Sunday, 23 September 2012

Gods and Monsters written by Mike Maddox and Alan Barnes and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The TARDIS travellers arrive in a bizarre landscape seemingly immune to the physical laws governing the rest of the universe. Ace, Hex, Sally and Lysandra battle to rescue the Doctor from the trap he's walked into… soon realising that the odds are stacked against them. Because the Doctor is playing an old adversary again: Fenric, shatterer of worlds. But the gods and monsters who inhabit this strange realm loaded the dice against them long ago, in the dim and distant past – and defeat's their only option.

The Real McCoy: Fenric asks the Doctor if he thinks his mortal realm of stars and galaxies actually matters. His reaction to the Haemovores being set loose on his friends injects the moment with some real horror. He’s scared because Fenric is insane and ridiculously powerful, there’s no telling what havoc he could wrought. For a moment the Doctor thinks that Ace is dead and declares her a ‘stupid, headstrong brilliant girl!’ For a second you can feel how much she means to him. He can’t answer the questions as to whether he trusted Ace and Hex with the knowledge of what has been going on all along…he just feigns innocence and tries to bluff his way out of answering. The Doctor cocks up a saying and it amuses Fenric to think of the ‘good old days’, showing just how far back he has been watching this particular incarnation. In his arrogance the Doctor believed himself to be Fenric’s opposition, his equal but he soon comes to realise that he has just been another piece on the board. Its interesting to see the Doctor relegated to a background player when The Curse of Fenric went to such efforts to make his battle with Fenric a clash of the Gods. Personally I prefer this turn of events, I like the Doctor to be the underdog rising up against his enemies rather than the omnipresent manipulator with delusions of grandeur. But I’m sure there are people out there who are weeping at the thought of the Doctor being defrocked in such a fashion, to be told that he isn’t a celestial player after all. All the Doctor had to do was to bring Hex to the game, that was the extent of his role. How humbling.

Oh Wicked: ‘My name’s Ace, I’m from a dysfunctional family and I cope by blowing things up!’ Just about sums her up nicely! Fenric senses movement on his chess board and smells a she-wolf and calls Ace one of his own. Ace figures that if she can’t beat action Barbie (Lysandra) than she is just going to have to join her (I wish she had figured that in the last story but its better late than never!). It doesn’t take them long to be arguing amiably over the fact that they are both old enough to be each others mothers. As Ace starts painting her picture of Fenric and tells Hex about the time storm that brewed up in her bedroom and whisked her off to Iceworld it is a strong reminder of how long she has been travelling with the Doctor for now and how long Fenric had a hand in her adventures from the very beginning. Her own personal hell is to be taken back to Perivale so naturally that is exactly where Fenric takes her, to the point just before the time storm took her away on her journey of discovery. She has the option to stop the event that changed her life, to have some other poor wretch by chosen by Fenric and take her place. How different would her life have been had she never been tainted by Fenric and nor met the Doctor. Would she be a success? Or was this what made her a success? She’s angrier than she has ever been with the Doctor – you can tell that by the way she isn’t shouting (that does seem a rather apt point and an infinitely preferable state of affairs!). Ace is the one who asks the pertinent questions – if Weyland wants to destroy the universe and they are trying to destroy his opponent, does that make them the goodies or the baddies? At the end of his life Ace tries to tell Hex that she loves him but he stops her, knowing that it will stop him from sacrificing himself. The fact that he asks her to pull the switch that will kill him says something about their bond but she can’t do it. Even though she understands why she has to. She’s hysterical at the end, practically animalistic in response to Hex’s sacrifice. Goodness knows what will happen between her and the Doctor next.

Sexy Scouse: There’s a very funny moment when Hex tries to suggest that in his travels with the Doctor he has learnt that not all alien lifeforms are to be treated as villains and the blue, scabby monsters that are approaching might be quite friendly. The Doctor points out quite early on that his name means ‘curse’ which should be a big clue to where his character is heading. When his wound from Scutari starts to bleed again, it confirms it. It’s a bloody portent of doom. Weyland reveals that Hex is his creature and that without his protection he would have long since bled to death. Hex is Weyland’s secret weapon, brought to the game invisibly, masked by all the Doctor schemes and traps. The trouble with having pieces on a chess board that can think for themselves is that they wont obey the rules of the game. The black and white pieces joining forces defeated Fenric during the first contest and now Hex chooses to defy Weyland in the second contest in exactly the same way. Once Weyland is out of the way Hex then manages to best Fenric too, by having faith in the one person that he never got to know. His mother. Beneath all the bluster and complications of this arc, the whole thing turns out to be about Hex and his mother and how he uses her memory to defeat Fenric.

