Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Static written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: Deep in the heart of nowhere, near a place called Abbey Marston, there’s a caravan site. The perfect place to get away from it all. Close by, there’s a stone circle they used for human sacrifice in olden times. A little further afield, there’s an old RAF research station, where they did hushhush things in the War. There’s only one rule: the use of radios, cassette recorders and portable televisions is strictly forbidden. People come here to get away from it all, you see. No-one wants to hear the noise. No-one wants to hear the voices in the static… No-one wants to hear the ghosts.

Softer Six: Much of interest to discuss about the sixth Doctor in this story, how his character has developed and where he could go after the events of this story. It seems Colin Baker cannot really get a break, either he’s too acerbic and violent on television or he’s too cuddly and toothless on audio. I don’t think either is especially true – he could certainly be very charming on television (remember him brandishing flowers for Janet in Terror of the Vervoids) and I can recall many times where he has been far from amiable on audio (his rant about the Seriphia galaxy in The Apocalypse Element, his tension with Charley, the return of his spikier persona in The Wrong Doctors, his lack of any remorse in murdering the Valeyard in The Last Adventure). But even Colin Baker admits there is a gulf between his television persona and his Big Finish one. It’s a swing very much in his favour in my book but there have been some occasions lately where it seems he has lost that dangerous edge that made him so exciting a character in the first place in favour of becoming an old smoothy-pants with the ladies he keeps company lately. The Behemoth put that Doctor left of centre, but The Middle then saw a welcome return of the morally righteous and confrontational sixth Doctor of old, and now Static introduces something quite different, quite unlike a sixth Doctor we have ever seen before. One who is a little cold, a little calculating and a little desperate. After being such a sociable fellow, it’s like a cup of ice water being thrown in your face. Percy recognises the Doctor immediately, setting in motion this journey for the sixth Doctor. When the Doctor sees danger signs, it is practically a welcome mat for him. I love how he pieces together the mystery so concisely, taking each element of the story (the mist, the stone circle, the manor, the return of the dead, the Static) and piecing it all together (with a few false but plausible guesses along the way). His anger at the Static is palpable, disgusted that they are hijacking the bodies of the dead being returned to life. It isn’t a moral objection (like The Unquiet Dead) but more a simple abhorrence of the idea itself. He’s rarely had to face anything this ghoulish. Morris puts the Doctor in the horrible position of arriving on the scene just a few seconds too late to save Constance. This isn’t like Adric’s death which was set up so the Doctor couldn’t interfere, the sixth Doctor is simply too late to save his companion by a handful of heartbeats. She’s in this situation because he brought her in the TARDIS and he sent her to destroy the radios. She’s complicit, but he’s responsible. What an awful burden. And we get see this play out in real time with Constance still alive and struggling to breathe, die, and then a moment later the Doctor bursts in. It’s horrible. He’s angry at Percy for leaving her but he knows that this is his fault because she didn’t want to let him down. It transpires that the Doctor is responsible for Marston Manor being hushed up, and he’s also responsible for Percy’s unbearable situation. The Doctor orders him to stay, puts the weight of the Static’s possible return on his shoulders, informs him that he cannot see his family ever again. We know Percy is in this position because he is an old man when the Doctor meets him, we know he has to be put in this position to ensure everything stays that way. But it doesn’t make what the Doctor is commanding him to do any less callous or calculating. It’s an abominable ask of anybody, if anything the Doctor should have agreed to do it himself. Instead he turns a promising young officer into a twisted and frightened old man, trapped in a hellish void. It might be life after death, but it might as well be his own personal hell. The most disturbing thing? The Doctor’s insistence that he will contact Percy’s friends and family and tell them that he is dead. When they could go to the stone circle and spend time with him, he denies the man that comfort. Colin Baker plays the scene gently, but that somehow that makes it worse. The Doctor is responsible for Constance’s ID being on Percy in the future…did he do that because he simply couldn’t bear the idea of losing her like this? Because he knew Flip would remember her and bring her back? Would he put her through the horror of having to host the Static simply because her death isn’t something he wants on his conscience? So many interesting questions. If the Doctor was in control of his faculties when hosting the Static then he puts Flip through an emotional nightmare, the thought of sending Constance back to her death, to save the day. That’s almost seventh Doctor in approach. He gets off a little lightly at the climax given all the above. Because he manages to save the day and defeat the Static that seems to be enough to skip over all the choices he made along the way. The Static is still inside his mind, buzzing away. If we never hear about this again can we assume that it is there throughout all of his subsequent regenerations lives? Perhaps that is why his next incarnation is such a manipulative little beggar, why the 8th Doctor becomes the War Doctor, why the 9th Doctor was so condemning, the 10th so arrogant… There’s a suggestion that Percy thanked the Doctor for those extra years of life. Colin Baker doesn’t even sound convinced when he says the lines and part of me thinks that the Doctor made this up to smooth over his actions. Why would he thank him for such a terrible existence?

