Thursday, 29 June 2017

A Life of Crime written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Come to Ricosta! Tropical climate, untouched beaches, fabulous cuisine... and no extradition treaties. The perfect retirement planet for a certain type of 'business person' – such as Ms Melanie Bush, formerly the co-owner of the Iceworld emporium, now on the run from her former criminal associate's criminal associates... Some other former associates of Ms Bush are abroad in this space Costa del Crime, however. Not long ago, the time and space traveller known as the Doctor arrived here, alongside his sometimes-criminal associate, the reformed juvenile offender Ace. But now the Doctor's gone missing – and Melanie Bush is about to learn that on the planet Ricosta, the wages of sin... are death.

The Real McCoy: Nice try in attempting to convince that the Doctor has regenerated into Gloria but it would need to be executed with much more panache, both in terms of writing and direction, to be even halfway convincing. It’s a twist not worthy of a cliff-hanger, which Fitton denies it. Did they release part one for free with the hook of the possible regeneration to lure people in? Ginny Holder lacks any kind of personality, which would have made her the most subdued Doctor of all time. The Doctor thought that Mel wanted to travel with Glitz to see the wonders of the universe? Yeah, even McCoy can’t make that sound convincing. What could expose you to more wonders than the TARDIS? He also suggests that he thought that Mel might be a good influence on Glitz, rather than the other way around. Mel questions whether the Doctor is the imposter after all because he genuinely questioned whether she was doing the right thing or not.

Oh Wicked: The story felt quite fun until Ace showed up fifteen minutes in, all mouth and smugness. Am I wrong in suggesting that this story might have played out quite unusually (in a good way) without her? Sophie Aldred is shouting her head almost as soon as she ducks out the TARDIS. Subtlety has left the building. She’s accusatory to those in power (‘how much do the gangsters bung you to turn a blind eye?’), dismissive, insulting and wails like an insane banshee on heat. I’ve long given up on expecting new facets to her character (she’s appeared in more stories now across every media – TV, print, audio, comic – than any other companion) but to revert to this dreadfully childish and nauseating immaturity really grates on the nerves. We need the Doctor for the scenes where he reunites with Mel (that’s the point of the story, after all) but he could have easily have gone solo here and dispensed Ace infecting the story with its weakest moments. There’s talk of muzzling Ace in episode two, which would have been nice. Anything to shut her up. The story bothers to make the audience ten steps ahead of Ace when it comes to the fake regeneration, and she comes as being shockingly naive for it.

Aieeeeeeee: In contrast to Aldred, Bonnie Langford sounds as though she left the series last week but I guess that is the advantage of being slightly older when she played the role on television. I fail to comprehend whether this is supposed to be a seasoned Melanie who has picked up a few tricks from Glitz along the way or the wide-eyed screamer that we (ahem) enjoyed in season 24. So Bonnie plays the role somewhere in between and commits to neither. Mel was always in rather a lot of trouble when she travelled with the Doctor, so she should be accustomed to it. The Nosferatu has been impounded because they couldn’t pay the tax when they arrived at Ricosta. The idea of Mel wanting to leave with Glitz in the first place was suspect (it felt like a writer trying to ditch a character with no clue of how to do so) – she’s such a squeaky-clean Miss it felt completely out of character for her to go on the run with a bit of rough crook like Glitz. I thought maybe this trilogy would delve into her motive a little but that was asking a little much. The big twist in A Life of Crime is that Mel is still every bit the upstanding do gooder she ever was and that she has been cleaning up Glitz’s exploits as best she can. Really? Four episodes to learn that Mel has not developed one iota in her travels with an ardent conman? Mel literally states that things are black and white, right and wrong and that is how she sees things. That’s precisely how she was characterised on television and why she was so unsatisfying to watch. It isn’t, however, how she has been characterised on audio and with some of her better stories she has been afforded much more complex set of ideals. I do hope we’re not reverting to the ‘how utterly evil’ Melanie Bush of old. That would leave all the excellent work that Big Finish have done with her character since The Fires of Pompeii in the dust.

Great Ideas: A race that devoured the quantum possibilities of the soul, that’s an idea worth exploring beyond slavering aliens that simply want to eat people. It has a lot of potential to be explored in a dramatic way. These monsters just want to gobble up the Doctor because he has the most fascinating amount of latent futures.

Musical Cues: I appreciate that there are only a few ways on audio to make this have the same feel of a glitzy (no pun intended) heist movie and music is one of them but the moments when the hipster beat kicked in as criminal plans were made I wanted to blush to my toenails. Doctor Who is rarely this cheesy.

