Thursday, 5 September 2013

Smoke and Mirrors written by Steve Lyons and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: The Doctor answers a psionic distress call being sent from England in the 1920s. There, in the environs of a fairground, he is reunited with an old friend: Harry Houdini. To Adric and Nyssa the name means very little, but to the Doctor’s companion Tegan he is a legend. Escape artist extraordinaire, Houdini’s reputation will last for decades. But how come Harry knows so much about Tegan herself? Is it really just guesswork, as he says? Is Harry right to be concerned about the fairground’s fortune teller, who claims to have supernatural skills? Both he and the Doctor suspect an alien influence they know of old. What neither the Doctor nor his friends realise is that, somewhere in the shadows, a far more sinister and familiar presence is lying in wait for them…

An English Gentleman: Tegan makes a very good point however that the Doctor seems to be able to steer the TARDIS when he has somewhere important that he wants to be but for some reason he cannot get the old girl to behave when his companions have a request. Don’t tell me he actually wanted to keep her around? Imagine my surprise when Houdini genuinely does turn out to be an old friend of the Doctor and not just a name he can handily drop whenever the situation arises. Houdini asks after ‘Ms Grant’ and so must have crossed his path during his third incarnation but he also mentions Polly and Ben so the originally met much earlier than that. I like the idea that they have shared so many adventures off screen that Houdini is practically a companion in his own right. Without his sonic screwdriver which has recently been destroyed by the Tereleptils, the Doctor relies on Houdini’s craft to extradite them from tight situations. It would disappointing to have a story feature Harry Houdini and not have the Doctor ensconced in an impossible situation that he has to try and repatriate himself from. I just never expected Houdini himself to be the one to conjure up the scenario and place him inside. Usually the Doctor is in a hurry to leave but there is something much more personable about the fifth Doctor. He likes to hang around and make sure that he has tidied everything up nicely.

Mouth of Legs: Since this is set during the 1981 season of Doctor Who, it features a grumpy Australian air stewardess who spends an inordinate amount of time grumbling about the fact that she hasn’t reached the most depressing place in the universe – Heathrow Airport. The 80s was a time for crass attention on executive careers and whilst this isn’t exactly the sort of job that many would be obsessed over it does capture the mood of the decade very effectively. Nyssa points out that Tegan has barely complained all evening which practically translates into her actually enjoying herself. Unlike her Big Finish persona, the Tegan Jovanka we were introduced to on screen found it extremely difficult to let her hair down. The audio interpretation has done a lot of good for the character in that respect. Tegan isn’t proud of the fact that this era of her planet caged wild animals and put them on display for the masses but she knows better than to pass contemporary judgement on the past. Tegan will never forgive the Master for murdering her Auntie Vanessa. Tegan points out that the realisation that Houdini isn’t quite what he seems to be was obvious from the beginning when he knew so much about her Aunt, suggesting his allegiance with the sinister character that dispatched her.

Alien Orphan: Every time she heard her fathers voice being manipulated by the Master who had taken over his body it chilled her to the depths of her soul. He enjoys reminding her that her planet is a dead world, taunting her with the loss of everything she has ever loved.

Boy Genius: It is so rare to enjoy an audio adventure featuring Adric (but not for much longer…) that Big Finish have somehow managed to achieve the impossible, to get me excited every time he appears! Adric moans about pretty much any frivolous activity on Earth (remember the cricket in Black Orchid?) and enjoys winding Tegan up at every possibility. Adric being cheeky to Houdini recalls that infamous anecdote about Waterhouse behaving in a similar way to movie star Richard Todd. There is the perfect chance to throw Adric in the path of a ravenous lion but nobody takes the opportunity. Quite the reverse in fact, as Tegan warns him away from the creature rather than finally taking the chance to rid herself of the irritating boy genius. There was a ready made excuse there and everything. He had never been the athletic kind, more comfortable with a pencil and a notebook. Before this story is out you’ll see both Adric and Tegan working very effectively together to defeat the Master and escape – why couldn’t they collude this well in the series?

Standout Performance: Janet Fielding is a surprisingly comfortable narrator, the first of the Destiny of the Doctor series to not have had a stab at this before in Big Finish’s companion chronicle range. Given her relaxed delivery and engaging personality shining through in the reading it is a shame that the first person series is coming to end without her contributing to the range. Of all the Matt Smith impersonations to date, Fielding’s captures the energy and humour of the eleventh Doctor better than any of the others.

