Friday, 31 January 2014

Antidote to Oblivion written by Philip Martin and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Future Britain is bankrupt, its corporate owners facing financial ruin. Fortunately, the Universal Monetary Fund, and its slimy representative Sil, are willing to give its President a multi-billion credit bail-out... but terms and conditions apply, and Sil's proposed austerity measures go far beyond mere benefit cuts. Responding to a distress call, the Doctor and his companion Flip land in a London whose pacified population has been driven largely underground. But the horrors down there in the dark are as nothing to the horrors that await them at ConCorp HQ, where a young biochemist in Sil's employ is working on a permanent solution to the nation's terminal unprofitability. Because in the final account, Sil plans to make a killing...

Softer Six: 'Psychic bacteria, now I've heard everything!'  It's rare to see Colin Baker having to work quite this hard to bring such troubled material to life with gusto. His characterisation is a little all over the place, hopping from his acerbic pre-Trial incarnation and his softer post-Trial version as though Martin wasn't quite sure where to pitch the character. Baker is a strong enough actor to tie the two together and bring a consistency to the performance but there is little that marks out his character in Antidote to Oblivion. He's happy to let the universe pass him by for a few aeons whilst he relaxes away on a tropical beach in the company of Flip. He's happy to lie back and forget about the worries of the universe, even when the TARDIS' distress signal is sounding. Sometimes you have just got to have a break from the stresses of life. As Time Lord's go he is in his prime. He's been back at the Garazone Bazaar recently. He once spent some time as a rat catcher in Hamelin, you might have heard of him. Ultimately he is a Time Lord, not a beach bum. He only has fragments of memory of the time he met Crozier but he goes to great pains to point out that he lost somebody very close to him when he did. The Doctor is desperate not to lose Flip in the last episode, ranting at her forcefully as if he can will her back to life. He wants to go after Peri and find out what really happened to her but there are one or two variables to be considered first.

What the Flip?: Lisa Greenwood is very good in the role of Flip and feels very comfortable next to Colin Baker. Let's be honest she didn't get a great deal of time with him in her first trilogy of adventures (in Curse of Davros Baker is mostly playing a different character, Flip torn from the Doctor's side in the first episode of The Forth Wall and then departs the story entirely in the second episode and she chooses to leave him in episode one of Wirrn Isle and head off to get help) and so this is he first real chance to see how effective they are as a Doctor/companion unit. A shame it should be left in the hands of Philip Martin then who gives her standard companion lines and fails to inject anything unique into her personality. This could just as easily been Peri or Mel accompanying the Doctor in this adventure for all the difference it would make. It's just as well that Greenwood is as good as she is because Flip remains likeable purely on the strength of her perky performance. Tranquillity is not really her scenes, she needs something a little more exciting to occupy her time. She'll take any Atlantis over a luxury beach resort where nothing happens. She doesn't have the eyesight of a nocturnal animal but she can sniff out the London underground in the dark because it is so memorably disgusting. Martin goes to the lengths of drugging Flip in order to make her enthuse like one of the New Series companions about her life with the Doctor - it's nowhere near a funny or as infectious as he was probably hoping. She's rubbish with a sneeze and she's laid up for a week. I enjoyed her interaction with the Doctor when they were surrounded by zombies, her mock zombie acting really made me chuckle. Greenwood is especially good in part four when she thinks that she is going to die, dropping all the sassiness in favour of something a little more poignant and touching. She talks of 'so many adventures' that she and the Doctor have had so I can only guess that there were a wealth of stories between Wirrn Isle and this that we have not been privy to. Certainly we seem to be asked that they have a strength of feeling towards each other without any natural evolution in that direction in her previous three adventures.

Silmy Snake: I always look forward to hearing from Sil, easily the strongest villainous creation to have stepped from the Colin Baker era (the Rani comes a close second but and I am still holding out for the day that Big Finish resurrect her character, however Sil has a far more distinctive visual hook). When the President extorts Sil for 12 billion universal credits, Sil almost has a heart attack on the spot. Clearly money is all that motivates him. Discipline, probity and integrity are the watchwords of all Thoros Betans when dealing with foreign investors. Sil indignantly exclaims that he is still young and I rather liked the idea that he genuinely is a repugnant little infant that has been let loose on the universes economy, with all the bloodlust and anger that comes with it. 'A little trauma, the odd burst of that too much to ask?' Sil really does have a thing about causing pain, doesn't he? Sil can't wait to see the look on the Doctor's face when he has ensured that Sil's mentorship is considered most bonus worthy...or something. He escapes at the climax (although the Doctor thinks he has perished), rescued by a female Thoros Betan and making tracks with the failed experiment Anzor ('Fiddlesticks!'). Let's hope he returns in a better story. There is a suggestion that he might have caught something nasty.