Ex-Forge: When visiting the future, Lysandra sees the moment when Sally murders her for information she simply doesn’t have. It takes Lysandra to take action and obey Hex’s wishes at the end.

Sally: She went to Mars with the Doctor to check out the Tomb of an ancient Star God. In the future she has an important position with the military and has developed a cold, efficient attitude to her work. She’s willing to torture Lysandra in order to get the truth out of her. Sally watches herself activate the weapon that will destroy the world. It’s all part of Fenric’s evil plan, allowing them to see this. Fenric wanted to turn them against Weyland so that he would lose and deliver him the shield.

Standout Performance: Olivier always impresses me as Hex and has done right back from the start of his adventures but I was left gobsmacked as he switched between the vicious, antagonistic Fenric and the much gentler Scouse lad that we all know and love. Its effortlessly done and proves to be a gripping final performance piece for an actor who brought a great deal to his stories.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘At last I shall make my true form manifest…and let the chains of Fenric shatter!’
‘It was always a toss up between you and a lovelorn young motorcyclists in…Wales.’
‘A bleeding man on a planet of vampires?’
‘For all your huffing and puffing Fenric, you’re just a boy who likes pulling the wings of spiders, aren’t you?’

Great Ideas: Fenric likes to play chess because it is the game of Gods. The Doctor figures that the Elder Gods need mortal men to give their universe scale, to be something to their nothing. We can happily live without them but their lives are meaningless without us. In a wonderful moment of surreal imagery, Hex, Lysandra and Sally reach the end of the world and realise that it is flat and it just falls off into nothingness (it’s the literal representation of the chess board that they are playing on). Suddenly they are confronted by literal chess pieces, giant castles and the like and they realise that they are piece themselves. Bringing the two sets of companions together was swapping one castle (TARDIS) for another, the Doctor diverting Fenric’s attention. The Doctor realised a long time ago that somebody was stirring up the Elder Gods, as far back as the giant chess set in the Swiss Sanatorium (The Magic Mousetrap). Whilst Ace and Hex slept the Doctor followed traces of the Elder Gods on a thousand worlds over thousands of years and they were all talking about the same thing – Weyland’s Shield. Fenric thinks the shield will allow him to re-attain his natural form as a creature with limitless, unspeakable limbs that can creep across entire dimensions. Nimrod’s last secret hidden away at the heart of the Forge is a weapon that fires a beam of electrons that kills the Higgs-Boson, fire it at anything and it simply becomes unstuck. In the future there is a White fleet of ships hanging over the Earth poised to attack – they could use the weapon to destroy it but it would be reduced to a poisonous goo that would infect the Earth. Either way, dead. The pass code to weapon changes every time it is used to the next move in a game of chess. The Elder Gods gather for the end of the game, like thunder cracking in the sky. Weyland is Fenric’s true opponent, a maker of weapons and tools for Gods to fight other Gods. The Forge was always Weyland’s creation and he went unseen by those who thought that they were in charge of it. He filled the TARDIS with his black pieces – Lysandra was a product of his Forge and Sally’s parents were killed in a volley bullets that he made. Weyland has been watching Fenric as back as Perivale. When the Doctor described Ace’s town as having ‘lush green fields and a village blacksmith’ he never imagined that Weyland was operating there. The description of Weyland’s foundry beneath the Earth, a death factory to create weapons of holy destruction is one of those ideas that Big Finish touts every now and again that really gets my blood pumping. I would love to see more of that, it is an astonishingly vivid location. The person who wields the shield can re-shape everything that ever was and will be, Weyland made it and such power would set him up above the Gods. Fenric challenged him for it and can only take it if he wins the game. The whole of reality is at stake in a chess match between the Gods. Peggy (from Protect and Survive) has been one of Weyland’s allies all along and refuses to give him the shield unless he returns Albert to her. She’s sacrificed by Weyland simply snapping the head off her piece.

Audio Landscape: A bubbling stream, the clanking chains of the Ancient One, the chaos of a time storm raging, Perivale recreated with cars and buses passing by, thunders, birds screaming, assault helicopter, alarms, Sally putting a bullet through her brain in the future, Fenric’s army rising from the waters, the roaring Weyland, the Doctor at Weyland’s forge, metal on metal, wind whipping through the TARDIS doors.

