Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Architects of History written by Steve Lyons and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: The year is 2044. Earth is enjoying a Golden Age of peace, prosperity and technological advancement… but somebody is plotting to destroy all that. The Selachians, shark-like alien monsters, launch a crippling attack on Earth’s Moonbase, using deadly weapons from the future. Help is at hand. A police telephone box appears in a Moonbase hangar. A time-travelling hero has returned in the hour of Earth’s greatest need. Now, Elizabeth Klein must fight to save not only the Galactic Reich but Time itself from the mysterious prisoner who has orchestrated these fateful events... the Doctor.

The Real McCoy: This trilogy has enjoyed revealing the potential of the seventh Doctor in different shades and The Architects of History is no different. A Thousand Tiny Wings saw him at his improvisational and sparring best, Survival of the Fittest focussed on a more cuddly, charming Time Lord that was trying his best for a dying alien civilisation and now in History he is back to being the master manipulator again, sitting in a dark cell pulling strings and bringing down a perverted timeline. After the Mousetrap/Daleks/Scutari trilogy and now the Klein trilogy Big Finish have revolutionised McCoy’s Doctor on audio to the point where he is potentially the most exciting incarnation to listen to because of the possibilities. Even better this prominent material has enticed some of the best ever performances out of Sylvester McCoy and I am including his television performances in that. There has been a consistency and dramatic strength to his performances in his last two trilogies that has put a lot of his earlier Big Finish performances to shame. Just listen to how commanding he is when he drops his bombshell at the end of episode two. There is none of that angst and melodrama that sunk stories like The Rapture – McCoy is completely focussed, word perfect and powerful. Exciting times for fans of the seventh Doctor.

As far as the Doctor is concerned he and Klein only met in this timeline a while back whilst he was held prisoner in this cell, he doesn’t remember travelling with her in the TARDIS because that timeline no longer exists. Its odd but I find that a more frightening prospect than many others – the Doctor has always been in control of the TARDIS and responsible for any shifts in the timeline and for somebody to alter his timeline against his will feels…wrong. The Doctor sees the Selachians as a disagreeable race but also as a product of an abused history. He doesn’t see a great deal of difference in them and the Nazi’s and ponders whether he should bother interfering because one race of ruffians will just take over from another. He’s a Time Lord with seven lifetimes worth of exposure to the vortex, she might have rewritten those timelines and placed him in a universe he doesn’t recognise but she cannot take his mind. The Doctor remembers his own past and then history reshaping over and over again. This is one time that the Doctor has to face up to a manipulating presence that even he would have trouble facing…himself! He has no idea what his own consciousness might have been about before he arrived and replaced his but it looks like he has had a hand in Selachian development. I cannot believe how frightening the Doctor is when he takes control of the situation, he really seems to fit into the role of a aggressive, snarling dictator. He visits Klein in what used to be his cell to remind her of the water dripping torture she tried to put him through, that every drop was a second ticking away imprisoned. The Doctor knew all along that no matter how many trips in the TARDIS she took, how many changes she made, she would never get back the timeline she lost. There are simply too many variables when it comes to changing time. You can take away his past but you can never changer who he is and I don’t think we have ever seen a greater affirmation of what the Doctor is all about when he tells Klein despite the odds, despite the role this timeline wants him to take he will still save as many lives as he can on both sides of this conflict. Very often when they have clashed he hasn’t been able to argue with Klein’s logic but that doesn’t mean that he has to like it.

It turns out that Rachel is an old companion of the Doctor that should exist in this timeline. The Doctor she knew always had a plan but he didn’t always tell what it was. He’s beaten Selachians, Sontarans, Autons and Daleks but this time even he said the stakes were the highest they have ever been and took her back to Earth to her old life. But he also fixes it so a few days later she gets her call up papers and a week after that she is working in the Moonbase. Its almost as if he knew he wouldn’t be around anymore and his alternative self would need her help and he put her exactly where she was needed, leaving her with a list of instructions. This is clever, mind bending stuff. In a story that refuses to conform to any stereotypes Rachel dies in the destruction of the Moonbase and the Doctor doesn’t even realise she was an old companion of his so he doesn’t know she exists to save her. She dies wondering if she has ever lived. That’s pretty tragic.

