Sunday, 15 July 2012

Power Play written by Gary Hopkins and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Its been many years since Victoria Waterfield travelled through time and space fighting monsters and dictators. Now she’s back on Earth fighting for the future of the planet. But are her environmental campaigns so far removed from those adventures in the vortex? As trucks carrying nuclear waste start vanishing into the air, her friends are kidnapped by a dangerous alien police force and a nuclear power plant runs dangerously close to meltdown…Victoria spies a familiar blue box. The Doctor. After all this time, the Doctor has come back. And now…Victoria Waterfield is going to kill him.

Softer Six: ‘Have a heart, Doctor. Have two…’ It’s the rarest of things – a story that fails to give Colin Baker the moments of charm I have come expect from a Big Finish story. The Doctor is little more than a function of the plot, dishing out explanations and getting everybody from A to B but there is no substance to his character, no personality. And with Colin Baker in the driving seat that is quite a feat. Peri is not convinced that they are going to live as the TARDIS buffets about madly and the Doctor wishes she would have a little faith in her piloting ability! As ever Peri’s Americanism drive him crazy (‘do you have to say cops?’). He’s not with a travelling circus and his coat is all part of his look, not an affectation. Peri describes him as a polymath. The Doctor assumes that his past companions would recognise him even if he has changed his face, just a faint glimmer or recognition. In a rather touching moment the Doctor asks Victoria to look into his eyes to find the man she once knew even if it might get him killed.

Busty Babe: If there was ever an argument for the notion that the 80s companions could match and exceed their 60s counterparts than this story is just about all the proof you need. Peri is spunky and funny and intelligent and violent. Victoria just wails a lot. Peri is not entirely opposed to nuclear power but she thinks the whole idea is risky when the consequences of it going wrong are so disastrous. She wonders how she could have ever thought that the ‘other side’ could possibly want her opinion when its always about the Doctor – she’s just the bait. Listening to Peri the brainbox having to throw up great lumps of technobabble was worth a chuckle if only to think of poor Nicola Bryant having to say all the lines! Victoria thinks that Peri would have made a very good teacher. When he finds out that Peri has been quite handy with a stun gun he hopes he never gets on her bad side and she suggests that he is always on her bad side.

Scream Queen: ‘Who was that terrible woman?’ was generally what I kept thinking throughout Power Play. Victoria has never really made an impact on me and I’m not entirely sure why. Deborah Watling was fine in the role and did everything that was asked of her and the chemistry between the three leads during season five is one of its most pleasing features. The stories are all pretty much top notch too. I just don’t find much there beyond the wailing and the need to be protected – there is very little substance to her character. It would appear that time has not been as kind to Watling as it has to many other Doctor Who stalwarts from the sixties and she no longer sounds anything like the plummy voiced, upper class girl that she used to be (unlike, say, Peter Purves who barely sounds like he has aged a day). There is something very odd going on with her voice in Power Play and she sounds steaming drunk during every scene that she appears in, it might be a nervous wobble but I seem to recall Watling sounding just as tipsy during her contributions to the Wiped documentary on the Lost in Time DVD box set. She’s probably the last companion that I would choose to catch up with (Downtime did very little for me and I was much more excited at catching up with Sarah Jane) and the thought of teaming her up with the sixth Doctor is quite jarring in a way that teaming him up with Jamie in the recently trilogy never did. Which is odd considering they are from the same era. To aficionados of Victoria this might be a more appealing prospect (or an even greater letdown) but I have to admit I went into this story with a degree of trepidation.

‘Don’t forget Waterfield, my door is always open…’ It would appear that Victoria, like Sarah Jane after her, has decided to continue the Doctor’s good work and protect the Earth. She’s angry that we might end up destroying this planet through greed and if that makes her a bit mad then she is proud of it. When she spies the TARDIS Victoria almost has an apoplectic fit! David thinks she has gone stark staring crazy as she starts banging on the door of an obsolete police box and screaming out for the Doctor and Jamie. Victoria thought that if she told David the truth about herself he would be prepared for the madness that was about to ensue but how do you package a story that relays that you were born 150 years ago and used to travel in time and space without sounding like you belong in a retirement home for the clinically insane? She states that it wouldn’t have made any difference if the Doctor had admitted to her that he was a Time Lord and perhaps it was important that she didn’t know. There is something in that actually because had his companions known about his origins and had mentioned it in passing on their adventures to other races that the Time Lords might have had contact with…well they might have caught up with him a lot sooner. When Victoria mentioned that the Earth was in danger time and again during their travels it occurred to me that she only ever left the planet twice (Skaro and Telos) – aside from Liz Shaw was Victoria the companion who left the Earth the least? When she’s under pressure like the old days and trapped in a time corridor with the Doctor she starts screaming and wailing and shouting ‘I can’t take much more of this!’ I would have accidentally let her be swallowed into oblivion and made up some excuse once I’d escaped. It would have been kinder to her. And the story.

