Friday, 2 May 2014

White Ghosts written by Alan Barnes and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: A close encounter with a stray missile leads the Doctor to materialise his TARDIS on a planet that hangs in the dark at the edge of the known universe. A planet so dark that it exists in near-permanent night. A planet that enjoys just a single day’s light once every thousand years… Exactly what happens on the planet in its rare daylight hours – that’s what a geographical survey headed by Senior Tutor Bengel is stationed here to establish. They, the Doctor and Leela are about to discover that when daylight comes, the White Ghosts rise… So don’t be afraid of the dark. The cover of night is a mercy.

Teeth and Curls: Clearly their disagreement in The King of Sontar had a profound impact on the Doctor, enough for him to retreat into the TARDIS and not seek out his companion for days. Now it appears he has reached a decision to forgive her for her actions, regardless of how much he disagrees with them. He doesn't give two hoots whether the Time Lords wanted him to eliminate Strang's clones or not, he refuses to be used as a hired assassin. His timing is never wrong. Much as he is the type of fella who likes to take things in his stride, the transformation of a woman into a gangrenous vampire is definitely worth some serious discussion. Tom Baker is at his peak when he gets to growl at Bengal that she is just a daisy with teeth, a vampire mutation. He snarls these melodramatic insults more savagely than any other actor in the part could. Leela is delighted when the Doctor conjures up a plan out of thin air, her faith in him fully justified. The Doctor heading off with a rallying cry of 'GERONIMO!' might just remind you of another incarnation. His timey wimey (I shudder every time I write that but it does seem to have entered my subconscious) return seconds later despite having been away for a while even more so. The Doctor viciously ejects Aranda and Bengal from the TARDIS by turning up the lights and abandons them on a terrifying planet, in the dark, at the mercy of the plants. I haven't seen him opt for a solution as bleak as this for an age. His justification is they did what they did to themselves and should live up to the consequences of their choices.

Noble Savage: It makes sense for a huntress to seek out books on the monsters they may encounter if she wants to educate herself. Most importantly it shows the Doctor that she is trying to better herself. It was never a case of throwing Leela out of the TARDIS for having a difference of opinion but to give her the chance to look at herself, to see if she thought that she really belonged. As Jameson herself notes, Barnes gives Leela lots of fun lines including a dig at the how the Doctor makes things up as he goes along but somehow gets away with it and how she isn't a dog that needs a pat on the head. In a wonderful moment that shows how much he has influenced her, Leela thanks the Doctor for her education as she electrocutes the creatures, knowing that she is safe in her rubber boots. Her description of Morandi after her transformation is almost worth the admission price alone. Whilst Leela has terrific wit about her, Jameson remembers this is a situation fraught with danger and I have never heard Leela quite so on the verge of hysteria as here before. Leela points out to the Doctor that there was more to the Sevateem than just savagery, they were farmers too and her knowledge of that comes in very handy here.

Standout Performance: I certainly don't object to Virginia Hey making an appearance in a Doctor Who story and given how effusively she talks about the experience in the extras, neither does she. There was something fascinating about her performance as Zhaan in Farscape, a character that was attempting to strive for peace but in conflict with her own nature. Hey played the part with restraint but could release an remarkable fury when the situation was called for. She brings a lot of that danger and underlying tension to White Ghosts and is given the opportunity to play a part that swings from ally to enemy to victim over the course of an hour.

Great Ideas: Shades of Planet of Evil with the TARDIS travelling to the edge of the edge of the universe where there is only dark outside. Yes, I can see Phillip Hinchcliffe going for that concept alright, especially if it meant turning the studio lights down and generating a little atmosphere. As Russell T Davies proved in The Parting of the Ways you cannot really go wrong with a missile being fired at the TARDIS at the beginning of a story! A planet in almost permanent eclipse that somebody is trying to take out with a missile. Why bother to decimate a dead world? Barnes figures a clever way of maintaining the tension, the missile might have missed the TARDIS but it is still heading towards the planetoid. This is a race against time to solve the mystery before the weapon strikes. At the thought of a sea of writhing tendrils snaking their way towards the Doctor and Leela I had flashes of the Animus from The Web Planet but I am sure that with today's effects ravenous plants could be realised with much more conviction. It makes for a tense set piece all the same. Cleverly the missile was never meant to destroy the planetoid but to explode before impact and release light and radiation onto the planet. Something that the plants react strongly to. Suddenly what appears to be a straightforward action adventure has layers, a mind at work looking to change the situation rather than destroy it. From a collection of plants to a jungle, teeming with alien life. The jungle is oxygenates the atmosphere so what was once a lifeless rock has become habitable in minutes. Once before a survey team came to study the plants during a rare period of light and they never returned. Things don't look good for this motley crew. The roots in the ground start worming their way into the base, breaking down their defences. If a single seed from the plants should bed itself in the soil of a civilised world it would mean the end of all life. The station personnel have used bat genes to mutate themselves to survive such harsh conditions on this planetoid, a twist that suddenly puts the Doctor and Leela in even more danger. Hunted within and without. Bengal genuinely thought the survey was meant to alleviate famine but there was a much more sinister mind at work. Studying long term exposure to gene therapy was the real motive, to see if members of the population could thrive on other worlds with a little genetic tampering. Aranda was never the 'star pupil' but the mastermind behind the whole operation - this was a very nicely judged character reversal that sees Bengal shift from chilling scientist to impotent victim of circumstance. When Aranda's superiors saw the results of her work (the vampiric, cannibalistic tendencies inherent in their infection) they vowed that they could never be allowed to return. Like The King of Sontar, The Time Lords are directly responsible for the Doctor's involvement in this story. They foresaw the a planet of blood drinkers emerging and sent the Doctor in to ensure that Aranda never made it back home to infect the rest of the population. I wonder if their influence will continue to spread throughout the rest of the season, perhaps leading to another Invasion of Time style conclusion?

