Thursday, 27 December 2012

Gallifrey Reborn written by Gary Hopkins and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: Gallifrey survives... Lady Romanadvoratrelundar has returned to her homeworld, seeking a cure for the Free Time virus that rages across the planet. Leela of the Sevateem and her companion K-9 are revered as heroes. Narvin is a traitor. And Braxiatel knows more than he's letting on. Amidst all the confusion, the High Council of Time Lords is poised to take the planet into an all-consuming war against the cosmos. They're selling their secrets to the highest bidder, equipping the universe with temporal technology it should never have been allowed. And Romana's son will lead them into battle...

Presidential Babe: This being a Gary Russell led drama it comes as no surprise to me that Romana’s cover name in this reality is ‘Astra.’ I suppose an argument could be made for the exploration of Romana’s character in her returning home to Heartshaven but since this is an alternative world with an alternative Romana it has more than a ring of fabrication about it. Romana sees what she could have been, a lonely woman who settled for isolation and the curse of a lover who betrayed her and a son who hates her. She has to fight off the attentions of Antonyn, telling him to concentrate on the mother that he already has rather than focusing on an imaginary one that doesn’t exist. She’s never thought of having a family of her own before now but seeing what might have become of her had she never left Gallifrey has afforded her the opportunity to see how that could have panned out.

Noble Savage: Whoever came up with the idea of Leela being blinded was a genius. It’s a great device on two fronts; being an audio it helps that other characters have to describe what is going on around her (and thus the audience get a picture painted too) but it also works on a character level because she has always been a primarily instinctual and now she gets to prove how honed her senses are.  I loved that at no point did Leela ever consider her blindness a weakness. She objects to being called a savage and to having her personal space invaded without invitation. Leela has no desire to become President of Gallifrey and only agrees under duress (it’s the only way she can secure protection for her friends).

Romana Unbound: Bringing back Mary Tamm for another crack at the whip was not only obvious, but essential. After her devastating passing last year any material with her in is welcome. The last time she appeared in the series the effort was so spectacularly fudged (turning Romana I into some obscene mythical villainess) I was chomping at the bit to see what else Mary Tamm could bring to the series. Rather than making her evil, the opposite approach is attempted and we are introduced to a Romana that never left Gallifrey (Romana Unbound if you like) and on those terms it is fascinating to see what might have become of her had she not headed off into the universe to search for the Key to Time. She proves to be quite a character; relaxed enough to enjoy flirting with Braxiatel but shrewd enough to figure out that Romana is an alternative version of herself and not let on. It’s a shame we couldn’t have spent more time with her. She is willing to welcome her son home even after he has treated her appallingly in public but when he draws a gun on her that is the last straw and she makes unflattering comparisons to his father.

Born Again Brax: ‘I’ve dabbled in works of art, paintings mostly. I had a modest little Collection at one point…’ Thus establishing that this is set long after the Bernice Summerfield series. Does Braxiatel really have a massive crush on Romana? The fantasy he plays out in his head sees him behaving like an overly melodramatic Mr Darcy asking for her hand in marriage. I’ve spent so long thinking of Brax as a villainous character (and a damn good one too) in the Bernice Summerfield series that I had forgotten that the emphasis was completely different amongst his own people. He’s erudite, intelligent and charming to be around. Its in his scenes with Romana I that you see the charms that seduced Bernice in her early days. He’s not self centred and always out for himself, staying behind to comfort Romana as she is regenerating establishes that.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘One regeneration or two?’ – offering them out like sugar lumps!
‘Worlds don’t fail, people fail.’
‘Don’t you think I’d recognise myself?’

Standout Performance: Its worth listening to this just to hear John Leeson (aka K.9) saying ‘Mohammed.’ ‘Leela will you please deal with his delusions of grandeur?’

Great Ideas: I’m not sure what the point of the little deception at the beginning was all about (its far too twee to ever be believable) but it does catch the audience up on the previous developments on Gallifrey with surprising swiftness. Russell doesn’t have to just pick and chose television continuity – he uses Big Finish continuity as well! The Axis was established in The Axis of Insanity and (admittedly) was a great concept and one worth returning to (although whether it was worth it for four hours worth of storytelling the jury is still out on). Imagine a tree with many branches and every branch is an alternative to established reality, sometimes a major alternative and sometimes a minor one. Almost always as a result of time experiments that have gone wrong and pose a serious threat to the normal course of history. All of those dangerous branches are held together, carrying on but controlled by the trunk of the tree ensuring that they never again interfere with the primary timeline. The tree is the Axis. One of the great strengths of the alternative universe concept is that you can have great fun taking established continuity and fucking around with it a bit. This series of Gallifrey revels in taking all the elements and shoving them into a snowglobe and shaking it up at the beginning of each story and allowing it to settle into a new pattern. Reborn touts the fantastic idea of regenerations being sold as a pick me up for Gallifreyans. Its so obscenely disrespectful to one of the central tenants of the show you have to admire the front. Something as profound as the a Time Lord losing their life being bottled and sold as little more than a hit of drugs! Also anyone can buy a TARDIS and they have proven so popular they can barely keep up with the demand! Sold by Gallifrey Inc! The alternative Gallifrey approach is also a chance to bring back a cast of old characters that have been written out in the past (Narvin’s appearance here made me smile). Leela as President and Romana I and Braxiatel flirting are both really fun ideas and whilst neither was inevitable, they both make perfect sense. K.9 becoming Castellan is also a great hoot. He gets to be smug and sarcastic in a way that only John Leeson can portray.

