Saturday, 6 February 2016

The Waters of Amsterdam written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Jamie Anderson

What's it about: Reunited with the Doctor and Nyssa, Tegan joins them on a trip to Amsterdam's Rijkmuseum to see a new exhibition of the work of Rembrandt van Rijn, featuring his drawings of “Vessels of the Stars”. The Doctor is astonished to discover that they are designs for spaceships that would actually work, and decides to pop back to the Dutch Golden Age for a quiet word with Rembrandt – but the world-weary artist is no mood to help. Meanwhile, strange forces are swirling in the canals, creatures from ancient myth, the watery, goblin-like Nix. What is their connection to the mysterious Countess Mach-Teldak – and to the events of Tegan’s life during her year away from the Doctor?

An English Gentleman: Peter Davison sounds massively energised by this script, giving the sort of performance he used to in the first 100 releases of the main range. He's quite the art critic, understanding the work of the Masters and bestowing his knowledge on Nyssa and Tegan. The Doctor knows the feeling of finding it hard to please Tegan. He thinks some people are only happy when they have something to complain about. He's not above helping out aliens on a mission on Earth as long as it doesn't harm the indigenous populace.
Alien Orphan: I really enjoy the close relationship between Tegan and Nyssa, it is a sisterly bond that wasn't explored nearly as much as it could have been on TV. Nyssa is written superbly throughout, Morris has a way of keeping her entirely in character and roughing out her four squares edges a bit. She feels much more real, less of an automaton. The scene she shares with Rembrandt in the third episode is beautifully written to capture both characters at their height, it's not a moment that adds much to the plot but it adds some real texture to the story. That's what Nyssa brings here. She isn't essential but she adds texture.

Mouth on Legs: Tegan meets her ex boyfriend in Amsterdam. Doesn't that sound like a ghastly premise for a story? Remember when Turlough caught up with his ex squeeze in Kiss of Death and it turned into some ghastly Mills and Boon adventure with added clones. For some people being on the other side of the planet isn't enough, Tegan says very pointedly to Kyle. Tegan wasn't ready for a proposal or that kind of commitment. She doesn't love him, se was never that invested in the relationship and certainly not in the same way he was. The Arc of Infinity was a tough story on Tegan when you look at it objectively; her cousin brainwashed, trapped in the Matrix, taken over and tortured. Following that up with a reunion with somebody she would rather forget adds up to a fairly turbulent time emotionally. If there was ever a time she would be a little sensitive and groggy justifiably, this is it. It's fantastic to get some information about Tegan's time between being left by the Doctor at the end of season 19 and being picked up by him again in season 20. Such an obvious idea I'm surprised nobody had thought to do it before. She took up her job for Air Australia and met Kyle on one of her inaugural flights and lost her job because of a particularly obstructive passenger with no patience and a lot of influence. All of this material continues to humanise Tegan in a way unique to audio, fleshing out her character in a fashion that would have been extremely useful on television. Only Tegan could possibly split up with somebody because they are too nice, too perfect. It seems perfectly in character for her to desire a few rough edges because it compliments her. Tegan takes exception to being called English. Kyle modelled himself into the perfect man for Tegan...just to get a ride in the TARDIS. The whole of their relationship was based on a lie, on both of their parts. Tegan is genuinely bereft at the death of Nyssa, suggesting a very deep connection between the to of them. She calls her her best friend.

Standout Performance: Richard James' grumpy, I just got out of the wrong side of the bed turn as Rembrandt. I love how, despite his best efforts to charm the man, he isn't seduced by the Doctor's love of his work and he maintains and air of 'can't be arsed with this nonsense' throughout that really charmed me. This is generally an ensemble effort though and there are no weak links. Even the water creatures are played with absolute relish. Top marks to Tim Delap for taking hold of Kyle with both hands and playing him for real.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I doubt Tegan would be pleased to find out that her former boyfriend was an alien...' - yes the story actually went there. Although her reaction to such a shock would be worth the admission price alone. The truth about what Kyle really is works even better and Janet Fielding's reaction is a scream.
'Love has an inconvenient habit of overcoming hate.'

