Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Flames of Cadiz written by Marc Platt and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: The TARDIS materializes in Spain in the late sixteenth century. The country is at war with England – and the travellers find themselves on the wrong side of the battle lines. When Ian and his new friend Esteban are captured by the Inquisition, the Doctor, Susan and Barbara plan to rescue them. But these are dark days in human history. And heretics face certain death..

Schoolteachers in Love: He’s Doctor Who’s elder statesman now and to exclude him in the 50th anniversary would be a crime that Big Finish seems unwilling to let pass. Hopefully the TV series will follow suit because any special that promises to make a fanyboy’s heart sing would be incomplete on this most special of occasions without William Russell’s involvement. As well as conjuring up the magic of those early years as soon as he opens his mouth, he’s also an extremely good actor that gives so much of himself to every production. I fear the day when he is no longer with us and am very grateful that we have been able to keep hold of and enjoy the continuing work of such a phenomenal actor.

Ian is a firm Sunderland supporter and a patriot but if asked who he supports he chuckles at the thought that he could now reply with the question ‘which planet?’ Ever since school Ian’s hero had always been Elizabeth’s crafty sea Captain, Sir Francis Drake, the man who beat the Spanish fleet. Its all very well to be told that they cannot get involved in history but seeing people being brutally beaten and their houses burnt down is more than Ian can take and his natural desire to protect people overrides his common sense. He’s been locked up so many times now that Ian can compare prison cells. He had been raised as Church of England but cannot dare admit that in such a disturbingly intolerant society. Absurdly when Ian is on Death Row he keeps thinking about the post that will gather on his doorstep back home if he never returns, and the fifth form homework that he never marked. It strikes me as a realistic run of thoughts when in such a dire situation, turning to the ridiculous. You would think that after previous lessons that Ian would learn not to want to meet his heroes but the chance to hook up with Sir Francis Drake is too irresistible. Since he had left London he has developed a taste for adventure, it had become addictive.

Who needs a guidebook when they have such an expert? Barbara had been on holiday to Spain in 1962 and so has the most experience with the country. I love it when the first Doctor is being charming to Barbara, they have such a fascinating and heart-warming relationship on screen (after some initial bumps which makes it all the more rewarding) that its wonderful to see that extended to audio. Barbara is so deeply hurt by Ian’s arrest that she cannot bear to have Susan attempting to calm her nerves. There is a gorgeous moment between Ian and Barbara when they are reunited after his attempted execution where she refuses to give him a hard time for getting involved and shares his passion for wanting to help people. Their travels have really changed them, they no longer just want to get to the safety of the TARDIS and get back to 1963. They really want to make a difference. How do women always know what you are planning before you do? Barbara and Susan agree not to reveal the Doctor’s error to Ian because despite the fact that he could do with being brought down a peg or two it would ultimately do no good.

Hmm: The Doctor owns a rather fetching panama and is concerned for the welfare of his fellow passengers. He likes to lecture Susan on historical detail even when she knows he is no authority on the subject. The Doctor takes on the guise of a religious authority figure to try and affect Ian’s escape, pre-empting the doppelganger drama of The Massacre. Susan fears that he might be enjoying this role a little too much! He emanates authority and holds out his ringed finger for the Inquisitor to kiss. The Doctor begs that if he is to die, he desperately doesn’t want Susan to see. When he learns that Ian has slipped away to meet Sir Francis Drake and manipulate history he is appalled, believing they have learnt nothing from their previous excursions into history. Susan thinks he is just being spiteful by attempting to sabotage Ian’s plans and I really liked the injection of tension between them after the horrors of the flames had brought them so close together. The Doctor is forced to suffer the indignity of sitting atop a slack old mule to Cadiz who deliberately chooses the bumpiest part of the road to walk on! When the Doctor accuses Ian and Barbara of patriotically attempting to swing history in Britain’s favour she turns the tables in the argument, calling him insufferable, arrogant and utterly condescending. He has made a terrible mistake, getting the year of their arrival wrong and failing to realise that Ian is trying to keep history on track and not change things. He learns that the truth is so disappointing, wanting desperately to meet the Sir Francis Drake that he had mythologised in his head rather than the stubborn and boorish man in reality. 

