Monday, 17 March 2014

The Brood of Erys written by Andrew Smith and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Space travellers are warned to keep away from the area of the planet Asphya and its unremarkable moon Erys. Not the best place to materialise the TARDIS, then – as the Doctor discovers when his ship is raided by the imp-like Drachee, and his companion Flip is carried away… But the TARDIS isn’t the only stricken vessel in the region. Aboard a nearby space yacht, the Doctor encounters a woman who holds in her head the secret of Erys – a secret suppressed by amnesia, or worse. Flip, too, is about to learn Erys’ secret. But once you know Erys’ secret, you can never escape.

Softer Six: Andrew Smith has a fine handle on the sixth Doctor, his mannerisms and attitude. If Colin Baker thinks that is the case, who am I disagree? The Doctor is recalibrating the TARDIS systems which is precisely the sort of thing he seemed to be doing every other week in the mid eighties. The TARDIS is fascinating for most people but he is not willing to turn it into a crèche for intergalactic spawn. The Drachee mind control causes great pain for him but he is more than a match for their mental powers. He's quick about saving Sara when it is clear that her space yacht is going to explode. I can't imagine any other Doctor squaring up to a living moon with quite the same brashness and authority as Sixie,  I can see him there with his hands planted in his sides and standing tall against such a powerful adversary. Do we believe for one moment that the Doctor will be stripped of the TARDIS forever? No, and given he gets over the shock pretty quickly I gather neither did he. Mind you at least he would be stuck in a pretty interesting place, having the chance to converse with a living moon for all eternity. As is so often the case...he has an idea. There are vulnerable points in every living being and the Doctor knows it will only be a matter of time before he discover Eyrs'. Colin Baker makes the Doctor's reunion with Flip a palpably triumphant moment before telling her off for attempting another reckless act. In the Doctor's experience there are very few creatures that are truly evil, just misunderstood, and he certainly thinks that Erys falls into that category. Where everybody else sees a being to fear, the Doctor sees a living moon in pain trying to protect its young. His chat with Erys after his surgery is rather lovely, too old beings who have seen the universe change around them discussing the weight of parenthood and companionship. The thought of Peri is strong in him at the moment, another mention of her after last month. Are we leading up to the Doctor seeking some answers about the fate of his former companion? There is a nice parallel made with Erys' situation and the Doctor's decision at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Digging into the Doctor's memories, Erys can see a time when he found it necessary to let the person he loved more than all others go for her own good. It is a lesson that Erys can learn from with his own children who want to see the universe. He has regretted his decision to shut Susan out of the TARDIS many times, even wished it undone, because he has missed her. There is no doubt in his mind that it was the best thing for Susan.

What the Flip?: I had an interesting discussion recently with one of my friends with regards to the role of the companion and whether they perhaps get a little too much exposure in the new series at the Doctor's expense. There is an argument to be made there, especially with Moffat openly admitting that he thinks that the companion is even more vital to the success of the series than the Doctor. Umm...check out the title of the show again. I only bring this up because I have read some criticism of Flip in recent months and some scathing comparisons to other companions of late who perhaps have been given more exposure and focus. Hex and Ace have dominated the seventh Doctor stories. The fifth Doctor has all but vanished in the melee of companions that he is juggling. And the subtitle of the latest eighth Doctor saga is named after his latest companion, such is her importance to the running storyline. In comparison Flip is content to be a part of the stories that she is involved in but she doesn't control them. She's a Doctor Who assistant in the classic mould, somebody to bounce ideas off, to get into trouble, to provide an engaging subplot and to bring a bit of humanity and life and perkiness to the stories. I don't think there is anything wrong with that. Should Scavenger turn out to be her final adventure I wouldn't call her run a failure simply because they decided that for once the Doctor should have an assistant and not an equal, personality wise. Plus Lisa Greenwood has been consistently likable in the role and seems to get better with each passing story. The problem doesn't seem to be Greenwood with the wider audience but that the character doesn't seem to be going on some great emotional journey that exposes a tortured back story and that she is happy travelling with the Doctor and isn't blaming him for all the universes woes. Because that seems to be the norm these days. I would quite happily enjoy more trilogies with Flip just as she is but I fear if she were to return that these elements would start to creep in. So maybe it might be just as well that she is confined to seven stories where she manages to provide able support for the Doctor and have a whale of a time in his company.

