Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Voyage to the New World written by Matthew Sweet and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Roanoke Island, 1590. The TARDIS materializes in the past, and the Doctor’s companions, Professor Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago, find themselves prisoners of the natives in the New World. But there’s something strange here – stranger than even the colonists, led by Englishman John White. What are the ghostly children? And who is the Old Man of Croaton? The travellers are about to discover the secret of the lost colony... and it may cost Jago's life.

Softer Six: Sixie is played by Colin Baker (well duh) who rarely lets any actor get the better of him in these Big Finish plays because he is simply too good at hogging the limelight. But in Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter he has his work cut out for him, for once the companions are every bit as interesting and loved as the Doctor. Rather than fight the affection the audience has for them, Matthew Sweet has him joining in with them and the result is a team of equals that stands tall as one of the finest sets of regulars Big Finish has ever presented. Such a shame that there are only going to be two hour long stories that feature them. Getting into the spirit of the times, if the Doctor wants to seek out the island of Croaton to find his friend Henry Gordon Jago then he finds a reason for that in claiming it for good Queen Bess! There’s a great example of the gravity that Colin Baker brings to a Doctor Who audio during the sequences where he reads aloud John White’s journal. I cannot imagine any other actor in the part dictating with quite this skill. Although he prefers to shoot and score with acerbic wit, he’s not above pointing out the fashion equivalent of penis envy. With a puzzle to unravel, he bursts into life and displays formidable intelligence. Piloting the TARDIS is like pouring a good pint, you have to do it at the right speed, the right angle.

Theatrical Fellow: Poor old Jago always seems to get the rough edge of the adventure and this is no exception, kidnapped and heckled and frightened so badly he can’t even get out a rousing statement before he faints away. Its wise to not exploit this character for comic effect all the time and Sweet shrewdly chooses Jago as the feverous victim of an assault and one who is slowly slipping away before his friends eyes. There’s something very painful about losing a character as marvellous as this and it continues the Big Finish tradition of entering into the Christmas spirit with a touch of poignancy (I was reminded strongly of the tone of Death in Blackpool, another favourite). Trapped and alone on Croaton, Jago is far from the bumbling fool of repute but instead asks intelligent questions to get his bearings and try and figure a way out. After Venus and the New World, returning to the comfort of the Red Tavern feels slightly mundane. Always the reluctant hero but a hero nonetheless.

Posh Professor: I never thought I would hear George Litefoot use the words ‘fagged’ but I’m glad I have now because it nearly reduced me to tears! When Litefoot thinks he has lost Jago he is quietly shaken, unable to quite believe that he has slipped away. He’s always wanted to say ‘Land Ahoy!’ and manages to generate a great spirit of adventure when pursuing the mystery of what has happened to Jago.

Standout Performance: Christopher Benjamin deserves the plaudits here. Abandoning the insistent alliteration and goofy comedy routines, he delivers a perfectly gripping straight performance. Its not the sort of spin on the character I would have ever expected which makes it all the more enjoyable. I guess being within a cats whisker of death and winding up on a ghostly island will do that to a fellow! Mind you, this is an exceptional cast overall with nobody letting the side down. All the guest performances are superb.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Beastly fellows, Red Indians! Present company excepted…’
‘My child? But I’m a single gentleman! A confirmed bachelor!’
‘We are on the edge of the world and I feel compelled to write these few lines in case we fall off it..’
‘Can you imagine anyone eating Henry Gordon Jago?’
‘Travel confuses the mind!’
‘The people of the New World know their masters…and they know they must obey!’ THWACK! – very satisfying!
‘Victorian Britain’s finest – the pair of you!’

