Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Feast of Axos written by Mike Maddox and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: “Axos calling Earth. Fuel system exhausted. Request immediate assistance.” Many years ago, the vast space parasite Axos attempted to suck the planet Earth of its energy. Now it’s all but forgotten – a dried-up husk, marooned in orbit, still stuck in the time loop it was placed in by Earth’s defender, the Doctor. Forgotten, that is, except by space tourism billionaire Campbell Irons – who’s hatched a plan to solve the world’s energy crisis by reviving Axos, and transmitting its power back to Earth. But the crew of the spaceship Windermere aren’t alone aboard the parasite. The Doctor has returned, to correct an error of decades past…

Softer Six: An outstanding showing for the sixth Doctor who continues to be the golden boy of Big Finish (no pun intended!). The mileage for his character has far exceeded even my wildest expectations and Colin Baker continues to deliver the most thoughtful and exciting performances for the range. The Doctor’s reaction to Brewster pulling a gun on him is pure eye rolling nonchalance (‘Oh please’). He is so cheeky pretending to be willing to help to Brewster so he can activate the TARDIS sensory distortion field and disable him! Alas the Doctor is disinclined to help people who are threatening to shoot him. ‘So you bodged the job?’ Evelyn suggests of his first encounter with Axos when he tries to excuse his actions with talk of half his memory being missing and a compromised TARDIS! Its hilarious as the Doctor tries to avoid answering why the Time Lord’s exiled him to Earth, Brewster scoffs at the Doctor calling him a criminal when he stole the TARDIS. If Thomas can prove he can be trusted he might reconsider taking him home. ‘Surely not space tourism’ he sighs, appalled at the very notion. Evelyn points out that the Doctor and Thomas are both outsiders forced to be self sufficient, never fitting in anywhere but both trying to do the right thing. They are as pig headed as one another but the Doctor tells her that consistency of character is a virtue! When he discovers that Campbell Irons has taken over space control at Devesham, he notes it is a pity to see such a noble heritage privatised. The Doctor is appalled at the very notion that the people of the Earth should turn to Axos to answer their problems, they should be pooling their resources to look for solutions and not looking for get rich quick schemes. He considers Axon energy fools gold. The great Doctor’s reputation precedes him. Repairing the sonic screwdriver has been on his to do list for some time. I loved his assertion that Axos is a living being, a sentient creature and he wont kill it because it happens to be a nuisance – he would rather take it to a long dead galaxy. Not a fan of space walking. He’s close to tears as Evelyn drifts off into space, his heart broken at the loss of his friend. The Doctor’s mind is so superior to a humans it is like comparing a parsley pig to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon! He was there when the British Space programme with in its infancy, they were fearless, brave pioneers and he tells Joanne he’s glad to see that the flame still burns today. He gives Axos a chance, offers to take them away from the Earth but when they refuse his mind is made up and he apologises for sending them back into the time loop to die over and over again. He tells Evelyn it is wonderful to have her back and you know that he means it. Go listen to his wonderful, romantic description of the Earth in the last scene – Baker manages to bring these speeches to life with real poetry.

Learned Lecturer: It’s an obvious thing to say and I have probably repeated it over and over in these reviews but just how likable is Evelyn? They have tried with Erimem, Hex and Lucie Miller and in some cases gotten very close but no matter how good the material is for the other original Big Finish companions the chemistry between Colin Baker and Maggie Stables is untoppleable. They are just gold together. Evelyn doesn’t see any harm in taking Brewster home. ‘You’re not getting me in a spacesuit!’ she cried suggesting that she looks like Barbarella! Evelyn takes a paternal role with Thomas, harsh on him when he misbehaves but willing enough to give him a chance. When she sees that the astronauts are cutting into Axos she is horrified by their butchery. She thinks Thomas means well and that everybody makes mistakes in their life. Maybe he never had a chance to be trustworthy because the Doctor is too stubborn, I love how Evelyn cuts straight though the Doctor’s objections and points out his flaws. She’s the only person that would be able to get away with that! In turn the Doctor reminds her that all sentient life deserves a chance. She knows enough French to order a glass of Bordeaux and a room for the night (dirty cow, I bet she had a few nights like that in Paris!). Evelyn thinks it is marvellous that there is a real life James Bondian spy aboard! When she learns of the Doctor’s crazy scheme, Evelyn refuses to go along with it if it means sacrificing Thomas. She makes the Doctor promise to forgive him and take him home otherwise she won’t help him. ‘I’m in space! Weeeeee!’ – Evelyn is bewitched by the view from space, see the Earth from orbit. She asks the Doctor why they haven’t done this before and you cannot help but enjoy the idea of this woman in her twilight years larking about space walking! When things turn dark its wonderful how Evelyn accepts her fate and seeing that there is nothing he can do to help her refuses to let the Doctor blame himself. As she floats off she admits that she needs the Doctor. When she is rescued you swell with relief that she is safe. Evelyn is sweet and complimentary to her French saviours (‘Enchante’) and I wondered if anybody could fail to be charmed by this woman. I thought Brewster’s nicknames for her; old Mother Hubbard and old mum Smythe, were wonderful. In the last scene Evelyn can judge the situation well enough to leave the console room and force her two chaps into talking. I know she has had a wealth of stories now but The Feast of Axos has just left me hungry for more.

