Friday, 16 December 2011

The Eternal Summer written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: It's been a long, hot summer in Stockbridge. Longer than the villagers can remember. Summer's lease is never-ending – and all thanks to the Lord and Lady of the Manor! One man alone knows that something's wrong: Maxwell Edison, Stockbridge's unofficial ambassador to the Universe. Or 'flying saucer nut', as the locals have it. He'll need help proving it: from the local postmistress Miss Nyssa, perhaps; or the village Doctor, the fellow that's been living at the Green Dragon Inn these last 30 years. They'd better hope that autumn never comes to Stockbridge. When autumn comes, the world is doomed…

An English Gentleman: Like Black Orchid and The Awakening there is something very right about the fifth Doctor visiting a quaint picturesque old English village – he’s so quintessentially English himself he seems to fit Stockbridge like a glove. Whilst some might think of living the highlights of your life a joy the Doctor considers it an abomination. Wonderfully he describes the collective hypnotised villagers ‘stark raving bonkers’ which is a very funny description whoever it is being pointed at. The Doctor comes face to face with himself from the future scarred by the infinite ravages of time, decomposing and rotten, over a million years hence. The decrepit Doctor remembers that his real name wasn’t Doctor but cannot remember what it actually was. Deferring explanations is a habit he really must learn to stop. The Doctor calls the Lord and Lady a remote possibility of a future, a shadow place maintained by the nightmare of what is happening in Stockbridge. The Hyperspatial warp must have splintered off alternative selves and as they were sent into the future another Doctor and Nyssa were summoned into being in the past – that’s the technobabble explanation but there are still a possibility and that’s pretty chilling.

Alien Orphan: Nyssa takes on the surname of Jones which added to the Doctor’s alias makes them Smith and Jones! It has been so long for the older Nyssa that she doesn’t remember Tegan, Adric, the Master of the Cybermen. The time before the village is too distant now. Nyssa is frustrated at being treated like a simpleton and comments that she is more than capable of understanding anything that Lizzie might consider complicated! There is an astonishing sequence as we slip back through Nyssa’s memories of her entire Big Finish run and we realise just how far she has come in the audio adventures.

Village Geek: An expert in all thing abnormal, supernatural and extra terrestrial, basically if it is anything to do with the unknown he thinks he knows everything about it. He’s such a lovable character because everybody else in the village thinks he is a still a crackpot child looking for space monsters. He’s a bit shy and useless around girls and talks too much when it comes to thinking through problems because he is so excited to have the Doctor back in his life. Max is a helpful reminder that it is not just the bad stuff, they get to relive the good moments in their lives too. ‘Who would want to spend their life with an obese, ugly failiure like you?’ – how could you not love a man who is battered down with insults like that by the people who are supposed to love him. Max tries to do the thing where suggests something stupid which enables the clever guy to think up the solution – he’s such a sweetie. Its rather lovely that Lizzie and Max get along so well after everybody else is so mean to him and the offer to join the PIG is clearly the highlight of his life. The way she asks in him (in such a gloriously upper class way) if he wants to go for coffee and a bun together made my heart melt. Coffee and a bun sounds fantastic, indeed. He’s sick of working on the sidelines and leaps back into the danger that waits in Stockbridge to help his friends but gives Lizzie a snog before he goes. The force inside tries to assault him with all the insults and jeers he has had but he knows what happened the night that stars fell on Stockbridge and he refuses to give in to his own insecurities. He’s the one person who was never part of the village, the one person with a mind of his own and the only person who can fight against the power of Veridios. The real hero of the piece. Max died in a bike accident in the real time but pleasingly those events have been wiped out once he saves the day.

Standout Performance: Its not easy to suggest age through your voice alone without the back up of make up to pull the effect off but Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton do an outstanding job as the ravaged versions of the Doctor and Nyssa. With faltering croaky voices and an air of slowness about them they genuinely convince that they have aged 10,000 centuries. The scene where Sutton and Davison cackle orgasmically as feeding from the villagers memories is hauntingly done, they really are nothing like the originals.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It reminds me of a town I once visited but that was entirely artificial, a space time trap brought into existence by a madman’ ‘What Milton Keynes?’
‘Its like that film Groundhog Day! I loved that film. I must have seen it a hundred times. Which is a bit ironic come to think about it.’
‘We have our whole lives over again every time that sun comes up. Every joy, every heartbreak, every love, every loss.’
‘What happens to all bubbles in the end? Pop!’
‘The Eternal Summer is ending. Autumn is approaching.’
‘Without the girl Nyssa my existence is founded upon a paradox! I am an edifice built upon shifting sands!’

