Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Middle written by Chris Chapman and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: It’s L/Wren Mrs Constance Clarke’s birthday - and Flip is determined to make it an anniversary to remember. The futuristic colony of Formicia, where the pampered populace pass their days in endless leisure, seems the perfect place for a ‘Wren Party’. But all is not as it seems. Looking down from the Middle, the skyscraping tower that ascends as far as the colony ceiling, Formicia’s overseers can see that the Doctor doesn’t fit in - and it’s not just his coat that makes him conspicuous... “The End is the Beginning,” say the propaganda-like posters all over Formicia. Because to be part of this perfect society comes at a price. And the Doctor's already in arrears.

Softer Six: Quite inadvertently, the Doctor has a small family around him again. If there is something that the first two stories in this trilogy have promoted it is how well these three characters work when they are in the vicinity of each other. The Doctor has a smart 30 something to bounce off and a street wise teenager to tame, Constance benefits from the Doctor’s attention and respect and Flip brings out both admiration and frustration for her energy and riskiness. The two women indulge in a sisterly relationship, the type we haven’t seen work since Peri and Erimem, and that comes with a lot of affection and more than a little culture clash. A bit of an Earth-spotter, this one. Flip makes a good joke at the Doctor’s age, that he decides how old he is on a daily basis. That would explain the discrepancies over the years. He’s lived nearly a millennium, fought innumerable intergalactic tyrants, liberated countless worlds and civilisations – and he’s never once felt the slightest inclination to receive a robot massage. Finally, something completely original said by the Doctor! A man of staggering exhibitionism, the Doctor’s coat consists of no less than seventy-sex individual colour tones. The Doctor is too old for system calibrations, apparently, so ‘over seventy’ will, have to do. He’s all for the empowerment of the elderly. The inside of the Doctor’s head is not the sort of place a machine should pry for stimulus because there are very few straight lines in there. The fate of being turned into a mechanised weapon is the last thing the Doctor would want. As a contentious objector to violence, the Doctor accepts his label as a coward. The Doctor makes the statement that the elderly population of Formicia’s lives are worth just as much as everybody else’s. He might as well be pointing out of the audio to those listening about the elderly people in their lives. I hope one day we meet the mountain mauler of Montana since the Doctor name drops him so much. Flip knows that the Doctor would be a rubbish soldier.

Flippin’ Heck: Flip seems to be high on the idea of travelling with the Doctor again and enters this story with bundles of enthusiasm. Flip has so much energy that she makes Constance feel old, and the Doctor wholeheartedly agrees. She thinks the Doctor is a lot of things (including ‘obvious’, which you can take to mean whatever you want) but he is definitely not a coward. Flip is described as having a voice that goes right through you…I’m sure there are a few listeners out there who feel that way! She gets a glorious monologue in the last episode where she gets to recount the various adventures she has had with the Doctor and you realise just how long she has touched his life for and how many memorable moments there have been. Crashing microlights, Daleks at Waterloo, being killed by a Porcian, jumping into orbit towards the Earth…Chapman even manages to retroactively alter Flip’s first step into the TARDIS and explain why she was so nonchalant about it. They’ve really taken a lot of time to get this character right lately and the results are paying off in spades. She’s still Flip at heart; exasperating, enthusiastic and risky but she’s well motivated, very likable and resourceful with it. As a part of this trio, she’s shining.

Constant Companion: Constance prefers not to make a fuss about her birthday, and she doesn’t expect her 35th to be any different. Even a spot of deadly peril would be better than celebrating her birthday, Flip style. The Middle reminds Constance of Bletchley, all the busy worker bees milling about. It’s almost like she has come home. When Constance cried ‘your daughter…and my Phillipa!’ you get a real the sense of parental care that Constance feels for her. I love how Constance can affect elements from the Beginning and the End from the Middle, sending a message to the Doctor and saving Flip from the Drone. She’s in the position that most Doctor Who companions can only dream of, with an overview of the whole adventure and a position to have a positive influence on events. She puts York in a compromising position so he has to help her, I like that occasionally callous streak in her that comes out when the situation calls for it (remember when she stabbed a Dalek mutant with a screwdriver?). Having already heard Static and being well aware of Constance’s fate in that story I found her admission that she was looking forward to her later years, being looked after after having done her bit, all the more touching.

