Thursday, 5 July 2012

A Death in the Family written by Steven Hall and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: ‘The future folds into the past. The homeless hero has fallen. Now begins the time of three tales: The tale of the Herald, The Tale of the Hidden Woman and The Tale of the Final Speaker. When the last tale is told, the lights shall fail. The World will end…’ 21st Century London, Nobody No-One, the extra dimensional Word Lord, is again running amok. Only this time, he’s unbeatable – and a terrible tragedy is about to unfold…

The Real McCoy: Somewhere along the line the 7th Doctor stories have improved exponentially (I would say it was somewhere around The Magic Mousetrap but I’m sure people would beg to differ) so that they have started producing material that is finally bringing something very special out of Sylvester McCoy. Something for him to really get his teeth into. Certainly A Thousand Tiny Wings and A Death in the Family are two of the all time best Big Finish adventures and it is great that he is finally being treated to adventures that can be held in lofty acclaim.

The Doctor’s reaction to his own body is muted but shocked and he is loathed to find himself meeting himself again. He’s very much not supposed to do that sort of thing, you know. Unfortunately he has no time to think about domestic drama when there could be millions of lives at stake. In the future the Word Lord and the Doctor have battled through space, time and other dimensions and even broken a few of them with their never ending tussle of words. He’s had to make terrible sacrifices in trying to stop this most insidious of forces. Nobody suggests its always somebody else that takes the bullet other than the Doctor and I have to admit looking over his long history he does rather have a point. Despite the fact that we know the eighth Doctor is waiting in the wings and that there will be another seventh Doctor adventure set after this one there is a lingering feeling when Hex declares that the Doctor is dead that this time time has been rewritten and it is very much the case. Such is the seriousness of how this story is delivered. This is what has always happened, the Doctor died in his seventh incarnation. His older, alternative version will simply disappear when causality decides that he died today and not years in the future. Evelyn reminds the Doctor that Ace and Hex aren’t children and that they look up to him. That he should think a bit more carefully about what he is teaching them. Wonderfully she gives him a lecture on how he operates these days, manipulating and lying to people. She always was the one person he really listened to. He used to march around hoping for the best…but things didn’t always work out that way. Nowadays he feels the need to be in control of everything to make sure it turns out okay.

Learned Lecturer: ‘I knew he’d come back in the end…’ My favourite companion from the Big Finish range and one of my absolute favourite people to have ever have travelled with the Doctor and I’m pleased to report she gets a terrific send off. You might have thought that the title of this adventure was misleading (indeed they blotted Hex out of the next releases cover to suggest that he might be the one to get the chop) but one of the Doctor’s companions does die in this adventure and that gives the climax the poignancy it needed to top a nourishing listen. I feel that Evelyn’s timeline has been exquisitely worked out to ensure that she has a definitive beginning, middle and end. It has been worked out so that we can still enjoy adventures with her and the sixth Doctor whilst knowing that she leaves him in Thicker than Water and meets her end in A Death in the Family. It means that there is a triumphant feeling of cohesion when it comes to this most memorable of companions and rather wonderfully she winds up departing in one of the finest Doctor Who adventures. The Doctor’s first elderly companion proves that this experiment should have been attempted a long time ago because she is an extraordinary success story. Steven Hall’s handling of her in this adventure is perfection itself and she triumphs in all the ways her audience fell in love with her for – her passion and her kindness, her fight and her resourcefulness.

