Thursday, 26 April 2018

Backtrack written by Matthew J. Elliot and directed by Helen Goldwyn

What’s it about: When the TARDIS crashes in the vortex, Martha and the Doctor find themselves on board the time-ship The Outcome, where the host offers temporal cruises at reasonable prices. But time travellers must never cut corners. Dangerous forces have been unleashed, and Martha finds her medical skills put to the test as she deals with some lethal fall-out. Time is running out, and the clock is ticking towards disaster!

Mockney Dude: Martha makes a very good point that site-seeing through time is exactly what she and the Doctor do but this was his period for mentioning the ‘lost’ Time Lords at every opportunity and so he points out that not only does he know what he is doing but also that his people were very good at keeping an eye on this kind of time travel tourism. They had spoken about the Time War once but Martha had seen how much it hurt him to talk about the death of his planet, his family. The Temporal Travel Regulatory Body is the best the psychic paper can come up with this time. Does the Doctor wear glasses to trick people into thinking he is cleverer than he is? That would make a lot of sense. He’s certain he’s been to 1066 before, a few times in fact and he is very aware that he had to get out of a part of the Tapestry that would have raised a lot of questions. The Doctor can’t use the TARDIS this time because the Outcome is leaking temporal energies that means he daren’t even open the doors.

Dazzling Doctor: If Martha Jones had learnt anything in her time with the Doctor it is how a situation could possibly go from bad to worse? Their original deal had been one trip in the TARDIS, but things had gotten away with themselves. Back when her mum and dad were having their first rough patch, Martha had suggested a cruise for them to rekindle the old magic. There’s something very The End of the World about Martha being exposed to so many alien races in a confined space. Martha is mostly used in the form as a doctor in this story, which is a good tester for her career to come. Mind you she is so daft at one point that she inoculates everybody but not herself, which is cardinal error number one in these sort of cases. 

Standout Performance: Surely having Jon Culshaw (mimic extraordinaire) and Jacob Dudman (minic par excellence) in the same story is taking us into an alternative universe of Who parody? They're both brilliant, of course.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Time itself is in agony and we’re slap bang in the middle of it!’ – to be fair to Elliot this is exactly the sort of crazy, over the top line that would be screamed before the credits kicked in. ‘We’re going to the end of the universe!’ ‘She’s my daughter!’ That sort of thing.
‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face!’ ‘No, I’ve had bigger noses.’

Great Ideas: You never star directly at the vortex without eye protection because it can do all sorts to you. All the best conmen are like human psychic paper. Tachyo-kentic energy is bleeding from the ships drive has sped up the life cycle of fungus that is evolving into something deadly. An alien virus in Earth’s past would wipe out everything from 1066 onwards, a catastrophic alteration to the Web of Time. The TARDISes Cloister Bell rang because it could detect the stress that the timeline was under.

Isn’t it Odd: I mention it the BBC Novel The Last Resort a fair amount because it is a novel of rare madness (it really divided opinion at the time) and non-linear experimentation (the narrative was basically a linear plot that somebody planted a bomb under and put the pieces back together haphazardly). However, this time I am mentioning it because it also dealt with the idea of time tourism and so that is the currently yardstick that I have to judge this kind of story by. The Doctor playing the Emperor of Egypt and McDonalds turning up across history, that sort of thing. It monstrously imaginative. Backtrack doesn’t even take hold of it’s premise and do anything remotely creative with it, which is the cardinal sin of a writer that promotes any idea with creative worth.

Standout Scene: Imagine the visual of a gigantic flying saucer appearing above the Battle of Hastings. That would be enough to distract Harold long enough for someone to get off a shot to the eye.

Result: Disaster! Matthew J. Elliot, a writer to whom I have had allergic reaction akin to tropical skin rash (with a three for three dud rate with Maker of Demons, Zaltys and The Silurian Candidate) has been let loose on one of my favourite eras of the show. In series three terms then surely we can expect something like Evolution of the Daleks, poor writing being supported by decent execution? And poor, sweet Martha Jones, a companion who is much underrated and barely (if ever) used by Big Finish getting her first real exposure in a script by a writer who has struggled to adapt to the demands of Doctor Who. The fates have been surprisingly merciful a fourth time around and Elliot has crafted what is his most accomplished script to date; an authentic story that doesn’t stick around long enough to get on your nerves. At Main Range full length his faults as an audio writer are exposed but forced to tell a faster paced story and he delivers an adventurous escapade that manages to divert and even thrill in a few places. The characterisation of the Doctor and Martha is spot on in that they say all the right things, but it’s a little too perfect overall. They say exactly the right things like going through a checklist of the sort of stuff they mentioned in the early part of series three. Martha’s almost a Doctor, just one more trip, Last of the Time Lords, etc, etc. But there are some charming lines for both them and they are both at their gleeful best, clearly loving this extended ‘one last trip’ around the universe. The plot keeps the pair of them a little too stationary when it promises something more potentially time hopping in the opening scenes – time travel tourism for goodness sakes – but we are confined to running around a ship that is running that scheme and we’re treated to some weird technobabble that makes the Sleep No More creatures seem plausible in comparison. But Helen Goldwyn keeps the narration coming thick and fast so we can’t focus on the less successful elements for long and I danced along to the fast pace of the tale. I had finished this before I realised and that’s not something I could say for Elliot’s other stories. Mercifully above average material and we can consider that a miracle, this is essentially a lot of running round but running around in a pacy, smiley sort of way: 6/10

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