Saturday, 17 March 2012

The Wrath of Iceni written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Britain. The height of the Roman occupation. The Doctor has brought Leela to ancient Norfolk to learn about her ancestors… but has no idea how much of an education she is going to get. Because this is the time of Boudica’s rebellion. When the tribe of the Iceni rises up and attempts to overthrow the Roman masters. As Leela begins to be swayed by the warrior queen’s words, the Doctor has to make a decision: save his friend… or save history itself?

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor expressing his admiration for Noel Coward’s brave attitude towards life feels very right on. If he wants Leela to learn about her ancestors it is better to do it in person, to use his time machine to continue her education. This Higgins/Doolittle angle has really been stressed this season and I’m pleased as it was an original approach to the Doctor/companion dynamic that was dropped in the fifteenth season. If there is one thing that he thinks is truly evil on the Earth it is Morris dancers, they are right up there with the Daleks (nice, subtle mention before their return next month) and the Cybermen. There’s a wonderfully quiet aside the Doctor makes about not being able to let Leela go and I wasn’t sure if he meant that he couldn’t because he feels responsible for her savage nature now or because he had grown too attached but it was very intriguing in either direction. They are wandering wayfarers wending their weary way! Its clear that Tom Baker’s strength on audio lies in his eccentricity because he sounds a lot more comfortable expressing himself as a fool (‘hey nonny nonny honk honk!’) than he does a dramatic character but to his credit he has a good stab at engaging with the tougher material. Interesting to see the ‘wherever I lay my hat that’s my home’ fourth Doctor wanting to leave as soon as possible due to the upcoming slaughter. He describes himself as Doctor ‘of no fixed abode.’ He does hate a set menu, even in history! Of course he would stop the massacre if he could. When the Doctor quietly ponders on whether he can save one life, if not make an impact on the massacre that is to come it is a fine dramatic statement but its one that we have heard in The Aztecs (‘you did save one man…’) and The Fires of Pompeii (‘just someone please…it doesn’t have to be anybody important…’). Its such a shame that familiarity should hamper the story and to somebody who doesn’t know Doctor Who inside out it wouldn’t make a difference…but Big Finish is a niche product only purchased by fans who understand this series inside out (or at least I presume they do) so this reworking of old ground will lack the impact of something truly original. I love the idea of the Doctor as a doomsaying prophet, it worked in The Masque of Mandragora and it works here. What doesn’t is his odd flippancy and parlour games whilst he is locked up, for once you wish he would stop trying to be witty and take the situation serious on the outside. His distraction technique pretending to be the sort of man who is hired to test the ability of the guards by being captured and escaping is very funny. Leela saved her life and he feels inclined to return the favour.

Noble Savage: ‘This is wrong!’ There is so much dramatic and comic potential in Leela that she is pretty much the ideal Doctor Who companion. Social and verbal misunderstandings are what made her such a joy in The Talons of Weng-Chiang and here she is similarly funny when she dismisses Noel Coward because she sees his surname as a badge of dishonour. She understands the sounds of warfare when she hears them and will not be restrained by the Doctor – her independence and refusal to be disciplined is one of the things that really makes her stand out. She charges in a saves Boudica with no nerves and at one point no knife, killing indiscriminately to save the life of what she thinks is an innocent woman. A warrior woman whose family were tortured and whose people were oppressed – Boudica’s spec is that of Leela’s when we first met her in The Face of Evil so it is easy to see why she was so taken by her story and so readily joins her cause. She genuinely believes that Boudica has suffered gravely at the hands of an invader and deserves justice and because it is the Doctor who has told her this story she has no doubt to its veracity. His cold reaction to her willingness to get involved makes her question her relationship with him and what little she understands of his character. Leela finds Boudica’s cause just and pledges herself to serve her. She firmly believes the Doctor is on the side of right, even if she doesn’t agree with his impotence here. Its almost a shame that we learn that Leela’ threats to torture the Doctor were all a ruse so she could pass him her knife and escape because that would genuinely be pushing the series into new territory. And Leela is the one companion that I could believe in that sort of development of. Just flirting with the idea is exciting but the story should have embraced it. Her message was to tell the Doctor to go and to leave her here, that she has made her choice and she will stick by it. Even with her doubts, Leela is an honourable woman who will stand by her pledges. When she finally refuses to fight it is a moment of triumph, turning on Boudica and condemning her for her bloodlust. Her name means nothing because she needs no portents to aid her fight. You get the sense that he fight with Boudica is the most important one of Leela’ s life because she is literally fighting the woman she once was (a mindless savage lost to violence). She will either die or emerge victorious as a stronger, conscience stricken warrior.

