Sunday, 3 November 2013

Ghost in the Machine written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Louise Jameson

What’s it about: Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow And everywhere that Mary went, that lamb was sure to go. The TARDIS is empty. The Doctor has gone. Jo Grant steps outside into the darkness and finds the frozen body of her friend, and the ship's log recorder. On it is attached a simple message - 'Use Me'. As she explores this place, recording her every move, Jo discovers the horror that lies in the shadows. But by then it is too late.

Groovy Chick: Set in her final season after The Three Doctors and the Time Lords have given the Doctor control of the TARDIS back, here is a chance to show Jo at her perkiest and most confident. In fact this seems to be set post-Planet of the Daleks because Jo mentions the TARDIS log. Strange, because I thought the end of Planet segued straight into The Green Death but this isn’t the first time that Big Finish have taken liberties with a gap that shouldn’t exist (all those adventures they squeezed between Planet of Fire and Androzani). She feels like she has to live up to his expectations, to do what the Doctor would want her to do. It is what dictates her every action. She’s seen enough skeletons to last her a lifetime. By trying to figure out what has happened to the bodies she has stumbled upon, Jo starts scaring herself half to death! Jo is using her previous adventures and what she has learnt from them (specifically The Daemons and Planet of the Daleks) to help her to do the right thing. She is pretty nifty at karate and once she even knocked Sergeant Benton out cold! Once she is made of pure sound she strikes up a friendship with Ben and is devastated when he is wiped from the recording forever, her only companion in this lonely world snatched away. As she is consumed by white noise and screams hysterically for release it struck me that we had never seen this character in such a impotent, terrifying position before. The only story where Jo gets trapped in the body of a man…I can envisage a whole other story with a much bubblier tone where Morris could run with that idea.

Good Grief: The Doctor’s pockets contain a UNIT card and codebook (are there so many top secret rooms and gadgets that it requires a document full of ridiculous code words? Brilliant!), a membership card for a swish London club (naturally the conservative third Doctor would have one of these), Venusian conkers, jelly babies…but no TARDIS key. Like James Goss did in The Scorchies, Jonny Morris figures a dash clever way for the Doctor to be able to speak to Jo in this environment without Jon Pertwee having to be present or Katy Manning to have to play the character. Jo was busy in the wardrobe room when they materialised so he thought it best for all concerned if he had a quick scout around to see where they were. A big mistake, causing all of this bother. The Doctor does a rather fine Jo impression, I have to say. He agrees to lie on Ben’s behalf, to tell Jo that her friend is sleeping and will be returned to a body one day.

Standout Performance: Katy Manning is used to playing several roles on audio now. Nothing will ever quite beat her stunning array of performances in Not a Well Woman and her aural talents were also put to dazzling use in The Scorchies earlier in the year. In Ghost in the Machine she gets to play Jo and the villainous creature that has captured her voice and it just goes to show how much of Jo is a work of fiction. She brings her voice down very low, slows down her reading and the net result is a performance that gave me the chills, especially in comparison to perky, quirky Jo. Watch out for the astonishing sequence where you have Katy Manning playing the Doctor attempting to do an impression of Jo…that takes some skill to slip in and out of both characters. Her interpretation of the Doctor is so warm and comforting, you know things are going to be okay as soon as she gets her hands on the character.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We’re now prisoners on the same reel of tape.’

