Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Signs and Wonders written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: The end of the world is nigh. That’s what everybody is seeing in their nightmares. That’s why they are congregating in Liverpool for the party to end all parties, hosted by Rufus Stone, a celebrity turned doomsday prophet. He claims he’s the only one who can save them when the day of judgement comes. Because he’s on the side of the angels. The Doctor, Ace and Hector arrive to find the city in the grip of apocalypse fever. There are lights in the sky, earthquakes and power cuts. The Doctor is determined to investigate, while Ace is more concerned about finding a way of restoring Hector’s lost memories. Meanwhile, in the river Mersey, hideous, slug-like creatures are stirring...

The Real McCoy: Some people never learn. McCoy cannot convincingly pull off hysterical drama. Go and watch Survival ('Don't moooooove!') or listen to The Rapture ('Let McShane goooooooo!') or countless other adventures. However McCoy does play brooding, purring menace well (go and watch Ghost Light and listen to Master). So why does nobody tailor these scripts to his strengths instead of highlighting his deficiencies? The end of episode one is a carbon copy of The Rapture at exactly the same point, the 7th Doctor in a nightclub screaming his head off like a lunatic and coming across as an absolute buffoon as a result. Check out your back catalogue, Big Finish, this duplication of something that was startlingly inept the first time around is unacceptable. I can't believe that this Doctor tries to suggest that humans are not tools to be used...that's all he ever does, move them around like chess pieces. Apparently it took the near destruction of the everything to bring Hex back and the Doctor and Ace consider it worth it. Should these two really be protecting the universe?

Oh Wicked: 'Sergeant Barbie to the rescue!' What the hell does Ace think she is doing? She's attempting to force Hector to confront his past as Hex, taking him to his grandmothers house and trying to force him to mourn her death. She's doing everything that the Doctor did to her in Ghost Light (shoving a mirror up to the past) and because she has experienced this treatment herself that makes this ten times worse. She's learnt nothing from these adventures. Over and over and over again he has said that he doesn't want to be Hex anymore and still she relentlessly tries to peel off Hector mask. It's quite a baffling state of affairs. Ace is so twisted she wants to take hold of a reasonably well adjusted individual (who is Hex in all but name anyway) and try and force him back into a mould where he has feelings for her and can experience the gutting reaction of losing a loved one. That's twisted. Sally points out that everything is a competition with Ace and Ace tries to defend that stance. It's a feat of one-upmanship she has been trying to win for 25 long years since Dragonfire. Ace's adventures with Chunky, Alistair and Winifred are alluded to, pointing out she has a long history with UNIT and her DNA is even on file. Why don't Big Finish make the bolder decision and write out Ace? What else does this character have to offer after so many adventures? I have never known a character that simply wont go away, lingering on like a bad smell. She's given the Doctor a hard time over and over again, she's transformed herself into a mature individual and back into a teenager again, she's suffered more angst than anybody else in the range and has fought and screamed and insulted her way through more adventures than I care to count. There is nowhere to take this person, Ace has been exhausted of her potential. Prove me wrong, Big Finish. Do something ground-breaking with this character.

Alter Ego: Remember when I said in the review of Mask of Tragedy that it was absurd to pick up a character as soon as they gave them an effective conclusion. I also mentioned the last time I was this tired of a companion was when Charley hung around for an interminable amount of time with the 8th Doctor. They are trying to repeat the success of that, aren't they? Charley was getting stale and as a result they wrote her out and in a bold move had her skip Doctors to an earlier incarnation where she had to spin a web of lies to keep her true identity from him. It was a gripping scenario that played out over a number of well written adventures and it provided a new leash of life for the character, not only because she was suddenly having to be so evasive but also because she was playing against a different Doctor (Colin Baker and India Fisher had fantastic chemistry, which certainly helped smooth the transition). With Hex they have done the same thing, given him a departure and then tried to put a new spin on the character almost immediately, desperate not to lose Olivier from the McCoy adventures. In doing so they have fundamentally misunderstood what made the character work in the first place, provided a carbon copy whilst trying to convince us it is a new man. I don't think I have read a single comment on this arc that has greeted this extension of the Hex storyline positively. Worse they have put the character in similar situations to Hex, drawing our attention to their similarities and had the Doctor and Ace act in the most self-indulgent fashion around him. It's horribly misconceived and the whole thing needs a line drawn under it. Fortunately that happens here but not before one more episode of Eastenders, Greek Gods.  What nobody seems to mention (which is very remiss of them really) is that Hector is a personality in his own right and that by attempting to bring Hex back to the surface they will be effectively killing somebody off. It's a moral debate that has been completely avoided in amongst all the epic madness with the Elder Gods. It could have been as agonising as the John Smith/Doctor deliberation in Human Nature/The Family in Blood but the writer is not looking to probe this situation in any great depth. The story requires for the status quo to be corrected and so back Hex pops, Hector be blowed and off into the sunset he walks with Sally. Am I the only person who finds this solution a little too easy? Am I also the only person who wonders that perhaps he had a better ending the first time around when he died a horrible death? Hector is effectively murdered when Hex emerges but it goes unmourned - so what was the point of trying to get us close to that character for the past four stories? Was he really so disposable? After all this struggle and angst the Doctor and Hex don't even get to talk - he just buggers off to the next adventure. The disrespect for these characters is awesome. Even Ace, who has been agonising over Hex ever since Hector put in an appearance just wanders off with a 'catch you later, mate.'

