Sunday, 14 July 2013

Persuasion written by Jonathan Barnes and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The Umbrella Man is back. But when the Doctor recruits UNIT's Scientific Adviser Elizabeth Klein for an off-the-books mission to the apocalyptic final days of Hitler's Germany, he isn't expecting Klein's hapless young assistant, Will Arrowsmith, to be joining them too. The Doctor isn't the only alien creature seeking to loot a very particular secret from a Nazi base in Dusseldorf, however. Strange and sinister beings are converging on the same time/space location in search of the scientist Schalk, whose experiments are the key to a devastating power... The power of Persuasion.

The Real McCoy: The Doctor is not used to the sort of reaction that Klein gives him when he drops in on his old friends – horror and indifference. Some of them are even pleased to see him! Raine is no longer travelling with him and he has come to check up on his old nemesis/friend (take your pick). The Doctor doesn’t use the TARDIS to start wars but to end them, a firm statement of fact that he feels he has the right to determine the course of history. Perhaps the Valeyard should have chosen that moment to use in his prosecution against the Doctor in Trial of a Time Lord. The Doctor is afraid, he knows he is reaching the end of this body and he’s worried that whoever comes next wont be capable of doing the things that he does so he is trying to tidy up the universe before he departs. Such arrogance, but that has always been an element of this incarnation. He thinks that his future incarnations wont be able to go as far as he does  but he is wrong – in the novel line the eighth Doctor destroyed Gallifrey when such a decision had to be made and between the TV Movie and Rose another, as yet undisclosed, regeneration also made the same decision. If he ever seems sure then he is never as sure as she seems. The Doctor calls the Earth a plucky little mud ball, which I thought was rather sweet. He states that he can’t tolerate beings who put the greater good before the lives of individuals but that has been something he himself has been guilty of time and again in this incarnation. The hypocrisy on display is awesome.

Nazi Scientist: Klein has responsibilities and cannot just take off on an intergalactic jaunt. She has a natural level of curiosity about the TARDIS but objects to being kidnapped against her will. I hate to say this but Klein is far too strong a character to be tethered to the seventh Doctor and constantly dogging his footsteps and demanding to know what is going on. It has become something of a cliché with the seventh Doctor’s companions thanks to the overdone manipulation angle that writers take with him and it is a shame to see a character as strong as Klein falling into that trap. She should be spearheading her own range, pulling the strings herself instead of being led around on a leash. Tracey Childs will always take whatever material Big Finish give her and make something juicy of it but I really felt the character was undersold in Persuasion. I remember the fierce intellect and moral determination of the woman in A Thousand Tiny Wings but it would seem that her time with UNIT has softened her into perfectly ordinary companion material. Perhaps she will regain some of that bite in the next two stories. Out of all of his previous colleagues, it was Klein that the Doctor thought would understand his need to get things in order before losing his identity. She doesn’t believe in co-incidence when it comes to the Doctor anymore and she thinks he came to her because she is the perfect companion for the man he has become.

Sexy Geek: I think it says something about our perception of people and how we like to categorise them by what we see that the general feeling surrounding this release so far seems to be people struggling with the disparity between Will as portrayed on the cover (rugged, handsome, confident looking) and the character who is portrayed in the story (who is anything but – wimpy, geeky and insecure). To be fair it is something I have experienced myself in the past. I look after myself and I’m fairly straight acting and so when I meet people the response is often that they are shocked to learn that I am the geeky gay sort! However I at least sound how I look, the discrepancy between Will as visualised and Will as characterised is so enormous that it feels as if somebody has missed the point of the character in one of those areas. There is a real feeling of Jeremy Fitzoliver about the character; a feckless, useless brainbox who lacks basic competence and if I’m honest Will does wind up about as appealing as Barry Letts’ most infamous creation. To say that he drags this release down in quality simply by being present would be a massive understatement. When confronted with a threat he babbles and gushes and perspires, I can’t imagine why Klein keeps him around. By the way that she loses her temper with him, I think the question often dawns on her too! Will isn’t a field agent, he’s more of a theorist. Perhaps if Will had proven himself throughout the course of his first adventure to be much more than meets the eye then this uber geek approach to his character (mind you I have rarely met geeks that sound quite this shrill and pathetic) might have been made to work. If the idea of introducing a new companion is to entice the audience to want to spend more time with the character, Persuasion is an abject failiure.

Standout Performance: To say that McCoy has been riding high on the success of his latest Big Finish releases would be an accurate statement of fact. Let’s be honest he has come a long way since the early days of the audio productions where it felt that the weaker scripts were always being filtered his way and there was a nagging feeling as if he was reading the scripts for the first time when stepping up to the microphone. His performances over the past three or four years have seen a marked improvement and the quality of his stories (The Magic Mousetrap, A Death in the Family, Protect and Survive, Robophobia, UNIT: Dominion) has seen a dramatic rise in value. That’s why it is sad to confess that this story felt as though it had come from the days of Unregenerate! and The Rapture, McCoy sounding frighteningly under rehearsed and uncertain of how to structure his sentences and where to place his inflections. It doesn’t help that his characterisation is a bit all over the place in Persuasion too (often the curse of a new writer, trying to achieve everything in their first script) but there is a definite feeling of the leading man lost at sea here, which I hope isn’t a precursor into an arrangement similar to the days of yore. We’ll see. Watch out for his multitude of rolling rrrs, that is usually a sign that McCoy is desperately improvising his way through a scene.