(Not So)Reformed Nazi: Since stealing the TARDIS Klein has managed to not only go back and restore her timeline but ensure that the Reich succeed at every turn and is calling herself Oberst Klein, Head of temporal affairs for the Galactic Reich! Only Klein and Richter remember how the timeline should have played out and she is starting to think that that might be a problem. Klein has rewritten history again and again until she likes what she reads. She considers the TARDIS her property now. Even she isn’t sure what is real and what is not anymore, whether she left a lover called Faber in 1965 or if that had never happened at all. It has been worrying Klein that at some point she might accidentally write herself out of the timeline and so others are being trained up to continue her work. The story is even brave enough to have a cliffhanger where Klein’s life is in danger as the TARDIS threatens to tear itself apart – considering she is the central protagonist at the beginning of this story it seems only fair that the jeopardy angle is reserved for her! Its almost with her teeth clenched that she has to ask the Doctor for his help in fixing the broken TARDIS but her desperation to have the one item that always gives her the advantage clearly overrides any sense of pride she might have. The Doctor seems to enjoy the moment Klein realises that there is no going back on the events that are taking place, that she will have to live with the consequences of her actions. Only Klein would consider boiling the Selachians in their water filled armour to be an acceptable strike against the enemy. When the Doctor turns facist Klein declares that they are a lot more alike than they seem which he refutes strongly. When she rewrote history she made herself a Lord of Time, everybody was afraid of her and she didn’t expect to feel so relieved once it was over. She’s almost sanguine about the thought of being executed. When you think that Klein might have turned a corner she tries to have Rachel murdered by the Selachians to get her out of her hair! She realises with some clarity that this was only ever going to end one way – the Doctor’s way. Executing Klein would never have been enough, she was always going to have to be taken out of existence because she is an anomaly, a refugee from a world that never should have been. Thanks to the Doctor Elisabeth Klein is born in England to German parents, raised in a time of war, gifted with an enquiring mind and prestigious intellect but also a need for order. And she is working for UNIT. Who ever saw that coming?

Standout Performance: I’m still astonished at how good McCoy is in this story. All of his detractors (which includes me) needs to listen to this story to see how good he can be. On the downside I wasn’t convinced by Lenora Crichlow who was mostly fine when she was spouting exposition but lack conviction when it came to the more emotional material.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I have become the architect of a better world! A golden age!’
‘This man could save our lives but he chooses not to. Its against his principles! Well good for you, Doctor. Now at least you can die with a smug look on your face.
‘I’m the Doctor. That’s what I do.’
‘You can’t punish a whole race for something we’ll never do!’
‘Push that button. End my life.’

Great Ideas: The Galactic Reich has ships powered by Dalek propulsion units – imagine the two great racial cleansers working together to exterminate the universe. Their ships have the finest technology of three galaxies incorporated. It’s a great scene setting set piece that shows you how much Klein has raped the timeline and twisted it to her design and she keeps returning to one particular moment where she has the Doctor trapped. The Reich cannot lose because as soon as they realise that there is a revolution they have all the time in the world to go back and wipe it out. In 2044 a unified Nazi government has ended famine and disease, averted wars before they could even begin, repelled invaders from a score of worlds – it’s a track record that is very impressive and sees a thriving world but there is only one problem. This world is hiding under the shadow of a swastika and free will is no longer an option. Knowing the future is a fascinating idea and encapsulated in a scene where Richter confronts the staff of the Moonbase knowing that there is a traitor on board because he has already seen the future where it plays out. The way he plays with them, teases them, threatens them…it is a teasingly sadistic way of exploiting foreknowledge to get your kicks. Klein using the TARDIS as a Nazi device causes another intriguing deviation from the norm, rather than being a simple conveyance for the Doctor it is now a weapon and one that is being targeted by the insurgents. In the other timeline the Selachians were the scourge of the galaxy and it took Klein many months to stop them from conquering this one. In 2044 they hadn’t even built their armoured suits that allow them off planet let alone developed space travel and Klein sees the Doctor’s hand in their rapid evolution of technology. Fantastic world bending imagery as the interior of the TARDIS becomes…just a box. The exterior dimensions of the TARDIS have been torn away from the interior. Sam transpires to be a spy from the future working for the Selachians and when he sleeps it uploads his memory to their flagship. The perfect spy. The story veers close to admitting that if Klein had never come to Colditz castle then the Nazi’s may have won the second world war which is a pretty bold statement to make. Very Steve Lyons. Then he sports the terrific notion that at the flick of a switch either the Doctor’s or Klein’s timeline will spring back into existence and either one would be preferable to the one they have experienced in this story. I thought the story might end on that indecision but we get a definitive answer.

Audio Landscape: Footsteps, squeaky prison door, dripping water, marching boots, bleeping deep space radar, the TARDIS having a choking fit whilst it refuses to take off, the cloister bell, setting a fire extinguisher on the flaming TARDIS, the bubbling water tanks of the Selachians and their gorgeous amphibian voices (how was that achieved?), gun shots, explosions, a Selachian drowning on his own tank, breaking through the Earth’s defences and bombarding the Earth.

Musical Cues: Listen to the score at the very beginning of the story which is full of bombast and striking the right note of furious fascism right into the heart of the listener. Jamie Robertson is back and I couldn’t be happier. I really like the approach of playing out a space battle sequence through some powerful performances describing the action and the dynamic music guiding us to all the right feelings of excitement. It’s a very different approach to the usual deluge of sound effects.

