Tuesday, 20 March 2018

One Life written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: As the full force of the Time War crashes down around the Doctor and his friends, a desperate battle for survival ensues. But not everyone is playing the same game. Ollistra is after a weapon that could end the war in a stroke and she’ll sacrifice anyone or anything to take it back to Gallifrey. Even the Doctor. Surrounded by Daleks, and on a tortured planet, only one man can save the day. But he doesn’t want to fight.

Physician, Heal Thyself: Because I spend a lot of this review having a moan I want to take the opportunity to say something complimentary and that is that Paul McGann excels throughout this set and gives one of his most energised performances to date. It’s a shame that he couldn’t be given material worthier of his talents, but I appreciate the effort he goes to so show a Doctor on the brink of War, trying to push it away and then desperately trying to deal with it as it catch up with him. Ollistra will miss this incarnation because the boyish enthusiasm had a certain charm. It’s quite amusing that the Doctor imagines that the renegade that the Time Lords have been looking for must be him. Ollistra calls his ego monstrous for believing that, and you have to agree with her on this one. Wonderfully every single cadet at the Academy had a better psych evaluation score than the Doctor’s. The Cloister Bell only stops every second Wednesday given the Doctor’s lifestyle. He does nothing by the book, which Ollistra points out at every turn. He almost never has a plan, an approach that has done him perfectly well so far.

Standout Performance: I love Jacqueline Pearce, really I do, but she does insist on playing every line in this set like she is the greatest villainess the universe has ever known. Surely the whole point of morally ambiguous characters like this should be that they don’t like to advertise the fact?

Great Ideas: An abstract chronology of the Time War from Gallifrey’s perspective in constantly in flux. A weapon that can remove itself from history. The Daleks hit Tenacity with a reversal wave, de-evolving the planet. The base broke up because they were sending Tenacity back to a time before the base existed. One of the greatest Time Lord weapons that has ever been devised (what, another one?) was on board the Theseus when it was attacked. The Daleks have used a quantum causality generator to split a single ship into several parts. Multiple versions of the same spacecraft spread out to form an impenetrable wall, back and forth through time, encircling a disintegrating star system. Quarren, with just right adjustment could alter reality with just his mind, rewrite the very nature of time itself. Is this really much different from Doom Coalition in that respect? A superweapon in the shape of a person (Kahleera) that can cause devastating temporal and spatial consequences with an impact on Gallifrey’s future in the Time War. It’s the same bloody story! Experiencing a planet shifting in time would be exciting…but that’s exactly what happened in the first three stories in this set. Dorney writes it a little more poetically, but the idea is a little overused now.

Isn’t it Odd: On purely aesthetic terms, the cover for this release is quite the least inspiring I’ve seen for some time. A stock shot of Paul McGann, which is repeated twice, a bunch of actors who don’t even look as though they are in character and a few Daleks floating about. I don’t think I have seen a cover cobbled together with as little imagination since the early days of Big Finish. I know I said I wanted the Time War to be this unknowable thing in my last ranting review but I wasn’t talking about the Time Lords discussing a bunch of might-have-beens in the first scene. It’s trying very hard to be hauntingly prophetic but just about all they can say for sure is that something is amiss with a graph that shows Gallifrey’s journey through the Time War, something looks bizarre, nobody knows what it is, we might speculate that it its this thing, but we can’t say for certain but it in all likelihood will be the end of Gallifrey unless we figure out what it is. Now get on that! With that kind of assignment, I would quit. As I feared, early on Ollistra spouts some cliché about morality being twisted in wartime (that’s possibly the least original observation this set has made) before the Daleks turn up and start shrieking. For the Daleks to work on audio these days after their severe overuse in every range you can imagine they have to be guided be a creative, original hand that can (somehow) show us a fresh side to the creatures. Track four literally begins with them screaming ‘EXTERMINATE TIME LORDS!’ over and over again. How terribly original. The tacked on scene with Rupa is panfully awkward. 'Oh hello, we don't know you and we haven't just had an adventure with you and we haven't just seen the love of your life erased from time...but how are you? Did you ever find a boyfriend and have children?' 'No, I never found the right person. Why am I telling you this?' 'Oh never mind, we're off. Bye!' I mean seriously do you want to get a bigger hammer so you can smack the message over my head some more?