Audio Landscape: The TARDIS having a paddy as a missile screams towards it, the Doctor and Leela in spacesuits, tendrils writhing and whipping, walking on gantries, doors opening and closing.

Isn't it Odd: The Doctor and Leela's clash of ideologies in The King of Sontar seemed to be about to spin their relationship in a new, fractious direction. If you look at he difference between their interaction in season fourteen and season fifteen there is definitely a shift in the Doctor's behaviour towards his pupil (or rather Tom Baker's disapproval of the characters continuing presence). He is a lot shorter with her, can barely look at her in some stories and cannot wait to be off on his own getting into trouble. Come The Invasion of Time his vicious coldness towards her was barely out of character. I wondered if their argument in Sontar would kick start a thread that would explain why he seemed to get colder towards her as time moved on. However it appears that they seem to have settled their differences off mike and on their own, only coming together at the beginning of White Ghosts to say that they will continue to travel together. A shame because a more probing examination of their relationship would have been very welcome. However I suppose it wouldn't really be possible to continue their adventures for however many season with them constantly at odds with one another. It might work for one story but you would start to wonder, Tegan-style, why they bother hanging out with each other anymore. There seems to be a moment where Leela can turn the tables on the Doctor at the end of this story where he seems to be about to do the Time Lord's bidding (just as she did in Sontar) but it never really amounts to anything. There is too much plot to wrap up to indulge in what could have been a razor sharp character moment.

Standout Scene: Barnes pulls off a nice trick in episode two, the story suddenly lunging into a first person narrative as Leela fights her way through the plants. It makes the ordeal very personal and allow the audience to experience every blow along with her. Briggs creates a very disorienting soundscape for this sequence, the action slowed down so we can dragged in kicking and screaming. It is only when first person narration is employed as effectively as it is here that I stop to think why the main range stories don't use it more often. It is one of the main strengths of the Companion Chronicles and why that is such an accessible range to listen to. This could have been another bog standard exchange of blows on audio (which, without the visuals, often don't come off) but instead Barnes and Briggs use the opportunity to experiment.

Result: 'Don't leave us in the dark!' Unlike many a new series episode, White Ghosts opens with an episode where all is not explained about the setting and the characters in the first five minutes and we are allowed the luxury of trying to figure out the situation as we proceed through a number of exciting and dark set pieces. I really liked that. For once the Doctor doesn't know everything and has to use his wits to try and piece everything together. It's hard to argue with a scenario as gripping as this one; a lifeless planetoid transformed into a deadly jungle in a matter of moments after a missile has exploded before hitting the surface, accelerating the life cycle of the aggressive wildlife. Barnes' tale might not have character on he brain (Hey's character aside I didn't really remember anybody from this story) but he has sure struck gold with his setting, ideas and imagery. With horrific plant creatures attacking, vampire transformations and the Doctor and Leela (both superbly characterised) being hunted within and without, White Ghosts errs towards the Hinchcliffe era than the Williams one but there's no denying that this story moves at a furious pace and kept my interest up throughout. If there is one thing that Doctor Who does well more often than not is a good base under siege story and this is certainly the most dynamic example in years from Big Finish. The first 40 minutes are near-flawless but the only blemish in attempting to produce a story so dense with ideas in an hour means that Barnes has to rush through a great deal of exposition in the final 20 minutes and a debate between the Doctor and Leela is frustratingly cut short. There is still plenty of drama though and the fate of Bengal and the others is one that I wont forget in a long time. White Ghosts is an attempt to create something a little darker and deeper than the usual 4th Doctor snog to the past and for that I commend it greatly. A few rushed explanations aside, it is the second very strong showing for the range in its third season: 8/10

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