Saturday, 6 June 2015

The Founding Fathers written by Simon Guerrier and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: The TARDIS lands in Leicester Square in the summer of 1762. When the Doctor, Steven and Vicki find themselves locked out of the TARDIS, only one man can possibly help them. But the American, Benjamin Franklin, has problems of his own...

Hmm: On the planet of the Savages there is a copy of the Doctor's mind in a jar left over from when the contents of his brain were drained in Steven's final story. It's a guiding intelligence for the people now. That's very important to remember otherwise you might be highly confused as to whom Steven is conversing with. Because he has the Doctor's memories he must approximate to the man. He has direct access to the city's information systems and he is on the cusp of deciding to stand for election. He never asks for anything and is selflessly devoted to the peoples welfare. In the face of Benjamin Franklin, the Doctor is unsurprised and cool as a cucumber, inventing a quick cover story so they can stay close to him. He considers the scientist quite something but that makes him a dangerous prospect, especially once he has access to the TARDIS. He's not above sneakily using physical force to make sure his secrets stay that way, just like he did in An Unearthly Child. Assaulting Franklin is entirely in character. The assertion is made that the Doctor in a jar considers people unimportant if they aren't going to make an impact on society but that could be said to have come from the real thing. The Doctor who picked up a rock to kill a caveman, who was ready to let the Thals walk to their deaths, who was willing to sacrifice Ann Chaplet to keep history on track. He's always liked simple solutions but doesn't like sentimentality.

Aggressive Astronaut: Steven missed so much on the planet he used to rule during his years of self-incarceration. Steven's granddaughter used to like hearing his tales of travelling with the Doctor. He finds a job as a boatman rowing passengers across the Thames and enjoyed the time on the water, often working well into the night. Steven enjoyed feeling useful. Whilst Steven always had what you could say was a chip on his shoulder, it was always tempered with a great sense of humanity and when it counts, humility. The older Steven is a much more prickly character, especially when dealing with the Doctor in a jar.

Alien Orphan: Vicki's role is naturally diminished because Maureen O'Brien isn't involved in this release. She's present but often hangs about in the background of scenes remaining silent, which is quite unlike her character.

Standout Performance: There are too many things to love about Peter Purves' narration. I can understand why he was given the main slice of the action for this box set because he is such a confident, engaging reader. And like Maureen O'Brien he barely sounds a day older. How comes they can so perfectly capture their younger voices and actresses such as Deborah Watling and Katy Manning have difficulties? I guess that is what 40 a day does for you. I really admire Lisa Bowerman as a performer and think her Bernice Summerfield is now the definitive article. But thanks to a recurring role in Jago & Litefoot and turning up in other stories such as Whispers of Terror her voice is extremely recognisable now. I understand that as the story's director it makes financial sense to use herself as the third voice, giving this more of a full cast feel, but it did distract somewhat having such a identifiable voice in the mix.

Great Ideas: It's one of the earliest examples of a celebrity historical. Who is Benjamin Franklin I hear you ask? A scientist, author, political theorist, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman and diplomat. Of all the figures of history that the Doctor has met he is one of the most impressive. Franklin's experiments, proof that lightning is not fire in the sky but proof of electrical force, are discussed in some detail. There's a great gag about not being sure when the next storm will come because Franklin needs one for his experiments...but this being England there was certain to be one sooner rather than later. Abigail Bolt, Franklin's lady friend, is not mentioned in any of the history books and the Doctor suspects foul play from the start. Was she a time traveller here to change history? It was entirely possible since they did have experience of that kind of interference before. American politics are given some consideration too, given Franklin's future and birthright. Whatever the Doctor in a jar is, he has developed the ability to move into other peoples bodies. However it burns out their bodies and minds as he does so, something the Doctor deeply regrets. The Doctor is technically overwriting peoples brains, whatever objections he might make to the contrary the subjects would have 'died' anyway. The death penalty has been called for but nobody is sure if the Doctor is even alive in this state. Now he's a public enemy. He's decided to transfer himself in to the system and stop being a threat to others.

Audio Landscape: Birdsong, crowds, horse and cart, banging on the TARDIS door, quiet chatter, bubbling vat, a squeaky door, bobbing on the water, exchanging coins, crackling fire, lightning, pelting rain, running footsteps, an explosion, banging.

