Friday, 16 August 2013

The Alchemists written by Ian Potter and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: The TARDIS lands in Berlin in the 1930s, where Hitler and his National Socialist party are in the ascendant. Some of the greatest scientific minds are gathering here: Einstein, Heisenberg, Planck, Schrödinger, Wigner. The people who will build the future of planet Earth. But the Doctor and Susan have brought something with them. Something apparently harmless, something quite common. Yet something that could threaten the course of history…

An Unearthly Child: Time (and Big Finish) have been kind to Susan. She is no longer being written as the fourth most important character of a four man ensemble or being highlighted as a snivelling child that needs a jolly good smacked bottom. No, in the hands of some of Big Finish’s strongest writers (Marc Platt being mostly responsible) she has matured into a more appealing, intelligent young woman. Whilst she is still capable of making mistakes (they are, after all, what add complications to a story), she is also capable of ingratiating herself in many different settings, reasoning out problems and coming up with some creative solutions. If this was the Susan that appeared on television I would take far less issue with the character. As Susan writers her journal she tells Barbara that the only reason she could be reading it is because she has either died or left the TARDIS. At this stage she’s not planning on doing either but you never know what will happen in this unpredictable lifestyle of theirs. There was a time in the past when Susan was tempted to change the past, when she had to learn the same lesson that Barbara would go on to learn in The Aztecs. She makes the astute observation that there is something a bit strange about how the TARDIS keeps coming back to Earth – if the Doctor isn’t doing it on purpose then something must be drawing the ship to the largely insignificant little planet. Susan thinks the early thirties could potentially be during the war, which isn’t such an educational faux pas when you think that she comes from another planet and that our damp little world has a history littered with conflicts. Like me, Susan hates haggling. She has seen enough of this planet not to be surprised that a symposium of scientists would contain relatively few women in this time period. We saw a couple of stinging examples of this in Doctor Who’s pilot episode, Susan finds it hard not correct people when she knows them to be wrong. I like the idea of the Doctor being kidnapped, leaving Susan alone and having to fend for herself on the streets of Berlin. Now we can discover what she is really made of. Susan compares the blond, beautiful members of the SA party to the Thals.

Hmm: Susan worries what the Doctor would do without her and she wants Ian and Barbara to look after him if she ever does decide to leave. He’s not concerned with the machinations of Hitler but hob nobbing it with some of the greatest scientific thinkers in the planets history; Einstein, Heisenberg, Planck, Schrödinger, Wigner. The Doctor studied the universe from afar at one point in his life, and in particular the planet Earth, which explains his detailed knowledge of the world before they had ever set foot on it. He can be a right old flatterer when he wants to ingratiate himself with certain company, all his arrogance dropping away. He’s upset that he wont get to see Einstein but in the same thought he considers his move abroad for the best – imagine Hitler with the brains of Einstein at his command?

Standout Performance: I’ve never been the greatest fan of Carole Ann Ford’s generally hysterical performances as Susan (for reasons I have gone into ad nauseum in the past – check out my reviews of her other Big Finish adventures and those discussing her adventures in seasons one and two). The Alchemists proves that it must be partly the writing that is at fault because here Susan is written for in a very subtle manner and as a result Ford’s performance is an extremely mature one. There’s only one moment when she loses it and that is when her life is genuinely in great danger. I was rather impressed.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘An elegant formula doesn’t need to be memorised, sir. Once known it becomes inevitable.’
‘Oh dear me! Undone by chemical ignorance!’

