Friday, 2 December 2011

A Thousand Tiny Wings written by Andy Lane and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: 1950s Kenya. The Mau Mau uprising. A disparate group of women lie low in a remote house in the jungle, waiting for a resolution or for rescue. Among these British imperialists is Elizabeth Klein, a refugee from a timeline that no longer exists… thanks to the Doctor. Reunited, the Doctor and Klein are forced to set aside their differences by terrifying circumstances. People are dying in this remote place. One by one. And there's something out there, in the jungle, accompanied only by the flutter of a thousand tiny wings…

The Real McCoy: He waltzes into the farmhouse with some authority ready to help with the mysterious creature found in the woods until he discovers his old friend Elisabeth Klein is about and then he decides to stay. The Doctor tells Klein is travelling on his own these days and says the words with a heavy heart. Klein suggests the Nazi’s did what they did for the betterment of the human race and the Doctor uses Mengele’s (coined The Angel of Death for his work on children testing the noma disease and even sewing together Romanian children to create a conjoined twin) experiments as an example of how obscene their methods could be. This powerful material ignites a passion in McCoy that is rarely seen and holds your attention completely. In return Klein offers to list all the British and American scientists that have committed atrocities against their fellow man. The Doctor considers the history of humanity as a history of abuse by the more powerful directed against the less powerful and sometimes he wonders why he likes them so much. Its Klein who has to remind the Doctor to remember that Christine’s death has affected them personally but he dismisses their feelings saying that there will be time enough to mourn later once they have discovered what killed her. Klein describes him as devious, manipulative and arrogant and that his innocuousness is his greatest asset. You know what they say, cold hands, two hearts. The talks of ‘his people’ and Sylvia dismisses him as foreign and later as a contentious objector when he tries to avoid violence. In practically every way (especially morally) the Doctor and Klein are different people but when they start working together to beat the disease they make a very effective team and all their previous hostilities are dropped. The Doctor has happy memories about big green land rovers…aww. He’s a clever bastard an no mistake, leaving a shotgun primed to fire when a thin wire is tripped across the perimeter giving them an early warning signal. He boasts he can move like a cat when he wants to! The story pushes the Doctor into the uncomfortable situation of having to try and save Klein’s life which makes him indirectly responsible for anything she might do in the future. Klein thinks the Doctor is suggesting that he will stay with her and watch her until she dies when he tells her cannot allow her to set about trying to create a Fourth Reich but he actually means quite the reverse. She is to travel with him, a dangerous business considering her interest in history but it will definitely make for a thrilling dynamic. He considers her perception too shallow and he wants to show her things that might change her mind.

Reformed Nazi: Klein was introduced to the main range almost over 100 releases ago and any hope of seeing what was by far the sharpest character in Colditz (and the best thing about the entire production) was practically beyond hope. So imagine my surprise and delight when they announced a trilogy of adventures for the corrupt Nazi Officer butting heads with McCoy’s seventh Doctor. For the first time since the Sixie/Charley adventures I was really looking forward to hearing some main range adventures. Tracey Childs made such a fantastic impression in that earlier story and the character had so much untapped potential it would have been such a waste had she never been seen again. A small confession to make – I had absolutely no idea that Tracey Childs played the part of Metella in The Fires of Pompeii and when I found out (checking some obscure detail on its Wikipedia page for my review) I was absolutely delighted as it is one of my favourite New Series episodes. Compare her on the cover of these audios to her period look in Pompeii and they are completely different and the fact that I could even tell by her voice is further proof of what a versatile actress Childs is.