Great Ideas: Sometimes you get the feeling of desperation when Big Finish try and squeeze a multitude of stories in a gap between televised stories that probably shouldn't exist. Whilst I found the run of stories for Erimem justified their existence by being (generally speaking) very good, there really wasn't the space between Planet of Fire and The Caves of Androzani to tell them and for what we saw on TV to make sense. In this case however, telling a story after the events of Arc of Infinity where the story left the Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa in Amsterdam makes perfect sense. It doesn't contradict a thing and actually adds a pleasing coda to what is a humdrum televised story. The thought of Nyssa and Tegan escaping from water creatures on bikes, trying to avoid riding into the canal, is hilarious. Tegan even gives her a quick lesson before they get on board. Why is Rembrandt drawing spaceships? Luckily the Doctor can pop back and find out why. The Countess Mcteldack, first born of the Imperial Dynasty and rightful heir to the Voraxi throne. Driven from her home by the Nix, her ship damaged and crash landing on the Earth. When their planet was besieged by the Nix the android Kyle XXII helped the countess to escape and when her ship was damaged he helped her to beam to Earth. He hired Rembrandt to design a spaceship whilst the Countess convinced the Mayor to construct it. The Countess instructed Kyle to search the globe for other extraterrestrial visitors (you've seen the show, there are always a couple knocking about in every period of Earth's history) and he walked the planet for three centuries...where he eventually found Tegan. The Countess left instructions in order to accelerate the human races technological development. In the future, Rembrandt's drawings are brought to life, the whole course of history perverted. An entire fleet in orbit ready to colonise other worlds, ready to voyage to the Nix homeworld and take their revenge on them. Kyle has the option of being reprogrammed and having his love for Tegan removed but chooses not to. Fool.

Audio Landscape: A wonderful Earthbound atmosphere in Amsterdam, the tram system, coffee machines burbling, people milling about on the streets, the water creatures rushing towards you, the TARDIS responding to the Doctor's touch, tavern atmosphere, crackling flames, rain pattering on wood, the technological vision of a future Amsterdam.

Isn't it Odd: I don't think it came to any great surprise to anybody when the domestic and narrative elements of this story were tied together. Otherwise you would have two disparate threads - Tegan's ex and the water creatures - vying for attention but failing to compliment one another. So when Kyle turned out to have an involvement in the science fiction elements it felt like a natural tying of knots. It's plausible enough that Tegan would be the one time traveller that Kyle would hook up with...but it is a little contrived as presented. Are you saying there was no other time travellers present in the intervening years, I think we know that isn't true. It's hilarious that the two times a man has fallen for Tegan in the series that one of them was a empty ethereal being in love with his grouchiness and the other is an emotionless android. She sure knows how to attract them. You how when you are watching an Agatha Christie story that you want to take a guess at who the killer is before it is revealed but you don't want everybody to think that you lied after the reveal so you write down the name on a piece of paper? Well I'm approaching the end of episode three and I haven't been spoilt at all about this story but I am telling you right here and now that the Countess isn't all that she seems to be and that the Doctor taking her away from the Earth is going to have dramatic consequences. Everything feels a little too...easy. Oh, I was right. To stage a cliffhanger around Nyssa's death which would undo so many adventures given we have experienced a whole wave of older Nyssa stories was perhaps a little pointless. In the ranks of water based monsters, the Nix are seriously well realised but not very substantial. The Flood from Waters of Mars were similarly ambiguous but had more of an impact for me (simply because the story was more intense).

Standout Scene: Episode One. cast your eyes downwards.

