Monday, 21 May 2012

The Guardians of Prophecy written by Jonathan Morris (based on a story by Johnny Byrne) and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The TARDIS materialises on Serenity, the last surviving world of the Traken Union. Peri expects it’s a good place for a holiday – not tomb raiders, a labyrinth filled with terrifying monsters and a trap-laden necropolis. For Serenity’s gentle name belies its history as the home planet of the Melkur, soldiers designed to serve a long dead dark force, the embodiment of evil itself. Whilst they sleep, vicious thieves are after this forces secrets, and will stop at nothing to find them. But will they find more than they bargained for?

Softer Six: I don’t think Colin Baker could ever play the Doctor quite as viciously as he did back in the eighties again because he has made such improvements to the role going back to a time when he was less loved seems like a mistakatomaka. Since these stories are set between Revelation of the Daleks and Trial of a Time Lord that isn’t really a problem anyway because he had already made the conscious decision to add some gentle humour and warmth to his portrayal at that point so this is a natural extension of that. Regardless there is still a touch of that acerbic nasty here that I rather like and one of the first lines that comes out of his mouth is ‘Nice? Nice? Nice?’ harking back to season 22. Can you imagine a planet more suited to the sixth Doctor than one of pure theatre such as this where he gets the opportunity to indulge in long wordplay, grab his lapels grandly and make bold speeches about evil and good? The most grandiloquent of Doctor’s has found his home from home! What I love about Colin Baker’s work with Big Finish is that he has exposed a similar sort of skill that his namesake proved time and again on TV (and yet Tom has oddly lost this ability in later years in his audio work) and that is managing to make any material no matter how convoluted or outrageous sound very real and plausible. He manages to convey the threat of any given situation with some dramatic flair, can reel off expository dialogue entertainingly as though he is delivering a speech at a wedding and gives every story he appears in a real sense of momentum and importance. There are no sub par performances from this guy. That’s why he’s my favourite audio Doctor.

This part of the galaxy holds bad memories for the Doctor and for once he doesn’t want to hang around. He doesn’t want to go into detail as to why the Traken Union has been reduced to nothing. The Doctor should know better than to say that Peri will hopefully never have to find out what a Melkur is…the next thing you know the TARDIS is shooting towards the planet on a crash course! Poetic as ever, he thinks the necropolis has a kind of melancholic beauty. He concocts and argument of logic that if he is to be executed for trespassing on forbidden land so should the guard that arrested him! The Doctor’s reaction to being handed down the severest execution the planet can bestow is ‘I’m honoured.’ You’ve gotta love this guy. He’s smart enough to realise that he was never walking to his death and the labyrinth set is a big con organised by Prophecy. He is extremely humbled that a being as old and as powerful as Prophecy was willing to sacrifice her life in order to save his and delivers one of his beautiful poetic odes: ‘So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak to one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and the silence.’ Colin Baker has a way of delivering these haunting passages and Longfellow sounds like nectar on his tongue. The Doctor is on cheeky form when he confronts Mallador and suggests that he heads back to sleep in his sarcophagus and activates the snooze button until the Melkur are ready to be activated! How like the Doctor to admire a thief with a reputation like Ebbko and has always wanted to know how he stole the Carteseum crown jewels! He relishes the chance to talk to him and salivates at the chance to watch the grand master at work…it makes sense for somebody who has been locked up as much as the Doctor to admire the handiwork of somebody who is adept at extraditing themselves from such situations! Time Lords are always told to never share their technologies with psychotic half mummified corpses! Mallador probes deep into the Doctor’s consciousness to amplify his dark feelings of guilt and torment, to discover how many lives have been lost at his hands. When Mallador suggests an alliance to rid the universe of Gallifrey and the Time Lords vainglorious interference I bet there was a small part of his mind that welcomed the idea.

