Monday, 24 March 2014

Scavenger written by William Gallagher and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Thursday 28 May 2071: the day the Anglo-Indian Salvage 2 rocket launches. Its mission: to clean up space; to remove from Earth’s orbit over a century’s worth of man-made junk… From the viewing window of a nearby space station, the Doctor and Flip have a unique view of Salvage 2 as it sets about its essential task – and of the disaster that unfolds when Salvage 2 encounters something it’s not been programmed to deal with. Something not of human manufacture… Back on Earth, the Doctor fights to save Flip from becoming part of a 500-year tragedy being played out in orbit, hundreds of miles above. And millions will die if he fails.

Softer Six: The Doctor is trying to make Flip understand that only a few remarkable people have had the opportunity to see the Earth from space in her time. He tries to make her take it in and appreciate it. Like he mentioned in The Fourth Wall, why would they be watching the goggle box when they could be experiencing events first hand. I have to say, I got a little kick every time the Doctor said 'Jyoti.' He's looking forward to showing Flip India, after the current crisis is over of course. The Doctor can't resist a little boasting about how he helped get Space Guard started. Once upon a time the Doctor did a trick in space with a single cricket ball, obviously he had no imagination then because now he is playing dominoes with satellites. The Doctor has what you call a working knowledge of history. He would do anything to try and save Flip but when she is trapped in an alien death machine that is attempting to wipe out everybody in New Delhi he cannot find an argument where her life is worth saving more than the entire population of a city. People usually believe him when he says he will be back later. The Doctor has absolute faith in the fact that he will be able to save Flip, which makes his defeat all the more crushing. Listen as he confidently strides through the last episode, tying up all the loose ends and leaving the retrieval of his companion to the last minute because both he and Flip have absolute faith in his ability to save his friends. He has learnt from experience that discretion is sometimes the better part of valour. Boastful Sixie returns when both the Doctor and Salim are willing to sacrifice themselves to Scavenger to save Flip/Anarkali and he points out in no uncertain terms that nothing compares to the knowledge packed away in a Time Lord's brain. Even though Salim set this process in operation centuries ago, the Doctor feels like this is his responsibility for waking up Scavenger all these years later. A desperate Jessica asks the Doctor to take her away in the TARDIS to escape her fate which he appears to be considering until she offers him money.

What the Flip?: Is this the end for Phillipa Jackson? Unless the next sixth Doctor trilogy picks up where this story leaves us that would certainly seem to be the case and in a way I would almost be happier if that were the case because it is something that has never been tried with a Doctor Who companion before. Leaving their fate unresolved and in the hands of the audience. Scavenger is a great final story for Flip (if this should be the case) because she gets a huge chunk of the action, gets to put her life in danger (which seems to be her raison d'etre) and share some memorable exchanges with the Doctor. It feels as though they have travelled together for a long time at this point, even if we have only been privy to six (technically seven) of their adventures. There have clearly been a wealth of stories that we haven't been able to listen to but you can make them up yourself. Flip is still banging on about Tranquillity so the Doctor has obviously not managed to keep his promise to take her back there. Flip understands the Doctor is the type that requires flattery to get things done...and she just lets him talk his way through his miraculous solutions. Flip understands their strengths and where she and he are needed in a crisis. She's always being told off for running off but this time she is staying put and helping where she is needed. Flip has a younger brother and with one you learn how to get things done. What is it with the sixth Doctor's audio companions floating around in space. First Evelyn got into spot of bother in The Feast of Axos and now Flip is having to calm herself down as she makes an emergency evacuation from the Nelson Mandela Space Station by jumping out of the nearest airlock in a spacesuit. They saved some people on the NMSS and as far as Flip is concerned that is what they are there for. Her parents had always wanted a boy and when they finally had one they pretty much left Flip to her own devices (they even named him Philip just to rub salt into the wound). Comparing her family with Jyoti's, she wishes hers had been bothered enough to tell her to see the world. You get a real sense of a girl who would never have amounted to anything because she was never given a sense of self worth until the Doctor came along. Now her confidence is sky high because she has seen so much and saved so many people, she truly believes she is somebody worthwhile now. Trapped inside Scavenger, deprived of oxygen and heading towards the Nelson Mandela Space Station to murder everybody on board, Flip quietly admits that she wants to go home. That finally this has all become too much for her. As the missiles scream towards her she gives the Doctor the gift of telling him that he has taken her everywhere she has wanted to go. If she is to die here, she doesn't want him to think for one second that she regrets travelling with him. That is a very selfless thing to do when you are facing execution.

