Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Acheron Pulse written by Rick Briggs and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The planet Cawdor. Deep in the heart of the Drashani Empire. The Doctor lands thirty years after the Succession of Blood brought Empress Cheni to the throne. For most of her reign there has been peace and prosperity. The Empire flourished. But five years ago, the War came. And nothing was ever the same again. Now the Drashani are at war with the mysterious alien race known as the Wrath, led by the Warlord Tenebris.  As more and more planets fall to their advance events are rushing to a head. What exactly does Tenebris want? What is the secret of the Wrath's weapon, the terrifying Acheron Pulse? As the Doctor races to save an Empire, he may not like the answers he finds.

Softer Six: In the light of no companion the Doctor winds up talking to the TARDIS and is attacked and knocked out in record time. Sometimes he has to wonder why he ever steps out the door when an agreeable fellow such as he can be mistreated so grievously! The Doctor has often travelled with young slips of things and older women, with warrior maidens and intergalactic smart asses…but never has been shackled with somebody quite as bawdy, as outrageous and as downright filthy as Athrid! He realises that the promise that he made to Torvald to look after his daughter was one that he never actually got around to keeping. And its certainly one that he doesn’t fulfil here. As soon as he makes another promise to bring Athrid home safe and sound, you have to wonder if he’s thought that one through as well. Careless talk costs lives and the Doctor wilfully shatters the illusions that have been built up around the myth of Kylo and Aliona. Rather wonderfully, he punches Boritz to stop him from detonating the explosives and apologetically tells him he just has one of those faces that people want to hit! Perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on the exploring the Doctor’s guilt in the new series but it was rarely touched upon in the classic series and to be able to see mistakes from one regeneration coming back to haunt a later one is a pleasing way of making the character face his responsibilities. You have to wonder if he has learnt anything at all, making the choice to influence the Wrath and set them on a new path in life. I have a feeling this is going to come back to bite the seventh Doctor in the butt. He sees himself as someone who doesn’t judge, quietly observes, never interferes and seeks well thought through compromise whenever conflict arises – that is bloody funny! ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ There is a longer coda than usual as the Doctor tries to tie up every loose end but given how his actions have been scrutinised so microscopically here you can see how each one of these endings could lead to more trouble. I guess that’s the risk he takes every time he leaves at the end of an adventure. That’s the price for getting involved. Just this once he thinks he deserves a party.

Standout performance: Chook Sibtain always gives 110% and he sets out to prove that and then some in this story. He made a wonderful villain in the Sarah Jane Adventures (the slimy Grantham in Warriors of Kudlak) and was unforgettably gruesome in The Waters of Mars. Now he sets out to out-Colin Baker Colin Baker here (the only person who has come close before is the unbeatably fabulous Brian Blessed), playing the theatrical and warlike Athrid, a man of such vicious and indulgent appetites a lurid exclamation is never far from his lips. A shame he departs so early in the tale. The other peasant characters (sorry that’s indelicate but I can’t think of a better description for them) failed to impress, the actors struggling with their dialogue.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Or I can leave you here to face the wrath of the…umm…Wrath!’
‘There are times when suffering makes its victim a monster.’
‘Here I am about to die trapped in an alternate universe and I’m hearing voices! If this my reward for six lifetimes of rigorous rationalism I wish I hadn’t bothered!’