Artless Dodger: Whereas The Crimes of Thomas Brewster re-introduced the young scallywag back to the series it is in this story where the relationships are developed and explored in some depth. I don’t understand the allergic reaction some people have towards Brewster, he seems a pretty harmless, likable character to me. Regardless he shows enough initiative and charm in this story to make the reunion worthwhile. We get to learn something about all three characters, be it the Doctor’s obstinate refusal to give him a chance, Evelyn’s maternal instincts and Thomas Brewster’s aching wish to return home. According to the Doctor once a cutpurse always a cutpurse! He pulled a gun on them for dramatic effect, the magazine was empty. Everywhere the Doctor takes him he is a menace! He is conversant enough with 21st Century history and technology to use that foreknowledge to his advantage in the 19th Century. Thomas is trying to be like the Doctor. Axos considers him dangerous, deceitful and sly and they want him to speak for them, promising him Axonite to replicate as many gold sovereigns as he wishes. Axos distrusts Brewster because the Doctor does. I enjoyed how the script convinced you that Axos had managed to manipulate Brewster into thinking the Doctor is willing to sacrifice him to stop them and yet he is far cannier than that. Its odd but I find him far less irritating than Adric when conversing with the enemy! He pretends that he has decided to live up to the Doctor’s expectations, doing his best to look out for number one. Prestidigitation, you’re looking in one hand and the trick is being done in the other – whilst Axos is watching Brewster like a hawk the Doctor manages to con them! It’s interesting that Brewster reels of his life problems to the Doctor but it never feels like he is looking for pity, just stating a fact. He’s got no one and has had to fight to get on in the world. Nobody has done him any favours, he’s had no schooling, no roof over his head – he hasn’t had it handed to him on a silver platter unlike some. Given their reconciliation in the last scene it looks like this could be a friendship after all.

Standout Performance: This is a very impressive cast so it is hard to select just one. Colin Baker gives a bravura duel performance as both the Doctor and Axos; his evil doppelganger is chillingly light voiced to start with but turns growling and menacing, as Axos grows stronger. Bernard Holley has an awesome voice for audio, dominating and creepy and it really was a coup getting him to return for this story, over 30 years after the original.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Nose hairs? We’re up a nostril?’
‘What were you doing in the rugby changing room?’ ‘Sightseeing mainly.’
‘Now there’s a whole mass of them! Twitching away like attention deficit spaghetti!’
‘Like an Axos chainsaw massacre!’
‘We shall drink it dry…let the feast begin!’
‘You sought to feed off Axos. Now Axos feeds off you. To a new era of energy!’
‘Don’t worry Doctor, its not your fault. Silly idiotic woman messing around in space like Barbarella at my age. Good bye Doctor…my dear, dear Doctor…’

Great Ideas: Affordable low orbit travel, not tourism! Joyrides for the mega rich into space for the price of a luxury cruise? Oil is running dry and people fear for their jobs and their future, Axos can provide clean, green energy for all. The time field causes transmissions to be sent backwards and forwards in time – as they approach Axos they can hear the original broadcast Axos sent on first contact in the 70s. Axos is stuck in a figure of eight looping through the four dimensions. When they enter the time loop there is a possibility that they will age 50 years in a second. Axos is hibernating but alive, a parasitic organism, a vampire in space drifting from planet to planet sucking them dry. Axos bleeds as they cut into it. The central chamber is like a cathedral made of jelly, the heart of Axos. A vast organism with a single mind but with the ability to extrude smaller independent units so it can relate and absorb other species. An energy vampire than can absorb even their footsteps, the faster they run, the more energy they give it. They make a replica of the Doctor, stealing his body print and adopting his memories. Axos tries to get its claws into the TARDIS. If Axos had wanted them dead it would have opened its mouth and coughed them out! They need time to gather their strength, to feed on the Windermere and commence the nutrition cycle. Can Axos replicate the TARDIS? The planets supply of fossil fuels has been exhausted, we are facing social and economic collapse, wind, wave and geothermic technology will not meet the demand. We need Axos to save us from catastrophe. If they don’t agree Irons will cause a miniature nuclear reactor aboard the Windermere to explode and they will be forced to absorb the explosion stuck in a time loop, constantly feeding on the full force of a nuclear blast! Irons is offering a strip of central Africa for Axos to rest and feed upon – madness! Axos will send its roots deep into the Earth as soon as they have a foothold. Craig is still working for the RAF, if anyone is going to exploit Axos it will be for the benefit of all mankind and not just for Campbell Irons! The Jules Verne receives transmissions of its own future attack by Axos. Axos wraps its tendrils around the Windermere! The handholds on the exterior of Axos are tissue scarring from the impact of meteorites. Axos destroys mission control, absorbs their energy and reduces them to dust. The Doctor suggests they might be sucking life from the national power grid and causing lights to wink out over England. However Axos could only drain Devesham. The Doctor traps Axos, forcing them to go nuclear over and over again until the time loop decays in about 6 billion years.

