Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Widow's Assassin written by Nev Fountain and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: Once, long ago, in a land of monsters and corridors, a fair maiden was captured, and placed in a deep sleep. She was used to being captured, and she had a hero who rescued her on just such occasions. But this time the hero never came. And the fair maiden slept on.Eventually, a King rescued the maiden, and made her his bride, which many wise old women might tell you is just another way of capturing fair maidens. And still the fair maiden slept on. Then, the hero had another stab at rescuing the maiden from her prison, but he was too late. And, more importantly, he had forgotten the rules of fairy tales. He didn’t slay the dragon.

Softer Six: Let's be honest, it has been a while since a story has shaken things up for Sixie quite like this one. He was the golden boy in the early days of Big Finish with so much to prove and deliver in the wake of his condensed and controversial period on television. It felt that Baker was being favoured with all the best scripts in the first fifty releases and that period cemented him as the Big Finish Doctor to listen out for. Since then he has fronted some wonderful stories - in particular the brief period where he teamed up with Charley he had something of a renaissance - but the character has been coasting for a period. Jamie returned for a series of adventures that never really happened, although as a twelve part epic it was a great bit of storytelling. Evelyn returned for a trio of stories that were madly entertaining rather than anything extraordinary. Flip joined but had something of a mixed response. He hung out with Jago and Litefoot for a couple of stories. It feels like the script editor has been trying to recapture the magic of those early days again and trying everything to see if something sticks. New companions, old companions, fake companions. Nev Fountain has struck upon a winning formula in The Widow's Assassin and has managed to re-vitalise Sixie returning him to his roots and picking up pretty much where we left him on television, albeit so much older and wiser these days. Isn't it astonishing that the sixth Doctor has developed so much that the most controversial and innovative thing you can do is have him return the to scene of his most notorious act - leaving Peri to die...or not - and tie up those loose ends. It's a brave move and smacks a little bit of fan fiction so long after the event but written this intelligently and with such style you wont find me complaining. The result is an adventure that ultimately teams up the Doctor and Peri once again like they have never been away from each other...and gets away with it. Very well done.

He can't bear to see guards squabbling when they should be guarding. He describes the sounding of the TARDIS as the best type of portent: that a hero of infinite wisdom is coming to visit. He's never been known for his modesty. A sneaky reference to the new series is made with the Doctor hiding underneath Peri's wedding dress. He's very coy when he first meets Peri again, admitting that he was disappointed when he didn't get a wedding invite or any kind of message from her. He's willing to spend five years in a cell waiting for her to forgive him - or is he? - and he wont move on with his life until things are settled between them. I've had a problem in the past with writers tossing away the Doctor's years like this in the past but this is cleverest application of the idea that I have seen yet, especially when you find out what he has really been up to all this time. I loved the Doctor's insistence that unless he has been officially requested to investigate her husband-to-be's death he will remain locked in his cell. He doesn't want to risk upsetting her further. Even when he finds the cell door opened he fashions a key and locks himself back in. The Doctor doesn't like a potted history of the people he meets, even if they are suspects to a murder but instead prefers to dive in head first and depend on his wits. What I adored about the Doctor's characterisation in this story is how he is initially portrayed as a nervous man who is trying to find a way for his old friend to forgive him but in reality underneath all that is a fierce intelligence that has been busy working it all out. And yet his poker face remains unchanged until the last possible moment. There's a touch of the seventh Doctor about him in how he manipulates events and it surprises because Sixie is usually so expressive about everything and damn the consequences. I like this quietly scheming side to him. Ycarnos describes the Doctor as insane, traitorous and that he kept swapping sides...but that was what he experienced of him in Mindwarp thanks to Crozier's brain altering device. He's still adept with a right hook too, as Wolsey learns to his regret. The Doctor's deep rooted feeling for Peri is unearthed throughout the course of this adventure but never moreso than when he has the ability to make everything right but could risk losing her in the process. He cannot do it. He cannot lose her again. All this time he has lived with the aching regret that Ycarnos was able to save her when he couldn't and now he has the opportunity to do just that. Is there a mad, wicked, secret Doctor hidden away in the Doctor's mind? One who hates Peri and her whining voice and her ridiculous behaviour. One who was happy to leave her in an impossible situation with Ycarnos and move on with his life? I'd like to think not but we all have uncomfortable thoughts from time to time that rest in our subconscious. I thought the way the Doctor wrestled with his own private demons from the past was inspired and the explanation of how they had been made flesh was beautifully done, tying in with everything that we saw in Mindwarp. It's a huge psychological notion that logically springs from what some consider to be Colin Baker's least convincing moment in the role on television. Trust Fountain to coax something so effective out of a moment of pantomime lunacy. When the Doctor was blasted by Crozier's equipment, it regressed him to a child and awoke something in his mind... Mandrake was his first adversary and if he's not careful he could be his last as well.

Warrior Queen: Every time I think Big Finish have put out the ultimate Peri adventure - The Kingmaker, Peri the Piscon Paradox - Nev Fountain comes along and writes and even more impressive tale for the character. The fact that such a terrific writer has been actively engaged in giving an oft-criticised character - or at least certainly in the TV series - such development has been a real stroke of luck for the character. She's been treated to some of best development of any companion, certainly on audio. The Widow's Assassin is Peri's story as much as it is the Doctor's and we go on a massive journey with her here...and bizarrely end up exactly where we left off before she left the Doctor. There is a marked difference between the Peri we left on Thoros Beta and the one who is about to marry Ycarnos. Angry and embittered, she cannot believe that the Doctor left her to fend for herself and got on with his life and she cannot forgive him. She wont give him any kind of a way in because that might give him a crumb of comfort and she doesn't think that he deserves it. The fact that Peri refuses to investigate Ycarnos' death should be a massive hint that something is quite wrong with her. As the Doctor points out, the Peri he knows would be all over it until justice is served. Her massive change of heart five years later is another pointer. Peri has had her male admirers over the years but I don't think anybody can hold a candle to prince Harcross the Ever Patient. He gets the ribbon for number one fan. The result of Spectrox Toxaemia has left Peri unable to conceive children, something that she is unaware of and I'm sure will be handled sensitively in a future tale. For Peri to be confronted by the same vicious, spiteful sixth Doctor that she was tormented by after his regeneration is her worst nightmare come to true. She's stronger now than she was then and she knows how much he has changed over gives her the strength to give this phantom of the past a piece of her mind. Bask as Peri very persuasively figures out her strange environment and the message the Doctor is trying to get across to her. She might have been written dumb on occasion in the TV series but Fountain remembers this character is supposed to be educated and grants her a firm intelligence. Peri needs to know whether the Doctor still needs her or not...well what do you think the answer is?

Standout Performance: This story belongs to Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant but it is an ensemble piece in every sense of the words with many of the actors taking on multiple parts and doing some wonderful things with them. Baker always gives his all but this time he is rewarded with a script that dishes him out some of his fantastic material. He gets to be funny, intelligent, melancholic, nasty, poetic, sneaky and remorseful. Bryant matches him beat for beat, effectively playing four characters in this tale and imbuing all of them with a truth that makes the transitions effortless. What a nourishing script for the actress and she rises to the challenge at every turn. Colin and Nicola playing each others characters was just sublime.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'The fact that I left without waiting to say goodbye...that was your message.'
'I have God on my side. Which God am I worshipping today, Drast?'
'Please allow me to break off a piece of myself as a gift to you.'
'I forgot that you were one of the educated ones...why couldn't you have been Jamie?'
'That's three yous in one breath, young lady.'

Great Ideas: When they were first introduced I was groaning at the thought of Welsh comedy guards called Guard One and Guard Two - yep that is their actual names - and thinking that we were heading into The One Doctor levels of parody. What happened instead was quite surprising. Yes, there was a line of mocking humour to how they were written throughout but because of their warm and delightful interaction with the Doctor and each other I really took to the pair of them. Within this crazy universe that Fountain has spun, they make perfect sense. So much so that I found the loss of one of them unexpectedly moving. Colour me impressed. If anybody detects a whiff of The Holy Terror about this story - with its dungeon setting, comedy and tragedy and larger than life characters that generate a great deal of pathos - it can only be a positive sign. I don't think there was any real chance that Brian Blessed was going to appear in this story so I wasn't surprised that Ycarnos was written out so brazenly. It is the catalyst for the dramatic series of events that follows so it was quite necessary too. Fountain isn't afraid to fill his stories with some colourful characters, to add a little but of whimsy and pantomime to a range that often shies away from the sort of thing these days. As a result the guest cast in Assassin really stood out. Wolsey the sheepish security guard goes on as much of a journey as the Doctor and Peri, reacting to its twists and turns with surprise and incredulity. He's our identification figure in this tale...and he's a ram. That tells you how nuts this story is. Then there's Pteratrark - I swear Fountain chose that name because he knew it would be difficult to write and pronounce - who's a fearthed aristocrat with an insane Eastern European accent and Flitamus, a monk bat that purrs his way through the story switching faiths and venerating his latest Holy cause. Colourful, crazy characters who seem a bit too broad at first but who you get close to throughout the course of the story and I was rooting for them both to win the hand of the Princess at the end. They're trying to win her over and turn their small Empires into larger ones. As for Drast and Tocrodi who make little impact at first...well they turn out to be two of the most intriguing characters to have appeared in a Big Finish for some time. Amongst all these exotic and outrageous characters there is even room for the Prince Most Deepest All Yellow, the first sea sponge of the anemone tribe. And the Empathy Sprite, the Princess' pet that can sniff out all of your worst qualities and judge whether you would be a good suitor. I don't know what Fountain takes in his coffee but I would love to try some. A hall constructed out of the skeleton of a Megaptera? That's macarcbre. Did the Doctor poison Peri's drink? As with the rest of this is not as simple as it seems. Mandrake the Lizard King makes a spectacular appearance at the end of episode three...and the truth behind his existence stretches far into the Doctor's childhood. There are three deaths in the final episode, one is very moving and two are simply hysterical. After everybody has been seeking the heart of the Princess, she winds up falling for the one man who doesn't want her.

Audio Landscape: Alarm, firing a weapon and taking a chunk out of the wall, clashing steel, the superb electronic voice for Prince Most Deepest All Yellow, the revolving throne, handcuffs, the mind probes activating.

Standout Scene: The Doctor's many disguises. The identity of the Ycarnos' assassin and Peri's poisoner. Mandrake's back story. The truth about the relationship between Flitamus and Pteratrark. All inspired revelations. Just as there was a thread of Peri mentions that ran through the previous Flip trilogy, it looks as though there is going to be a course of regret about Flip that runs through these Peri adventures. Or so it appears. Fountain saved my favourite twist for last and let's just say that the dramatic close to Scavenger is paid off in true style at the end of The Widow's Assassin. I never saw that one coming.

Result: This story had some of my favourite twists and turns in it of any Big Finish story so I had to listen to the story twice within a day to make sure that I was giving it a fair review and not just judging on my reaction to it's surprises. I had thought we were long past stories that were as whimsical, as colourful, as emotive and as outrageously inventive as this in the main range. It would appear that Nev Fountain has an endless stream of creativity locked up inside of him and he has been allowed to let his imagination run riot with this tale. It's a story that has so many layers to it that it might take several listens to realise how perfectly the jigsaw of insane concepts comes together. It heads to some pretty whacky places but what anchors the story is the genuine emotion that Fountain manages to generate. Whilst it is making you laugh at the gags and gasp at the revelations, there is an seam of poignancy and pathos that runs throughout that prevents it from tipping over into farce. I can understand why those who like their Doctor Who stories grounded might reject this as it is off somewhere in the stratosphere for the majority of its running time...but you would be denying yourself the pleasure of an intricately plotted, madly funny and startlingly creative piece of work. It's a story that evolves with the advent of each cliffhanger, the sign of good writer utilising them well. Episode one brings together the Doctor and Peri, sketches in this corner of the galaxy and the vibrant characters, episode two mixes the comedy of the battle of suitors with the drama of the murder mystery of who poisoned the Queen, the third episode plays along much more traditional lines of crazy science fiction ideas and answers a lot of questions left hanging by Trial of a Time Lord and then the story rouses for genuinely surprising fourth episode where we learn something quite extraordinary about the Doctor's past. Those who have rejected Steven Moffat's attempts to add to mythology might sniff at the shading that is added to the Doctor's character but I for once found it far less off-putting than the climax of Listen. At the heart of all this is the sixth Doctor, who is characterised magnificently, and Peri who enjoys some of her best ever moments. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant seize the opportunity to play a script this nuanced and have cemented their place as my favourite current Big Finish regulars. They learn a great deal of intimate knowledge about each other because of this adventure and going forward it will make them an even stronger pairing. Like all of Nev Fountain's opus, repeated listens only add to the overall experience and this is his second knockout in the main range this year. It's the best cover for ages, too: 10/10


Anonymous said...

You haven't commented on the hilarious moment when Peri is inside the Doctors body and you have Colin Baker's cod American accent, I laughed out loud

rumblebars said...

I agree with everything here, except the Guard One/Two schtick... that just didn't work for me...

But I quite liked everything else in this story!

Unknown said...

This has to be my favorite Big Finish audio yet. I think I've listened to it three times since I got it a couple weeks ago, and I'm ready for another listen already.

I subscribed to a full 12 months for the first time, with this as the first installment, about a month ago, mainly on the hope that the first three Sixie stories and the three "locum Doctor" stories would make it worth the outlay. All I can say is that this story itself was practically worth getting the subscription for.

I, too, groaned a bit when I heard Guard One and Guard Two and their first comic lines. I was afraid this was going to be yet another case of cheap humor by taking the mickey just on the basis of them being Welsh. After my initial cringe, though, I was more than pleasantly surprised. Yes, they were Welsh, with sweet sing-song Welsh accents, and yes, they were funny, but they were still full characters, and they were sweet, warm friends of the Doctor, as well as brave and loyal.

All of the "side characters" felt fully realised in this story, and the casting and direction were perfect. The story easily blended comedy and drama, and both were terrific.

I can only hope that the Sixth Doctor's final adventure is near as good as this.

Guy said...

I listened to yesterday it's absolutely wonderful. Full twists and turns all the way through. Colin and Nicola are superb throughout especially dyring the body swap.