Friday, 15 August 2014

Revenge of the Swarm written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: The Doctor thought he had defeated the microscopic Nucleus of the Swarm in his fourth incarnation. He was wrong. It survived within the TARDIS, and now it has brought it back to Titan Base, back to the point of its own creation. It has a plan that spans centuries, a plan which will result in the Nucleus becoming more powerful – and larger – than ever before. To defeat it, the Doctor, Ace and Hex must confront the Nucleus within its new domain - the computer-world of the Hypernet, the information network crucial to the survival of the human empire. But if the Doctor is to save the day, he has to risk everything and everyone he holds dear..
The Real McCoy: Sounding unrehearsed and garbled, as has been the case of late. McCoy started out his Big Finish adventures is the weakest main actor to participate in the main range, struggling to realise his Doctor on audio. Once Nick Briggs took over there was a real attempt to give him a renaissance which was highly successful and even cynics about his performance like me had to admit that he had come on in leaps and bounds. But somewhere along the line the past three years (I would say around the time he was clearly busy with other projects) McCoy has begun to lose his way again, sounding unsure and as though he has only just look at the script for the first time when he walked into the studio. That might work for some actors, but not McCoy who has a tendency to sound like an actor who is making up the story as he goes along (and not in a way that makes the Doctor seems improvisational, in a way that makes him sound utterly unprepared). Did the Doctor fail to tell Hex about the pain he would suffer because he would be letting the Swarm in on his plan...or was it because he's actually a pretty twisted bastard who wanted to avoid an awkward conversation?

Oh Wicked: The whole idea of Ace falling in love and sleeping with Hex's alter ego is just too icky for words. For one thing I never got the sense that this was a reciprocal romance, it was always portrayed as an unrequited one with Hex being the one who was doe eyed for Ace whilst she thought of him more as a brother. However it seems that the trauma of his death has provoked some stronger feelings in Ace and she is clutching at straws by falling into bed with an alternative version of the young man. It's a bit weird to say the least, and reminds me of the Rose/meta Doctor situation in all the worst ways. Ace is convinced that Hector can become Hex once again...but surely that would mean he would forget all about their relationship and consider it a bit...advantageous that she chose the moment he was out of his mind to make the moves on him. Somebody had to do the 'contact has been made' with the additional of a right hook and I cannot think anyone more worthy than Ace.

Doppleganger: Don't get me wrong I do like Philip Olivier as Hex/Hector, I think he was the best thing to ever happen to the 7th Doctor range of stories when he first showed up (mind you he has been superseded by Klein now...another character that has been spoilt due to not knowing when to quit). The trouble is the character is suffering from fatigue due to over exposure and because his story has been forced to continue through a number of absurd twists since his ongoing narrative had had two places where it could have (and should have) come to a natural (and fairly dramatic) end. Now it just feels like the characters is being kept on...because Big Finish enjoy working with Olivier and that isn't a strong enough reason in storytelling terms. And it shows. There is an acknowledgement within this story that Hector recognises that he will never live up to Hex in Ace's eyes but he is happy with who he is and doesn't want to go back to the way he was. Hector's street slang grates, it reminds me of Ace back in the eighties and her not-so-authentic attempts at cussing. He's only one step away from saying lines like 'How's it going, blad?' Again you would have thought previous mistakes would have been learnt from. Mind you, that occasional agonising moment of streetwise attitude is the only thing I can detect that separates Hector from Hex. There's certainly nothing else in the performance or writing. Hector's rant at the end of the story feels like we are going over old ground...Hex himself went through the 'people die unfairly in this adventures' stage a while back. This is nothing new.

Standout Performance: Oh dear. Why is it whenever good actors are called to play possessed versions of their usual characters they suddenly become...not so good actors? When Jonathan Morris is trying to turn the Swarm into a genuine threat by having the crew committing suicide to force the Doctor's hand, it rather fights his intentions by having actors like Olivier hamming it up as one of the possessed. Kudos to Big Finish for getting John Leeson back to play the Nucleus. 