Constant Companion: It’s been on the cards for a while now that Constance has wanted to leave the Doctor, and she’s not making any secret of it anymore when they land and it isn’t where she belongs. Static toys with that idea in the cruellest possible way, the companion wanting to leave, getting within a hairs breath of achieving it and then when satisfied that she is as close as she will ever be, Constance dies in horrific circumstances. Jonathan Morris toys with that old trope spectacularly, and I was quite aghast at how punishing the story is on Constance. I’ve always liked her, ever since her Mel-like appearance out of order in The Last Adventure. Miranda Raison has always been very much in charge of the character, refusing to make her too cute and cuddly, always respecting the Doctor and being a very practical presence in her stories. At times Constance has been icier than the Doctor, but it’s true she has thawed a little, especially since the revelations about her husband. With the introduction of Flip, there’s been a feeling of the three characters locking into place in a very satisfying way and chance would have it the stories have all been of a superior nature too. How can we let go of this character now she has matured into such a strong presence in the audios?

Meeting Percy is also an unnerving experience for Constance, it’s the first step in the road to her death. He knows what happens to her and looks at her as if she has no right to exist. She respects the Doctor’s advice and thinks Flip should too. She wishes he would stop finding excuses for not taking them home, though. It feels like her life is on hold and she wants to resume it. Flip thinks he just finds it hard saying goodbye and so takes the scenic route home. Constance coming through the fog, recovering from smoke inhalation, is a truly frightening moment. We know how she is going to die, now we have to endure the agony of waiting for it to happen. She’s very straight with the Doctor about wanting to stay now she is as close to her time as he has ever managed to take her, but much gentler than, say Tegan, who used to simply berate the man for failing to get her exactly where she wanted to be. She considers lying low and getting a job and waiting to pick up things when she reaches the moment she left with the Doctor. It’s an understandable dilemma. Life with the Doctor is exciting but it isn’t stable and you can’t grow roots. It’s just chasing from one location to another. If you want a life, stability, loved ones, a family, it simply isn’t an option (as proven by Amy and Rory who were the closest to having a domestic life in the TARDIS but simply couldn’t enjoy it because of the nature of their life with the Doctor). Constance isn’t cruel in wanting to leave, she just wants to return to a life she was perfectly happy with and there is nothing wrong with that. She won’t hear that woman aren’t capable of a little action and sends Percy away to get the job done herself. It’s her downfall as the Static know that she is trying to prevent their arrival and take action against her. The Doctor sends Constance’s original body back to the fire to die with the Static inside her. The Constance we know and love has died. The duplicate might have her mind placed inside her, but this is not the woman who left with the Doctor in Bletchley Park. It’s remarkably similar to what happened with Fitz in the EDAs. Let’s see if the idea is dealt with in a similar way (mostly ignored, occasionally potently brought up) or if it will become a focus of their next trilogy of adventures.

Flippin’ Heck: I’m so pleased that so many of her detractors seem to have come around with Flip. I’ve always liked her and have considered her perfect companion fodder for the sixth Doctor (the reckless teen to his cautious old man) and Lisa Greenwood has always (despite some calling her accent irksome) delivered sparkling, enthusiastic performances. It’s her ability to talk to talk to people that is her greatest strength, to get close to the ‘little’ people in these adventures and give them some heart. That’s a vitally important role, one which is much underrated, because it takes these science fiction stories to a new a level where you genuinely care about the characters. Flip dives in head first and has a wild charm, thrusting out a hand to say hello regardless of who she is addressing. It’s true that the writers are treating the character more responsibly these days, which could be down to Constance’s presence, and they are giving her a more active presence in the stories. Morris created the character and so I would expect good things from him and he doesn’t disappoint, this is possibly her best story yet. Not because she exhibits any great knowledge or ingenuity, but because she smartly, humanely uncovers important elements of the mystery and because she has a personal stake in the story by the end that sees her protective streak emerge. When Joanna is clearly upset Flip tells the Doctor and Constance to leave it to her, that’s her strength. She doesn’t say anything she doesn’t mean and is glad to volunteer to stay whilst the Doctor and Constance head back in time to the RAF base at its height and investigate. Brave, as well as impulsive. Flip did a first aid course with St Johns Ambulance…I bet she never thought it would be applied to a comatose victim covered in biological glue. I loved how funny Flip can be, even in a desperate, dangerous situation. Her desperation to save Constance from being returned to her death is palpable, desperate. It’s an emotional high for Lisa Greenwood.

