Monday, 17 June 2013

Prisoners of Fate written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Twenty-five years ago, with Richter's Syndrome running rampant throughout the galaxy, the brilliant biochemist Nyssa, formerly of Traken, bade a painful farewell to her young family... and set off into the space, in search of a cure for this deadly disease. She never returned. Now, her grown-up son continues her work on the penal colony of Valderon, still desperate to make the breakthrough that eluded his presumed-dead mother. So when the TARDIS lands on Valderon, bringing the Doctor, Tegan, Turlough and Nyssa to its fortress prison, the scene is set for a painful reunion... but not only for Nyssa. The Doctor's past is about to catch up with him too...

An English Gentleman: Not in possession of all the facts, the Doctor agrees to take Nyssa away from Valderon but doesn’t realise the full dangers of the presence of her son. He describes the old Type 50 as an old acquaintance from his youth. When time is royally cocked up the Doctor has proof of why he is always so keen to holds its hand (as Tegan so uniquely puts it). He discovers that Nyssa had a whole life waiting for her that he never knew about. If he had known he would never have allowed her to travel with him for so long.

Alien Orphan (the Older): Thank goodness somebody has started paying attention to Nyssa again, After being practically irrelevant in both Eldrad and Mercia I was starting to wonder after all the good work Big Finish have done with her solo with the fifth Doctor that she was going the same way as her fate on TV series, shunted to the sidelines and left to fester. I’m all for variety in the range and would love to see another fifth Doctor and Nyssa trilogy without Tegan and Turlough hogging the limelight quite so dramatically. It’s the curse of the three companion format, somebody always gets left behind (the only story that I can think of featuring this trio of companions that managed to give them an equal share of the limelight is The Emerald Tiger…it is no co-incidence that it is also the best story of their run by some considerable margin). I was wondering if we would ever catch up with Nyssa’s alleged children that have been mentioned in several stories and finally the producers feel that the time has come to further explore her background after she left the Doctor.

When Adric (her son, understandable choice of name, even it is rather cringy) was a little boy, Nyssa used to tell him stories of her adventures with the Doctor. Because Nyssa was made to look younger again her son assumes that this Nyssa is from a point before he was born. He wears a masks when talking to his mother, pretending to have had an accident, so to protect his identity but the truth is she might not even recognise him even if he had greeted her as his son. Nyssa is devastated to learn that she never made it home to her family, that they suffered a gaping void from her absence. The reunion with her son 25 years after she last saw him is beautifully played by both actors, sensitive and poignant. She learns that her husband died alone and heartbroken while she has been off adventuring with the Doctor. Perhaps she should have asked to have been taken home immediately. Travelling with the Doctor, things tend to get in the way. Nyssa always has had her head screwed on properly and she doesn’t blame the Doctor for not taking her home as soon as she had the opportunity. She takes responsibility for her own actions. Saying that she does want to know why the decision to meet her son was almost taken out of her hands in this situation. She as lost so many people that are dear to her and she doesn’t understand how the Doctor thought that knowing she never returned home would be too much to bear. She can see how Adric has grown into a remarkable man and wishes she hadn’t missed so much of it. She knows her responsibilities to time but when the Type 50 gives her the chance to break free of its rules and step back in her life it is very tempting, to undo all her mistakes. If she has a choice she wont allow her children to grow up without a mother. The truth is that Adric became a better person because Nyssa wasn’t around, trying to live up to her memory. If she does walk back into her old life she will undo all of that and he could turn out a monster (lets be honest if you had do-gooder Nyssa expecting you to follow in your footsteps you would probably want to break out of that mould quite dramatically). The Doctor asks her to do the hardest thing she has ever faced – to abandon her husband and children. What an impossible choice.

Mouth on Legs: Apparently the product of an ancient civilisation giving Turlough the opportunity to suggest that she is something of a genetic throwback (hehehe). She promised to keep Nyssa’s secret and she is the sort of person who lives up to those promises.

Alien Orphan (the Younger): Turlough is frustrated because he is always kept in the dark about what is really going on because he thinks that the Doctor doesn’t trust him. As soon as he is apprised of the situation he blunders, telling Adric that the Nyssa who has visited Valderon is post-his birth! You can always rely on Turlough to look on the bright side – not!

Standout Performance: Rather than bringing in new actors to play the role of the Type 50 TARDIS, Morris strikes upon the clever idea of using Tegan and Turlough as the mouthpieces of the machine. It enables Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson to give very different kinds of performances, ethereal and emotionless and the effect is quite spellbinding. Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton attempt to get away with cod Scottish accents but don’t quite succeed.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Isn’t it obvious? Your machine only shows you what it wants you to see…’
‘This gadget of yours might be handy for a weather forecast but you can’t use it as a basis for a judicial system!’
‘It should have been me! Not this antiquated relic!’
‘You just ate my dematerialisation circuit!’
‘You’re saying we’re all about to get Blinovitched!’
‘You’re nothing more than a castle built on broken dreams.’

