Sunday, 28 May 2017

Cortex Fire written by Ian Potter and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The Doctor brings Flip to the futuristic city of Festin, the best vantage point to witness a unique astronomical light show. In a city governed by the all-powerful network known as the Cortex, they’re soon identified as outsiders – nihilists, perhaps, responsible for a wave of terror that’s been sweeping the city… But the truth is different. The people of Festin are burning up. Spontaneously combusting. And no-one knows why.

Softer Six: The TARDIS is a ship of immense power, a delicacy and she has to be coaxed into normal space time by a pilot of enormous skill. The Doctor has bought Flip here to see a show. He’s still dazzling her with the wonders of the universe. The Doctor has seen this kind of light show before…but never through Flip’s eyes before. It’s nice to hear him admitting that this is a reason that he travels with a companion. Déjà vu is a strange feeling to have when you have vu’ed as much as the Doctor has. Where he comes from he is considered positively Plebeian. The Doctor is such a menace on the roads that he has to be restrained by his own air car, the air bags being used to hold and incapacitate him. Pertwee’s Doctor would have respected the road, Colin’s just tears from roadway to roadway maniacally. Sixie is never more effective than when he gets to unleash moral outrage and an extra dimensional force that has raised and is willing to destroy an entire civilisation as a bridge to get home is just the sort of abhorrent force he can rail against. I like that he tries to reason with them before bringing them down. This is a Doctor who will give you a chance before he bludgeons you with a pipe. He can’t punish the Urge by killing it, that would take the destruction of a whole world.

Flippin’ Heck: Another confident showing for Flip, with Greenwood effortlessly established in the role by now. She has the advantage of youth, so why does she complain so much about the physical aspects of their adventures. She’s not great with musicals either. Is she good at sweet talking aliens? She must be, she travels with the Doctor after all. She’s met people from other worlds before and she forgets what it must be like for other people meeting her. Flip is particularly adept during stressful moments, thinking quickly and acting even quicker. She frees the Doctor from incarceration in the least subtle way imaginable, but it’s very effective all the same. She’s making a habit of rescuing people these days. Flip doesn’t need grand operas and star destroying light shows, Punch and Judy and a bag of chips will do her. I like that she can bring the Doctor down to Earth like that. Flip questions her own impulsiveness, wondering if the Urge is something that is in everybody or whether it is just a local phenomenon.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Let’s just hope the Festin unconscious isn’t like your mum.’
‘This whole civilisation exists simply for you to annihilate it!’
‘Destruction is what you crave…and for that you deserve to live.’

Great Ideas: You almost have to admire the gall of audio Doctor Who adventures that stress impressive visuals as the centre of attraction on a planet when we will never get to see what they are talking about. However, there is nothing so limitless as the imagination and I can certainly conjure up a dazzling effect given the writers description of the light shows on this planet. The cars on Festin are levitated electromagnetically since Festin has an exceptionally strong electromagnetic field which the locals have exploited. The skies of Festin are a constantly shifting lattice of projected energy roadways. The magnetic field causes glorious light shows where charged particles enter the upper atmosphere, a lot like the Northern Lights. And it is this light show that the Doctor has bought Flip to see, a display that brings alive an unforgettable opera. Light days are a sub division of light years. The closest star exploded one and a half days ago but it can still be seen intact because the light from it exploding hasn’t arrived yet. As the Doctor and Flip sit in the arena, energy from it’s death will bombard the ionosphere and cause a spectacular light show with a suitable tragic edge, the perfect staging for an opera. Gay characters in a 1980s story is something that would have been absolutely forbidden but it’s nice to see that being addressed in the audios, especially when it is done as subtly as it is here. The Cortex is the city admin net, it assigns employment, plans airways paths, enforces law… Are the people being nudged along pre-determined tracks, just as the cars are being directed along airways? Why would the Cortex be building roadways in the atmosphere where the destructive light of a dying star could reach them? A whole society that has been kept deliberately on edge for some time. The Nihilists are the ones who simply cannot cope with it. Time Lord books reach into dimensions that normal books cannot. The people of Festin have turned something that once helped their people survive into something that now threatens their existence. The Urge is from another dimension, anchored in this space and wrapped in matter and serial time, woven into every creature that exists here. It’s only a slither of themselves. They wish to enter their own realm again and the organisation of Festin’s destruction is to help achieve that. The space programme’s function was to take rockets to Fetonus and destroy it. The whole planet, it’s roadways, it’s people, have been engineered to create a way home for the Urge. A planet sized neural network.

Audio Landscape: Air cars tearing through the sky, screaming, sirens, a raging explosion, car horns, running water, water and electricity mixing, causing sparks, a collapsing tower, police robot, heart monitor, cell door hissing open, rewinding a tape, madness on the roadways.

Musical Cues: Like Vortex Ice, the music has a refreshingly melodramatic 80s feel to it. This time it is like plastic wallpaper, not unpleasant to listen to but persistent during the action scenes and dragging the story to a sprint at times.

Standout Scene: Self-sacrifice runs deep in this culture, and a scene that features suicide of one character to try and control the urge to hurt others is very effective. I’m not sure this sort of thing would have ever passed the censors on television.

Result: Some impressive high concept world building, conjured up at real speed. The Doctor and Flip are dropped into a deadly situation that is already in full swing and are forced to keep up with the local developments. Cortex Fire covers a lot of ground and moves at an incredible rate, quite the opposite of your standard main range adventure. I might run the risk of contradicting myself and say that this needed the length of a full length four parter to justify and explore the ideas that are presented here but I was certainly engaged by the rate at which new ideas kept coming. Ian Potter lays out all the ingredients in the first episode (the destruction of a nearby star, the nihilists, the destructive capability of the people, the Cortex) but without the explanation of how each element segues together it feels heavy with concepts. The second episode strikingly weaves everything into an epic masterplan, even ideas that feel superfluous contributing to an impressively arresting scheme. Whilst there have been monsters from other dimensions before, the Urge is presented in an original way with a way of thinking that simply does not recognise humanoid life as anything other than disposable tools. The Doctor and Flip continue to shine together with more moments of the pair of them trying to see the universe through each other’s eyes. Pairing this story with Vortex Ice is effective in that regard, they’ve each been given an insight into the others way of thinking across the pair of tales. I would like to hear more from Ian Potter in this range, he clearly has a fertile imagination and Cortex Fire bursts with inventiveness: 8/10

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