Standout Performance: Doctor Who always used to offer guest artists a reason to chomp at the bit for a part in the show, a chance to play something completely different to the norm on television and audio. Static hands David Graham a superb character in the form of Percy Till, who goes on the same journey as David Suchet’s character in Knock Knock, from a scary old man to a much more sympathetic figure. I would say this is handled much more effectively because there is a much riskier story behind the character. Graham gets to scare the pants off you before tearing your heart out and he does it all with absolute conviction. It’s a great part.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘There’s something about this place that means the dead don’t stay dead…’
‘You’re deliberately sending them back to their deaths!’ ‘That’s war. They’ve been granted a stay of execution. An hour’s living on borrowed time.’
‘Anyone who is brought back carries us within them.’
‘That gives you no right to use human beings as living lifeboats!’
‘We are also armed. And the dead outnumber the living.’
‘Oh Constance. Never giving up. Never giving in. Never give in.’
‘I did as you said, Doctor. I stayed.’

Great Ideas: The cover and teaser are the best in an age, both fantastically scary. The opening teaser is unforgettable, with Constance screaming for help in the ever present static. I can’t think of a main range story that has opened on such an arresting moment of drama in quite some years. The script makes it very clear and the story reaffirms this at the climax, Static opens with a companion’s death taking place. Talk about throwing you in the deep end. Congratulations to Jonathan Morris for creating the creepiest location in a Doctor Who story for a while, the desolate caravan park shrouded in mist, cut off from the world. It’s the last place in the universe that anybody would want to end up, especially with the owner, the sadistically creepy Percy Till to watch over you. The rule of no communications devices or radios disturbing the other guests is a classic horror movie motif…and I was just waiting for the first time that rule was broken to see what the consequences would be. Morris employs the Russell T Davies rule of introducing characters but not giving you their entire story, but merely a hint of their backstory that opens up a world of possibility for them beyond this story (Joanna and Andy are here to ‘work things out’ but it is never explained why). We know that Joanna’s sister is dead, but not the exact details around it and there is reference to a year of her hating herself and giving him hell that we can only imagine after the event. Abbey Marston Manor was the position of a top-secret RAF project that nobody knew about except the high ups in the war office. Television static isn’t just static but cosmic noise, the afterglow of the Big Bang. People being plucked out of time at the exact moment of their death. Within the perimeter of the caravan park, time is at a standstill. There is no past or future, only the here and now and the return of the dead. Can you imagine if this place went public? The chance for people to bring back their dead relatives. It would be a media circus, a religious nightmare and a chance for the very rich to exploit a service with devastating consequences. But that’s a story for another day. The mist is a psychological barrier, to stop people from leaving, a quarantine barrier. The stone circle was constructed to harness the properties of the area, to bring back the dead. The source of the effect is ancient, buried in the Earth since before the dawn of mankind. The stones are just a marker. If the dead can’t go anywhere, can’t walk out of the perimeter, what is the point of bringing them back beyond the act of being with them again? Until the dead are sent back to the point of their death, the nowhere place that returns the dead remains outside time. What an ask…for someone to have to choose to return to the moment of their death. At RAF Marston, the WRENS pick up calls from the dead in their radio receivers and then harnessing the power in the area to bring them back from the dead. It seems very plausible to me that the military would exploit such a power to talk dead soldiers and try and learn from their mistakes. Anything for a tactical advantage. The cocoons in the trees are embryos and the liquid is amniotic fluid, clones. Exact duplicates. The purpose of this place is to bring people back from the dead, to give them a new body and then to return them back to their correct time and place to die. A way of cheating death itself, the original dying (meaning no temporal disturbances) but a duplicate created with all their living memories. For what purpose? The Static have no bodies of their own and they need to use others to gain entry to the world. When the dead return to life they travel through their domain and they hitch a ride. The altars are a resurrection machine, the minds of the dead planted into the clone bodies grown. Once the duplicate body is destroyed, the original is sent back to where it came from, and the Static dies with them.

