Monday, 18 December 2017

The Higher Price of Parking written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The planet Dashrah is a world of exceptional beauty. Historical ruins; colourful skies; swirling sunsets… Unsurprisingly, it’s a major tourist trap. So if you want to visit Dashrah, first you’ll have to visit Parking, the artificial planetoid that Galactic Heritage built next door. Parking, as its name implies, is a spaceship park. A huge spaceship park. A huge, enormous spaceship park. When the TARDIS materialises in Parking’s Northern Hemisphere, the Doctor, Ace and Mel envisage a quick teleport trip to the surface of Dashrah. But they’ve reckoned without the superzealous Wardens, and their robotic servitors… the sect of the Free Parkers, who wage war against the Wardens… the spontaneously combusting spaceships… and the terrifying secret that lies at the lowest of Parking’s lower levels.

The Real McCoy: One thing I appreciated a lot was Dorney’s handling of the regulars in this story, not so much their individual characterisation which is still troublesome given when this story is supposed to be set but rather the feeling that they have been travelling together for some time now and are working together as an effective unit. The first trilogy featuring ‘older Mel’ (what is it with these ‘older companion’ stories?) really felt as though the three characters were fighting against one another, rather than working together to form an effective team. Dorney rectifies that by simply letting them get on well, discuss things in a reasonable manner and working together to extradite themselves from tricky situations. If there’s one thing the Doctor hates it’s cheating, those time travellers who have their thumbs in the back of the book on the answers page rather than unearthing a mystery for its own sakes. I do have to keep pinching myself to remember that this run of stories is set post-Hex because there is relatively little in the way of characterisation of the Doctor and Ace to make it believable. When Ace pokes fun at the Doctor’s scheming ways I suddenly became aware that this isn’t set in early days of season 25. The Doctor is reluctant to empty capacious pockets, maybe McCoy was scared that his script would make an appearance.

Oh Wicked: Is Ace really advocating negotiation over a violent solution? I usually praise John Dorney to the high heavens for his superlative characterisation but in this instance I have to wonder if he has spent any great amount of time with the character in questions, which I know he would have because he is a Doctor Who fan. As such I have to assume this was either written with a knowing wink, which has been completely lost in translation by the director who has Sophie Aldred deliver this anti-violence agenda with absolute seriousness. ‘Your best chance, your only chance to survive this is to drop the weapons and talk!’ Ace ‘cor wicked Professor let’s blow it up with some nitro’ spouting rhetoric like that is just an insane contradiction.

Aieeeeeeee: ‘Of course we are’ says Mel with a sigh as they are arrested not long after setting foot on the planet. She’s come to expect nothing less when travelling with the Doctor. Who needs a sonic screwdriver when you have a Mel? If you like your Mel smart, capable and autonomous then you’ll love John Dorney’s handling of the character.

Standout Performance: Aside from the regulars, all the performances are a little arch to say the least. Another reason to stamp this with the Paradise Towers badge of honour. Ace might be bizarrely characterised, but I thought this was one of Sophie Aldred’s better performances in recent years. Praise where it is due. At least she was forced to shout hysterically throughout.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Animal Kind, your day is over.’

Great Ideas: With it’s emphasis on driving and a dramatic incident that sees two people scared for their lives, the opening scene took me back to Gridlock, and I could only hope that this story would be as effective and as emotive as the series three standout. Even the TARDIS is registered and given a receipt when parking on Dashrah. Being a major tourist attraction, Dashrah has a lot of visitors but also a very delicate eco system that requires preservation and the entire planet is looked after by the Galactic heritage: a sort of militarised, spacefaring National Trust (Mel and Glitz ran in to them at one point). If you want to visit you park your spaceship on a special planetoid called Parking, a large artificial one due to Dashrah’s popularity. Parking is broken down into three sets of people; the Wardens (Caretakers) holding the placer together with their bureaucracy, the Free Parkers (Kangs) who are opposed to the law of the land and the Natives (Rezzies) who have acclimatised to the setting and, well, gone native. Most of the interesting ideas pop up towards the end of the story with the sentient virus that is revolutionising the spaceships wishing to take control of the TARDIS and fill its data banks with her expanded mind. That’s a rather tasty notion, the TARDIS roaming the universe with a destructive virus, infecting systems throughout all time and space and causing a catastrophic AI revolution.