Standout Performance: I am a huge fan of Anjili Mohindra and have been ever since she first set foot onto Bannerman Road in The Sarah Jane Adventures. I think it is a criminal shame that I haven't seen more of her on TV since Elisabeth Sladen's death but she discusses the amount of work she has been doing in the theatre since then. I will have to see if I can catch something if it comes to town. Mohindra gives a charismatic performance as Jyoti, an Indian astronaut that befriends the Doctor and Flip. You don't have to be told that Anjili and Lisa Greenwood get on like a house on fire away from the microphones (having met at a convention and remaining firm friends ever since) as they share an instant chemistry. However this story belongs to Colin Baker and Lisa Greenwood who both get some juicy dramatic opportunities. The Doctor is on the ground trying to weave his way through the politics and sort out a hundred and one technical problems at once which gives Baker the chance to take control and command his way through the story. And that's just how I like him. Flip is trapped in space in the most dire peril, her mind being invaded by an alien device and trying to tell herself that she isn't petrified of dying alone and terrified. Greenwood has never been better, Flip is a quick thinker and brave with it but by the end of this tale she is reduced to a frightened little girl who genuinely thinks she is going to die.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Look down there, Flip. The whole world bursting with life and energy and potential. Just India there, India alone has more variety and vitality than some entire planets than I've been to. Humanity is exciting, it's the only word for it. And yet for all that humanity is vibrant, exciting and yes, really are the most terrible litter bugs!'
'Who kicks footballs into space? Frank Lampard?'

Great Ideas: The Nelson Mandela International Space Station - that is a rather well timed tribute to the recently deceased President. Clean Up Space 2071: Britain has provided financial support to the Indian Space Agency to clean up space junk. Dead satellites, rocket engine fragments, nuclear reactors...dangerous equipment flying through space that could cause terrible destruction. The Doctor rather cleverly uses Space Guard to force two satellites to hit each other, causing a chain reaction of dominoes so a satellite is thrown into the path of Jyoti and Flip to grab onto. How incredible would it be to see that sequence realised? Unfortunately the final satellite is Scavenger and the nudge that the Doctor gives it reboots its systems. And then their troubles really begin...  Jessica Allaway won Wimbledon in 2057 and is now on board the CupS programme as a British expert. Gallagher made a smart move when he decided to make Scavenger an alien device because the Doctor has to try and puzzle it out as the story progresses. Part mechanical, part sonic, part laser - like a real scavenger it takes what it needs from a spy satellite to complete its mission. Gallagher needed to add another element to the story since four episodes of the Doctor trying to outwit and alien probe might have run out of steam. He injects a little exotic history into the mix, telling the story of the Crown Prince Salim and his romance with the slave girl Anarkali and their connection to the Scavenger. The Doctor discounts this theory because he met the author of this fiction, Abdul Halim Sharar, in another life but upon reflection it turns out that Salim was Sharar telling an autobiographical tale. People say that Anarkali was executed for being in love with Salim, dying between two walls but the truth is much more insane. Scavenger landed in 1600 Century India and took Anarkali from Salim, needing a living mind enslaved within its circuitry. Salim had a cough and was considered imperfect by the alien device, which was why it took his lover instead. Since then Salim has never aged and has worked tirelessly to try and get his love back. Now Scavenger is awake it is going to prowl in orbit of the Earth, seek out every space station, satellite and probe and take them apart for any equipment it might need. Flip is trapped inside without depleted oxygen and it is going to start with the Nelson Mandela, sucking out all of their oxygen to keep the host alive. It is an insidious, unstoppable device. Scavenger's masters sent it to Earth to look for high technology and when it discovered nothing of use in the 17th century it put itself into hibernation until Earth's technology was sufficiently developed to be worth scavenging. The TARDIS resists landing on Salvage-2 because it fears that Scavenger will start dismantling it for spares. When Jessica sends up missiles to destroy Scavenger, Salim reacts by having Salvage-2 scoop up and consume the alien device and programmes it to drop Scavenger off outside their front door. It was the only way to save his long lost love and the Doctor's friend. Slavage-2 is not strong enough to hold the device and it breaks free, ripping its captor to shreds. Scavenger starts cleaning up the Earth, seeing its inhabitants as junk littering the surface. The Doctor gambles that Flip's desire to be somewhere else would be stronger than Scavenger's desire to clean up the Earth. Which is the case, but it confirms what he already suspected that Flip is becoming part of the machine. Scavenger needs hosts and it goes to great lengths to protect them but only as long as it takes to absorb them into its workings. Anarkali would have died from oxygen starvation whilst her mind was slaved to the machine, which is exactly what is happening to Flip now.