Sally: Picking up where Afterlife left off, Sally as been in Liverpool for two years and is ready to hit the road. It is so good to hear from her again and I still live in hope that she will hop into the TARDIS with the Doctor and shoo Ace and Hector out. Sally isn't sure if soldering is for her but it is all she knows in this crazy world and she is going to stick with it. She's having the dreams too. She stayed with Hex's gran all this time to look after her, something she was very willing to do for such an incredible woman.

Standout Performance: Check out McCoy in this adventure, it is the very definition of an actor who doesn't know how to respond to a script. I don't think he has sounded this unsure about how to judge the tone of a story since Bang-Bang-a-Boom. He's especially hysterical and unprepared in episode three, ranting and cooing like he is back in Unregenerate.

Great Ideas: The collective nightmares of a nation predicting the end of the world? Rufus Stone seems to think so and he is setting up the concert to end all concerts as the doomsday prophet to save them all. Church leaders are objecting saying that he is stealing from every organised religion and stirring things up himself. That's a bold, dramatic place to begin a story. Like we have been dumped in the middle of Russell T. Davies' The Second Coming. Aliens projecting a solar shield and assisting the conjuring act going on down in Liverpool, keeping everyone in the dark. The Aquillians think they are destined for Godhood. They guard this section of England jealously and repel any alien invasions...I guess that would explain why Liverpool hasn't featured prominently in any Doctor Who stories before Afterlife. They are saving the humans, preparing them for the final battle with the Herodines. They are inter-dimensional leeches sucking up psychic energy bleeding between realities, controlled only by appetite. The Doctor and Ace have turned up with a boy who shouldn't exist, someone the Elder Gods moved heaven and Earth to destroy. The parasites try and drain the TARDIS.

Audio Landscape: A chanting crowd, thunder and lightning, train intercom, the Herodine bursting free, walking through the shallows of the Mersey, Hex being dragged out to sea is delivered in the most claustrophobic fashion possible, you might just find yourself gagging for air, guns firing, alarm abandoning ship.

Familiarity: Just an observation, not a criticism but has Ken Bentley become the in-house director of the main range these days? It is getting as predictable as it was when Gary Russell's name turned up and I have a theory that at the time that was a money saving exercise at the time. There isn't that excuse anymore. Bentley has proven time and again that he can bring decent material to life but like Gary Russell he doesn't seem to have the ability to rise above the duff scripts. Some Doctor Who stories are terrible in conception but salvaged in execution. That doesn't seem to be Bentley's style. If it's a good story, he can make it flourish. If it's a bad story, he will flounder. I only bring this up because there has been some bad press about the main range lately and I wouldn't want Bentley to have the blame pinned on him as the go to director for that series at the moment. It's the paucity of the material that is holding the range back and it would take the work of a genius to bring lacklustre scripts such as Antidote to Oblivion, Moonflesh and Tomb Ship up to scratch. Watching Bentley struggle gamely is almost an exercise in persecution. Aside from Nicholas Briggs and the occasional Barnaby Edwards directed tale, I don't see any variety in the roll call of directors and that does tend to make everything feel a little samey. Maybe it is time to branch out.