Great Ideas: Morris loves the idea of the Doctor and friends being expected when they apparently show up randomly in stories, both Festival of Death and Cobwebs explored the same idea. The Chronoscope allows them to see into the future, to see events of significance that are to come. It has brought peace and prosperity to the world since accidents are now preventable, illness is a thing of the past and all forms of crime are antiquated. Would be perpetrators are stopped before their crimes have even been committed. Technically innocent people are sent to prison as a reminder to obey the law and not question those in charge. It’s both fair and criminally unjust. Morally paradoxical. You can see the merits of such a system although I cannot imagine living on a world where spontaneity and autonomy has died a quick death. We witness a man being sentenced for murdering somebody before the idea has even come to him and so naturally he protests his innocence. It proves to be a self perpetuating system because the very act of being arrested and accused of a crime is what gives him the idea in the first place! The reason the Chronoscope has predicted the TARDISes arrival could be because it was responsible for bringing them to Valderon. Because he thinks that Nyssa is the younger version who travelled with the Doctor before she left him and fell pregnant with him, Adric spells out Nyssa’s fate to Tegan all the way up to her abandonment on Helheim (featured in Cobwebs) and tries to avert that future for her. After Nyssa went missing in 3530 she never returned to her own time (because Adric is still looking for her in this period) which means the Doctor never managed to take her back home and knowing this means now he never will. It also means that all the people that have died between 3530 and now of Richters Disease have done so pointlessly since she could have returned home with the cure…which she now can’t because this is a set point in time! A massacre caused by a temporal nightmare! I haven’t been this involved in the mechanics of a story since January’s The Wrong Doctors. The trouble is nobody is telling anybody the truth which causes all kinds of problems; Tegan wont betray Nyssa’s confidence and tell the Doctor about Adric, Nyssa has no idea that her grown up son is so close, Turlough doesn’t realise that the truth about Nyssa’s post-Helheim timeline should be kept a secret…and as a result everything spills out into the open with dramatic consequences. Obviously Adric doesn’t quite understand the theory behind temporal mechanics…by telling his mother that she never came home he is ensuring that those events never take place. If only he had kept his gob shut then there was always the possibility that she would return home, blissfully ignorant of this future and delete this timeline. After Nyssa went missing her family left Zarat and never stayed anywhere for more than a few months, her husband buried himself in his work and Adric enrolled in college and got a first class degree in xeno-medicene. He wanted to help people and honour her memory. Nyssa’s daughter became an aid worker but eventually became infected with Richters disease. Volunteers are plentiful on a penal world and that’s why Adric came to Valderon, to further his work on a cure for the disease. The Chronoscope predicted that he would find a cure, which Nyssa now firmly believes is the one that she holds in her possession, their reunion foretold. It was inevitable as soon as we learnt the truth about the Chronoscope that one of the Doctor’s friends would be framed by the device and it gives a nice excuse to tuck Tegan and Turlough out of the way while the Doctor and Nyssa deal with the emotional ramifications of the events of the first episode. Sibor permitted Adric to come to Valderon because she wanted something to use as leverage against the Empire, holding them to ransom unless they recognise her as the new Prime Elector or she will withhold the cure for Richters. There are any number of time sensitive races across the universe that could be able to see into the future (Tharils, Jagaroth, Xeraphin, The Times Lords). When the Miracle occurred everybody on Valderon woke up and realised they could speak every language in the known universe as though it was their own…that is a massive clue as to the identity of the villain of the piece before it is revealed. As soon as a TARDIS with a functioning chameleon circuit was introduced I suspected there would be a scene where it morphed into the identity of one of the Doctor’s friends. It’s still a great moment when it comes. Nyssa makes the comparison with the Melkur, a walking, talking TARDIS. As a result of Nyssa’s decision to return home history is being split into two, one where she never came home and one where she did and cured Richters syndrome. You can just imagine the visual of two different versions of the same planet overlapping on each other. Reconstructing a planet as one vast TARDIS – you could never accuse Morris of limiting his imagination! There have been plenty of Doctor Who stories short of a good idea, Prisoners of Fate has enough to power an entire season. If Alan Barnes knew all along that this story would take place and Nyssa would need to step back in time into her old life just before she left, is that why they made her younger in The Emerald Tiger? Getting her ready for the twist events in this story? Or did it work the other way around? They wanted to use publicity shots of a younger Nyssa on the covers and Jonny Morris exploited the idea of Nyssa being younger so she could step back into her life…oh my word I’ve gone boss eyed with confusion. During Circular Time when Nyssa was caught in a dreamscape created by the Doctor during his regeneration she told him about her son Adric and he didn’t know about him. But by telling him about Adric earlier in his life she has created a paradox that is still fuelling the Type 50. It’s a pretty obscure twist considering it takes in the events of a one part story that was released years ago but it is still well explained and logical. As a result the Doctor’s future incarnations could be wiped from the future.

Audio Landscape: Rain lashing, static, bubbling experiments, church bells, electrics. I kind of lost track of the atmospherics because I was so absorbed with the story.

