Sunday, 5 August 2012

Protect and Survive written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: If an attack with nuclear weapons is sorted, you will hear the attack warning. If you are not at home but can get here within two minutes, do so. If you are in the open, take cover in the nearest building, lie flat on the ground and cover your head and hands. Arriving in the North of England in the late 1980s, Ace and Hex seek refuge in the home of Albert and Peggy Marsden. Meanwhile the Doctor is missing. Will there be anyone left for him to rescue when the bombs begin to fall?

The Real McCoy: ‘Tonight should have marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet bloc. Instead it will mark the first step towards nuclear war. That’s why I’m here. Following the threads of cause and effect back to the start.’ If he’s not answering the cloister bell then it can only mean one thing – the Doctor is not in the TARDIS. Has he been kidnapped or left of his own volition? Thanks to the New Adventures that developed a whole genre of storytelling where the seventh Doctor could barely appear and still be called Doctor Who (just…) it doesn’t seem at all odd that he should disappear entirely and leave his companions to get on with telling a story. It used to happen all the time with Ace, Benny, Chris and Roz back in the day. There is also the potential for explaining away his absence in the many solo seventh Doctor stories that have cropped up ever since Nick Briggs took over Big Finish. Thanks to the chatter that has surrounded this release and the hints that the creative team behind Big Finish have been dropping it looks like an awful lot of McCoy’s adventures are about to be tied together in a very clever way. I can’t wait! His sudden appearance at the end of episode two was unexpected and utterly cold blooded (‘find out what it means to die…’). He’s astonishingly honest with the Marsden’s about their attempts to protect themselves from a nuclear war, telling them that victims will be the lucky ones and they will die slowly and painfully. McCoy gets the chance to replay the ‘press the abort button’ scene from Battlefield but this time underplayed and well written and the result is a far more dramatically satisfying. The Elder Gods asks if the Doctor has mercy, compassion or pity and he simply walks away, displaying none. Hex makes an excellent point about the seventh Doctor – he can’t just defeat the bad guys, he has to punish them as well. ‘Who died an put him in charge? What right does he have to hand out judgement?’ Hex asks and it’s a question I have asked about this incarnation many times. The fact that his morality can be questioned in such a way reveals just how many facets he has when you hold him up to the light. I loved the end of episode three where the Elder Gods put the faith of the Doctor’s companions to the test and ask them to call him to save them. The silence that follows when he doesn’t is deafening.

Oh Wicked: I appreciate that this story starts on a dramatic high but why are these particular companions of the Doctor always shouting? Its not exactly Sophie Aldred’s strong point (The Rapture, Project Destiny) and makes her character sound more stilted than she needs to. Its irritating because both Aldred and Ace tone it right down immediately after that first scene to something much more gentle for the rest of the story. While Hex is ready to start panicking Ace has been at this game long enough now to realise that if the Doctor isn’t about its up to them to sort out whatever is going wrong. Unable to see and stuck in a nuclear shelter, the character reaches a depressive low spreading ill feeling about them being the last survivors and that the Doctor will never come and rescue them. Unbelievably Protect and Survive sticks the Doctor’s companions in the middle of a nuclear winter and has them suffer the effects of radiation poisoning. Listening to them huddling together in the dark, scarring, losing their hair, their faith diminishing – it simply doesn’t get darker and more adult than this. There’s a really interesting dilemma in the last few minutes where Ace and Hex have to decide which of them escapes and which of them stays behind to keep the pocket universe running. It’s the Doctor that puts them in that awkward position, you know. Naturally they both try and encourage the other to leave.

Sexy Scouse: ‘This isn’t my past…’ Once you’ve felt the Antarctic wind in your keks you start to get a whole new perspective on the whole cold thing? Hex conjures up a story that he is due to get married tomorrow and his mates as a stag do prank tied him up inside a police box. Its original, I suppose! Hex is far more ready to think the worst of the Doctor (after the events of Project Destiny/A Death in the Family I’m not entirely surprised) than Ace and wonders if the Doctor has stranded them there deliberately once the TARDIS vanishes. Despite her warnings Hex looks at the blast and is a blinded and he panics that he will never be able to see again. There’s never any time for romance when you travel with the Doctor (or at least this Doctor) and besides Ace would have him for breakfast. He genuinely thinks that the Doctor doesn’t trust them and that this is another his schemes that they haven’t been let in on. Surely he cannot continue to travel with him if he feels this strongly about him. They must be heading for some kind dramatic climax soon. Besides what happened to his mam, being lied to and being treated as the fall guy, Hex’s main problem with the Doctor is that he is different to how he used to be. He’s getting more extreme with his actions and Hex feels there is something bad going on that he wont tell them about.