Even in her dotage Evelyn loves to be around the young and enjoys their energy and vigour. She is one of the most formidable councillors on Pelachan. When she hears the TARDIS she goes rushing to try and find the Doctor. Teaming up Evelyn and Hex is a formidable idea because that is the one loose end that needed tying up as far as she is concerned. She had such a devastating reaction to the death of Cassie and still resents the Doctor a bit for not saving her and so to see how fine her son turned out to be under his wing must warm her heart. Evelyn is very gentle with Hex and says that she muddled along with the Doctor for quite a while. The Doctor once told her that he doesn’t always win (after the advent of Hex’s mothers death) and she was angry with him because it was his job to win. However this admission was a warning that allowed her to prepare for the eventual news of his death  but somehow she didn’t ever think it would really happen. Evelyn discovered a temporal stabiliser from the time ship that founded Pelachan in a coal seam on Vilag. By accident it brought her to Pelachan. She fights to her last breath to uncover the truth to the citizens on Pelachan not as a heretic but as a historian. She wants them to know where they truly came from. When Evelyn’s heart fails the wonderful sound of the TARDIS echoes around her and she hopes that it is going to be her Doctor paying her one last visit. Its been ten years since Rossiter passed away and Evelyn still misses him and his kindness. She never thought she would live to be so old. She remembers so many wonderful memories with the Doctor. The Doctor remembers that he never had to worry about Evelyn, she could look after herself. Evelyn’s death is something I hoped that would never come but taking Nobody No One with her when her time comes makes it really mean something. Protecting people right until the end. She spends her dying moments thinking of her Doctor with his bright coat and bravado and all their wonderful adventures together in time and space. Perfection.

Oh Wicked: ‘Human beings burn bright and quick. Joy, friendship, hope, love! You don’t have to become old and hard and cold…’  The best Ace story bar none. Take a step back and consider what that means for a second. Ace has appeared in so many adventures across various medias that what began as a fresh, interesting character has practically been explored to death to the point where I groan to see her name listed in the schedules. She has been in 9 television stories, over 50 novels, over 30 audios and a great number of comic strips too. For a writer to find anything new to say about this character is a miracle but for them to find something that has never been discovered before and to capitalise on that to create some searing drama takes real talent.

Ace isn’t happy to leave Hex on his own after the shocking events of the previous story because she knows that he hasn’t come to terms with any of it. She has become the beating heart of this dysfunctional family and whilst the Doctor is obsessing about Time Lord coffins she is the one trying to patch them up. When it looks as though the Doctor is dead Ace is hysterical with anguish, appalled. We’re told about Ace’s potential wedding before we experience it and its reveal makes for an unconventional, but brilliant, cliffhanger. She is literally astonished when it appears that the Doctor has given up and is refusing to save his own life. That’s not the Doctor she knows. She doesn’t need her life sugar coated by the Doctor, she’s lived it a long time now and understands the dangers. These scenes between the older Doctor and Ace see them at their best – its exactly the sort of conclusion the New Adventures drew when Ace finally departed in Set Piece – that she understands time travel as much as the Doctor does and she gets that he is needed out there to make tough decisions no matter what the cost is. The Doctor is worried that she is becoming as abstract as he is and losing touch with the real world. That she’ll be like him do whatever it takes to get things done. He tells her bare-facedly that she isn’t him and she was never meant to be. Ace thinks it’s the only life she has ever wanted but the Doctor shoots that theory down and says the reality is that it is the only life she has ever had. The Doctor admits that he cared for her like a daughter all those years they were together but thinks that he held on to her for too long. The Doctor knew that Ace would disobey him and try and change what has happened and so he pre-programmes the TARDIS to take her somewhere out of the way (or so we are meant to think…). Its just as effective as when the ninth Doctor did the same thing to Rose in The Parting of the Ways because we know, like Rose, Ace will do everything in her power to get back and save him (just as the older Doctor did…). Ace has found her soul mate in Henry and the tragedy of their relationship is that it was only ever going to be temporary as far as Ace was concerned because she is so invested in getting back to her life with the Doctor. All the things that the Doctor was talking about; finding her own path, enjoying her life, cutting free of all the responsibilities…she could have had all that with Henry and judging by their chemistry it would have worked too. The tragedy of Ace is that nobody with ever match up to the Doctor and her life with him and nothing will ever stop her fighting for him. Even when something better is begging for her stay. After the Doctor was talking about her life in numbers then she starts talking about it in colours and you can see how like him she has become. Henry accepts the mad tale about Ace being a time traveller who knocks around with an alien who has died because nothing else about her makes sense – only the absurd. It takes exhausting every possibility for Ace to even consider the fact that the Doctor has really gone and when that thought finally dawns on her she breaks down in Henry’s arms and sobs uncontrollably. She gets a job with a top secret alien investigation UNIT who mock her when her soppy boyfriend sends her gifts at work. As Ace realises she has been set up it dawns on the audience that Henry is just another cog in the Doctor’s great narrative to be exploited. Never mind his feelings. He said so himself in the first episode – there’s no time to spare on emotions when they are fighting somebody as malevolent as Nobody No One. Ace made her choice to sacrifice everything she could have had and everything she could have been for the Doctor.