Great Ideas: I love the way the story opens with the Doctor waking up at a Bed and Breakfast in Stockbridge and being told that he has been staying there for as long as the owners can remember, living under the alias of Dr Smith. What on Earth has happened? He tries to piece together the mystery of his situation – Harold and Alice remember the Doctor being there at their wedding anniversary 30 years ago which would make him 50 but nobody questions that he looks about two decades younger than that. Nyssa woke up in the same way with everybody in Stockbridge thinking she was the post mistress, as though someone has found roles for them and is trying to make them fit into the village. There’s a wonderful observation that this isn’t the 2000s but the 50s or 60s, the gag being that a country village is set in time whilst the rest of the world changes around it. The Doctor and Nyssa seem to be bleeding through time to various events in the past 60 years and the Doctor picks up the phone in a police telephone box and hears himself at the other end of the line. He then picks it up again and has the same conversation from the other side – immediately after! Harold and Alice get married and are buried on the same day. Something has happened in Stockbridge to link all these wibbly wobbly fabulously Morrisesque events! Max explains that the same day keeps occurring but with all the things that have happened in the last 60 years, all the births and deaths jumbled up. Always the same day of later summer, over and over. You can’t leave Stockbridge, every time you try you find yourself back by the village green and duck pond. It’s a very clever way of giving characters a life beyond the confines of this story by revealing all the most important events in their lives and by experiencing the moment Dudley proposed to Jane and she refused, falling to her death, Harold and Alice’s wedding, the death of their son and their gravestones we get a broad strokes painting of their whole lives. Brilliantly as we get used to how the story starts jumping about the characters start to acknowledge the scattered approached to the storytelling – Dudley stating as he pulls the Doctor a pint of ginger beer that losing Jane was the saddest day of his life, experienced just seconds before. Jane then reappears as we head into the past with the glorious line ‘I know, I know, I fell of the old bridge to my death but I’m alive again now.’ The Doctor starts to notice inconsistencies in the history of Stockbridge being relived, first Alice was at Harold’s funeral and then Harold is at Alice’s bedside as she slips away. It transpires that they like to take turns, him there at her death and then her there at his. He doesn’t understand if they have been living the same day over and over why they haven’t gotten used to it but he is reminded that these people are their family and friends – no matter how many times they die it will always affect them. The torture of losing their son so young over and over makes this one of the cruellest Doctor Who stories, fancy having to relive that moment every single day. Whenever the pain of remembering the past becomes too much the Lord and Lady of the manner help the village folk to take it away (although the Doctor wonders if that is just so they can experience it again afresh). The older Doctor and Nyssa are scared that their younger versions might leave and his future self might never have existed – that is why they wont let him leave Stockbridge. They have ruled of Stockbridge for so long but they stopped counting after the first 10,000 centuries. PIG – The Psychic Investigation Group are investigating the lost village of Stockbridge. Max never knew that they existed because they are top secret organisation (did I detect a little dig at UNIT there? And with so many paranormal organisations around during the 20th Century I’m surprised they didn’t trip on each others toes at every supernatural occurrence the Doctor was involved in!). They said that the village was destroyed by a V1 at the end of World War II but there is no evidence of that. People kept claiming they could see a village shrouded in mist, a ghost village. I really like how we get to see this phenomenon from both sides, initially Edison claiming that those on the outside are ghosts. The reason why the two sides can now see each other is because the time bubble is collapsing allowing both a glimpse and then to be able to pass from one side to the other. Tying into Castle of Fear, the older versions of the Doctor and Nyssa have built the manor house out of the ruins of the Rutan spaceship. The warp core didn’t ignite because the Doctor activated the failsafe, the engines were caught in a stasis field and the bubble engulfed the village and the past 60 years. If it explodes those 60 years of temporal energy will be released. The people of Stockbridge are held in the moment of their death, suspended in the moment. The older Doctor and Nyssa have been savouring the emotions and memories of the villagers like a fine wine. When the Doctor leaves the village for a few minutes to them he has been away for a hundred years. The villagers want their purgatory of immortality to be other because they have lived their lives a millions time over – death would be a welcome release. In a top grisly moment His Lordship eats the Lady Nyssa after she extracted our Nyssa’s memories. Veridios is a figure from human folklore suggesting rebirth – Wells Wood woke to an eternal summer and has taken control.