Standout Performance: Nabil Shaban, naturally. He's trying his hardest to make this story count for something but this is the least interesting material he has ever been handed in the role.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Weren't they once called something else? The Yuck?' 'The UK, my Lord. Or Not So Great Britain.'
'That coat of yours could light the way on its own.'

Great Ideas: ConCorp manufactures PPMC (Population Pacification & Mind Control)  drugs to the rest of the planet. In the future London is a broken wasteland, the Thames is a toxic swamp and everybody is drinking bottle water packed with suppressants and happy drugs. Anzor tries to bargain the Doctor's life for his own by showing Sil how to beam a distress call at the Doctor's TARDIS. Anzor suffered a malfunction of the chromosomes whilst he was inside the isolation chamber and wound up a 'pink potato with his eyes out on stalks.' Probably no more than he deserved. The Velendari are biological bugs that have bound together around an alien intelligence. Their intelligence wishes to leave the confines of the microbial world and occupy the living spaces beyond but to do see they need a point of entry. After patenting the treatment,  Sil and Cordelia are planning an outbreak of the diseases so they can make a killing. When the time storm abated on Thoros Beta, the Lord Kiv was dead. Peri's fate remains unknown.

Audio Landscape: A refreshing breeze, lapping waves, the Doctor's snoring, Sil's gurgling giggle is as delightful as ever, the TARDIS distress signal, Sil scoffing down on marsh minnows, the TARDIS landing, a waterfall, Sil have an orgasmic wash, guns cocking, a plague of rats squeaking, a fire crackling, jackbooted army, having a shower...there really isn't that much to the overall direction of this adventure. It feel like Briggs (easily one of the most reliable and exciting of Big Finish directors) took one look at the script and decided not to bring his a game. You can try and polish a turd up but it is still a turd at the end of the day.

Musical Cues: Whilst the story adheres to many of the problems with the series during the mid eighties, the music is similarly authentic. If you listened to it in isolation you might be convinced that it was the work of the radiophonic workshop.

Isn't it Odd: The first episode is full of clunky exposition that forms a report from Sil to Mav which apprises him (and us) and us of the situation on Earth. Bizarrely the first episode seems to be entirely built around the idea of Sil returning, featuring as it does, one scene after another of the reptilian nasty bawling and arguing with various members of the cast. Rather than setting up an intriguing plot and him being a central part of it, it seems that Antidote to Oblivion's entire reason for existing is to bring this character back. So I guess this is authentically of the time it is supposed to be set in (the mid 1980s) where that sort of thing happened all the time but it hardly makes for a riveting audio experience. Given that Mission to Magnus went down like a cup of cold sick perhaps it wasn't the brightest idea to even mention Anzor, even in passing. The first episode is 35 minutes long but there is barely enough plot to squeeze into 5 minutes and the slack is taken up with lots of drawn out two hander scenes that lack an sparkle or wit. The first episode of any Doctor Who story has the potential to be the best because it is setting up a spanking new scenario but in Antidote to Oblivion's case it is the worst, a dull plod of description leading up to a tenapenny cliff-hanger. What is Philip Martin's obsession about genetic experimentation all about? Why does he insist on threatening the Doctor's assistants with such obscene experiments and have Sil lusting over the thought? Did he only ever have one Doctor Who story inside of him because so much of Antidote of Oblivion is made up of elements of Vengeance on Varos, Mindwarp and Mission to Magnus (Sil himself, Cordelia Crozier, Anzor). Sil's financial inveigling simply isn't as interesting as he would like us to believe. Dawn Murphy's Crozier is a dreadful old ham, one of those characters that talks in nothing but clichés ('How I longed for you to answer Anzor's distress cal! Longed...I ached for it!'). What the hell was Anzor's repeated 'fiddlesticks!' curse all about? Was it supposed to be funny? I comes across as a desperate production team going for the lowest possible denominator in order to get a cheap laugh. The Velendari are a complete sideline to the main story, utterly superfluous and yet weirdly the most interesting thing on offer. Interesting insofar as their nature (psychic bacteria is an intriguing notion) but not their aim which is predictably to 'conquer' for no other reason than that is what monsters do in Doctor Who. Ho and hum. As fun as Nabil Shaban might be in the role there seemed to be something amiss with the modulation of Sil's voice in this story and at points when Sil and Mav we both talking where I started to get a headache. How on Earth can there be a surplus population of 90% on the Earth? How could any planet cope with an overspill of that proportion? You wouldn't need to wait for Sil to come along and wipe them all out...the lack of resources and food would do that for you. Surely Peri & the Piscon Paradox dealt with the whole post-Trial Peri problem as well as could be expected. The Doctor certainly seemed to walk away from that story heartbroken but satisfied with the explanation. Why would Big Finish want to start mucking around with the whole messy business again? I hope this isn't a precursor to an adventure that this on the way...BF needs to push forward with some original storytelling rather than wallowing and perverting the series messy past. To wait four episodes to discover that Sil murdered Crozier after the transplant of Kiv into Peri was a failure might have been worthwhile had the story been building to that point but it just feels like a random additional element tacked onto the climax. And it gives Cordelia an excuse to go even more over the top when she discovers Sil's betrayal ('Nooooooo!'). 'Even the worst diseases in the universe wont survive that holocaust...' - what? Cordelia has unleashed all manner of virulent diseases in an insane revenge plan and the explosion of the tower wipes them all out? That's a handy little solution that prevents the Doctor having to anything then.

