Thursday, 18 July 2013

The Final Phase written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: The raw power of the very fabric of reality itself. And you dare to think you can conquer it?' Cuthbert's plan for the Proxima System is reaching its final phase. The Doctor and Romana have been separated. The Doctor is aiding the Proximan fight-back. Romana and K9 are prisoners of the Daleks. And as the countdown to the opening of the Quantum Gateway begins, the Daleks reveal their true intentions.

Teeth and Curls: ‘What’s the matter, too scared to show your plungers?’ With dialogue like that it is hard to get too excited about the characterisation of Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor. His speech is not actively unpleasant but it is functional, rather than witty and effusive. However I did like the moment where he almost burst into laughter at the news that the Daleks on board the saucer are dead. It felt like a little of that dangerously batty fourth Doctor (you know, the one who toyed with Davros’ hand over the self destruction button in Destiny of the Daleks whilst beaming like a nutter) had made it into the story.

Posh Girl: This is Mary Tamm’s last Doctor Who adventure before her untimely death and whilst it does showcase her character a fair amount, I wouldn’t say that she is given the strongest material of the season (that would still go to The Auntie Matter and The Justice of Jalxar). To be fair Nicholas Briggs did not know that this was going to be Tamm’s final story and I dare say would have worked things a little differently if he did to give her a more dramatic/satisfying send off. Romana is bolshie enough, smugly standing up to both Cuthbert and the Daleks (she’s got some pluck, I’ll give her that) and shows off her scientific knowledge by piecing together the mystery that is hanging on the periphery of this story whilst everybody else is trying to bring down the Daleks. She is uncomfortable admitting it but there are times when the Doctor’s knowledge exceeds her own and should be sought out. It is only after she thinks he is dead that Romana acknowledges that although they resented each other at first, they had started to get on despite themselves. They had become good friends and she had never stopped to think about it before. The Doctor might be able to bypass the Randomiser and get Romana back to Gallifrey but she doesn’t want to just yet. She doesn’t think she should let him out of her sight for quite some time.

Standout Performance: Tom Baker is at his best when confronting the Supreme Dalek, literally growling his lines out at points. It jars when compared to the fruitloop that is on display elsewhere but it really feels like he is giving it all for this scene. He attempts to make the conclusion to this story feel as climactic as possible, booming about Gods and raw energy unleashing. If only the script could deliver the cataclysm that Baker manages to portray so effortlessly.

Great Ideas: Cuthbert learns (as do all those who try and make a pact with the Daleks) that they will be subservient to a point but as soon as things aren’t going their way… He tries to control them with his monumental ego but when it comes to a battle of words and firepower, I know what I would put my money on. Fortunately they seem to need Cuthbert for some purpose, which is his one ace up the sleeve at the moment but the trouble is nobody seems to know what that is. The Quantum Gateway is a tear in the fabric of time and space and the energy required to create it is enough to destroy the universe itself (that’s the sort of melodramatic statement that sounds awesome coming out of anybody’s mouth). Cuthbert’s intentions aren’t to look into the future but to discover the glories of the past. Whilst Cuthbert thought he had the Daleks under control, they were busy extruding tunnels through the Quantum Gateway right under his nose. Punching through the fabric of the universe exposes you to energy from other dimensions, energy that doesn’t conform to our laws of physics. No matter how strong Cuthbert’s forcefield is, it is essentially porous and deadly particles have been pouring in from the other dimension. They have the power to tear reality in half when the forcefield comes down at the moment of the final phase. Without Cuthbert and the Conglomerate, a thousand would starve, Earth would be bankrupt an economies across the galaxy would fall. Billions will die if he doesn’t walk through the gateway because the seeds of the Conglomerate Empire were planted in the past that he managed to access by creating the Quantum Gateway. Before the gateway is destroyed Cuthbert manages to take the opportunity to slip back in time to the right place to keep time on track. Perhaps to be met by another Doctor in the future (I would love to hear David Warner and Colin Baker lock horns). Is he a living temporal paradox?

Audio Landscape: Loved the psychedelic sound effects for the Dalek saucer, very Dr Who & the Daleks. There’s a lovely moment when K.9’s noisy motors are so loud they threaten to spoil Romana’s moment of subterfuge (mirroring the racket he used to make in the series) and he adopts his stealth mode, effectively muting himself. When asked why he has never done that before, he responds that nobody has ever asked him. At points during this story it sounds like Daleks are having a nervous breakdown, although never to quite the level of the Michael Wisher voiced one in Death to the Daleks. The dimension ship screams across space and is detonated with some force, an appropriately dramatic moment since it is supposed to signal the Doctor’s death. Dalek heartbeat, bullets breaking through Dalek casings, extermination blasts (obviously),

Musical Cues: Rather oddly the music in The Dalek Contract was one of my favourite aspects of the story but I grew a little tired with the style in The Final Phase. I still laud Alistair Lock as one of Big Finish’s finest but there was a feeling of melodramatic wallpaper to the score here that I didn’t sense in the previous adventure.

