Sunday, 14 May 2017

Dethras written by Adrian Poynton and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: In the control room of a World War 2 submarine something strange has started to happen. As the ship runs out of control, its crew begin to fall unconscious... Finding the submarine in the last place they'd have expected, the Doctor and Romana are confronted by a mystery. Once fully populated, there are now only three men on board. And there's now also a chimpanzee. What has happened to the rest of the crew? What are the strange noises they can hear outside the hull? And most importantly, who, or what, is Dethras?

Teeth and Curls: Since bypassing the Randomiser the universe has been the Doctor’s to explore again. It’s put him in a very good mood. In contrast Romana sounds like she is ready to top herself. She thinks that the device is still need to help them evade the Black Guardian but the Doctor, mischievous as ever, decides that they can alternative. One journey with the Randomiser for her, one without chosen by him. He can’t decided whether he loves it when Romana agrees with him or not because she’s quite fun when she’s bossy. Just when you think the situation is impossible, the universe always finds ways to make it even moreso (that’s a Douglas Adams script, surely). The Doctor thinks up a quite ingenious method of escaping the damaged submarine on the spot, it’s a great example of his improvisational genius. Listen to how he growls ‘where did you hide the submarines crew?’ I wouldn’t want to be the wrong side of this Doctor when he sounds that venomous. ‘For a genius you really are rather thick!’ ‘You’re arrogant as well as stupid!’ Dethras just goes to show how effective Tom Baker’s Doctor can be when he is handed a script that fails to allow Tom Baker to indulge in crazy antics because there are so many gaps in the narrative to fill. This story has two episodes worth of dramatic content and he has to stick to the script. The resulting characterisation of the Doctor is as stripped back and effective as we have seen in a while.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We’re like sardines in a can!’

Great Ideas: What appears to be an abandoned submarine – far more in keeping with the tombstone that is season eighteen than jolly Victorian London and glossy 1920s Hollywood. Whilst this isn’t the first attempt at capturing the thrill of a naval vessel in space (Enlightenment), the concept of a submarine that is floating amongst the stars is a novel one. And novelty is something I need in this range. The Stargazer’s halo, a vast spaceship junkyard in a ring around a long dead planet. That’s terribly evocative and mysterious. I could imagine a whole series of adventures taking place in a setting like that. Some real science is brought into play at last, discussion about the pressures that a submarine can tolerate. If they are in space then why aren’t they floating in Zero-G? Dethras is known as the Einstein of evolution, the greatest mind on that subject in the universe. He vanished without trace, running and hiding from a universe that was unsafe. He achieved his life’s work and unlocked hyper evolution. He created an army of super soldiers, people who could hyper evolved into the highest form of human being. He sold his science, it was the only way of getting living subjects to experiment on. Flague refuses to be a slave again and is on a pre-emptive mission to destroy everything in her path in order to achieve that. She calls it a dream of peace but it’s a pretty chilling version of peace. Dethras knew the power of what he discovered and that it couldn’t fall into anyone else’s hands. Warriors that could be dropped into any environment and evolve and adapt to survive and prosper. Imagine that technology in the wrong hands? That’s why he tried to destroy his own work. One night he destroyed his research. The very presence of the Doctor and Romana means that the characters around them are evolving into smarter creatures, including a new latent telepathic ability. An unstoppable storm, ready to destroy the universe, the work of an architect that is looking for universal peace, using a science that never should have been unleashed.

Audio Landscape: Dethras features a very clever audio device of its characters being able to experience the memories of others, one that is captured chillingly because we experience it along with them. The creatures breaking in and the Doctor shattering the hull is one of the most buttock clenching sequences this range has ever put out. There were moments when I felt a Twin Peaks vibe in episode two, unnerving synth music underscoring the revelations. The flashbacks in episode two are quite gripping, giving real drama to the exposition.

Musical Cues: A disquieting, mysterious score that matches the tone of the writing perfectly. Robertson is perfectly in sync with Poynton, shying away from his usual orchestral bombast and focussing on the tight location and intrigue instead.

Isn’t It Odd: Should we be concerned with a cliff-hanger that spells out who the villain is even though we know absolutely nothing about him yet? I rather like the writers who don’t bother to create a moment of false jeopardy (because those rarely work when focusing on characters that we know can’t die in audio stories because they are written out in television ones) but a pivot in the plot so it can head off in a new direction. However, we are in command of none of the basic facts that make that new direction an exciting one so this cliff-hanger simply left me thinking ‘Dethras who?’ It’s not such a problem, because you’re about to find out with his reveal but you have to wonder if the moment could have had more impact had it been before.

Standout Scene: There's a reason why the previous stories in this series have felt more like season seventeen than eighteen...because this is the point where they decide to head to Brighton in The Leisure Hive!

Result:
One of many refreshing things about Dethras is that it constantly throws surprises at you, not everything is spelt out from the word go. I like to be kept guessing. It’s also chock a block full of tasty ideas from the unusual location reveal to the unique nature of the metamorphosis of several characters. There is a tenseness and claustrophobia that feels exclusive in this range and the strong layers of science fiction means that a story in series six can finally live up to its claim to take place in season eighteen. If you know what I mean. I was pleased to see Romana take a large chunk of the action. Lately it has felt like she is not only a companion to the Doctor but a peripheral element to the stories taking place but the character was always a dominating factor in her stories, thanks to Lalla Ward’s commanding presence. Ward has generally just been a bit grumpy this season (probably due to the lack of interesting material for her character) and it is nice to see her (and Romana) engaging in a story worthy of her. Check out my Great Ideas section, which is three times as long as is the norm for this range, Poynton is really trying to include as many fresh concepts as possible and the direction by Nick Briggs is just a step up from its normal level of effectiveness as though he knows he is onto a winner with this tale. The story is content to be dramatic throughout with no idiosyncratic characters for the fourth Doctor to indulge in his trademark witticisms with, just misguided people for him to condemn. There’s no real villain here, which makes the characters more complex than usual, just characters who are ill-advised and like the Doctor improvising because they believe they are doing the right thing. Dethras isn’t trying to redefine Doctor Who as we know it, it wants to get on with telling an involving, well plotted story where the interest levels are high. It succeeds admirably. Proof that a story of this denseness can be told in the one hour format: 8/10
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