Result: Episode one of The Waters of Amsterdam is deliriously entertaining...and I had trouble pinpointing why. Not because its strengths weren't apparent but because it didn't feel that different from the norm. It mostly dealt with the romantic entanglements of one Tegan Jovanka which if you told me that that was what this story was about I probably would have held off from listening, despite the author. But the dialogue was so bouncy it shot off into the stratosphere, the performances were lively and the direction from newcomer Jamie Anderson had a really fresh sheen. I've been saying for years that Big Finish need to increase their director pool and this seems like the perfect demonstration as to why that is the case. The main range feels like it has had a spring clean for 2016. Morris once again manages to out timey-wimey Moffat by setting the story in three times zones; Amsterdam of the present, past and future and thus manages to paint a detailed picture of the city across many centuries. He sprinkles the story with a wealth of enjoyable dialogue scenes, always remembering to keep the characters at the heart of the story rather than the story at the heart of the characters (Moffat's recurring mistake). Tegan gets to be centre of attention, a position that both the character and the actress who plays her love and as a result they both shine in a way that they haven't on audio in some time. I never thought I would be elevating Tegan as the highlight of a story packed full of fun ingredients but here we are. Miracles happen when Jonny Morris is holding the pen. Kyle is what elevates this above a standard Doctor Who playaround with time (yes something this complex has become the norm for Doctor Who in the last five years), the touching story of the mechanical man with feelings. If it sounds twee then I'm describing it wrong because Morris takes a potentially ropey character and imbues him with real feeling. And given he isn't entirely human that is quite an achievement. Amsterdam wont top any polls for innovation but it is extremely well crafted and the direction by newcomer Jamie Anderson is standout. I reviewed this story in chunks over two very turbulent days of travelling and jet lag and it was the highlight of both days: 8/10


Lisa said...

Morris is one of my favourite writers, I just don't understand why he has never been asked to write for the TV series...
I loved this line of dialogue from this story(I don't remember the lines exactly), ig made me chuckle with delight:

Kyle: I'm going to see the master
[Sound of a cup of tea being fastly put on the table]
The Doctor: what??!!
Kyle: Rembrandt, the master of chiaroscuro
[Doctor's sigh of relief]

As for Rembrandt, at first I was like of thinking this story would be "Vincent and the Doctor II" but this artist cared nothing about him being remembered after his death! he wanted the money while he was living, this made me laugh and chuckle
Also, I was a bit disappointed the Countess turned out to be another megalomaniac raving villain, I, just for once, would like to see just a misguided alien who accepts the Doctor's help, I'm getting tired of megalomaniacs. When the Doctor offers someone to help him/her and get him/her to another planet to start afresh, for once would be lovely if they accepted without turning out to be raving manicas. Sorry for the rant, this just a pet peeve of mine.

Keep up the good reviews!

grafotter said...

If you count Hexagora as valid story, the team has met two of Tegan's boyfriends in a very short time. Weird.

dark said...

@Lisa, totally agree on the irritation of too many megalomaniacs. I'd love to see someone take up that offer of the Doctor's to take them to a new home planet, hay, that would be a cool story premise, the Doctor returns to a civilization he helped move to somewhere of their own after persuading them not to invade earth to see how theyre getting on.

As to this one, It's really odd, I tend to love doctor who that gads about in timeand moves locales.I also love historical figures looked at in detail (especially when they're portrayed as real people not just cliche spouting props), and I don't mind a bit of future changing timy wimy.
yet, other than Tegan and her Android, honestly much of the scifi plot here felt to me extremely uninteresting.

Oh yeah, last surviver of alien race, and revenge, and beings who control water, and history changing, and energy from time travelers in the future. It all felt a little paint by numbers, all accept the characters. In a way, I actually was disappointed when the sf plot turned up sinse I wouldn't have objected to just some time with Rembrandt, his art crytic problems and perhaps at most a mild bit of scifi (when is the last time we had a pure historical, especially one with Tegan).

I don't know why, none was badly done, albeit the twists with the Nicks and the countess were rather too obvious, but oddly eough for a scifi buff like me I'll say I actually felt like the scifi story destracted me from the characters and really could've done with a bit less, which is a sentence I never thought I'd write.
Perhaps it's due to me getting married myself very shortly, so love and romance being very much uppermost in my mind right now, although i didn't feel this way about shield of the Jotten.

Then again, certainly better than a few of last years clunkers, so a thumbs up from me too, albeit I'd probably have given a 7 rather than an 8.

Lee said...

I like the neat story plot, despite it has multi temporal settings; although I have to say the final fight scene bored the hell out of me, I stop caring about whatever the Countess going to do. Also, when you made a character sounds too much like Eldrad, everyone basically already know what will happen next.

About Tegan, my dearest least favourite companion, well I haven't change my mind yet after this. But she certainly depicted better than in the show. I can't help cheering for her when she straight punched the rude passenger.