Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The First Wave written by Simon Guerrier and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: Caught in the inevitable path of its own history, the TARDIS arrives on the planetoid Grace Alone, where the Doctor, Steven and Oliver expect to face their fate. What they don’t expect to find is a massacred crew – and a race of alien invaders known as the Vardans. When the Doctor is apparently killed, his companions attempt to survive against the odds. But those odds are narrowing. Their borrowed time has expired.

Aggressive Astronaut: At the thought of having lost the Doctor and trapped on an alien world, Steven is angry at how his end has finally arrived just like all the others they have lot. When talking about meddling about with time Steven sites the Battle of Hastings and building the Pyramids as two examples obviously recalling his recent adventures with a certain Monk. We’re in Steven’s time, more or less, so this is the perfect opportunity to find out more about the future that he comes from and he discusses the technology and architecture like he has never been away. He mentions that he has been taught by computers (which is a wonderfully sixties view of the future). Steven and Oliver are kindred spirits in the case of neither of them having anything to go home for. Everywhere they have gone people have died, he almost died in Troy and he feels guilt for Katarina’s death because she only came with them to save his life. Oliver’s enthusiasm is infectious and when his friend gives up Steven becomes the one who spurs them on and saves his life. Steven describes his skin as itching with horrid anticipation – that to me was a particularly adept description because who hasn’t felt like that at some stage of anxiety. In a moment of pure selflessness Steven orders Oliver to escape so he can send the message, he knows that his time has finally come just as he knew it always would. Once Steven had a menial job running equipment between the outer planets. It was a joy at first to be the pilot of your own ship but then the silence starts to eat at you, the drubbing routine, your whole life one long tick list. Instead he signed up and went to war to escape the monotony – he was ready to die just to do something different. That’s why he understands what the human traitor Halpen is going through, why he wants to help the Vardans to try and escape his mind-numbing life. He had been so angry when the Doctor felt triumphant at defeating the Daleks because of all the people they had lost along the way. Steven is gripped by guilt and horror at having survived again when another good friend has died. Oliver haunts the TARDIS and we experience the Doctor’s regeneration through his eyes, watching over the Doctor as he changes into his second life.

London Broker: Now it has been some time since The Cold Equations was released I feel compelled to discuss Oliver’s secret. What a fascinating idea it was to include a gay companion from the sixties – a secret that on its first reveal might seem a little underwhelming by today’s standards. Its only when you dig a little deeper and think about just how scared poor Oliver was about something that comes so naturally to himself that you realise how different the world was back then and how such a small like who you decide to fall in love with can define your entire life in a negative way. The thought of going on the run for being a man who fancies a man sounds outrageous but it really did happen and so it’s no surprise that Oliver takes the first opportunity he can to leap into the TARDIS and truly get away. My favourite moment in The Cold Equations comes when Oliver tentatively tells Steven about himself and the astronaut from the future just laughs and says ‘is that all?’ To Oliver it is a groundbreaking revelation and he is frightened at how his friend might react but for Steven it is a completely normal occurrence in the world of the future. It was gently, warmly played and the two angles the characters were coming from were brilliantly defined and deftly emotion. So now we know Simon Guerrier can have some fun throwing in the odd flirty comment (‘you’re such a romantic…’) or reference without ever dwelling on it. Its been an interesting ride over these three stories and it pains me to think it is coming to an end so quickly.

Oliver finds space weird and exhausting and asks if this is how mankind takes to the stars – bouncing along like marionettes! Aliens must laugh themselves silly! Oliver is the inexperienced newbie and that gives him a unique perspective, offering hope when Steven has given up. Its only through his sheer sense of will that Oliver drags Steven to the nearest way station. His deadpan reaction to where Steven first met the Doctor (‘in a city of giant robots’) is hilarious. Steven can take it for granted that they are on an alien planetoid but to Oliver it is magical, they make a good match in that respect because Oliver can shows Steven how much wonder is out there again. Oliver’s ‘you shouldn’t have let me sleep in’ to Steven is very cute. I love the way he condemns the Vardans and their sorry excuse for a plan to conquer all of time and space, saying is that all they managed to conjure up after a glance into the Doctor’s mind and what a wretched way to live that is! He calls them ‘stupid jumped up bits of crackling!’ He admits it wasn’t the Vardan that killed him – it was all his own stupid fault for running away from his problems back on Earth. His body comes apart and melts into the air and he felt a howling agony. He and the Vardan die together.

Hmm: More bad tempered than usual (cripes!), the Doctor is trying to get the TARDIS to a specific time and place. He has a furious, steely expression in his eye when he confronts the Daleks and Steven always fears that look. The Doctor is terrified of the Vardans exploring his thoughts and discovering the secrets of the TARDIS and the location of his home planet. Oliver has known the Doctor long enough to realise that he allowed them to take his life to give them time to stop the invasion of the Earth. He pulls at a thread and the Vardans come apart…nobody can outthink the Doctor even if he says so himself! Steven can see how fail the Doctor is getting, an old man rattling around in a box and on borrowed time. With some horror Oliver realises that the Doctor knew they were going to die here and he brought them anyway – that he thinks more about not altering history than something piffling like their lives. The audience realises the lengths the Doctor would go to and suddenly he stops being a doddery old man and becomes something much more terrifying.

