Thursday, 3 September 2015

Prisoners of the Lake written by Justin Richards and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Captain Mike Yates is investigating the disappearance of artefacts from an archaeological site deep below Dunstanton Lake. It’s hardly a job for UNIT. But when the team discover a mysterious ancient structure buried deep underwater, all that changes. When chief archaeologist Freda Mattingly ventures inside, she soon realises that her skills do not begin to equip her to deal with what she finds. As an ancient menace begins to stir the Doctor, Jo Grant and Mike Yates must dive down to the lake bed and discover the secrets hidden there. Secrets that could mean the end of all life on Earth…

Good Grief: The Doctor is not remotely interested in chasing after the Brigadier's mysteries, even when Jo tries to put an exciting spin on them. He walks into any establishment and acts as if he owns the place and doesn't give a damn if it upsets anybody or not. Something of an expert in everything, especially modesty. He might be a pompous know it all but he will step into danger at a moments notice to save his friends. Confidence is his key characteristic, for good or for ill. If anyone can talk himself out of trouble it is the Doctor. It's in the moments of real gravity that Trelor sounds bang on like Pertwee, where he has to issue an order and take command of a situation. The third Doctor had a way of making any situation, no matter how absurd (think Gell Guards or blobby anti-matter jelly) seem like it was the end of the world. And Treloar captures that beautifully. The Doctor might bang on about how much humanity bores/irritates/frustrates him but he will fight until his last breath to prevent any harm coming to the people on the planet he is stuck on. That's why he's the hero.

Dippy Agent: Jo went on an underwater assault course just last this another of her fabricated stories so she doesn't get left out of the action and will she cause a massive plot complication because of it? I suppose that is the most extreme description you could give Jo - a useful plot complication. She was a way of stretching a four parter to a six parter. It's omitting to mention the great charm and humour that Manning brought to the role and the series though. Richards gives Jo an authentic series eight showing here; a buddy for the Doctor, someone who stumbles around in dangerous environments and gets into blunders and somebody who can be relied on to provide the humanity in any given situation. Strangely Manning fares less well in full cast dramas than she does in stories she narrates in their entirety (she was similarly uncomfortable in The Defectors). She's adequate in Prisoners without giving the sort of full throttle performance that rocketed stories like Find and Replace into something truly special.

Camp Soldier: Mike Yates has enjoyed a quiet revolution on audio between the Nest Cottage audios and his appearances in Big Finish stories. He's actually racked up an impressive number of stories now and it certainly helps that Richard Franklin sounds as though he hasn't aged a day since Planet of the Spiders. Mike was never the most exciting character on television (until he turned rogue and even then he was a bit wet) but on audio he has been re-interpreted as somebody a bit more thoughtful and resourceful, somebody grounded that the Doctor can rely on in a crisis. Somebody I like, rather than tolerate. When the Doctor starts insulting people willy nilly, Mike steps in to point out he is being rude and the man he is insulting is actually highly qualified.

Standout Performance: How do I feel about Big Finish recasting the third Doctor? How do I feel about recasting the Doctors in general? If you had asked me fifteen years ago when I was still a precocious youth I probably would have ran around the room declaring it the worst idea ever conceived, hurl some abuse in your face and refuse to talk to you again. Something extraordinary happened when the companion chronicles were devised and produced, Big Finish were able to find a subtle way of recasting the Doctors over and over again as the performers who played their companions offered authentic and often poignant portrayals of the Doctors that they travelled with. William Russell, Peter Purves, Frazer Hines and Katy Manning in particular captured their Doctor with a touching sense of nostalgia for the actor they once worked with. Such was the success of the range it paved the way for Big Finish to definitively recast certain performers that are no longer with us in full cast audios. Was this crossing a line? I don't think so. It's finding new avenues to tell stories that otherwise wouldn't be able to be told given that the original actors are no longer with us. That is a fact and it is hardly an affront to them when the replacements are trying to tap into the same magic that they created in the first play. More an homage than an interpretation. For some people, this is a complete no-no. I get that. I hope that those same people can't bring themselves to watch The Five Doctors. Prisoners of the Lake sees Tim Treloar making his debut in a full length story as the third Doctor. Is he a spot on mimic of Pertwee? No. But the gravelly tones, petulance and good humour capture enough of what Pertwee brought to the role for you to be able to suspend your belief and enjoy the story unfold. It's an enjoyable performance in an enjoyable story and the fact that Treloar allowed me to imagine Jon Pertwee alive and in action again felt like a real gift. I certainly don't object to more of the same, it means that the Pertwee era can now be represented in the same lavish way as the other classic eras of the show.

