Saturday, 17 August 2013

Starlight Robbery written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Sick of the same-old slaughter-appliances? In need of a killer new killing-machine? Then look no further than Garundel Galactic's secret arms auction. Blasters, tanks, missiles and bombs – no bang too big or micro-laser too small. If you’ve got the credits, Garundel's got the kill-sticks. (Cash buyers get preferential rates.) In search of the key to a sinister alien technology, the Doctor, Klein and Will set their sights on an illicit intergalactic arms fair run by an old acquaintance – the slippery Urodelian crook, Garundel. But what are their chances of pulling off a particularly audacious heist from under the noses of Garundel and his alien clients, the ever-belligerent Sontarans…?

The Real McCoy: Last month’s Doctor Who magazine gave me the impression that Fitton would have more of a chance to explore the seventh Doctor in the writers second audio from his era (his first, Black and White, was recorded when McCoy was busy filming The Hobbit and so his role had to be reduce significantly). So imagine my surprise when he was barely present throughout the first two episodes, having to have the reins of this operation over to Will and Klein (lest Garundel recognised him) and waits by the phone in the TARDIS for one of them to call with a report. First Klein, then Garundel; it seems that the Doctor is in the habit of picking up old acquaintances at the moment. It is about time that somebody coined the seventh Doctor a control freak, and you can trust Garundel to cut to the chase when it comes to assassinating someone’s character.

Nazi Scientist: Some might say the sight of Elizabeth Klein, a reformed Nazi, decked out in leather might be a sight for sore eyes. It’s certainly amusing given her previous life that she should criticize such a look. The Kraken mother doesn’t like to leave a genocide incomplete, Klein is the same with a crossword – see how far she has come on! Garundel coins her the ‘ice queen’ because she is as cool as a cucumber when dealing with him and his slippery auction attendees. She wouldn’t say that a culture where the egg bearers (ahem, women) are allowed to contribute to the military is a weakness. There’s a moment where a Sontaran asks Klein if she ever given birth and she hesitates for a moment before admitting she hasn’t. An unsubtle parallel between the Nazis and the Sontarans is drawn, and Klein froths at the mouth at the thought of unlimited cloned troops (that was basically Hitler’s dream). Klein thinks nothing of Garundel’s punishment for his machinations, the one moment where her morality comes into conflict with the Doctor’s. However she redeems herself by giving Will the gift of ignorance, informing him that Ziv has headed for the open road rather than breaking his heart with the news of her death.

Sexy Geek: It only struck me during Starlight Robbery how much Will sounds like Wesley Wynden-Pryce when he first joined the Buffy universe. Arrogant, overbearing and yet also craven and uncertain. It is not an appealing mix. Given the brevity of their adventures, I am not willing to put money on the notion that Will will undergo the same kind of transformation that Wesley did when he came into his own on Angel. Will has always been fascinated at how so many of the Earth’s invaders resemble the human race so closely. He’s far less useless in Starlight Robbery than he was in his debut but that doesn’t mean that this character is anything to shout home about. I think the character is fundamentally flawed from the outset so the best any writer (and Fitton is currently one of the most promising of Big Finish’s repertoire) can manage is damage limitation. He’s never been good at picking up those kinds of signals, women not being his field of expertise (although you would think quite the reverse given his smouldering good looks on the cover of Persuasion). He can’t quite get the hang of being undercover and gets far too mired in the method of social graces. He’s not only terrible at reading signals, he whinges on about it when it causes hassle for the Doctor. I just wanted to smack the guy in the face when he was trading barbs with Ziv, getting uptight as she tears into his character and declaring boldly that he has encountered an exciting number of aliens during his time with UNIT. He’s so desperate to impress and that’s another unappealing feature. He finally gets to something other than whimper during the negotiations with the Sontarans, standing up to a race that could blast him out of the sky proves to be a brave thing to do. Ziv describes Will as a ‘nice boy’, which tells you everything you need to know about the dramatic potential of this character. Go on, Big Finish, prove me wrong in the final story of the trilogy.

Standout Performance: It is so nice for Dan Starkey to get the chance to play the Sontarans bad for a change and naturally he is excellent, delivering a smart, menacing performance. Stuart Milligan’s Garundel failed to impress me the first time around and it would have to take a script the calibre of Robert Holmes (and to be fair to Matt Fitton he has a damn good stab at given the character a second chance – ‘Far enough from home so I can embargo my siblings but close enough for them to hear me rattling me coinage!’) at his best to allow me to hear past those teeth shatteringly hysterical and camp tones and find something of worth in this character. Was he really considered that much of a success that he needed a second story?

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Who next, Bandrils?
‘Humanity is no slouch when it comes to war, Marshall. I’d say we’re beyond the nursery now.’
‘Small talk/Sontaran…funny!’

