Monday, 18 March 2013

The Sands of Life written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: Sheridan Moorkurk has just been elected president of Earth... but the harsh realities of who really runs the planet are just beginning to dawn on her. And what's more, she's starting to hear voices. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Romana encounter a mass of aliens heading to Earth... Aliens who have already made the mistake of upsetting the infamous Cuthbert, all-powerful CEO of The Conglomerate, by destroying one of his space platforms. Will the Doctor and Romana be able to avert inter-species war that will destroy all life on Earth?

Teeth and Curls: Don’t quote the TARDIS manual at him because it’s bad for his concentration. The Doctor takes almost gleeful enjoyment out of not recognising anything that Cuthbert and his Conglomerate have achieved until he mentions the Badger Extermination Programme and the Time Lord suddenly sits up and pays attention with dramatic intensity. Clearly he has a great fondness for badgers. Tom Baker needs somebody as strong as him in the acting department to butt heads with and David Warner is more than up to the task. Their scenes together are a delight because the Doctor seems to take such delight in winding him up (‘you know you’re just dying to tell me…’). For once the Doctor’s concern for Romana isn’t masked in irony or wit but is laid bare for all the audience to hear as he desperately searches for her. Perhaps it is because he is so child-like himself at times but this incarnation works especially well in scenes involving children (the Marsh child from Full Circle) and watching him laugh with delight at being surrounded by baby Laan was quite lovely.

Posh Girl: Romana is baffled as to why humans are always so aggressive and is reminded by the Doctor that it is because they are always so afraid. She tries (and fails) to prevent the army from opening fire before negotiating and is agog at their gung-ho attitude in the face of something scientifically fascinating. Romana really was at the top of her class in temporal mechanics.

The Tin Dog: Adding K.9 to the mix gives this story an authentic season sixteen vibe and I can’t be the only person who goes into nostalgic meltdown every time I hear John Leeson’s shrill monotone? True to form it doesn’t take him particularly long before he starts malfunctioning, a time spillage invading the TARDIS and cocking up his systems. Even on audio he has to remain behind on the ship since the heat and sand of the Sahara desert would play havoc with his systems.

Standout Performance: How does David Warner do it? By being a terrific actor, I suppose! He’s played a magnitude of roles for Big Finish now but each time he manages to bring something completely different to the table without the audience ever not realising who he is. That applies to his screen and stage work too (check out his performances in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Titanic and The Secret of Crickley Hall and see just how diverse a performer he can be). Short of being allowed to continue in the role of Steel in the Sapphire and Steel range (which was tragically cut short due to lack of sales) which he completely made his own, a recurring role in the fourth Doctor adventures is the next best thing. Cuthbert is world weary, calculating and powerful and yet strangely down to Earth with it. I believe in him just as I do with all of Warner’s characters.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’re not hearing parrots again, are you?’

Great Ideas: You’ve got to give Nick Briggs credit…he’s not afraid to open in an epic fashion. A President elected, a Corporation that owns half of the galaxy and an attack by millions of creatures heading towards the Earth. If you weren’t paying attention you soon will be! I really like the idea of a swarm of metallic creatures travelling through the vortex and carrying the TARDIS in their wake…a shame it wasn’t made for TV because we could enjoy a special feature on the DVD featuring the effusive Mat Irvine explaining why the poor realisation wasn’t the FX departments fault. On audio, it’s a spectacular visual. A telepathic sea cow travelling in the time vortex? Only on Doctor Who! It’s the first time the show has visited the Sahara since The Daleks’ Masterplan and it is always exciting when we push the boundaries beyond the confines of the United Kingdom. A parasol with a UV filter from Florana…why the devil not? It would appear that the Conglomerate have their fingers in all the pies; providing vital computer technology to the government, money to conquer the food crisis, the energy deficit and to control the unruly population. These creatures can warp the powers of space/time, they have dangerous telepathic powers and there are seven and a half billion of them that could be turned to a dangerous cause. The Doctor thinks they behaving in a migratory fashion. Cuthbert was performing an experiment with space/time technology when the Laan were attracted to him like moths to a flame. The Laan live in the time vortex but materialise on the Earth to give birth using temporal energy. Actually that’s a pretty new idea, I can’t remember pregnant aliens falling to Earth before and the idea of millions of them all giving birth at the same time and rupturing the planet with a wave of temporal energy…well let’s just say it’s a circle of life sort of thing.

