Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Death’s Deal written by Darren Jones and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: Responding to multiple maydays, the TARDIS lands on the planet of Death’s Deal, but the distress calls are old, the final echoes of terrified lost souls. This is an exotic world of lethal creatures, nicknamed ‘The Deadliest Planet in the Galaxy’, and only the brave, foolhardy or greedy would ever dare to visit. Finding themselves stranded among a motley bunch of space-tourists, the Doctor and Donna must lead a struggle for survival against the frenzied wildlife, as they slowly realise that other members of the group have very different agendas. And soon the Doctor learns of an even bigger threat hiding on Death’s Deal. Somewhere deep below the surface, is something that must never be unearthed. Time is running out, and only an impossible survivor holds the key…

Mockney Dude: A madman in a brown pinstripe suit, a lanky streak of madness. The Doctor leaping about the TARDIS, yanking on levers and dancing instantly takes me back to the tenth Doctor’s period (can you be nostalgic about an era of the show that is only five years ago?). He’s always ready to shake a tentacle. There is always one with a gun, the Doctor notes, disappointed. The eleventh Doctor knows the tenth Doctor best of all and recognises that he is so good with danger (‘After me, you’re the greatest!’). All of the tenth Doctor’s famed trademarks are present; the righteous anger, his absolute faith in his companions, lust for adventure and his way of explaining the situation at such a speed that it doesn’t really matter why something is going on because he makes it sound so dangerous. If he doesn’t protect the cosmos, who else will?

Tempestuous Temp: ‘Put a sock in it, Pocahontas!’ I don’t think that I have made any secret of the fact that Donna is my favourite new series companion, or the fact that she is my second favourite companion of all time (after Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith). Something just clicked with me and this character. She was such a breath of fresh air after the parade of soppy, doting girls that came before her and the she is an exponential improvement on the over complicated, badly plotted mystery companions that came after her. Played by a popular comedian who just happens to be a great actress, afforded exceptional material during her short run and proving popular enough to bring a sizable new audience to the show and afford it some of its best ever viewing figures, Donna is a fiery, nuanced, fascinating character with far more shades to her than might initially appear. She has one of the least convincing introductions and one of the most heartbreaking exits ever, topped by a warming coda that sees her family depart the series in real style. She’s a phenomenon in her own right and the thought of being able to enjoy one more adventure with her when she was at her peak (and portrayed by Catherine Tate) meant that I went into Death’s Deal with high hopes and light of heart.

A group of aliens that remind Donna of a Saturday night hen party? That’s the sort of mad observation she was always making. When she spots the next Doctor she declares that he has had more than a little nip and tuck to transform to such an extent. She’s seen ‘that Tom Hanks movie’ and recognises narrative conventions in disaster movies, enough to know that the survivor is the safest person to hang with. At one point Donna genuinely thinks that she is going to die and her trademark fire deserts her for a moment. The Doctor has complete faith in Donna, knowing that she will always make herself useful. When she learns of aliens that use tentacles to attract the light she isn’t having any of that malarkey, even though they do make a useful torch. Until very recently, Donna had never seen a corpse but since travelling with the Doctor she has seen many. Donna had hated zorbing on holiday but tried to bring the experience to mind when she was locked inside an alien shell. Donna’s heart leaps for joy when she finally catches up with the TARDIS. More than any other companion from the new series I got the sense that that crazy old time ship was more than just a trip around the universe but a chance at a second life.

Standout Performance: Hearing Catherine Tate bringing Donna back to life gives me chills, simply because she is the character I would most like to see resurrected (and yet paradoxically not because she was left in such a satisfying place). Her interpretation of the tenth Doctor is excellent, still fresh in Tate’s mind and Tennant’s mannerisms and tics have been embedded into the public consciousness so it is easy for Darren Jones to give her lots of pointers in the script.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Who’s leaving me messages on a random derelict spaceship? Any ideas?’ ‘Dunno, intergalactic call centres trying to spam you for space insurance?’
‘Are you a shapeshifter?’ ‘No, not really. Although I had a friend who was.’
‘I promise I’m never eating scallops again!’

Great Ideas: A tour bus in space, holiday makers turning up when there is a natural disaster in progress. Death’s Deal is that you die quickly, crash here and nobody rescues you. Imagine the TARDIS being swallowed whole on a planet that has been advertised as such, trapping the Doctor and Donna on its surface? Donna gets to look down the throat of a gaping maw even bigger and louder than her own, which until this point had felt like an impossibility. Russell T Davies was confident enough to break all the rules that he had set in the series come season four; the companion no longer has a crush on the Doctor, the show was brave enough to head to alien worlds (the Ood Sphere, Messaline, the Library planet, Midnight) and introduce even more weird ad wonderful creatures than ever. All of that is present in Death’s Deal. This planet is a massive reef of land coral, alive and always hungry, the deadliest planet in the galaxy. Slaughter crystals are very rare and very toxic and when refined highly explosive. Bombs powerful enough to devastate planets. A man is described as being liquidised and sucked through into a limpet, ‘like a smoothie through a straw.’ Charming. This planet isn’t naturally the deadliest in the galaxy, it is alien technology that is causing it. Every ship that crashes here adds to the crisis, all those unanswered distress signals resonate with the coral, become amplified and send the wildlife into a permanent frenzy. That’s rather a lovely idea, a planet reacting to the panic of those who are trapped there. I don’t think I have seen that done anywhere else before. Donna stands in the path of a living, tunnelling machine. Creeping, feeling tendrils attacking the TARDIS and trying to inveigle their way into the ship. There’s a last minute spurt of danger that threatens to consume them and the Doctor waves his sonic screwdriver and seeming saves the day through a quirk of it’s many powers…back to the era of the tenth Doctor alright.