Great Ideas: It’s great how this story instantly segues into Persuasion, with Garundel trying to flog the machine and the inventors body’s (at no extra charge). This end of Mutter Spiral attracts the belligerent, humans included. It must be the feng shui. The Sontaran stratagem is at its limit – the Imperial war fleet is active across a thousand star systems and the clone banks are at capacity. They need to find new ways of waging war beyond the militaristic and the persuasion machine fits the bill perfectly. Fitton includes some amusing races bidding at the auction, including one whose refreshment of choice is the spinal fluid of its victims once it has crushed the life out of them. There is no point telling a Sontaran that you will take care of its weapons as though they were its children because they will have more than likely have sent their brood hatchlings into battle to be slaughtered for the glory of the Sontaran Empire – you’re much better saying you will treat the weapons as weapons, because they are much more valued. Everybody hates the Sontarans which makes them the perfect attendees to push the bids up. Did Garundel ever think that the Sontarans would ever bid for the persuasion machine in the usual fashion? When a phalanx of warships approaches, the pace starts to pick up exponentially. Garundel’s whole auction set up was a fake – he has no weapons or EM field that prevents the bidders from killing each other, he just let them believe that to keep the peace. The whole purpose of the auction was to steal the bidders weapons as well as their money. Whatever else he might be, the Doctor cannot deny Garundel’s technical genius. Garundel never trusted his female associate, he arranged for his ship to be operated by remote control just in case she decided to step out on him. He’s a slippery toad (hohoho). The persuasion-lite device does not work on anybody that doesn’t want to be persuaded, which rather defeats the purpose of the thing! Garundel murdering Ziv was the first genuinely shocking moment in the story (which isn’t a criticism, this isn’t a story that is trying to be shocking); where we see that no matter how amusing he might be, he is still a dangerous con man who always has his finger on the trigger. I’m guessing he had to do something genuinely unpleasant to justify his excruciating fate in this story (although we do learn that his hand will grow back within a month). He’s a frog with big ambitions, planning on stealing the entire Sontaran fleet (ships, guns and technology – woohoo!) and making tracks.

Audio Landscape: Bask in the auctions unusual merchandise, realised aurally by a way of a demonstration of the weapons – the droning of gunfire, hideous screams as a population burns/freezes/explodes…and then polite applause from the auctioneers.  Buzzing, sparking consoles, Sontaran communication devices, the polite chatter and alien voices present before the auction, mobile signal lost, a spaceship crashing, Sontaran ships descending.

Musical Cues: I’m guessing that Howard Carter is going to have the honour (see what I did there?) of scoring every Sontaran story because of his phenomenal theme for the militaristic race? It first appeared in Heroes of Sontar and continued apace in The First Sontarans and now the opening seconds of Starlight Robbery and instantly buoyed up by the familiar and yet bombastic and exciting presence of this theme. The godawful lift music that is slavered over Garundel’s advertisement is frighteningly authentic. Where the Sontaran theme fails is the cheerful adaptation that skips over the Sontaran attack in episode two – are we supposed to take these events seriously? 

Isn’t it Odd: Given that the general reaction to treating the Sontarans as comedy buffoons in Heroes of Sontar went down like a cup of cold sick (I exaggerate, as usual, some people did like this treatment but I’m willing to bet not as many as Big Finish were hoping for) and their repair work accomplished in The First Sontarans, it galls to see them once again treated as a figures of fun quite so soon. With the race being belittled in the TV series on a regular basis (I love Strax, but he is hardly an argument for why this race is considered an intimidating military force) it feels as if everybody is going for the funny the bone when it comes to this once proud race (yes I know there were plenty of humorous lines in The Time Warrior, but it treated Styre as the straight amongst so many primitive buffoons). ‘We are not errand boys to be sent shopping!’ Deep Space Nine crafted an episode (Business as Usual) that dealt with the potentially comic and grave consequences of aiding an arms business that forced its central character (Quark) into a moral dilemma concerning 80 million that were about to be made an example of. Quark was generally treated as a comic relief character but he managed to make the leap into high drama with surprising ease. Try hard as I might I could never imagine a character as broadly drawn as Garundel proving as dramatically chameleonic. Come to think of it, Deep Space Nine also pulled off a comedic episode with an auction of some the galaxy’s most dangerous criminals all seeking a dangerous artefact (Q-Less). Some of Garundel’s dialogue is very similar to Quark’s to the bidders when the shit starts to hit the fan. When characters state unconcerned ‘we’ve all got to make a living, it’s not like we’re pulling the trigger’ you know that the ethics of this situation are being quietly side stepped so we can get to the fun. I wasn’t sure whether the Sontaran attack was supposed to be funny (Garundel is firing off witty lines like he’s auditioning for the role of Noel Coward) or dramatic (people are dying en masse), to me it felt like a incompatible mixture of both. It strikes me that every opportunity that Fitton has to probe deep beneath the characters he fails to do so in order to keep the story light and frothy. Garundel asks the Doctor about Ace and Hex and he instantly changes the subject and there is the perfect opportunity to discuss Klein’s opinion on motherhood which is similarly skipped over. I did hope that there would never one a day when any character said ‘totes impossible’ in a Doctor Who story, but that day has now arrived. They’ve just driven off Tom Baker’s latest season, they turned up as a surprise ending in the previous season of Gallifrey and now they make their presence known in the main range…it’s the Daleks again! I’m starting to hope that Nation Estate withdraws their permission for Big Finish to use them because this is getting beyond tedious now. One new monster race every couple of years isn’t enough (the Viyrans, the Eminence), stop wheeling out the mobile dustbins and do something original! The fact that this entire story is a distraction rather displays its insignificance…but at least it was a diverting intrusion to the main narrative of the trilogy.