Great Ideas: Something sinister has occurred in an underwater base. In one sentence Justin Richards manages to sum up the essence of a great Doctor Who story. A mystery in an exciting setting. I certainly don't object to narration in a full cast drama, it sure cuts away all that awkward and flabby descriptive dialogue that can sink an otherwise good story. There is a touch of The Sea Devils to the Doctor heading underwater in a diving bell to an underwater base but I don't think it does this range any harm at all to mimic the era it is supposed to be set in to get itself established. If, like the fourth Doctor adventures, it continues to play the nostalgia card it could get a little wearying but at this stage this is exactly the sort of thing I am looking for. Something that feels like a Pertwee adventure that could have taken place. The structure under the water turns out to be an alien spaceship...well of course it does! And a stone spaceship at that (see The Daemons). The Dastrons are some of the most callous, vicious and murderous life forms in the cosmos, their expansionist imperialism cost the lives of millions. The prisoners of the lake are the leaders of the Dastron military forces, the ones responsible for attempting to annex their neighbouring star systems. The two stone robots are prosecutor and defender and the transport vessel is a justice environment to try the Dastron leaders. Operating a hyperdrive in the atmosphere of the Earth would be catastrophic, causing massive devastation to an enormous area. Millions will die.

Musical Cues: Hah. When I heard how authentic the brassy and bold musical score was for this story I knew Graeme Robertson had to be involved somewhere along the line. It seems that whatever era of the show he is scoring, he manages to nail the feel of the music. Early Pertwee was electronic madness, melodramatic blasts, beeps and whistles and all of that is in here. Robertson doesn't just copy the music, he captures the essence of it and does his own thing. Nicholas Briggs is one of the most underrated musicians at Big Finish and his presence is also felt. 

Isn't it Odd: If out of the unusual Who is your bag then this will not appeal to you in the slightest. It doesn't come much more traditional than this. The only element that differs from the norm is Trelor in the title role. And for those of you who remember how simplistic and escape/capture the Pertwee years could be at time, do not prepare to have your intellect tested.

Standout Scene: As strange it might sound, my favourite scene was the initial scene in the UNIT lab featuring the Doctor and Jo. Simply because my fears were unfounded and that chemistry was recaptured with a new actor in the role.

Result: A UNIT assignment? Check. A base under siege? Check. An alien presence on Earth? Check. Somebody in authority turned corrupt? Check. A pompous, arrogant Doctor, a ditzy female agent and a stalwart Captain? Check, check and check. Prisoners of the Lake is the archetypal Pertwee adventure and to kick start this new thread of stories that is something of a relief. To bound into a new series of full cast third Doctor adventures with an experimental tale (like Carnival of Monsters) would have been an odd choice. So I can understand why the most reliable pair of hands (and I mean that in a positive way) at Big Finish's disposal was drafted in to smooth the way for Tim Treloar in his debut adventure. Justin Richards has turned his hand to every Doctor and every type of Doctor Who story, usually with some degree of success and he understands exactly the sort of nostalgia kick that the fans of this era might be looking for. There is nothing extraordinary going on in Prisoners but it chugs along very entertainingly indeed and ticks pretty much every Pertwee adventure box. Treloar gives a wonderful turn in what is a pretty thankless task of recreating Pertwee's Doctor, given that half the audience is against him from the start. There were moments when I could see Pertwee in action and it was certainly convincing enough to make an authentic story even more agreeable. I think you would have to really want this experiment to fail to not appreciate all the effort that has gone into Treloar's performance here and the energy he injects into the piece. As good as some of the Companion Chronicles were at capturing the essence of the era, this feels like a genuine lost story. There are lots of other bonuses; a gorgeously bombastic score, a star turn from Carolyn Seymour who I have always wanted to appear in a Doctor Who story, narration enabling the story to skip past without dodgy expository dialogue and a story that comes together like a perfectly crafted puzzle. The writer that most resembles Terrance Dicks for clarity, rock solid plotting and firm characterisation of the regulars is Justin Richards so whilst this story is essentially a lot of running about from place to place (so many Doctor Who stories are), it lives and breathes the early seventies and transports you back to that cosy time effortlessly: 8/10

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