Isn't it Odd: The premise of a prophet bringing his words of wisdom through music gave me uncomfortable stirrings because it recalls The Rapture, one of Big Finish's first ever stinkers. Music was used as a narrative tool far more effectively in Fanfare for the Common Men last year in the 60s trilogy, the music was really foot tapping for a start. Not the god awful noise it is here. I'm not sure if I like this blame culture that has built up around the Doctor. It's not something that was often considered in the classic series which made the few times where his actions were called into account (The Massacre, Genesis of the Daleks, Trial of a Time Lord) quite effective. I blame the New Adventures, personally. They were so obsessed with exploring the darker underbelly of the series, probing the title character psychologically that they introduced a level of self-criticism for the titular character that as a result has been woven into the new series and has been taken on board by Big Finish. Back when these audio adventures began they were brilliant, often gripping, sometimes funny standalone affairs that allowed the Doctor to play an active role in his adventures without finding himself at the end of some weighty accusations every five minutes. Nowadays (especially in the McCoy adventures) all he seems to do is explain away his actions to people, pleading for their forgiveness. Hex tore several strips out of him in Project Destiny and A Death in the Family, Ace spent an entire episode giving him a hard time in Afterlife and now Hector has beef with him and how he conducts his affairs. This blame culture has gotten out of hand. He should just show them both the door and say if you don't like it then bugger off. Like I said this sort of thing works well every now and then. It worked for me in Arrangements for War because Evelyn had lost several people who were close to her but Hector's overreaction at the end of the last adventure feels unjustified, firing off accusations just to create some drama to send him home. The fight between Ace and Sally which starts out with insults but evolves into a genuine bitch fight has to be heard to be believed. How can this be passed off as audio drama? Killing off Janet was a mistake, she was just about the most interesting character in the whole story. Why couldn't it have Ace been who was picked up like a rag doll and dropped. That would have been much more effective. Hector is screaming his head off at the end of episode two...in exactly the same way that he was in Mask of Tragedy at the end of episode three. What is it about these 7th Doctor/Ace/Hex stories that always descends into hysteria? Despite his many speeches throughout this story I never felt I really got under Rufus' skin and figured out who he is. Come to mention I didn't get much of a feel for Gormley either which made his self sacrifice a little empty. The moment itself was well done but I didn't really feel anything. Enough with the Elder Gods already, it was fairly interesting in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy and The Curse of Fenric but they have been rearing their ugly heads for so long now that they have haemorrhaged interest ever since (every other New Adventure seemed to feature some mythological deity from the Dawn of Time and this is the third McCoy adventure in the last handful to feature them). I'd like to see the 7th Doctor have some more intimate affairs now, less duelling with inter-dimensional idols and more engaging with real people.  A big superhero ending where Hex fights with all the power of the Gods, energy shooting from him like the Master in The End of Time. It's all a bit ridiculous, isn't it? Add to that the battle of the squeaky voices and the conclusion to this tale is showdown full of headache inducing bluster (including some dramatic musical stings). Hang on a moment - Hex fancied Ace for years and then when Ace lost Hex she realised that she had feelings for Hex too...and when he finally returns from the ether he heads off into the sunset...with Sally? Am I missing something here? This feels like the perfect way to tie up both Ace and Hex's storyline in one whack. The whole Hector dead end was pointless but it might have been excusable if it were to offer a clean break for the 7th Doctor by pairing off his two companions and saying au revoir to them both. To reject this neat ending for both characters and keep Ace around...it renders the whole Afterlife-Signs and Wonders run even more worthless. This is where the Hex arc has been heading all these years?

Standout Scene: The one part of the conclusion that I did really like was Ace and Sally summarising Hex's adventures and his history, proving that before his storyline got horribly disjointed he was a well fleshed out character.

Result: Signs and Wonders was moving along attention-grabbingly enough until...you guessed it...the regulars turned up. Then a moody drama becomes a melodramatic slug fest, drowning in angst and soap operatics and dodgy performances. I said the same thing about The Crimson Horror last year, this would have worked much better without the TARDIS showing up at all. The scene where Hector bangs his head against a brick wall trying to explain to Ace that there is a Hex shaped hole in him that she cannot fill it with her idea of who he is mortifyingly embarrassing, as Hollyoaks as I hope Doctor Who ever gets. That is until the bitch fight between Ace and Sally in episode two. This melodrama feels so tired, this bunch have been having similar rows over different things for years now. Just get rid of them. The story itself settles down to be a mash up of The Fearmonger (creating a psychic stir with propaganda), The Rapture (a prophet spreading his message through music), Project Destiny (a hysterical apocalypse in a major British city), Afterlife (picking up many of the themes from that story) and Gods and Monsters (the Elder Gods), not exactly where I would look for inspiration given those are some of those are the weakest of the McCoy audio adventures. Ken Bentley tries to direct with flair but there's no denying that we have seen all this before. Ultimately this was another noisy affair trying to be as epic as possible, the sort of thing that the main range churns out every other month now. It seems to be a result of the trilogies that each one feels the need to climax on as ambitious a story in scope, if not imagination. It means we get a great big and somewhat empty New Series finale every three releases. I would like for a trilogy to buck the trend and climax on something small and intimate. Like Mask of Tragedy, this probably would have worked better condensed into a 45 minute episode with all the flabby bits cut away. It wouldn't disguise the paucity of original ideas but it would be a much more digestible piece. I thought the Klein trilogy last year was ill-judged but the Hector trilogy has been even worse, not only poorly thought through but coming off as a poor repeat of everything we have already heard. Why force a character to stick around only to have them exit the range again only not as effectively? Why not take this opportunity to write out Ace, a character that has outlived her usefulness to a factor of ten. A bothersome end to a futile trilogy: 4/10


jbcatz said...

Have you done a review for Afterlife yet?

Judging that in a Hurt & Heal you marked down Love And War, I take it that you didn't like that audio.

Anonymous said...

The seventh Doctor needs brand new companions

Kory Stephens said...

Dayum! Talk about "Puting the Smackdown!"on something.

Anonymous said...

I think the trouble is that Big Finish want to somehow fit in with The New Adventures and as a result can't drop Ace. On one hand I understand this because they somewhat owe their existence to the NAs, and also I'm a sucker for continuity. However, it's made the Seventh Doctor Audios (a shame because he's one of my favourites) *incredibly* stale so I'm gonna have to go with you on this one.