Great Ideas: I remember when Kim Newman’s Time and Relative first came out, the first book that I had read that dared to tell a story before An Unearthly Child. Whilst all other periods of the show were fair game as far as the audio, novel and comic market was concerned there seemed to be some kind of unspoken reverence about the events that lead up to the shows pilot that nobody wanted to touch. That’s what made the book so exciting. To this day it is still a period that is only highlighted on the rarest of occasions (Big Finish have released Quinnis and Hunters of the Earth) and so it still maintains that level of excitement that we are trespassing on a time before the show began. I’d like to think that more adventures could be cultivated in this fallow area but perhaps it is for the best that the companions chronicles are coming to an end so this can remain a respected period of the shows legacy. Just by being in a place you have an impact, whether you are planning to or not, so the Doctor’s insistence that they don’t interfere with history is more to protect the so called ‘important’ events rather than doing nothing at all. Potter paints an evocative picture of 1930s Berlin, not scrimping on the detail that allows us to sketch a meticulous picture in our minds. It is an occasionally romantic portrait of the city, a much more reminiscent atmosphere than you might have been led to expect.  Potter isn’t afraid to get political either, offering a balanced view of the political undercurrents of the time. The Strumabteilung is given some consideration, the Hitler’s shadow starting to cast wider across Germany. Pleasingly, Potter goes on to let us know what happens to his characters after Hitler rose to power, giving us a full account of their journey. The Doctor poses that if Germany had been more financially secure it might have looked for its leaders elsewhere. They know the war takes place and it is terrible, but the Doctor promises his granddaughter that the world that follows is a better place. He promises to show her a post-war Earth, suggesting that this is the story segues directly into An Unearthly Child.

Audio Landscape: There’s a terrific, hypnotic sequence where we experience Susan’s nausea first hand; her heart beating faster, voices swimming in her head and the background ambience becoming a spellbinding blur around her. Scribbling in a notebook, lovely nostalgic TARDIS hum, chugging car, blaring the horn, children giggling, a ticking clock, flames crackling, the gorgeous thronging atmosphere of the square, gunshots. 

Musical Cues: An unusually light and jolly score for a pure historical, which helps to ease you into the story. It’s slightly odd in places, such as the lead in to the cliffhanger which wants to depart some shocking news (that Susan will have to employ the services of the SA to get her grandfather back) but the music seems to suggest she is off for a cheerful jaunt. The pianos and saxophone that kick in when Susan’s tries to obtain information from the proprietor of a nightclub generate a romantic atmosphere. I love the Avengers’ style drumbeat as Susan escapes Pollitt and his gunshots.

Isn’t it Odd: You know when a cat suddenly coughs up a furball unexpectedly? That’s what the cliffhanger to this story feels like, a sudden lurch out of the blue. Even though this story is billed as having a central dilemma of whether Susan will change history or not that is not what it is about at all. That issue is dealt with very briskly in about two minutes and there is never any serious consideration given to the idea that she might defy her grandfathers wishes.

Standout Scene: Suddenly the story becomes very serious when it appears that Pollitt is willing to hurt, or possibly even rape, Susan to get what he wants. Listening to her banging at the door as he advances on her is quite, quite terrifying. Suddenly you realise that the Doctor and Ian (and later, David Campbell) are vital parts of her life, keeping her safe from the clutches of vile bullies like Pollitt.

Result: I’m not sure that The Alchemists is the greatest story that Big Finish has ever released, but my word it has atmosphere. If you idea of a good Doctor Who adventure is to be whisked away to another time and place then this is the story for you because 1930s Berlin is conjured up with no small amount of romance and atmosphere. It’s a tale the touches upon that rarest of periods, the pre-Unearthly Child era where the Doctor and Susan were travelling alone. With the Doctor kidnapped, Susan is forced to traverse history on her own and has to stand on her own two feet and learn important (but familiar to Doctor Who fans) lessons about not interfering in history. As a character study of Susan, it is excellent, and Carole Ann Ford gives one of her best ever performances in the role, geed on by the opportunities that the script gives her. Potter touches upon politics, science and crime but doesn’t go into too much detail into any of these subjects, instead choosing to keep the story on the move. A shame because I think a more substantial story could have been told had the pace slackened and we had been able to explore under the political surface of a pre-war Berlin. Everybody in the economic guest cast has secrets and they are revealed in the fullness of time and during the climax I got the same feeling as I often do with the Bernice Summerfield adventures – that you don’t need a full cast of characters to make a piece of drama work. With a production as polished as this and, great performances from the actors and some fine characterisation, I really don’t have that much to complain about and get away with it. The Alchemists isn’t one of the finest companion chronicles, but it is still extremely good and if this is an example of when the series perhaps isn’t firing on all cylinders then it is indicative of how strong the range is in general: 8/10

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