Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Mind Robber written by Peter Ling and directed by David Maloney

This story in a nutshell: Are we going to play this game? Okay…the TARDIS slips sideways in time, explodes and the Doctor and his companions waltz with literary characters and scenarios in their imaginations. Or do they…? 

Oh My Giddy Aunt: The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe. What a trio, so relentlessly entertaining the five episodes exhale like a breath of fresh spring air. They are like three hyperactive children, wrapped up in each other's company and living the thrill of their adventures together to the full. I can't think of any other regulars I would love travel with more. Troughton gives a masterclass in how to play the Doctor in The Mind Robber. Because The War Games might be a little too long for some this is the story that I would give to prospective actors (or actresses before I’m accused of being un-PC) to see the sort of legacy that they have to live up to. Or simply how well it can be done. Troughton gets to play the gamut of emotions from fear to anger to curiosity to humour before finally settling on righteous outrage and a formidable sense of justice. Maybe it is just because we can watch this story in full but you get a real chance to see how much he gave to the show. He is breathlessly active throughout, every line a comedic gem, every movement impossible to drag your eyes away from to see just what he will do next. Troughton never stops entertaining, you can see why he was so tired after each story what with his puffing and shouting and laughing and pouting. It’s a remarkably active performance. On any given day my favourite Doctors will change depending on what I am looking for…but Troughton will always rank high. My favourite moment? Well, I want to say his ‘string of sausages’ outrage because it leads to his sheer nervous wreck delight where he is tearing characters from literature to take on the Master’s but in reality it is his tussle with the Karkus that I love, so blissfully funny it has to be mentioned. He won’t state that he doesn’t exist because he has never heard of him…and in truth I think he is having just a little too much fun being tossed around like a rag doll. Note the quiet, understated edginess Troughton exudes in episode one. He knows that episode is different from any other and he’s relishing the chance to play something this radically different. 

Who’s the Yahoos: I’ve gone on record saying that, despite Troughton and Hines’ beautiful rapport, that I feel Jamie is somewhat superfluous as a character in season six. The Mind Robber is the exception to that rule. Hines, like Troughton, is really enjoying the chance to play something a little out there and gives a very measured turn as the hairy legged Highlander. You really believe Jamie is intoxicated at the thought that they might have landed in Scotland in the first episode and after all the horrors he has seen who can blame him? He’s up for the adventure though, scaling sheer mountains, flirting with literary characters (Jamie would flirt with anybody) and enjoying a very funny, conflicting chemistry with Zoe. I bet they were at it all the time. They would make a far more believable couple than Jamie and Victoria, they’re already indulging in martial bickering. Plus Frazer Hines is playing the role to excellent comedic effect; his face every time the Doctor tells him to shut up so he can discuss something brainy with Zoe is priceless. Despite Hamish Wilson's attempts (and gives a perfectly good performance but it is a very different kind of Jamie) to fill his shoes for an episode I was beaming when Frazer returned in part three. 

Brainbox: It’s nice to see Wendy Padbury enjoying some quality material because her previous forays into the part of Zoe have been The Wheel in Space and The Dominators, 11 episodes of Doctor Who so dreadful that for almost three months followers of the show must have been sinking into despair. Zoe is written extremely well here, it’s a script that points out her strengths and her weaknesses as a character. She was daft to leave the TARDIS in the void and to not realise that there was a leap to her death in the darkened house and even worse is her monumentally stupid moment where she walks through the castle detector beams but who could imagine the story without her and the Doctor and their delightful moments exploring the tunnels, leaving Jamie out or her hysterical moment where she comes to blows with the Karkus and leaves him in the dirt. Wendy Padbury is divine in this, her scream as piercing as they come and she is clearly full of enthusiasm for the story. Like Caroline John and Elisabeth Sladen, I feel Padbury is almost too good for the standard companion role and like Liz and Sarah, Zoe is often allowed to dominate events because of it.

Sparkling Dialogue: Basically every line that Troughton utters…whether its any good or not! 
‘That noise... that vibration... it's alien.’ 
‘No no no no no no! Not both together one at a time!’
‘Would you mind taking that pop gun away it does unsettle me so!?’
‘If we step outside the TARDIS we will enter a dimension of which we know nothing. We shall be at the mercy of the forces...’
‘I have yet to see a robot that can climb!’
‘But all the power had been used on the Soldiers and it was useless! Ooh you'll have to do better than that!’