Standout Performance: I would say Nicola Bryant in this story because compared to Watling’s deranged rantings she really does shine. After a while I wondered if listening to Watling was a punitive experience for any pessimistic reviews I had written in the past. Dominic is a superbly underplayed (especially compared to everything around him) villain brought to life by Miles Jupp who I would suggest deserves a second story because there is clearly some mileage in the idea of a planet assassin. Especially one as silky as this.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What would you prefer, John Smith?
‘Are you saying that someone’s put a contract out on Earth?’

Great Ideas: What a simple idea – the intergalactic police! Why hasn’t the show ever indulged in such a thing before? If anything the Doctor’s erratic driving would be cause for a considerable fine and possibly imprisonment! The Doctor doesn’t have any of the correct paperwork if he should be pulled over but then it has never been a legal requirement. An element more powerful than Uranium 235 being introduced to a nuclear reactor? It was Transuranic; an element higher then uranium in the periodic table. One of the earliest known complex multi organisms to evolve on the Earth which vanished in pre history has turned up 500,000 years later. When the Doctor breaks in it is like a ghostly nuclear power plant. A starship parked incongruously at one end of a temporal corridor to prehistoric Earth. Dominic can provide a naturally occurring element that generates more energy through fission than uranium coupled with the means to dispose of the waste product safely by dumping it 500,000 years in the past. Which is long enough for the spent isotopes to burn out before life begins in earnest on this little planet. He’s trying to turn the entire planet Earth into a bomb and use the time corridor to escape justice with the stockpile of fission material to power his spaceship. The Doctor thinks that he is a con man, tempting the people of any planet with what they desire, winning their trust, taking whatever he is after and leaving them high and dry. When he is in fact a planetary assassin, contracted to destroy worlds in their entirety or render them uninhabitable. That was a pretty decent twist, actually. I never saw that one coming and what an awe inspiring (in a very dark fashion) job that is to have! The reason the aliens have been pursuing the Doctor is because they want to frame him for Dominic’s crimes. He destroys the planet, the Doctor shoulders the blame and Dominic nips off in the TARDIS to start off again elsewhere. Loved the reveal that it was the Terrible Zodin that put the contract out on the Earth (it made me smile so much it lifted the score of this story by a whole point). She is Terrible, after all.

Audio Landscape: The TARDIS having a total paddy with explosions rocketing the console room, crows screaming, car revving and growling along the road, rebellious marches, banging on the TARDIS door, the Doctor and Victoria trapped in the time corridor, the gurgling alien voices, clanking chains, the closing explosion and static.

Musical Cues: I couldn’t get on with the crude electronic score for this adventure. It does have a feel of Timelash about it so I can’t say that it isn’t authentic but that’s as far as my praise goes. It fights against the tone of most scenes, suggesting things that simply aren’t happening and causing a great deal of confusion because of it. The weird ‘space invaders’ tune that accompanies Victoria when she returns possessed is so insistent it rams the idea down the audiences throat. Simon Robinson’s music for the seventh Doctor’s Lost Stories was similarly misjudged and it’s a strong reminder how the atmosphere can be threatened with an ill judged musical score. How many times can you possibly insert the Doctor Who theme tune into the music? Robinson threatens to topple Keff McCulloch’s ranking on that score! So pleased to see Jamie Robertson back next month.