Standout Scene: The end of episode three where Will’s life hangs in the balance, and at the whim of a Sontaran missile. I was screaming ‘press the button!’ which might not be the response that Fitton was after.

Result: As much as some the details bugged me (more Sontarans in a comic setting, Stuart Milligan’s shrill choice of voice for Garundel), the first episode of Starlight Robbery is jolly good fun, taking place as it does in an auction for the device that was so sacrosanct in the first adventure of this trilogy. There’s a lightness of touch to the events that makes this story much more easier to enjoy than its predecessor. Garundel is much more tolerable in this adventure than he was in Black and White because he is not pitched at quite such a ridiculous level and this time around he is the star of the show and there aren’t a ton of other characters and ideas vying for your attention. Milligan is clearly having a great time playing the intergalactic wrangler and that energy infects the rest of the cast and they all pitch up their performances to match it. For a heist story it doesn’t quite have the twists and turns that you might expect from the genre (Grand Theft Cosmos was much more surprising in that respect, what I was looking for was the constantly subverting narrative of something like Situation Vacant) but it sure gets the tone and the pace spot on. It basically does exactly what it says on the tin; it is a peppy adventure through space with the seventh Doctor, Klein (who is given much more to work with here), Will Arrowsmith (still irritating but showing glimmers of potential) and the Sontarans. With Matt Fitton scripting there is plenty of witty, memorable dialogue and to his acclaim he is treating the Sontarans credibly, it is just the humorous tone of the story means that they are rather swept up in the comical tide. Ultimately this was never going to top what I still consider to be the ultimate Doctor Who auction story, Alien Bodies, which took the very simple idea and turned it into a portmanteau of oddball characters, hyper imaginative concepts and stunning world building (in the same breath The Name of the Doctor loses points for stealing most of its best ideas for this novel too). Starlight Robbery is an enjoyable Doctor Who story that diverts for its running time and provides a good ride. Just don’t expect to remember much of it afterwards, this is ultimately pretty disposable stuff (Garundel even admits as much at the climax) with an ending that rips of Frontier in Space and sees Big Finish leaping on the continuity bandwagon again (can you guess who the menace in the next story is?). Worth checking out : 7/10


Gus Fallon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gus Fallon said...

I hated "Persuasion" but I thought that this was one of the best stories in the main range this year, though I have to say that so far 2013 is the weakest year for the main range since 2007.

Will reminded me of Wesley as well but the big difference is that I liked Wesley from the beginning while I think that Will is the worst Big Finish companion in its history.

As far as I'm concerned, "Heroes of Sontar" was a complete disaster which can be summed up in five words: "Doctor Who does Dad's Army. Badly." I was happy with the treatment of the Sontarans this time around. I thought that it focussed more on the military might of the Sontarans rather than treating them as nothing but walking punchlines. The Strax jokes wore thin after one episode.

Gus Fallon said...

*summed up in six words!

Joe Ford said...

What's an extra word, it's still a great six word review! :-)

Ed Azad said...

I always get a chill when you mention Angel, because although you haven't reviewed it, your brief mentions of that show's shortcomings are bang-on. In particular, the character of Wesley who was, probably, the most-developed of the lot, but suffered from his baggage over on Buffy, which won the undying hatred of some fans. Seems like a great waste. Because the dark characters offer the best opportunities for actors. But for some reason, on television at least, the audience just can't get behind an anti-hero.

After Tegan, Adric and now S.7 Capaldi, I don't really see the point in re-attempting that dynamic here. And in an audio format? If I'm honest, it's an idea which almost weaponizes stupidity.

I wonder if this is payback for the fans revolting against the Ace-Hector-Seven team?