Sunday, 21 May 2017

Vortex Ice written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: In search of ‘exotic particles’, the Doctor and Flip arrive 700 feet underground, in a mine in Northern Mexico – only to run into a scientific expedition. Among their number, an exobiologist. They’re all on the hunt for alien life! Deep underground, the team finally uncovers a cave of vast crystals – like ice, despite the heat. And inside the crystal: something frozen. Something trapped in time. If only it were something simple, like a monster. But it’s far, far worse than that.

Softer Six: The Doctor and Flip are great fun together, concocting a silly cover story as to how they found themselves in the mine. If there is a Time Lord down the mine, there are quite a few candidates that he has no desire to meet up with. Proceeding with caution, then. Asking the future Flip whether the rest of the characters make it out alive or not is a violation of temporal law…but I’d probably be cheeky and just do it anyway. The temporal jiggery pokery that the Doctor has to explain in episode two is nothing to Colin Baker, he doesn’t even break a sweat. The Doctor leaping from the TARDIS and tempting the cyborg with tasty Artron energy is a lovely image. Ever the showman, he loves to make an entrance. The Doctor thinks his future self is the most rude, incorrigible, handsome and intelligent person he has ever met. It is the curse of the time traveller to know there are lives you cannot save and injustices that you cannot avert.

Flippin’ Heck: Flip continues to impress, asking lots of sensible questions about their location and the temperature. Jonathan Morris practically seems to acknowledge that they have finally figured out how to make this character work when he has the Doctor ask ‘you’re full of questions today, Flip.’ According to the Doctor, one of her most likeable qualities is her recklessness. Because she is so salt of the earth and friendly I can believe that Flip could get along with pretty much anybody. For me that is one of her best features. She develops friendships quickly with guest characters in her stories because they take a shine to her. Going back to her opening salvo of adventures I think that the majority of listeners would be appalled by a Flip meets Flip adventure, such was the reaction to her character. But now opinion seems to have mellowed considerably and it is an engaging idea to have her meet a future iteration of herself. To have your every characteristic mirrored back at you. Flip being told to let people die to maintain the timeline is a very powerful moment, because it is antithetical to her character to not at least try and help. Flip gets a valuable insight into the Doctor’s responsibility as a time traveller. For once it’s she who has the foresight and cannot do anything about it.

Sparkling Dialogue:
‘I’ll explain later’ – we’re used to the Doctor saying this to chip his companions off so it is especially satisfying to have Flip toss the phrase at the Doctor in a similar way.
‘I’ve always wondered what it’s like when I come to the rescue.’
‘You did not set the TARDIS to vanish when you say hey presto!’ ‘No, it’s on a timer.’

Great Ideas: It’s fascinating to see a Main Range story being told in such an economic way (with regards to time) because Morris immediately cuts out all the flab of the first episode and has the Doctor and Flip meet the guest characters instantly (no overlong TARDIS scene here, unusual for this period of the series) and gives us a clear introduction of them. I have long complained that the Main Range stories are far too long and meander but Vortex Ice gets right to the point in a very engaging way. Much more like it. Trapped underground, you already have a claustrophobic environment. Over 100 miners were killed in an explosion in the mine years ago and their bodies were never found. Artron energy has been detected in the mine, energy that is only usually found in the brain of a Time Lord or a TARDIS. There’s oxygen and condensation to drink in the lower levels, so the trapped miners must have died of starvation. 100 years ago the miners dug up the remains of an alien spacecraft that had been under the ground for millions of years. A creature trapped in the crystal like a fly in amber. It is the pilot, half organic, half machine trapped in vortex ice, crystalline stasis. Within the ice the passage of time is brought to a standstill.

Audio Landscape: Falling masonry, creaking TARDIS door, sliding down ropes, cracking ice, a scream in the distance, lots of atmosphere down in the caves, the screech of a cyborg pilot, the secretion of vortex ice, freezing and cracking into place, time freezing around the Doctor and Flip.

Musical Cues: Listen to that 80s-synth slavered all over this story. It’s Vortex ice has gotten up on its hind legs from that decade and tottered along to the release schedules three decades later. It’s wonderfully authentic. There’s even a little snatch of the theme tune, Keff McCulloch style.

Standout Scene: It worked a treat in The Space Museum when the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki saw a portent of their future as museum exhibits…and it works just as well in Vortex Ice when the sixth Doctor and Flip come face to face with themselves trapped in the ice. Wearing the clothes they are wearing now, it is a shocking vision of what is to come. It was especially satisfying because I was sure it was going to wind up being the Master (especially when the Doctor sighed ‘not him!’). The last line made me laugh out loud.

Result: Trapped underground and with lots of nasty surprises awaiting them, Vortex Ice hands the sixth Doctor and Flip a punchy, engaging adventure. Some audios struggle to find one decent idea to hang their narrative on and Vortex Ice greedily has three and a mystery; the Doctor and Flip encased in the ice, the alien spaceship that was disturbed and Flip meeting a future iteration of herself…and the mystery of what happened to the miners to boot. Condensing a main range story down to two episodes has done them the world of good, slicing away all the narrative belly fat and paring the story right down the bone. It’s tightly plotted and there are surprises every few minutes or so. The guest characters didn’t exactly light my fire but there are simply there to service the plot and for the regulars to discuss the ideas with. A strong set up episode leads into a complicated but satisfying conclusion, giving Lisa Greenwood some really fun material to play with. Having the Doctors meet one another is old hat (and Sixie even got to meet himself in The Wrong Doctors to excellent comic effect) but companion squared is fresh and interesting. I’m surprised at how much effort Big Finish have put into making Flip work as a companion given it appeared she was written out very early on in her run, but I’m not disappointed because it is paying off in spades. She’s a lot fun and very likeable and Greenwood (who has always been very engaging) is finally getting the plaudits she deserves. You might need a couple of listens to this to get your head around the spaghetti junction plotting (I heard it twice) but it’s worth it because the resulting story is very entertaining. It’s my first footsteps into the main range since the last sixth Doctor trilogy and I’m pleased I did: 8/10

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