What’s it about: The Empire is lost. The Deathless Emperors are dead. The future may never happen. An urgent summons returns the noble Doctor to a planet he saved from disaster long ago. But Draconia, so elegant and so savage, is in worse turmoil than ever. Who will be next Emperor? The highest Prince? The lowest peasant? The soldier with no name? Or the Doctor himself – his life at their command? Who controls the army of deadly origami warriors? And is the truth about Charley painted on paper walls in the Emperor’s tomb? History is taking revenge on the Doctor.
Softer Six: ‘The Doctor. The serpent who poisoned the Empire…’ Caught in a temporal disaster, the Doctor’s life is stretched out before him and other faces stretch out before Mila who recognises them from her time hanging around in the TARDIS all these years. The Doctor ponders on whether he has had lots of different lives or one big life and decides he prefers the latter and concludes that it has mostly been fun. When you are a traveller of the temporal highways and byways being late is never an issue (or so you would think!). Lateness is irrelevant because you can still respond to a distress call early and urgency becomes a thing of the past. That explains an awful lot about his irreverent attitude! His summons to Draconia has been in his in tray for over 150 years and he suggests that now a response might be in order. He once beat the 15th Emperor at Sazoo (a kind of Draconian chess), forgetting that you are supposed to lose with as much skill and as humbly as possible to make the Emperor look extremely skilful in beating you – the only thing that stopped him from getting his head lopped off was the fact that he had just saved the planet from a horrific space plague. The Doctor slips into Lord Salisbury’s dinner jacket feeling that this visit requires subtle elegance! He expects the Emperor to ascend to a happy hunting ground or a hall of heroes and finds that the reality of a solid manifestation of a metaphysical concept leaves a lot to be desired. Remembering his first incarnations adventures on Draconia induces a sense of wistful nostalgia in him, you can imagine the sixth Doctor staring into space grinning as he talks poetically of games with the Emperor and courtly politics. You feel the weight of the Doctor’s relationship with the Emperor when he uncovers the living hell he is being trapped in and asks him if he was genuinely ill or if he was forced out of power and into near death. When asked by the many Emperors being held in this pathetic state for the release of death the Doctor violently refuses, he cannot commit murder. It almost sounds like a reaction to his homicidal tendencies at the beginning of his regeneration.
(Faux)Edwardian Adventuress: I’m not sure how to write up this section because the character that appears to be Charley throughout Paper Cuts is in fact Mila, a disembodied spirit of a woman who was experimented on by the Daleks and left a ghostly shell floating about the TARDIS until Charley came along to give her a home. Our Charley has taken her place in the TARDIS, screaming for the Doctor to realise that she isn’t herself. Its nice to hear somebody assume that Charley is a mans name because over the myriad of adventures everybody has happily accepted she is a woman without question. The Doctor figures that Charlotte’s genius must be his influence rubbing off on her! Mila thinks back to being a Dalek prisoner, to finding her way to the TARDIS and quickly changes her story so her past is one of an Edwardian adventuress travelling through time and space with the Doctor. But the paper reveals her real past, cold, white, emotionless walls of the TARDIS. A life of solitude and pain. There’s a dangerous moment at the end of the story where Mila is desperate to get rid of Gomori because she has been waiting for her turn in the TARDIS with the Doctor for so long. She’s willing to leave him to face the music, lies to the Doctor about him wanting to stay behind for her own selfish needs.
Standout Performance: Whatever you might want from a performer in Doctor Who, Paper Cuts has it. There’ Colin Baker’s blissfully charismatic and elegiac Doctor, India Fisher on form playing a resourceful companion who has secrets of her own, a wonderfully villainous turn from Sara Crowe as the Queen Mother, melodrama personified in Anthony Glennon’s wonderful power hungry Prince, down to Earth charm from Paul Thornley’s Gomori and a sympathetic from Nick Briggs himself as he brings the Red Emperor to life. A stellar cast and no mistake.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I shall wrap myself in such clouds of despair that the skies shall weep!’
‘Draconian culture is very formal. Austerely elegant to the point of minimalist. Masked priests, ferocious warriors, the contemplation of a single white blossom. That sort of thing.’
‘The eager dog is always the first to stumble over the cliff…’
‘A Doctor in a celestial tomb? Aint that a bit late?’
‘Condemning fifteen wizened Emperors to eternity like a set of mouldering books on a forgotten shelf!’
‘What’s a sacrifice if we don’t lose something we value?’