Isn’t it Odd: Try not to be too embarrassed by Sylvester McCoy’s ramblings in the very first scene. I’ve not heard anything quite this nonsensical from him since Unregenerate. Doctor Who also sported a fantastic array of the sound effects to make its monsters seem more alien and over the years Big Finish have happily capitalised on that fact and given this fanboy many hours of pleasure recalling various sound effects from classic TV stories. With the Haemovores they’ve drawn a bit of a blank though because their raison d’etre was that they were silently stalking warriors that hunted you down and never tired…how do you produce that sound on audio? By having them grunting and groaning all the while, that’s how! Its nowhere near as effective, in fact it sounds like a gang of Walking Dead zombies are pursuing our friends throughout this tale. One of the best aspects of The Curse of Fenric was the exploration of faith, those who had it were able to survive and those without were killed. Its handled pretty shabbily here though with Ace’s faith in the explosive abilities of Nitro Nine feeling like a piss take. Despite the magnificence of the last ten minutes there is something a little off about Hex’s character – he has been bitching an moaning about the absent Doctor for quite some time now and when they are reunited he firmly tells him that he wants a few words with him…but then a few scenes later without any sign that they have had it out they are head back to the TARDIS as jolly as can be. It feels a bit jarring. Oddly, they never get to have that conversation either because there is far too much going on. It feels like a wasted opportunity. The battle between Gods resorts to name calling (‘Fenric! Trickster! Player of games!’) and fist waving – if we didn’t know that whole armies were being swept up in their wake it might feel strangely anti-climactic (but then how else can this sort of battle of deities be realised on audio?). Having commenting on the action like your Grandma watching an episode of Doctor Who does nothing to help. It all feels a little too human for my liking. Just as Weyland brought in Lysandra and Sally to distract Fenric whilst he sneaked in Hex as his secret weapon thus Alan Barnes and his writers have done the same thing – ultimately they prove to have no impact on the story whatsoever aside from keeping the audience thinking that they are important whilst Hex is manoeuvred into his sacrificial place.

Standout Scene: When all the fireworks are over with and we think that the fight is over, the writers pull one final nasty trick out of the bag by revealing that Fenric has hidden away inside of Hex. As the poor lad slowly bleeds to death in the TARDIS he begs to be allowed to die, rather that than provide a host for the Elder God to inhabit. Its an act of pure selflessness, Hex proves to be altruistic right up to the end. Unforgettable (if a little too hysterical for my tastes). Keep listening after the credits and a return appearance by Fenric in Hex’s form might be possible…

Notes: Stories that you might want to watch/listen to to make sense of all this…
Dragonfire – We visit Ace before the time storm whips her away from Perivale. The Doctor mentions ‘a village blacksmith.’
The Curse of Fenric – Obviously!
The Project Trilogy (Project: Twilight/Project: Lazarus/Project: Destiny) – Introducing the Forge, Hex’s mother Cassie and Lysandra.
The Magic Mousetrap – A chess board motif emerges…
The Angel of Scutari – Hex is shot.
Lurker’s at Sunlight’s Edge – After which the Doctor builds his second TARDIS
The House of Blue Fire – Sally is introduced.
Protect and Survive – A pair of Elder Gods make an appearance
Black and White – The chess pieces come together. The introduction of the Weyland’s shield.

Result: Written by Mike Maddox (aided strongly by Alan Barnes), set in a fantasy realm where anything goes and tying together a mass of threads stretching back into the misty dawn of televised Who…there is more than a touch of Legend of the Cybermen about Gods and Monsters. This doesn’t quite have the subversive creativity of that finale but it is still an innovative and titanic conclusion. What is especially impressive about this climactic story is how tightly plotted this arc feels and yet when you listen to the extras it is revealed to have been pretty much made up as it went along with the writers grasping at elements of the previous stories to drag them all into one cumulative saga. You would honestly think this was all planned from the outset. I actually preferred the dovetailing of various narratives and the plot surprises to the identity of the villain of the piece – bringing Fenric back is exciting in a very fannish way but once you are over the fact the truth of the matter is that John Standing doesn’t bring a great deal of menace to the part and the Haemovores worked far better on the television than a groaning background presence here. Saying that they pull off a massive coup in the last episode when the possessive powers of Fenric creates a chilling villain in Philip Olivier’s Hex. Its during these powerful moments that you remember what an effective opponent this particular Elder God was. Its when focusing on the Doctor, Ace and Hex guys that Gods and Monsters really comes alive and I’m pleased to say that they all get real moments to shine. This is hugely complicated, utterly inimical to any fresh listeners but regardless manages to build the entire McCoy era (televised and on audio) into an impressive house of cards with Gods and Monsters right at the summit and gives a companion the unforgettable exit they deserve. I had a few problems with this but if you keep your wits about you it proves to be a rewarding experience: 8/10 (an extra point for the last handful of scenes)

I have had to re-rate this story as the more l think about its construction out of  continuity retroactively, the less convincing it feels. Its striving a little too hard to be epic at the expense of older, better stories: 6/10

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