Monday, 23 April 2012

The Wanderer written by Richard Dinnick and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: Siberia at the end of the 19th Century, and the TARDIS arrives just as a shooting star hurtles to the ground. With it comes an illness that affects the Doctor and Susan, and knowledge that must not fall into the wrong hands. With his friends either dying or lost, Ian Chesterton must save the future and win the ultimate prize – a way home to 1963…

Science Teacher: When you look back at the original line up of character you can see how carefully crafted they are as a team. Whilst An Unearthly Child appears to have haphazardly thrown these four people together it is in fact a rock solid family unit (you can see that as far back as episode one of The Daleks with the four of them huddled together and looking at the city in the distance) where each of the characters has something different to offer. History teacher Barbara, maternal and spiky. The anti hero Doctor with a blistering intelligence and sulky mood swings. Susan, the child who can prove surprisingly mature and emotional at certain points. And Ian, the science teacher and protector of them all. As each story progresses and they reveal more of each other you can understand why these four were chosen to kick start the series and how much drama (and comedy) can be channelled through them. When it comes to the companion chronicles there is a wealth of dramatic potential waiting to be tapped and with William Russell and Carole Ann Ford both on top form (check out The Transit of Venus, The Rocket Men, Farewell Great Macedon and Here There Be  Monsters) they have proven (along with the other first Doctor adventures featuring Steven and Sara Kingdom) to be the pinnacle of the range. Russell makes every word count when he performs a dramatic reading and at some points in this story he quite took my breath away.

Ian never thought of himself as much of wanderer because was too attached to home, to England; taking walks, going to the flicks or the pub. He liked the familiar and the comforting. It seems so tantalisingly close to be only sixty years away from their own time and halfway around the world. As Grigory tells the traveller all about his life Ian listens and absorbs the information, there is a respect there that vanishes with some of the later companions in Doctor Who’s run. Ian and Barbara fear that they are going to go completely mad like Susan. Something that was often neglected in the series was Ian’s scientific knowledge so its nice to see him once again engaging with alien science (attention was drawn to this in The Rocket Men also) and he is more than up to keeping up with the Doctor’s complex notes on the device. When Ian tells Grigory that he has seen the Earth’s past and its future he sounds like some kind of elemental and his friends scepticism is quite understandable. He knew such things were impossible himself until he met the Doctor and experienced them.

Bouffant Babe: Barbara considers a near miss a good thing, it means they are getting closer and closer to home with each passing adventure. Like the Doctor had companionship from Susan, Ian had companionship from somebody who understood and cared for him.

Alien Orphan: Like an animal, as if she has lost all reason, Susan tears through the cabin and runs off. I had forgotten how terrifying this alien orphan can be.

Hmm: The ultimate wanderer treating distant planets and the Earth’s past alike. Listen to the way that William Russell so effusively portrays the Doctor as he approaches the towns people and reminds us of what a charming rogue William Hartnell could be in the role. The very idea of the landing in such an isolated, dangerous location and having the Doctor stricken by an unknown agule is ripe for good drama. What’s fascinating about the Doctor’s reaction to Grigory’s knowledge of the future is that it matches the intensity and fury of that of The Aztecs. He calls Grigory an opportunistic thief that has stolen knowledge he has no right to have. The Doctor always knows and had full knowledge of who Grigory was from the very beginning.

Standout Performance: With William Russell and Tim Chipping both giving such passionate performances the result drama is breathtaking at times.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘When you see the history of this planet the Doctor is woven through the tapestry of time!’
‘We are time travellers! We have seen the future and the past! We have learnt that history is not as robust as historians would have us believe! That it hangs by a very slender thread – a cobweb! Nothing more! The wrong kind of breeze will unsettle it.’

Great Ideas: More than any other era the first three seasons of Doctor Who makes me think of limitless possibilities and careless ambition. It was a time when the show had no formula and made up ways of telling stories as it went along be it past, present or future. It was a time when the production team would think nothing trying to reproduce the Himalayas or an alien world in cramped overlit studios and when the actors were so good at their jobs you were taken away on terrifying adventures just through the brevity of their performances. So when I read ‘Siberia at the end of the 19th Century…’ at the beginning of the blurb for this tale it means I can see picture perfectly how this would have been realised at the time with chilly hand rubbing, fur coats, plenty of polystyrene and some convincing performances. At any other point in the shows history I might have though ‘how would they begin to realise that?’ but not during the first Doctor’s tenure. They were pioneers and would have seen it as a challenge.

