Sunday, 15 March 2015

Requiem for the Rocket Men written by John Dorney and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The Asteroid - notorious hideaway of the piratical Rocket Men. Hewn out of rock, surrounded by force-fields and hidden in the depths of the Fairhead Cluster, their base is undetectable, inescapable and impregnable. In need of allies, the Master has arranged to meet with Shandar, King of the Rocket Men. But the mercenaries have captured themselves a very special prisoner - his oldest enemy, the Doctor. What cunning scheme is the Doctor planning? How does it connect with Shandar's new robotic pet? And just what has happened to Leela? The Master will have to work the answers out if he wants to leave the asteroid... alive...

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor's face has turned up on wanted posters before but it still makes for an inviting start to the story because it means he has been here before and caused some mischief. The Doctor is more concerned by the terrible photo they have used. He's been travelling longer than Leela and wont let a little something like a wanted poster bother him on a perfectly fine day. Gunfire in his direction on the other hand... The Doctor recognises the Rocket Men immediately and intends to stop them if it is the last thing he does. Shandar uses a captured Doctor, the Master's sworn enemy, as their credentials to their new business associate. When he gets a chance to list the Master's inadequacies he does so with absolute relish. The Doctor has always wanted to take the fight to the Rocket Men but he has never been able to locate their base. K.9 is at his most literal throughout this adventure but for once the Doctor doesn't seem to mind too much...given he is essential to his plans. It gets very confusing when K.9 calls both the Master and the Doctor 'Master' and so the Doctor insists that he calls the Master 'the Renegade.' Although that description would fit both of them too. Leela thinks the Doctor just saves planets as a pastime, she does not think it is his vocation.

Noble Savage: When do you know that you are no longer an adult? That the pupil has outgrown the master? Questions that Leela is asking herself at the beginning of this story that hint at an intriguing new direction for the character. Dorney is one of the few writers that refuses to push either the Doctor or Leela to the sidelines and gives focus to both characters. Like Richards, he manages to write Leela as a huntress without falling into cliché which means she is having a pretty strong year so far. I love it when Leela speaks from her heart and when she reaches out to the Marshall and tries to turn him from his criminal lifestyle it is a profoundly touching moment. Leela recognises what the Doctor has taught her beyond even an education...he has taught her when it is appropriate to not kill. Something rather unexpected happens at the end of this adventure between the Doctor and Leela that I never saw coming. It flies in the face of known continuity and I wonder how it is going to be followed up in future stories. For now, it is a terrific surprise.

Scabby One: It's rather neat that I have listened to two stories in a matter of days, both featuring the Master but being played by two very different actors. Where Alex McQueen is amusing asides and squeaky eccentricity, Geoffrey Beevers is purring menace and melodramatic dialogue. Big Finish is in the fortunate position of being able to create stories from across the history of Doctor Who and as such they have the option of creating new versions of old characters or innovate old versions as they choose. The Master has never exactly been my favourite character as a foil for the Doctor but I have to admit that things do usually perk up when he is around. And I'm very pleased to see Beevers' continued presence in Doctor Who because he is a superb actor who always brings something worth listening to to the table even if the writing lets him down. I love the idea of the Master seeking out the criminal genius and ruthlessness of the Rocket Men. Like the Daleks, it is somebody that he can ally himself with, manipulate, use and betray. You always imagine the Master getting up to these kinds of shady deals behind the scenes and now we get the chance to experience it first hand. It is far more refreshing to see what happens between Doctor Who adventures than simply enduring another predictable story where the Master shows up at the end of episode one. He makes no secret of the fact that he wants to use the Rocket Men as foot soldiers so I suppose he deserves some credit for his honesty. Not exactly something he displays in great abundance usually. He is paranoid about the Doctor's presence, sure that he has some plan up his sleeve to foil his latest scheme. For a moment the Master thinks he has genuinely murdered the Doctor and he's appalled that it turns out to be something as insignificant as a gunshot wound in a cell. It should have been the apotheosis of some ridiculously overcomplicated Masterplan, not a mundane death.