The Good: I blame the sound FX. Huh? The sound FX? Aren't they great in this story? Just listen to the creaky, electronic hum the White Robots make... they might already by fairly menacing in appearance but with the addition of this spine-tingling noise they make an instant impression. And how about the Toy Soldiers? Brr... that harsh, gear grinding noise every time they get close... I watched it this morning with all the lights off and it really gave me the willies. Even more subtle sound FX, the alien hum that penetrates the TARDIS, the creaking door as Zoe peers inside, the Master Brain as it grips the Masters mind and gives him instructions... Sometimes a Doctor Who budget cannot convincingly wring all of the atmosphere out of the script and the sound FX and music have to give it a push, the sound design for this story is peerless and injects a lot of tension and fantasy into the finished production. It’s an oft-ignored strength of the show. 

Even better the story seems to have been supplied with a bigger budget than usual because although the story demands a lot from the production team they manage to magic up a startling number of convincing sets, costumes and genuinely impressive FX. How can anybody forget the TARDIS snapping open in space? Or the console flying through the vortex with Jamie and Zoe clinging to edge? The sets too are extraordinarily detailed; I adore the maze set with all the flickering candles and cobwebs but they also manage to pull off an exterior fairy-tale castle with terrific scope. And all the literary characters look authentic, the BBC always excel at costume drama and creating the likes of Gulliver, Sir Lancelot, Blackbeard is a piece of cake. It seems a shame to have to applaud the show for getting the aesthetics right but the sad truth of the matter is that because of limited resources, time and money that wasn’t always the case. And season six was a point in the show where the money had definitely started to run out and so get it looking this good is something of a minor triumph. 

Or maybe it's just the way director David Maloney puts it all together, his polished direction is the icing on the cake. An A-list Doctor Who director (Genesis, Talons) with the likes of Camfield, Harper and Martinus, he refuses to let the story sink into whimsy and continually gives it a delicious edge, despite the absurdities the story throws at us we are convinced there is real danger. There are too many scenes to list that make me glow, the sheer pressure that builds inside the TARDIS before we finally see it blow, the piercing shot of Medusa in the mirror, Jamie scaling the walls of the castle, the almost gleeful sparkle in the White Robots' eyes as they destroy everything in the final episode... it is a visual treat, never failing to satisfy. The Minotaur scene is outstandingly directed, in the hands of a less talented man this could have been farcical but with only the briefest of glimpse at the costume (because it's the ONE costume that is really rubbish), scary roars and close ups of the Doctor and Zoe backed into a corner filled with skulls as a shadow grows over them...instead of being a joke it is supremely dramatic.

It would be a little unfair to Peter Ling to suggest that the hastily written first episode is the best of the bunch because his four episodes in the world of fiction are full of magic and surprises. But that initial episode is an experimental joy to be sure, one of the most atmospheric openings to a Doctor Who ever (and given episode one of any story is pretty atmospheric) and a tense exercise in working with very little. It's the old Who adage (that I’ve just made up); the imagination soars because the budget lacks. The imagery conjured up is some of the scariest in the show's history (Jamie and Zoe zombified and treated with positive/negative effects, the TARDIS swamped by molten lava, the ship exploding...) and easily the most surreal. But all the clever stuff starts in episode two and the writing is clearly the work of an extremely imaginative mind. Tricks such as the face-changing game to escape the horror of Frazer Hines going ill. The forest of words constructing sayings. Zoe trapped in jam jar! The picture writing. The unicorn... and that's just in one episode. Things get more and more insane as we meet all number of characters from fiction (my favourites being Medusa and her hissing stop animation snakes and Horsfall’s delightful Gulliver) and lots of lovely narrative tricks (‘It doesn't exist!’, ‘When it’s ajar!’). The story refuses to compromise its fantasy nature, climaxing in a classic era moment when the Doctor and the Master conjure up all manner of fiction characters to fight each other and rescue/kill Jamie and Zoe. It is one of the most unpredictable stories I have watched, once you accept that ANYTHING can happen you just sit back and let it wash over you. Maybe that is why some butt heads with it – I can imagine the portion of the audience that enjoy logic and order would have a meltdown watching this.