Sexy Scouse: ‘It never ends, does it? The Forge, then you, the Cybermen, Daleks, sky falling in, death, disaster, lies! It never ends! Well I’m not playing this game anymore! Do you hear me? I’m not playing!’ Where he was forced to behave in a particularly stupid way in the previous adventure, the examination of Hex in A Death in the Family is the highlight of this fantastic character so far. Rather than drown him in hysterical drama it takes a gentler approach to his hurt and bruised feelings and sees him trying to come to terms with his mothers death in a mature fashion. He wants to sit quietly and think, to try and get his head together. The Doctor kept it a secret from him because he genuinely thought that he knew what was best for him and Hex has only just realised that somebody has put this strange man in charge of his life. Nobody asks him what he wants anymore, he just goes with the flow. You get the sense here more than ever before that Hex is a normal bloke trapped in an extraordinary life and trying desperately to cope with everything that comes with it. Its when the Word Lord starts criticising the Doctor that Hex begins sticking up for his friend and suggesting that he helps people become the best they can be. He chokes back tears as the Doctor tucks him away on Pelachan to keep him safe and apologises for not telling him the truth about his mother. Leaving him with Evelyn allows them both to find some peace with Cassie’s death and it feels so right. Time passes quickly in the second instalment and Hex spends at least six months on Pelachan with Evelyn finding out about his mother and uncovering the mystery of the colony. Ayl-San proves to be a happy distraction too. Hex is wonderfully calm when Evelyn has a heart attack, proving just how skilled he is at dealing with patients. He has a choice of whether to stay on Pelachan or to leave with the Doctor and he fears that if he stays he will start to become like him and lose who he is. 

Standout Performance: A story of impressive performances with the entire cast delivering sparkling turns. To play one memorable villain in the McCoy era should be considered lucky, to do it twice is a miracle! Ian Reddington embodies the role of Nobody No One and delivers one of the best ever villainous performances in Doctor Who’s history. He’s absolutely terrifying, giddily psychotic and loving every second of his carnage. Through Hall’s writing and Reddington’s performance Nobody No One is the unstoppable, uncontrollable epitome of malevolence. Philip Olivier is staggeringly good here and his speech quoted above was delivered with such passion I had goosebumps all over. Listen as he holds back his grief as the Doctor leaves him – that would be a had ask of any actor but Olivier delivers his lines with real sensitivity. It takes a man of some patience to put up with somebody as feisty and as weird as Ace so step forward John Dorney in the guise of Henry Noone, a desperately likable and understanding man who by chance has a seasoned time traveller fall into his lap. Dorney impressed with his stellar turn as Alexander the Great in Farewell Great Macedon and he provides a similarly authentic performance here but in a very different way. Henry is kind, gentle and comforting – everything that Ace needs. I love his upper class stiff upper lippedness, its such a lovely contrast to Ace’s cockney know it all attitude. Love Sophie Aldred’s well spoken accent as Dorothy Noone comes to life. And of course not forgetting Maggie Stables who quietly steals the show as only she can be giving a performance of utmost sincerity.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It would appear that we have stumbled on a future version…of me.’
‘Mad? I’m furrrrriousssss!’ – absolutely chilling!
‘I’m an unanchored causal intervention in your universe, Doctor!’
‘Not bothered? Of course I’m bothered! I’m dead!
‘Right now Ace is sitting in a dying TARDIS crying her eyes out because she’s never going to grow up to be me…’
‘With the Doctor little things that seem like accidents never really are.’
‘Trapped as data like a fly in amber!’
‘I’m going to kill everything. Everything that crawls, grows, wiggles and swims in all of reality…’

