Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Space Race written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: November 1963, and the Soviet space programme reigns supreme. Having sent the first animals, then the first men beyond Earth's atmosphere, now they're sending a manned capsule into orbit around the Moon. Just as Vostok Seven passes over into the dark side, however, its life support system fails. Only the intervention of the Sixth Doctor and Peri, adopting the identities of scientists from Moscow University, means that contact with the capsule is regained. But something has happened to the cosmonaut on board. She appears to have lost her memory, and developed extreme claustrophobia. Maybe she’s not quite as human as she used to be...

Softer Six: As he recalls the last time he failed to have a replacement component for the TARDIS he spend several months trudging across China with Marco Polo. Given time and suitable facilities he should be able to affect a repair. Some might say he is cold to prise the coats from corpses but he is just thinking with his sensible head and preventing himself and his companion from freezing to death. He’s a past master at taking control of situations these days (check out how he takes the lead in The Light at the End) but he’s also able to offer firm but gentle reassurance to a panicking cosmonaut. I like the idea of splitting up the team of the Doctor and Peri so they can tackle the cause (him on the moon) and the effect (her on the Earth) of their latest dilemma. He’s fearless about going up in a space shuttle, in fact he is rather looking forward to it. Firearms in enclosed spaces make him nervous. If there was ever a moment of contemplative poetry it is when he is standing on the barren surface of the moon. I can imagine other Doctor’s jumping into a black hole on a whim, but none with as much gusto as old Sixie. Once you’ve flown one rocket, you’ve flown them all. His return to Earth is given an appropriate air of triumph, he’s coming back to save us all. The Doctor’s favourite kinds of ideas are those that are utterly ludicrous and never likely to work. His lamp chop Pied Piper scheme certainly qualifies then.

Busty Babe: Is Nicola Bryant actually ageing? Her performance sounds barely different from how it did in the eighties. There’s certainly no sign of the intervening years creeping into her voice and she approaches the part with the same amount of enthusiasm, possibly even more so. Only Robert Holmes (‘Zee? Zed!’) seemed to remember that the Doctor and Peri come from very different places on television, he isn’t from Earth but he does speak perfect BBC English and she is from America where the terminology is quite different. Jonny Morris works this into their relationship and makes it quite a fun way to get them bantering. Peri is smart enough to recognise Soviet citizens by their insignia. If they find out where Peri is from whilst stuck in Kazakhstan they could very well have her shot. She’ll have to play this one very carefully. The Doctor is not her type and he’s more interested in his work and she’s more willing to flirt her way out of awkward situations. Wherever she goes in the universe there always seems to be one to remind her that she’s still got it. She really has to keep her wits about her when trying to pretend to be KGB agents pretending to be scientists for Moscow! She turned vegetarian a while back. Peri wont accept that the Doctor is dead and holds back tears for her friend. It’s clear that they’ve really bonded by this stage in their relationship. She’s thought of him dead so many times before and he always turns up when she least expected it and she’s clinging onto that thought. The idea of the Doctor not making it back has made Peri think about what she would do without him, if she would settle down. They say everybody remembers where they were the day Kennedy died and Peri was in the Soviet Space Centre under siege from a pack of dogs. She can’t wait to get home and tell everyone about it. Because she showed her some compassion, Peri is the only person that Laika will listen to.

Standout Performance: Colin Baker gets to show so many sides to his Doctor in this adventure. He’s bombastic, resourceful, sneaky, funny, gentle, warm and gagging for adventure. In Morris’ hands, Baker is delivered the sort of material that he can bring to life with passion. Nicola Bryant is only a heartbeat behind, their pairing a delight to be a part of these days.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s like a blue marble in the darkness. All of history, all of creation, all of the achievements of the human race…and I can cover it with one finger.’
‘Stephen Hawking will explain later.’
‘What sort of idiot jumps into a black hole?’ 
‘Voyaging through strange seas of thought…’
‘It’s a message to the rest of the universe.’