The Shallow Bit: Frazer Hines looking practically edible in his tight black top in episode one. Doctor Who rarely gets me feeling unmentionable, but this is one of those occasions.

Result: Every season of Doctor Who has a class act in it, one that shines above the rest despite how good the rest are. Troughton Who is a little more fortunate than the rest, in his last season he was graced with three absolute belters (but you can determine what they are) and depending on what day of the week it is depends on which I would inch just a little higher than the others. The only convincing argument I ever remember hearing that pans The Mind Robber was from somebody who truly despised the fantasy genre. Fair enough, but on any conceivable level (writing, direction, performances) this is brilliantly done. A constantly surprising, adapting, giving story that manages to thrill, scare and amuse in equal measure. Stylishly directed too, with David Maloney shooting the story in unusual ways to highlight its surreal nature. My favourite experience of The Mind Robber was with a non-Who fan friend of mine who I showed the first episode to when he asked to see an example of a black and white story. We went out and he was desperate to get back and watch the rest. Usually he laughs his head off at classic Who (sometimes with good reason – he did ask to watch Paradise Towers) but he enjoyed this immensely, and I was able to see it through new eyes. Those of you who write off this story and only praise the first episode, shame on you. If Doctor Who’s greatest weapon is imagination then this is one of the finest examples of how far that can stretch…along with the shows format: 10/10

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Time Reaver written by Jenny T Colgan and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: Calibris. The spaceport planet where anything goes. Where anyone who doesn't want to be found can be lost, and where everything has its price. Where betentacled gangster Gully holds sway at the smugglers’ tavern, Vagabond’s Reach. The alien Vacintians are trying to impose some order on the chaos. Soon the Doctor and Donna discover why. An illegal weapon is loose on the streets. A weapon that destroys lives… Slowly and agonisingly.

Mockney Adventurer: I love how this series of adventures has really gone for broke in portraying the Doctor and Donna exactly as they were on television, warts and all. If you found Tennant too squeaky and shouty and Tate too brash and in yer face then tough luck because they are presented precisely as confidently and as audience pleasingly as they ever were. Fortunately, I love this team, I still think it is the golden team of the post-2005 era of the show so I was pretty much in heaven in their company. Time travellers have issues with paperwork, given the slipshod nature of their existence. The Doctor is appalled that commercialism has materialised on Calibris, he was expecting pirates not coffee shops. You would think that for somebody who calls himself the last of the Time Lords that the tenth Doctor would try and protect his heritage and keep himself save. Instead he’s probably the most suicidal of the lots and his latest foray into self-harm features in this story when he drains the time reaver by shooting himself with everything it has. There’s something to be said for his willingness to put himself in the line of fire when more than his own life is at stake.

Tempestuous Temp: Donna’s hoping for a planet where boys dance around in her pants worshipping wenches. I’m not sure about the wenches, but I knew there was a reason I could identify with her so much. She’s helping the Doctor fly the TARDIS successfully so they have travelling together for some time but she’s still not above sticking sophisticated technology in her gob instead of her ears. Donna is so good at getting close to characters in a story because she is so real. Her earthiness and honesty encourages the same in others. She gets close enough to Cora for her to explain why she stole the time reaver. It’s because she forms a relationship with her that she can give her hard advice at the end of the tale and bring this sorry affair to a close. Where the Doctor is horrified by Soren’s plan of mass suicide, Donna can see the beauty in it. Donna having a time reaver bomb strapped to her back is a fantastic way of sustaining tension and providing a laugh at the same time – she’s one of the few NuWho characters that can walk that fine line between being very funny and very scared at once. She gets a gorgeous moment when she thinks she is going to die and she tells the Doctor that she wouldn’t have missed it for the world, even though this has to be the end.

Standout Performance: David Tenannt literally seethes with anger in certain scenes, it reminded me of how volcanic he could get in his first season. All I know is I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that wrath.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I told you we aren’t going to the planet of the boys! There is no planet of the boys!’