Great Ideas: The temporal explosion that the Daleks threw at the TARDIS did blow them apart but because he had put the ship in regenerative mode they were only fragmented throughout the infinity of time for a moment. In this mode she is able to regenerate every single molecular link. On Draconia every death, even an Imperial murder needs the correct ritual but the Emperor’s son is too late since he is already dead. When an Emperor passes on his doting consort accompanies him to heaven with the rest of his possessions. The TARDIS in tray currently holds 31,684 unanswered messages most of which the Doctor considers to be irrelevant spam and the rest is private. The Emperor that the Doctor knew was always a bit of a wild card, upsetting his court with his radical new ideas. Draconians have palaces and tombs floating in space, a necropolis of edifices with one for each Emperor like the Pyramids of Giza. I love the way the tone of the piece suddenly changes after the first cliffhanger, the discovery of the body leaves the Doctor and the Prince alone, unguarded in a tomb and at the mercy of the assassin. 50 years ago there were honourable warm blooded ambassadors from all over the Draconian Empire. The wall screens of the tomb can paint themselves with memories, the paper treated to respond to thoughts. I love the idea of the highest and the lowest holding vigil over the Emperor as he ascends to the heavens – a chance for both walks of life to show their respect for the departed leader. Origami warriors with paper swords, each figure folded out of a single sheet of red paper. The Prince is certain the origami army is a final trap set for him by his late father, to prevent him from ever claiming the throne. He literally throttles his mother and questions his fathers sanity in marrying her – why is it in fiction that the higher the status of family, the more bloodthirsty and traitorous they are? Marc Platt always had an eye for memorable imagery and ideas and the thought of paper game pieces coming to life and being orchestrated by an unknown force is an extremely appealing one. Each Emperor flies through space in their own tomb with a set of Sazoo pieces in their own Imperial colours. Their ideas cannot be lost so they are kept on the brink of life in Imperial heaven, trapped alive in embalming fluid forever with the paper bringing their memories to life and the Sazoo pieces to play against each other. After desperately trying to find out who the Emperor has chosen as his successor and the story has spent an age convincing us that it wont be the Prince we are as surprised as he is that he is the chosen one. The Doctor realises that the Emperors are being held at the brink of life, trapped in some living version of hell and they want the Doctor for what he did to their Empire. The temple of the spilling sun at the heart of the necropolis powers the tombs. I love how the story positions the Prince as an abdicator for a break from tradition whereas the Empress has manipulated events to keep the planet strangled by the past – its an old debate in Doctor Who (it reared its head in the Peladon stories) but it has never been dealt with as poetically and as succinctly through two strong willed characters as it is here. I love the pomp and poetry of the conclusion as the Doctor walks through an army of Sazoo paper warriors in a myriad of gorgeous colours before setting eyes on the power source, one single stemmed bloom in an elegant vase – sun in a bottle. The Emperors want an end to their deathless suffering, a coup de grace since none of them where actually dying when they were suspended in their tombs.
Audio Landscape: Opening with the sound of the TARDIS shattering into millions of tiny pieces, Nick Briggs sure knows how to give a story an entrance! Jumping into water and bubbles breaking and floating to the surface, wading through the water, birdsong, horses galloping, water flowing down stream, polite laughter and applause, astonishingly Briggs manages to convince that an army of paper warriors is attacking, slashing their flammable swords that could slice right through you, pouring tea, screaming babies, scribbling, heavy breathing, slashing through a paper door, birds screaming, the Sazoo armies slicing each other to pieces, the screaming demands of angry Emperors.
Musical Cues: The early episodes benefit from a quieter, more sedate score to give the actors a chance to feel their way into the story and make their mark – it really does feel like the emphasis is on the cast rather than the production. But as the paper soldiers march forth in the last episode I was impressed at how insistent and pacy the story had become thanks to a driving musical score.
Isn’t it Odd: It might have been wiser to have had this story open the season so Charley could have enjoyed an adventure on Draconia before succumbing to the control of Mila in Patient Zero (which in itself has far more links with Blue Forgotten Planet and could have seamed into each other beautifully). I can completely understand why they would want to open this trilogy with a wham bang Dalek spectacular full of incident and twists because it would get people talking about the range…and it worked too. But for the sakes of the running story it harms it slightly because the Mila narrative is completely unnecessary in Paper Cuts but it is understandable that Briggs chose not to open Charley’s final hurrah trilogy with a story this relaxed.
Standout Scene: Its extremely satisfying to see that neither the scheming Queen Mother and her stress on tradition nor her son who wanted to shrug of the shackles of the past and forge his own dictatorship succeed in earning the throne. One is murdered brutally in typical royal fashion and the other has to face the angry demands of more than one vicious Emperor that have been cut off at their height.
Notes: There is a bleed over of Patient Zero’s plot as the Doctor reveals that the Daleks have succeeding in releasing the Amathustra viruses or as Charley puts it ‘they really did beat you this time?’ Unfortunately his unwillingness to tidy up the loose ends of his adventures means the Daleks bide their time gathering up the viruses and create a literal hell on Earth for the Doctor in the staggeringly dramatic Lucie Miller/To The Death. Perhaps he will be a little more tidy next time. The Doctor even states that living as long as he does that past events come back to bite you – ouch! Either this is a stunningly obvious moment of foreshadowing or a thoughtful moment tossed in by Marc Platt.
Result: The idea of the 15th Emperor assembling together four vigilants like Poirot pulling together his suspects in a good Agatha Christie mystery is really appealing, a fascinating approach to a traditional genre. A power hungry heir, his scheming mother, a fallen warrior, a mistaken peasant, a faux Charley and a bluff Doctor make an intriguing cast, all with secrets to reveal as the plot unfolds. It would have been so easy to set this story on Draconia and mundanely introduce us to the day to day life of one of the most elusive Doctor Who planets but Marc Platt never goes for the traditional options and chooses instead to explore the culture through the turbulent change of the death of an Emperor, setting the entire story inside a tomb. As you would expect from this author the dialogue is memorable and paints pictures and the characterisation goes beyond what you would expect from the stereotypes that these characters embody. My one complaint is that by telling a story with an economic cast of characters in one location means that the piece unfolds at a sedate pace but this is such a refreshingly different type of audio story for Big Finish I just relaxed into the story regardless. It’s a shame that this is a Mila story rather than a Charley one but interestingly she makes a decent match with Colin Baker’s championship audio Doctor. Nick Briggs often surprises me as a director because I always peg him as the audio action man (especially after his superlative handling of his Dalek Empire series) but when he gets an opportunity to coax strong performances out of a small cast of actors he often ends up with a very powerful result (Creatures of Beauty is another example). I’m sure this isn’t what the audience wanted at the time when the fate of Charley was about to be revealed but denying people what they want is often the best approach and taken as a story in its own right Paper Cuts is an engaging character drama that looks at an old race in a fresh way: 8/10