Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Tales from the Vault written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: Welcome to The Vault – jokingly known as 'The Museum of Terrors' – a high security establishment where UNIT keeps all of its alien artefacts. New recruit Warrant Officer Charlie Sato is given a guided tour by Captain Ruth Matheson, and the archive reveals some dark secrets. An army jacket, a painting, crystal and a wax cylinder all hold a grave significance, and their stories are told by the Doctor's companions: Steven Taylor, Zoe Heriot, Jo Grant and Romana…

UNIT Officers: Whilst I do find it quite sweet that Big Finish have kindly made Daphne Ashbrook and Yee Jee Tso still feel part of the Doctor Who family it does us well to remember that they were part of a blind alley second chance for the show that never really went anywhere. Despite having already cast both of them in different parts (The Next Life, Excelis Decays) this is easily the best ‘story’ that either of them has been in and despite some mild mannered performances they do a reasonable job convincing as UNIT operatives. Just as a side note I have no problem with the TV Movie at all as others seem to, I find the film entertaining, the direction fluid and exciting and the performances (in particular McGann and Ashbrook) extremely good. I just don’t understand the purpose in recasting them in different roles for anything other than an anniversary story. Including makes it seems as if Big Finish are offering something they cannot deliver – a continuation of the TV Movie story.

Charlie has a choice to join UNIT secret ops or forget everything that Ruth has told him. The water she gave him to drink contained a powerful amnesiac drug and unless an antidote is given he will forget everything in the last 24 hours (perhaps UNIT and Torchwood aren’t that different after all). His job will involve not just making sure that nobody breaks in but the artefacts don’t break out!

The Doctors: We get to hear all about a chauvinistic third Doctor who has Venusian Akido at his disposal! The fourth Doctor trips into an adventure with Romana by checking a number of paintings to see if he had left himself any messages in the corner of any of them! We hear about the second Doctor posing as a seedy gangland boss who has recently arrived in the area with Jamie as his bodyguard and Zoe as his personal secretary – now that I would love to see! The first Doctor is described as an old gentleman with white hair who giggled a lot!

Dippy Agent: Jo Grant is something of a legend because she was the one who assisted the Doctor when he was exiled on Earth and helped him foil invasions on ‘practically a monthly basis!’ Listening to Katy Manning play dippy Jo trying to get to grips with a recording device peels away the years and its like we are back in the seventies again. She’s tried telling the Brig that its hard to keep up with paperwork when you’re being chased about by Axons and Sea Devils and the like! Brilliantly we cut to Jo Grant actually making the grumpy Doctor a cup of tea – I’m not saying that’s all she’s good for (and she rants that she is a liberated woman!) but its very funny! Jo has to stop doing the slowed down voice because she is afraid she is going to turn into Boris Karloff!

Brainy Beauty: There is a crystal that contains Zoe’s memories in the Vault and it is nice to know that whilst our Zoe is back on the Wheel with little knowledge of the Doctor that there is a repository of her adventures listed somewhere other than the DVD shelves of the fans! Perhaps the crystal and Zoe could be brought together…? I guess the ending puts paid to that idea. Its odd because the two Zoe companion chronicles I have heard so far (Fear of the Daleks & Echoes of Grey) have been my least favourites to date and yet I know it has nothing to do with Wendy Padbury’s delivery (she was superb in Legend of the Cybermen) and what Morris proves here is that with some strong writing the character can come alive in unexpected ways on audio. I would love a Morris commissioned Zoe story because he seems to have the feel of this trio down pat.

Aggressive Astronaut: Steven records a message during an adventure with the Doctor and Dodo in South Africa, 1900. Whilst many of the companions have a fair (and wonderfully compassionate) stab at trying to create their Doctors only Frazer Hines’ second Doctor comes anywhere near as close as Peter Purves’ superb take on William Hartnell’s first Doctor. The petulance, the sharp intelligent, the viciousness and good humour, they’re all there and despite the higher pitch he encapsulates everything I recognise in Hartnell’s extraordinary performance. Beyond bringing Steven back to life with such passion (and he hardly sounds as though he has aged a day) this homage to his mentor is Purves’ greatest gift to Doctor Who fans because it really feels as though we are getting new first Doctor stories.

