Leela is dead but her soul lives on. She has been reborn as a young girl, Emily, whose ‘imaginary friend’ tells her amazing tales about a great Wizard and the warrior who accompanies him on his adventures through time and space. Emily prepares to tell her parents the story of a cold, grey world whose people are ruled over by a Glass Angel. The Wizard is her prisoner and only the warrior girl and her three peculiar friends can save him…
Noble Savage: The Child opens with a gorgeous, lyrical fairytale featuring the fourth Doctor (the wizard) and Leela (the warrior girl) and through the imagination of a little it captures just about everything that is wonderful about this pairing. Leela’s naiveté but willingness to the learn, the Doctor’s arrogance but gift of teaching and how between them they both come to understand the universe better with their very different approaches. Clearly Fairs understands these characters well and I can only hope that with this trilogy he doesn’t get too bogged down in the ideas and forget about the characters. The Doctor has been explaining the idea of seasons to Leela, how a tree can die and then live again. Leela believes that sometimes there is no shame in delaying a fight until the odds are in your favour. Throughout the course of the story the Doctor explains how Leela’s drawing of a snowdrop is the most wonderful thing in the universe.
Teeth and Curls: The Doctor can be wise and helpful when the mood takes him but when things start to go wrong his patience with Leela wears thin and he forgets his manners.
Standout Performance: Ian Levine brought up something quite interesting in his latest outpouring of controversial opinions (check out his interview over at Doctor Who Online for two hours of unforgettable listening!) with regards to his take on recasting actors to play the first, second and third Doctors. He believes Big Finish have missed a trick by not doing so but I think that had they done so they may very well have ended up losing a massive portion of their audience (and I would be one of them). You only have to watch Levine’s hotchpotch Planet of Giants (I could only bear to watch it for about five minutes before the pain overwhelmed my enjoyment) to see how badly things could end up. Instead Big Finish have chosen the far more respectful approach of having the companion actors reprising the roles in stories told after they have left him and giving their own interpretations of the character. If you see that as re-casting then that is your prerogative but I don’t agree. Personally I have no issue with this approach because we get to explore the intimate way that these characters viewed the Doctor. In some instances the experiment has been astonishingly innovative (Peter Purves pulls off a wonderful first Doctor and at times you would swear that Frazer Hines’ is channelling Patrick Troughton his mimicry is so convincing), in others they have been heartbreaking (Katy Manning’s take on Jon Pertwee breaks my heart it is so imbued with respect) and then there are the results which are so compelling because they say a great deal about how the actors feel about the characters which brings us to Louise Jameson’s take on Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor. It’s a dark, deep gravelly voice that Jameson finds to portray the great man, often snappish and growling but not without moments of charm and humour too. Clearly everything that Jameson experienced with Baker when they acted together all those years ago. Now she gets the chance to externalise all those feelings and bring them to life within a story. Her version of the Doctor impressed me more than her version of Leela in this tale (and the others that Fairs has written) because I know how well she can play Leela (peerlessly, of course) but her take on the Doctor is something much more interesting, and personal. Had they simply recast the Doctor’s as Levine suggests (its hardly his most unpleasant suggestion but its somewhere up there) the Companion Chronicles would not exist and we would have been denied some exceptional storytelling. And the chance to explore new angles in old characters like this.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Just because it happened like that, just because we were bored it doesn’t means everyone else has to be bored as well!’
‘This is art, Leela! It doesn’t always make sense until you can see the whole picture.’
‘Leela understands more about life than you ever will!’
Great Ideas: David Richardson has been rather clever when plotting out his companion chronicle seasons with regards to his trilogy stories that have started evolving from the series. Rather than grouping them together like the main range has for the last couple of years he seeds one or two stories from the trilogies across the year so that the audience can enjoy a different Doctor/companion each month and have the luxury of telling a narrative across more than one release. The trouble with the main range having trilogy after trilogy is that once your favourite Doctor/companion has had their turn you have to wait practically another year before you hear anything else from them (Christmas has been doubly special for me for the last couple of years because I know that once its over with I get to enjoy three Sixie adventures in a row…but come the end of March I am really glum that I have to wait until post-Christmas for anymore!). And you’re stuck with three months worth of stories that you might not have any interest in because you don’t like. What’s more with the trilogy format I get very excited when each subsequent installment is released, far more so than with the individual releases because I have some idea of what to expect and am eager for the next developments. Richardson has found a way of having his cake and eating it in this range and that is another reason why this range it is one of my favourites.