An Unearthly Child: Susan thinks it is her job to look after her Grandfather and never likes leaving him. Funny, he thinks the same thing about her. She finds herself posing as a boy, abandoning her grandfather and facing Barbara’s accusations…it was one of those days on a knife edge. Platt hints at Susan’s burgeoning sexuality as she takes a shine to one of the actors much to the Doctor’s chargin. Sometimes knowing the future is a curse.

Standout Performance: One of the most disturbing scenes in recent memory (up there with the climax of Protect and Survive) comes in The Flames of Cadiz as Ian screams in horror when he realises that Barbara and Susan are pushing to the front of the crowd to witness the public burning of him and the Doctor. William Russell imbues the scene with such helplessness as he screams for the two girls to go away, to not witness their deaths that I had goosebumps running up and down my body. Its horrifyingly emotional. He’s near hysterical and I was too.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The almighty will judge them once they have been arrested.’
‘Why else do the Holy Fathers gather trouble makers to feed their fires?’ 
‘That’s what this was all about, wasn’t it? Humiliation and despair for believing in the wrong thing…’
‘We may travel free of the bonds of time and place but that liberty comes at a price.’
‘You and Chesterton have wrecked the Earth’s history forever!’
‘I am God’s soldier! The scourge of our Catholic enemies!’
‘You are a madman, Doctor. Admirably so.’

Great Ideas: Which side are you on? As Ian so rightly explains the side that you choose often boils down to circumstances, demographics and moral decisions. Its both subjective and relative. Do you ever remember a time when your world was only a few streets long because I certainly do? This was a time when Doctor Who could afford to have its characters wander around a market place and take in the sights and smells of history without there being an alien menace to fight within a minute. Where they could transport you back in time through the sheer joy of having contemporary characters get lost in the atmosphere of the past. The Spanish Catholics hate the Protestants for execution Queen Mary and Spain and England will soon be at war, the Armada due. There’s no smoke without fire, some of the rumours about the Spanish Inquisition must be true to have spread the chill of fear to the future. Ian says something very profound when he is brought to explain for his sacrilegious crimes…no matter what he says would be useless because some authority figures in religious groups only see what they want to see and discard the rest. I love the assertion of paradise being denied to a man over something as absurd as money, the church using their position for materialistic purposes and ex-communicating people if they cannot get their way. The Grand Inquisitor is described by Ian as a blood soaked old leech and is introduced with a certain amount of gravity and fanfare. When the Catholics are committing terrible acts against him and his friend Ian has to remind himself that the reverse is true back in England. Everybody is capable of committing atrocities in the name of something they believe in. Taking its inspiration from Marco Polo, the TARDIS is loaded onto a cart bound for Cadiz with the Doctor and Susan in tow. Grippingly the story becomes a race against time between the Doctor and Ian to determine whether history remains on its right course or not. You’ve never seen the Doctor so determined to stop his friend from making such a terrible mistake. In a gorgeous twist of fate the Doctor’s actions to prevent Ian making a mistake see him making a bigger one, warning the King’s secretary of the planned raid on Cadiz.

Audio Landscape: There are certain names that really stand out in the sound design/music business (Steve Foxon, Jamie Robertson, Fool Circle) and Toby Hrycek-Robinson is definitely up there with the best. I was just saying to my friend Paul the other day how Big Finish seems to have assembled a pretty peerless selection of sound designers and musicians that make their audios a constant delight on the ear and Hrycek-Robinson first came to my attention when he so exquisitely brought Katy Manning’s one woman Drama Showcase, Not a Well Woman, to life and I knew straight away that Big Finish had someone very capable in their midst. Market scenes, a bugle sounding, marching boots, kicking in the door, screams, crackling flames, Ian knocked to the ground, chains clanking, church bells sounding, the monks singing, a jeering crowd, cracking whips, screams, crackling fire, victims burning to death, a horse and cart, a scratchy old fountain pen, the screeching old mule, seagulls, gunshot, fighting, the creaking ship, a biting wind, drums rolling, clashing steel, a massive explosion, a panicked crowd, splashing into water. They manage to pull off a massive action set piece on audio at the climax the likes of which conjures up the sort of production values that embraced Pearl Harbour and Saving Private Ryan.