Audio Landscape: A typically boisterous Briggs production but tethered to a story that needs it, I was impressed with how much of the story was told through the sound effects before anybody explained what was going (such as the worms approaching Cuthbert’s ship and their POV as they are being fired upon). Mass screaming, the TARDIS console having a paddy, shifting sands, a helicopter approaching from over the horizon, cars honking their horns, hawks screaming in the sky, the screaming in Romana’s mind, bullets ricocheting from the Laan’s carapaces, baby Laan laughing, K.9 bowing his head.

Musical Cues: It is the first time I recall seeing Briggsy’s name on the credits as producing the music for a release since his Dalek Empire days and it can’t be by chance that this is probably the closest anybody has gotten yet (despite Jamie Robertson’s superb efforts last season) to approximating Dudley Simpson’s style. Mind you if you go back to the early days of Big Finish there is definitely something Dudley-esque about Briggs’ previous work on stories like Time and the Daleks and The Sword of Orion. Something melodramatic but extremely serviceable, stressing the drama but complimenting the action. I especially liked the use of the guiro here, punctuating an otherwise silent moment just like Simpson used to.

Isn’t it Odd: If you are the sort of person who subscribes to the belief that Nicholas Briggs is creatively monopolising the fourth Doctor adventures you might find all your worst fears confirmed when you pick up this release which is written by and directed by Nick and his voice comes booming out of the speakers as soon as the title music ends. In reality he plays an extremely minor role in the story and barely features but for those few seconds I could just see the bashers getting their coats. The crosscutting of interrogations that the Doctor and Romana are suffering is an economic way of getting through a great deal of exposition but it isn’t anywhere near as wittily scripted as it should be and the General Vincent (the usually reliable Duncan Wibsey) barely makes an impression beyond the usual gruff military obstinacy that the Doctor always comes across.

Standout Scene: There’s something very satisfying about Doctor Who cliffhangers that feature things bursting from beneath. Whether its Daleks in sand or water, Sea Devils, Marshmen or Haemovores, it always provides an exciting moment. The Sands of Life capitalise on that formula with the Laan diving out of the sands of the Sahara en masse and surrounding the Doctor and Romana. It’s not original…but it’s still exciting!

Result: It’s time for the most explosive pregnancy in the history of fiction. The Sands of Life is all set up but let’s not beat around the bush…it’s bloody good set up! You’ve an intriguing new alien menace, a well drawn period of future Earth history for them to flock towards, a wonderfully dry and cynical new recurring villain in Cuthbert, a story that isn’t afraid to head out into new locales (the Sahara) and one that isn’t afraid to ape the Russell T Davies finale lead-ins by presenting a situation that looks like it could mean that end of the planet. Like the Dalek Empire series, Briggs revels and excels in this sort of action adventure and if there isn’t anything spectacularly original taking place (beyond the nature of the Laan and their potential effect on the Earth) then this kind of engaging escapade is infinitely preferable to the overdone nostalgia of the previous season. A few complaints; Cuthbert aside, none of the original characters came alive especially and even Romana felt subdued and lacking her usual vim despite taking a central role in proceedings and in places the dialogue was a little too informative. It isn’t so much of a problem because unlike The Auntie Matter this isn’t trying to be a character drama but instead carry you on a wave of excitement to a cliffhanger that makes you want to see how it pans out which it manages admirably. I’m really pleased that this was extended to three parts because it gives the story time to breathe and add some nice touches to the setting – the 50 minute stories of the first Tom Baker season always felt as though they were scrimping on detail to squeeze a four part Doctor Who story into two. It pleases me even more to think that David Warner is going to have a dominant role this season because his presence elevates this adventure considerably: 8/10

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