Friday, 16 March 2018

Songs of Love written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Left to fend for herself against a bunch of power-hungry plotters hell-bent on destroying the universe, what choice does a girl have but to throw in her lot with the winning side? Using her past to her advantage, River Song returns to the ancestral seat of the Time Lords to make her last stand.

Physician, Heal Thyself: Thanks to Steven Moffat (and I mean that in a positive way before anybody accuses me of having another dig), the eighth Doctor has to reach a certain point before his regeneration. Before Night of the Doctor it was just an endlessly possible run and his adventures were infinite. It was even possible before the 50th that Big Finish might have had the opportunity to regenerate the eighth Doctor at some point themselves. But Night of the Doctor means that he has a direction now. Eventually he will end up on Karn in the early stages of a terrible Time War and face a regeneration that would change his life forever. It makes the eighth Doctor the definitive Big Finish Doctor, one who started having carefree adventures with Charley Pollard (or Gemma and Samson if you’re feeling pedantic) and would progressively slip into a darker universe before giving up his life for an incarnation more adept at fighting a war. It’s a complete timeline, taking in Charley Pollard, Lucie Miller, Mary Shelley, Molly, Liv and Helen along the way. You can listen to all of his stories sequentially and discover a seriously cool timeline of events, Doctor Who on TV audio and television working together beautifully. When all the dust settles from Big Finish and it is reflected upon in the future, I think the eighth Doctor narrative will be the standout thread of the main range. Funny that I should have so much to say about

Liv Chenka: It’s a very sweet moment that Liv wants to be close to Helen when she dies.

Helen Sinclair: Helen tells Liv she is glad she met her, when they think the moment will come. She thinks Liv that she is brilliant and blasé about everything.

The Only Water In the Forest is the River:
River very quickly positions herself so it appears that she was on Padrac’s side all along, quick thinking on her part so she can avoid getting killed (always a good look) and be the best possible position to try and help the Doctor. Going to Gallifrey is like meeting a family that she never had. Very similar to Gallifreyan physiognomy but with evidence of genetic manipulation with the beginning and end of her time stream being a little unclear. Oh, if only you knew. But head over to You Tube, Time Lords, if you want to see it all spelt out consecutively. She’s an archaeologist by trade and a time travelling archaeologist can make a lot of money. River tries to dig for information about the Time War, to no avail. She can see why the Doctor wanted to leave Gallifrey, all the pomp and ceremony. Isn’t it odd how completely bearable River Song is when she is caught up in machinations that aren’t involved in her personal timeline. When the story isn’t all about her, she’s surprisingly tolerable, ever enjoyable. River acknowledges that she loves the Doctor but he doesn’t love her back, a moment where I felt a twinge of sympathy for her.

Standout Performance: Alex Kingston is given the chance to dominate in a Big Finish Doctor Who story and she proves more than able to hold her own. In case people were missing my obligatory Moffat dig, I seriously think she has had some of her best writing away from her creator. Intelligent, without letting you know it all the time. Irresistible, without it being pointed out. A complex timeline, without it being rammed down your throat.

Sparkling Dialogue:
‘When the future becomes unclear, people want certainties.’
‘I’m a child of a TARDIS!’

Great Ideas: In every possible future, Gallifrey faces total destruction from outside forces, a war across the face of time itself. Gallifrey’s temporal timeline has been subject to distortion, with fractures in their future history, leading to conflict, disaster and cataclysmic feedback. The Matrix predicts Gallifrey’s doom with catastrophic consequences. Kahlera is in the Matrix, a Sonomancer commanding the resonances of the energies within the Vortex (whatever that means). The Eleven allowed Padrac to circumvent the laws of Time without dirtying his own hands and applied the Clocksmith to their cause.

Isn’t it Odd: The opening scenes with the Time Lords bickering over their inevitable part on a Time War are deathly boring. There’s little that thrills me less than listening to a bunch of portentous Time Lords spouting technobabble to justify their portents of doom. It’s very rare that a writer can get scenes on Gallifrey right, usually they wind up being the very epitome of insipidness. At there’s River there to be the voice of opposition and to add a little colour. I can’t buy into the danger of the Sonomancer, and I have never have. It strikes me as a one-dimensional villain, Padrac’s lackey, with some very odd characterisation. Is she in love with Padrac? Was that ever established?

Standout Moment: I really enjoyed River experiencing the Matrix and expressing her wonder, it’s has a pleasing similarity to the dataverse that she would eventually lose her life to. River was always going to have to be written out of the Doom Coalition set at some point and its better to do it now, before the two-part finale kicks in. What surprised me was how touching her farewell to the Doctor was, and how this story suddenly reveals where it is in River’s timeline. Not long to the Singing Towers, not long to the Library. One last chance to see the Doctor young and fresh again.

Result: If you listen carefully you can hear the gears shifting awkwardly in the first half of Songs For Love as poor Matt Fitton has been left to sort out the narrative after it was left in universal calamity at the end of the previous Doom Coalition box set. John Dorney got away with avoiding all that by having his adventure take place away from the main action. So much of the first half an hour of this story is lacklustre scenes of Time Lords discussing their upcoming calamity, River’s past being regurgitated and getting Liv and Helen out of the danger they were left in at the cliff-hanger to the last story. There’s no new information expressed here, so it does feel like delaying the finale of the Doom Coalition set somewhat, which is imminent. Where I find that they mined a very rich seam of political drama and science fiction in the Gallifrey series, scenes on Gallifrey in Doctor Who stories are very tricky to get right because they usually reduce the planet to a bunch of ominous, bickering bureaucrats performing pompous ceremonies. At least River is here, once again well characterised and lacking that smugness that can make her infuriating, to point out how tedious it all is. There had to come a time where all the disparate elements of Doom Coalition were tied up and Fitton is left with the job of offering a tidal wave of exposition in order to do so. The Time War makes its presence feel here, long before it takes place and it’s nice to see this set tying into the eighth Doctor’s larger timeline. Padrac starts to make his move in the second half and the pace picks up considerably, but it takes quite a while to get there. If the idea of River on Gallifrey is enough to make you salivate, then this might be gold for you. After three wham bam thank you man ‘the universe is on the brink of calamity and the future is dead’ stories that suggest a freight train momentum to the climax of this ongoing narrative, this is an expository pause in the action that feels like just that. Above average, because this end with a really poignant moment, Alex Kingston is so strong and because I have the forthcoming catastrophe pounded over my head over and over so I can’t help but think something exciting is about to happen. Let’s get to it: 6/10

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