Sunday, 16 December 2012

1001 Nights written by Emma Beeby & Gordon Rennie, Jonathan Barnes & Catherine Harvey and directed by Barnaby Edwards

(There are spoilers in this review. Please do not come bitching and moaning at me if you read it before listening...)

What’s it about: A long time ago, two travellers came from far away... In the perfumed palace of an omnipotent Sultan, a girl must tell stories to keep the man she cares about from a cruel and horrible death. She spins tales of distant lands she has visited with a mysterious traveller, of fabulous creatures and fantastic adventures – and of a blue box that can travel in time and space. Meanwhile, in the dungeons below the throne room, there lurks a secret which will bring down the kingdom – perhaps even the universe. Can the Doctor and Nyssa escape from this never-ending story before the final chapter spells their end?

An English Gentleman: The Doctor is no stranger to prison cells. He’s still promising his companions visits to poetic sounding landscapes and instead delivering them to squalid hellholes (think Invasion of the Dinosaurs/Death to the Daleks). The Doctor remembers a planet where everyone told jokes…I bet that was a gas. When the ‘Sultan’ embodies the Doctor, he wants to find a location where he can prove himself in the role. He has completely misunderstood the motives of the character, he doesn’t try find a place where he can big himself up and find justification in his meddling. Instead the TARDIS takes him where he needs to be (The Doctor’s Wife) and he does the best he can. The details are there but the emphasis is all wrong and that is why he could never be the Doctor.

Alien Orphan: There is such a massive gulf between Sarah Sutton on the television and Sarah Sutton on audio that it is well worth exploring out the comparison between the two. On television she was the strongest member of the cast (her Doctor aside) but was consistently sidelined and kept on the periphery of the plots, afforded little development and often only given a larger role in the lesser stories (I love Black Orchid but its certainly generated its detractors of late, Time-Flight, Arc of Infinity). Sutton found moments where she could but was often fighting against an unsympathetic script editor and writers who it felt weren’t happy to deal with the consequences of her debut story despite the constant reminders of it in the Master’s annual return. On audio the character has found two champions in Gary Russell and Nicholas Briggs (particularly the latter who speaks very fondly of the character and the actress) and Nyssa been afforded a wealth of stories that show not only how the character was hardly exploited but its also been a real opportunity for Sutton to cut her teeth on some challenging material and prove what she is made of (which turns out to be stern stuff). She’s taken on everything from high drama (Spare Parts) to romance (Circular Time) to comedy (Castle of Fear) and barely broken a sweat. Sutton often chooses to underplay the role which has the paradoxical effect of making her performance stand out even more. If in the last few years she has been forced to share the limelight with Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson again, the chemistry between the actors has been brewing for the past twenty years so there is something very sparky about it nowadays. Plus the writers ensure to never write out Nyssa as she used to suffer on the box, on the contrary; now she’s older, wiser and in command of events. In every way Big Finish has realised the potential of this character and can only hope that with releases like 1001 Nights that they continue to do so.

Imagine if Nyssa had been given material as passionate as this? The Doctor suggests Nyssa was lucky to grow up in the harmony of the Traken union and to not be exposed to the horrors that lie beyond but I would disagree with that assessment. Embraced in such a passive society made Nyssa quite spineless and its only since she has taken her steps into the darker, less inviting universe beyond that she has really found herself. I wondered why there was such a high pitched effect added to the voice of the villainess in the second tale that Nyssa spins until I realised that it in fact was Nyssa who has succumbed to madness. This places her in the uncomfortable spot of understanding that madness that took control of her father and helping her come to terms with the fact that the Master really isn’t the man she knew. Given that Nyssa is behaving good and loopy it gives Sarah Sutton the chance to go insanely over the top which must be extremely freeing after reigning it as Nyssa for so many years. She’s proven to have a ruthless intelligence, playing along with the Sultan’s desire for stories when she has in fact been distracting him in order for the Doctor to escape.