Audio Landscape: Jamie Robertson is one of Big Finish’s leading lights when it comes to sound design and music so I am surprised it has taken him this long to turn up in the Destiny of the Doctor series. Then I guess it has been about showing of the talent that the company has overall rather than simply selecting a few individuals for promotion. A babble of mayday voices, a transport freighter touching down, the ground springing to life as crab like legs emerge, the carnivorous maw of an underground beast, cones exploding, sucking, digesting noises, Donna struggling across the coral landscape, hard shelled crustaceans scuttling about, a heartbeat, tinkling slaughter crystals, rushing water, walking on gravel.

Musical Cues: The concise, bombastic version of the Murray Gold from series four is my absolute favourite of the new series. I especially love the piano that breezes in near the end and the musical shove into the episode itself. His music can switch from ominous underscoring to light and bouncy piano work in seconds. Robertson is the first composer to try and ape the style of Murray Gold’s music when the eleventh Doctor shows up to play his part. He does an excellent job of it too, capturing the sense of whimsy and playfulness that is often audible in the music when Matt Smith’s Doctor is on screen.

Isn’t it Odd: Aside from the delightful alien mollusc that Donna hangs out with underground (‘you get your barnacled backside into that box!’), I didn’t find any of the rest of the guest cast particularly memorable. This might be a problem in other stories but with so much excitement inherent in the location and the leading lights that are the Doctor and Donna more than compensate.

Standout Scene: Like a Russian Doll effect, Donna can only escape the fate of being pulped by a living excavating creature underground by being consumed by the carapace of her alien companion. Donna within an alien with an alien. That’s the kind of glorious monstrousness that Death’s Door flaunts.

Result: A trip to the most dangerous planet in the galaxy lives up to it’s name and the latest installment in the Destiny of the Doctor series throws so many terrifying and memorably disgusting obstacles at the Doctor and Donna that it is a miracle that they make it out alive. Yes, I did say the Doctor and Donna! My favourite new series combo are back for a one-off story and Catherine Tate is in the driving seat. Has someone been reading my Christmas wish list? Many of the devices from the tenth Doctor’s era are present in Death’s Deal (‘Allons-y!’) but I wouldn’t expect anything less from a story that is trying to skilfully recreate the era (it is what the Destiny series has all been about, nostalgic for the past leading to the present). Darren Jones is the only new writer to Big Finish to contribute to the series (he cut his teeth on the AudioGo stories The Eye of the Jungle and Sleepers in the Dust but is still a relative newbie) and he brings all the strengths and weaknesses to his writing that you might expect from a newcomer. On the plus side there is an energy and fervour to the writing that comes from a fresh set of hands dancing at the keyboard, he is clearly excited at the opportunity and his enthusiasm and dynamism infects into the script at every turn (and helps to capture the furious pace of the era). However he can be a little too stimulated at times and over describe events to the point where it skips from vivid to painstaking detail. What he gets absolutely spot on is the characterisation of both the Doctor and Donna, a sparkling team that race through Death’s Deal with charisma and good humour. With Catherine Tate reading the story feels utterly authentic and her reading is superlative and with John Ainsworth bringing the appropriately named planet to life on audio you can be sure of some memorable set pieces. It was during Death’s Deal that I realised I am really going to miss this series when it is over. Engaging stories like this are reason why. For anybody who has been fatigued with Big Finish’s main range of late then the Destiny of the Doctor series has proven there is still plenty of life in audio Who yet: 8/10


Pink!Dalek said...

Still haven't listened to it but your review is great! I'm looking forward even more after half reading it (half in order to avoid spoilers).

Ten+Donna are my fav Doc*Companion couples, after Eight+Lucie. Why is it that I love those mouthy companions who aren't afraid to tell the Doctor a piece of their minds?
(Not Tegan, Tegan is just annoying ang whinning, Tegan didn't know how to have fun, unlike Donna and Lucie)

I would be trhilled to bits if BF got the license to do some New series adventures with Tennant and Tate

Corpus Christi Music Scene said...

If you havent already , you must listen to The Forever Trap and The Nemonite Invasion that Tate read for Audio Go a few years ago . They are about twice the length of this one but just as much fun.

Joe Ford said...

Thanks for the recommendations, I haven't heard them yet but I think I will get hold of them. It's nice to know that there a couple more Donna tales to enjoy!