Friday, 12 April 2013

The Library of Alexandria written by Simon Guerrier and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: The port of Alexandria, 5th Century AD. The Doctor, Ian, Susan and Barbara have taken a break from their travels, and are enjoying a few weeks in the sunshine – and the chance to appreciate the magnificent Library of Alexandria. Ian also takes the chance to enjoy friendship with the philosopher Hypatia - but things here will not last forever. The time travellers know that the library will soon be lost to history. What they are about to discover is the terrifying reason why…

Schoolteachers in Love: Ian thinks there is something noble about a sailors life in these times, plying their trade when the dangers of the ocean were so stack against them. They knew from painful experience that attempting to change the course of history is a fruitless exercise. Barbara is delighted to be able to have some time pour over the documents of the time, so much so that she kisses the Doctor on the cheek. There is a sparkling, unspoken affection between the travellers that quite lights up the tale. Ian and Barbara take each others hands with such ease and neither of them thought anything of it at the time but it was clearly the beginning of something more. Sometimes Ian needs somebody to share his thoughts with; the Doctor and Susan can be quite condescending at times and Barbara wouldn’t understand where he is coming from. Ian has to be careful not to discuss any scientific principles with Hypatia that were dreamt up after her time and enjoys the time he spends with her, indulging in some rigorous scientific debate. Ian finds himself coming in for some serious scrutiny by the Doctor (who accuses him of going on a date with Hypatia) and Barbara (who is coldly angry that he was out with another woman). Barbara has a look that is simply impossible to argue with and to bother to do so is just a waste of time. There is a heart stopping moment when Ian thinks that both Barbara and Susan have been killed in the library. When he leaves it feels as though Hypatia is losing Ian but she understands that he was never hers in the first place. Somebody else has got there first, even if neither of them realise it yet.

Hmm: The idea of the scholarly old first Doctor scuttling about the dusty scrolls of Alexandria is a delightful image. I can see him fitting in right at home, glasses pinched on his nose, hair befuddled, absorbing the knowledge and ideas of the time. In a rare moment of pride of humanity, the Doctor admits he is impressed with the scientific concepts that were formed at the time. He states that they should never have hung around for so long in this time period – trouble always follows them when they fix in one location for too long (perhaps a barbed comment at being lumbered with Ian and Barbara the last time he indulged Susan and stuck around in 1963). He doesn’t want to harm the Mim but it seems like the only way to get their attention.

An Unearthly Child: I chuckled at the assertion that Susan is always a little too loud. She always was.

Standout Performance: I always expect great things of William Russell who seems to conjure up early Doctor Who in such an engagingly nostalgic and yet utterly contemporary way. He never disappoints. But my plaudits belong to Susan Franklyn who not only offers a ballsy and memorable Hypatia but also does a mean William Hartnell impression too.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You know how many philosophers give precedent to reason’ ‘That doesn’t mean they’re right.’
‘They would frame the heavens.’
‘That’s what this book is. Sea charts for the sky!’
‘You’ve broken the cardinal rule – you’ve become involved.’

Great Ideas: Guerrier wastes no time telling his tale in the 60 minutes allotted to him, throwing the listener straight into the adventure with no safety net of an opening TARDIS scene and Ian right in the thick of things. I love that feeling of being able to go anywhere and basking in the atmosphere of different times and places that the first couple of years that show presented. Guerrier taps into the excitement of those possibilities with ease. Even in the Autumn Alexandria baked in the day time. For their first weeks in the 5th Century this was something of a welcome break from their breakneck adventures, a chance to unwind and explore a fascinating period of history with nobody trying to discredit or murder them. The bustle of the city, with so much to do even in the grip of occupation, offered them a welcome distraction. The theatre, the music and the famous library. A farm for memes is such a delicious ideas, somebody thinking of an idea and watching it spread and develop amongst the scholars of the day. The Library of Alexandria is technically the very first research institute, the knowledge gathered here lays down the foundation that would one day lead the human race to the stars. Archimedes tried to grasp how many grains of sand there were in the universe and to begin to answer that question you need to begin to define your terms and gauge the size of the universe and grapple with its vastness. A way to express very large numbers. What an amazing guy he was, defining the scientific laws that we have come to understand through philosophy. He didn’t just rely on a way of defining big numbers to work out the size of the universe, he relied on the Heliocentric model (a theory that places the Sun at the centre of the universe and the planets orbiting around it). The book that Hypatia discovers is the report of a reconnaissance mission to Earth prior to an alien invasion. In this vital period of learning such an assault would be severely damaging to the timeline. Tying up the classic series and the Bernice Summerfield in a very satisfying way, Guerrier’s aliens of choice are the Mim who made such a stink in the spin offs middle years fighting, going to war with the Draconians in the midst of Braxiatel’s plots. Nobody really bothered to give the creatures much of a description in the Bernice Summerfield range (which was a shocking oversight) so Guerrier makes up for that here and the shifting, bulbous, undulating masses of tentacles and monstrousness that attack the harbour are really quite frightening. Scales, spines, tentacles and teeth, composed almost entirely of nerve tissue. A mirror box is like a early day torch, using the device to bend the suns light and send a message over long distances – the Doctor uses his spectacles to doubly intensify the light (and heat) and attack the creatures. He’s a wily old devil in Guerrier’s hands. The Mim are creatures of nerve tissue and so to really get under their skin Ian just has to discover the right pitch and amplify it.