Great Ideas: The cause of a great of this adventures problems, the cover, is visually stunning and promotes the tale as a gritty and dramatic one. It doesn’t tally with the story that unfolds but that doesn’t stop it being of excellent quality. The Doctor keeps an entire galaxy in one room in the TARDIS, that’s a very cool idea. Walking around the TARDIS is more like stepping into a mans mind than a geographical location. The Kletch are a race of space faring asset strippers and they are mentioned in the UNIT files. The Doctor once left one of his old model sonic screwdrivers in the UNIT labs and they have managed to reverse engineer some of its functions. The Doctor first heard the name Kurt Schalk two months ago, on interstellar communications he monitors from the TARDIS. Across thousands of worlds the wireless communications across a multitude of law enforcement organisations, the private correspondence of a plethora of governments, the memos and emails of Presidents, Prime Ministers and Kings, those secret words that fly daily to and from the criminal underworlds of many planets – the Doctor has access to it all. Schalk has become the most wanted man in the known universe. New Peerlessness is a prison planet built by the Time Lords, cocooned in impermeable force fields and only let the Doctor in because it knows him. Schalk was plagued by dreams of impossible things (other worlds, realities and dimensions), he had been chosen to build the Persuasion machine. It can make any person believe in any belief or ideology. The Struwwelpelter’s plan was to turn this universe into a new home for themselves, to turn the machine on the entire population of the planet Earth and make them agreeable to the aliens because otherwise we would behave destructively to their scheme. No I’m not sure if it makes sense either.

Audio Landscape: A squeaking door, birdsong, the echoing TARDIS corridors, falling into water, a cheering crowd, rolling waves, a shrieking scream.

Musical Cues: Andy Hardwick’s music is as wishy washy as ever and is starting to become a little formulaic now. If you listen to his work in Zagreus, The Next Life and Persuasion there really isn’t enough of a difference between them to call them original scores. To be fair to Hardwick, he hardly has much dramatic material to work with but this is a pretty faceless soundtrack regardless. Perhaps a more dynamic score would have improved things slightly (ala The Rapture).

Isn’t it Odd: The prologue is too long, too confusing and too indifferent to drag you into the story. It sounds like The Rings of Akhaten in a nutshell with a child caterwauling and lots of talk of love conquering all. It also feels as if we have come in halfway through the adventure, I had to check that I hadn’t pressed play at the wrong point. With a random Nazi character turning up at the cliffhanger to venerate Klein, the overall feeling is the first episode could do with another draft, it feels disjointed, undramatic and bafflingly vague. When contrasted with the opening episode at the start of the last McCoy trilogy (Protect and Survive) which was startling in it’s economy of storytelling and raw in it’s dramatic intensity, the flaws of Persuasion are even more apparent. Constantly returning to a story that is completely disconnected from the main narrative is highly distracting. I had no doubt that they would be dovetailed at some point but for the first two installments at least I found my attention divided between two, equally uninteresting stories and having no clue how one impacted the other. Is there a script editor working on the main range these days? This story is distinctly set after UNIT Dominion (Klein recognises who the Doctor is, Raine is mentioned) and yet when confronted with a Nazi who seems to venerate her she is baffled by the entire prospect as though the revelations about her past that she made privy to in the previous epic never took place. I’m not sure that this story ever presented any kind of dramatic thrust, it feels like a bunch of people who have come together in an obscure location whilst the plot runs on the spot and they discuss the danger they are in without ever actually appearing to be in any. It’s like an anti-narrative, with nothing of note propelling the story forwards. Terrifying beings from another dimension? Again? Is the main range starting to haemorrhage imagination? Wasn’t the Toymaker a similar foe? And Fenric? Or the entity that existed between realities in House of Blue Fire? Or the extra dimensional creatures for Lurkers’ at Sunlight’s Edge? Or the Elder Gods from Protect and Survive? And The Word Lord? Why does the seventh Doctor always have to butt heads with such grand, end of the universe as we know it enemies? Is that the only way to make his character impressive by having him cut these grand villainous sorts down to size? There is something deeply unsatisfying about a narrative that doesn’t reveal its secrets but contains a character (the Doctor) who knows precisely what is going on from the off and suddenly dumps all the facts in our laps two thirds into the adventure. There’s no detective work on the part of the audience, just an outpouring of exposition when my patience had worn thin. For the Doctor to just suddenly drop that every lifeform in the known universe is in danger without properly explaining his reasoning for such a statement or backing it up with evidence in the story it just a hollow cliché. The Doctor facing up to the Gods from another universe felt as though it had been a copy and paste jobby from Gods and Monsters. It’s such a predictable story to drop this incarnation in I was considering playing online Tetris to stave the monotony – I don’t mean to be rude but surely the script editor can see that we’ve been here countless times before with the seventh Doctor? I was aghast at the ambivalence of the conclusion, the Doctor convincing the Struwwelpelter’s that this dimension is actually rather lovely and not worth consuming and he can take them somewhere pleasant to settle down. Huh? Four episodes of running on the spot for that blinding resolution? Fooling them in such bland way shows that his opponents are clearly of an inferior nature these days. The Doctor tricking higher beings into a prison – isn’t that a replica of the plot of Protect and Survive? The Kletch sounds bizarrely like it is being spearheaded by a particularly perky supermarket announcer. The idea of the Persuasion machine is such a strong one that to drop in it’s abilities in at the last minute and not take advantage of the dramatic possibilities that such a device brings to a story left me speechless. Let’s hope it is revisited, along with the whole Klein/Schalk recognition that has been left unresolved. It does feel deflating that after four episodes of meandering we are even denied resolution.