Standout Performance: I have been less than complimentary about both Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred in the past (and with good reason I feel as it took them longer than all the others actors in Big Finish’s catalogue to bring their performances down from the stratosphere for audio) but they are both excellent here. Ace takes on the Doctor’s role throughout the story and Aldred commands like never before. When McCoy finally shows up (was he away filming The Hobbit?) he takes the reins from Aldred and delivers an icy cold performance, dishing out a delicious punishment to his foes. And as usual, Philip Oliver is emoting away like mad and making all the drama feel real. They have gone from being one of the least effective Big Finish teams to the most dramatically satisfying and relevant. Massive credit has to go to Alan Barnes and Nick Briggs who have used their ever more complex adventures to get people involved with them but the biggest credit has to go to McCoy, Aldred and Oliver who have gelled into a very effective unit. Ace and Hex adopting the voices of Albert and Peggy in the last episode is beautifully done.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Its not going to happen, is it? I mean no-one would really push the button, would they?’
‘You can’t stop the bomb. Time marches on.’
‘Its only war if we give them a chance to fight back…’
‘Sometimes he gets so close to the monsters its hard to tell them apart.’

Great Ideas: The TARDIS is currently white. This is very important but we don’t know why. People are building fallout shelters in the late 1980s to protect them from an upcoming nuclear winter. The first episode is a subtly creepy theatrical piece with just four characters meeting and Ace and Hex learning of the growing horror of nuclear war. Despite the fact that audio can go anywhere with a limitless budget it does seem to be at its most effective when it strips away all the noise and bluster and focuses on a few strong characters and a chilling notion (in the same way that The Holy Terror was at its most effective when the entire setting had been wiped away and all that was left was the Doctor, Frobisher, Eugene and the child). There were Eastern bloc risings in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, protests for democracy. The tanks were sent in when the protestors wouldn’t disperse, opening fire on the demonstrators on the orders of General Secretary Vladimir Kryuchkov. All the American bases in West Berlin were now controlled by the Russians so the Americans gave the Russians an ultimatum. Suddenly Soviet tanks were gathering at the border of West Germany, for defence the Soviets said but the Americans dropped a bomb on the town in response. That was three days ago and England has been preparing for nuclear war ever since. It’s a detailed and realistic set up and provides a disquieting backdrop to what is a very intimate first episode as we hang with a very ordinary family that are waiting for the bombs to start falling. Airports are being closed, hospitals are being cleared of non critical patients to make room for casualties, petrol is being rationed to essential vehicles only, stocks of tinned food are running out, anti war demonstrations in London have led to riots and looting, curfews imposed, the government has placed all emergency services on standby and a series of explosions in the Middle East – the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Hex intelligently wonders if they are in a parallel universe because these things never happened in his timeline and Ace counters that with the far more terrifying idea that the course of history has been changed to bring the Earth on the verge of nuclear war. After quietly building up the knife edge tension in the setting Morris strands Ace and Hex in this disturbing version of 1989. Rarely has finding the ship felt like such a priority. When the air attack warning comes, its terrifying! After the blast there’s a mushroom cloud in the sky a mile high and the birds are all dead. When Peggy’s gums start bleeding I began to fear the worst, they are succumbing to the effects of radiation poisoning. Ace starts losing her hair. Time starts running backwards and Albert’s body disappears. They are in a prison, a dimension all of its own. They have been reliving the events of World War Three forever. The radio that has been playing isn’t just telling them what is happening, its been making things happen. It has been the Doctor the whole time, manipulating events just as Hex said that he was.