Isn’t it Odd: In the second episode a potted history is laid out but it is told with such laconic disinterest it was hard to get involved with the mythology. The Free Parkers are after a Free Parking, sometimes science fiction goes for the simplest possible approach and you have to bury your head in your hands. It is a common problem in science fiction I find that it is hard to involve yourself in the complications of an alien world when you find yourself distanced because you never quite believed in that world in the first place. Parking never truly comes alive because I found the characters lacking, usually they are a window in the way a world works but the examples we have here of the natives, the free parkers and the wardens never gave me that insight into Parking that would have allowed me to recognise that this was a living, breathing place. As a result, when terrorist attacks start to occur, I found myself shrugging rather than tensing up in fear and support for these people. Why should I care if these people are killed, they were never truly alive for me in the first place? ‘If we don’t help each other now, the spaceships will kill us all!’ is the line that sees the different factions on Parking start working together to bring down their common enemy. It’s copied and pasted from the last episode of Paradise Towers and Maddy’s ‘we’re very sorry and we won’t do it again’ speech.

I’m at a loss to figure out what isn’t clicking about these Seven/Ace/Mel adventures; it seems to be a mixture of the characterisation of the regulars and overall quality of the scripts and stories. We’ve had a crime caper that simply wasn’t much fun, a historical that traded it’s interesting setting for tenapenny science fiction, a revenge story that is weighed down with hideous twists, melodrama and crushing dialogue and now a Paradise Towers rip off that fails to ignite any real passion or adventure. What we need is either a really powerful character tale that will cement this team as one to watch or just a knockout story that utilises them all very effectively. At the moment we’ve had four less than impressive tales that makes giving a damn about further adventures with them very hard to be concerned about.

Standout Scene: The concept of a heavily armed ship turning on people is fairly chilling one, and starting a spaceship revolution on a planet filled with spaceships is just bizarre enough to work. I’m not sure about the mad nod to The Invisible Enemy, mind (‘The Age of the Spaceship is here!’) and I would have liked for this to have been the premise of the entire story rather than a bolted-on threat at the climax. There’s far more to the premise of an AI revolution than is explored here.

‘What could possibly be worth all this?’ ‘Revolution, Doctor…’ I’ve heard comments that this story has the tone and type of schizophrenic content of season 24, but really it only shares strong similarities with Paradise Towers. The rule bound, dangerous location, comprised of three factions of people, the mystery at the heart of the oddball setting and the inconsistent tone. Like Paradise Towers it is a story with a fun premise (in this case a planetoid that is built around the concept of a car park) and the story is reasonably well constructed but I fail to comprehend why a writer would go out of their way so much to ape a story to this degree. Maybe John Dorney was hoping that people would turn around at the end and say it’s ‘just like Paradise Towers, but better’ when instead the general impression seems to be it’s ‘just like Paradise Towers, warts and all.’ I think Ken Bentley has done a lot of good work for Big Finish but he’s definitely a director who rises to the occasion depending on the quality of the script. Since The Higher Price of Parking walks an awkward line between comedy and drama, the production follows suit and I was unsure half the time whether I was supposed to be taking the material seriously or laughing at the sheer bizarreness of it all. It’s an odd feeling, and a firmer director might have take the story in one direction or the other. Although an out and out zany production might have sat a little weirdly with the story’s ultimately serious message…and yet a deadly serious tone wouldn’t have sat well with the oddball concepts. Tonally it’s a tricky one to get right. The characters fail to come alive and I didn’t feel like the actors ever believed in the people they were playing and so go for the panto approach by default. John Dorney’s first foray into the main range was the superlative The Fourth Wall, a dazzling high concept tale that had thoughtful things to say and featured the Doctor at his finest. Anybody hoping that Parking would follow suit might be bitterly disappointed. This is quirky, passable fun but as disposable as that sounds. Stop stretching your finest writers across so many ranges Big Finish, this kind of throwaway nonsense is what happens when a writer has had their talent pulled in too many directions. An extra point for eleventh hour excitement as the spaceships come to life and the revolution begins: 5/10


Guy Grist said...

I don't know am I the only one who is thinking that maybe Bug Finish have done everything that there is to do with Doctor Who? It's just a lot of their most recent content has felt a bit stail.

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