Standout Performance: I was perfectly convinced that Kim Ismay’s performance as Lottie the husky voiced old soak was one of the least convincing I have ever heard. Praise be when she turns out to be an aristocratic sort putting on a dreadful accent! Suddenly its one of the best performances in the story! ‘I can’t help thinking, Doctor that Lottie made a lot more sense when she was mad!’ Its always a pleasure to listen to Alexander Siddig (Sisters of the Flame, The Wreck of the Titan) and I hope its only a matter of time before Big Finish has the chutzpah to offer him the role as a companion. Playing an English gentleman about town (think Herbert from Timelash without the buffoonery) he and Sixie (and possibly Flip) would make a great combination. Alex gets the chance to play both the villain and the Doctor in this story, which is a real treat for any actor. Imagine…just imagine if the scene where Sid completely takes on the role of the Doctor and heads off with Nyssa in the TARDIS was the cliffhanging final scene of the story? Now that would be taking a real risk (a bit like the climax of the DWM strip The Final Chapter where Nick Briggs emerges as the Doctor or a Mawdryn Undead where Tegan and Nyssa are genuinely convinced that David Collings is the Doctor).

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘A curious world is it not when criminals are kinder than those supposed to protect one from criminals!’
‘If he thinks he’s not a monster than chances are he wont behave like one.’
‘What a wonderful butler…of course he’s terribly attached to you’ – for the sheer nerve of the line. Of course for a Davison slant on this famous Tom Baker line he is portrayed as being far less flippant and, well, nicer.
‘There’s only one Doctor’ – a worthy message, albeit one that was made better in the story of the same name.

Great Ideas: Opening in stringent melodramatic terms like a Doctor Who take on Aladdin, 1001 Nights wears its inspiration on its sleeve from its very first scene. It turns out its Nyssa telling as story to the Sultan and thus it gives the actors the opportunity to get as into the spirit of the thing as they like. The anthology format isn’t exactly a fresh approach by Big Finish any more and so they cannot peddle the idea as a fresh one when the success of Circular Time has been repeated many times since its release. To that end there is a Companion Chronicles style framing device where Nyssa has to tell to stories (potentially 1001!) to the Sultan to keep him amused and she has a wealth of adventure to draw inspiration from. It’s a great way of putting Nyssa centre stage and completely justifies the format and also has the effect of making the audience question how much of the what we are hearing is true and how much is apocryphal. The Myaxa created an Empire, an alliance such as the universe had never before witnessed with over 10,000 worlds united in peace and prosperity and then plunged into war as if they were so much pieces on a board game. Thousands of planets are now little more than lifeless rocks. I love stories that focus on the identity of a character (probably my favourite example would be DS9’s Duet which powered a stunning drama with the mystery of who a character turned out to be) and the first tale on this set splits the Doctor and Nyssa up and has them both pair up with a character who accuses the other of being this evil war criminal. It’s a fresh approach on an old idea, the Myaxa had a split personality and one half started the war and the other tried to end it. Don’t whatever you do listen to part two if you are feeling tired…there are plenty of scenes of hysterical wailing that will rouse you from your slumber with a quickening heart! I love a little self critique and the Sultan’s comments on the ending of Nyssa’s second tale being underwhelming was a feeling I shared…so thankfully she continues a little further. I love the idea of stories being a method of payment on a planet…given my overactive imagination (I’m always being criticised for embellishing a rather boring tale to make it a bit more exciting!) I’m sure I would do rather well there! The Shanaki have a very special gift in that given enough information they can steal another persons psyche, quite literally become another person. When the raggedy old man in the cell swore he was the Sultan in his palace how we all laughed…until in the stories best twist it turned out he was the Sultan the man on the throne that Nyssa is telling her stories to is an alien imposter! It wants to become the Doctor so it can steal the TARDIS. At the same time he is exploiting her knowledge of the Doctor to build a picture of him so he can embody his personality.

Audio Landscape: Growling rock monster, giggling, running water in the cell, an electric chair, footsteps, screaming patient, jumping wardrobe, ticking clock, lashing rain, thunder, crackling fire, the hush of creatures in the undergrowth, a rocky beach in the sky.