The idea of setting aside the very concept of home to wander the land is an appealing one that everybody must have felt at some point in their lives. Unlike many of the first Doctor’s adventures The Wanderer comes with its own portent of doom in the shape of a shooting star to mark their arrival in this time. I love the way that Grigory spills out his entire life history and belief structure to Ian on their vigil because it really reminds me of Doctor Who’s educational remit at the time and sounds like a similar speech to that of Marco Polo upon his introduction in the season one classic. The device that is causing all this bother is an intelligence gatherer like a spy sent behind enemy lines. It is detecting and recording the Earth’s future. Proving that just because they come from a time that is considered more primitive than ours historical characters are in no way stupid, Grigory figures out that the others were stricken because touching the machine causes an absorption of information about humanity’s future. With his knowledge of the future it is nice how Grigory can then tell Ian all about the aliens that have returned for the device and how they invaded the Earth in the future. The primitive and the prophet have exchanged places. The Doctor uses the TARDISes telepathic circuits to remove the knowledge from Grigory’s foreknowledge.

Audio Landscape: Biting winds, birdsong, the unnerving whine of a shooting star, the hum of the TARDIS console room, horse and cart clattering along a rocky path, dog barking, bubbling, the burbling of the scanner, lapping waters, terrifying alien voices, metallic bands locking in place, a big splash as the device sinks under water, the TARDIS going doolally.

Musical Cues: The music makes an instant impression with some impressively emotive piano playing introducing Ian to the audience. Throughout Andrew Edwards excel with regards to his engaging soundtrack and sound effects. Big Finish continues to pioneer the best in audio talent.

Standout Scene: The cliffhanger is astonishing primarily because of the intensity of Russell and Tim Chipping’s performances. The script affords Grigory a vastly intelligent moment and then tops that with a terrible choice and Lisa Bowerman’s direction rises to a dramatic crescendo. Everybody involved is on top form during this cliffhanging scene and as Doctor Who history comes pouring out Grigory’s mouth I had goosebumps running right up and down my body. Outstanding. The sudden reveal of Grigory’s true identity comes as a massive shock – perhaps others were better off to guess this before it is exposed but I had no idea and it left my jaw hanging.

Notes: Grigory offers a list of future foes to the Earth that would play out throughout the series subsequent years including denizens from hell, soldiers from distant worlds and home spun foes, plastic people, men of metal, creatures of carbon, silicon and calcium, Egyptian Gods, werewolves, ghosts and vampires.

Result: Proving that Record Time and Other Stories was a great way to discover new talent; Richard Dinnick’s first solo story is a wonderful piece which continues the magical run of first Doctor companion chronicles. I like how nothing is rushed in this story which is very faithful to the era and the slow burn tension in the first episode as the Doctor falls ill and Susan goes mad sees the schoolteachers trapped in an isolated location with an ever encroaching danger. An alien intelligence gathering machine falling to Earth and glowing figures in the Siberian woods coming to claim it back…The Wanderer has a beautiful menace all of its own. The story is brought to life by William Russell so immediately that it has a maturity and passion that some of the other readings lack and he proves adept at bringing each of the four travellers to life with some empathy. Tim Chipping is certainly no slouch either and its been a little while since we have seen a pairing of actors quite this strong. Events takes a pleasing detour in the second episode and manages to invert the danger of The Aztecs with the Doctor is just as scared of somebody from the past being able to manipulate the future as he was about somebody from the future being able to manipulate the past. There is a powerhouse twist in the second episode that absolutely floored me and left me banging my head on the desk for not realising it – after a similarly pleasurable surprise at the climax of The Memory Cheats this range is proving the one to leave your jaw hanging! There’s no part of The Wanderer that isn’t firing on all cylinders and it’s the second Ian led companion chronicle to reach such a piquant high this season: 9/10

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To me this is the one Companion Chronicle with Ian that feels in no way like a story from the era it is supposed to evoke. The characters are fairly well done but I can't imagine a story about alien invasions and devices reading the future in season 1. The Doctor also has far more control over the TARDIS then he really should and only so that they could have the reveal of the identity of "the wanderer" which they could have easily done elsewhere IMHO. I felt that the aliens especially got in the way. If they had to have the sci-fi elements I think that just the element of the device giving Rasputin foreknowledge was drama enough and would have liked to explore that further.