‘I have seen Time Reavers before. I’ve seen a man kept on the brink of death for near eternity until he changed his will. A mother using them to keep her own child from leaving home. Time Reavers were stamped out! Eradicated!’

‘Time modulators in a time machine are you nuts? It’s like forks in a microwave.’

Great Ideas: Calibris is an entirely mechanical planet where you can acquire, sell or swap any kind of transport in existence. Rocket trains shoot right through the middle of it and wormholes can transport you instantaneously if you can afford it. Who hasn’t spent a day in London and wish they had a copy of the noise cancelling headphones that the Doctor deploys here? Legislation is the order of the day on Calibris but as it has proven impossible in the past, the planetoid is true to form. Crime simply thrives here and any attempt to control that is counterproductive to how the place works. The time reaver is the deadliest of weapons and it doesn’t even kill you. Outlawed in every galaxy, banned by every civilisation, this time modulator can stretch time so a moment can last an eternity. Imagine being caught in a time reaver bomb blast where you feel the pain for months. If you get shot by a time reaver when you’re happy you will crave it for the rest of your very short life. In pain, you will never recover. Every civilisation they have touched are a blasted heath. Some people try and time reave themselves and prolong happy experiences. The Time Reaver was never meant to be a weapon, the Viscinteans are a collective race and the plan was for the whole race to die watching the final sunset on their world whilst being shot with a time reaver.

Audio Landscape: Nice to see Big Finish exploring the crazy, no budget (within reason) universe of the new series with a thriving and imaginative alien community being brought to life here. It does us well to remember that the Russell T Davies years of the show weren’t just domestic drama but there was a great deal of off world action too. And it creates a lovely contrast to the first story in the set. The crazy, busy, bustling atmosphere of Calibris, octopi alien voices, smashing glasses, an elongated scream when the time reaver is fired, a wormhole delivering passengers, the bizarre electronic whining that is passing as music where the busker has to be paid to stop, smashing through the door,

Musical Cues: Howard Carter, one of my favourite Big Finish musicians, is on hand to provide a sweeping, bombastic score for this story. Plenty of Big Finish adventures feature sweeping, bombastic scores so it is to Carter’s credit that this one stood out as much as it did. He has a way of punctuating the action in a very snappy way. Every time the Doctor or Donna ended up running I felt as though I was being dragged along with them and that was mostly thanks to Carter’s music.

Isn’t it Odd:
The very thing that makes this story so unique might be the reason that alienates a section of the audience. Whilst a pretty traditional Doctor Who story is playing out in this audio the presentation of Calibris is quite out of the ordinary. Glaringly loud and obtrusive alien voices compete with a strikingly assaulting soundscape which might just be too much for some people’s ears. Cora is remarkably na├»ve to think that people would only buy the time reaver for party’s and nice things like that. When time bending technology is up for grabs you know somebody is going to leap in and try and exploit it for nefarious purposes.

Standout Moment: It’s a fanboy moment but I couldn’t help but love the little reference to ‘there’s something on your back.’ Anything that reminds me of Turn Left is bound to put a smile on my face.

Result: Jenny Colgan comes up trumps with an engaging series four tale, sporting a great central idea and a pleasing, ‘out there’ location. There’s plenty of opportunity for the tenth Doctor to shake his fist and moralise and Donna provides sterling emotional support in a tale that looks like it is going to be all plot but has a surprisingly affecting second half. On the whole I was impressed with the immersive and creative soundscape and I applaud the choice to do something different. However, there were times when this audio was a bit too noisy for its own good and I was looking to find some noise cancelling ear pods for myself. Calibris is one of those big, bold SF locations that the new series throws into the mix to keep things interesting (think The Rings of Akhaten for colour and imagination and Satellite Five for ambience) and I really enjoyed how the setting took on a life of its own, mostly thanks to the Doctor and Donna’s differing reactions. Tennant and Tate feel as though they have never been away and they imbue their characters with such enthusiasm and clearly relish the chemistry that it is effortless to enjoy them. Some of the Big Finish new series output has lacked the spunk of the series but that isn’t a problem with the 10th Doctor box set. This is the winning filling of a very satisfying sandwich and it provides Colgan with another top notch credit to her name: 8/10