Thursday, 22 December 2011

An Earthly Child written by Marc Platt and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: Thirty years on from the Daleks' invasion of Earth, the scars still haven't healed. The survivors inhabit a world thrown back two hundred years, a world of crop shortages and civil unrest. A world where the brightest and best of its young people are drawn to the xenophobic Earth United group. A world sliding into a new Dark Age, believes Susan Campbell, widow of one of the heroes of the Occupation. A world in need of alien intervention. A world in need of hope. But as Susan takes drastic action to secure the planet's future, she's oblivious to the fact that her student son, Alex, ensnared by Earth United, is in need of alien intervention too. Or so Alex's great-grandfather thinks.

Breathless Romantic: I can see why Susan was brought back for more adventures with Paul McGann’s eighth Doctor because they have a very relaxed way together that is blissful to listen to. The Doctor is desperate to learn about his grandson and ask one of his tutors if he is popular and doing well. He tries to reach out to him without telling him precisely who he is but it just seems like an interfering old man. I love the way that the Doctor says the Susan was always rash (mirroring his behaviour towards her in The Sensorites) but this time she is talking a lot of good sense. These days he has a more youthful disposition and every time Susan calls him grandfather the centuries pile on. The Doctor came because he heard Susan’s distress call – proof that it was worth her sending it out. As well as an explorer, a traveller and the Doctor he has a personal interest in the planet Earth.

Simply Susan: I love the idea of visiting Susan thirty years after the Dalek invasion to see how she built a life for herself on Earth and whether the Doctor made the right decision for her. Susan’s radical ideals are to contact other worlds for help as the Earth seems to be sliding into depravity. She wants better for her son and isn’t afraid to say so. She is playing a very dangerous game by contacting another world without permission – if she can seek consent to get aid from an alien race then she might just pull this off but the story suggests that if the human race doesn’t want the help being offered it will be forced upon them. And that is the last thing they need. David and Alex used to call her Genghis Khan and she would get into a strop and say they had it all wrong! The Doctor describes Susan as wilful and somebody who needed to be rescued a lot! She refuses to call him ‘Doctor’ because she’s not like everybody else. She explains to Alex that the TARDIS is their home and when she expresses her shock at how gothic it is the Doctor says they all go through phases. She outgrew the Doctor, met David and settled down. Her family is part of Earth’s future and she can’t duck out in the middle of all the developments even if he can get her back before they left. Her hearts are on the Earth now and she has music to face after causing all this drama. Susan never thought she would see the Doctor again but is so happy that she had the opportunity.

Young Apprentice: Alex is uncomfortable that his mother is so embarrassing in public; he doesn’t understand why she can’t keep all her propaganda at home. He doesn’t know what his lineage is; Susan always thought he deserved a normal upbringing especially in the wake of the Dalek invasion and the xenophobia that would have struck him. He only has one heart on his father’s side. Now she wants him to enjoy a proper education on Gallifrey, the sort that she could never have although I have to wonder what the Doctor might think of that considering his love of the planet. I really like the way the Doctor shows Alex how wrong his leanings have been – to express xenophobic views is almost like self-hatred because he is an alien. He refuses to be packed off to college halfway across the galaxy – he belongs on the Earth and that is his choice to make. Reminds me of another precocious youth we met in a junkyard in 1963.

Standout Performance: This might be the best performance Carole Ann Ford has ever given in Doctor Who and with a substantial meaty role and some well-written speeches to give she really shows what she is made of. She is certainly a far cry from the whimpering non-entity that caused nothing but problems during the first season and a bit. Jake McGann is an odd one for sure because when he is called to speak naturally he aces the scenes but it is when he has to show some real emotion that he seems a little…bland. Its something that he works on because come Relative Dimensions he is much, much better but he doesn’t have the naturalism to pull of the argument scenes in this story.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘David would be shocked at what we’re doing! And the Daleks would be laughing…’
‘Eight? How did you manage that? That’s just throwing them away!’
‘A world in a traumatic shock. A cry for help. Its always the circling vultures who are the first to arrive.’
‘How blissful to slip the moorings and drift away’ – one of the most poetic attempts to describe suicide that I have ever heard.
‘I thought you’d wander out there forever’ ‘That’s where my hearts are…’