Great Ideas: The first time I saw the cover I thought it was one of the Big Finish placeholders that they put up on the website before the final cover is ready to be released but over time I realised it was the finished article. After listening to the story I went back and looked at the cover again and saw it afresh and it is as subtle but as packed with detail about the story that I had completely missed before. I hadn’t even spotted the grinning skeleton pawing away at the corner. Eight bodies wearing white lab coats greet Jo as she steps from the TARDIS into this eerie environment. If anybody objects to Jo spending much of the first ten minutes of the story talking to herself and making observations about where they have landed, suggesting that it is a ridiculous idea to make an audio story work should be made to watch Planet of the Daleks episode one over and over again where Katy Manning pretty much holds up the entire first episode in this fashion. A stairwell that has been blocked off with concrete and skeletons piled to the ceiling looking as though they were screaming when they died, screaming to set them free. Talk about developing an atmosphere of claustrophobia, I went and grabbed a glass of water at this point. Their leader dead, the scientists were trapped underground with no hope of ever seeing their loved ones again and then people began to change, to turn on each other, fighting over scraps. Bringing back the dead from a tape recording of their voices. The people brought back wouldn’t have bodies but they could live inside the recording and still be able to make contact with the world outside. Cleverly Morris has left behind a tape recording for Jo to discover but it is fragmented and repeating on a loop so she only gets part of the answers, just enough to built up a general picture of what has happened but not so much that she doesn’t have to work anything out. Jo is smart enough to realise that if what Ben says is true she has to re-play her own recordings and see if there is anything different each time she listens. If there is, then Ben is alive within the recording and trying to communicate with her. Why is it wherever you go in the universe that nobody labels the switches properly? Before Jo realises it she is trapped within the tap recording herself and the thing that has borrowed her voice has escaped into the real world. The Doctor resisted the recording creature and so the recording knocked him out and put him in a coma. Two people can exist on the same recording, be transferred from one reel of tape to another. They managed to discovered the first phonograph recording of Thomas Edison reciting Mary Had a Little Lamb and in the process of restoring the sound they discovered that there was another noise in the background. You can only speak the words you have recorded, Jo tries to say words that she didn’t say on tape but she can’t. What a hollow existence that would be, made up of only the words you have already spoken. The scientists are trapped as voices screaming in the dark, trying to escape in a perpetual loop. The creature is not of the Earth but it has trapped here for such a long time. The Doctor left USE ME on the TARDIS log because he knew Jo would use the tape and end up in the recorded realm with him. That man Morris, he always writes such a tidy narrative that I really cannot fault him. The TARDIS key was inside his mouth all the time. Ben has no body to return to and so asks the Doctor to erase the tape and cut his life short. It is no existence at all to remain alive as a recording.

Audio Landscape: The doors opening automatically, screaming, intercoms playing a whispering version of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, waves of white noise the cut right through you.

Standout Scene: The very creepy moment when Jo realises that her voice is changing on the recording as well. When she realises that somebody is speaking to her through her own voice. If you make an audio recording, it will use your words against you. If you play back the tap recorder, that’s how it gets out… Subtle, but spine tingling.

Result: ‘If you can hear this then you are in terrible danger…’ Louise Jameson shows an awful lot of skill in her Doctor Who directional debut because it is not easy to have one character talk to themselves for nigh on half an hour with nobody to react to and make it this gripping. I know Jonathan Morris has a massive hand in events too but Jameson has to bring this to life and ensure that what is essentially a monologue doesn’t lose the audiences interest levels. She coaxes a fulsome performance out of Katy Manning and chooses her sound effects and music carefully to build up a sinister atmosphere. The joy of the companion chronicles is that the intimate nature of the first person narrative allows for stories like Ghost in the Machine that are so scaled back that the first episode is Jo on her own discovering the aftermath of a terrible disaster and scaring herself half to death with theories of how it might have happened. It’s a fantastic mystery and Jonathan Morris deploys some memorably grim imagery and you’ll be working as fast as Jo at try and figure out the truth so you can escape the claustrophobic location with her. How can a recording of Jo’s voice by so damn frightening? The first episode leads up to one the creepiest audio cliffhangers ever, just as we figure out what is happening to Jo it is too late. Even the title music sounds scarier. There is a real atmosphere of Sapphire and Steel to the whole story, conceptual horror at it’s finest. How does Jonathan Morris keep knocking out great scripts at such an incredible rate? No wonder he won my favourite Big Finish writer poll, he can turn his hand to any genre successfully and this is his best horror tale yet. Mark Ayres better watch out, who know what boogiemen lurk on the Doctor Who soundtracks he so lovingly restores: 9/10

1 comment:

15 year old whovian said...

It's not suprising this was so good. They should have jonathon morris write for the new series