Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Subterranea written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: The TARDIS is going underground. When the Doctor and Romana find themselves buried beneath the surface of an alien world, they're soon swallowed up by a giant burrowing machine. This is where the inhabitants of this planet live - in huge, constantly moving, Drill-towns, chewing up the fuel and resources of the planet in order to survive. But something else lurks in the earth. Something that feeds on the Drill-towns. Something that is relentless and will not stop. The Silex are hunting.

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor is described as ‘pink face’ by one of the mole-like miners. It’s kinda cute. Out of the two of them, Romana is the least conspicuous. I’m not suggesting that every Doctor Who story should shed revealing new light on his character or probe deeply into his thought processes, but I do think that each adventure should at least offer more of a take on the character than a handful of witty lines and a few intelligent observations. It’s called Doctor Who, he should dominate proceedings and contribute a huge amount of personality. These 4DAs seem to reduce the character to a handful of quirks and let Tom Baker do the rest. When he’s given a big role in proceedings he usually makes the material very palatable but in the case of a story like Subterrenea, that is trying to tell quite a large-scale story in a short space of time, his input gets swallowed up just like the TARDIS at the beginning of this story. As a result the story feels as though the Doctor is a guest in his own series, which is strange given that Tom Baker can be such a dominating presence.

Aristocratic Adventurer: Is Lalla Ward mis-remembering Romana as some kind of outer space inner time bully who sulks her way around the universe giving people hell for no reason? Somebody have a word with her, would you? She’s not quite as grumpy in this piece as she has been but Ward does still have a tendency to stress her dialogue in a negative fashion like she has gotten out of the wrong side of bed. It’s a bizarre phenomenon because Ward has been playing the part prolifically for many, many years now and aside from this season, she’s been playing it accurately and authentically. Even in her first season with Tom Baker (and the novel adaptations) she was light of mood and great fun to be around. I feel as though it needs to be addressed now, with perhaps some motive for Ward’s caustic portrayal.

Great Ideas: K.9 is busy reading human philosophy, probably not very smart for the Doctor to allow him to do that because he will be more prissy than usual! I really like the idea of the TARDIS being swallowed whole by a great underground excavating machine, it’s the sort of arresting opening that these 4DAs could do with more of. Steam engines that gather their fuel by digging through mineral deposits, with the owe being extracted. There used to be hundreds of drill towns ploughing the strata. The Silex take down whole ships, dismantle them, take what they need, and turn them into more like themselves. Have we reached a point now where Doctor Who is in such short supply of new monsters that we have to start inventing ones that are similar to ones from the past? What’s next? The Doctor and Romana visit a planet caught in a deadly warfare where the mutated remains of the species is placed inside robotic shells and those super beings are elected as the rulers of that world? The Silex were created in the last war to turn feeble men into machines who could fight. But they were betrayed by their creators who attempted to deactivate them and so the destroyed them and poisoned the surface of the planet.

Audio Landscape: I fail to see the logic in introducing a great stompy, heavily modulated villain in an audio story. This is the sort of monster that would make an impact rendered in CGI on television (think of the Pyrovilles) but just becomes a cacophony of horrible noise on audio. It’s hard to make out the dialogue and it’s quite unpleasant on the ear. Sometimes on audio less is more and these Cybermen wanabees are terrifically lacking in menace.

Isn’t It Odd: When asked why they moved underground the answer given is that there was a war ‘or something’ and the surface was poisoned. Even the character saying the words acts as though she can hardly believe it and I was just waiting for the moment in the climax where the populace is taken up to the surface to discover that it is perfectly habitable. I’ve seen this tick played too many times in science fiction. I’d like to say that Miss Wagstaff’s defection to the Silex and betrayal of everybody was a shocking revelation but in a story where she has pretty much just been introduced it is hard to have a reaction to such a speedy twist about her character. And given we haven’t explored the horror of the Silex yet, it’s hard to get enthusiastic about the cliff-hanger where they are (apparently) all about to swallowed into certain death. Had this been a four-part story we could have spent more time getting to know Miss Wagstaff and give her treachery more weight and spent a little time behind enemy lines too so we could witness just how nasty the Silex are and what awaits our heroes as they are dragged to their doom. These condensed stories really are their own worst enemy sometimes.

Result: There’s definitely some merit in trying to capture the spirit of Dickens in a space opera set underground on an alien planet and if I were to point at a writer to tackle that brief Jonathan Morris would be my first port of call. He employs a lightness of touch, is capable of turning his hand to both fruity dialogue and social commentary and is adept at creating a vivid population of characters. Add in some retro technology, ridiculous names and a sense of the underdog pushing against their oppressors and you have Subterranea, a story with more than a touch of Dickens about it. However, something is sorely lacking from this story that means the Dickens allusion can only go so far, and that is a dense, protracted plot. This is a Fourth Doctor Adventure, which means it’s only two episodes long and has to skip along, setting up the world, the plot and the characters in a few scenes and resolve everything in an hour. Dickens would have barely gotten past describing the first scene in that time. It’s an intriguing setting, and well realised for the most part and the opening few scenes suggest something that is going to be quite heavy on ideas and truly in the spirit of season 18 but the whole piece is reduced to the stock Doctor Who scenario of a slave species bringing down their oppressors, and is fraught with the humour that this period of the show lacked. The second episode tosses out any literary pretentions and devolves into your bog-standard Doctor Who versus the Cybermen adventure (without the Cybermen). I’m at a loss at how throwaway so many of these 4DAs are, very rarely aspiring to be more than a decent listen rather than something enduring. It’s not even as though Morris isn’t trying here, he’s put a lot of work in getting the details right (the setting, the characters) but the story is so run-of-the-mill that it leaves a frustrating taste in the mouth anyway. You could stick this on and convince yourself that you have listened to a perfectly reasonable Doctor Who story, as on a scene-by-scene basis it is amusing and exciting, thanks to the actors and the director. But in narrative terms it is cruising from a to b to c without any stimulating diversions along the way. Subterranea plays out like so many of this range, formulaically and this season has been particularly guilty of that. The sausage machine of undemanding, nostalgia fests continues to churn. A major rethink is needed, and with the box sets coming let’s hope there will be something a little more substantial in the offing: 5/10

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