The Doctor appears at the beginning of the second half and his TARDIS is black. This is also important but we don’t yet know why. Something has interfered with the course of history and he has to prevent the forthcoming nuclear war from taking place. Rather wonderfully we cut to both sides of the conflict, the Russians and the Americans with the Doctor trying to talk both sides out of starting a nuclear war. The Elder Gods attempting to divert the course of history to cause the destruction of all life on Earth. Simply because they can. Chaos for chaoses sake. They plan to preserves the planets original timeline within a pocket universe thus preventing a temporal paradox. The Doctor outfoxes them by visiting several key points in the future and ensuring that the timeline is running along its original course. He catches the Elder Gods in a trap of their own making, two future timelines and all he had to do was to ensure that they ended up in the wrong one, imprisoning them. Trapped as human beings, Albert and Peggy Marsden, who Ace and Hex will meet when they materialise. The real Albert and Peggy are safe in the correct version of the Earth where the nuclear conflict never took place. They are trapped forever in a time loop of the Doctor’s making and will remain so until he returns to deactivate it. He wants them to understand what it is to suffer as the humans would had they managed to start a nuclear war just for kicks. The Elder Gods have lived through this punishment for a hundred years, the time loop playing back every ten days. Something had to have happened to the Doctor to have prevented him from returning to save them. They might not have been able to escape the time loop but ‘Albert’ and ‘Peggy’ have learnt to control it. They weren’t trying to bring Ace and Hex to them, they were trying to drag the Doctor back in the TARDIS. The Elder Gods serve Moloch, his the first Elder God and instructed them to devastate the Earth. The dimensional prison only exists as long as the Elder Gods are trapped within it and so Moloch cannot pluck them free. So they want Ace and Hex to take their place, they find it a pleasing irony that companions of the Doctor should be trapped in a prison of his making. The time loop starts to contract with the Ace and Hex trapped in it, giving them less and less time before they go back to the start again and soon they will have no time at all. You cannot escape the time loop until you literally live out the events the same way that Albert and Peggy would have. If they go along with the pattern it will bring the TARDIS to them. In a clever twist the Doctor gives the two Elder Gods the choice of being the one who stays or the one who leaves the pocket universe. The trick to get both prisoners out of there is to both be willing to sacrifice themselves – to protect and survive. Very clever.

Audio Landscape: Protect and Survive was a series of public information films informing the British population of how to protect themselves during a nuclear attack. If you head online you will be able to find the videos and this audio does a fantastic job in recreating them with the same clipped, English voice. Intercutting the action with these warnings and advice gives the piece a discomforting documentary style feel. It feels real. It also serves as a massive plot point so listen carefully. Alarms, the TARDIS moving like a bucking bronco, the cloister bell, digging in the garden, birdsong, aircraft flying overhead, information videos on building a fallout shelter, rustle of newspapers, aircraft screaming overhead, a nuclear blast and the ensuing wreckage, time running backwards, security announcements, alarms, screaming soldiers, guns cocking, Moloch’s devilish voice. The time loop playing over and over in the last episode is something I have seen done ad nauseum in science fiction but Ken Bentley leaps about the ten day timeline with such gusto you might just find yourself reeling.

Musical Cues: A terrific, subdued, terrifying score. I don’t know who this Wilfredo Acosta is but lets see some more of him please.

Isn’t it Odd: Stealing away the consequences of the first two episodes (including Hex’s blindness) when time starts sprinting backwards does seem to undone much of the excellent drama that has played out to that point. If Albert and Peggy go through the same ten days over and over again and realise it why the hell didn’t they mention that when Ace and Hex thought the world was going to end? ‘There didn’t seem to be much point. We thought you’d find out for yourselves soon enough…’ doesn’t quite cut it as an explanation. When the real identities of Albert and Peggy are revealed this is explained but at the time it feels like a massive cheat. There is more than a touch of Jonathan Morris’ own The Eternal Summer to the time loop scenario, especially replaying such tragic events. I also felt lashings of the Star Trek TNG episode The Survivors which featured a house that kept surviving the events of a terrible war. And there’s more than a touch of The Holy Terror too (reliving the horrors you have perpetrated in a confined setting in a pocket universe).