I like the way Flip makes (sorry) flippant comparisons between the future technological marvels with contemporary technology that she understands. She brings it down to a level that is far easier to comprehend. Is Flip an idiot for letting the Drachee into the TARDIS to scamper about? Perhaps, but under the same circumstances I might have done the same thing if they were sufficiently cute enough. So I guess that makes an idiot too. Flip is a lot of fun when rounding up the Drachee in the TARDIS (it is her responsibility after all), treating them like naughty children. She's frightened of spiders, especially when they are twice the size of her. She's not dismissive about the danger she is in but Flip is familiar with the idea of living worlds, having been transported to Symbiosis when she first met the Doctor. After flying a Skylight in Wirrn Isle, Flip is ready and willing to jump into a skimmer to escape Erys for good. As much as I was enjoying Flip's adventures on her own (when he life is threatened she really is very capable) but I was pleased when she met up with Elgin and was able to converse once again. She's happy to use herself as bait for the mud creatures whilst the Doctor does whatever he has to do despite his protestations. Living dangerously is becoming a bit of a habit for her. I would have spat my coffee out if Erys had stated Flip as the companion that the Doctor elevated above all the others...and her reaction when she discovers that it is Susan is hilarious. Flip understands that the Doctor wants to go off in search of Peri and feels no animosity because he does. She worries that one day he might want to shut her out of the TARDIS as he did Susan but he alleviates her fears.

Standout Performance: How do you go about playing a living moon? With a lack of gravity of course! Boom boom! Brian Shelley turns in a terrific performance as Erys, able to play a benevolent deity as convincingly as he is a jealous parent. There is no doubt that Erys is a being of great power in Shelley's hands, his operatic voice booms in the minds of those who dare to approach. I also want to give a small round of applause to Chris Overton as Terril, a part the requires him to swing from playful to sinister and working through a rather comical voice modulation he achieves both extremely well.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Child? Bit creepy...'
'Short version; kidnapped by aliens, spoken to by a moon, swallowed by the ground, run away in one of their skimmers.'
'How do you kill a planet?'
'A lonely childhood, a rebellious adolescence, you couldn't wait to get away from your people and your planet Gallifrey, could you? So many adventures you have had in your travels. So many enemies but so many friends...' - the Doctor gives Erys his memories to aid in his recovery.
'Evil just shouts louder than goodness.'

Great Ideas: The teaser is a fine red herring that leads you to believe that the man hypnotising Sara is a villainous sort who is using her against her will when the story goes on to prove that this entire sequence is nothing of the sort. One planet all alone in a system with a ring of radio beacons warning people away. This might be one of those times when discretion is the better part of valour. Within 15 minutes Andrew Smith creates a memorable setting, the TARDIS is invaded, Flip is kidnapped, the TARDIS has the life crushed out of her, a ship screams out of hyperspace and the Doctor meets the sole inhabitant and we visit an alien feels like The Brood of Erys is trying to make up for how slow Antidote to Oblivion was. I like the very Terrance Dicks way that the Asphians are represented solely by one figurehead - it is an economical way to give a race of people a personality. I can remember on my first listen that I found the Asphians a little sketchy as a race...which was a problem until the twist was revealed. Way to get out having to give these people any great depth and get away with it, Andrew! The Drachee bring to bear terrible mental agonies on the Asphians as though it was simply sport to them, the creatures at this point seemingly a force for evil. Once it is revealed that the Asphians are merely avatars it changes the whole emphasis, this situation no different to parents allowing their children to play violent video games. Erys is violent towards outsiders because in the past people have come to mine his carcass and take his children away. What else should a parent do but protect himself and his brood in whatever possible? The mining cartels of the neighbouring systems have tried many subterfuges to land their people on Erys. Sara is quite an interesting prospect because it would appear that her amnesia gives Smith another chance to skip over any deeper characterisation but in reality he is saving her story for the latter episodes. When she attempts to destroy Erys it appears that she is a programmed terrorist when that is far from the truth. Smith works several of these misunderstandings into his story, the information missing to put the events in context. There is a fascinating biological cycle on Erys, with the moon providing the nutrients that nourish and strengthen the Drachee, just like a mother providing milk for her young. You've got to love the notion of Flip tethering herself to the console (via the seatbelts from Timelash) and given she doesn't know how to fly the Ship getting Elgin to fling the ship through space to crash land on the planet. What a girl. She's safe because of the TARDIS dimensional interface, the interior dimension counteracting the effects of the exterior one. Erys made the people of Asphya, they are nothing but avatars, creatures made out of the elements of Asphya. With so much going on elsewhere, I'm not sure we really needed the twist about Erys creating his own Drachee spy to walk amongst his children and discover what their plans are. It is the equivalent of a parent dressing up as one of the kidz and hanging out in their gang to see what they get up to in private. Pretty creepy. But it does allow the story to fling in a new direction, one where Erys is angry and creates mortals of mud to murder those who have incensed him. The mention of the survivors of wrecked ships existing somewhere on Erys whose minds are used to create the avatars on Asphya is a huge clue as to the motive behind Sara's journey to the living moon. There are illicit tours run by unscrupulous entrepreneurs to Erys, danger seekers who want to experience the thrill of landing on the living moon. Sara's husband runs such a tour and arranged for their children to be able to experience one of the tours, a birthday treat for Jen. When they all went missing Sara went to the authorities but they refused to send out a rescue party because they were too afraid of Erys and its children.  Sara asked for a mind wipe so she could reach Erys unscathed - how can you afflict a mind that is vacant? She planned to injure the moon just enough to be able to find her family and get away. Much like The Feast of Axos, this story features the sixth Doctor walking around inside a living thing and manipulating various biological components to provoke a reaction. With Erys willing to let his children head off and explore and allow the neighbouring races to visit the future is uncertain, but its looking optimistic.

