Sunday, 25 November 2012

Return of the Rocket Men written by Matt Fitton and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: Once before the Doctor battled the sadistic Rocket Men and once before he won. But when the dreaded pirates of the skies raid a remote frontier planet, he's not the only member of the TARDIS crew for whom they are old enemies. Steven Taylor knows them well. Back in his days as a pilot, on his twenty first birthday, Steven's ship was brought down by the malevolent Van Cleef. He barely escaped with his life. And now he's going to have to go through that again. But this time round, he knows what happens. And he knows there's no way out. Steven Taylor has to make a choice. A choice where either way... he loses.

Aggressive Astronaut: Oh Peter Purves (yes I am saying that with a long, satisfied sigh). I was just thinking the other day that the number of companions that have travelled with the Doctor across the various mediums is growing out of hand. Its hard to keep track of them all. There was a time when you could happily recite the 30 odd television companions but if you were to venture into the comics, audios and novels as well you could be there all day. The crowd has expanded to such an extent that its only the really strong ones that stick in my mind permanently and the less impressive examples fall away unless I am watching or reviewing one of their stories. Steven Taylor is still, even after almost 50 years of intervening companions, one of my all time favourites. He’s often neglected because so many of his best stories have bitten the dust visually (The Myth Makers, The Daleks’ Masterplan and The Massacre form a trio of masterpieces nestled comfortably in season three) but if you take the time to work your way through his manifest of episodes you will find an astonishingly vivid character played by a surprisingly (only in the sense that his acting career didn’t really take off afterwards) versatile and nuanced actor. He managed to work his way through four female assistants and still keep his post, he managed to wrestle screen time away from the lead actor (at that was more a necessity) and hold his own and he proved adept at both high drama and bawdy comedy and everything that came in between. And just listen to Purves on the special features of these discs. He loves doing these stories, he’s gifted with some of the best scripts that Big Finish has to offer and he is frankly one of the finest audio actors that the company has. I really don’t have a bad word to say about either the character or the actor except that I have to wait too long between new stories featuring him (whereas someone like Sophie Aldred fills the schedules with irritating frequency).

Proving that there was much more room for the companions to go on a journey in the sixties than in later decades of the classic series, the Steven Taylor companion chronicles always seem to be well placed in his timeline to co-incide with a dramatic or traumatic event. We’ve heard him getting over the death of Sara Kingdom, meet a new friend in Oliver and now its time to experience the moment when he decides to stop wandering and to lay down some roots. We’ve had a handful of stories refer back to his time as an astronaut now, emphasising that he had a life (but not much of one) before meeting the Doctor. Steven takes quite a beating in the hands of Van Cleef which isn’t as anachronistic as it might seem. This is a season that features four stories that climax with mass murder (The Myth Makers, The Daleks’ Masterplan, The Massacre and The Gunfighters). His knees exploding when greeted by Van Cleef’s bullets is really nasty and it takes three months before he was able to walk again. After all his months in Russia (see Mother Russia) Steven had almost started to feel settled and it had given him a taste for building a life for himself. He’s been many things already…a cadet, a pilot, a soldier, even Steven Regret – tenor! This is close enough to Steven’s time for him to be able meet somebody from his past and the sudden death of his old acquaintance is another loss in his travels with the Doctor. And this time closer to home. He’d lost so many friends and makes the choice to make a stand and refuse to lose Dodo too. The Doctor doesn’t even try to talk him out of going after the Rocket Men, he knows by now that the ex-astronaut is a very determined man. Fitton sees fit to have Steven explain in some detail the technology he is using to reach Dodo and the others, exposing his knowledge of the time. Even the technobabble has something to say about the characters in this story. His excitement at being back in the seat of the ships he has flown his whole life is quite exhilarating. The colony world is called Taylor’s Stand, the beginning of a civilisation that will all know his name. Its no less than he deserves but he selflessly hands that honour onto Ford who died protecting the colony. Man, I love Steven. He has become used to looking after the Doctor, comfortable, but he thinks its nearly time to leave him because he has begun asking the question of when is the right time to go.

Hmm: Many a first Doctor companion chronicle has seen the titular character reveal a tender and sensitive understanding of human behaviour. He understood that Ian and Barbara were growing more intimate on The Rocket Men, he urged Steven to enjoy his time with Sara in The Anachronauts and here he implores Steven to allow Dodo to revel in the joy of his birthday. Its not often that they get to have genial pauses in their adventures. It’s a side of him that I really like and would have loved to have seen Hartnell play more of on screen (his scene with Vicki at the beginning of The Time Meddler shows how excellent he was at that sort of thing). The Doctor is sensible enough to order the colonist to let the Rocket Men take the supplies because they are replaceable but the colonists aren’t. I always got the impression that by the time Steven left the Doctor he considered his companion as an equal. They had shared many wonders together, and much tragedy. Their parting in The Savages is one of the more understated examples and all the more touching for it. The Doctor can see that Steven has matured beyond the point of travelling and needs to settle down. Matt Fitton taps into that mutual respect between the two characters in his tale. He expresses his pride in the boy at the end of this tale and acknowledges that he can walk away to a more deserving life with his blessings at any time.

