Monday, 11 March 2013

The Age of Revolution written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Lisa Bowerman

Ch-Ch-Changes: I have never been contacted by so many people about a set of reviews as I have in my recent examination of Gallifrey Series V, for good or for ill. It seems that people have either completely agreed with my assessment that the new direction the show has taken is a shadow of it’s former self or they have come at the series from the other angle and found the new direction refreshing and interesting. It’s a split that is just about right, the series proving (if you look at the internet polls) to be the most marmite yet of the spin off. The one criticism of my take on the series that has perturbed me came from Gary Russell himself (who found my criticism verging between valid commentary and outright rudeness…the latter of which in all honesty was never my intention) who charged me with having some kind of allergic reaction to change within a series, which I find the strangest analysis to make of a Doctor Who fan (although the idea of a critique of the critic amused me greatly!). Doctor Who is a show that has survived through evolution, not only from era to era (moving from historical education to morality tales to base under siege to fantasy to Earthbound military adventures to lightweight comedy to very dark murder fests) but very often from story to story as well (with genres like historical SF action adventure (Remembrance of the Daleks) to pulp SF film noir fantasy (The Happiness Patrol) rubbing shoulders). To accuse a Doctor Who fan (and especially one like me who seems to love everything, even when it is clearly loaded with flaws) of being allergic to alterations in format seems a bizarre thing to say. I replied to Gary’s message (this isn’t some airing of a private grievance by the way…its all there for everybody to read on the public Big Finish forum) by suggesting that change is fine but it has to be change in the series’ favour (which to my mind the latest two seasons of Gallifrey most definitely were not). The Vicar of Dibley had a wonderfully simple but precise scene in its pilot episode that boils down the nature of change very simply, discussing how there is good change and bad change which might seem like the most obvious thing to say but it’s worth re-iterating especially when it comes to something that is examined in as much depth as Doctor Who (and its related spin offs). It’s all subjective (I for example love the shift into high camp and comedy in the Graham Williams era but I know others that shun that era for the very same reason) but change can either make or break a series. What has all this got to do with Jago & Litefoot I hear you ask? Well it’s probably no great secret now that series five has taken a massive departure from the norm (what is it about the fifth season that encourages that?) by taking a series that was set in the Victorian era (and very successfully too) and plonking the two infernal investigators down in the sixties. Not only is there a very good reason for this (Jago & Litefoot travelled with the Doctor for a pair of enjoyable adventures following season four and he dropped them off in the wrong time period) but the this is a series that I feel is more adaptable than Gallifrey to such a wrench in its format because it has often proven to take risks in this respect in past. The first two series revelled in that foggy Victorian atmosphere of penny dreadful but also dabbled in high concept SF and surrealist fantasy and then season three started experimenting with the format with tales shaped like fairy tales and a bold re-imagining of the series set in the future and looking backwards at Henry and George’s time. With the recent addition of a pair of Doctor Who adventures starring Jago & Litefoot (and jolly good they were too) which could be listened as an addendum to series four of this range (and should really otherwise you are lacking the bridging narrative between series four and five and will be very confused when you pick this up…although The Age of Revolution does take the time to explain how Jago & Litefoot got here via flashback if you don’t want to) you have a series that thrives on transformation so it’s not as wrenching or as breaking of the format as Gallifrey’s shift in tone (which somebody succinctly pointed out went from The West Wing to Sliders in a heartbeat). The question now is was this relocation worth it and does it have the ability to generate stories that made it worthwhile…?

What’s it about: After travelling through time and space with the Doctor, Henry Gordon Jago and Professor Litefoot are back in London starting brand new lives. Jago has become a huge celebrity and Litefoot the quiet owner of a bookshop, but in all other respects it is business as usual. As they investigate a wealth of new cases – including a restaurant where the food eats the people, and a book with dangerous powers – a long game is playing out. A figure from their past is back, and this time he means to destroy them...

Theatrical Fellow: Where else would Henry find employment in the sixties but in the entertainment industry? The idea of him hosting his own television show fills me with delight…now he can be seen across the country providing entertainment for the masses. Give him time and he’ll be bigger than Bruce Forsyth, Morecambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies! We’re a country that likes in indulging in the entertainment of the past so a show capturing the flavour of traditional vaudeville would probably go down a treat, even today (get patenting the idea, Morris!).

Posh Professor: Litefoot creating his own little slice of home in the sixties, running a bookshop that specialises in Victorian tomes, is lovely. I envisioned it looking just like the dimensionally transcendental library that opened the Jonny Morris penned eleventh Doctor strip The Professor, The Queen and the Bookshop (but then I would do anything to remind me of that one-off delight) but in reality it is probably a musty old bolthole with heaps of books piled floor to ceiling for people to rummage through and lose themselves in. In this setting Litefoot feels positively antediluvian but at the same time he embraces the advances in medicine and technology. I love how the characters make the best of a bad situation, not dwelling on the fact that they might never get home (which is all Romana, Leela and the rest whinge on about in Gallifrey) but posing the question once and then carving out a niche for themselves in the sixties. They also ponder whether they should look up their own contributions in the history books but decide (with the prompting from Ellie) not to do so, because it might affect their decisions when they do get home. Litefoot making Ellie promise to prevent them doing so (but not having done that yet) is very Moffat-esque. When Litefoot says he feels quite embarrassed for the half dressed dancing girls of the sixties he sounded just like my other half when he sees barely attired girls walking around the town. Like Litefoot, he is a man out of time too. Litefoot has some very succinct points to make about romanticising the past and points out that the same things that are unacceptable in the sixties (poverty for example) were just as bad back then, probably worse.