Snooty Fox: Romana is a brilliantly aloof as ever trying to remind the Doctor that they had an urgent quest to be getting along with when he tries diverting them towards something more irreverent!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘To maintain public order. People aren’t ready for the truth.’
‘Follow me, I’ll show you the Security Kitchen…’ – cheeky!
‘Younger with a lined face and a great big hooter!’ – Tommy Watkins describes the third Doctor!

Great Ideas: We get to learn all the security procedures UNIT operatives have to go through when they begin their work at the Vault (DNA scans, decontamination). They figure that anything from foreign governments to terrorist organisations would be after their secrets and so they guard them diligently. They also have fears that aliens and androids might try and infiltrate. I love the idea that within UNIT there are legends and myths of ‘the old days’ with the Doctor and the ‘Vault of Terror’ containing all the alien artefacts that has been collected over the years during alien incursions. I would give my right arm to be able to explore the area myself but thanks to Jonny Morris now I can! UNIT doesn’t just wait for the Doctor to turn up and protect the Earth these days and so they occasionally have to try and hoodwink him in order to procure alien technology to help with the defence of the planet. Stuff that has been dug from beneath the ground or fallen to the Earth or any number of other ways a Doctor Who plot gets going can be found here. The base here is located underground the Angel of the North in London (where else? Although Ruth does seem to imply that there are bases elsewhere!). Whenever there is a classified incident with extraterrestrials or classified technology (such as the Loch Ness monster rearing his head out of the Thames and gobbling down a few passers by in Terror of the Zygons) their job is to tidy up afterwards. They hypnotise of convince the people involved that it was all part of a publicity stunt! They come across a Terrovore and Ruth talks about how they swarm across London ‘last year’ (The Crimes of Thomas Brewster if anybody wants to check it out and I suggest that you do because its top notch entertainment!). Also Krynoid husks (‘We keep them frozen just in case…’) and part of a Sontaran scout ship (or possibly just a lump of metal!). Jo’s story features a jacket that when worn possesses the wearer with the tortured soul of a soldier from the battle of Spion Kop (‘A haunted military costume? That’s absurd!’). A painting that was stolen from the Braxiatel Collection centuries ago and that has caused more suffering than any other work of art in history ‘including everything by Tracey Emin!’ The Kistador Molari was designed to reveal to the observer the circumstances of their own death. What a great, great idea for a story that is – thrown away on a five minute except in Tales from the Vault! That’s the one idea I wished Morris had kept for a longer tale because I could well imagine a frightening 50 minute story centring on that concept. A mind wiping crystal being used by the criminal element to wipe the memories of ex employees! Morris cleverly weaves his last tale into his first with Steven Taylor meeting with the real Tommy Watkins that was haunting the jacket worn by the friend of Jo Grant. Kali Korash planned to find himself in the UNIT vault – the Doctor revealed his true nature and Tommy Watkins sacrificed his life attempting to kill him so he allowed Thornicroft to die to convince the Doctor that he had been eliminated. Instead he transferred his consciousness into the fabric of Tommy’s uniform ready to occupy the next person to come into contact with it. He plans to use the artefacts to enslave the human race and manipulate them into developing technology to travel on to more worlds, transferring his spirit into new bodies. In the event of any vault personnel being compromised their life is to be considered disposable. We here about more artefacts still to be discovered…plastic daffodils (Terror of the Autons, a chess set (Curse of Fenric) or a grandfather clock (The Keeper of Traken?).

Audio Landscape: Decontamination, bubbling water cooler, automatic doors, clicking on a torch, fast forwarding Jo making the tea.