Audio Landscape: Walking on gantries, swishing doors, a shuttle launching, alarms, two satellites colliding, typing, a fantastic voice for Scavenger, cameras snapping, rewinding a tape, firing lasers, drums banging, water trickling, Scavenger crash landing, firing on New Delhi, fire trucks sounding, Flip leaping from Scavenger...

Isn't it Odd: Whilst the characterisation is generally very strong in this release (especially the Doctor and Flip), I found myself getting more and more irritated by Jessica's constant racist slurs and divination of the British. Pretty much every line that she has in the story comes with a caveat that the British are ultimately a superior race. It turns her into a one-note, thoroughly unpleasant character. Mind you without her the story would lack a human protagonist of any kind so perhaps it is good that there is someone to hiss at. Her downfall at the end of the story is very satisfying. I'm always complaining about antagonistic characters of this nature being inserted into stories simply to increase the running time (Classic Doctor Who was notorious for this) and to cause obstructions to the to learn that Jessica's plan all along was to cause a deliberate obstruction to Scavenger programme was actually rather clever. Her exposure means an end to her thus far illustrious career.

Standout Scene: The final scene really stands out because at last there is a real emotional connection between the Doctor and Flip, just as they are about to be separated. She's standing on the edge of Scavenger running out of oxygen and considering jumping to Earth, leaving a message for him completely unaware that he is listening. She wonders if he brought her to the Nelson Mandela for such a spectacular view of the Earth to make her home sick, to encourage her to leave him now the holiday is over. She thinks she is a liability to him, and that he wants to head off and find out what has happened to Peri. The whole time the Doctor is listening, objecting, and appalled that she could think he would ever want to get rid of her. Flip has always been hasty to jump into action and so it is quite appropriate that her final act should be her most reckless moment of all. I had goosebumps as she finally jumped, her scream filling the headphones. What a great way to depart, her fate unconfirmed. Always go out leaving them wanting more.

Result: Pacy, dramatic and ending on an emotional high, Scavenger is by far the best of this trilogy of sixth Doctor adventures. Be warned there is a lot of astrobabble inherent in this adventure but that cannot be avoided in a cat and mouse chase between the Doctor and an alien device that is on the scavenge for biological an technological parts, including wiring up Flip to its systems and attempting to dismantle a space station. If you like your plot-based Doctor Who then this might just be the story for you as Scavenger is packed full of incident and clever manoeuvres to try and outwit the death machine, including playing dominoes with satellites, missile strikes, an attack on India and even some exotic mythology thrown in to add some local colour. This is probably the closest a Big Finish adventure has ever come to techno porn but Gallagher ensures that the pace is furious and the gadgetry is always being used in an exciting way. In the midst of all this you have the Doctor trying to cope with international relations whilst trying to use the technology he has to outwit the alien scavenger. For a time it looks like he might have bitten off more than he can chew. And caught up in the machinations of Scavenger is Flip, scared and alone, and facing certain death. Kudos to both Colin Baker and Lisa Greenwood who make this pairing work better than ever before, especially during the final few minutes where it looks as though they are about to ripped apart forever. It was a bold move to put Flip on hiatus in such an uncompromising, perilous fashion but sure leaves you hanging on an unforgettable note. I wouldn't suggest listening to Scavenger in one go because there is relatively little relief for its two hour length and you might find it heavy going. One episode a night over four nights means you can space out the excitement and really enjoy the shift into high drama in the last episode. Nick Briggs ensures that the story never flags and he has assembled a strong cast who make the most of their roles. Scavenger might not be to everyone's tastes but it knows precisely what it is doing - providing a thrill ride in space with some strong emotional beats. As a farewell to Flip it is a triumph: 8/10


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Unknown said...

I loved this story, and actually this whole trilogy was fantastic, in my view. It's always nice when a BF trilogy starts strong (I don't agree with your assessment of Antidote to Oblivion) and then just gets better.

I'm just curious - why only 8/10? You don't seem to have very much negative to say, so I was wondering why this wasn't a 9 or a 10 (10/10 for me, I have to say).

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