Friday, 9 February 2018

Shadow Planet written by AK Benedict and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Troubled? Anxious? Tormented by self-doubt? Come to Unity, the psychic planet! From our therapy centre beside Unity’s idyllic shores, the Unity Corporation can help you overcome all your problems. How? By using a patented combination of technology and Jungian psychology, we can bring you face to face with your shadow self. The hidden you. The dark you. The you that no-one knows… Rest assured: the process is perfectly safe. Nothing can possibly go wrong. And that’s guaranteed!

The Real McCoy: Maybe what he might find if he undergoes the process will be scared of him. That might seem a pretentious line coming from the mouth of any other Doctor. You can do a lot with a safety pin, an umbrella and an optimistic outlook. of course the Doctor had a lot of this worked out before he had even arrived, Unity had been on his list of things to tidy up for some time.

Oh Wicked: There’s a very one-note approach to how Sophie Aldred is playing Ace these days, like she is perpetually the teenager of season 25; angst ridden, petulant, super cute and violent. It’s a particularly odd slant given this is set during the Hex period, where the character was seen to grow up considerably. Listen to her in the first scene, over stressing every line of dialogue, making every little thing in to a drama. The Silurian Candidate featured an interview with Aldred where she confessed she didn’t have a clue where in Ace’s timeline that the story is set and I think it is the job of the director (it was Ken Bentley in both) to point that out to her so she can adjust her performance fittingly. Can you believe that Ace of all people is this keen to take on her shadow self? I know she’s reckless but of all the Doctor’s companions (aside from maybe Leela and Tegan) she is the one who would probably have to face something quite ugly and revealing. This is the kind of psychological exercise that the Doctor is always putting her through and she often had an extreme emotional reaction to. I think she would try and avoid any further introspection. When Ace’s alter ego is revealed, I just don’t feel Aldred has the acting chops to pull off this kind of this kind of character workout. It’s not risky enough to be disturbing or silly enough to be amusing, it’s just Aldred putting on a flat voice.

Sexy Scouse: Trying not to sound like a broken record, the inclusion of Hex in this release is very similar to the fifth Doctor story featuring a solo Nyssa, it takes a character that became a little tired on audio in days gone by (especially that nonsense with ‘Hector’) and feels invigorates them because of the distance of their previous audio. I was never bored of Philip Olivier’s performance, which was always smashing but it became clear, post-Death in the Family, that there was really a narrative reason for him to be present after that point. And he was never going to get a better leaving story. Shadow Planet features the Scouse stud before all the dramatic revelations about his mother turned him against the Doctor, young, fresh to TARDIS travelling and enjoying his adventures. It reminds me of the return to the early Charley Pollard in The Light at the End, a chance to remember them as enthusiastic companions of the Doctor. He wont ever be able to look at his shadow again in the same way, in fear that it is up to no good.

Standout Performance: I’ve long been a huge fan of Belinda Lang of 2.4 Children fame. I know she has had an extensive career in theatre and tying her to a television series is probably focussing on the wrong part of her body of work but her role as Bill Porter really made up a formative part of my childhood. I have such happy memories of watching her struggling with the absurdities of life (and there were some damn crazy stuff happening in that show) and laughing myself silly throughout my teenage years. To have her feature in a Doctor Who story is a huge plus, just for the memories she stirs up in me. Her terrific performance, this time, is just a bonus.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘See you on the other side of you!’
‘You can’t expediate the process of self-knowledge!’ ‘But you have, you Malcolm have made a fly-through for the soul!’

Great Ideas: Using a combination of technology and psychology, they have harnessed the rare potential of the psychic planet of Unity, helping people to overcome their shadow selves and be reborn. The process manifests your shadow self, not your bad side but your buried side. The idea is that you are able to meet your inner self externalised and try and overcome the anxieties that normally lay inside you. That’s a hugely powerful idea for a Doctor Who story, one that must surely dredge up feelings of unease in it’s audience because we all have anxieties buried deep that we try and push away and ignore. The thought of them being made flesh and having it out with the better half of you is quite unsettling. Your misgivings and uneasiness projected onto an android. The planet is being exhausted, it can’t replace its psychic core quickly enough to meet the demand. The Doctor knows the planet as Umbra and when the ancient Umbrians walked its land and went into the woods with their shadows. The planet is literally cracking under the pressure of the greater volume of procedures. The shadows are being held in the holding bay, melancholic prisoners. An integrated personality makes use of all aspects available. It’s precisely the moral the Doctor was mooting in The Happiness Patrol; happiness cannot exist unless it’s side by side with sadness. It’s a moral worth repeating. I like the idea of the moths being a representation of the planet, expressing itself through nature.

Standout Scene: It seems very right on for the seventh Doctor to reach out to an entire planet and try and heal it, by doing what McCoy does best…perform! Some soul searching and a little song and dance. It’s quite magical to watch this impish Doctor put on a show for a world.

‘There are times when we should be glad of our shadows…’ The Doctor should have told them about the appalling scientific experiment featuring the mind of evil! Any attempt to extract your shadow self is a dangerous and life-altering procedure that is bound to have profound psychological consequences. I do have to question why these two-part experiments seem to feature some really juicier ideas, attempts at meatier characterisation and moments of high drama when the 4DAs which feature exactly the same format seem entirely devoid of these attributes. How can you get it so right on the one hand and so wrong on the other? And whilst it is glorious to feature some main range stories that don’t outstay their welcome at just an hour long apiece, the irony is that most of the ideas in these stories would support longer adventures! Saying that, the narrative shorthand approach seems to be paying off dividends and Shadow Planet moves along briskly, with a tremendous concept at its core. It never outstays its welcome. There’s a fine guest cast in this story that makes up for the unimpressive performance of Sophie Aldred, who had the chance to shine in this adventure but instead continues to prove that perhaps audio is not her forte. If it feels that I am picking on the actress, I apologise, but this is a review website and that means highlighting what I feel to be the good and the bad in a production. I have praised her in the past (A Death in the Family and many of the Hex stories) but of late I’m getting this uncomfortable feeling of an older actress attempting to capture that teenage angst of her character in the 80s and the result is a very unpersuasive performance. And given this is the return of Hex after a few years, shouldn’t this feature him more? Can you imagine how this story would have played had the seventh Doctor had to confront his hidden self? It might have been a truly probing, disturbing tale (ala Amy’s Choice) but instead we are privy to the shadow Ace and Hex who aren’t significantly different to their usual selves (perhaps a little more despondent and uncaring but that’s about it). The story takes a very Doctor Who like approach (and you can’t exactly blame it for that) of Time Lord versus planet and whilst that’s very engagingly done, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is one time we should have ditched the science fiction and dived head first into the world of psychology. I’ve been a lot harder on this story in this summary than reflects my true feelings, which were positive and any Doctor Who that attempts to grapple with a big concept like this deserves a lot of praise. I liked this, but I wish that I loved it: 7/10

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