Great Ideas: The Doctor has always been going on about Houdini, whether he is in the middle of a particularly adept escape routine or simply needed a well established name to drop, so it is great that we finally get to witness an encounter between the two men. When they meet him he is disguises as a gypsy fortune teller, trying to remain incognito. The previous occasions when he met the Doctor he opened his eyes to more wonders than he ever could have suspected could have existed without ever resorting to explanations of the spiritual kind. Tegan suggests that meeting a historical celebrity is neat and so perhaps if she had been teamed up with one of the new series Doctors (heaven forbid!) she would have complained far less (Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie). A fairground after dark is a marvellous location to explore, a cheerful location turned sinister as soon as the power is cut and the crowds have dispersed. An Ovidsphere is attuned to Ovid thought patterns but even in the hands of a non-telepath it is an effective way of reading peoples minds. Fully charged it will reflect your thoughts and memories back at you, and even reveals the contents of your subconscious mind. It seems perfectly natural to have the Master set up shop in a sinister fairground setting, after all that was where we first met him in Terror of the Autons. He’s always had a bit of a showman about him so maybe it is where he feels most at home. Houdini turning out to be in league with the Master comes as a complete surprise, angry with the Doctor because he wont show him inside the TARDIS when he has shared his life secrets with the Time Lord. The Master played on Houdini’s ego and paranoia, twisting his friendship with the Doctor into something corrupt. He apologies to the Doctor, revealing that he needs people to show him that there is more to the world and when the Master offered him a peek into the impossible he was powerless to resist. The Doctor’s rival is still in the collapsing dimension where they last left him but some time before that he must have been able to get hold of the Ovidsphere. How amusing that this story seems to exist in order to explain away the otherwise irritating obscure line in Time-Flight: ‘So you escaped from Castrovalva!’

Audio Landscape: The atmosphere of a fairground, a merry-go-round, seagulls, squeaky door, cobbled lanes, a ticking clock, a dog barking, a tiger prowling, roaring, running after the Doctor’s companions, malevolent chuckling, a relaxing shoreline, throwing a lamp, lightning rumbling, red bolts of lighting exploding, diving into the sea.

Musical Cues: Probably the most evocative of the Destiny of the Doctor series to date, with Steve Foxon typically atmospheric on sound effects and musical score duties. As events build to a cliffhanging climax in the middle of the tale, the soundscape and score combine to create an air of palpable tension. The score for the scenes with the Master is as ominous and threatening as you would hope. 

Isn’t it Odd: There’s no reason why the Destiny of the Doctor series should follow the same format as the Companion Chronicles and factor in a strong central role for the character that the narrator plays. Indeed this series has been promoted as one which is read in the third person. However, Tegan’s role is so insubstantial in Smoke and Mirrors (she’s not sidelined anymore than any of the others but she isn’t spotlighted like the Doctor and Houdini) that this could just have easily have been read by Matthew Waterhouse or Sarah Sutton without the emphasis of the story changing one jot.

Standout Scene: A small moment, but it is hilarious how the eleventh Doctor reaches back into his own past and reveals the villain of the piece before he has had a chance to reveal himself! A wonderful moment of putting himself in the loop and preventing another disguise ripping moment.

Result: Smoke and Mirrors fulfils its remit of authentically recreating the period of Doctor Who it is supposed to herald from. This adventures screams of season 19 from the more relaxed paced of the historical setting (recalling Black Orchid) to the atmospheric locale (The Visitation) and featuring more than enough Adric, Tegan and Nyssa bickering to sate fans of the trio. There’s even a joyous return of an old enemy who made his presence abundantly clear during this period of the programme. The real delight comes from the reunion between the Doctor and Harry Houdini, proving that the Doctor isn’t just an inveterate name dropper but has had countless previous adventures with the escapologist and cultivated a warm and witty relationship with the man. Their relationship is put through the wringer in this tale, Lyons never shying away from the Doctor’s hurt at his betrayal. Whilst the hour long adventure isn’t blessed with a cliffhanger there are several heart in mouth sequences around the halfway mark that would suffice. If you are a fan of early 80s Doctor Who then this will thrillingly take you back to that optimistic time for the show (I’m a fan of every period of the show so all of the entries in the Destiny of the Doctor series are giving me nostalgia kicks) and if I were to entrust anybody to capture the feel of a particular era of the show and make it as entertaining as possible Steve Lyons would be somewhere near the top of that list. Steve Foxon’s excellent sound design and music make this a particularly atmospheric entry in the series and Janet Fielding proves to be a superb narrator, pacing her reading with consummate skill. An excellent tale all round then and another winner for the consistently fun Destiny of the Doctor series: 8/10


TF80 said...

Great review as ever!
gosh, this features Tegan at her most moaning and whinging!
Sometimes I think Four got the best companions (Sarah, Leela, Romana...) and Five the worst (Adric, Tegan, Turlough, yep, I wasn't a big fan of Turlough)

I'm looking forward to your review of the great The Butcher of Brisbane!

Really, Big Finish has improved akward or annoying companions (Mel, Tegan...). I wonder what will they do with Adric (and I wonder how the chemistry between Matthew, Peter and Janet will be, since I think Janet and Peter couldn't stant Matthew in the past...)

TF80 said...

The ability to steer the TARDIS when he wants: I wonder what Ian, Barbara, Tegan and Anji from the books would have to say to that, LOL

Anonymous said...

With Smoke and Mirrors and the novel Cold Fusion, I'm finally convinced that (With a good writer, obviously) Adric can be better than he was on TV; like Peri and Mel in Big Finish.

We will be happy to hear my favorite TARDIS team in April of 2014.

David Pirtle said...

As soon as this story opened with Tegan complaining aboug heathrow, I feared they might be going for a bit too much authenticity. However, this was better than I'd feared. Houdini didn't really work for me. I am not really sure if it was the writing or the delievery, but he was the only aspect that didn't.