Isn’t it Odd: I can’t have been the only person to groan when I heard what the line-up for this trilogy was going to be, can I? Big Finish seems determined to play out every possibility, to fill in every gap of continuity and to return to what might have beens (such as here) with careless abandon to fill up their schedules. Dragonfire is hardly the dramatic zenith of Doctor Who and the Mel and Ace combination, while cute, hardly expressed enough chemistry to order up two trilogies worth of adventures with them. There has been so much material with Ace now I’ve given up all hope of trying to fit in where stories belong and the idea that Sophie Aldred still sounds like a teenager from the 80s is just absurd. When they grew the character up during the Hex years it was a sound move, but recently there seems to have been a resurgence in ‘The Rapture’ style Ace, a middle-aged woman going ‘oh Ace!’ and shouting a lot to pretend that she is an angst-ridden teenager. It’s more than a little embarrassing, frankly. That’s clearly what we’re going for here, capturing the feel of a fresh new Ace and an experienced Mel (although Dragonfire seemed to portray them the other way around) and I think Alan Barnes is hoping this sounds as though they stepped into the TARDIS together when they left Svartos. It’s a neat idea for a one off story, but to suggest there were a whole series of adventure with this trio when the series went out of its way to avoid that seems a little…wanky. But hey, it’s not down to me to suggest what Big Finish experiment with. I might disagree with the idea of something like the locum Doctors where it feels like a random generator has selected a Doctor and companion from different eras just to tell a story…but you can bet your last dollar that there will fans out there desperate for ANY new demand. And whilst there is a calling for new material, who cares about creative dignity? Besides, haven’t we done this already with Older Nyssa? And older Peri? As unconvincing as it is, surely the revelation that Gloria is the Doctor should have been the cliff-hanger rather than another unconvincing moment of jeopardy featuring McCoy gurning? Where is Glitz? Was Tony Selby not interested? The story always feels as if it is building up to a surprise appearance by everybody’s favourite crook that never happens. It leaves an unfinished taste in the mouth. The cliffhanger to episode two is the Doctor revealing that he is still in his old skin to his companions? That’s something we have been privy to throughout the episode! If you’re going to blow a kiss in the direction of another episode (in this case Turn Left) then make sure that the quality of your story is comparable, otherwise you run the risk of having egg on your face when you deal with the same ideas less effectively. There’s a dismal moment in the third episode where Mel and Ace are literally describing (for an audience that cannot see). ‘Look at all those ships! They’re huge! They’re blotting out the sky!’ ‘Tentacles! Covered in mouths! And they’re everywhere!’ ‘Those tentacles have wrecked the place and now they’re just hanging there…waiting!’ When the story boils down to Ace screaming ‘jump on this, barnacle features!’ whilst battling with giant tentacles, you know you’ve been taken for a ride. This far into Big Finish’s run I expect audio stories that present genuinely gripping scenarios like The Peterloo Massacre, not hideous audio action punctuated by cringeworthy acting and dialogue.

Standout Scene: The Speravores eat criminals, absorb their alternative realities at the quantum level. Every decision, the bigger the repercussions, the tastier the nectar. Some species have a collective consciousness, they have a collective digestive system. The sustenance that a multiverse of possibilities brings. Every wrong turn, every robbery, every crime, every moment of death, ever decisions good or bad. And it is delicious. And the scene where we experience this first hand is the best executed of the story.

Result: I went in with low expectations, and still managed to come out disappointed. Remember Grand Theft Cosmos, the witty, pacy heist story nestled in the third season of Eighth Doctor and Lucy adventures? That was how to tell this kind of sleight of hand, Ocean’s Eleven style romp, in an hour with plenty of twists and turns to fill it with surprises. A Life of Crime has similar pretentions but is twice as long as so it has to pad out the story with endless dialogue that forces the proceedings to a plod. It takes more than a (humiliatingly) hip musical score to convince this is an intergalactic caper. What this story really needs to sell that angle is energy and plenty of it. I felt as if I was being pulled in too many directions at times and that there was a lack of focus throughout; is this a story about the Doctor meeting up with an old friend, a regeneration tale, an alien attack action piece or a criminal operation in space? It’s all four and it doesn’t do any of them justice. The guest characters lacked sparkle, which is as much down to the performances as it is the writing with the star role of Gloria being a let-down, given the possibility of who she might be. I wish this had been a one-off story featuring just Mel following her exploits, they could have roped in Tony Selby as Glitz and gone to town on a giddy heist adventure. Most of episode one plays out just fine without the Doctor and Ace and I feel it could have continued very nicely in that vein. Saying that, I’m not certain if the universe is ready for The Melanie Bush Adventures. Episode three was my favourite because it spent a few moments to consider the reunion between the Doctor and Mel and we got to experience the digestion of a criminal by one of the Speravores, but ultimately that episode devolves into a horrible noisy mess. Top heavy with unconvincing elements and lacking pizazz, this is a criminal caper where the vault is empty: 4/10


Anonymous said...

Big finish has an especially weird habit of locking Ace in one mode. They actually don't have to do that in my opinion. They've moved beyond such things with other characters like Mel and Perry. It's a bit weird. She can still shout. Just have her change the song track every now and then in the story.

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Anonymous said...

Glitz wasn't in it because Toby wasn't well enough and eventually declared retirement.