Sunday, 22 April 2012

Binary written by Eddie Robson and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s is about: A damaged alien computer is being guarded by UNIT troops, but the soldiers simply vanish…Usually the Brigadier would call in the Doctor – but on this occasion the Time Lord is being kept out of the loop. Instead, it’s up to Elizabeth Shaw to oversee the project to repair this alien technology, and recover the missing men. And then Liz vanishes too. Trapped inside the machine, Liz faces a battle for survival against a lethal defence system. And this time, she must save the day without the Doctor at her side…

Clever Scientist: Season seven is always considered something of a series high by fans of Doctor Who and its one instance when I am in absolute agreement with them. It’s a year that is consistently excellent (there’s nary a duffer amongst this lot) buoyed by some excellent production values, a gripping new shift in format, some clever stories and a gritting, realistic tone. However I also think that had Doctor Who continued in this vein it would have died a quick death but a few years later because the dour tone of season seven means that whilst I think that each story is something of a classic it is a season that I rarely re-visit simply because I have to be in the mood for something that unrelentingly adult. I head back and watch the Graeme Williams less regarded stories far more than I do Pertwee’s better regarded ones because I am far more in the mood for fun and frippery than I am for absolute seriousness. Having companion chronicles set during and after season seven is a real joy for several reasons. One is to give the year a little more colour and variance and the other is to give the lest represented and yet paradoxically one of the best companions, Liz Shaw, a chance to appear in more stories. Caroline John is one of my favourite actresses to have appeared in the series simply because she plays the role with such conviction and like Sarah Jane later Liz was no slouch when it came to having her own life to return to away from the Doctor. John made a real impression in her four televised stories and continues to do so in Big Finish today. Its another reason we should be grateful that the companion chronicles do what they do otherwise Liz Shaw would simply be a well remembered and yet distant memory and that would be a crime when she has so much to offer to a contemporary audience.

Liz promised not to tell the Doctor about this project on pain of prosecution under the Official Secrets Act and she hates it when UNIT waves that bloody thing about. Sadly mere mortals have to obey protocol. Lethbridge Stewart talks about Liz’s degrees as though her knowledge is a bad thing but she takes it as a compliment and realises he doesn’t know how much work is involved. It doesn’t help having the Doctor around because he is like the Professor who has read every novel ever written and you have to try and look as learned. She has spent her timer at UNIT playing second fiddle to him and that is a bit unfair considering she is the best in her field at meteorology. As soon as this task is over she is leaving UNIT and heading back to Cambridge. She knows it seems churlish to want to give up a job that allows her to explore whole new fields of sciences and pushes the limits of humanity’s knowledge but she wants time for proper research and not to just experience everything on the fly. UNIT makes you see things in a whole new way and doubt everything you know. She doesn’t believe in ghosts. When it comes to a choice between repairing the computer that could have catastrophic consequences for the planet or her death than the choice is obvious and she is prepared to make that sacrifice. The fact that the computer can make its own choice is why she is allowing it to do so. The events of this story teach Liz that she has a different perspective on things than anybody else in UNIT and that it might be in her best interests and especially in theirs that she continues working for them. Sometimes a decision just feels right.

Good Grief: If the Doctor knew about this project he would lobby for it to be shut down and when they ignored him he would sneak inside and smash it to pieces. They might try and lock him up but they would never succeed. He’s surprised that Liz has gotten involved in this project after everything that he has taught her. He is furious about her involvement but she explains that she has effectively freed a slave and he comes around to the idea…slowly.

Standout Performance: Caroline John battles with the remote tone of this story and it down to her strengths as an actress that Binary scores as highly as it does. There’s none of Liz’s usual warmth present that papers the icy scientific cracks in her personality and there a few moments when she is terrifyingly spiteful about the Doctor and the Brigadier. Its in those moments where the story scores most highly because it is something very new.

Great Ideas: The cover is very memorable not least because it has two very nice examples of UNIT hotties glaring smoulderingly out at you! The idea that Liz has been shrunk down inside the computer is intriguing and I wish something more imaginative could have been done with it. Learning that Liz is interacting with the computer and the failsafe makes for an unusual battle of wits for sure! The computer is alive and if Liz shuts it down it would be like a Doctor killing a patient.

Audio Landscape: The lack of immersive sound effects and music in the first scene is very effective in making you just listen to the actors and the dialogue. It makes Liz’s scathing condemnation of both the Doctor and the Brigadier that more effective because there is nothing distracting you from it. Unfortunately the episode never really gains much in the way of immersive sound effects or memorable music and plays out much more like a dramatic reading. The trouble with that is there isn’t enough of a story to keep the listener engaged and I found my mind wandering at some points where some strong music or distracting sound effects might have helped.
Isn’t it Odd: All the character stuff in the first episode is riveting but it is competing with the cold logic of technobabble that comes with two characters trying to reactivate a computer that is nowhere near as interesting. Liz and Child’s make their way through the alien landscape but since they both seem like old hands at this sort of thing and there isn’t any great danger it feels more like a stroll through a garden than the oppressive, extraterrestrial landscape it could have been. The trouble with all the theorising is that the story never quite wants to settle on where they are what the purpose of the computer and the transportation device is. None of the theories are even especially original. I think I have been listening to the companion chronicles for too long now but it is easy to spot when a character isn’t quite what he seems to be and the revelation that Childs is a projection of the computer didn’t surprise me in the slightest. When he turned up so suddenly at the beginning of the story I suspected as much. I certainly hope that there isn’t a formula developing or predictability is creeping into the range. Given the strength of the first half of season six I am prepared to believe this is a one off. As soon as Childs disappears and Foster is returned it is clear they are one and the same. The fact that Liz has been interacting with two elements of a computer might go someway to explaining why this story feels as inexpressive as it does. It’s a fascinating idea but with regards to entertainment perhaps not a wise one to realise. The epiphany that Liz reaches in Binary that perhaps her time with UNIT isn’t quite over is pleasing but considering the depth of ill feeling she expresses early in the play I don’t think what she experiences in this tale is enough o have changed her mind so completely. It makes even her mind seem like a computer that can be quickly reprogrammed to change its mind so suddenly.

Result: ‘You’re just a machine!’ An oddly distant companion chronicle and a rare misfire for the range, Binary suffers from a story that has far too much detail in wrong places (there’s plenty of cold science) and too little detail in others (especially with regards to the soundscape which is minimalist and unmemorable). Caroline John is always worth listening to and Eddie Robson tries to engage by dealing with the point where Liz decides that she is going back to Cambridge but it gets lost somewhere in the not very interesting mystery of the alien computer that never feels as if it is leading anywhere exciting. The result is an oddly unbalanced piece which feels as though it should work far better than it does (especially with the Doctor turning up and guiding Liz through the alien ship – these scenes should have been gripping but they feel as plodding as everything else here). Season seven stories are vast sprawling epics packed with fascinating characters and danger but Binary feels far too focussed and small scale to be a part of the same year of portmanteau storytelling. I went into this with high expectations because I always find John a delight but ultimately came away unfulfilled. The answers we get are actually quite satisfying but the journey to get to them is far from it and when the scales are going to be tipped in only one direction or the other I would prefer it to be the latter. Next time ditch the science and focus more on the characters – when you have a crabby companion (Liz’s feelings towards the Doctor and UNIT are at their nastiest here) and a logic based mystery it makes for a cold and unengaging experience: 5/10

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