Klein suggests some kind of rota to protect the farmhouse and is greeted by derision and mocked that this isn’t Nazi Germany…if only they knew who they were talking to. She hears the TARDIS materialising in the distance and drops a glass – this is all of her dreams come true. Whilst she may have to circumnavigate the Doctor a time machine would give her the one opportunity to go back and change the events of Colditz. The Doctor describes her as blonde, blue eyed, strikingly attractive with an air of an Aryan about her. She had a feeling they would meet again; first it was a hope, then a certainty and finally a dream and now they are face to face she calls him insane for re-ordering reality the way he wants. It seems that the two of them are never going to agree on which reality is the real one and that will fuel the drama of this trilogy. After the war ended in a farcical victory for Britain Klein escaped to a colony of nationalists in South America, a home away from home (DeFlores from Silver Nemesis was one of this breed). That she put things right – that’s what Klein wants her epitaph to be. When she was in South America she re-qualified as a Doctor of medicine and she couldn’t see herself whiling away her time dreaming of past glories she headed for the Dark Continent for challenges anew. In her version of history the Germany army crushed the Mau Mau rebellion with wave upon wave of aircraft carpet bombing the tribal areas. When the carpet bombing had stopped and the various native uprisings had been irradiated builders were sent in to construct new cities. Within three years most of them were dead, some disease, not infectious but carried by something. Hitler put Klein in charge of a team of Doctors to investigate but they were evacuated before they could make any progress. She doesn’t like to fail and if she couldn’t make a difference in her own timeline she is determined to eradicate the infection in this one. The Doctor wonders if she wants to use the disease in some ludicrous scheme to put the Nazi’s back on top but she scoffs at this asking him to credit her with a little intelligence – diseases aren’t fussy as to who they attack and if she wipes out humanity there would be no hope of her putting things right. To all accounts an purposes this is a humane mission and we are so used to seeing the Nazi’s as monsters it is hard to correlate the two. A quiet moment between Klein and Sylvia reveals that they have similar ideals – the tragedy of national socialism is that the concept of the benevolent dictator has lost all credibility where it is palpably the best form of government if you choose the right dictator. They are literally finishing each others sentences and it is fascinating to see a British citizen quoting Nazi ideals. Her philosophy is that you have to break something down to rubble into order to build it up again in the right way whereas the Doctor believes you can build in whatever direction you want using whatever you are as a foundation.

Standout Performance: A huge round of applause to Ann Bell who slowly unpeels her character as the story develops, starting off as a sympathetic motherly presence in the farmhouse and gradually revealing her fascistic ideals in a so natural its frightening fashion. Its not often we get characters in Big Finish plays that make an impact like this, usually they are there to service the plot but this is a full fleshed out character in her own right and the subtle way Bell gets more furious and forceful as she talks about the positives of the Nazism had me hiding behind my hands. By the end of the story she is a pretty fearsome woman.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘And will he make the trains run on time?’ ‘You say it as if it’s a bad thing to have a predictable transport system.’
‘Which one will get to us first, the Army or the Mau Mau?’
‘I don’t trust him’ ‘You don’t trust anyone’ ‘And you trust everyone! Guess which one of us gets disappointed the most?’
‘We’re a small island with a small population and yet we’ve made our mark around the world. We didn’t do it by force by and large we did it by civilising and educating and showing small tribes whose vision went as far as the horizon that by working together they could form a nation that would stretch from coast to coast’ ‘Which you would rule.’
‘Violence doesn’t care about your opinions Doctor, it just is.’
‘There are many ways of getting to the same destination and often the best one is not the most direct.’
‘A few seconds earlier there were three people in this house and suddenly there was only one…’

Great Ideas: A tawdry uprising on the part of discontented natives who don’t when their well off…or at least that’s how Sylvia sees it. The British government will not allow this to go on for much longer and they will send the troops in. The Doctor says that self rule is the inevitable outcome and the country the British are used to controlling has changed forever. Klein is worries about the natives getting in and that is very tangible threat throughout the entire story. Denise is such a wonderfully naïve character and symptomatic of a British Empire that refuses to accept that times have moved on since the war. In a farmhouse under siege she is more concerned about having a four for Bridge and expects the servants to still be catering to her every whim. You know from the first few seconds of meeting her that she is going to learn a lesson in the harsh realities of life before the story is over. A body found in the forest that has two knees in each leg, two elbows in each arm and whose joints move in the wrong direction. I love the approach Lane takes to the Nazi’s from Sylvia’s point of view, she had a German husband that was posted near Colditz castle who she loved dearly but has had to hide the fact since the end of the Second World War. She remembers the Mitford girls travelling back and forth between Germany and England, having grand balls and parties with the two countries united as friends. Its such an refreshing new take on the relationship between the two countries it really stands out. That’s why Sylvia and Henreich came to Kenya because British citizens couldn’t admit to knowing Germans anymore. Joshua enters the story at just the right point when a new element of suspicion is needed and despite his protestations of being on the run from the Mau Mau you cannot help but wonder if he is an advance scout sent to asses their defences. There are two burnt out cars and tree trunk blocking the entrance and preventing their escape in the car…the Mau Mau don’t want them to leave. Sylvia catches Joshua signalling with a torch to the Mau Mau, revealing his allegiances and discovering him nearly costs her her life until Lucy intervenes and murders him. The flock is alien birds with poisonous claws, using the Abraham as their mule to provide their manual work via short range telepathy. They are doing research on Earth that is too dangerous to conduct on their own planet, biological warfare which created the disease that would wipe out the population in Klein’s timeline and this one too if they hadn’t have wound up here. They want to use humanity as test subjects for their research, planning to create diseases that attack many races at once – a universal plague. Astonishingly this research isn’t even for their own benefit, they want to sell the microbes on to warring planets and become the most powerful economic power in the galaxy. Once all over life forms have wiped each other out they will take over.