Busty Babe: Peri always seems to be on the lookout for a holiday destination but thanks to her close proximity to the Doctor they never quite live up their promise! As usual with the these pre-televised adventures (even ones which are trying to emulate the series) Peri is given a stronger role than we are used to and teaming her up with grave robbers gives her the opportunity to stand on her own two feet again. Again this does fit in rather well with its period since Peri teams up with Glitz and Dibber in The Mysterious Planet and Ycarnos in Mindwarp to great effect. When Peri scoffs at the idea of a government by the people for the people it sounds like she has learnt a great deal from the political structure in America. One thing that became more and more apparent as the story progressed was that whilst Peri is clearly an incidental character to the story (she is there to react rather than get involved) she and the Doctor are clearly a team. There is none of this overdone sniping at each other that plagued season 22’s stories but a quiet mutual respect and companionship. When things get dicey and she insists that she is coming with him to watch his back he knows better than to argue with her. She asks ‘will I ever see you again Doctor?’ when she knows that he is going to sacrifice himself to Serenity. This taps into the emotion of their relationship, that these two have been through a really rough patch and come out the other side with very strong feelings for each other. She has to be the one to activate the labyrinth and kill him. How could she live with that?

Standout Performance: It pleases me to hear Stephen Thorne turning up in a recreation of a classic series lost adventure and lending his inconsiderable vocal talents to the vital role of Mallador. When the Doctor suggested this was the embodiment of evil I didn’t think it would be quite as fulsomely realised as it is here but every line that Thorne speaks is like a distillation of malevolence and loathing. It was great fun recognising Graham Cole’s voice too who was a large part of my formative years in The Bill and actually did appear in Doctor Who at the time (I believe he was a Cyberman in Earthshock). This is a character that is entirely disconnected from the events on Serenity and someone who the Doctor admires greatly so Ebbko could happily hop over to the main range for a post-Prophecy appearance or two! He’s a rougish criminal like Glitz and Cole shares great chemistry with Baker so it might be nice for the Doctor to share an adventure or two with this rough’n’ready thief! ‘I remember there was this one time on…’ What a shame that that wasn’t to be…

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Dead men don’t give answers!’
‘That is merely a story we tell errant children!’ ‘It is a warning from history that you ignore at your peril!’
‘Within these tunnels the currents of past, present and future collide and fracture…’
‘Your brothers in evil will feast upon the banquet of death I will provide!’ – villains just don’t get lines like that any more!
‘A whole world without conscience?’
‘Be nice to each other…’

Great Ideas: At this point in history a new Union has risen in the place of Traken with at its heart the world of Serenity and has survived for over a thousand years under the rule of the Elect. It was the only planet of the Traken Union to survive the Master’s tyrannical grasp. There is knowledge held in the sacred reliquary that could return the Union to the evil of the time before prophecy. The early scenes have a definite Keeper of Traken feel to them with the squabbling and politicking between the Council members and dark undertones brewing under the peaceful surface. It is also a while before the Doctor and Peri get involved in the action which is another authentic touch of the era. There are some immediately engaging ideas present – I especially love the mythological horror of a labyrinth with creatures inside that will eat you alive. The Doctor quickly mentions the fairytale atmosphere of the place and there’s a lovely Grimm gag thrown in. I loved the art deco menace of the Melkur in The Keeper of Traken (a sight to behold towering over the Doctor and Peri on the cover of this release) and the image of them filling a garden is one to take your breath away. For years Serenity has been subjugated to the will of a machine, it is only through Prophecy that the Elect maintain their power. What is trying to achieve is the end of the rule of the aristocracy and the beginning of the revolution. Prophecy is currently providing a protective shield of goodness around Serenity, paralysing the Melkur creatures. Mallador’s infamy stretches even to the world of the Time Lords which in the form of a story that they tell their errant children. He is an immortal being, utterly indestructible and pure, unadulterated evil. According to the story the ancients were unable to kill him imprisoned him in a stasis field and locked him for an eternity into a single instant of time. If Prophecy is switched off the energy will be injected into the remains of Mallador because it is his tomb that she derives her energy from. It will result in a great big wake up call for a stultifyingly evil force. Within the tunnels of the labyrinth the energy that is generated by Prophecy’s power source is converted into currents of pure time that in turn create the energy that she exercises her power. I’ve gone boss eyed trying to figure out the logic of that but the idea of a catacombs being swamped with different currents of time is potent. The collision of these time waves causes dimensional fracture that allows extra dimensional lifeforms to gain entry into this domain - beings from the time vortex! That’s even more exciting! When she dies Prophecy ages to death before her subjects screaming of the return of Mallador. They are twin aspects of the same force – no Mallador then no Prophecy and vice versa. He is responsible for the Melkur creatures, they are his sleeping army amongst the stars. I’ve always associated the Melkur with the Master because that was the form his TARDIS took in The Keeper of Traken so it is fantastic to see the creatures as a malevolent force in their own right, marching through the city and murdering the populace. Imagine the worst feelings that you can; blind hatred, terror, jealousy – those feelings leave a psychic residue that can be absorbed, stored, amplified and then fed back into your consciousness. Brrr, scary! We get to experience Mallador forcing Augur‘s spite, loss and rejection to consume him until he is literally begging to be killed. If it has ever bugged you that the Doctor and company are saved in the nick of time from a cliffhanging scenario at the beginning of the next episode then the opening scene of part four might please you as it cleverly plays out the same cliffhanging scene but from the point of view of the villain off screen who orders a reprieve for a good reason. When the Doctor suggests that his plan could result in the destruction of Serenity it does hold some weight because that is exactly the same fate that befell Traken. That man Morris is a clever bastard…I thought he had thrown in the vortex creatures simply to put another engaging idea into the pot but he was waiting to use them to dispatch Mallador at the climax. Nicely done.