The Map of Life is the largest work of art in the universe and it covers an entire continent. Having Emily creating the story that we are listening to play out Fairs has the chance to self-critique his own work in a very Paul Magrs kind of way, pointing out when things have gotten boring. In the same vein Emily can also get the audience more involved in the action because she gets really excited during the action moments, describing the antagonists with real passion. I love the idea of giant robot men with fourteen little men inside stoking up the engine and making sure that all the limbs are functioning. Fairs begins to paint a picture of the landscape that Leela has found herself in as the imaginary friend of the little girl. Hopefully we will get to explore a little more of this as the story continues. Bizarrely (but not unpleasantly) we dip our toes into Alice in Wonderland territory in the second episode with the sound of something like mice in the wainscoting, lisping creatures to aid Leela and impossible things occurring willy nilly! Dragons, goblins, glass towers…its all rather enchanting. Ricardo channelled his creative energy into art, realising that sharing his genius that way he’d have a life that was really worth living but knowing he didn’t have enough life to see it through he built the Glass Queen to see his vision through after he had died. Glass shards shooting into the air like a flock of crows…Fairs certainly knows how to paint a vivid image. ‘Not the one about the walking doll or the creepy mechanical men…’ – clearly Leela has been sharing her Talons and Robots experiences with Emily too.
Audio Landscape: Its been a whole since I have seen the same name listed as writer, director, sound technician and musician! Not even Nick Briggs’ releases of late have seen him take on every role! It pleases me to see this sort of thing being done though because regardless of my reaction to the product it is Nigel Fairs’ baby through and through, his conception and realisation. And of all the things I said about The Time Vampire (and I wasn’t exactly shy…) his work on the production was breathtaking. Ticking clock, scratching pen, water beasts screaming, Leela drawing a snowdrop.
Musical Cues: At the beginning of the second episode there was a rift on Dudley Simpson’s fourth Doctor theme which really made me smile. The music is stunning throughout though, especially the choral atmosphere in the first half.
Isn’t it Odd: Typically it is Fairs actual story that lets him down and the first episode which features the Doctor and Leela walking between identical rooms, rocking with some choir singers and conversing with giant mechanical men fails to bring all these elements together into an interesting narrative. It feels like random ideas shoved together to fill up time. Its not until the cliffhanger that things really start hotting up. The tone between the two episodes is completely different, you swing from a science fiction tale into a literary fantasy and the step from one to the other is extremely jarring. I personally preferred the latter half and would have preferred the Wonderland style antics to have been dominant through. Anna Hawkes does a fine job as Emily but her lisping performance in the second episode kept taking me out of the action – it wasn’t particularly convincing. By the time the giant spiders emerged I wondered just how many more elements Fairs could add to his story before he started tying up the myriad of other notions he had already set in motion. With only ten minutes to go it was clear that this wasn’t going to weave everything together satisfactorily.
Standout Scene: I loved the image of the Doctor as an age old scribbler at the Glass Queen’s feet, his eyes icy blue and all colour having been drained from him. The story is full of terrific imagery like this that comes from nowhere and seems disconnected from everything.
Result: Given that I didn’t have a frilly f*ck what was going on in The Time Vampire (and this from somebody who took the time to hardcore dissect both Brotherhood of the Daleks and The Last Resort) I did approach this release (both the news of it and when I put the disc in to play) with some trepidation. If this story had a stable mate then it would have to be the Jago & Litefoot drama Nothing at the End of the Garden which also follows the adventures of a little girl and has some wise words from Leela. Although the tone of each piece is extremely different. This is the latest ‘conceptual’ trilogy from the Companion Chronicles range taking the reins from the Sara Kingdom, Oliver Harper and Zoe Herriot ones that have already played out. It would seem that Nigel Fairs has a monopoly on writing for Leela in the CC range in exactly the same way that Chris Boucher did over at BBC Books. Whilst he does have a good grasp of the character and gives her some memorable dialogue, it might be nice to see another writer have a stab at her in this format. The Child is a step up from The Time Vampire with some definite plusses (the production in particular is gorgeous but the framing device that has been concocted provides a great deal of entertainment too) but its Fairs' actual story that lets the side down again. His scripts are so full of disparate elements that he really needs to sit down and find away to assemble a plot out of them that flows more fluidly than what is on display here. However I did love the mixture of science and fantasy (its very Bidmead in that respect) with the fairytale aspects coming to the fore in some memorable moments. Its not quite Fairs' best (which remains his debut, The Catalyst) or his worst (The Time Vampire) but it falls somewhere in between (like Empathy Games) with lots of good elements (the idea of things being reborn is nicely evoked in several instances) but failing to cohere into something truly memorable. On a moment by moment basis this is massively entertaining but taken as a whole it is rather nonsensical: 6/10