Isn’t it Odd: My only real trouble with this story was that I found the Doctor/Klein material so stirring that when the story concentrated on the guest cast I found my attention waning because I wanted to get back to where all the intelligent discussion was. But this only lasted for the first two episodes because this material suddenly gained sharp focus when Rachel admits she is working for the Doctor and it takes on a whole new emphasis. Perhaps Sam being a spy for the Selachians as well as Rachel being one for the Doctor was one twist too many. His ‘I have to sleep now’ is appalling clichéd for a death scene and I expect better of Lyons unless he was going for the clichéd wartime melodrama approach.

Standout Scene: The end of episode is an absolute stunner. The first two episodes have been toying with the idea of the Doctor being helpless against the Reich and then he has been slowly taking control of the situation. But he proves an imposing figure as he boldly declares ‘I gave your rulers the means to reach this Moonbase a hundred years in your past and I told them how to conquer it. I planned this invasion right down to the last detail. And that leader is why I am now taking command!’ It is one of those jaw droppingly magnificent cliffhangers that turns up once in a while that leaves you begging to listen to the next episode.

Notes: Its nice to see some continuity being shared between the novels and Big Finish. The Selachians featured in a number of Steve Lyons Past Doctor Adventures less successfully in The Murder Game (a light entertaining novel that turns into a disaster movie halfway through) and more prominently in The Final Sanction (where they were the central protagonists of a really nasty war which was pleasingly told from many points of view to give a fair and unbiased snapshot of the conflict). They are pleasingly brought to life here with very little subtlety, an aggressive, nonnegotiable armed force that considers everybody that isn’t a Selachian to be plankton beneath their feet! Its quite nice to have a stomping, violent, thoughtless alien race in Big Finish for a change because they do like humanising their monsters and giving them some depth. These guys are just nasty and there’s nothing wrong with that every now and again. Besides this is written by Steve Lyons so if there were any accusations of dumbing down the race this is their creators approach to writing for them on audio. Because this is an alternative Earth the Selachians get to be the biggest badasses the Earth has faced as they blast the planet to pieces with their battle fleet in reparation for the Doctor’s betrayal. Not many Doctor Who villains can said to have destroyed the entire human race. Many have tried but none have succeeded. ‘The only blood that will spilt today is warm blood.’

Result: There are a wealth of goodies to discover in The Architects of History and it is something of a miracle that after the quality of the previous adventures in this trilogy that this concluding blockbuster doesn’t disappoint. Steve Lyons has always been a dependable Big Finish writer (The Fires of Vulcan and The Son of the Dragon are two of my favourites) and his obsession with temporal shenanigans dovetails into this arc to create a fascinating ‘what if’ tale and then play with the audiences expectations with some surprising results. Klein manipulates herself into a position of power and learns to the true dangers of playing about with time. An alternative Doctor manages to pull strings within this timeline without even existing to see if it pans out as he planned. An enemy from the books makes a bold appearance in the audios and achieves where so many other Doctor Who monsters have failed, to destroy the Earth. We meet an ex companion of a non existent Doctor. Our seventh Doctor gets to bark orders like a mad Nazi commander. There is just so much to enjoy in this adventure which is also bursting at the seams with action and excitement to balance the intelligent dialogue. Considering where this adventures leaves Klein I sincerely hope that they pick up her character in the upcoming UNIT box set the seventh Doctor is going to have because there is clearly a whole new spin on the character to enjoy. I found this a very satisfying audio and when my head wasn’t spinning with the heady ideas I was engrossed in the action and spurred on by great cliffhangers. This is another accomplished audio from a fantastic year – let John Ainsworth script edit again because he clearly has the knack for it: 9/10


Ed Azad said...

Survival of the Fittest gave me chills as it sounded so much like Starcraft! (I expected the Authority to bark CONSTRUCT ADDITIONAL PYLONS.)

Likewise, these Selachian guys remind me a lot of "Gazurtoids" from the old floppy game Starflight; pink fish whose religion requires saving "air breathers" by killing them!

Klein also reminded me of Annorax from Trek's Year of Hell. The melancholy of godhood coupled with the nagging irritation that she can never get it quite right. I mean this as a compliment as I felt the character and the premise was among Star Trek's best storylines.

Wow, that was a cracking trilogy. I admit my bar for these Big Finish adventure is somewhat low. I think the main range is outmoded to some extent as the new series outshines it on a technical level and these scripts aren't exactly brimming with new ideas, either (though they do an tremendous job considering the limitations of audio.) That, and I think an hour is enough time to tell a good story and get out of dodge. But everything seemed to come together for this Klein trilogy.

Ed Azad said...

The best bit is the suggestion that the Doctor smuggled a screwdriver inside his bum while in prison. (Yes it was probably in his pocket, but it's still hilarious.)

Eldron said...

I found this audio utterly compelling, one of the absolute best that Big Finish have ever produced.

I must respectfully disagree with your take on Leonora Critchlow, I was almost in tears twice in my car in the last episode. The death of Sam was beautifully acted, her resolve as Sam's breathing stops was beautiful. As for her death, I can't recall the last time a one-off character moved me in such a way. Her final line was beautiful, and the futility of it all was heartbreaking. I've never wanted to hear a TARDIS materialise so much.