Isn’t it Odd: Perhaps this story should have been called The Deadly Particles? An ominous cloud of microbes threatening the system? It’s hardly on the same sort of scope as a plague planet, is it? Endless scenes of guns firing at Daleks, bullets bouncing off their casings and Nick Briggs screaming his head off as the bonded polycarbite explodes might have been fun way back in The Genocide Machine and The Apocalypse Element but since then there have been countless Dalek stories with similar scenes. I’m starting to get a sense of déjà vu. Unfortunately these metal meanies have been so overused by Big Finish now that in order for a story to truly excel they have to do something a bit different with them (the lone Dalek in Jubilee for example) and constantly playing out the same round of sound effects as though all out war is occurring just out of sight is getting a bit wearisome. Perhaps it is time to give them a rest.  Briggs has a thing at the moment about people mis-pronouncing things (‘The Doctor’ and ‘Tardy Box’) and Cuthbert continues to call Romana ‘Ramona’ throughout this story. It’s the lowest form of wit and inspires groans rather than giggles. Listening to Cuthbert’s downfall should be a lot more satisfying than it is but he really has been (as Romana so delicately puts it) ‘terminally stupid’ by letting them get so close and thinking they knew nothing about the Gateway. It is hard to feel sympathy for such a numbnuts. Daleks messing about with dimensional technology – wasn’t this covered in Briggs’ own Dalek Empire? The suggestions of romance between Chidak and Halka are so subtle as to be undistinguishable, it certainly adds nothing to their thinly drawn characters. The Doctor attempts to probe deep and discover why the Daleks want access to all of time and space…conquest. Well, duh. This story is always reaching for something special but settling for the mundane.

Standout Scene: Romana’s quiet reaction to the Doctor’s death stands out as a genuinely heartfelt moment amongst all the sound and fury.

Result: Perfectly average, but never stimulating. Nick Briggs can be a fine writer  but you only have to compare The Final Phase and To The Death (both epic Dalek finales that climax a series of 50 minute stories) to see that he is starting to get a little exhausted, possibly because of his prolific presence in this particular range. Like The Dalek Contract, The Final Phase has its moments but they are scant and submerged in all the rest of the noisy fluff. The dialogue is mostly functional rather than characterful, serving the scant plot and so the guest cast get a bum deal of being some the least interesting and memorable that have appeared in a Big Finish for some time. If the second season of 4DAs has been your first exposure to Big Finish then this might feel like a genuinely climactic and exciting adventure but if you have listened to even half of their other Daleks adventures (especially the likes of Davros, Jubilee, The Juggernauts, Enemy of the Daleks and Patient Zero) then The Final Phase is likely going to feel like quite the letdown. The Doctor and Romana play out the roles that is expected of them but aren’t stretched in any way (even when it looks as if the Doctor is dead the aftermath is handled too quickly and his return to the story quickly follows) and whilst David Warner continues to delight (despite his stiff characterisation, I don’t think this guy knows how to give a bad performance) Cuthbert’s story fizzles out without any resolution. The whole self fulfilling prophecy angle has been done before, and better, and I couldn’t help but think considering that since the story was promising an epic revelation (universal destruction, time and space split asunder, etc) that this was more than a little underwhelming. I struggle to see the merit in playing it quite so safe with the 4DAs. Even season two, which has been a quantum leap in terms of quality from season one, has failed to take any big risks (the best stories are a P.G. Wodehouse parody, a reunion with Jago & Litefoot and a claustrophobic SF tale beneath the sea – all quality stories but nothing especially groundbreaking). Next year I would like to see them try and push Tom Baker into more challenging areas, edgier drama and more oddball comedies. I would love to see him get his own Jubilee, Chimes of Midnight, A Death in the Family or Dr Who & the Pirates, something truly memorable. The Finale Phase caps off an entertaining season of adventures but I cannot imagine ever choosing to listen to this particular adventure again: 5/10

1 comment:

Peakius Baragonius said...

Semi-relevant question: does anyone know why K9's presence has been downplayed in this past season of Fourth Doctor adventures? Was it just that he didn't fit into some of the stories, or was it a deliberate creative decision from the start? I'm curious to know what the rationale was if it's the latter.