Isn’t it Odd: The early scenes of rioters protesting about the oil industries are ripped straight out of the opening episode of The Green Death. After the carefully considered sound design and performances of The Guardians of Prophecy the first episode of Power Play is plagued with discordant music, out of control performances and a general sense of hysteria. Its quite an assault on the ears! The first episode is literally all over the place with lots of unconnected events taking place but failing to cohere into a dynamic narrative – there’s the Doctor and Peri being chased by the intergalactic police, Victoria  and David being kidnapped, the anti-nuclear demonstrations and the oddly timed reveal about the Transuranic element just in time for a cliffhanger in a nuclear meltdown. Its so scatterbrained I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to be focussing and the torturous production values and deafening performances didn’t help. Episode two gets even more deranged with Victoria shrieking and screaming her way through every scene. They should have been able to guess that Victoria had been possessed by the aliens because that was the only point where she wasn’t emoting like a Catherine wheel. When she starts talking with the slurred tendencies of Iris Wildthyme after a night on the town and having guzzled down a dozen bottles of Tequila why is it that nobody seems to notice? She’s…literally….talkinggggggg…….thiisisssss! The least convincing and most obvious possession ever.  Irritatingly the synopsis seems to suggest that Victoria has a grudge the Doctor and his return will see some fireworks erupt but in fact that is all a big ruse. She’s taken over by some forgettable aliens and its them that want him dead. What is the point of bringing her character back for that? The ‘I must find the Doctor and destroy him’ cliffhanger must rank as one of the worst of all time; horrendously performed, obvious (its signposted for about ten minutes), badly paced (there’s an odd pause between the Doctor’s ‘Noooooo!’ and the title music) and entirely without threat (like Victoria is going to kill the Doctor!). Come episode three we have been listening to these aliens converse in their own little subplot for over an hour and I still didn’t have any idea who they were or what they were about. There is a really odd moment where the protestors who aren’t used to this sort of outer space malarkey discuss how cliché ridden pretending to be ill to escape is as though they have done this sort of thing all the time and then as a knowing wink to the audience their escape plan goes completely unnoticed. I think its supposed to be funny but it just feels jarring and superfluous and strangely out of character. The thought of old lady Victoria dribbling over Dominic was enough to turn my stomach. I’m not entirely sure how the Doctor reaches the conclusion that Dominic wants to turn the planet into a bomb because he hasn’t even hinted at such a scheme…its just that we’ve reached a point where this kind of crisis is required. ‘Fortunately unlike the male of your species I don’t have any vulnerable organs in that area!’ – really? The scenes of the Doctor and Victoria have an audible resemblance to those precious moments of the Doctor bumbling about in the Timelash. Thanks for reminding us of that! There’s an odd effect of a creaking sailing ship that keeps sounding and gives completely the wrong idea about the setting. I thought given the tone of the synopsis and the setting of a nuclear power plant that there would be some ethical lesson to be learnt from this story but Hopkins chooses to shy away from the moral implications of his villains use of nuclear power to destroy the planet. It is literally just a plot point rather than a message. In an example of a narrative that hasn’t quite fulfilled its function of explaining away the events of the story the Doctor, Peri and Victoria tie up all the remaining unanswered questions in one long last gulp of exposition at the climax (why the Doctor and Peri were dragged down and why Victoria and David were kidnapped). The double whammy conclusion is another reminder of Timelash, especially considering the second climax involves missiles screaming towards the planet. David’s sacrifice is blunted by the fact that we never had time to explore his relationship with Victoria or understand what he meant to her. It feels like a superficial act to close the story on rather than a heroic one. There’s an agonising moment at the climax where the Doctor asks Victoria to go with him…I knew what the answer would be but the very idea filled me with bone gnawing terror. Would this really have taken place in season 23a? I just can’t see it somehow…

Standout Scene: Any scene with Victoria as a reminder not to do this sort of thing again. Ever.

Result: Probably the Lost Story that I was anticipating listening to the least, Power Play didn’t let me down on that score. The thought of the sixth Doctor and Victoria being paired up didn’t fill me with any excitement and anything that might have come from this reunion is squandered thanks to Deborah Watling’s abysmal performance. There is no other way to describe it. Sounding like she has had one drink too many, needs to swallow down some phlegm and that the HRT has been overdosed, I was either squinting to try and understand what she was saying or cringing with embarrassment when I could decipher her overdone hysteria. Its rare to find a performance that is so attention grabbingly awful in a Big Finish production and even rarer that the return of an element from the past feels this perfunctory. However Hopkins does portray Victoria as a useless, wailing victim so you can’t exactly say his characterisation is perfidious. Lacking the charming characterisation of Other Lives or the apocalyptic urgency of The Last, Power Play proves that most writers do mature over time like a fine wine and this journey into 80s storytelling lacks many of the essential ingredients that might have made it work. The (intriguing) ideas are only superficially discussed, the is pacing all over the place, the cliffhangers superfluous and the characters little more than ciphers to service the story rather than anything worth investing in (the protestors are, without exception, completely hollow). Episodes one and two are all experience and no explanation and episodes three and four are all explanation (or rather exposition) and no experience, I preferred the latter half of the story because the hysterics of the early episodes were brought down to an acceptable level and the whole play was much more manageable once people stopped shouting and started talking. Plus some of the ideas on display did have merit. Don’t let Simon Robinson score any more of these stories, his style is a collection of discordant sounds that polluted any good will I might have had towards this adventure. A more robust, melodious score would have made this a much more pleasing experience. Dominic is a great silky smooth villain with a wonderful modus operandi but he deserved a much better playing field to strut his stuff on: 5/10


Anonymous said...

5/10? I'd say you were being extremely generous! Distinctly average, and let down by one quite shockingly bad performance.

deltaandthebannermen said...

I've just listened to this one knowing it wasn't very popular but I have to say I rather enjoyed it. I thought Deborah Watling was perfectly fine and I could hear the young Victoria in her performance. Miles Jupp is great as Dominic as is David Warwick as Dysart. The protesters were a bit more generic and I do agree that David's sacrifice had no impact as we knew very little about him or his friendship with Victoria. I quite liked the disparate plots and how they eventually tied together.

Horses for courses and all that.