Audio Landscape: 130 releases into the main range and Big Finish scores possibly their most atmospheric production with Lisa Bowerman casting aside all the bluster of the two Key to Time trilogy stories she directed and the camp madness of Mission to Magnus in the Lost Stories range and really focussing on the drama of this superbly scripted story. Not to dismiss the work of other directors (because Big Finish has a very high hit rate when it comes to its chosen directors) but there is a level of care in this story that I don’t always feel in the main range of this period. What’s astonishing is that for an audio this story is far more involved in what we don’t hear rather than what we do and with the Mau Mau closing in on the camp Lisa Bowerman manages to wring astonishing moments of tension by allowing this story to be silent in places and add the sound effect of a snapping twig or a sudden scream to maximum dramatic effect. You can trust Klein to get straight to the heart of the matter with the ultimate cliché – ‘It’s quiet out there…too quiet.’ Denise discovering Christine’s body is terrifying, her screams quite made me jump! Bowerman pulls of the same trick in episode two when a window suddenly smashes and my coffee leap from my hands all over my desk! Sylvia walking through the house as bodies thump to the ground and nobody answers her calls really chills the bone. The fact that there isn’t even an attack in the end and we are still taken to the extremes of dread is all credit to Bowerman’s skill as a director.

Exotic birds screaming in the wilderness, the rustle of leaves and animals forage through the undergrowth, tapping on the typewriter, the dinner gong, wings flapping, walking through the tangled undergrowth, knocking at the door, clacking knitting needles, a crackling news report, the suddenly flurry and fluttering of wings, starting the coughing, grinding engine of the car, shotgun, shots in the distance.

Musical Cues: Like everything else the music has been exquisitely selected to create the maximum disquiet and its lovely to see Yason and Fox (who usually work with Bowerman in the companion chronicles range) having the chance to score a full length main range adventure. A Thousand Tiny Wings proves how good they are at their craft and they should be drafted in more often (still the main ranges loss is the companion chronicles gain). Listen to the atmospherics as there is a knocking at the door in episode one. I love the exotic turn the music takes as they start car and try and leave the farmhouse, its very catchy.

Standout Scene: I honestly couldn’t choose one scene – this is a fantastic story from beginning to end.

Result: A Thousand Tiny Wings is one of my all time favourite Big Finish adventures. Such a simple, evocative, intelligent, beautifully characterised script from Andy Lane complimented by Lisa Bowerman’s atmospheric and disquieting direction that rings every nuance and moment of tension for what it is worth. Whilst you are soaking up all the intellectual discussion between the Doctor and Klein, taking in the ambience of the Kenyan jungle and enjoying the complex characterisation of the guest cast there is the terrifying approach of the Mau Mau keeping everybody on edge and the discovery of an alien creature to solve. As I said in my audio landscape section at times it is the silence that impresses the most because we are waiting on tenterhooks for the Mau Mau to make their move and slightest twig snapping or footstep can be very frightening. Practically every line of dialogue is a gem and the story develops in exciting and unusual ways with the cover and title for once offering hints rather than spelling out the answers. At the heart of this splendid tale you have two towering performances from Sylvester McCoy (whose Doctor has taken off since Briggs took over) and Tracey Childs and their fractious, nascent dynamic makes for an engrossing new partnership. Absolutely top notch, this is the kind of Doctor Who Big Finish can revel in and the New Series couldn’t even touch: 10/10


Anonymous said...

totally agree. this is one of my faces too

Matthew Celestis said...

My favorite Big Finish story and one of the best they have done.

kurumais said...

tracey childs is nothing but win. klein is a scene stealer. great cast in this one.

McK said...

This one is very special to me and one of the all time best stories they've done. Tracey Childs is wonderful here; shame the second trilogy where she came back wasn't so well received (I haven't heard it yet but I hear nothing but bad things about the Dalek story)