Result: As you might be able to tell from my impassioned tirades I have been less than impressed by the Time War box set. Quite apart from reducing the War to something transparent and approachable, it has been a series of four stories that form a set for no other reason than the stories follow each other and end on cliff-hangers. One Life attempts to address that by revealing there were elements of all four stories that form an arc but rather than building some momentum into that arc it has been a series of adventures with a writer coming along at the end and going ‘aha! You see how these are interconnected!’ It’s all very unsatisfying and it’s a shame that these couldn’t have been released individually. I could have warned people away from The Conscript if they had. I’m not saying that it is impossible to tell a gripping Time War story featuring the eighth Doctor (The Starship of Theseus, hello) but I am definitely wondering if I am not the target audience for this kind story. To me with the resolution made clear on the television and the fallout of the Time War having little impact on the series afterwards (aside from a personal cost for the Doctor), spending time sketching out (lifeless) detail of the conflict seems to be a creative dead end. Unless those events are going to have gut wrenching impact on the Doctor or his companion, this is simply a documentary series featuring the Daleks and the Time Lords going at one another. I’ve heard it said recently that we are extremely lucky to have the worlds of Doctor expanded in such detail. I agree, we’re incredibly lucky. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say when we personally feel it has gone too far and unfortunately the Time War gets less worth investing in with every minute of this set. What does this all this have to do with One Life? It’s not a bad story, as it goes. It’s trying to make the war personal for one of the characters and it has seeded that character throughout the set to try and make some kind of impact. Unfortunately, he didn’t make that much of an impact on me in the other stories (much like Bliss or any of the supporting characters) so that twist lacks the punch it probably should have had. But by all means put yourself through this all over again to see how Quarren’s arc was laid out in the previous stories, I’ll give that a miss. At least we are viewing the Time War through a fresh pair of eyes and his attempts to try and live a regular life are quite touchingly handled by one of the best writers of this kind of emotional drama on Big Finish’s payroll. The performances are all very nice and there was even a moment where I felt a serious twinge of regret for Quarren and his doomed lover. However, that small, personal story exists in a bubble within the problematic framework of the Time War that I have detailed above, so the second we come away from these two characters, everything feels flat again. Unless hearing Daleks chanting EXTERMINATE or learning about the latest in a long line of Time Lord superweapons is Doctor Who porn for you. The Doctor and Ollistra indulge in verbal duels but the dialogue again barely rises above stock war movie cliché. And Bliss is our new companion. Oh bless. To say I’m not thrilled about the second set would be an understatement: 5/10


Charley Archer said...

Oh :( I actually loved the entire set, start to finish with each one getting at least a 9/10 from me. Possibly my favourite Big Finish box set of all time. I'm sad that you didn't like it but that's OK.

Guy Grist said...

Oh dear it's what I feared would happen the Time War is reduced to podestrian runarounds. I got somewhat fed up with the direction Big Finish have taken the Eighth Doctor of late basically after Dark Eyes 1.

Guy Grist said...

I miss the days when the Eighth Doctor would have stand alone adventures rather than 16 part epics.

Anonymous said...

Totally disliked this boxset, found it very dull and unoriginal with completely generic companion and a lot of self-repeats from other BF stories. If they are doing Time War stories then they have to do them exceptionally well, otherwise why spend time? Two Short Trips about Nyssa and Susan during the Time War were much better!

Ed Azad said...

It's one thing if the collapse of the High Council caused the walls of realty to break down and the galaxy was overrun with unthinkable horrors. It doesn't come across on screen or in audio. All we see are vault after vault of unspeakable Time Lord weapons...

Lack of nuance is why these 'invasion' stories always fall flat. Gallifrey is the authority figure for the Doctor to rebel against, something that automatically makes it bad and uninteresting.