Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Jupiter Conjunction written by Eddie Robson and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Eight slash Q Panenka, a craggy comet with a 13km circumference, has an elliptical orbit that takes it between Earth and Jupiter. Which, in the year 2329, makes it a cheap means of space freight – the second class postal service of the solar system. But when the TARDIS lands on Panenka, the Doctor, Tegan, Turlough and Nyssa discover a community falling apart at the seams – plagued by thefts, and mysterious disappearances among the 'piggybackers' who eke out a desperate existence on the comet. While Tegan and Nyssa suit up for a dangerous excursion into the comet's Unstable Zone, the Doctor and Turlough find themselves pawns in a game that could lead to tragedy for both Earth and Jupiter alike…

An English Gentleman: I love the idea of the Doctor landing the TARDIS on a comet simply because he can. He hasn’t lost any of his daring, despite appearances. The Doctor tries the parental approach of telling Turlough he isn’t upset but he is disappointed but to no effect. Completely against how they were portrayed on television (where, at best, the Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa and Turlough shared the same method of travel but nothing deeper) this foursome have been gelled into an effective, likable unit. Its only when you try and squeeze these stories in between their respective televised adventures that you have a problem – why are they suddenly so cold and disinterest in each other come The Kings’ Demons? But on a story by story basis in the here and now they are better than they have ever been. Watch how they all chip in ideas at the conclusion to try and solve the problem of an imminent massacre…why couldn’t they have been written this effectively on screen? As much as he cares for Nyssa (there has always been something special between them) he would never be so selfish to choose which of his friends to save. He’s always been pretty good at looking after the people in his care until Adric. When they are reunited at the climax it is a genuinely heart-warming moment. I’m really impressed with their handling here. More please.

Alien Orphan (the First): Bizarrely the story seems to ignore the fact that Nyssa has lost the last 30 years from her face. You would think an awe-inspiring revelation like that would be given some exploration but Nyssa seems to go on her merry way, content to go clothes shopping with Tegan rather than coming to terms with the idea that when she goes home to her loved ones they wont recognise her anymore. I don’t blame Eddie Robson necessarily, but Alan Barnes should be far more on the ball than this. Nyssa shows some naiveté in believing the sob story of the first Backer she meets without bothering to question her motives for wanting to break the law. Although she has a younger appearance now, Nyssa is still far more assertive and in control than she was on screen. At the right moment she doesn’t panic but remains rational and logical. There’s a fantastic moment at the conclusion when Nyssa quietly reminds herself that the Doctor once promised he would come back for Adric when he was in a similar situation to the one she is in. Nyssa is desperate not to die at the conclusion, not for selfish reasons but because her work curing the disease that has haunted her career isn’t complete. She has lives to save, she sounds desperate so I can only imagine that somebody very close to her is suffering.

Mouth on Legs: Tegan thinks she needs a dip in the fountain of youth because travelling with the Doctor is exhausting. Nyssa delicately says that Earth people dress very differently from people on her planet, a polite way of saying that she doesn’t like the way she looks. Its nice to see Tegan struggling to deal with an experience that is completely out of her depth (stuck out on the surface of the comet in a spacesuit and trying to help a dying man) and just trying to cope without all of the attitude. In Robson’s hands she comes across as a real person trying her best. Over eleven stories Tegan has gone from ‘can’t we get back to the TARDIS?’ to ‘I can’t leave you!’ It’s definitely a shift in her favour. Hurrah for Tegan figuring out how to save the day, blowing a chunk out of the comet to alter the trajectory of the laser. She’s not just a mouth on legs. Re-living Adric’s death for a heart-stopping second, Tegan screams at the Doctor to save Nyssa at the climax.

Alien Orphan (the Second): I was starting to wonder if Turlough still had it in him to turn traitor. Over the first nine releases with this set of regulars he has either been hideously neglected or treated to some rather odd characterisation (the lads night out in Cradle of the Snake, his love affair with Deela in Kiss of Death). One of things that attracted me to this character in the first place (Mark Strickson’s acting talent aside) was his ambiguous morality and sneakiness. The fact that you don’t know whether he will always side with the Doctor. Here Robson embraces that and has Turlough declare their friendship over when the shit hits the fan and he sells out the Time Lord for his freedom. It makes for a wonderful cliffhanger. Turlough has a devious mind and has the ability to construct a unlawful plan to back up his story that he and the Doctor are thieves of the highest order.

Standout Performance: Rebecca Front is as marvellous as you would imagine but she doesn’t get enough exposure. Instead we spend most of our time with Zoe Lidster's Violet who is far less convincing. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s not even a proper court, it’s a shopping precinct!’

