Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Helliax Rift written by Scott Handcock and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: Daniel Hopkins thought he knew what he was letting himself in for when he joined the top-secret UNIT organisation as its latest Medical Officer. Racing about the countryside, chasing strange lights in the sky? Check. Defending the realm against extra-terrestrial incursion? Check. Frequent ear-bashings from UNIT’s UK CO, the famously no-nonsense Lt-Col Lewis Price? Check. Close encounters of the First, Second and even Third kind? Check, check, check. But he had no idea what alien beings were really like. Until the day of the Fallen Kestrel. Until the day he met the Doctor.

An English Gentleman: There’s a lovely moment in the opening episode where the Doctor addresses a canine as a very good dog and a homo sapien as a very good human in the same breath, suggesting that he sees them as one and the same. Well it made me chuckle. Having never officially been on staff, the Doctor no longer had a modicum of authority. We never did get to enjoy a proper fifth Doctor UNIT story so it’s fascinating to see that they treat him with all the respect as the rest of the universe, a youthful imitator of the white-haired authority figure he used to be. The suggestion that the Doctor might be sexist is outrageous, unless you’re Steven Moffat and the Doctor is from the sixties (gratuitous but thoroughly worthy dig inserted). As scientific advisor he can be arrested for desertion of duty, to be forced to stay. It’s worth remembering just how commanding the fifth Doctor has become on audio, a far cry from the squeaky voiced youth he could be on television. Davison’s voice is gravellier, sure but he still retains enough of that energy and enthusiasm to authentically be the fifth Doctor but with a steel that means when he is angry you really sit up and pay attention. The scenes inside the Doctor’s mind are gorgeous and Davison plays the gentle Uncle guiding the alien to a calmer play perfectly. If there is an innocent under threat, he would always stand in the way.

New Recruit: Daniel stands between the Doctor and a bullet and so he is left in his custody for the duration of the story, prompting an invitation to the TARDIS for the medical officer, not an opportunity offered to many. The military mind is disappointingly functional, and he doesn’t respond to walking into the TARDIS when the facts speak for themselves. Drawn into the Doctor’s lifestyle, he’s smart and quick to improvise and provides a humane counterpoint. He’s not ungrateful about rubbing shoulders with the Doctor, but there is plenty on Earth to keep him busy. You know, all those other alien invasions we weren’t privy to in the 80s.

Standout Performance: Blake Harrison is not a name I have come to associate with drama but knockabout comedy, so this was my first exposure to him in a serious role. It’s a cute character and he has a certain northern charm about him, even if the accent does slip more often than it should. It’s a good thing he never met the ninth Doctor or we might have been in regional heaven. I felt the Harrison grew into the role as the story progressed, he’s a nice foil to Davison’s Doctor without ever become a character that blew my socks off. He’s certainly no Harry Sullivan.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Why are you slicing up aliens in your cellar?’
‘UNIT aren’t monsters, Doctor. But they still have a lot to learn.’

Great Ideas: The opening episode gets started immediately with a story already in full swing, UNIT hunting something and the Doctor in the vicinity. Listen to it as a back-door pilot for the fifth Doctor as an alternative to Castrovalva, but a Doctor that is unencumbered with companions and the story assumes we know who he is and his previous association with UNIT. A bit like Rose, with the ninth Doctor showing up during a story that has been playing out for a while even before the audience joins in. Seriously listen to episode one with that in mind and it’s a really interesting attempt to introduce this Doctor in a very gentle way. Would UNIT shoot the Doctor in the back if he chose to walk away from an alien incursion? What appears to be a base where aliens are being studied and dissected is in fact a place for them to recuperate and where the human race can learn from them. It’s rather like the anti-Torchwood, not exploiting aliens for technological and biological advantages but creating a place where they can be safe and looked after. A faked alien crash landing with a diversionary tactic so the occupant could be taken to the facility that is helping the aliens. It is searching for its child, captured by the facility. It’s like a hospital where the patients are kept against their will. The Barvin, Selachian and Mim are mentioned but I’m sure there are more recognisable aliens are being contained. It wouldn’t be a UNIT story if some innocent grunt didn’t bite the bullet.

Musical Cues: If the story is supposed to be getting off to a gripping start then it is somewhat hampered by the music that suggests something light and frothy, with the military drums there to suggest a parody of a 70s UNIT tale.