Audio Landscape: Now this is a story where you can very much discuss the audio landscape because writer Jonathan Morris, director Jamie Anderson and sound designers Joe Kraemer & Josh Arakelian are all working beautifully in sync to haunt you from the opening scene. Static is a disturbing noise that I’m surprised Big Finish haven’t exploited before, it fills your ears with an unpleasant scratchy whine and it’s easy to imagine an alien presence lurking inside. The rain is ever present in the first few scenes, trapping the characters in the location that seals their fate. After two hours in a strange, dreamlike setting, the shift to the RAF base is welcome and makes for a vivid shift in atmosphere. Suddenly its marching boots, planes roaring overhead and orders being shouted. A good sound designer can instantly conjure up images of the setting and this works perfectly. As depicted on the cover, the cocoons hold the dead in a nasty, viscous liquid. Listen as they slither out and slop to the floor. The sizzle of the live wires as Constance destroys the radios is disturbingly apparent, and my heart was in my mouth because I knew that her death was approaching.

Musical Cues: It feels like a while since I have spoken about music in a Doctor Who release because I take it as a given that it is going to be competent in every release. It’s only when it is particularly good or bad that I feel the need to comment. Count this very much in the former category, with Joe Kraemer providing a highly atmospheric, ever present but not dominating horror score. I especially liked the vocals when Andy showed Joanna the TV screen, that was remarkably effective.

Standout Scene: Never before has a ringing phone had such consequence in Doctor Who, or been such a foreboding presence. Not even when the Brigadier was waiting for a call back on the missile strike in The invasion of the Doctor receiving the call from the empty child on the TARDIS phone. Not even the calls from the dead in Absent Friends, which is the nearest comparison. The ringing phone in Static is literally a call from somebody who has died, and somebody who will stumble through the mist from the point of their death if you pick up. Dare you see which of your nearest and dearest has died…and face them seconds after their death? When Flip gets a call from Constance, we know this story cannot end well. The end of episode two gave me goose bumps, I wasn’t sure entirely what was happening at this point but the return of over 20 men from the dead being greeted with military efficiency just felt completely wrong in the best of dramatic ways. I was rivetted. That, and Constance’s death and the Doctor’s reaction, which is simply the most disturbing the main range has dared to be in such a long time.

Result: Genuinely disturbing to listen to, Static features Jonathan Morris at his riskiest and most dramatic. I wasn’t sure how I would take to a story that is trying to be as ‘scary as The Chimes of Midnight’ because that seems like a ridiculous claim and no place for a writer to start, asking for immediate comparisons with a Doctor Who classic. Kudos to Jonathan Morris then for brewing up a story that really set my teeth on edge, a story that deals with the thorny subject of people dying and being brought back to life in a horrific way. Death is a regular occurrence in Doctor Who, it’s tenapenny, but the best stories are those that make you feel those murders and the emotional impact on the other characters. Static seizes your throat in that respect and doesn’t release it until you are gasping for air. Starting with the guest characters but spreading to the regulars, death is like a shadow that cloaks the story and whilst the idea of undoing those murders might seem like a cop-out, that proves to be even more disturbing option. When it’s the better option that you died I agony, that’s terrifying. I really like how the process of people returning from the dead is built so firmly into the story, that it is so well established and shown as something to fear. It feels in no way a cheat, but the point of the story. Morris really could have taught Moffat a thing or two. Episodes one, two and three are pure atmosphere and set up and masterfully done. If episode four takes a dive into more conventional Doctor Who territory (because the first three are anything but, there has never been a Doctor Who story that has felt quite this disquieting before) then it saves some the biggest twists and most frightening moments to level things out. Something has to be said for Jonathan Morris, who has been churning out fantastic Big Finish scripts for many years and is showing zero signs of a lack of imagination or coasting. Static is one of his most vivid adventures. Kudos as well to the director and sound designers for making this such a nightmarish experience. It's a story that throws an unflattering light on the amiable sixth Doctor, that does unspeakable things to one of his companions and a story that leaves you with much to discuss in its aftermath, moreso than any main range adventure for years. Packed with nightmarish images, creepy concepts and a disquieting atmosphere of death, Static continues the excellent work for this team of regulars. This made me think, it made me feel, it frightened me and it left me buzzing with excitement in the way only the best of Doctor Who can. A terrific trilogy of adventures, the sixth Doctor adventures are once again the trail blazers for this range: 10/10

1 comment:

Mr. Jordan said...

I picked this one up off the back of your review and you weren't kidding about the ending, poor Percy!

This is probably the smartest and spookiest Big Finish release in a long while. It's full of little hints that bug at you and then it actually pays them off! Incroyable!

I'd love to hear what you think about the new Master set, if you get it.