Great Ideas: Its almost astonishing that nobody has sought to reap the rewards of as post Dalek invasion setting because it is bleeding with possibilities after such a cataclysmic shift to the Earth. Marc Platt has created a suspicious, paranoid Earth with a populace that has had its wind knocked out of them and is waiting for the next invasion force to arrive. Everybody is angry with how they were treated and is making up for it by fighting whatever cause comes along because they need to feel strong again. He cleverly uses elements of The Dalek Invasion of Earth to prove how the invasion has integrated into normal vernacular – kids call each other ‘Robo Heads’ and there is mentions of the Slythers as though they are the Bogeymen. Landmarks were totally destroyed but the rebuilding of the planet has been impressive. The Moon colonists have been trapped on Earth’s satellite for thirty years sending out SOS signals in morse code. The human race has developed a fear of technology and the rise of Earth United, a xenophobic watch group, has seen the young corrupted into their bigoted ideals. Under the Occupation two thirds of the Earth’s people died, technology was thrown back 200 years and since then crops have failed and civil unrest is growing. It’s been ages since anybody did the job that they wanted to do. Both the Doctor and Susan remember the Earth’s future because they visited it – a thousand world Empire of trade and exploration across space. The Galdreezi are an intriguing vampiric species that exploit the resources of invaded worlds. They offer a gift of the moon colonists to make it appear as though they are benevolent and in return they ask for token gifts, cheap labour tantamount to the slave camps the Daleks were running. Workers servicing their military machines and as sitting targets for their enemies. As they are defeated by the Doctor the out him and Susan as the other aliens in their midst which opens a whole new can of worms – especially as Alex finds out where he really comes from.

Audio Landscape: Screaming students bellowing about higher grants, polite applause for Susan’s speech, doorbell, cameras snapping away, a mobile communicator crackling, a typewriter suggested how technology has taken a step backwards, phone ringing (again quite primitive sounding), a spaceship lowering into the atmosphere, police sirens, helicopter landing and fierce blades rotating, screaming gulls, waves lapping on the shore.

Musical Cues: The use of the original theme tune is a lovely touch. I used to think the original was the slowest and least interesting of the lot when I was younger especially compared to the exciting electric guitar version from the 80s! Another reasons why I was such an idiotic, precocious youth. Tastes change as you get older and usually for the better and now it is my favourite of all the themes (perhaps tied with the Tom Baker theme). Its atmospheric, mysterious and alien and all those things they were trying to promote about the show in the sixties. I could listen to it again and again as it is one of the most organic music experiences and it plays about with my spine wonderfully.

Isn't it Odd: The Doctor should never say lines like ‘I set your parents up’ because it sounds as though he has walked from the set of Hollyoaks! It’s almost as odd as the Doctor asking Susan how she managed to produce Alex! I thought I had strayed into the Sex Education Show for a moment!

Standout Scene: The reunion scene between the Doctor and Susan is delightfully done with Paul McGann underplaying and Carole Ann Ford overplaying – he’s testing the waters and she is simply enchanted to see him! It’s the one scene that Doctor Who fans have been waiting for for such a long time and McGann and Ford share some magical chemistry that marks this a special moment. I love the way she cannot stop hugging him.

Notes: This story completely contradicts the novel Legacy of the Daleks which oddly enough also seeks to reunite the eighth Doctor with Susan in a post Dalek Invasion Earth but the novel is a steaming pile of dung so I wont shed too many tears. This is the official continuity as far as I am concerned because it stars Carole Ann Ford and Paul McGann.

Result: A paranoid, xenophobic Earth is the setting for the long overdue reunion between the Doctor and Susan and the introduction of her son. In reality this is less of a story in its own right and more a prelude to the stories Relative Dimensions and the climactic two part finale in season four of the Eighth Doctor Adventures but there is so much of interest going on here that it is a little mean spirited to dismiss this as such. Marc Platt has long been one of my favourite Big Finish writers because he has a talent for whisking up an evocative location, interesting characters and extremely quotable dialogue and all three are in action here. I found the world building to be particularly impressive with lots of imaginative and realistic detail and was pleased that somebody had finally sought to play about with the Earth left battered after the Dalek invasion. Jake McGann needs a little more practice before he gets a hang of this audio lark (he is much better in his second appearance) but Alex is still an intriguing character in the possibilities he offers (the idea of him taking up the reins from the Doctor is explored in later adventures). But the real joy to be found is the chemistry between Paul McGann and Carole Ann Ford. It’s so good you might find yourself championing a trilogy or two with the Doctor and Susan travelling together again. Big Finish never cease to amaze me with the quality of the freebies they give away, An Earthly Child is a great deal better than some of the releases that you have to pay full whack for. Very enjoyable: 8/10
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