Standout Scene: The climactic scene where Morris links together his stories is a beaut. Kali Korash having used Tommy Watkins’ jacket to get into the UNIT vault and Ruth using the mirror to discover how Korash dies and then using the crystal to absorb his consciousness! Genius.

That Man Morris: I once referred to Morris as my modern day Robert Holmes and the more I hear his work the more impressed that I get. He has the ability to conjure up creative plots at the drop of a hat but also has a terrific grasp of character, can write with real pace, inject very funny humour and his dialogue is top notch too. Its hard not to turn reviews of his stories into love fests because he sets the bar high and very rarely disappoints. What impresses me with this releases is the versatility of the mans work because often with the strongest writers for this company you know what to expect and they deliver in spades (Rob Shearman is going to write something blackly funny, Nick Briggs a terrific action adventure, Simon Guerrier something creepy and atmospheric) but let’s take a look at the many styles and genres that Morris has turned his hand to very successfully. Nostalgia trips (Bloodtide & Hothouse), puzzles (Flip Flop, Cobwebs), companion introductions (The Haunting of Thomas Brewster), morality tales (The Cannibalists), comedy (Max Warp, The Beautiful People), dark fairy tales (The Eternal Summer), modern day entertainment (The Crimes of Thomas Brewster), character tales and historicals (The Glorious Revolution, The Curse of Davros), action adventure (Deimos/Ressurection of Mars), Lost Stories (The Guardians of Prophecy) and atmospheric chillers (The Spirit Trap, The Theatre of Dreams). He’s a superb writer that still gets me excited when his name turns up in the schedules because I find it synonymous with a high quality adventure. Big Finish are lucky to have him and I am glad they are exploiting his talent to the full.

Notes: There’s a lovely reference to the plot of the TV Movie at the millennium!

Result: I know they say that the imagination is limitless but it seems that Jonathan Morris is trying to prove that as a fact because no matter how many times Big Finish book him to write a story he always delivers something fresh, exciting and hugely inventive. The umbrella theme of visiting the UNIT archive and telling stories through the various artefacts we discover is memorable and exhilarating – who wouldn’t want the chance to explore this place? It’s a great premise to include as many different companions as possible and rather than looking at one tale in depth (which usually works very well for the companion chronicles but can sometimes be a little laboured) we get lots of little quirky vignettes that show off the various actors (Manning, Padbury, Tamm and Purves all excel themselves) but also allow Morris to include a manifest of wonderfully eccentric story ideas. In fact this would make a fantastic introduction to the companion chronicles if you wanted to test the waters because it features the best of the range - classic companion actors returning and pulling off their old roles superbly, character building narration, a fresh, modern take on some of their lives adding new depths and strong direction with great sound effects and music. The only thing that confuses me is the use of Daphne Ashbrook and Yee Jee Tso but they fulfil their roles with some relish so I can’t complain too much but I’m not sure what the reason for casting two TV Movie cast offs is beyond providing the story with some spectacle that it can’t really deliver (it would have been exquisite has Grace become a UNIT operative after her experiences with the eighth Doctor). Tales from the Vault is an impressive one off that isn’t trying to dig too deep but provide a massively entertaining ride which it does splendidly. With its anthology of succulent titbits and exposure of UNIT procedure I was bewitched by this unique tale and would certainly welcome a second visit to the vault at some point: 8/10


Tony Young said...

Good review. Loved the audio drama, but you must realize that Big Finish do not own the rights to use Grace Halloway and Chang.

Joe Ford said...

I do realise it but I don't understand it. Holding onto the rights to these characters seems daft because nobody else is going to do anything with them. Big Finish is the ideal opportunity to give this creative back alley a new lease of life. I would love to hear some audios with the eighth Doctor, Grace and Chang Lee

Anonymous said...

Fab review - but one quibble, you've misunderstood what they were saying at the start. The Angel of the North is not in London, it's in Gateshead (quiiiiiiite a way from London) Never mind!