Audio Landscape: A ships sails fluttering in the breeze, the creaking deck, waves lapping, creatures buzzing in the scrub, the screeching Mim, ships being torn to matchsticks, people screaming, falling in the water, sucking, slurping tentacles, howling, barking, debris tumbling.

Musical Cues: It has become something of a cliché for me to praise the soundtrack to the companion chronicles but then if it is becoming something of an obvious thing to say that is only because the music is so consistently good. There is an immediate sense of the exotic to The Library of Alexandria, Toby Hrycek-Robinson provides some enchanting male vocals that sets the scene beautifully. Music plays a vital role in the conclusion.

Isn’t it Odd: This is the third month in a row where a companion chronicle cover looks quite sloppily photoshopped. It only stands out because the standard is usually so high. The next two covers (The Apocalypse Mirror & Council of War) are exceptional.

Standout Scene: The second episode is one long riveting set piece that threatens to see Alexandria tumble into the sea forever. The Doctor gets to display quick wit and intelligence, Barbara tries to save the knowledge that she admires so greatly and Ian uses his scientific principles to devise a means to defeat the Mim. Everybody is given a moment to shine. 

Result: Talk about making a rod for your own back! Although I don’t recall ever seeing this particular roll call of credits coming together before the three main contributors to this story (William Russell, Simon Guerrier and Lisa Bowerman) have become synonymous with the highest quality of companion chronicles and so the expectation to deliver something spectacular is stacked up against them before I even pressed play. And a historical to boot – my favourite genre! Nobody disappoints. William Russell could read a dull old textbook and make it sound like the most gripping story ever told but grappling with Guerrier’s exceptional writing he produces more of his indefinable magic. Bowerman has directed too many of these companion chronicles to make any silly mistakes now and paces the story expertly, allowing us to sink into the atmosphere of the setting in the first part before all hell breaks loose in the second. Guerrier is one of the ranges most prolific writers and his oeuvre has become more dense and idea packed of late, which I think is perfect for audio. In a medium of sound you can knock about big, intelligent ideas where there are no visual distractions and The Library of Alexandria mimics the historicals of the time, favouring strong, educational dialogue. It means you have to pay attention more than usual but the rewards if you do are mind expanding. It’s not to say that this story scrimps on spectacle though, episode twos action seems barely perceivable on the budget of the time but in my head the harbour is torn to shreds in blockbusting style as the Mim attack. It might feel as though I give too many of the companion chronicles full marks but I gauge that score not on the story being absolutely flawless (if you dig hard enough there is always a flaw to be found somewhere in every story) but on my own personal reaction to the material. When it excites me, thrills me with its possibilities and makes me drift off  completely to another time or world I will offer full marks and so many of this range score on all three counts. It is adventures like The Library of Alexandria that add to my devastating reaction that the companion chronicles are soon to come to an end. It’s a story that captures the early days of Who, does something innovative with it and flatters your intelligence at the same time: 10/10


Anonymous said...

What a nice review! I liked this story too. It gave some new moments with old and loved characters: Barbara angry about Ian being with another woman, the idea that Ian could like at least platonically somebody else. Hypatia was such a pleasant figure, I guess she could be an amazing historical companion of the Doctor (and pity that they didn't took her with them, but I guess that would make too much tensions between TARDIS crew). What I found especially enjoyable is that First Doctor do travel a in ancient history: first we had a story with "our friend Alexander", then they visited Rome, I hope in future they will be in Greece as well.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree. I loathe sci-historicals in the first two seasons. I don't believe that the production team of the time would have ever done anything but a pure historical while Ian and Barbara were on the TARDIS crew. There's also a significant plot flaw in the story - that the Mim have contemplated invading Earth even though apparently they are a race that are either from the future or are aware of the future and are not allowed to interfere. Why were they contemplating invasion then?

Yet you are right on the money. You don't think of that while you're listening to the story and that can be brought down to the stellar performances, the brilliant writing that uses the relationships of the TARDIS regulars and Hypatia so well, and the wonderful sounds and music that evoke so much of the mood of the peace. While I feel that this story isn't perfect due to the major plot flaw above it is one of my favorite CC's and it is a huge flaw that Hypatia didn't get a longer outting.