Isn’t it Odd: I really don’t like it when writers take massive liberties with characters and suggest that massive acres of their lives have passed without us having experienced any of that time with them. Nyssa spending 25 years alone growing bitter in order to reach Valderon after abandoning her children doesn’t ring true somehow, it feels more like a plot expediency rather than something that has actually happened. Perhaps if we could have witnessed a montage of scenes showing her life over the past quarter of a century it would have felt more believable but instead having her show up and go ‘phew it’s taken me 25 years to get here and now I’m proper pissed off!’ doesn’t quite ring true. In fact, it has more than a ring of The Curse of Fatal Death about it with the Master constantly tripping down that sewer and then turning up years/seconds later. She wants the Doctor to take her back to 3531 and pick her up so the past 25 years never happened. Considering the whole thing feels so contrived I am pleased that that is what took place. Although paradoxically it makes the whole thing feel even more contrived as a result, making this a real blink and you’ll miss it (or shoulder shrugging if you were feeling cynical) period of development for Nyssa. Just as I said in my review of Buffy’s Selfless the other day regarding Anya, this feels like a perfect stepping off point for Nyssa and it feels as if that is where the story is going. But because Big Finish are reluctant to stop working with Sarah Sutton and the character the big development promised in Prisoners of Fate is…that everything stays exactly the same. Hmm. After her protestations about abandoning her children, surely Nyssa would leave with her son at the end?

Standout Scene: Morris has fun suggesting that there might be a Time Lord at the heart of the Chronoscope and given his prolific amount of appearances during the Davison era I was wondering if there was going to be a surprise reveal of the Master. The actual twist is far more interesting than that. The Chronoscope is a Type 50 TARDIS, the one the Doctor originally chose before the TARDIS he ended up with chose him. By ingenious co-incidence this ties in perfectly with The Name of the Doctor where we witnessed the first Doctor heading towards one capsule before Clara stepped in and suggested another. His original TARDIS feels spurned, that he took another in his place. I can remember having something of an allergic reaction to the way Gary Russell and Alan Barnes portrayed the Doctor’s TARDIS in Zagreus as a spiteful and vicious old queen that was furious with how the Doctor mistreated him. It felt like a perversion of the one constant in the Doctor’s life. In comparison this beautifully done, for a start the characterisation a world away from anything Russell could achieve but there is also a damn good reason for this TARDIS to feel so hard done by. If it wasn’t for a quirk of fate it could have roamed the universe with the Doctor for the past 600 odd years, taking in the most incredible sights and adventures. There is sufficient cause to feel as if it had been abandoned. The idea of the machine abusing itself and tearing through the Time Lord defences so it could escape Gallifrey and come after the Doctor is both terrifying and heartbreaking and shows what lengths it is willing to go to in order to seek revenge. It crash landed on Valderon 20 years ago, crippled, broken and alone. Now it wants to be reborn and experience the life it should have had. It’s dramatic, satisfying and uses the shows continuity to its own advantage. Some might say it is wanky but it’s a flea biting compared to what was revealed in The Name of the Doctor.

Result: After the slack and uninteresting Eldrad Must Die! and the slightly bland Lady of Mercia, the Main Range really needed to strike out with something special to regain its chutzpah in the 50th anniversary year. Fortunately the ever reliable Jonathan Morris is on hand to give the range a shot of adrenalin and he has crafted one of his finest scripts, easily matching his work on last years Protect and Survive and then some. Whilst I always find his work of a high standard, Morris tends to buck the trend of most writers by doing his best work in the Main Range whereas pretty much every other current writer scores their wins in the spin off series’ (the Companion Chronicles, Jago & Litefoot and The Lost Stories especially). I remember Mark Gatiss recalling on the Earthshock DVD range that his younger self had the feeling that ‘something different is going on here…’ when he watched Logopolis and Earthshock and that was precisely the feeling I had with Prisoners of Fate, that tingle of excitement as things complicate and evolve with a crushing sense of doom and a feeling that perhaps this time things might not work out in the way they usually do. My one disappointment was that the story seems to be promising big developments but the net result is that everything resets at the end to precisely how things were at the beginning. Classic Who was often plot heavy and Morris in particular has always been able to construct a abundant narrative and with Prisoners of Fate he blends some very strong ideas (the Chronoscope and it’s predictive power, Nyssa’s temporal nightmare, an old friend of the Doctor’s returning to haunt him) with excellent character work to produce something truly surprising and captivating throughout. Once again Morris out Moffat’s Moffat by creating a timey wimey puzzle to unravel with an emotional sting that will stick in your memory for some time – the decision that Nyssa makes in episode four is heartbreakingly difficult – but the net result is agreeably tied up in a satisfying fashion rather than leaving a million questions, threads and moments of illogic unresolved such is the method of the series’ current show runner. It’s a story that manages to feel as though it has spiralled out of the characters control whilst at the same time feeling precisely crafted and Ken Bentley ensures that the mass of information is conveyed in an engaging and dramatic fashion. Sarah Sutton grabs hold of the opportunity to take centre stage and shares some excellent moments with Peter Davison whilst the rest of the regulars are afforded the chance to play a very different role in these events. Easily on par with The Wrong Doctors without quite toppling it (that story lost its way in the middle but scored a massive high with its ending, the opposite of Prisoners of Fate), this is still a terrific achievement and another top dollar tale from a writer whose imagination clearly has no limits: 9/10

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