Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Children of Seth written by Marc Platt (from a story by Christopher Bailey) and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: During one of Nyssa’s experiments, the TARDIS’s temporal scanner picks up a message: ‘Idra’. Just one word, but enough to draw the Doctor to the Archipelago of Sirius. There, the Autarch is about to announce a new crusade. A mighty war against Seth, Prince of the Dark... But who is Seth? What is the secret of Queen Anahita, Mistress of the Poisons? And what terror awaits on Level 14?

An English Gentleman: Its been 43 years since the Doctor last saw Idra and since then her face has been scarred by an accident on Ragnarok and imperfectly patched. He gets younger everyday and finds it quite alarming. The Doctor meant to get around to reading the book that Idra gave her – it was banned and would have explained a great deal about what is going on now had he taken the time. Here’s your chance to hear the Doctor being broken down into the binary language of numbers – I bet the director was horrified to learn that he had to try and actualise that on audio! Its fascinating to see that when the Doctor wants to find Nyssa so badly the numbers converge and bring the image of her before him, its almost as if they have read his subconscious and given him what he most desires. As the system dissects the Doctor so he exploits the system and before long he has mastered this new way of looking at things and can access the defence systems. He walks the streets with wanted posters bearing his image as the Prince of Evil! He still gets funny looks even after the android rebellion is over and he wonders if he was that convincing as the Prince of Darkness.

Alien Orphan: Nyssa has always loved probability with lines of chance crossing and diverging but theory is as far as she ever got. Unfortunately Tegan doesn’t have a clue what she is talking about and it highlights that these two whilst good friends would never be able to spend a great deal of social time together! When she makes a joke (Tegan is shocked!) the Doctor wonders what the odds are on that. Upon hearing that they have landed in war zone Nyssa cries ‘another war?’ – to be fair the wonders of the universe that she has explored thus far all seem to be tearing lumps out of each other. After being brainwashed in The Elite and put up for a mind wipe in this it’s a surprise that Nyssa can remember anything of her past! Imagine if she did lose her memory altogether, she is the last surviving remnant of Traken and that would be lost forever. Nyssa is held captive on level 14 or what people around here call Hell and as she wonders about the demonic environment she has lost all sense of who she is. As her mind slips away she giggles and talks in a sing song voice as though she is drunk – its quite frightening to see the normally composed Nyssa so out of control. Nyssa did think about leaving the Doctor after Florana but she considered one planet or the whole universe and found that the choice was made for her,.

Mouth of Legs: Like the most irritating kid in the car you just know that Tegan would be the one to moan ‘are we there yet?’ There’s a lovely moment where the Doctor is trying integrate into this society and Tegan just bustles up to the first person they meet and asks them about the distress call in the TARDIS. ‘Why does she always do this?’ asks the Doctor but you’ve got to admit her sledgehammer approach gets results! Tegan is no monarchist, she’s a fully paid up Aussie republican and she doesn’t think spirited is enough to describe her, the word she goes for is bolshie! Listen to Janet Fielding’s cheeky performance as she flirts with the guard to get information about the Doctor and tries to free him. I would have loved her to have had this kind of material during the eighties because it reveals a frivolous side to the character that is very appealing. Mind you a lot of the audios with Tegan lately are revealing that the character would have been far more attractive had they injected a little humour into her. Even the Doctor has to admit he is astonished that Tegan could be so resourceful (I think he’s shocked because he’s never seen that flirty side of her before). Nudging is too subtle for Tegan, she would rather shout to get noticed! The Doctor describes her as a bit mouthy he considers her one of his most resourceful companions because when she puts her mind to something she will damn well get it done. She’s so gentle in the last episode, calming people, helping the sick – this is the Tegan we deserved on the telly.

Standout Performance: The top drawer casts Big Finish manage to assemble never ceases to amaze me and returning to Doctor Who here is Honor Blackman who is as good an actress as the show is ever likely to attract. Naturally she sounds a lot older than when she last appeared but that is an advantage, he gorgeous, throaty voice oozes class as she brings the role of the Queen Consort to life. David Warner has played a number of roles in Big Finish Productions over the years and has always been 100% committed to making each character a fully realised person. Here he tackles a pampered ruler who is trading off the reputation of past glories and as ever Warner can make the simplest of put downs sound like ego crushing insults (‘I’m the Doctor…’ ‘I had a check up last week!’). Thje relationship between these two characters is fascinating, often seen as a marriage of convenience but when her life is in danger he suddenly drops away all the domestic anger and shows that he really cares. Their parting scene is beautiful, the two of them back together but still winding each other up. I could have happily have spent more time with both of them.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The only question left will be who inherits the ruins?’
‘Numbers. Like an endless cascading grid, shifting, bombarding me with information. Here or there they cluster or thin out and I think I see shapes but I can’t reads or making sense of them yet! But I’m still here in the other world, our world, I can still smell it and touch it. I’m still here’ – poetry as written by Christopher H Bidmead! Kudos to Marc Platt for taking on such an imaginative idea and trying to verbalise it.
‘Seth is the demon that every government needs.’
‘The enemy was within not without!’ – that’s a great moral and one we should be reminded of.
‘I am the World Breaker! The Soul Eater! I raise up the Dead!’
‘If there had to be a deus ex machina it might as well be us.’