Audio Landscape: Rock sliding, heavy wooden doors opening, applause, alarm, the TARDIS console fizzing as they are dragged down to the planet, crickets in the evening breeze, the flowing fountain, creating a warp in the field, robot sentinel (JNT would have loved this!), crunching on gravel, phosphor globes, growling creatures in the labyrinth, Prophecy dying sounds like the Source from Traken, Prophecy’s dying scream and explosion, electrifying deaths, the terrifying voices of the Melkurs, their laser eyes, screams, an explosion resulting in rubble strewn everywhere, crows screaming, the sea lapping at the shores, birdsong, a babbling brook.

Musical Cues: You’ll feel that you have literally stepped right back into the eighties when you hear the incidental music for The Guardians of Prophecy. It manages that glorious Peter Howell/Paddy Russell skill of managing to sound melodic and dramatic whilst at the same time relishing its synthetic approach. The Lament of the Melkur is a memorable baritone that has been tweaked electronically and signals their activation when the time comes.

Standout Scene: There’s a fascinating discussion of morality between the Doctor and Mallador during the climax that marks him out as far more than just another dreary Doctor Who villain. Mallador was not always a creature of darkness, once he was capable of acts of both good and evil but he realised he was a prisoner of his conscience. He was held captive by guilt and compassion and so chose to have them surgically removed, considering them an unnecessary limitation that prevented free will. The very idea of acting without fear, remorse or empathy is terrifying – you could murder and terrorise at your leisure without the slightest moral consequence. That is the gift he offers his followers.

Notes: If you like this you might also like Lance Parkin’s Primeval which is much gentler affair that takes place on Traken before it was destroyed and sees Nyssa come home to her lost planet.

Result: ‘From what I recall from the legends they say that when Mallador ruled Serenity it was as if a great shadow was cast over the land. A world in perpetual darkness! A pandemonium of madness, cruelty and endless suffering…’ This is my kind of Lost Story! Its not only a faithful recreation of its era with effortless characterisation of the regulars, a persistent but catchy score and plenty of set pieces but it is also a terrifically engaging story that flaunts some evocative ideas and imagery. It’s a story that conjures up a lustfully exciting planet featuring landscapes such as a city of the dead necropolis, a labyrinth bursting with horrors and a prison housing a creature from the bedtime horror stories of the Time Lords. The first two episodes are mostly set up but they aren’t simply exposition - there is a feeling that the story is building up to something special as we explore the planet and its mythology. Such emphasis is placed on the terrifying consequences of Prophecy dying the end of episode two is one of the most exciting cliffhangers the Lost Stories have offered us yet. Its another win for Ken Bentley who has assembled a very strong cast and seems to relish the chance to bring such a theatrical piece to life. As mentioned the musical score is utterly authentic to the era whilst remaining dramatic and exciting and the soundscape for Serenity is to die for. If a sign of a great Doctor Who story is a strong Doctor and a strong villain then Prophecy scores on that count too with Colin Baker and Stephen Thorne triumphing in their roles and both benefiting from strong characterisation in Jonathan Morris’ generous script. There’s enough to remind you of The Keeper of Traken to feel satisfied (dungeons, Melkur and politics) but The Guardians of Prophecy builds up a mythology all of its own and winds up being far more epic and dramatic than Byrne’s debut story. This could happily have been made at the time because it is a coup of evocative ideas over a blockbusting budget and that (for me) was the classic series’ winning formula. A delight to listen to: 9/10

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Absolutely fantastic review. Thanks.