Standout Performance: I’m so used to listening to Peter Purves’ stunning recreation of the first Doctor do you it wasn’t until I was two thirds into the story that I remembered that it wasn’t William Hartnell! It suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks! One day I would like to shake Purves’ hand, not only because he plays Steven with such depth of character but also for giving me the first Doctor back. What a superb actor. Tom Allen gives another strong performance and I’m secretly wishing he will back for more…somehow. Hurrah for the recognisable Lisa Bowerman who provides the voice of the Vardans. With a lowering of her natural tone she sounds like flat, menacing presence.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We can’t change history! We can’t! We pull at one thread and the whole carpet of history will come apart at our fingers!’
‘They listened to all our noise…
‘But they’ve watched hundreds of years of our programmes!’ ‘And think of the damage its done them!’ – what an awesome exchange!
‘It’s a pity. You’re rather magnificent like this…’

Great Ideas: Finding the names of the Doctor, Oliver and Steven on a list of criminals was a terrific ending in The Cold Equations but it hasn’t happened yet. Oliver suggests that they never go and had the Doctor listened to him then the tragic events that unfold would never have happened. The Doctor decides to cut corners and take the TARDIS straight to the asteroid and input their names himself rather than getting them in a whole lot of bother getting caught up in an adventure where that would be the result. Charred equipment and electrocuted bodies greet Steven and Oliver when they have look around – with crushing inevitability they are going to have get involved. I remember when Paul Cornell brought The Vardans back in his horrifically fanwanky novel No Future I wrote: I remember people were appalled when the big villains at the end of the mighty eighth Doctor arc turned out to be the Council of Eight. Okay, they were hardly thrill a minute but they were original and interesting. To end this arc we have the Meddling Monk joining forces with the Vardans using a Chronovore! This is who has been responsible for the troubles of the past four books? It’s not only unsatisfying…its irritating. Three of the most rubbishy monsters in Doctor Who history working together? What’s worse is that they all portrayed as being really stupid. The Monk just wants revenge, the Vardans couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery let alone an invasion of Earth and Artemis the Chronovore is manipulated into saving the day with a few clever phrases and then when she realises she has been tricked just decides to leave. Even thinking about it now it makes me shudder at how fannish and embarrassing it all was – I think there was even something called The Vardan Liberation Front or some such nonsense. Leave it to Simon Guerrier then to take this potentially ropey creations and give them a whole new lease of life on audio. The Vardans are described as three separate columns of light, the height of a man and made of twisting, crackling energy. He makes them a genuinely formidable force, concentrating on their abilities rather than the embarrassment fandom feels with their appearance in The Invasion of Time. A race composed of pure energy and able to move on any wavelength at the speed of thought. I love the fact that the Vardan reveal should be at the end of episode one – the way the Doctor announces their presence feels like a cliffhanging moment but there is far too much going on here to allow the monster reveal to claim that moment. Its frightening the way Guerrier explains how much noise we make in our transmissions and how they stretch across space and draw attention to the planet. The Vardans made sense of our transmissions, the voices of our long dead and curious and hungry they followed the signals back to their source. They have the ability to root around inside peoples heads. It comes down to the awful choice of having to send a signal to the Earth to warn them of the Vardans but as soon as they do the Vardans will know where they are like moths to a flame. I love the uncertainty of Steven’s plan too – if the signal reaches Earth we don’t even know if they will act on it or take it seriously. It’s a risky, desperate warning and upon its delivery it’s the ambiguity that we don’t know what the result is that really appeals to me. With the TARDIS the Vardans could conquer all of time and space and they want that above everything, even the Earth.

Audio Landscape: Walking on a gantry, feet on sands, howling wind, TARDIS hum, materialisation noise and the doors opening, steam hissing, the glorious electrifying tin foil crackle of the Vardans, Halpen screaming and becoming a Vardan, discordant interference when the Doctor gets involved, ringing phone, the TARDIS going nuts during the first Doctor’s regeneration.

Musical Cues: The momentum of the piano score as Steven explains about the Vardans is hair-raising. Just listen to the spine tingling music when Steven orders Oliver to get away before he sends the message – absolutely stunning. Fox and Yason are just the best.

Standout Scene: Another striking cliffhanger for the companion chronicles range, a moment of sheer euphoria as Oliver whips Steven into shape and convinces him that they have to save the Earth without the Doctor. It’s a triumphant moment for the character, signalling his departure. There’s a wonderfully emotive montage of Oliver’s finest moments in the trilogy that gave me goosebumps throughout. Oliver appearing to the Doctor before he regenerates is a fantastic shock moment, a phenomenal way to end his story.

Notes: Fascinatingly the Vardans learn the location of Gallifrey in The First Wave – this is probably where they put in motion their plan to invade the planet.

Result: As soon as I see that writers name next to that director with those musicians and I add in the words ‘first Doctor era’ I know I’m in for something very special. Some people might moan about the fact of two Simon Guerrier scripts in such close succession but when they are of the quality of The First Wave and The Memory Cheats that argument just doesn’t hold up. Oliver’s inclusion in the range has been a fascinating experiment of an all male TARDIS crew and a handling of some intriguing historical (and sexual) politics and my only issue with it has been that he did not have a longer run. Guerrier does a massive service to Doctor Who fans by bringing back the Vardans not as some ridiculous in joke but as a genuinely malevolent force that wants to subdue the planet. Their spine tingling electric crackle and blink of an eye powers really works on audio and they make an impressive enemy. Like all of Guerrier’s companion chronicles director Lisa Bowerman injects an unsettling atmosphere to the proceedings, a spell of anxiety that sets my teeth on edge waiting for the moment when everything goes wrong. What starts as a an investigation into their own involvement in this period ends with a futile race against time to prevent the Vardans from attacking the Earth and I was literally on the edge of my seat as the Doctor’s friends defied all the odds to oppose these flesh crawling nasties. There’s real momentum to The First Wave, wonderful dialogue and complex characterisation – its another masterpiece for season six. Simon Guerrier can write all of the chronicles for all I care if he can keep this standard up: 10/10

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