Great Ideas: One of my favourite covers to grace a Big Finish Adventure…its just gorgeous. Its amazing how quickly I have become accustomed to Jago & Litefoot travelling in the TARDIS and the simple thrill of Sixie and the pair of them materialising somewhere mysterious and exploring really makes my heart sing. Without turning this into a New Series rant (because I am rather fond of the New Series myself) but this was a period of Doctor Who where he could simply gather some friends together and have an adventure by simply arriving somewhere and finding trouble rather than forcing a lavishly extended prologue featuring a wealth of locations and times. It’s a simple pleasure that I have missed. The idea of the TARDIS being in the hands of a gentleman of the past and treated as an exhibition, an optical illusion to thrill the masses is a potent one. Imagine getting your hands on such a device and having to puzzle it out. How awesome is the idea of the TARDIS trying to seduce Sir Walter into pressing the fast return switch and reuniting with the Doctor. Within ten minutes there is a pitch battle between English colonists and the Natives from the New World – in having to tell an economic story Matthew Sweet doesn’t let that stop him from stuffing it full of exciting incident. Its hard to imagine a more grisly fate than Jago finding himself stranded on a cannibal island! The children are parasites, connected to their hosts and a dense mystery for the Doctor to solve in order for them to escape the Island. Generally I’m not a fan of the reset button but Sweet gets away with it not only be skipping so cheekily over it (‘What happened?’ ‘Very little of it hopefully…’) but also by capitalising on the haunting echoes of a timeline that has been erased. The children were aliens who form a symbiotic link with their hosts from whose characteristics they derive their patterns of behaviour. They are the ‘mirror unto nature.’ Harmless but sensitive.

Audio Landscape: Exotic, exciting, haunting…this is a phenomenally atmospheric production. The ghostly children swarming and screaming is some of the most spine tingling material I’ve heard on audio. Lapping waters, screaming gulls, the TARDIS materialising, screaming tribes folk, knocking on a door, a squealing mosquito, a shot, a pitch battle of clashing steel, gun shots and screams, creatures in the night, arrows flying through the air, flames, laughing children, quill scribbling on paper, a creaking ship, coming ashore on creaking wooden boats, at points you might think you are at sea, scrabbling across shingle, the TARDIS having as paddy of monumental proportions, a honking sailing ship setting sail.

Musical Cues: A massive round of applause for Fool Circle who provide a stirring score throughout this adventure that really roused my spirits, especially during the action sequences.

Standout Scene: The TARDIS encrusted with barnacles and lichen, washed up on a beach for nearly five centuries is an enduring image. Like a Russian Doll, Voyage to the New World starts opening inwards to reveal its secrets and it does so with stunning concepts such as this. The cliffhanging ending is a real shocker…how will Jago & Litefoot fare in 1968? Bring on the next series!

Result: ‘Your past is drifting away on the breeze…’ You would be hard pressed to find a better bargain this Christmas than the download of this spellbinding adventure for one pound. Richness is a word that I so often use to describe Matthew Sweet’s work but I am hard pressed to find another which suits him so perfectly. Voyage to the New World is like a deliciously rich Christmas pudding; full of ingredients that are delicious on their own (the regulars, the evocative setting, the loquacious dialogue) and combine to make something piquant and cherishable. There’s drama and comedy, action, adventure and mystery…there’s so much packed into one hour you might just convince yourself that you’ve heard a full length audio but the pacing is excellent throughout. This is beautifully directed by Ken Bentley and I hope that the incomparably generous price of the product means that this and Voyage to Venus are some stragglers first exposure to Big Finish because they are both fantastic examples of what the company is all about. If they don’t encourage you to seek out more then you are a lost cause. For some bizarre reason Big Finish seem to have given away (or practically given away) some of their best stories of the year (Night of the Storm Crow, Voyage to Venus, The Voyage to the New World) and whilst you’ll get no complaints from the audience I hope to see some of the love and care that has gone into these special releases injected into the main range for the 50th Anniversary. This tale feels enriched for having the Doctor Jago & Litefoot having dropped in but in many ways it could stand up quite happily without them (although pleasingly not without the TARDIS). That is a testament to Matthew Sweets ability to conjour a enchanting location and a dense narrative. Triumphant, and tonally diverse to the last adventure: 9/10

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