Standout Scene: Watch out for the truly bizarre moment when all the characters converge late in episode three and it plays out like an endless roll call of hellos. I was getting visions of the Janet/Dr Scott/Janet/Brad/Rocky sequence in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There was so little happening dramatically at this point we can waste 30 seconds with everybody saying hi.

Result: That was…boring. It has been a long time since I was last this indifferent about a Big Finish release because even the weakest of the latest batch of main range adventures have been entertaining despite their flaws (Eldrad Must Die!). Given the previous Klein trilogy and UNIT: Dominion, I came to Persuasion expecting something very juicy indeed and instead was greeted by a lacklustre tale that felt like a desperately confused first draft. There was no point where the narrative managed to perk my interest because I always felt disconnected from the (lack of) action. There was an awful lot of chatter between the under developed cast but I never felt the situation was being adequately explained or dramaticised and because of the unusual plotting techniques (dumping us in the tale after the important events have happened and excising moments of genuine jeopardy) it never gained any kind of momentum or thrust. For the most part it felt like a bunch of strangers standing around nattering about prosaic things and the resulting story that emerges in episode four is just a watered down version of Protect and Survive. The Doctor suffers from Sylvester McCoy’s weakest performance in an age (did he receive the script late?), Klein fails to engage because she is being shoehorned into the role of an enquiring companion rather than the intelligent foe of old and what they were thinking with Will Arrowsmith bewilders me because he emerges as a copy and paste Jeremy Fitzoliver with all the irritating quirks that come with it. The cover promised a fresh, dynamic team but the story promotes a regular cast that fails to inspire any confidence. I also took issue with the idea that seventh Doctor thinks he has to conquer all the evil in the universe because he doesn’t feel as though his future incarnations will have the stomach to adopt his methods. He’s still in the nursery compared to what is to come, and what his predecessors would be capable of. After a fairly disappointing fifth Doctor trilogy (the excellent Prisoners of Fate aside), I was expecting big things from the return of Tracey Childs to the main range but her consistently enthralling performance was the only strength I could detect in this otherwise limp and open ended tale. I think even if this was your first Big Finish and you hadn’t been privy to all the wonderful things they have been doing with the seventh Doctor of late this would still come as a major disappointment, and if this inconclusive tale was the point that your subscription ended you might not be tempted back. Persuasion showed signs of basic competence but nothing more; there was nothing inspiring, original or remarkable on offer. It pains me to see more insubstantial storytelling filling up the anniversary year, after an unsatisfactory mini season on TV I was rather relying on Big Finish to pick up the slack. This is a two hour chapter one of this trilogy, and it doesn’t inspire me to seek out the rest: 3/10


Alan Taylor said...

I wouldn't have gone as far as to give it a 3. I do agree that it felt that Sylvester was reading the script for the first time, and that annoyed me. However, Tracey Childs always feels like enough to compensate. Maybe a 4 or 5.

It's clearly the first part of an arc - with the loose ends being set up for a future resolution. The Doctor keeping secrets from his companions is hardly a new idea, though. Klein's an interesting enough character that there could be an interesting resolution there though.

I'm a bit confused by one line in your review though - "After the pre-titles sequence the story jumps ahead to a point after Will has began exploring the TARDIS and after the Doctor has met up with Klein and the Ship as whisked her away from her life." - I downloaded the audiobook version, and after the title sequence we get Klein and Will in the pub, before joining the Doctor. Was your version different?


Joe Ford said...

Oh bugger, looks like I missed a track on my ipod. I'll amend.

Joe Ford said...

Yep, as I thought. Track three was missing - not from my copy, but I failed to add to my iPod. That was an unnecessary criticism due to my own ineptitude with technology! Apologies, I have now deleted the comment.

Alan Taylor said...

When I first listened to Terror Firma I got it completely out of order - Episode 3 and 4 followed by episodes 1 and 2. It made as much sense.