Great Ideas: Few Doctor Who stories set out to be epic. Most just want to be good stories and sometimes as a result wind up sprawling out of control and overly ambitious. On television I can only think of a handful of times when the show set out to tell an epic saga – The Daleks’ Masterplan, Frontier in Space/Planet of the Daleks, The Key to Time and The Trial of a Time Lord with possibly Utopia/The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords thrown in for good measure – and on audio with the trilogy format that links three stories together with momentum, more often than not climaxing on a blockbuster that ties all the threads together, it has become rather more commonplace. But this is the first time since the Excelis trilogy that something this deliberately grandiose has been attempted, a narrative that steps not just from one story to another but from one incarnation of the Doctor to another (although it is worth noting that this is not without precedent – the TV series did the same thing with Ressurection, Revelation and Remembrance telling an ongoing narrative across exactly the same Doctors). Immediately this story kicks off holding its hand with The Burning Prince with a youngster being told the mythical tale of Prince Kylo and Princess Aliona who turns out to be the childs cousin. I rather enjoyed the melding of medieval and futuristic, touching on the same anachronistic atmosphere as State of Decay and many a Stargate SG-1 episode. The Doctor frowns upon the idea of an advanced society developing a less sophisticated one (Codor has progressed centuries in as many months) for the exclusive mining rights of a particular mineral. Its nice to know that Tuvold’s legacy has endured, given he was one of the few characters in The Burning Prince who deserved to walk free of the slaughter. His daughter is now the ruler of the Empire, the Empress Cheni. With no black box recording of the events that took place in the first chapter of this saga and the Doctor the only survivor, he is the only person who can contradict the myths and legends that have built up around those events and endanger the society that has been built on the foundations of those beliefs. Suddenly killing everybody in John Dorney’s slaughterhouse story looks very deliberate. I love the way this story explores how events can be entirely mis-interpreted (Aliona is still spoken of as a gentle Princess rather than the vengeful psychotic she really was). The Wrath are the perfect Doctor Who monster, tearing through the Empire and claiming worlds in the name of their warlord with Codor in their sights. When their Empire expanded, the Drashani took prisoners on every new world and their scientists experimented on them. The scientists learnt how to regress their captives to a primordial state fit for mindless labour and created the Igriss. Kylo’s ‘death’ allowed Tenebris to be born, a more ruthless man born out of the deaths of so many. After what the Empire had done to the Igriss they needed very little persuasion to be fashioned into an army – the Wrath. It took Tenebris 25 years to construct his fleet out of the derelict ships on Sharnax. The Acheron pulse was a gift from the Wrath, fashioned from a wasteland of the mind where the Igriss’ souls ended up. In the same way that I feel many lauded historical figures would disappoint if they were seen in the cold light of reality rather than through history’s rosy lens, Kylo returns and gleefully tears down the myths that have been built up around him and his bride, shattering the faith of all the lives built on it. The Caliostro Prismosphere is a marvellous creation, a little corner of reality where thousands of worlds have become squashed together in the same space time.

Audio Landscape: A baby crying, the sucking, screeching Dremereels, crackling fire, honking animals, ducks quacking, street bustle, radiation tearing through the astronauts, boarding pods, Wrath blaster fire, horses galloping, crickets and insects purring, the screaming Igriss souls. The Caliostro Prismosphere has to be heard to be believed, a sequence of awesome atmospherics.

Isn’t it Odd: After the casual murder of the cast of The Burning Prince, killing Athrid so early felt like trying to repeat its success. For once it might have been better to have cut the teaser to the next story – by showing Kylo was alive at the end of the last adventure I was waiting for him to show up here. There was only one role he could really take in proceedings so his reveal at the end of part two didn’t come as a great surprise. Fortunately the twist is given some pleasing retroactive explanation, skipping to the end of The Burning Prince and explaining what happened to Kylo in the interim, his fury unleashed and a warmonger being born. Episode one promised a space opera the likes of which we had never seen before on Who. I thought we were going to see the events of The Burning Prince take place writ large. Instead the last two episodes favour introspection. That’s not a problem, its just not what I was expecting and ultimately the most exciting moments were in the first episode. I’m not sure if the Doctor should be rewarding a man who has subsumed entire worlds and transformed their population into mindless animals…even if he did repent in the end. The idea of redeeming a man that the Doctor has wronged does have a nice ring to it, though.

Standout Scene: I loved Cheni’s ridiculously romantic solution to Kylo’s murderous rampage – that they should marry and unite the Empire! In true melodramatic form she rips away his mask to see the beautiful Prince beneath only to be greet by a disfigured face melted down by the acid storms of Sharnax. Such naiveté deserves a reward and we get to experience in agonising detail as she is reshaped into an Igriss. Aint love grand.

Result: Exploiting its position as the nucleus of a saga to explore the impact of the events of The Burning Prince, The Acheron Pulse isn’t the bastard middle child you might suspect it to be. What initially seems like an overloaded first episode soon sharpens once the situation is made clear and before the first cliffhanger we have experienced a mass slaughter (or rather re-shapement) and are dealing with an intergalactic army of storm troopers threatening the safety of an entire Empire. Episode two meanders a little (spending too much time amongst the peasants on Codor) but episode three is where the story really shapes up, revealing how every consequence of this story is directly influenced by the first instalment in the trilogy. Doctor Who always walks a dangerous tightrope across melodrama and with a love story that ends in mass slaughter across generations I suppose The Acheron Pulse couldn’t help but wobble and plunge headfirst into its theatrical depths. Such an approach does allow for some dramatic (and gruesome) moments and with the Doctor’s involvement in this whole affair under such scrutiny there is plenty to think about too. If the story is a little too sprawling and unfocused (like this review!), it manages to entertain for its entire length and in its exploration of the power of myth it has something quite profound to say: 7/10


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