Musical Cues: How can I lavish any more praise on Jamie Robertson without starting sound like a stalker? Delivering consistent quality music, he does much to bolster the weaker moments of 1001 Nights. I love his exotic instruments for the faux Indian sequences and there was a moment of fanboy glee where he channelled Roger Limb’s plinky plonky Keeper of Traken theme when Nyssa talked about her adventures with the fourth Doctor. The chase music in the final episode is delightful; mysterious and exciting.

Isn’t it Odd: I love the idea of a split personality playing out his mental torment on a grand scale with thousands of planets. Its such a strong, dramatic idea that it’s a shame that we have to explore it so quickly in this anthology when (frankly) it is superior to a fair few of the premises that have had in the Main Range this year. The fact that 1001 Nights is Nyssa recalling stories from her point of view it is hard to take tales such as the second one without a pinch of salt considering she doesn’t join the narrative until it is almost over. Are we to assume that the Doctor informed her of all of the events that took place that she is just making this all up? It does seem strange that since these are stories being spun by Nyssa that they aren’t a little less generic than they turn out to be – it’s a chance to churn out something truly outlandish and out there but instead her factual recalling of the tales exactly as they were means there is little room for embellishment or an overstretched imagination. I can only imagine what Paul Magrs would do with this premise (actually, I don’t need to…I just have to go and listen to Ringpullworld!). The focus on newfangled teabags in the second tale really points out its importance to the plot, had the Doctor just made a hot drink without all the embellish comments this get-out clause might have been slipped in a tad more invisibly. Why a story with such an intriguing premise as stories having monetary value should wind up as a run-around adventure that fails to exploit the literate possibilities inherent in that foundation baffles me. Its less about the society which evolved in this imaginative fashion and more about the (unimpressive) characters and their greed for stories. As an example of how the fake Sultan fails as a fake Doctor having an innocent victim banging on the TARDIS and screaming ‘you can’t leave - the monsters are coming back!’ has little subtlety. An irritating quirk that has slipped into Big Finish over the past five years is the repeated use of ‘it took place over many years’ as far as the Doctor is concerned. Not content with fleshing out his tenure with the wealth of audio adventures they have produced, there are now acres of stories that have taken place in the years within individual stories too. Talk about stretching a piece of elastic! It was bold one, perhaps innovative twice but now it has been done to death. 1001 Nights is only the latest example.

Standout Scene: Its worth getting hold of this release just to listen to the scene where the Doctor has to exorcise Nyssa…although I warn you if you prefer your Who subtle and shaded then I would steer clear. ‘The power of Rassilon compels you! The power of Omega compels you!’

Result: 1001 Nights is an odd release in that there is a lot of good in it but it doesn’t quite come together as spectacularly as I think it was hoping for. The framing device is very clever but has an adverse effect of making the individual stories more throwaway than they need be because I wanted to get back to what was being pitched as the central storyline. Each individual segment has much to recommend it but every one is weighed down by flaws – the first tale has a superb premise but it feels wasted on such an economic piece of storytelling, the second does some fine things with Nyssa but feels a little generic in tone and its plotting and the third tells tales within tales but doesn’t really do anything truly imaginative with the potentially subversive concept of chronicles as currency. The best story is the scattered segments set in India, a bonus feature if you like which coalesces in the final episode and ends the release on a high. There are some subversions along the way and even a handful of laugh out loud moments and the whole piece reeks of entertainment. Its just not demanding or intellectual enough to really engage you so it only works on a switch your brain off level. If this is your first Big Finish ever you will probably be blown away with how enjoyable it is but after 15 years of audio adventures I think that even the producers themselves would admit that this isn’t one of their finest collections. 1001 Nights is a perfectly fine audio release with plenty of decent content but it compares unfavourably with Circular Time which really pushed the boat out to be something different and attention grabbing. However I’m adding an extra point for more solo Sarah Sutton because it doesn’t happen enough these days and because she continues to impress me with every release: 7/10

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