Standout Performance: The Middleman is such a marvellously nasty and officious character I found it practically impossible to reconcile with the fact that he is being played by Brian from Spaced. Mark Heap is an extremely versatile performer and I’ve seen him crop up in all kinds of shows and films in scene stealing bit parts but his turn in The Middle genuinely impressed me. Had you simply told me it was him, I wouldn’t have believed you. Such was the gravitas and brutality he brought to his voice. The Middleman is the most memorably nasty villain I recall in a Doctor Who audio for some time, and he butts heads gloriously with Colin Baker. Also take note of Sheila Reid’s incredible performance, especially when Janayia is doing everything in her power to stop herself from shooting her daughter. Looked at objectively it is a blatantly absurd situation for somebody to find themselves in but Reid makes the moment so painful to listen to.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Happy Birthday and welcome to the End!’
‘I’ve never seen such public debauchery!’ ‘Just you wait for VE DAY…’
‘Is this what I think it is? Some kind of euthanasia program? Murdering the elders, so the young can visit the spa?’ – this line cuts to the heart of the story and opens a lot of questions for discussion.
'Growing old does not make you expendable. But somebody round here obviously sees it that way.’
‘The war to end all wars’ ‘That type of war rarely keeps its word.’
‘It’s like Dad’s Army meets the Terminator!’
‘Death is coming to you…’

Great Ideas: Formicia has a heavily recycled atmosphere, but it’s been flavoured with lemon sherbets to make it that little more tolerable. An Earth colony, judging by the architecture, with a roof, making this place subterranean. There’s an element of Bad Wolf to this story with the promise that people are dying in horrible ways when in fact they are being transported elsewhere and put to a different purpose. I won’t criticise The Middle for that though because it takes that idea and plants it right into the heart of the story and keeps developing and evolving it. The drones remind the Doctor of an oculoid tracker. I have no reason to bring that up aside from the fact that I happen to love the oculoid tracker from Planet of Evil. When you turn 35 you end up in the Middle, the glass tower that overlooks all the fun, the centre of government where all the jobs are performed that keep Formicia going. The End isn’t a euthanasia programme but a recruitment one, building an army of mech-suited geriatrics! It’s rather wonderful how the elderly of this world, once feeling useless and forgotten by society, are excited and energised about being put to good use again, suited up and sent to war. It’s utterly surreal how they live a regular existence inside the suits, including romance. The suits draw power from experiences and so the elderly are the best candidates. As a way of ensuring that the young aren’t sent to war and perpetuate the next generation, it kind of works. The more you’ve lived, the stronger you are. Our whole civilisation looks up to you with unfathomable respect, says the Middleman of the elderly. The Middle holds up a mirror to a society that prefers to quietly forget about the elderly, to shunt them off to one side when they are physically and mentally infirmed. I did a two-year volunteer stint befriending with Age Concern and it appalled me how little contact the families of the people I looked after had with them, how these people with wonderful life experiences and terrific tall tales had to say but nobody was willing to listen to them or give them the time to feel valued. Everybody was too busy getting on with their own lives to notice them. I’m not going to turn this into an anti-ageist diatribe, Esther Ranzen has already done that for me. But I was impressed with how penetrating the dialogue in this story was, by pointing out how much the elderly can offer in experience and knowledge, it highlights how much British society neglects to capitalise on such a commodity. If you refuse to fight in the End, an execution drone is sent out to kill a loved one in your portfolio. There’s an incentive for you. Three generations back, the Kronvos invasion force gathered on the surface and attacked and a million young men and women were enlisted, fought and died. A bomb was considered the final solution and it left the surface of Formicia uninhabitable, which is what drove them underground. They almost curled up and died there and then because the population of young people had all but been wiped out…until a solution was found to allow the elderly to fight the battles of the young. It’s a warped solution, but it meant survival. The experiment that the Middleman was running began with the question ‘what use are the old?’ There never was a war, the Kronvos never existed, the people of Formicia just needed to think they had lost a generation for motivational reasons. Formicia is one of forty research spheres buried in the crust of the planet. Forty new model worlds. We live in an expanding universe, with an expanding population. But sooner or later every civilisation comes to the same crunch: more and more people, sharing ever-fewer resources… shortages that can bring about total societal collapse, if you doesn’t manage your affairs with care. Create the right conditions, and you can remake society any way you want. Democratic, autocratic, oligarchic, gerontocratic. The possibilities are endless. In the case of Formicia, the experiment was to see if they could create a totally expendable, but totally willing warrior class. It’s a last-minute explanation that makes perfect sense of everything we have seen so far, without making a fallacy of the twists that have unfolded throughout the story. The trade off with having the truth revealed so late is that there isn’t time for the Doctor to solve all of this planets problems and so he leaves it in the hands of Janaiya, with enough force behind her to make the management board listen to her demands. Whether she manages to liberate the other 39 spheres is left to your imagination. I imagine the fight goes on…