Standout Scene: The fate of Peri plays on the Doctor's mind and he still misses here, a touching admission amongst all the shouting.

Result: So traditional it hurts, Antidote to Oblivion has its redeeming features but it is still the weakest sixth Doctor audio adventure in some time. Philip Martin simply does not have the hang of writing audio drama, neither pacing a story nor filling it with any interesting material. I was willing to let Mission to Magnus scrape a pass because it was fast, quirky and outrageously sexist but that was written for television back in the eighties when Martin was firing on all cylinders. His scripts for the main range (The Creed of the Kromon was just as dreary) are a world away from the adventures he wrote in the eighties; sluggish, tiresome and lacking originality. The writer is so obsessed with Sil's financial machinations that there are times when this comes across as an audio representation of a balance sheet...and you can imagine how exciting that is! The best parts of Antidote to Oblivion are the work of three performers, namely Colin Baker, Lisa Greenwood and Nabil Shaban but even they are hampered by some less than stellar scripting. Whenever there is a combination of these three actors together (Greenwood and Shaban have some gorgeous moments together) the story automatically lifts from dreadful to passable but they are literally holding the tale up with their bare hands. Usually with every Doctor Who story there is something to grab hold of that helps to captures my interest. A clever idea, a memorable twist, characters that you want to spend time with, an inspired moment of direction, fun dialogue...but Antidote of Oblivion has a dearth of all of these. It plods along for four episodes drowning in cliché with a hollow void where strong characterisation should be. It's one of those stories that just sort of exists, failing as entertainment and lacking any purpose: 3/10


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

wow, this is the first time I've disagreed so strongly with one of your reviews. Admittedly it does drag in places, especially the first episode, but I found it at least mildly entertaining and a worthy comeback for Sil

Unknown said...

I actually rather enjoyed Antidote to Oblivion. I really liked the fact that it was both a sequel to ‘Mission to Magnus’ & ‘Mindwarp’ so it wasn’t just a story with Sil bookmarked into it. It’s probably the better of the three stories; Magnus was idiotic (Anzor “the doctor’s bully”, the child actor, the rampant sexism?), and Mindwarp was confusing beyond belief, so having a story which was a little more straightforward was nice. I felt the only downsides to the story were its rather slight plot, and Flip’s characterisation; which came across as a rather bad Ace (‘amazeballs’). The ending reminded me of Resurrection of the Daleks with Davros becoming infected, much like Sil does in this story. Much like 80s WHO when every major villain was expectedly killed off before being brought back in suspect circumstances. Having said that, Nabil Shaban’s performance as Sil is well worth the price tag alone. Overall I’d give it a solid 6 or 7.

Anonymous said...

I liked this story quite a bit, a 7/10 I'd say. The ending was quite disappointing; it was very sloppily written and seemed like cop out, but that was the only complaint I had. I thought Martin did a very good job of giving it that 80s Doctor Who feel while still making it accessible to a 21st century audience

Anonymous said...

Awful story and poor characterisation. Shame because Flip had a lot of potential.