Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Burning Prince written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it all about: The Drashani Empire – a galaxy-spanning civilisation, the glory of Rome set amongst the stars. But for decades now, the Royal Houses of Gadarel and Sorsha have been at war, each claiming the throne. The wedding of Prince Kylo and Princess Aliona was meant to change all that – a blessed union between the Houses, a new hope for the Empire. Until Aliona’s wedding galley crash landed on the planet Sharnax – and all contact was lost. The TARDIS lands aboard the ship carrying the fiery Kylo in search of his lost Princess but with a sabre-toothed monster roaming its corridors, the Doctor soon discovers that he’s not the only alien presence on board.

An English Gentleman: John Dorney has a gift for bringing the fifth Doctor to life vividly and that’s not something to be sniffed at as it has alluded many a writer. The nearest comparison I can make is that of Robert Holmes in the Caves of Androzani because Dorney injects him with a lot of energy, wit and a degree of helplessness whilst also accentuating that this is an old man in a young mans body. In his safe hands, this incarnation really comes alive. I really like the idea of fifth Doctor having an adventure on his own. It feels like an age since he has had the chance to be the central figure of his stories, burdened with the overweight companion load of Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough. Dorney immediately sets the date of this adventure too which avoids any fan argument over where in his personal timeline it takes place – the Doctor has left Tegan and Nyssa in Amsterdam following the events of Arc of Infinity and is on his way back to collect them. He’s becoming something of a cynic in his old age, expecting to be greeted by guards as soon as he departs the TARDIS and looking forward to languishing in whatever passes for the local dungeon. He has the sort of effect on people that they never believe him to begin with but the more he talks, the more he wears them down. When the shit hits the fan the Doctor is instantly commanding, taking control of the chaos and trying to ensure that casualties are kept to a minimum. Peter is starting to become the Angela Lansbury Doctor, the one you least want to show up because you know that it will all end in murder! His awkward attempts at discretion when Kylo and Aliona want to show how much they missed each other really made me chuckle. Its suggested that the Doctor is a pacifist because he hasn’t lived his whole life in wartime but looking back over his previous lives its hard to think of many times when he is not locked in battle – he just chooses to try and be a better person. The Doctor plays along with Aliona’s deception but as soon as he spied a gun on the wedding galley his suspicions were piqued. He’d make a fine consort for an Empress. The Doctor snaps at Tegan because he expects to be criticised by her theses days – even though she isn’t there. A nervous reaction because she hasn’t been around much and he is heading back for her. Wonderfully he suggests that he should make the journey back more of a round trip to delay their reunion. He asks at the climax if it would have been too much for him to have just been able to save one person. Oh Doctor if only you knew what was coming…

Standout Performance: The last time Clive Mantle appeared in a Big Finish adventure he commanded the attention in the role of the violent and unpredictable Oliver Cromwell. Here he provides some gorgeous comic relief as the situation goes from bad to worse and all poor old Tuvold wants is to lie down and rest. There is a world of difference between the two characters – you would never believe they were brought to life by the same man. Does Peter Davison have a cold or is his pinched nose sounding dialogue in episode two supposed to be a result of the numerous punches to the face he received? Just listened to the extras – it was a cold. I had read online (always a danger) that the Prince was the most annoying character but I found that George Rainsford gave quite a measured performance, occasionally tipping over into melodrama as the script dictates but channelling an inner fire and managing to engage my sympathies as well. Even if he does blub a little too much in the final episode.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You fell for the pretty girl – oldest trick in the book!’
‘Hatred is irrational. It’s a law unto itself.’
‘Principles cost. You can afford them if you’ve got nothing to lose.’