Great Ideas: There is a Time Lord in the Forge’s archives and the Doctor is not leaving until he has sniffed them out. Any one of the objects that he and Ace have collected to change the entire course of human history but they have to keep it schtum because he’s brought UNIT along with him. They are collecting all the useful equipment in a backpack which they intend to half inch from UNIT boy as soon as they have found what they are looking for and send him back to HQ with his tail tucked between his legs! A space time stamp is more expensive than a planet in some parts! The shocking truth is that it is the Doctor’s body in the vaults, an older man but still in the same regeneration and decaying down in the depths of the Forge vaults. What a grisly, unforgettable discovery. When the Doctor mumbles that Nobody is coming over and over our Doctor fears he has opened a very nasty can of words. There is a tense atmosphere to these early scene as this psychotic, blazing eyed murderous force is released and there is literally nothing that anybody can do to stop him slaughtering anybody and everybody. For once you get a genuine feeling that the Doctor is completely out of his depth. The Word Lord is from a dimension that is very different from ours, a dimension where language and not physics is the very cornerstone of reality. Say the wrong thing and he can alter the whole world as easily as you might correct a spelling mistake. Even with Greater London evacuated there are still countless conversations, phone calls, announcements, TV and radio broadcasts…how can you silence an entire world? Before long he will be unstoppable. The Doctor’s future self found a way to trap Nobody inside his mind and they are going to have to try and figure out how. The Doctor needs to project a narrative at him; something huge, branching, contradicting yet singular and coherent and made of living thoughts. To lose him forever in a maze of information. His first plan though is to project the entire internet at the Word Lord, to blast him with a range of information so vast it gives him a nervous breakdown. Rather wonderfully the Word Lord takes the piss out of Hex’s plans to re-animate his mother – saves me the job of doing it! He has a laugh at the Forge too. It feels as though he is in a league of his own and he is looking down at the other Doctor Who baddies and scoffing. In less than a minute 73 people have used the words Nobody and No One and he can manipulate every single one of them. Using the line from a poem he manages to turn the sun off! The planet Pelachan exists billions of years before Hex’s time – the people are descendants of a human time ship which crashed on the planet thousands of years earlier. The name of the planet is taken from a corrupted version of the time ship. It’s a contentious matter though and the truth has long been obscured by history and only Evelyn champions the truth of how this colony was set up. Ace plans to revive the Doctor by pouring temporal energy into him but it has already been tried and doesn’t work. Cleverly Hall set up the time stamp so Ace could contact Hex on Pelachan after he has been there for six months and lime is the password that activates which just happens to be the fruit that the Doctor gave Ace on her departure. The Doctor planned all of this; tablet, the pub, Henry…and she figures that if everything with her is intentional then everything Hex must be too. Henry involvement is to write about him and Ace and their future together, as detailed and as long as possible. The Handovale is actually the Hand of All – All was one of the greatest Word Lords that ever lived, the Founder of their society. The Hand of All was his finest creation, a living synthetic reality made purest language. It didn’t just contain one world but an entire universe consisting of pocket worlds.