Audio Landscape: Read through this section and see what a challenge it must have been for Steve Foxon to bring this story to life. It is to his credit that it The Brood of Erys is convincing throughout, no matter how weird things get. Hypnotising beam, the skimmers screaming through space and halting by the TARDIS, landing on the TARDIS, the Drachee whooping an screaming and scampering about the TARDIS, the Drachee mind control, the space yacht leaving hyperspace, explosions inside the space yacht, the ship exploding in space, splashing through mud, tearing the protective film, a shivering, hissing spider, screams, bubbling mud, water dripping, Flip ascending in a skimmer, an explosion contained within mucus, the skimmer powering down, the Asphians being dissolved by Erys, the feeder tubes pumping nutrients into the captors, the mud creatures squelching forward and growling, being swallowed into the ground, draining the containers.

Musical Cues: It might give you a headache after a while (turn your headphones down then) but the persistent drum beat that kicks in during the action sequences really give the story a feeling of movement.

Isn't it Odd: One place where I really thought that Smith missed out was in tying the Doctor/Flip relationship into the theme of parenthood. By the end of their first trilogy they were being mistaken for father and daughter and his constant chastising of her reckless attitude was pleasing paternal. And yet Smith has the two characters split for the majority of the story and doesn't probe their relationship enough, beyond a little berate for her risk with the TARDIS in episode three. This could have been the breakout story for the pair in respect of their father/daughter interaction. It was made for it. Is this in contradiction to what I was saying earlier about Flip? Not really, because there is no reason that an examination of their relationship had to be drowned in angst. The ending of the Sara plot is a little too glib. She frees her family and they all go home unscathed. That's a little easy, isn't it? I would be furious if my husband endangered my children like this.

Standout Scene: The opening sequence in the TARDIS that sees the Drachee flying towards and landing on the TARDIS and gaining access are exactly the sort of effects marvels that work far better in your head than could ever have been realised at the time. On audio this is genuinely exciting idea and one that I can consign the appropriate mental budget to. An invasion of the TARDIS by childlike imps flooding through the doors - anybody who says this story has nothing new to offer is mistaken because there has never been anything quite like this in the series before (the closest I can think of is Biroc's invasion of the ship in Warriors' Gate).

Result: 'Living planets aren't easy to kill...' Really rather engaging if perhaps an episode too long, The Brood of Erys is a story that defies description because it juggles a lot of very big ideas with a very blasé attitude. Don't listen to the naysayers the suggest that this is a traditional Doctor Who story because despite a few familiar ideas, there are very few stories that resemble this one. Andrew Smith is a pretty reliable pair of hands these days and he has written a fast moving script that gives both the Doctor and Flip plenty to do, creates an interesting SF setting on a grand scale, includes a couple of guest characters with some surprises up their sleeves (Sara and her father transform from terrorists to concerned relatives as the story progresses) and works the theme of parenthood into his story in a number of thought provoking ways. It isn't a piece of art but there is a great deal going on and most of it is well worth listening to. This is the ideal kind of story for Nick Briggs to helm, one where he gets to flex his directorial muscles and bring an entire alien solar system to life complete with a living moon, several alien races and all kinds of actions sequences. The soundscape for this story (including the pacy score) is exceptional, Steven Foxon doing his usual sterling job. Colin Baker clearly feels much more comfortable this month and gets to command his way through the story, squaring up to and ultimately forming a relationship with a living moon. It is a shame that he and Flip are separated so quickly, especially since a story about parenthood seems perfectly set up to explore their relationship in quite a probing way. However, it does give Lisa Greenwood the chance to head her own subplot, Flip once again put through the physical and psychological wringer. Where does The Brood of Erys go wrong then? I would say there is enough material to comfortably tell a three part story but at four parts certain sections are stretched a bit, even if each of the cliff-hangers do all branch the story off in a new direction. Some of the action is a little repetitive but the change of rapid change of locations does help in that respect. After reading some sour reviews of this story I came to it expecting the worst and found myself pleasantly surprised. It's not vintage Doctor Who but it is a solid action adventure tale with some interesting concepts in play. I was rather charmed by how unpretentious the whole piece was, being content to tell a story unencumbered by angst. It was rather refreshing for it: 7/10


Geoff said...

I think I agree with Moffat's comments about the importance of the companions. You need the emotional anchor they provide and RTD made the right decision by starting the show with the focus on Rose. The Doctor is the constant, but the companion changes,and that allows the show itself to change, like the big visual overhaul when Clara joined. Though I definetely agree with you about their over-use. Three companions didn't work in the eighties and it doesn't now, so it's good to see that Number 5 has only got Nyssa in the main range this year. Other than that, great review as usual.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see someone likes this! I thought I was the only one.