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I looked through the microscope at the virus...and it looked back!'
'So basically it is just the internet but across the galaxy' 'I can't think of a way of describing it more basically.'

Great Ideas: Polisyhodron is a planet of jewels, beneath the ice crust that is an ocean heated by tidal friction. Isn't that an awful lot like the description of Woman's Wept in the New Series? The Doctor blames text messaging for the way things are spelt phonetically in this corner of the galaxy in the future (I think Bob Baker and Dave Martin might have had something to do with it) - I just knew text talk would have disastrous consequences for the English language! The Nucleus of the Swarm is described as an intelligent bug with delusions of grandeur. An infectious agent must have lingered in the TARDIS memory bank...for all this time! The Swarm has chosen this time for the TARDIS to take it because it wants to revisit the point of its own birth. From the macrocosm to the cybercosm, the Swarm plans to take over all technology and spread. When the Bi-Al Foundation was decommissioned the centre was repurposed as a hypernet relay station. The hypernet is a network linking together the entire human Empire using transmissions sent through hyperspace. The Swarm wants to be recreated using the dimensional stabiliser and the power of the hypernet, a computer generated virus. It grows to the size of a small moon but soon it will be large enough to consume the entire asteroid facility.

Audio Landscape: All the correct sound effects are in place; the infection via the TARDIS console, ships landing on Titan...they all sound authentically The Invisible Enemy.

Isn't it Odd: A problem with the trilogy format and certainly of this currently seventh Doctor arc is that the audience has to be brought up to speed every time that Hector appears now...otherwise they risk being in the dark with his ongoing storyline. However I would argue that it is not the best way to begin a spanking new trilogy of reminding newcomers to Big Finish that they aren't up to speed and they need to seek out other stories in order to make this one make sense. The seventh Doctor's manipulative nature is so old hat now Ace has to insert a caveat ('assuming it's not some big secret') into each sentence. Isn't it working against the notion of Hector being a brand new companion to have him taken over and his personality altered in his first full length adventure? How are we supposed to get to know him? The same thing happened with Hex in Dreamtime and you would have thought the creators of these audios would have learnt their lesson from last time. 'The most glorious moment in the history of the universe!' - it's nice to see that Olivier can camp it up with the rest of them when the story is suitably melodramatic. 'You may as well surrender! It is futile to resist the power of the Swarm!' The end of the first episode features the Swarm in the Doctor's clutches and it's genesis threatened. It's hardly the most terrifying of moments...however will the Swarm get out of this one? Halfway through episode two and you think that you genuinely are listening to The Invisible Enemy. An infection via the TARDIS of one of the regulars, a visit to Titan, a visit to the Bi-Al Foundation... The Doctor very neatly leaves the virus in exactly the right place for it to infect the crew of the shuttle bound for Titan in The Invisible Enemy...halfway through the story. To be frank this would have been an ideal place to leave this tale, a short and sweet (if a little pointless) replay of the season 15 adventure. At two episodes it would have been inoffensive. I can understand Big Finish casting from within but after his high profile performances in A Death in the Family, Farewell Great Macedon and (probably the most listened to Big Finish story ever) The Light at the End it is hard to slip John Dorney into a story unnoticed now. His voice is simply too recognisable due to exposure (like Beth Chalmers). 'So let me make you an offer, bug brain! Release Hector or I'll blitz the server!' - I thought we had disposed of that terrible Ace slang. The trouble with Doctor Who is that most of the ideas have been tried before. Splitting a story into two halves and having the latter half take place in the future and showing the consequences of the actions of the first half comes directly from The Ark. The idea of the Doctor being uploaded into a technological universe comes straight from The Deadly Assassin. Morris doesn't put enough of a spin on either of these to make them feel any different. Will the Doctor and Ace have their memories deleted? Of course they won't. False tension. What the hell is the use of a crustacean the size of a minor planet? The Swarm always did have delusions of grandeur but not it has the mass to back up it's monstrously fishy ego. Like The Relics of Jegg-Sau (which brought back the Giant Robots) and Eldrad Must Die! (it's all in the title), the central premise of this story (the return of the Nucleus!) provokes the question...why? Not the most inspiring of starts. Whilst this story aims for the entertainment vein and to some small extent achieves that purpose, there is another, much darker story about the Swarm waiting to be told.