Great Ideas: I wouldn’t need to be told that this saga would be spanning several generations and a myriad of locations and casts because John Dorney has instantly gone for the epic jugular, building up a situation where an intimate relationship (the marriage of Kylo and Aliona) will have far reaching consequences if it fails (bloody warfare). It doesn’t feel as though it is setting up an epic, more like we have already walked in on one. The Igriss are eight foot tall bipedal killing machines with sabre teeth and deadly claws. Kylo talks about the creature knowing that he is there and responding to him and the response that he get that all it knows is that he brings food is something I have heard more often than not about my cats! Shira’s death feels important because it really isn’t important…it takes place before the end of the first episode and not positioned nobly at the end of the story which tells the listener that there is going to be a great deal more death to come. If most developed character buys it early on, life is going to be a pretty cheap commodity in this tale. Unfortunately her choice of suicide (blowing herself into space) takes the TARDIS with her. The Doctor is saved, but also trapped. The planet they are heading for is an Igriss world, they took it over and killed everyone – that’s the reason why there are specimens on board, they are trying to discover their weaknesses. Episode two begins with a ten minute long action sequence that cumulates in the ship crashing on the Igriss world – the energy levels never falter and the sound effects drag you down from the stars with the Doctor. Its really rather gripping to experience. Considering the importance of the marriage it seems clear that somebody aboard the mission to retrieve the Princess is opposed to the alliance. Half the fun is trying to figure out who that might be. By proving the monstrous ability of the Igriss in the first episode, stepping out onto their world in the second is a genuinely taut act. Kylo turning out to be a pyro-kinetic isn’t the greatest of surprises (its all there in the titles after all) but its still a fine cliffhanger as the reveal of the death of his beloved outs his abilities in the most dramatic of ways. Things burst into flame when he gets angry but and that is an emotion that anybody would find hard to control. There is a recurrent genetic abnormality in the Drashani Royal House, a mutated brain and Kylo is affected. Corwyn is the traitor, planning on killing everybody on the ship to prevent Kylo reaching Aliona and marrying her. Corwyn’s wife was on Morlitz V when Aliona’s people bombed it and this is his revenge. He was offered a deal by die-hard anti-Gadarel fanatics, a million credits (enough money to get the medical treatment for his wife) for a suicide mission to destroy the ship carrying Kylo. I was never convinced by Aliona’s innocence but Dorney leaves it just long enough for her to make her move that I was starting to come around. I like it when a writer plays with your expectations like that. Aliona proves to be such a fabulously murderous cow you can’t help but like her despite her despicable actions. I love the way she talks so freely and proud about the amount of people she has murdered. Ironically the crash was real but had the fanatics just left them alone Aliona would have done their work for them. Aliona’s people have a larger scale version of the Pulse Gun primed and ready, the idea was to infiltrate the royal palace and obtain a sample of Sorsha DNA and wipe out the lot of them in one stroke. Its rather wonderful that given the senseless waste of life the story has perpetuated there is still room for a noble sacrifice at the climax. Of this large cast only one character comes out alive – Saward would be proud.

Audio Landscape: Some of Ken Bentley’s most visual direction yet with the linear storyline requiring some dramatic and clear cut direction.  As subtle as John Dorney’s writing is (letting us know what is going on without feeling as though he is narrating) but even without the dialogue I would have a good handle on what is going on. Kudos to Martin Montague. Ships screaming through space, growling creatures, pouring water, smashing glass, screaming in the distance, weapons fire, the ship crashing, tearing through trees and landing near a swamp teeming with life, water pouring into the ship and its weight finally diving under the surface in a flurry of bubbles and resurfacing and bobbing on the surface, the princes burning hands lashing out flames and there was one moment in the third episode when the Igriss make their presence felt and I jumped out of my skin!

Isn’t it Odd: If you squint hard enough you might just see a touch of the Big Finish’s Arrangements for War in this story, with regards to the arranged marriage bringing centuries of warfare to a close. The way events play out have a similar bleak inevitability too, although The Burning Prince gets its hands much dirtier.

Standout Scene: Once Aliona’s true colours are unveiled the story steps up into high gear and one of the better villainess’ of the audio range takes to the stage. She’s gleefully bad, insulting her would-be suitor, chopping his hand off for a sample of his DNA (when there are much easier ways of obtaining it) and threatening to slaughter all of his people. We need more psychopathic babes like this in Doctor Who. I’ve missed this kind of unrepentable, moustache twirling breed of baddie. These days they all come with a sob story. When she boasts about the mass slaughter of his entire people its clear what Kylo’s response is going to be. Like all the best villains she tries to lie and fawn her way out of her death but this is one man who has been pushed too far.

Result: It is often said that Doctor Who is at its best when it is pretending to be something else and The Burning Prince is no exception – its an episode of Game of Thrones set in space with a dash of Rome  thrown in for good measure.  The idea of penning an action adventure on audio might seem insane because of the hindrance of the lack of visuals but its amazing what your imagination can conjure up with the stimulus and the limitless budget in my head whipped up some unforgettable imagery. We get close to the characters in the first half of the story, the Doctor enjoying some nicely written exchanges before the slaughter begins in the second half and nothing and nobody can be taken for granted. I loved the clean cut storytelling in evidence here, the general unpretentiousness of the writing – it has a tone that it is aiming for (sword and sorcery in space) and it never deviates from that. So many Big Finish adventures can end up like my reviews, needlessly long and complicated (and to be fair some of them work very well that way but the recent Black and White proves how it can be a real hindrance) but this is one story that feels perfectly paced with enough exciting incident and revelations to see us through until the continuation of the story next month. There’s no great depth to the story that plays out but that isn’t what this is all about; it’s a scene setting, rip roaring disaster tale with horrible murders, icky monsters, a gloriously over the top villain and the Doctor at the top of his game. I would put this story on the same sort of engaging level as Enemy of the Daleks. I was enjoying this so much it went by like a dream: 8/10

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