Standout Scene: The end of episode one features Ace and Hex caught in a genuine nuclear blast. As the McCoy theme tune kicked in I was covered in goosebumps. Doctor Who hasn’t rattled me quite like this in a long time. The story ends on an intriguing cliffhanger that sees two women at home in the TARDIS as Ace and Hex seek refuge inside. What the hell is going on?

Result: What would happen if the Berlin Wall hadn’t fallen? What a phenomenal first episode. When it comes to creating a vivid setting and telling a drama through a handful of well defined characters, writers could do well to listen to the first instalment of Protect and Survive to see how it should be done. The tension builds exponentially until we reach one of the most chilling cliffhangers Big Finish have ever presented. The first half of this story will discomfortingly take you back to the hard edged politics of the eighties and the oppressive fear of a nuclear attack and features some of the most disturbing scenes Doctor Who has ever delivered. Its almost a shame when the science fiction element leaks into the story but then I guess this is Doctor Who and not an apocalyptic drama series. Episode three sees Jonathan Morris at his timey wimey best having the seventh Doctor pluck at the threads of time to make sure the revelations spilled in the previous episode make sense. The way it all slots into place is beautifully. I feel that Morris manages to out Moffat the TV series’ current show runner with his devastatingly complex storylines but he actually manages to go one better by presenting a fascinating puzzle that assembles into a beautifully structured narrative without the plot holes, out of character actions and unanswered questions that plagued series six of NuWho. Its only in the last episode where this story feels wanting because it has come so far from the where the story started and feels far more traditional with its Gods versus humans conflict and time loop shenanigans. Fortunately Morris has one more surprise up his sleeve at the climax to keep your appetite whetted for next months adventure. Overall Protect and Survive is excellent and sees the writer, director and actors all at their very best but the second half never quite captures the intensity of the first episode which could be isolated as a horrifying piece of drama in its own right. Things continue to progress very engagingly for the seventh Doctor, this is a smart story which is entirely built around one of his cleverest traps: 9/10


Panzerpenguin said...

If Albert and Peggy go through the same ten days over and over again and realise it why the hell didn’t they mention that when Ace and Hex thought the world was going to end?

At that point in the story it seemed to me that they had simply been driven completely insane by their ordeal (an entirely natural reaction) and had become resigned to their situation like the people in The Chimes of Midnight. This is just the way things are for them now and they don't react 'normally' to strangers any more.

Of course, as it transpires they are actually alien sadists who haven't had the opportunity to see or make others suffer for a century, and don't want to spoil the surprise for their 'guests'....

I'm not sure that the Doctor is actually unusually ruthless in this story. The Elder Gods clearly fall into the category of eldritch enemies of all life such as Sutekh, Fenric or the Fendahl, but rather than destroying them or banishing them from our reality he actually gives them an opportunity for freedom if they can prove themselves capable of genuine empathy for their victims. The story strongly suggests they are by their nature incapable of this, but he clearly holds out some faint hope of redemption for them.

jennhi said...

The first episode reminded me of When the Wind Blows, an animated film (with some stunning techniques) that I'm not brave enough to watch again. It was a critique on war preparedness in England in the 80s, showing how government-issued pamphlets' recommendations conflicted with each other and didn't really explain anything. Then it draws out the critique by having two elderly people in the countryside suffer through the aftereffects of a bomb being dropped. Slowly.

The first episode mirrored it all, and I'm really, really glad it was audio-only. When the big reveal came in, it was certainly a cheat, but my skin was already crawling and I found it a great relief.

ali said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ali said...

A real "Test of Job"!

It struck me while listening to this how you can only get away with on audio. On television, only McCoy (or perhaps Hartnell) can get away with being off screen for so long... A second of screen time without the Doctor equals another viewer getting up for a piss break. (Shamefully, I admit that I fast-forward through TV shows on my DVR constantly. Particularly scenes which don't feature any of the regulars!)

Can't beat the old fashioned chill of a spooky radio. If this happened on Nu Who, it would involve a lot of steampunk pistols and armored suits from a "Fallout" Game.

Unknown said...

The Holy Terror and Protect and Survive are so similar to Heaven Sent. And all three are utterly amazing stories. Coincidence i think not