Standout Performance: Louise Jameson is such an astonishing actress and she is perfect to bring juicy material like this to life. Is this the only example of the companion giving consistently better performances than the Doctor. Certainly not for Big Finish – I genuinely believe that Philip Olivier is ten times the actors that Sylvester McCoy is. Jameson grabs this opportunity with both hands and gives Leela’s journey here a real shot of emotion. Her instincts and her loyalty are torn in different directions and she what she is left with is a conscience that will not be satisfied whichever way she jumps. When she finally confronts Boudica on the battlefield Jameson was so riveting I had goosebumps. In comparison Tom Baker does his damdest to appear business as usual in some scenes (and I don’t buy that as a ‘Doctor under pressure trying maintain his spirits’) which guts them of their dramatic potential. I found his flippancy during the scenes where Leela and Boudica visit him in prison to be especially damaging to the tone of the piece. However his quiet pondering in episode is excellent, you get a real feeling that he is an age old traveller who is tired of always doing what is right. And yet his ‘I’ll say what I like you verminous, flocculent, prophetic mongrel…’ is appallingly delivered – the Doctor sounds bored rather than angry! Also a huge round of applause to Ella Kenion, who I have seen in various comedy shows over the past few years (including the legendary Catherine Tate Show) and it is fantastic to listen to her grapple with something meatier and more dramatic. It would take an actress in a million to clash with Louise Jameson's Leela and come out of the scrap with their dignity (and scalp) intact and Kenion proves more than up to the task.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Money is the best way to subdue a population…’ ‘Invasion by gold?
‘And Rome claimed to be a cultured civilisation…’
‘We all have our treasons!’
‘Hangman? Possibly a little portentous in the circumstances…’
‘If it is my destiny then telling me cannot alter it.’
Let us ride into history!
‘He’s as dead as a Dodo is! Or going to be…in about 600 years.’

Great Ideas: Dorney gets things off to a great start by shaping the story as a historical myth and dressing the Doctor up as an vital figure in this tale. The Wrath of Iceni isn’t afraid to show (or rather portray) real violence that goes far beyond anything that even Philip Hinchcliffe would have been able to show and it gives the story a genuine threat. I honestly believe that Tom Baker’s strength lies in his ability to narrate so skilfully these days (its what makes his Target readings such a revelation) and when he recounts the tale of Boudica’s past he is so much more relaxed and absorbing – when he makes the suggestion that her daughters were raped he just stops and the silent is more frightening than any words that Dorney could have put into his mouth. The Doctor being forced to tell Boudica about her defeat because a life is threatened holds up a pleasing mirror to a scene in Genesis of the Daleks. Here he betrays the past whereas there he betrayed the future.

Audio Landscape: Crackling fire, walking over twigs and bramble, marching, footsteps in mud, a horse screaming, stabbing and thrusting, a beheading, chopping, cooking, gunfire, spears piercing the air, swords unsheathed, clashing steel.

Musical Cues: Fox & Yason take up the reins from Jamie Robertson and are typically superb in this biting piece of drama, punctuating the seriousness of the piece with some bombastic stings and dramatic momentum. The score gets more insistent as the story progresses.

Isn’t it Odd: Despite Ella Kenion’s strong performance I found Boudica to be something of a bore. I get that the writer was trying to offer as honest a portrayal as possible by not making the character sympathetic but without a personal stake in her welfare I simply couldn’t engage with her. It felt as if there was a yawning distance between what she was fighting for and what I cared about – all my sympathies were with Leela in this tale and I’m not sure if the story had the full impact it should have because of it. In The Aztecs you feel for Barbara because she is trying to do the right thing but you also feel for Autloc because he is being misled – in Iceni its fascinating to see how Leela sees a kindred spirit in Boudicca but the great lady herself is so harshly portrayed and discomfortingly violent towards all it is hard to see how Leela (who has always shown a protective side towards the defenceless) would empathise. The trouble is I’m not sure this could have been written in any other way without mischaracterizing the warrior queen so perhaps another conflict should have been chosen to explore Leela’s journey. There are certainly plenty of wars to choose from and ones with famously wrong historical figures! When the Doctor starts going on about history being recorded fact and that they cannot interfere its like playing back an old record from the Hartnell era…there is nothing new added to the mix as Leela is seduced by the idea of making a difference.

Standout Scene: It is something of a moment of triumph for Leela to be standing in the midst of battle and death and to be appalled at the slaughter of old men, the infirmed and those that cannot fight back. You get a real sense that her bloodlust has been tempered by a conscience which has been nurtured by the Doctor and that whilst she hasn’t diminished as a warrior (indeed the Doctor’s harebrained adventures see that she gets much practice) she earned herself a soul. This entire season would be worth making just for Leela’s epiphany in this story.

Result: A dramatic tale that deserves applause for giving the fourth Doctor and Leela the sort of material they were denied on television but loses impact by covering some familiar ground with regards to the series. Louise Jameson gives a Doctor Who career best in The Wrath of Iceni and whilst Tom Baker is very good in some scenes he once again seems a little discordant and out of tune with the material as he was in Destination: Nerva, although nowhere near to the same extent. What really works is how the period of history chosen is so pleasingly tailored to Leela and generating tension between her and the Doctor and yet I found myself distanced from the tale because it wasn’t a period of history I was familiar with and nothing presented here made me want to learn more. Direction and dialogue are both top notch and you certainly couldn’t argue with how the material is presented, some scenes are so viciously presented you will be left reeling from the impact. It’s a tale that managed to thrill and frustrate but its definitively pushing the Doctor and Leela into new territory, if not the series and that can only be for the good of this range. A mixed bag then but erring on the side of excellent for the most part and fans of Jameson and those who want to see some riveting development of Leela have to seek this out: 8/10


Unknown said...

This was the very best of this series and stands up to many relistenings. So brilliant that it is a pure historical.

David Pirtle said...

Well this happens to be one of my favorite periods in history, and getting a DW historical about it is a delight. I agree with the solid score you gave it, and it's one of Leela's very best across the franchise. It's not the type of story I'd want to hear her in every week, mind.