Standout Scene: The best moment is a completely superfluous one. The Doctor and Ace racing about in the hypernet on Harley Davison's. Great fun. 'A bit different from the buggies on Terra Alpha!'

Result: You might think that a sequel to The Invisible Enemy, hardly the most celebrated of Doctor Who stories, smacks of desperation on Big Finish's part. They have systematically been working through practically every story in 70s Who and providing an alternative take on pretty much every threat that the Doctor faced in that period. A cynical marketing ploy or a genuinely innovative procedure? Perhaps a little of both...but where does Revenge of the Swarm fall? Taking place in the misbegotten seventh Doctor/Ace/Hex arc (which technically ended in A Death in the Family and then again in Gods & Monsters and yet somehow rolls onwards inexorably), this half baked reunion between the Doctor and Swarm plays out in a disturbingly similar approach to their first get-together. To the point where at times it feels like a copy and paste job. Morris is an excellent writer and he runs with the idea of the nucleus of the swarm in some imaginative directions but even he cannot leap the hurdles inherent in this arc; a Doctor who sounds unprepared (that's down to McCoy's rushed performance), an assistant who is sexually taking advantage of a corrupted personality and a male companion who should have left ages ago. When all three of your regulars are sabotaging the story you are trying to tell (through no fault of your own) it almost seems a little unfair. When the first ten minutes of this story is catching up the audience with what they have missed out on, explaining away the adventure this story is inspired by and dragged down by the domestic arrangements of the TARDIS crew you have some serious problems. Not only that but this one struggles to find comic or dramatic moments within its scenario because they often fight one another, both the funny and the serious moments being dreadfully overplayed. The only other time Jonathan Morris has provided a script that has struggled before was also an incomprehensible sequel (Hothouse). Whilst that is a fantastic track record given how prolific a writer he is, it stresses that he should be allowed to let his original mind run free rather than being hampered with a shopping list of unwieldy ingredients. This is meekly entertaining but completely throwaway and after a brief resurgence in quality with Breaking Bubbles the main range feels like it is coasting on past glories again. Personally, I prefer The Invisible Enemy. It might be over ambitious, but at least it is ambitious: 5/10


Jay said...

During the first half, the Doctor even says how similar the plot is to Invisible Enemy!

My biggest hang up with this story is that Hector is, to all intents and purposes, an brand new companion. But his treatment in this story bugs me two ways. The first is that we hardly learn anything about Hector. Like C'rizz, his first impressions don't stand out, and he spends most of his time possessed (many actors need a masterclass in acting possessed). The second is that what little personality we do see is basically a street-wise Hex. If you aren't aware of Afterlife's developments, you could be forgiven for thinking that Hex decided to go by the name Hector. This story probably started out as including Hex.

I believe that the Seventh Doctor needs to drop this arc, and put some variety into his stories. Revisiting Mel and Raine, introducing a new companion (no arcs included) and resting Ace for a time would refresh these stories). Hex and Klein certainly should only be brought back when the right story comes along.

It struck me that with a quick re-write, this story could have been between any other Doctor and two companions (like Five, Tegan and Turlough for example). There's little about Hector's arc (unless it's plot relevant), which the story should have included.

Anonymous said...

You know what I would love to see? An anthology featuring the 7th doctor and mel with season 24-holiday esque feel, only better in quality.

Pink!Dalek said...

This smacks of "Divergent universe" arc: a lead actor not very interested in the script, a female companion past her sell-by date and hanging around like a bad smell and a male companion which the writers fail to do something useful or interesting with him

What the 7th Doctor new right now is brand fresh and interesting new companions (it worked famously with the 8th: ditch Charley and C'rizz and bring Lucie aboard), ditch the "master manipulator" and just have McCoy have fun

Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

The Hex storyline continues simply because the producers of these plays like to have Philip Olivier in the studio... And lets face who wouldn't. :)