Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Charlotte Pollard: The Lamentation Cipher written by Jonathan Barnes and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Charlotte Pollard’s adventures are over. She escaped death aboard the R101 and travelled in time and space - but now in the service of the monolithic, unknowable Viyrans, their unending mission is stifling her. An encounter with would-be adventurer Robert Buchan, near the mysterious Ever-and-Ever-Prolixity, provides the opportunity Charley needs for escape… So, the adventuress is abroad once more: meeting a lost expedition in uncharted forests, solving enigmas, and hoping beyond hope to see the people she misses most: her family. But Charley cannot run forever. The Viyrans know the power of the ‘Lamentation Cipher’ and they have a solution… for everything.

Edwardian Adventuress: What a journey Charlotte Pollard has been on. Travels with two Doctors (although she has met many more) but not necessarily in the right order, escaping death at the hands of a burning airship, becoming a complete event in space/time, losing close friends, having her life stolen by a wraith that has been haunting the TARDIS and whisked away by the Viyrans, a race of robotic virus hunters to aid with their unending work. Yes it's been a full life for the quirky Edwardian adventuress, a character who was once hailed as the saviour of Doctor Who during its wilderness years (where there was a finally a running storyline that fans could get excited about in the absence of the show being made on television) and now remembered fondly as an exciting footnote in the shows spin off material. Charley was in danger of being overused (appearing in more adventures than even the longest of television companions) and her time with the eighth Doctor did tend to drag on longer than necessary but then she received a huge boost when she was paired up with hugely successful results with Colin Baker's sixth Doctor for a truncated run of very good stories. Always go out on a high and India Fisher certainly managed that. Now the character has been rested for a while and it is time to see if she has the chops to go solo...

Whilst it is reminiscent of Bernice, having Charley writing a diary is an economic way of throwing a ton of early exposition at the audience and allowing us to catch up with her without her having to talk to anybody. It stresses how lonely she is in Viyran custody, unable to talk to a soul but her own diary. Described as being erudite as well as beautiful but she has been flattered by experts so that kind of sycophancy doesn't wash. She's become accustomed to her incarceration but has lost her lust for life. Charley talks wistfully about travelling with a Vortisaur called Ramsey, a more innocent time that she (and we) can get nostalgic about. She has a horrible feeling these days that she is nothing more to them than a glorified pet. She's trusted to head off on her own to perform missions because they know that she can never escape their clutches...a conclusion that she has depressingly come to concur with. The Viyrans have a memory scrubbing procedure that they use to ensure that nobody remembers then once they have whisked in a performed their surgery and removed infections. Charley is trying at all costs to prevent any loss of her memories, clinging on to who she is.  She still has a spark of adventure left in her and she grabs the opportunity to escape when it presents itself. In a vital moment Charley mentions her father, mother and two sisters and how they lost her a long time ago. It sets up what is to come in The Fall of House Pollard in a heartbeat. After her escape the Viyrans are short tempered with her and she has rarely felt more like an errant child. I'm pleased she is free by the entire series of watching Charley trying to gain her freedom would have grown old very quickly. With the Prolixity she has the equivalent of her own TARDIS, a narrative tool that can send her anywhere and any time and like the Doctor's trusty ship there is no way of knowing quite where your destination is going to be. That's rather exciting.

Standout Performance: I've watched far too many series of Masterchef. I'm always expecting India Fisher to make me feel hungry these days by reeling off the ingredients of a culinary delight. She's not a bad actress by half either and she is more than ready (with so much audio experience behind her) to take up the reins of her own series. Check out her opening monologue, it's excellent and it sets up the melancholic tone of the piece perfectly. It took my until the final instalment of this saga to realise that Bert Buchan is being played by Nick Briggs. That is one impressively thick accent.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'It's a riddle at the edge of the universe, a place of darkness and secrets.'
'It's just an illusion of liberty. What animal, no matter how well fed and coddled, doesn't dream of escape?'
'Let's just see where we end up...'

Great Ideas: Billions of years beyond the mightiest of Earth's telescopes, a millennia after Charley's own time and at the furthest reaches of known space lies an extraordinary cosmic phenomenon known as the Prolixity. It's origins are obscure (but not for long...) and it is a source of myths and legends and it is also a place of pilgrimage and scientific investigation. Nothing that has gone in has ever come out. The nature of the virus and it's effect on it's victims is expertly set up on audio in the best way it can be, by blending words in a sentence that do not belong together. Patient Zero's explosive climax is explained, the explosion that tore up the station and released a manifest of viruses out into space. It explains what Charley has been up to with the Viyrans all these years, cleaning up the mess. The Viyrans were set up as the new Big Bad in the Doctor Who audio universe (I can remember a splash in the Gallifreyan Guardian section of DWM talking about their appearance in several upcoming stories) but things didn't seem to turn out quite that way. They were around for the Charley/Mila arc but only stomped into life towards the end of Patient Zero and Blue Forgotten Planet and they were never portrayed as outwardly villainous but rather cool, calculating and utterly logical. We didn't gain a new monster (they are tenapenny in Doctor Who anyway) but we did gain an intriguing new species that we don't know a great deal about. I love a good mystery and with each of their (scant) subsequent appearances we are slowly building a back story for them. This box set sees their greatest exposure yet and offers a chance to really get under the casings and discover more. Charley I had spent hours and hours with and so she wasn't my biggest draw, it was a chance to explore this fascinating new species a little more that convinced me to give this a go.

Audio Landscape: There is no doubt that Nick Briggs is one of the finest (possibly the finest when it comes to stressing what is going on through sound effects alone) audio directors - just listen to the moment when Charley attempts her escape from the Viyrans. The soundscape and music combine to make this a very important, easy to visualise scene. Static, scribbling a diary, pub atmosphere, Viyrans stomping into action, the Viyran ship fog horn, footsteps.

Musical Cues: How refreshing to have Nick Briggs writing music for Big Finish again. I can understand why this hasn't been the case for a while (what with the million and one scripts he has been juggling and directorial duties) but his appointment to Charlotte Pollard only serves to strengthen my opinion that the music has been a little predictable in the main range of late and that some more experimental soundtracks should be tested. Briggs' music (which was a huge strength of the Dalek Empire series too) is not conventional, often a clash of sounds and styles but it is one that always seems to find its mark emotionally (whether the scene is supposed to funny/scary/thoughtful) and plants you in the moment whilst still guiding you through the narrative. I wasn't sure about the subtle theme music for the series when I first heard it but by the end of the box set I had adjusted to the fact that it really isn't that different from the rest of the soundtrack and recognised it as another marker that makes this series stand out. Bravo.

Isn't it Odd: At this stage of the game I wasn't especially sound on Robert. He has many purposes for being involved from showing us the effect of the virus, exposing the memory wipe procedure and helping Charley to escape. I just didn't find the character himself particularly gripping Let's hope he's more than just a daddy's boy pretending to have a life.

Standout Scene: I really loved the moment when the Viyran who has been so steadfast throughout gets infected with curiosity about the lamentation cipher...experience a robot having a midlife crisis.

Result: 'Beware the lamentation is to be your burden and your curse!' Oh what a fool I've been. I wasn't especially charged up about the Charley Pollard range (in a period where there seems to be a new range bursting into existence every thirty seconds or so) and it took me a little while to pluck up the enthusiasm to listen. Sometimes I should take off my cynical head, Worzel Gummidge style, and just try and enjoy something new. The Lamentation Cipher was much, much better than I was expecting. We've reached June and I found this preferable to any of the main range releases of 2014 so far (Scavenger excepted). A lot of this story is set up for the series and a prolonged escape attempt that goes nowhere but that really doesn't matter because the setting and characters are well presented and the action is brought to life so vividly. Jonathan Barnes very graciously presents plenty of mysteries for Matt Fitton to pay off in the second half of the series. Why do the Viyrans want to keep hold of Charley? What is the Lamentation Cipher? How is the Prolixity tied into all of this? How did it come to be? What is the identity of the Viyran who is determined to help Charley? These might all seem like plot points that need ticking off but they are presented with such doomy weight that I felt the need to press on with the next story to try and find out what the urgency is. Charley herself is beautifully characterised and India Fisher takes up the mantle of series lead as though that was always the intention. I was surprised at how easy I could accept her without the Doctor's presence but then I remembered that she pretty much had her own storyline running throughout the whole of her time with the sixth Doctor. This is a melancholic space opera that promises great things and with Nick Briggs providing some exceptional support with the direction, sound effects and music the finished product is extremely polished. Sign me up for a trip into the Prolixity: 8/10


Anonymous said...

Wow, I remember your reviews of the divergent universe arc(specially twilight kingdom, scherzo and so) and how charley had totally lost her charm! And yes, I wholeheartly agreed with them. I thought her story was over and didn't see the point in an spin off about her, but after reading your review and since I usually agree with most of your reviews, maybe I will give it a try!

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Bobby Torres said...

I'm quite happy that Charley has her own series, it provides the chance to have her as her own woman and not as a sidekick to the doctor.

One thing I'd love to see happen is for Charley to have a run in with Iris Wildthyme, having Charley pal around for a bit with that mad as a hatter woman would be amazing to say the least, maybe it would give Charley a bit of light back into her heart again, and perhaps through Iris Charley learns that the Doctor is still alive, and Charley contemplates going to him but decides against it, reasoning that she had her time with the Doctor and she is grateful to him and glad he is still alive, but she has to live her life her own way, on her own terms. Maybe even comment that so much of herself was wrapped up with the Doctor that for a while she forgot what it was just to be Charlotte Pollard.

Granted that is the point of these solo adventures, and I haven't listened to them yet, but it would just be nice to have that verbalised.