Dead as a…: I enjoy the stories (few and far between that they are) that feature Dodo because it continues Big Finish; rehabilitation of some of the lesser loved companions. Fitton has got her spot on here, in your face, socially painless and full of misguided enthusiasm. Naturally she is far more excited about Steven’s birthday than he is. Purves’ portmanteau accent for the girl is as spot on as his intense curiosity for the first Doctor.

Standout Performance: As good as Tim Treloar is, Purves is too attention grabbing to notice anybody else. He narrates in such a skilful, unassuming way too. A truly gifted actor.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Time is relative. Birthdays are for relatives. And friends.’
‘It took a certain type of person to give up everything for a life with no guarantees. They were brave, foolhardy even but I respected them. Pioneers, extending the reach of the human race.’
‘The day I was born and the day I’d die…’
‘He leaves a silver smear across the black sky as he heads for the stars…’

Great Ideas: The Rocket Men are such a gorgeous retro idea. Very of the sixties when such ambitious ideas were in evidence and yet contemporary too in how they afford the opportunity for some gloriously visual set pieces that never could have been realised at the time. They like raiding colony worlds most because they are on the back foot from the start with no shelter, no protection worth a damn and a steady stream of supplies. The Rocket Men aren’t just a danger to those that they want to plunder from, new recruits are disposable as well if they don’t live up to their potential. You get the feeling that the space pirates from the Troughton era tale of the same name were supposed to be this vicious and unrelenting but the show never quite had the balls to push it that far. This story features the rarest of things; a triumphant, uplifting cliffhanger, one that sees Steven put on Ramirez’s spacesuit and head to for destiny. The original Rocket Men story had a similarly winning pause between episodes. The Doctors at the medical centre assumed that for some reason Steven had shot out his own knees…how right they were. Van Cleef picking up the narration after Steven’s ‘death’ feels unobtrusive because he has shared that duty with him throughout the tale. The imagery of a dead recruit coming back to life to avenge his casual murder is marvellous.

Audio Landscape: Alarms, ships firing, consoles flaring, footsteps on gravel, the windy surface of the colony world, screaming. 

Musical Cues: As usual the music for the companion chronicles kicks ass until it turns from pain to pleasure (erm…).

Standout Scene: The first sequence featuring Steven before he met the Doctor being attacked by the Rocket Men is a gripping introduction to the story. Like Purves my first thought was where on Earth was Fitton going with this but as soon as a mysterious benefactor in a cracked helmet saved his life I had a strong inkling that it might be Steven from the future. That didn’t matter one iota when it came to playing out the same scene again from our Steven’s point of view during the climax because Fitton found a fresh perspective on events through the older mans eyes. In fact it was even better the second time around because Steven was willing to sacrifice to make sure that his younger self gets to travel with the Doctor and see all those amazing thins. If you do go into the story guessing the identity of the masked Rocket Man then it makes the way the story falls into place in the second episode even more exciting, leading the audience back to the same point. Its brilliantly structured from both angles and the pay off is extraordinary. Its not the satisfying use of Dodo’s gift that makes this scene so special, it’s the decision that Steven comes to and the peace that he feels having reached it. It says a great deal about what he has been through in the past few years and contributes greatly towards his choice to leave in The Savages. Rarely has a suicide mission been loaded with such optimism.

Result: Listening to the first ten minutes of Return of the Rocket Men I could have sworn that it was written by Simon Guerrier. Its that good. Whilst I would never take away from Guerrier’s obvious scripting abilities it becomes clear that much of the atmosphere of his best companion chronicles is the work of director Lisa Bowerman and sound technician and musician extraordinaire Howard Carter. This is Matt Fitton’s third script for Big Finish and its his finest work yet, proving that he can mix the intimate and the exciting with genuine potency. Big Finish has had a good record of discovering strong scriptwriters during their experimental anthologies and Fitton has emerged as the strongest of late and I am really happy to see his name cropping up more in the schedules. The first Doctor companion chronicles remind me just how perfectly formed the characters were back in the monochrome pioneering days of Doctor Who and Steven once again emerges as someone very special. There’s a Colony in Space feel to the first episode but its told with far more fluidity, personality and exhilaration whilst still capturing its essence. The Rocket Men make another unforgettable appearance and I hope the chat about a third story to feature them in the interviews at the end wasn’t just a throwaway joke. They come with a real sense of danger and a promise of violence, intimidating in a way that so many Doctor Who villains fail to achieve. All these treats and another astonishing turn from Peter Purves who once again eases you into the story with consummate skill and provides many dramatic and personal moments that absolutely hit the mark. This range continues to deliver and Fitton’s sequel proves to be more than worthy to follow in the footsteps of John Dorney’s original Rocket Men tale: 10/10

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