Standout Performance: Perhaps it is a little too obvious to continue lavishing praise on Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter. They’re brilliant, but I wouldn’t expect anything us by the series’ frontrunners. Lisa Bowerman provides a new interpretation of Ellie that I really enjoyed, older, wiser and more confident in herself. But my plaudits go to Duncan Wibsey as Sacker who has a voice so gorgeous listening to it is like slipping into a just-too-hot bath loaded with exotic scents.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Nothing’s more irritating than someone who knows what happens next and wont tell you!’
‘It’s positively pulsating!’ – the rudest example of alliteration and it doesn’t come from Jago!
‘I say this is the most un-Victorian behaviour! I am not amused!’

Great Ideas: Joyously the series opens with what appears to be Henry back in his old stomping ground of the theatre when in fact it is the recreation of one in a television studio, the series mocking it’s own progenitor, Talons of Weng-Chiang that was in production just a decade later. Cleverly season five takes advantage of Ellie’s transformation into a vampire in earlier years to revel in her continued existence long beyond any mortal human being and has her established in the sixties with her own life. Sacker was a bit more problematic at first because I couldn’t recall how the character departed the series (and was so enjoying myself with The Age of Revolution that I didn’t want to go back and find out) but his presence is explained adequately by the story’s end (it’s not our Sacker, but somebody late in his lineage who looks very similar). The Age of Revolution takes a while to admire the scenery before explaining away Jago & Litefoot’s appearance in the sixties which was the smartest thing they could have done, it allows us to get into the spirit of the time before finding out how our regulars fit in. Ellie mentions that her friends told her about their excursion to the sixties which is a strong indicator to those who don’t like this approach that our friends will return to their own time and place before long. Ellie has seen everybody she knows grow old and die while she just keeps on going. She’s cursed in exactly the same way Captain Jack was, living through the entirety of the 20th Century at exactly the same age. Without labouring the point there is some intelligent dialogue that compares the two eras, taking in entertainment, poverty, technology and methods of transport. A society of backwards thinkers who want to take things back to the morality and manners of the Victorian age is just the establishment for Jago & Litefoot to slip in unnoticed (my husband would undoubtedly be a member, listening to their criticisms of modern life is remarkably similar to his opinions…although he’s never had any illusions that he would only want to live back then if he had money). It’s like Robot’s Thinktank, just looking in the other direction. Talk of the country is like spending a Sunday afternoon with my mum and nan (much to my discomfiture). Beyond getting the two stars of the show to the sixties I really enjoyed how Jonny Morris includes an element of his own story Voyage to Venus in this tale, lending their adventures in space and time with the Doctor more weight.

Audio Landscape: Applause, an excitable crowd, rain lashing, door bell, taxi cab, dog barking, traffic, bullets bouncing, villagers fleeing, a city in flames, water dripping, the hypnotising statue. 

Musical Cues: The fanfare that opens the series shows that this is one series that is embracing it’s changes with uplifting theatrical flair. The new theme music courtesy of Jamie Robertson, which is a delicious mix of Avengers camp and James Bond excitement, is an absolute joy to listen to. I rewound it twice. In fact Howard Carter’s score embraces the new style of storytelling and absolutely runs with it. It’s music I would love to be able to hear in isolation. The Indian influences are especially gorgeous.

Standout Scene: Impossible to choose. It’s all rather marvellous. I really liked the intelligent discussion of the shifts in morality, manners and degradation between the Victorian age and that of the sixties. How both sides of the argument are given equal credence.

Result: With Jago, Litefoot, Ellie and Sacker all transferring from the old stomping ground of the Victorian age to the swinging sixties, the range manages to find itself a blissful revolutionary home from home for a season. The main difference between this and another series that I have perhaps mentioned rather too much in this review that has in recent undergone a similar shift in tone and style is that Jago & Litefoot takes to its new setting like a duck to water and approaches the possibility of telling new kinds of stories with a joi de vivre that is impossible to resist. Jonathan Morris always writes something special for this range and doesn’t just adapt to the new setting but embraces it whole-heartedly taking in everything from sixties psychedelia (I detected traces of his awesome eleventh Doctor strip Forever Dreaming) to Avengers spy drama and Austin Powers style nostalgia. The Age of Revolution eases us into this new style gently with the clever use of narration to re-introduce to Jago, Litefoot and Ellie from the point of view of a character from this time period. Indeed the way that Sacker discovers the diaries of his grandfather explaining his involvement with the infernal investigators means that you could pick up this series without ever having listened to what came before. It mines a very different avenue of stories to Countermeasures despite taking place in the same time period (although a crossover might be great fun). This opening installment has a great deal of exposition to get out of the way so its not perhaps the most effective standalone adventure (there’s plenty of intelligent detail but the resolution is so pat its not really worth considering) but I’ll forgive it that because it attacks its central premise (moving the series forwards in time) with such gusto it is impossible not to get wrapped up in the atmosphere of the piece. The atmosphere and tone has changed but the structure of the stories (investigating imaginative ideas of the time) has remained exactly the same. The same, but different. This is such a delightful departure from the norm I’m in two minds as to whether I want to return to the Victorian era…but I have three more adventures to get that out of my system. This series continues to be the crowning glory of Big Finish’s oeuvre: 9/10

No comments: