Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Romance of Crime written by Gareth Roberts, adapted by John Dorney and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The TARDIS brings the Doctor, Romana and K9 to the Rock of Judgement; a court, prison and place of execution built into a rocket-powered asteroid. When involved in an investigation by the system's finest lawman, they find they must seek answers to some disturbing questions.

Teeth and Curls: 'Me? Wear your face? Not on your Nelly!' So daft and so smart, the Doctor of the 17th season is simply a joy to be around. He'll trick you into thinking that he is as mad as a hatter and no threat at all and then when your guard is down he will make his move and destroy the foundations of your dastardly plan so they are irreversibly damaged. He's sly, madly intelligent and very funny. He's the ultimate Doctor. According to K.9, the Doctor is 2.9% more likely to need assistance when leaving the TARDIS. I can well believe that. The Doctor is so used to people suspecting him of whatever sabotage/murder/fill in your own word that when Spiggot offers him in automatic cover story he is momentarily befuddled. He's soon in investigative mode, excited by the challenge to walk around unquestioned. When he can't read he can sure read an awful lot (remember when he flicked through that novel in City of Death?). If there is one thing he hates it is a lot of guards jogging somewhere together in unison - that suggests something's afoot. Strangely enough I find the fourth Doctor of his latter seasons far more easy to take seriously when he declares that something terrifying is afoot because his warnings are a slap in the face after all the comedy. He jolts you back to reality with a shock unlike the moodier fourth Doctor of the Hinchcliffe years who was pretty much a walking black cloud. The Doctor calls himself a willing amateur but I'll bet a Talmar to a toffee he runs rings around Spiggot. He talks about the horror of immortality as though it is something that he himself would not want to experience. Xais can see right through him, talking like an idiot when it is clear that he is not. Romana wonders whether the Doctor enjoys being interrogated, he has made it an occupational occurrence.

Aristocratic Adventurer: I can't think of anything more joyful than reuniting the fourth Doctor and Romana II (if not Tom Baker and Lalla Ward if rumours about them recording their dialogue separately are true) and them having further adventures in the season seventeen mould. The Graeme Williams era is one of my favourites in the shows original run for so many reasons but high up on that list is the incredible relationship between these two and the chemistry between the two leads. I was not on the same page as JNT at all when he wanted to tear apart this trio to bring in Adric, Tegan and Nyssa claiming that it had all gotten a bit smart. What he did was to underestimate the audience whereas Williams treated them with respect and assumed we would be able to keep up with two dazzling Time Lords at the height of their powers, rattling around the universe, desperately in love and having jolly scrapes. Despite the budgetary restrictions, it was a very happy time for the show. Big Finish manage to tap into that beautifully and the first scene featuring the Doctor and Romana playing games in the console room (the Doctor losing terribly, of course) took right back to the holiday spirit of season seventeen. When they land it means there is twice the brains figuring out where they are...although the Doctor is far too busy being facetious to truly help out and it is mostly left to Romana to do the deductive work. Very season seventeen. She's described as having pert lips, a noble brow and milk-white which the Doctor objects. Well of course he does, he's head over heels for her. She's resigned to the fact that they are always in danger. Romana gets lumbered with Stokes as her unwitting companion in the latter episodes, a fawning imbecile that she nonetheless takes it upon herself to look after. His bumbling nature and her razor sharp wit makes for a very enjoyable combination. Romana takes objection to the Doctor stating that he is the only person who can stop Xais. How nice to hear Romana acknowledge the influence the Doctor has had on her life.

Standout Performance: Given that she has just been cast as the sixth Doctor's latest audio companion now is a good time to listen out for Miranda Raison's turn as Margot. Not an easy role to play, a character having a nervous breakdown in a Doctor Who story because the urge is to overdo it (especially given the tone of the era) but Raison offers a sympathetic and twitchy turn, a character that it is awkward to be around because you're not quite sure how she is going to react. To her undoubted amusement, she gets to chew the scenery outrageously as Xais too. Of interest is also Michael Troughton, an actor with a very discernable lineage. Clearly the note he received was to play down the role of Menlove Stokes because he hits so many subtleties as he is climbing the walls, raving about his death art and accusing the entire universe of being jealous of his talent. 'You are several degrees closer to cretinessness than I had previously credited!'  Lalla Ward delights, especially when she gets all bossy and maniacal which gets me all hard and soft at the same time. Oo-er.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Don't worry, I'd imagine you've induced several nervous breakdowns in your time' 'Oh really? How kind of you to say so.'
'Either he's too clever by half or he's very, very stupid.'
'Child prodigy. I never liked early achievers.'
'From the look of these scene of crime photos the devastation does seem total. The cost of that damage must run into pennies!'
(Upon seeing K.9) 'This is your weapon? Do you expect the Nisbitt's to die laughing?'
'We're all going to die!'
'I'd rather be scattered into the ether than have my spleen squeezed until it pops by a gang of psychopaths! Farewell my angel, I wish your sanity was equal to your attractiveness! Doctor, you're as mad as you appear!' - I could pretty much quote everything Stokes says. 
'Crime isn't what it was. It's rather lost it's romance.'

Great Ideas: An asteroid housing The Rock of Judgement, not only a court but also where they doll out judgement to the very worst criminals. Most people here are very dangerous and very keen to get out but a few million miles of vacuum makes for a pretty strong deterrent to escape. The recreation area is set up for the workers with suppressants available to endure such long spells off planet.  Like Shada, this is a dark backdrop for a comic story, resulting in some very black comedy. It would be so easy to present a silly location with daft aliens and lots of crazy happenings but the fact that the atmosphere of the asteroid is one of darkness adds an extra layer of substance to the story. Stokes is the in-house artist and has devoted himself to capturing the souls of the criminals that will meet their end, a rather macabre affair suited to his creepy personality. The security system on the asteroid is degrading, somebody is sabotaging it deliberately and Spiggot has been sent in to investigate. He's your bog standard gumshoe, married to the job and having lost his kids as a result. He thinks he's the central character in his own noir thriller, the dope. Xais killed over 2000 people in 2 years, all before her nineteenth birthday. I bet Romana will have a field day psycho-analysing that one. I'd blame the parents. Her particular talent was crushing people where they stood. Xais saw the family killed, destroyed the man that murdered them, stole a ship and escaped. She went on a revenge attack spree on Five, buildings, people, random attacks. She can splat somebody to the state of a stepped on watermelon just by looking at them. An expert in computers and bomb making, pretty much a genius. Tying together the Stokes and Xais threads, he cast a mask out of helicon of her face, an artistic endeavour which could very well tear a hole in this corner of the universe. What a shame that they appear on the cover because the Ogrons would have been a terrific surprise (it's still a great moment for how big Tommy B pronounces their entrance so spectacularly). Appropriately Big Finish have afforded some of the more engaging alien races that are only featured in Doctor Who once or twice a chance to expand upon their original appearance. In their attempt to give every story a sequel there isn't that many species that haven't had a second airing and they usually (despite my protestations of late) benefit from the extra attention. The Draconians (Paper Cuts) the Wirrn (Wirrn Dawn, Wirrn Isle) and the Zygons (a superb pair of 8DAs, Zygon Hunt) in particular. You can hardly argue with the success of the Ogrons. Visually they were spectacular and their lack of intelligence made them the perfect comic foil (they clashed hilariously with Roger Delgado's Master and have a similar culture clash with the Spiggot's in this story) and yet after Frontier in Space the show chose to ignore them as it passed on to new creative hands. I'm pleased to see them get a fresh appearance in The Romance of Crime and they translate to audio extremely well. Once the Ogrons struck fear throughout the universe but now they have become the butt of every joke in the human Empire. Cleverly the story chooses to introduce a new set of characters in it's second half (albeit ones who are set up in the first) to keep the story ticking over. Somebody had to be Xais' contact at The Rock of Judgement and it comes as no great surprise that it is Pyrepoint (given he has mostly been a background character). He used her as a walking weapon, to kill anybody that gets in his way and she used him to satisfy her hatred of humanity. They were going to mine an enormous quantity of Helicon together but she was arrested and so they devised a plan to have Stokes create the mask in her image and release some of her power into liquid Helicon.

Audio Landscape: Heavy breathing, footsteps, chatter, bar atmosphere, the computer exploding, bullets bouncing, Ogron blasters, force field, pouring tea, hissing gas, horrible squishing sounds as Xais does her business.

Musical Cues: A pleasing mixture of authentic Dudley Simpson and a more modern day pace, The Romance of the Crime took me back to the Halcyon days of 1979 but Howard Carter still provided the sorts of thrills and spills I would expect from a main range soundtrack. I loved the cute noirish touches when Spiggot was indulging in some detective-based clichés and get ready to clap your hands in delight as the tension ramps up at the end of episode three and Carter attacks the piano.

Isn't it Odd: I have been less than complimentary about Big Finish's obsession with nostalgia of late in their Doctor Who ranges and their unwillingness to forge ahead with anything original. This is a note to say that the novel adaptations get a reprieve on the grounds that their very existence is to capture the glories of the past, that was the entire raison detre of the Missing Adventures. But do you know what is odd?  Within that remit of trying to so successfully emulate season seventeen both Gareth Roberts (and John Dorney who adapted this) have managed to create something that is packed full of great ideas, wonderful dialogue and enjoyable characters. It so far surpasses tripe such as Eldrad Must Die!, Revenge of the Swarm and Mistfall that a comparison is barely worth making. Maybe that is because the mid seventies was an era of invention and creation and to produce something this engaging is a given (although the 4DAs would seem to counter that argument). Maybe it is because the Missing Adventures were better at creating original stories within their remit to capture the glories of the past?

Standout Scene: The thought of an Ogron failing to dock a ship airlock to airlock made me laugh like a loon. Every time I think about it it does the same trick.

Result: A glorious evocation of season seventeen complete with pleasing science fiction ideas, a sinister setting, vibrant characters, sharp dialogue and an attempt to make the Doctor Who universe a crazier and more exciting one. I can remember being less than impressed with The Romance of Crime when it first came out in paperback, the fact that it so perfectly replicated the style of season seventeen was a definite plus but the story felt as though it lacked any substance. How different it feels on audio, ticking all of my boxes and then some by providing a rollicking good time, giving the actors a chance to strut their stuff and juggling enough threads to keep the whole thing moving fluidly for it's entire length. There's far more of note than I thought at the time and it took a dramatisation to make me realise that. The cast of characters brings a smile to my face just to think of them; two knockabout Time Lords at the height of their powers, an officious administrator, a madly eccentric and pusillanimous artist, an insane, histrionic villain with a penchant for squashing people to death with a thought, a detective who adores indulging in all the clichés and two lively thugs with Ogrons in tow. With actors of the quality of Miranda Raison, Michael Troughton and Marcus Garvey bringing them to life it is a pleasure to spend a couple of hours in their company, bringing the pacy adventure together with the passion of a cast who are having a blissful time. We've flirted with stories that flirt with the idea of bringing together Tom Baker and Lalla Ward before (the madly enjoyable Babblesphere and a handful of lesser agreeable companion chronicles) but this is the real deal and I don't give a damn whether they attended the same recording or not, it's still a delight to hear the two characters knock against one another. It's one of my favourite Doctor/companion partnerships and Gareth Roberts (and John Dorney) understand precisely how to get the best out of them. After listening to The Romance of Crime I am gagging to hear The English Way of Death and The Well Mannered War and it has made me even more excited for the fifth season of 4DAs. If all Doctor Who was as pleasurable as this, we'd never get anything else done: 9/10

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When is this set, chrology-wise?