Audio Landscape: It’s a story where the sound effects are used to drive fear into the listener. We’ve heard a heart monitor many times in Doctor Who audios (there’s probably a fan out there who can tell you just how many times) but rarely has it come with such suspense, once we’ve clocked on to the idea that death is arranged and every beep is counting down towards a deliberate death. The flatlining whine that comes next could be heard competing with my heartbeat. The wind blows to show the Doctor, Constance and Flip have landed at a great height. Whatever does happen to the old men and women who are bumped off, it sounds remarkably painful. The execution drone spitting out bullets reminded me of one of the better elements of Dark Angel. I remember thinking that the mech-suits sounded a little comical when they were first introduced but by the last episode when they have become instruments of death they really come into their own.

Isn’t it Odd: The implication that these mechanised geriatrics are somehow performing sexual acts with their suits simply does not bear thinking about! I would have ended episode two one scene earlier: having Mark Heap end an episode by declaring ‘the End!’ would have been perfect.

Standout Scene: The end of episode three pivots the plot once again, with the Doctor proving that the war that the elderly have been fighting has been a massive con and they have, in fact, been fighting holograms. It was an experiment, to see if the perfect society could be structured. The Doctor, by blundering in and exposing all the lies; the euthanasia and the war, has rendered the entire exercise pointless. And thus the Middleman wants the entire slate wiped clean to try once again, but first he has to wipe everyone out…and he has a mechanised army under his control that can do just that. It’s a wonderful cliff-hanger, dramatic and terrifying and Heap plays his angry indifference to perfection.

Result: A story that keeps on giving, The Middle is the most substantial main range adventure in some considerable years. It takes its premise and continues to twist and evolve it until the final episode; offering surprises, laughs, scares and a refreshing dollop of moral outrage along the way. The first episode is a terrific instalment in its own right, an ideal scene setter that dumps the Doctor, Flip and Constance in an environment where they are instantly in danger because of their age – something they cannot talk their way out of. It’s a perfect way of separating the three characters and allowing them to explore different aspects of this society, when the setting is structured to isolate them. There’s an emotional heart to all of this that raises it above simply being a good science fiction story (which it is); the discussion of the elderly and the desperation to stave off obsolescence, the fear of being euthanised for the good of society, the idea of being permanently cut off from your family with only one heartfelt communication a year, the anger of the exploitation of this society for capital gain, the agony of trying resist killing somebody you love…and more importantly the strength of the relationship between the Doctor, Flip and Constance and what this story has to say about their bond. The plot has been thought through in painstaking detail and it unfolds like an onion, with each episode giving more insight into the situation and ensuring that the unusual premise makes perfect sense. I wouldn’t call 2017 a renaissance year for the main range because we have had to suffer a dreadful Seven/Mel/Ace trilogy and an average fifth Doctor trilogy, but with some gems littered in the experimental two-part adventures, Time in Office and a sterling sixth Doctor trilogy, it has certainly seen a marked improvement on the past couple of years. The Middle proves there is serious life in this format yet, fresh stories to be told and the sort of clever and involving plot to be reached for that can reach two hours without flagging. If you’re looking for cool ideas this one has a terrifying Orwellian society, assassin drones, horned monsters on the rampage and mechanised suits that dish out death at your every negative thought. If you want standout performances, Jamie Anderson has compiled an impressive cast featuring Mark Heap and Sheila Reid delivering nourishing goods. If you’re looking for an immersive tale then close your eyes and let Jamie Robertson whisk you off to a frighteningly convincing Earth colony that is slowly torn apart. And if you’re looking for an audio that delivers amusing, incisive and intelligent dialogue then you won’t walk away short changed. And to top it all off you’ve got a fantastic regular team all exploited to their fullest, too. I’m more than happy to doll out full marks when the story justifies it, and The Middle proves a surprising hit (the cover, title and trailer didn’t inspire much confidence) that delivers everything I want from an exceptional Doctor Who story: 10/10

2 comments:

Guy Grist said...

That's really great news to hear that the main range is pulling some great stories out of the bag again. This definitely sounds like my sort of thing I might well give it a go. Thank you.

dark said...

I really loved this one too and its great to be excited by the monthlies again.

I admit I was never a huge fan of flip, she seemed a Rose knockoff just there to appeal to new who fans who expect a disposable uneducated cocney girl to travel in the Tardis, but she's come into her own with constance.

I also loved the this one played at my expectations about the society all the way through, going from Orwellian, to war driven to capitalist.

My only issue is the wrapup was a bit too pat, especially with potentially 39 other spheres out there to liberate who have had who knows what social experiments.

This is one story that begs for a sequel.