Standout Scene: I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again…why is it that the danger feels more real when the travellers are trapped in Earth’s history? The first two episodes build up an atmosphere of doom as Ian is arrested and charged with heresy. The Doctor comes up with a brilliant (and theatrical) plan to rescue him and everything seems to be going swimmingly until he is brought before the terrifying Inquisitor. The final scene of episode two features Ian being paraded to his death and as a sign of just how badly things have gone the Doctor is shoved into view in torn and dishevelled robes to share his friends fate on a burning pyre. Its one of the grimmest cliffhangers in memory and an unforgettable moment of tension at the heart of the story.

Notes: Susan mentions an adventure in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion and I cannot imagine that this is simply a throwaway reference but a strong hint of a future companion chronicle.

Result: Mythology, spoofing and casual expressions have softened the terrifying implications of the Spanish Inquisition and the efforts of Sir Francis Drake (the Butterfly Effect, Monty Python). Marc Platt uses that archival security to shock the audience by shoving the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan in the middle of the dramatic events that took place and reminding us that it was a violent and bloody time where nobody was safe. He taps into the same terror and claustrophobia that Steve Lyons did in his unforgettable exploration of the Salem witch trials, The Witch Hunters, and matches the feeling of helplessness against the tide of historical ignorance that is thrown at the travellers. The first half of the story deals with Ian’s arrest for heresy and his near execution and the second half takes on a much more ambitious stance, dealing with the oncoming British invasion. The way this swings from the intimate to the ambitious means that the story never flags and there is plenty of plot to be spread across the double disc release. The characterisation of the regulars is excellent and authentic to what took place on screen; Ian and Barbara have great affection for each other and prove to the Doctor that they have learnt that history bites back, Susan’s sexuality is starting to emerge and the Doctor veers between cheeky irreverence and grave intensity. I preferred the first half which brewed up an intense and stifling atmosphere, the latter half focussing more on mind games and adventuring but the script is packed with gorgeous lines and scenes and the production sparkles throughout, planting you well and truly into the action. William Russell continues to shine (see the Standout Performance section for one of my favourite ever Big Finish acting moments) and Carole Ann Ford acquits herself well (although her Hartnell lacks conviction). The Flames of Cadiz brews up a potent atmosphere and is a terrific reminder of how gorgeous those early historicals were. It’s an authentic tale and a great way to start the 50th anniversary year: 9/10


David Baker said...

A great review - and completely agree with your thoughts.
I love the now annual treat of these double-disc Hartnell cc's, and this is the best yet.
A very well plotted story that could have easily fitted into the early historicals - complete with the sometimes unpleasant threats of violence (and, indeed, violence itself).
Carole Ann Ford's First Doctor can be a bit annoying, but that is a small negative amongst so much postitive stuff.


Joe Ford said...

Hi David, the double disc Hartnell companion chronicles have become something of a regular treat, haven't they? This is has been my favourite so far simply for the spine chilling first half. William Russell never ceases to amaze me, the amount of passion he injects in his performance.

d486d67c-b73d-11e2-8519-000f20980440 said...

I've got to say that this one left me a little empty inside. I never felt that the theme of "choosing sides based on where home is" was properly developed. We saw a lot of bad things about the Spanish Inquisition but what we saw from the British paled in comparison. Equivalence was never really found.

Don't get me wrong, the first two episodes are fantastic but then to extend to four we have to believe that Ian who has just been whipped which would have left deep, bloody rents in his back, would have been both healthy enough and insane enough to seek out Francis Drake. Even if he was a childhood herom and even if he was healthy enough to do so, the Ian of the TV series was never so reckless with the lives of the rest of the the crew. I also don't buy that Barbara would have been so foolish to stay with a Spanish loyalist once they found out he was involved with the armada. They'd have gone back to the Ship as they always tried to do whenever there was danger in the original show.

I really wish this one would have been a two-parter because I think that would have made a far stronger story.