Sunday, 15 September 2013

Upstairs written by Mat Coward and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: When the TARDIS lands in a dilapidated attic, the Doctor, Vicki and Steven discover they are on Earth, in London… in Number 10 Downing Street. However alien forces are at play here, affecting the very fabric of the building… and adjusting the very essence of history itself. 

Alien Orphan: I’ve always though that the first Doctor/Vicki/Steven was an entertaining combination of characters that was cut short in the television series. Go and check out Jonny Morris’ excellent documentary on the third season to see how Maureen O’Brien was ignominiously cut from the series and only found out after her holiday when she began work on her final serial. After Ian and Barbara’s reassuring presence was removed from the series it was time to cut loose from convention and have pretty young line up for the Doctor to travel with and The Time Meddler exposes just how much fun this trio could have been had they lasted the entire length of the next season (on the plus side we would have been spared Dodo but on the negative side we would have been deprived of the dramatic exits of both Sara Kingdom and Katarina which were highlights of the year). Big Finish was the perfect place to further investigate this threesome but Maureen O’Brien’s rare appearances have meant that it hasn’t been as exploited as some eras (indeed, even Sara Kingdom has had more stories than Vicki to date) – only Frostfire, The Suffering and The Dark Planet and Upstairs have featured O’Brien. It makes the characters uncommon appearances all the more treasurable (and I’m pleased to see that the new fully cast Early Adventures feature an appearance by Vicki). There’s a cute, flirtatious chemistry between Steven and Vicki which is a joy to listen to – she suffers his stubborn attitude and he willingly protects her and the Doctor is the wise old gentleman who chaperones these two young things around the universe. Vicki was always excited, vulnerable and so young. She didn’t dare ask the Doctor about things that she supposed he though she should know about and she occasionally had to ignore his snappishness or you would be arguing with him all day. Vicki often kept her apprehension to herself because she didn’t want to come across as somebody full of fears and tears, a burden to the rest of them. She didn’t want to be left behind because of it, Coward tapping into her deepest insecurity.

Aggressive Astronaut: Steven leaps from the TARDIS first wherever they land, the bold, virile young space pilot ready to biff anybody on the nose who might want to do them harm. When Steven says that he wont argue with the Doctor’s plan to leave, he declares that their lack of fuss makes a most pleasant change! He’s a pilot and his sense of direction is usually pretty reliable.

Hmm: Distracted, abstracted, half his mind on an experiment that he has left to venture out of the Ship. This was a time in the shows history where the Doctor liked to pretend that he knew everything and would piece together their location in and instant, Sherlock Holmes style, from the clues to hand. Ever logical, he tells Vicki that impossible is rather a silly term to apply to something that was actually happening. He preferred unexplained. Being able to travel in time was all very impressive but Vicki was more stunned by his ability to make hostile strangers answer his questions just when they expected him to answer there’s! Acolytes, bureaucrats and monsters alike could not resist this talent.  When the universe deigned to show the Doctor a marvel he had never seen before he became very excitable, all danger forgotten.

Standout Performance: Maureen O’Brien and Peter Purves make magic, effortlessly whisking you back to the sixties despite the age in their voices.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘If we don’t find the ship, we’ve got a couple of days before this place becomes our tomb.’
‘They didn’t want them waking up whilst the probing fingers of the mycelium inched through the walls as the fungus wriggled inside the orifices of its prey…’
‘It is a contradiction that one encounters throughout history and not only on this planet. There exists a desire to be rule, to be led and at the same time in the same psyche there lives a realisation that rulers aren’t up to the job!’
‘Mind you, some Downing Street residents continue to act in a decidedly odd manner…’