The Plan: When the fictional Ace of Henry’s scribblings is actualised, well that’s when things get really complicated. Nobody escapes from the Doctor’s internet trap when she fiddles about his CORDIS (Conveyance of Repeating Dialogue in Time/Space). A long time ago on Pelachan there was a living story called the Handovale. To exist the Handovale needed only a story speaker to speak it and they spoke the Handovale every day of their life. The people of Pelachan believed that the Handovale was an afterlife and if a written account of a persons life was read to the story speaker by someone who really knew them and loved then that person would be recreated inside the Handovale and live there forever. Ace realised that the older Doctor was speaking the Handovale back when they released him from the sarcophagus in the Forge’s basement. He’d been to Pelachan several times and on his last visit he had collected the living story and taken it with him. On Earth he trapped Nobody No One inside the Handovale inside his head and locked himself inside a sarcophagus so he would never be disturbed. He was banished into a maze of internet noise and the Doctor died for his efforts. The older Doctor sent Hex to live on Pelachan hundreds of years before he came to take the Handovale away and he sent Ace to meet Henry Noone and fell in love. He planned for Ace to end up with the Stamp and the Tablet. The Tablet had recorded Nobody No Ones final conversation with the Doctor and she realised the CORDIS was still around disguised as the phrase ‘For King and Country.’ A Time Lord can’t travel through time just by thinking about it, he needs a TARDIS. Ace got Henry to write a long description of her. Using the space/time Stamp she posted that description to Pelachan asking him to take it up to the Handovale church. Hex read what Henry had written and imagined a grown up Dorothy Noone and in doing so created her. She lived inside the Handovale and waited. Hundreds of years later the Doctor came to Pelachan and took the Handovale away with her inside. When the Doctor trapped Nobody inside the Handovale Dorothy Noone stowed away inside his CORDIS. After he escaped and got blasted away by the Doctor at the Forge crater she settled in, had a go at the controls and tried out a few things. Firstly she figured how to project her a body like Nobody’s so she could interact with the physical world. She has to wait for Ace to catch up and send the package to Hex before she could act. The Word Lord made the soldier say that ‘No one has the power of life and death over the Doctor’ so he could manipulate him but N-O-O-N-E happens to be her surname too. He made that rule and it gives him the power to bend reality and decide whether the Doctor is alive or dead then it gives Dorothy Noone the exact same power. And she says ‘The Doctor Lives!’ Nobody No One is trapped in a perpetual data loop in a Mobius chip. It was pre-programmed to upload anything into it if anything happened to Dorothy Noone…and he tried to kill her. The chip turns out to be a con, it was actually the Handovale in the dead soldiers mind that drew Nobody inside. The Handovale was then transferred from the Captain into Evelyn and Evelyn is dying and taking her and Nobody No One with it. When Evelyn Rossiter dies, the story dies and so does Nobody No One. Phew! Have you got all that? Fiendishly clever, that man Hall!

Audio Landscape: Dust falling, Time Lord detector, glass smashing, soldiers marching, ducks honking and bobbing on the water, birdsong, the Word Lord vanishes with a hiss of electricity, the explosion in the duck pond, gunfire, cars crashing, dog barking, church bells tolling, ticking clock, crackling fire, market town, chopping veg, radio, pub ambience, the terrifying CORDIS security system, Nobody’s screaming death.

Musical Cues: Ken Bentley has wisely chosen to avail himself of two of the absolute best Big Finish musicians to bring this story to life musically and they deliver perhaps their finest ever score. They can often be found injecting atmosphere into the companion chronicles and their promotion to the main range is entirely justified. Listen as the pace starts to quicken in the first episode and their music piles on the drama, broken up by some gorgeous choral stings. The differing tones and levels of drama they are asked to pitch for is ambitious but the music matches the script and direction beat for beat to create a lyrical, coherent piece of drama. 

Isn’t it Odd: The prelude is of course necessary to put the tragic events of this tale in context but have the unfortunate side effect of reminding me of the hysterical melodrama that is Project: Destiny. However despite some overdone shouting they do manage to capture the essence of that story without exposing us to all of the OTT bits and if you wanted to skip it and just listen to this minute long summation that is a mighty fine option!