Audio Landscape: Babbling brooks, birdsong, footsteps, doors opening, consoles bleeping, a strong wind blowing across the landscape, TARDIS materialising.

Musical Cues: This might just be my favourite theme tune for any Big Finish series and its certainly the best mix of the Gallifrey theme yet.

Isn’t it Odd: Needless to say this wasn’t want fans of the series were expecting. There was such a long break between series three and four (the length of several bibles) that I didn’t come to this series with any anticipatory thoughts in the slightest. Gary Russell has been around the block enough times to know that the alternative universe idea is old hat so to approach the revival of this series in this way was certainly a bold (some might say insane) move. Its been done to death on television (Inferno, Rise of the Cybermen), in print (the post-Time Zero arc of the EDAs, the alternative cycle in the Virgin New Adventures) and it even on audio (the abysmal Divergent Universe arc). On the whole alternative universe stories have been shunned by the masses and I can kind of understand why. Whilst its fun to see our usual characters wearing eye patches and doing silly voices there are often completely irrelevant departures from the norm and can grate when they aren’t contained to a single story (the arcs mention above for the books and audios were probably both ranges at their least popular). Gallifrey has always worked as a concept based drama so this could be made to work so long as the writers aren’t too indulgent that they tip over into parody and they let their imaginations stretch and do something fun with continuity. Subtlety and Gary Russell aren’t the most comfortable of stable mates but I remain stolidly optimistic. I find it very odd that Gary Hopkins should try and get us involved with these characters on such a serious level since they aren’t joining the series full time and we wont give a fig about them next week. Why should we give a damn that a Romana from an alternative universe was lied to be an Andred from an alternative universe? Their timeline is going to be defunct in half an hour so it is very hard to care. That is a massive problem with alternative universe stories; the characters we meet are surplus to requirements because they cannot exist within ‘our’ world. The best versions of these stories are the ones where the characters from our timeline learn something about themselves by seeing their world in a different light. Reborn, unfortunately, leaves the character drama entirely at the doppelgangers doorstep which leaves the story feeling far more throwaway than it should at the top of the box set. An hour would be more than long enough to set up the basics of the box set and tell this individual story in but this comes in at just under 75 minutes. More judicious editing is required. Criticisms of this series have come in the form of technobabble and how the dialogue can at times sound unnaturalistic and needlessly complex. When Romana starts talking about the nuclearlinguasymbiotica you have to wonder if they have a point. Bizarrely this story doesn’t come to any kind of climax, it is literally like we have popped into this Gallifrey to see what its like and popped off to another one when the time is up. Without having an serious effect on the place you have to wonder why we bothered stopping. Nothing our characters do or say couldn’t have been achieved without their presence. Romana might be regenerating into a new President but we are never going to see how that pans out.

Standout Scene: The very idea of a TARDIS factory in full production is delightful. I wish we could see it but just know that in one of the many universes out there there are TARDISes being mass produced like toys at Christmas makes me smile.

Result: Sometimes a departure from the norm is refreshing (for me Bernice Summerfield: Epoch worked in that respect) and all series four of Gallifrey had to do was prove that this was the case. I’ve gone into the strengths and weaknesses of the alternative universe concept above (erring on the side of the weaknesses unfortunately). The idea of the ‘Two Romanas’ is so delicious it deserved another airing and its handled with far more sensitivity than the last attempt. Continuity junkies will be delighted because they will be showered in fanwank (Draconians, the Galyari, the Killorans and the Monan Host are all referenced in the same scene) but those who prefer original ideas are going to be left feeling short-changed (the alternative idea is such old hat it might be in fashion again). This must be Gary Russell’s dream come true, a chance to not only cherry pick all manner of Doctor Who mythology but to deconstruct it as well and reshape it into something very different. His twisted vision for series four is controversial but for once continuity is being used not for its own sake but to offer a skewed vision of a Gallifrey that never came to be. I have often complained about his reliance on past elements rather than championing original storytelling but let’s give him this season long diversion to get it all out of his system. There are some grand ideas in Reborn (regenerations as party poppers, TARDISes mass marketed) and the premise of box set has great potential if it leads Gallifrey somewhere important but this initial story does come across as feeling inconsequential. Which probably isn’t the right tone for a comeback. Next week we aren’t going to give two hoots about the Gallifrey we have visited this week and going from a serialised narrative to cotton candy standalones is quite a big ask: 6/10

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