Standout Scene: One of the many things to admire about Simon Guerrier's writing (please don't ask me to provide a list because I will be here all day - my suggestion is that you listen to the Sara Kingdom and Oliver Harper trilogies and formulate your own, it wont be hard) is that he never goes for the predictable cliffhanger. It's so easy to simply end on a moment of false jeopardy but with his companion chronicles Guerrier almost always uses the pause in the action to hinge the narrative in a new direction. Here he provides a wonderful moment, Franklin finding himself in the TARDIS. Here the Doctor is trying to prevent the course of history from changing and he has confronted one of the finest scientific minds of the age with a device that is beyond his comprehension. It's atypical and rather gorgeous. And it leads to the most enjoyable scenes of the whole story as he tries to use his scientific knowledge of the time to puzzle out the Ship. That alone makes this story well worth a listen. 'A more credulous mind might consider that we have passed beyond the veil...'

Result: One of the joys of early Doctor Who were the many sojourns into history (without the need of a monster to back the story up). I would always consider it a success if the adventure had encouraged to further research, either into the period itself or the people that feature. To my shame I knew very little about Benjamin Franklin before listening to The Founding Fathers but thanks to Simon Guerrier's enlightening script I was encouraged to read on and I discovered that throughout his life he achieved more than most people could ever dream of. That Doctor Who, an adventure serial can broaden my knowledge of history is a glorious thing. Despite the detailed content I thought this was one of Guerrier's lesser companion chronicles, narratively speaking it does flounder rather and doesn't gather the sort of momentum that the best of his stories do. The whole story is pitched at gentle level without any moments of serious drama or danger. I was educated but I can't say this was a particularly entertaining story, it's a little too serious for its own good. With intelligent dialogue and characterisation, it still has much to recommend it but don't turn to The Founding Fathers when you are looking for a story to cheer you up. Bizarrely the story just comes to a sudden halt and remaining time is given over to the secondary plot, which turns out to be much more interesting. Then you realise the whole thing is set up for the finale of the box set, which promises to be a doozy. Enlightening on an intellectual level, the scenes between Franklin and the Doctor in the second episode are very strong: 7/10

1 comment:

dark said...

I've enjoyed Simon Guerrier's other stuff hugely but I must confess I was less keen on this one, mostly because I found the historical section utterly drab. Don't get me wrong, I love historicals and the companion chronicles has given us some awsome ones, however the historicals I always remember from the companion chronicles range with their more narrative, less full cast audio play style are ones with a colourful and rich setting that the description and atmosphere can really get behind. The library of alexandria, Captain Cook's ship, China or Elizabethan Spain, we've had some great places to explore and yet what do we get here?
Yet another visit to 18th century London, and considering that 19th century London is pretty much a second home for Whovian stories a story would need to do something really amazing or have some great characters or twists to interest me in this time, and this one doesn't.

Yes, Franklin is another historical figure with awsome presence and achievements we can name check, but he just never seemed to get room to interact with the main cast much. I will say I loved the scene of him trying to work out the Tardis based on logic and the wily old First doctor leading him completely off the mark (it reminded me of Isaac Newton in Circular time Summer), but this ended far too abruptly and was swept far too quickly under the rug, indeed I would've much rather had more of this and less of the false jeopardy around abigail bolt which just seemed to Peter out going no where in particular. Indeed I did rather wonder whether all the comments about her being "not important" were as much about her function and significance to the plot of the story as much as her role in the course of history.

My really! huge problem however is that I was just plane not interested in the Franklin story as compared to the troubles of Steven and the Doctor hinted at in The great war. Everytime steven Started on yet again plunging us back to 18th century London I was just thinking "No can we please just stay with the Doctor in the jar" In a way I was actually rather relieved when the story finished sinse I can now get on to the climax of this set and see what happens.

As I said, I don't dislike historicals at all, especially Companion chronicles historicles but setting a largely flat historical story in a setting we've really seen too much of to be interested in, against a really fascinating framing story just didn't work here imho, even counting that nice scene of Franklin's deductive powers which was over far to quickly.

I'd personally be giving this one a five myself.