Great Ideas: Trust Big Finish not to go for the obvious and tell a story about Neil Armstrong’s manned flight to the moon (leave the series to get on with that) but instead to focus on the much more interesting and less documented efforts of the Russians to beat the Americans to it. This story revolves around the first human to orbit the moon, an impressive that was long given less attention once Armstrong took his first step on its surface. Doctor Who has already played about with manned space travel in the milky way in stories such as The Ambassadors of Death, The Android Invasion, Day of the Moon and The Feast of Axos so Jonathan Morris was always going to have to produce something a bit different in order to make an impact. With a capsule returning to Earth at the end of the first episode you might detect similarities to Ambassadors but the unusual location and secondary plotline of the Doctor and Peri adopting the guise of scientists give this a very different feel.  A real Hartnell atmosphere is brewed immediately with the temperature controls in the TARDIS on the blink and the Ship unable to leave until the Doctor fixes it. That answers the question of why the Doctor and Peri don’t just leave when the shit hits the fan. If the sixth Doctor had first episodes like this one – finding corpses in a jeep in the desert which promptly explodes – there is no way the show would have been put on hiatus. This is exactly the sort of real life grit that the show needed at the time. A town built in the middle of the Kazakh Step in the heart of the Cold War housing the Russian version of Mission Control, one of the most dangerous places the Doctor could choose to be stranded. I do love it when the show heads off internationally. Imagine returning from an orbit of the moon and suffering from claustrophobia and hypoxia – Morris doesn’t shy away from the dangers of space travel at this relatively early stage. Someone based in the Cosmodrome is passing information on to a third party, an agent working for the West. The Soviets have prototype lunar landing module hidden in a secret hangar, an identical copy of the one Neil Armstrong would use to land on the moon. Things get even more complicated when KGB agents make themselves present to muddy the waters and add a delicious espionage edge. Can’t say I saw the end of the first episode coming at all. The Cosmonaut returns to Earth and they open the shuttle to discover…Laika, the first dog in space. As a twist to come out left field, this might beat them all. A talking dog, one which is augmented with the missing Cosmonauts larynx and brain? A flying saucer on the moon? You can never accuse Morris of playing it safe. Once Laika is free she releases all the other animals. Domestic pets, guard dogs…they all turn on their owners and join Laika in a bloodcurdling pact against humanity. Morris manages to capture the beauty and deadliness of the Moon with the differing reactions of the Doctor and his companion in space. Moonbase Eisenhower is a Lunar Base with stars and stripes painted on the side, America having already laid claim to the satellite. Petrov is the spy working for the States. The people that the Doctor and Peri are impersonating were particularly nasty interrogators that Petrov had already bumped off so she was quite surprised when they turned up again. Imagine being able to walk on the surface of the moon without pressure suits and standing in the direct sunlight bursting onto the surface through behind the Earth. What a glorious sight that would be. What could be so bad on the moon that death was the preferable option? In the event of the balloon going up the President and the First Lady can nip in a rocket to the moon where they can sit out a nuclear attack in relative safety. All three dogs that have been sent in to space have been salvaged by the aliens and were living perfectly happy, augmented lives under the protective dome. A black hole doesn’t destroy information, it has been gathering all the light, radio and television waves – this has been manufactured for a reason. A black hole that has been designed to intervene and improve. Laika has been improved by the black hole, given a voice and intelligence and now she wants vengeance for being sent into space and abandoned as a mere utility. She was the first thing the alien probe found, alone and afraid and they offered her a chance at retribution. Trust the Americans to turn up at the last minute with a nuclear warhead to try and blow the Doctor out of the sky! Only the President can call off the nuclear strike but he’s just left for Dallas on November 22nd…and there is a good chance that he will never get to make that call. That’s a dash clever end of episode three. Monkeys with machines, there’s something oddly terrifying about that. A menagerie TARDIS? That’s the last thing I expected to hear! Pleasingly it isn’t the Doctor’s defence of humanity that convinces the aliens to allow them to survive, we managed to do that ourselves through our collective grief over the death of President Kennedy. It’s a rather beautiful statement for our species, one that is often knocked by Doctor Who.