Standout Scene: In a blast of pure nostalgia and total awesome the Doctor sends a wave of information about himself at Nobody No One which is made up of countless clips from Big Finish adventures. I had goosebumps running up and down my body. In a range that has often managed to fudge the 7th Doctor/Ace relationship I was astonished at how powerful the scenes between them were at the beginning of episode three. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred give retrained performances and as a result these tender moments where they examine their friendship are quietly very affecting. Whilst it is a shame that Sixie and Evelyn didn’t get one last chat her goodbye scene with the seventh Doctor is as gorgeous as I could have hoped for with her telling him off for being such a manipulator and him explaining why he behaves as he does. The way she narrates her death scene touched my heart.

Notes: Despite the fact that Nobody No-One is played by a different (‘You’ve changed…’ ‘Regenerated!’) actor I would definitely suggest that you give his first appearance, The Word Lord, a listen before you embark on A Death in the Family. The Doctor sent him crashing into the entire English language and he left one hell of a dent. They called it the great vowel shift. It would seem that every time a story deals with the possibility of the Doctor’s death and we are dealing with an instant classic. See also the eighth Doctor novel Alien Bodies. The TARDIS is described as being a white shed and Ace comments that it is supposed to be blue – this has recently been brought up again in the Robophobia trilogy. What is going on? WOTAN Base One – genius!

Result: ‘Words have power…’ Bending reality has never been so intoxicating! The finest Big Finish adventure for many a year and one of the best expressions of what this company can achieve on audio, A Death in the Family is a benchmark story that is packed with substance and realised in style. Steven Hall’s script is remarkably dense and intelligent, juggling multiple narrative and screaming with clever ideas, memorable dialogue and handling its four regulars with absolute perfection. It’s a significant writing achievement. Where Project Destiny was hysterical (and embarrassing) A Death in the Family is subtle, restrained and about a million times more effective. The seventh Doctor has never been better. Ace has never been better. Hex has never been better. Evelyn has rarely been better. With a script that looks inward into what makes all of these characters tick they come alive like never before and whereas Philip Olivier always knocks my socks off I have never experienced such beautifully judged performances from Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred. Its almost as if they knew how good this was one was and wanted to make it even better. Ken Bentley’s direction shifts tones effortlessly and he plays the audiences emotions like a finely crafted musical instrument taking us on an emotional journey that climaxes on a devastating note. Each instalment takes on a different texture and narrative so they could almost be listened to in isolation but all the details are important as they dovetail in the final episode and the complex scheme laid down becomes clear. You’ve got a terrifying opener, what accounts for two heartbreaking companion chronicles in the middle two instalments and a furiously clever final episode. Packed with startling concepts, moments of poignancy and a truly terrifying villain, A Death in the Family deserves its chart topping reputation and then some. I think it will be a while before Big Finish achieves another story that scores quite so highly in every regard: 10/10


Peakius Baragonius said...

I've skipped over a good portion of the review to avoid spoiling it, but...I'm really interested in listening to this story as it is possibly Big Finish's highest rated audio drama of all time, reputation-wise. That being said, I'm aware that there is a great deal of backstory to this one. I've listened to "The Marian Conspiracy" and "The Word Lord", and I have a general idea of the whole Cassie/Hex storyline...but apart from those are there any other stories that you would consider required listening to understand this one?

Joe Ford said...

No, I think you have all you need there, my friend. It does pick up from the events of Project Destiny where Hex learnt about the fate of his mother. You wont regret it, it really is excellent.

Peakius Baragonius said...

Thanks man! Good to hear

JB said...

I'm relistening to this, and it just hit me. At the start of Part One, the older Doctor mentions the Hades protocol. This was used in Project Lazarus. What number release in the Main Range was Project: Lazarus? 45. What was the name of the story Nobody No-One first appeared in? Forty-Five. Also, Evelyn was in Project: Lazarus, and the previous story Project: Destiny concluded the threads from Project Lazarus. Mind blown.

Dan Lee said...

Oh my god, JB. This is some real Big Finish conspiracy-ish theory going on here. :0

Liam Morrell said...

Is there any reason you didn't review the story that came after this? It's the only story in the main range you haven't reviewed