Great Ideas: One of the great strengths of the Christopher Bailey scripts was that he managed to make both Deva Loka and Manussa feel like real places before the Doctor arrived. So often in stories it feels like the Doctor is the catalyst of events wherever they visit and not a lot happened before or after they visited. The Children of Seth opens in a similar way to Bailey’s previous stories with real characters going about their lives before the Doctor shows up. A low level intelligence drone infiltrates the TARDIS as part of a defence system to analyse their defences as a threat and the TARDISes infinite co-ordinates fry its tiny brain! This is far more exciting than a dull old console room scene! Was it just me or did episode one have a real sense of momentum to it? Like we were skating down a precipice to a very important event. The scene setting is almost irrelevant (as strong as it is) compared to the impetus of the piece. The fanatics of Seth are a canker infesting the Empire and now they are planning to strike at this cause of evil – the Fortress of the Dark lord Seth which has been located in the worlds beyond the Rim. The palace is built on the spoils of war, its civic level a warren of cut throats and intriguers. Warriors stood together on the plains of Ragnarok and fought for glory and honour but there is precious little left of it now. The Queen Consort is Idra and she directed the message at the TARDIS because she knows that without the Doctor the whole Empire from its hub to its shattered rim will fall into ruin. There is such an emphasis on the glorious Empire that once ruled that I felt I could see that as vividly as the decaying civilisation that it has become. I didn’t have a clue what was going on at the end of episode two once the Doctor had plugged himself into the net but it was bloody exciting and realised in a similar way to the cliffhanger of The Face of Evil episode three – absolute surreal madness! It is a mark of their decadence that Byzan has been allowed to rise so high and of Idra’s blindness that she saw it too late. Hell is populated by enemies of Byzan, purged of their memories and left to rot – it’s a whole derelict city of the damned. Scaring the people witless is how to take control and they use the Doctor’s face to represent Seth and become the peoples new bogeyman. Byzan is building up a private army of androids under Albis, the autonomous logical binary intelligence system that has outgrown its master. The androids have been planning their coup of a while and talk of a culling of those humanoids that resist them. They want a world wiped clean of humans, a simple mechanical world. Idra invented Seth in her book, the bogeyman that every administration needs to scare children and adults alike, to keep them in order. Byzan stole her idea and didn’t even change the name – they have been living in fear of a lie. The real enemy, the children of Seth are the androids. When they are stopped they freeze like statues and all over the city random people just stopped, guards, businessmen and workers…they will never know how deep the android infiltration went. I love the little mention that Byzan was poisoned in his cell and Idra only visited him the evening before…

Audio Landscape: The TARDIS bleeps and boinks like she is singing a song, the drone cutting through the console, screams in hell, the Doctor broken down by numbers and put back together again, a binary world of zeros and ones, a frothing fountain.

Musical Cues: Fox and Yason can always be relied on to conjure up some impressive music and here they channel Paddy Kingsland at his best but also managed to give the story a sense of gravity. The last two episodes feature an insistent score which gives the story an astonishing sense of drama – you are never in any doubt that serious things are happening. The simple percussion instruments that sound in the last episode remind us of the clashing steel of the androids as they make their move.

Isn’t it Odd: I couldn’t quite figure out why Nyssa thought that she was the Doctor, it made little sense in story terms.

Standout Scene: The image of the Doctor stumbling blinding through a derelict city of the walking dead, falling to his knees and drawing in the sand is a very powerful one. Follow this up with the cliffhanging trick of the Doctor is taking over the reins of government and you have a very strong showing for the fifth Doctor.

Result: Not your typical Big Finish story, The Children of Seth will probably take you two or three listens to fully understand it and appreciate all of its riches. Like Kinda and Snakedance the scripts are extremely wordy, full of juicy dialogue, excellent world building and intriguing characters. As an audio experience this is far more denser than we are used to, rather than an action adventure this is an exploration of ideas and concepts in a very mythical way but like Bailey’s TV stories if you are willing to put the effort in and look at its roots you will get a lot out of it. The main difference between this and the other Lost Stories is that it is that creates worlds out of ideas rather than visuals and as such it is most like classic Doctor on television that I recognise. Ken Bentley deserves a lot of credit for making this marbled story come to life so hypnotically, the actors are extremely good (any story being played by actors with the calibre of Honor Blackman and David Warner deserves your attention) and there is a real pace and momentum to the piece, aided no end by Yason and Fox’s blissful musical score. Whilst there are some nice moments for Tegan and Nyssa it’s a story that puts the Doctor centre stage which is a relief because since his TARDIS became overcrowded in the main range again the fifth Doctor has felt a little sidelined. Here Davison gets the chance to take centre stage again and engage with some truly bizarre science fiction concepts. On a basic level this is Doctor Who exploring a society and sifting through its layers until it exposes the rotten core at its heart but with Marc Platt fleshing out the characters and the culture it is much more than that. The scant explanations and sophisticated layering might leave you a little bemused but take care unwrapping this one and you might be surprised at what lies inside. Beguiling: 9/10


Ben Herman said...

An excellent in-depth analysis. As you say, I'll have to give this one a second listen to fully appreciate it. My write-up of The Children of Seth was just posted on my blog, if you are so inclined to read it. Thanks!

Doc Oho said...

Really interesting review, Ben, thanks for the link. I've got your site bookmarked for further reading. Thanks for taking the time to comment :-)