Audio Landscape: Morris is such a confident writer and Edwards a certain director that the opening episode is a brilliant scene setter pulling off the quaint English village better than any other story I can remember. I love the way that as the characters are introduced we quickly cut to a sudden moment of tension that would occur later in the tale to prove that things aren’t quite as picturesque as they might appear on the surface. There was a moment that really made me jump – the cut from the Doctor pronouncing Phillip dead to Harold’s funeral. Birdsong, ducks quacking, church singers, a bicycle bell, the Doctor falling into the duck pond much to the birds’ consternation, post office bell, wedding bells, the village school of fire, the fire alarm, crows in the sky, trampling through the woods, the river bubbling and flowing, pouring a nice frothy pint of ginger beer, smashing a window, the roof breaking and caving in, Alice’s last breath, a fountain, crackling fire, mobile ring tone, storm clouds breaking with thunder, the aperture tearing open, window smashing, rain lashing, the awful sucking noises as the rotten Nyssa extracts the life out of the villagers.

Musical Cues: Smooth tinklings on the piano in the early scenes introduce the story; it gives the tale a lightness of touch which is practically effervescent. Listen to the confident playing as Nyssa discovers the graves of everybody in the village.

Isn’t it Odd: Its heartbreaking that Max and Lizzie never got to share a coffee and a bun together, the only unhappy part of the conclusion.

Standout Scene: Just as I was starting to tire of Nyssa’s continued absence from the story along comes the end of episode two which somehow after two episodes of temporal high jinks pulling the rug from under me managed to completely floor me. The Doctor and Nyssa are revealed as the Lord and Lady of the Manor, thousands of years old and faces as grey as dust. The Doctor is horrified to take a glance into his own future… Morris is so good at using the concept of time to shock and this cliffhanger is exquisitely timed to give the second half of the story a brand new direction.

Notes: ‘He stumbled into the TARDIS once the night that stars fell on Stockbridge’ You couldn’t possibly have a Stockbridge trilogy of adventures without featuring Maxwell Edison, the lovable UFO spotter that helped the Doctor during his comic strip adventures and here he is right in the heart of the stories. Rather wonderfully the stories brings to life several moments from the comic strips that will no doubt have the fans frothing at the mouth! Its lovely to see the strips being acknowledged and realised in such a generous way and Mark Williams plays an adorable Max Edison (‘I thought it looked a bit Venusian’).

Result: Spellbinding, a story that continually evolves as it continues but feels skilfully structured throughout, juggles all manner of clever plot devices but ties everything together satisfactorily at the end. Scripts of this quality don’t come along every day and we’re fortunate that Barnaby Edwards was the director chosen to bring it to life because it has the same glorious mixture of genuine sentiment and splintered plot games that made his earlier masterpiece, The Chimes of Midnight, such a success. Edwards puts the puzzle together with real dexterity, capitalising on the choking moments of emotion whilst ensuring the mystery keeps you guessing and excited. There is an energy to the piece that is easy to be swept up in and the atmospherics of an English village make this adventure easy to conjure before your eyes. My favourite scenes where with the rancid old Doctor and Nyssa as they greedily fed on the villagers pain and love – it was such a gloriously macabre spin on the characters we know I was lapping it up. Jonathan Morris deserves a huge round of applause for continually coming up with the goods for Big Finish – his work has been of such a consistent high standard I fail to understand why the new series hasn’t snapped him up. I’ve always been fond of conundrum tales like this and enjoy working at solving a complicated plot and when it reaps rewards as much as The Eternal Summer I couldn’t be happier. A top notch fifth Doctor release of the type that is quite a rarity these days – this really was a phenomenal year of Big Finish adventures: 9/10

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