Standout Performance: Hardly a subtle performance but a massively pleasurable one, Mark Frost provides a gorgeous scenery chewing turn as Shandar the leader of the Rocket Men. He's practically growling the dialogue at times, sounding like he should be at the prow of a pirate ship. Strangely enough he would not have suited either of the other two Rocket Men stories because they were both intimate, character driven affairs but within this deliriously enjoyable romp it is the cherry on the cake.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Never trust a man who doesn't like cake.'
'Do you hunger to die, Doctor?' 'No, I hunger to eat.'
'What shall I do tomorrow?'
'Your deaths will raise the populations IQ immeasurably!'
'You'll have to live with disappointment for the rest of life...which is about 25 seconds!'

Great Ideas: Imagine an entire planet that is given over to shopping? My sister in law would have a field day. Or at least have to take a fortnight off work and take a vacation there. The very idea of K.9 being captured by malevolent forces and being programmed to act against the Doctor is abhorrent...or at least vaguely reminiscent of The Armageddon Factor. Much to his chargin, Shandar is currently number five on the galaxies most wanted list. Requiem is quite divorced from the other Rocket Men stories in tone and intention but I did appreciate the mentions of Ashman and the others to link the three stories together. The finest chefs in the galaxy literally slave away in the Rocket Men's kitchen.

Audio Landscape: Cars shooting by, gunfire, K.9 skidding into view, explosions, a screaming airlock.

Isn't it Odd: Big Finish's marketing strategy are at it again and this time they have spoilt two surprises within the blurb. Firstly the fact that that the Master is in this story (because the cover pointlessly omits him) and secondly that the story will initially be told from his point of view. The latter is quite an innovative approach and something that should have been kept under wraps for the listener to experience rather than having that information handed to them at the outset. Unless it was going to in someway be subverted along the way and they were tricking the audience into thinking they are about to experience one type of story when in fact they are about to be delivered another. But there is no sign of that in evidence. What a shame that after such a great set up the story should ultimately devolve into the Doctor taking complete charge of the situation and Master essentially scarpering when it is clear that the Rocket Men are not up to scratch.

Standout Scene: The unmasking of the Doctor is one of those scenes that I will never quite forget. Such a simple idea and yet so obvious in retrospect that you have to wonder why nobody has done it before. And so enjoyable I was applauding in the middle of an empty lounge.

Result: There is one thing that you can say for Requiem for the Rocket Men from the off...this is not something that would have been aired in the mid-seventies. For those of you who tune into the 4DAs for a nostalgia kick that might be a problem but for the rest of us who have been bemoaning a lack of a fresh direction it is practically a godsend. You simply would not have had a story told primarily from the Master's point of view with the Doctor in the background trying to outwit his scheme. That alone makes this tale worth checking out. I found this story ridiculously enjoyable throughout, the narrative subversion gave me an effortless entrance but what kept me entertained was the glorious treatment of the Master and the Doctor and how their cat and mouse game in the clutches of the Rocket Men continued to evolve. I have rarely seen the Master written this enjoyably and Geoffrey Beevers seems to relish the opportunity to play something a little different to the usual stereotypes. The moment he laments for the Doctor's death was magnificent. The first episode reminded me pleasingly of the DWM strip 'Death to the Doctor!' with a great sense of paranoia brewing around just when the Doctor will spring his trap. As a result Tom Baker's gleeful madman seems more dangerous than ever. If the second episode progresses into something a bit more predictable that doesn't really hamper the pace or the glee with which the story is told or the priceless lines on display. Requiem for the Rocket Men sounds like it is going to be another thoughtful story in the ongoing saga of this criminal organisation but really it is nothing of the sort. It goes for the entertainment factor and succeeds in droves and it pleases me no end to thoroughly recommend a fourth Doctor adventure after savaging so many of this ranges output. If every story was as easy on the ear as this one I wouldn't have any complaints: 8/10

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