Audio Landscape: Applause, communications from shuttle, whipping wind, a smoking car, a bomb exploding, debris falling, alarm, reverberating bangs, a helicopter screaming into view, screeching, barking animals, a car shooting past, the screaming G-Force as they burst from the Earth and head into space, the crackle of radio blackout, loading a gun, gunfire, the bumpy descent to the moon, crunching through snow, howling dogs, the echoey surface of the moon enclosed in a forcefield, the distorting effect of being so close to the event horizon of a black hole on the moon (I know, bonkers right?), the Doctor being pulled inside out as he leaps into a black hole, hissing gas, hooting monkeys with machine guns.

Isn’t it Odd: It does seem rather churlish to point out that this adventure is far superior to the much more exposed anniversary tale The Light at the End. But that isn’t going to stop me. This is more about what Big Finish can do when the company is really on form.

Standout Scene: ‘I’ve seen the future and I know the human race will achieve great things…’ I love it when Colin Baker gets the chance to be tender and the way he explains to the aliens why he has so much affection for humanity and that there is far more to them than meets the eye I just wanted to give him a big cuddle (‘They are capable of great cruelty, yes, but they are also capable of great compassion too’). This what Jon Pertwee would call a ‘moment of charm’ but it feels like a smashing indictment of the direction Big Finish have taken the sixth Doctor too.

Result: A story quite unlike anything we experienced during the sixth Doctor’s era on television, The Space Race is precisely the sort of drama that might have saved the show from its hiatus. International politics, KGB agents, a manned flight into orbit of the Earth, packs of vicious wild dogs, plenty of surprises on the moon and even the assassination of a President that almost costs the Doctor his life…this is a story that is packed full of substance and incident. It’s one of those plots that keeps on evolving, offering up more and more surprises, complications and fascinating ideas. I really appreciated how intelligently the sixth Doctor and Peri were written and this is a terrific opportunity to study in the anniversary year just how far they have come since Big Finish have gotten their paws on them. Once derided and shoved on hiatus, thanks to the sterling efforts of Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant and countless writers and directors, people are now genuinely excited at their appearance in the schedules and chomping at the bit for their stories to be released (as the ‘late’ release of The Space Race attests). The pair are stranded in a dangerous time and place, with identity bluffs and more problems to deal with than anybody can reasonably try and juggle and they barely break a sweat. Once a disparate team, they are now as rock solid as a Doctor and companion can be. Listen to the extra features and you’ll find out what soul mates Colin and Nicola are and that absolutely comes across in these stories. It’s also further proof that Jonathan Morris can turn his hand to pretty much any set of regulars with rare surety. Nick Briggs is no slouch either, ensuring that this piece keeps one foot squarely in the real world whilst still offering up some very exotic soundscapes and dealing with some insane notions. Some Doctor Who stories on audio are great performance pieces, some are evocatively atmospheric and some are exploit the medium to tell a well crafted piece of storytelling that explores some fascinating ideas. Whilst The Space Race has strong elements of the first two, it scores most highly in the latter and it is the first main range adventure in a while where I was chomping at the bit to find out how this would all piece together and be explained. I certainly didn’t expect an animal cruelty and pro-humanity message to come screaming from the climax but they were unexpected bonuses (and something I heartily approve of in both cases). If The Assassination Games can live up to it’s hype it will be three for three for the sixties trilogy and evidence that the main range starting to produce some consistently strong adventures in the shows anniversary year. Considering the trailer did the story no justice whatsoever, this was an unexpected delight: 9/10


Mark Fradl said...

I thought the story hit a lot of high notes, but it just stretched credulity beyond its limit.

Even assuming the dog's brain is enhanced enough to figure out how to enhance other animals, how can it possibly physically manipulate the tools needed for complex surgery? Or figure out the override codes for nuclear weapons?

And we don't have a moon base NOW, how the hell could they have secretly built one in 1963? To say nothing of the Soviets conveniently having a rocket ready to go to the moon with a Mission Control seemingly run by about 3 people.

The plotting/science/technology/biology in this episode come across as being dreamed up by an 8 year old. Suspension of disbelief only goes so far-

Anonymous said...

And as for this Doctor chap, who can apparently "time travel", i mean, its just beyond all credulity!