Great Ideas: For once its rather nice to have this group of regulars to open a story in a purely plot-based fashion, not off on a holiday or bitching and griping at each other. They are thrown straight into the heart of the story by Eddie Robson with relatively little padding. If a comet is on the right path it can be a cheap alternative to freight, like second class post. Eight slash Q Panenka has been commercialised to the nth degree with restaurants and shops adorning its craggy surface. Its an interesting setting for the story, it reminded me a little of Iceworld (especially when Iceworld it took off and headed for the stars). (Piggy) Backers are those who can’t afford the shuttle fare and hitch. It would appear that the TARDIS has genuinely been used to lift stolen goods from the comet which the Doctor vehemently denies he would ever be a party to, even in the future. This is a society where you have to have a conversation about whether you can afford to save somebody’s life or not. Jovians are collections of gas, dust and vapour held together by some navigating consciousness. At its height their civilisation was glorious, almost entirely within their minds constructed from shared theory. A virtual world without computers. They are building a laser. There is no freedom on the Earth, you can barely breathe without being told you’ve done it in the wrong way and the weapon is a reaction against the regimented administration. Major Nash has fooled the Jovians into think that the people of Earth are going to use their planet to become their new sun.

Audio Landscape: Scream, a comet screaming its way past the TARDIS, alarms, consoles bleeping, the shuttle screaming overhead and crashing into the comets surface, the mezzanine, space suit comms, the suction when taking off the helmets, crowds banging on the door, growling engines, an explosion.

Musical Cues: I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that whilst they always display a high level of competence in any Big Finish story they contribute too, Fox and Yason’s music is far more suited to the intimate nature of the companion chronicles. Their scores aren't intrusive enough to be plastered all over the blustering main range adventures but they can really get under your skin as the audience is doing exactly the same thing with the narrator of each CC. Go and listen to the exquisite score for The Last Post for example, it's just extraordinary. They have the ability to drive the momentum of a story, to crank up the tension at the right points (usually around the cliffhanging middle of each chronicle). Saying that, The Jupiter Conjunction is probably their best soundtrack for the main range yet, persistent (in that way it feels very 1980s) and exciting but it still feels a little subdued compared to the Carter/Robertson/Foxon oeuvre.

Isn’t it Odd: Despite some nice features (the location, some rare Nyssa/Tegan interaction), the first episode is a stockpile of Doctor Who clichés that at no point feels like anything new (running around, getting captured, getting arrested, getting sentenced to death). Some of the guest performances are a little earnest, taking the story so incredibly seriously I wanted to laugh during the trial scenes. The end of episode two feels more like a pause in the action rather than anything that has been built up to. The entire plot hinges on the assumption that the Jovians are going to be fooled into thinking that they are going to be exploited after peace negotiations have failed. They are, but as a result they come across as very foolish for taking what the Axis say as read. The way the Jovians whoosh into a scene, surround people and carry them away reminded me of the Plasmatons. It seems a little unfair that the Jovians should have to sacrifice their lives in order to salvage their reputation. That’s life, I suppose.

Standout Scene: There’s a very satisfying moment in part four when the apparently simple plot is revealed to have had more layers than previously suspected and the Axis’ schemes are laid bare. I especially like how Tegan was integrated into their plans to expose the Jovians and turn them into the fall guys.

Result: The Jupiter Conjunction reminded me of classic Who more than practically any other release I have heard in an age. It has an engaging setting, a small group of caricatures who offer up the odd surprise as the plot chugs on, there are some neat ideas at the heart of the story, a weak third episode and a narrative that rallies for the final installment. Its so formulaic you could construct half a dozen classic Who adventures out of its constituent elements. I’m not complaining too much, every now and again a story that plays by the rules is nice to relax in to and something a little more pedestrian and set within prescribed limitations can offer a great deal of entertainment. It appears that the writers are going to some lengths with this trilogy to make sure that all the regulars are given adequate mike time and Robson has a firm grasp on all of them (Nyssa’s unexpected development in the last story being completely ignored, excepted). My biggest issue with Jupiter was that none of the guest characters really came alive (I couldn’t decide whether that was down to the superficial characterisation or the earnest performances, probably a little of both) and so I couldn’t sympathise with their plight. It didn’t surprise me that the half the characters were military officers in disguise. They all speak with the sober intensity of the law. Constructed mostly of clichés but told in a fairly engaging way (Ken Bentley ensures things never get dull), this is terrific entertainment if you are not looking to have your boundaries stretched. If you enjoy a hit of nostalgia this will be right up your street. Story wise this probably deserves a 6 but because of the awesome use of the Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough it inches higher. I am genuinely astonished how the portrayal of this set of regulars has improved so much: 7/10


The Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

''Nyssa’s unexpected development in the last story being completely ignored.''

This is what puts me off continuing with these. It's often one step forward, two steps back with BF and character development. A similar thing was done with Hex in the trilogy that began with the 'The Forge' story. The last story in that trilogy completely ignored all the character development in the previous two plays.

kurumais said...

i think director ken bentley has a great handle on the fifth doctor and his crew. the 5th doc box set and the lost stories. he really brings out good performances.