke up the past. There are two equally strong ideas at the heart of this play – the missing link and the growing Suffragette movement but in taking the alien approach in both cases I didn’t feel that either was pushed strongly enough to really make an impact. Ultimately The Suffering is an enjoyable if hardly vital story which is sold mostly by the charm and charisma of the actors bringing it to life. Peri & the Piscon Paradox would make a far better job of exploiting the double disc format: 7/10

Buy it from Big Finish Here:


Chad Moore said...

What truly impressed me most about "The Suffering" is what you so rightly mentioned: How Maureen O'Brien and Peter Purves recaptured not only their respective characters' voices, but also the dynamic Vicki and Steven enjoyed. Magic!

Anonymous said...

Actually Steven must get more than one haircut from Vicki. He mentions that his last meal was in 1066 putting this story immediately after The Time Meddler. I have a far easier time imagining that he gets two haircuts from Vicki then that he visits 1066 twice. As a result, Frostfire actually happens after this story even though it was released first.