Isn’t it Odd: I’d almost like to lose the cliff-hangers in this story and have it as one long two-hour tale because they really don’t add much to the mix. It’s literally a case of having to cut up the action because that is the format that the audios have chosen but I don’t mind them shaking it up bit when the story justifies it. They are moments of jeopardy (never my favourite on audio because they are hard to convey) and they spring up out of nowhere. It feels like the story is bouncing along very nicely and then BAM…title music. And I’m left scratching my head to the disruption. There’s a huge and sudden info dump at the end of episode three that is extremely inelegant. These details could have been scattered throughout the story had the character been introduced a little earlier and the audience could have done some of the work but instead a massive character arc descends in the space of two minutes that we had been completely unaware of until that point. It’s a vital part of the plot too so it’s not even something that can be excused as a throwaway piece of character work.

Standout Scene: I like the idea of the alien characters all being let loose from the facility to prey upon the hapless humans who have been treating them. It reminds me of the Buffy episode down in the Initiative where all the trapped monsters were set free. Has Scott Handcock been watching Buffy lately?

Result: The Helliax Rift cuts to the chase immediately and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a 1980s UNIT story with the fifth Doctor seamlessly dropped into his old role as scientific advisor. The thing is there were relatively few (well, one) UNIT stories in the 80s so its quite novel to see how it might have played out if the early 70s formula was still in play a decade later. It’s an alien invasion but it’s told almost entirely from the point of view of the UNIT soldiers that are investigating it. It feels like a story that should quite dull because there is very little incident of plot progression in the first half but the interaction between the characters kept me on side and it’s directed with a lightness of touch that mean it never felt slow or uninteresting. English countryside, an alien diversion and lots of talk of sweet army tea…it’s like the Doctor never left UNIT. There’s even a left-wing organisation that could have come straight out of a Malcolm Hulke script…a hospital that is looking after aliens for their own good, under confinement. Weirdly it’s probably the most UNITy UNIT story you could imagine and it doesn’t feature any of the characters that we have come to associate with that sub-genre, besides the Doctor. Instead we have medical officer Daniel Hopkins who rises to the role of the Doctor’s companion in this story and as played by Blake Harrison of The Inbetweeners fame is a little subdued at times but ultimately very charming. Russ Bain’s Lieutenant Colonel Price is our stand-in Brigadier and he’s a little shouty but carries the authority of a man with the fate of the country in his hands. Best of all is Peter Davison’s Doctor, simply a delight in Scott Handcock’s hands; authoritative, witty and just generally lovely to be around. Like Tegan I have taken a complete U-Turn with Davison’s Doctor on audio, compared to my opinion of his Doctor on screen. The Helliax Rift is far from perfect, it’s a little too plot light and then it all comes one great gush of exposition before heading into the busy final episode but it’s another enjoyable main range adventure in an unprecedented run for the range in recent years. The difference between Justin Richards trad and Scott Handcock trad is that this has all the elements of a Doctor Who story but it is assembled in a very engaging way. To sum this up I’d say it’s Doctor Who-lite, archetypal and very cute for it: 7/10

1 comment:

dark said...

I'm afraid I really didn't care for this one myself, the most disappointing monthly release in a long while.
I enjoyed the idea of hitting the ground running, but the first couple of episodes spent most of their time wandering around in circles before we got an explanation.

finally when we got an explanation I really wasn't sure what to feel. (beware! spoiling spoilers in coming, read no further lest yee be spoiled).

So this scientist has been capturing and tormenting aliens in a misguided to help one half human child survive on earth, a child which has by all accounts spent his entire life locked up, and the fifth doctor has nothing to say?

Then when all those understandably rather irritated alien patients are released into the wild among a trigger happy unit bregade the fifth doctor again, doesn't seem to notice?

Oh and we're suppose to care because, mmmmm motherhood? I'm sorry but I honestly couldn't blame the alien father for being somewhat annoyed here, but somehow we're supposed to care that mother and son will do some serious family bonding at the eye of orion.

Sorry but the way this story skated over any and all implications and thrust moral problems under the rug just frustrated me.

Maybe it was that I didn't really care for any of the unit characters much, or maybe its just that I'm one of these people who's brain doesn't shut off just because someone waves the word "family" around. Either way while I really liked the review as always, this is an area where I would personally disagree I think.