Sunday, 16 June 2013

Council of War written by Simon Barnard & Paul Morris and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: At the Doctor's request, Sergeant Benton is investigating ghosts and missing people in Kettering, while undercover as a local councillor. And that's how he comes to meet Margery Phipps. An alien incursion in the town hall leads them on a journey to a terrible future – where Margery discovers how she changed a world, and the life of a whole civilisation hangs in the balance…

The Sarge: Good old Sergeant Benton. You wont really find anyone who has a bad word to say about him. Then again you probably wont find anybody who gets giddily excited about him either. He was a firm favourite during the Pertwee era, a lovable officer who was fiercely loyal to all the other members of UNIT and would occasionally be chewed out by the Brigadier for his incompetence (or perceived incompetence) during the course of his duties. It would appear that John Levene was almost universally loved by all those who worked with him, a shy man who brought a great deal of devotion to a small part that was developed because of it. When I saw that a companion chronicle was going to be devoted to the character my first reaction was that it would be interesting, my second reaction was how Levene would narrate given his incomprehensibly fast exposition on the DVD commentaries and my third was that it was nice to see a little variety in the series so near to the end. His slot has been reserved for the fag end of the season, the point where nobody expects great things and so if it goes horribly wrong it can be left there to fester whilst the rest of the (generally fantastic) season can remain untarnished… Fortunately the result is nothing of the kind and Levene proves to be the sort of magnetic performer that brings out the best in the companion chronicles. The very fact that we know so little about Benton and rarely get this close to him is one of the main reasons that this (ever so slight if I’m honest) tale works so well. 

A gentleman, tall and honourable, he is introduced rescuing an innocent party goer as Santa tries to feel her up. This job is more Mike Yates’ sort of thing but after all the business in Wales with the giant maggots and evil computer he had been forced to take some leave. Undercover work was fine as long as he didn’t have to act and when walking into a situation with a cover story he suffered from terrible stage fright (could this be a not-so-subtle description of Levene himself?). Fighting Axons and Cybermen was nothing compared to make polite conversation in civic functions. Fit and rather handsome in a mail order catalogue sort of way (I can’t argue with that, Levene is looking pretty hot splashed all over the Bond themed cover). Clearly Benton has been enjoying his dance classes with his sister, he is described as holding himself like a Spanish matador, tall and erect (oo-er missus). Benton enjoys a lovely chemistry with Margery Phipps, he’s such a straight character (in every sense of the word) that you only have to pair him up with some kind of radical (in The Daemons it was a white witch and here it is a radical feminist) and the culture clash does all the work for you (‘don’t call me Miss!’). If you rumbled undercover then UNIT reaction training is to say nothing and deny everything even in the face of torture. One night’s sky with three moons, you didn’t have to be the Doctor to realise you were standing on the surface of an alien planet. With his army experience and tactics and Margery’s gumption and political knowledge, they make a startlingly effective team and whip the people of Kettering into shape. He is really quite sympathetic for a professional soldier and is willing to do anything to save a race of people that he doesn’t even know, even at the cost of his own life.

Good Grief: Benton can tell that the Doctor is taking Jo’s departure hard. During the day he was his usual jubilant self but in the evenings he could be seen in his laboratory alone, just staring, alone. When the Doctor does eventually turn up on Kettering even he has to admit (and it must have taken a fair amount of effort to swallow down his monstrous ego in this incarnation) that Benton has everything under control.

Standout Performance: What a shame that there will only be twelve more companion chronicles after this and that they didn’t set upon the idea of using John Levene before because he has proven to be quite an enjoyable narrator. I certainly hope they utilise his talents when it comes to the third tales in the Early Years range. He, Katy Manning and Richard Franklin would bring a story to life with some gumption.

Great Ideas: Beryl Umbridge was the name of the woman who had gone missing, the red pin in the middle of the ghost sightings. The Doctor thinks that one of the apparitions has kidnapped her, spirited her away through time and space. Benton makes a fair rationalization of why UNIT believes the spirits to be time travellers misinterpreted as ghosts – perhaps he would have worked out as the Doctor’s assistant after all. Abducted, Benton and Margery find themselves dragged to a fake kangaroo court in the Council of Kettering, where she is accused of inciting seditious material. Escaping, they escape into the streets of Kettering but there is something wrong with the picture, covered in a deathly grey dust with no activity to break the eerie silence. Suddenly Kettering is by the sea and there is a giant arm stretching out from the sand. Margery facing up to a giant edifice of herself is gorgeous steal from Planet of the Apes and at this stage the story feels as though it has gone so far off tangent that anything could happen next. Valadar was once an unhappy planets whose inhabitants fought a century long war that almost destroyed them. Wanting to start afresh, the survivors looked to the past for inspiration and alighted upon a figure from the planet Earth. A woman named Margery Phipps who went on to become Prime Minister and went on to broke a lasting peace for many generations. She wrote a book which was still a bestseller 500 years later and it was this tome that was used as the foundational text for the revised planet. Valadar became the planet Kettering, thus named in her honour. The planet became famed for its abhorrence of violence, allowing them to enjoy a long period of peace but also undefended when a race of strip miners attacked and found no opposition. Much of the planets population was sold into slavery and its resources were plundered. Because they built their planet so accurately in the shape of Kettering it contained a military museum that they had no idea about housing 300 years worth of weapons that could be exploited to rise up against their oppressors. With the inclusion of a race of giant insects (in this case, cockroaches), this love letter to the Pertwee era is complete.

Audio Landscape: A relaxed party atmosphere, clinking glasses, pleasant conversation and great music, the Doctor’s time detector makes a wonderfully seventies racket, the lights snapping out, the electronic voices of the apparitions, alarms, clicking cockroach limbs.

Musical Cues: What an awesome score! It feels as though it has been pulled straight from the era that it is set in and had me grooving away whilst I was trying to concentrate on the story and dialogue. 

Result: Makes you wonder if the UNIT officers were always off having their own adventures whilst we were distracted by the Doctor’s antics, doesn’t it? I’m not sure that world is ready for The Sergeant Benton Adventures but as a one-off this is a glorious piece of seventies nostalgia, read charismatically by John Levene. The way it slips from the cosily familiar (the quintessential Britishness of the Kettering council chamber) to the blatantly absurd (an alien planet influenced by the work of Margery Phipps) feels like pure Doctor Who. Whilst the concepts might even have been rejected by Douglas Adams for being too ridiculous there is an essential seriousness running through the whole story (brought by straight laced John Benton mostly) that lets it hold together with some dignity. It’s a story that dares to ape the marvellous twist ending of Planet of the Apes, rip the piss out of Churchill’s famous wartime speech and even poke fun at some the clichés of the Pertwee era (‘I reversed the vibracity of the molecule flow!’) but coming from the writers of the Scarifyers I am not surprised that the script is injected with a high degree of cheek and brio. It’s bonkers and great fun but perhaps a little to absurd to truly stands out as anything other than a silly diversion. What really impressed me were the efforts of Levene and Sinead Keenan who share a delightful chemistry as Benton and Phipps and who get to have their own little adventure off world and get back in time for tea. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this release (which is a nice feeling) and I was pleasantly surprised at the amiable results: 7/10


jbcatz said...

What's great is that it explores an area of the Doctor's life that is largely unexplored. Now only John Levene as Benton can fill this out as we have lost Nicholas Courtney, it is before Sarah Jane (lost too) and Yates has left UNIT. I'd love to hear more about the period between Green Death and Time Warrior.

BSC SSC said...

I think Benton should appear in the 4th Doctor range. Now so many are gone, he's one of the few companions of the 4th Doctormleft.