Great Ideas: Early scenes capture that sense of intimacy and claustrophobia that the under funded Hartnell era often exploited to create a sense of atmosphere; the Doctor, Steven and Vicki discovering a warren of corridors with the walls covered in a marshmallow, cocoon like fungus. There is a sense of The Space Museum disorientation, of the travellers having blundered into a never-ending maze where they will never get back to the TARDIS. There are only a limited number of rooms but they were visiting them over and over at different moments in time. Why throw anything anyway when you’ve got a nice big attic to store everything in? Downing Street of the Victorian age is badly planned and badly built, with shallow foundations and started falling apart as soon as it was finished. Doctor Who often finds stories in historical details and the information of five Prime Minister’s dying within 22 years of each other whilst occupying the post is ripe of the picking. There are specimens of fungus even on Earth that extend for vast acres underground, the largest living organisms on the planet. Something rotten in built into the foundations of Downing Street, perhaps seeping out and infecting all those that wield the power upstairs. A fungus that could take sustenance from living humans, what a revolting idea. Discovering people in the warren of split time, alive in the past and the future at various stages of their lives. If you are methodical and observant you can sense the line of your own timeline in this labyrinth of scattered time zones. Only in the underground warrens was the fungus available in sufficient quantities for its time effects to be appreciable to humans. The fungus is feeding in different times simultaneously. In order for the British Empire to remain strong and steadfast it requires a stream of inspiring and intelligent leaders, something that is necessarily always the case (hoho). The servants, in pursuit of their perfect leader, had taken to guiding the fungus’ feeding, carving passages to channel the fungus to the bedrooms of Prime Ministers, Chancellors and other high up personnel. In organism as advanced as the time fungus would not only to ingest the better qualities of its victims, seeking to perfect itself until it is ready to lead the country. If the time fungus infects the TARDIS it would be loose inside all of time and space, able to cherry pick the best of all times to feed its great intelligence. The thought of the TARDIS, dripping with soft, throbbing fungus, dripping with sentient moisture, is a chilling prospect. The TARDIS is just like Number 10 itself, bigger on the inside.

Audio Landscape: A great minimalist soundscape, especially in the early scenes to create a sense of mystery and silence. Footsteps, frogs croaking, throbbing, quivering fungus, the Doctor, Vicki and Steven holding their own miniature riot in the basement of 10 Downing Street.

Musical Cues: Ever reliable, Yason & Fox have carefully examined the script and tapped into the claustrophobic and sinister feel of the piece and created their soundtrack accordingly.

Isn’t it Odd: A shame that the location of this story is listed in the blurb because it is a very nice reveal that probably should have remained concealed. The first fifteen minutes are built up as a mystery and that is an entire quarter of the story that is wasted when the mystery can be answered simply by reading the back cover.

Standout Scene: There’s a terrific, kooky cliffhanger that after half an hour of very intimate drama suggests a much more conventional Doctor vs monsters second half ahead. The Prime Minister of England is a great throbbing mass of fungus? Creepy stuff.

Result: ‘The whole universe could become one giant time maze!’ Upstairs is a more conventional kind of audio release, relying far more on the presence of the actors and the quality of the script than trying to impress by sounding like a soundtrack of a missing TV story. I once leant a handful of Big Finish stories to a curious friend who was a little perturbed by my choices (which included The Chimes of Midnight, Just War and The Holy Terror) because she is far used to audio drama sounding like talking books. She was a little too assaulted by the music and sound effects, expecting a much more intimate affair. Upstairs would have been perfect and it is an ideal companion chronicle, capturing the intimacy and claustrophia that was rife in the Hartnell era and educating and entertaining in equal measure. Mat Coward has caught a peculiar co-incidence that has befallen many a Prime Minister during a fixed 22-year period that provides the story with a dramatic hook and allowed him to try and describe the political butchery with an imaginative Doctor Who-style explanation. Coward’s monster is an menacing one, and skin crawling in its insidious abilities and influence on history. As we inch ever closer to the end of the companion chronicles I am becoming more aware of how much I am going to mourn this range once it has gone. Big Finish has tapped into something very special indeed and despite the prolific number of releases, stories such as Mastermind, The Alchemists and Upstairs prove there are still a wealth of stories still to be told. This is an intelligently written, engagingly performed release that had me gripped throughout despite its economic nature. It’s proof conclusive that you don’t need to throw a lot of noise at a release in order to make it work but sometimes it is nice to rely on those things that have been responsible for creating good stories for so many years. Great stuff, and another first Doctor champion: 9/10

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