Audio Landscape: Nicholas Briggs has surpassed even his best efforts in this story, bringing together so many wonderful sounds to create an audio experience. Jamie Robertson’s sound effects are well and truly out of this world! The shuttle exploding into life, mission control buzzing, the echoing speakers relying the voices from the shuttle, sirens as the TARDIS leaves the Earth, grumbling shuttle engines, alarms, a burst of static as they cross the time field, the scream that invades the TARDIS and causing the engines to cough, that fabulous 70’s tinkly scanner, Axos’ sucking and pulsing arteries, spacesuit comms, a wonderful Next Generation-esque cargo bay doors siren, heavy breathing in space, sealing the space suits, the harpoon sticking into Axos, writhing electrical cilia, an alien, dramatic heartbeat, docking tunnel extended, the chainsaw cutting into Axos, reabsorbtion, walking on Axos’ sticky, spongy surface, thought scanner, the Jules Verne tearing through space, Swanson screaming as he is absorbed, the screaming Axon units, the scuttling, banging noises as Axos attempts to breach the hull of the Windermere, the sudden cut to the silence of space, impact with the exterior of Axos, sucking the Devesham base dry, the calmness of Evelyn lost in space, the assault of communications in Evelyn’s helmet, Axos’ gushing, throbbing gills, extruding the TARDIS, a nuclear explosion in space over and over, the rotting depersonalised doppelganger melting over the console.

Musical Cues: As well as provide all those wonderful sound effects Robertson also offers up one of the best musical scores I have enjoyed in years. The opening scenes have an optimistic, uplifting feel as the shuttle shoots into space, dragging you into the story. Mysterious chorals open out onto the emptiness of space. I love the menacing, exciting piano theme as the shuttle approaches Axos. Creepy alien screams bridge scenes. The music gets very fast and exciting as the situation gets more desperate in episode three and then becomes a stirring, tear jerking piece as we lose Evelyn at the end of the episode. This is extremely filmic music that pitches the tone of the story perfectly and combined with the sound effects makes this a very memorable experience.

· ‘Mine’s the one with the fishbowl helmet’ says the Doctor of his spacesuit referring to the space age design from The Moonbase.
· Nick Briggs is like the new Alfred Hitchcock of Big Finish – we used to get Gary Russell turning up in various roles across a wealth of stories but now its Briggs’ plumy voice! It aggravates some people but it just makes me laugh!
· ‘Its got gills, Thomas!’ Is that the Doctor’s alien costume from Peri and the Piscon Paradox that Brewster has found?
· Campbell Irons bought the British Rocket Group and runs his operation from the former defence station at Devesham (The Android Invasion).

Standout Moment: The end of episode three is absolutely devastating; Evelyn unhooking herself and just out of reach of Axos, floating out of reach of the Doctor. Her quiet despair and his desperation not to lose his best friend will break your heart. Colin Baker and Maggie Stables both give outstanding performances to the point where tears were forming in my eyes. It is a cruel and beautiful affirmation of their incredible friendship and a terrifying reminder of the dangers of space travel. I also loved the conclusion that saw Jo and David send a message to their families and sacrifice themselves to stop Axos – we’ve seen a hundred scenes like this before but the idea that saving their families back home at the cost of their own lives and the spirit and bravery with which they sacrifice themselves is very poignant.

Result: A sweepingly epic, visual piece of storytelling buoyed by some intimate moments and great characterisation, The Feast of Axos is an outstanding piece of audio drama. The titular creature itself is perfectly suited to audio offering up a genuinely chilling and exciting soundscape and some wonderfully creative moments. The relationship between the Doctor and Evelyn has never been stronger and Brewster gets some fine development but there are lots of lovely character moments throughout for the entire cast. It’s an intelligent script that inverts the original story and exploits mankind’s greed and there are a number of emotional moments that are beautifully performed. I cannot recommend this story enough, it’s one of the strongest stories in a very impressive run: 9/10

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