Thursday, 5 April 2018

The Sky Man written by James Goss and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: When his new companion decides to save a planet, the Master indulges this most futile of requests. Materialising on a primitive, agrarian world, both the strangers quickly find their place in it… until fallout from the War invades their happy paradise.

War Master: It’s a great image of the Master, a Time lord in command of a TARDIS and completely impotent in the face of the Time War. It’s not like the Master took Cole to a world that he knew was bound to destruction because he gave him the choice of several. Unless he chose several that he knew were doomed… He’s always enjoyed hobbies that require patience and subtlety, going from a seed to a product of marvellous complexity. He could be describing one of his masterplans! Marvellous he suggests that he has the kind of face you can trust. The Master tending to his vineyard and keeping his nose out of Cole’s world saving activities is a fantastic conceit. It’s a little like what the Doctor does in Kill the Moon but handled with far more subtlety and believability. Plus, it’s just nice to listen to the man talk about something other than grandiose schemes and plots. It might seem heartless when he refuses to help this civilisation but he is still true to his word. When he arrived he specifically said that he wasn’t allowed to get involved and that his people would look unkindly on his interference and punish his appropriately (maybe he recalls watching the Doctor’s trial when recalling how they react to interference). If you asked him outright if he helped in any way he could refuse to say he did but conveniently he has left supplies to create a cyber race for Cole to use. He knows exactly what he is doing and exactly what his companion will do with those spare parts. The Master offering Cole the wine he has been making throughout the story, almost to toast his failure.

Cole: We’ve never seen the Master with an actual companion in the same way that Doctor travels with a friend. He had stooges that he manipulated in the Sea Devils and The Time Monster and Lucy was his wife and somebody he kept around to take his frustrations on. The closest was probably Chang Lee from the TV Movie and he snapped his neck so that didn’t go so well. It’s an interesting dynamic, having somebody in the Master’s TARDIS that he is willing to take to a doomed world and let him see if he can do anything about saving it. The doctor would often be known to remark ‘this is my best friend’ about his companions but the Master departs with a marvellous ‘treat him with sympathy, he means well.’ Cole integrates into this society naturally, with a few bumps along the way as he tries to ‘improve’ their lifestyle with technology that backfire and the romance that brews up feels very natural. He’s like a dodgy wine, apparently, after a while he’s bearable. They call Cole ‘the Sky Man’ because of where he came from. It surprises him when he finally says ‘our world’ rather than ‘your world.’ When it is clear that something deadly has come to this world and finger is pointed at Cole, he is quick to point out all the hard work he has done here and the character he has shown in helping this society. You can’t help but like this guy. Elidh means so much to him that when people start dropping like flies he is quick to make her a survival suit like his own. Coles tears when the Master turns up to take him away from the hell he has created were really affecting. Never before has someone saying ‘what have I done?’ hit me so hard. He doesn’t just carry the burden of this races construction but he also carries the weight of every planet they destroy and every life they take.

Standout Performance: Jonny Green gives a superb performance in The Sky Man, creating a Cole that it is easy to warm to and hard to condemn when his efforts go awry. The most important element of any audio drama is to have a character that you care about or can believe in and in both cases Green triumphs.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Typical. When a man decides to sew, he decides to sew in tin.’
‘A paradox made on a paradox…’
‘If they leave their world, they’ll burn the very stars and fill the emptiness of space with their screams…’

Great Ideas: The cover is phenomenal. Quite apart from a the very beautifully young man depicted (what? I’m only human!), it really sets the scene for this story effectively. The covers for both the Gallifrey and War Master sets have been above and beyond what I expect from Big Finish of late, certainly of the Main Range. This is a society that is aware of modern technology but chooses not to utilise it. Technology would have made them visible to those who are fighting the Time War, it is the best for of defence to maintain a peaceful, agrarian society. They slipped under the radar by keeping their noses out of the conflict. It’s astonishing how easily Cole’s efforts and his drive to help these people becomes something more sinister.

Audio Landscape: The robotic voices that kick in after the civilisation are encased in Cyber-suits are terrifying. ‘Retribution…’

Standout Scene: The moment Anvar was placed inside his survival suit really affected me. These are never specifically stated to be Cybermen but we have such a long-standing history with the creatures and the idea of being placed inside a cold metal suit and suffering a claustrophobic attack is stifling to listen to. It makes that moment of conversion so human and completely terrifying.

‘It looks…unfriendly’ Surprising, thoughtful, dramatic and gripping, The Sky Man sunk its claws into me and never let go. I was a little reluctant to have an adventure where the Master is sidelined and a one-off companion takes centre stage but Cole is characterised and intelligently and engagingly from the off and his integration into this simple society gently reveals shades of his character that surprised me. This is better characterisation than a lot of Doctor Who companions get in their respective ranges, Cole is sweet, funny and thoughtful. It’s a society that is painted beautifully too, an agrarian people who are proud of their lack of technology but with Cole’s influence slowly come to depend on it. I’ve seen this sort of story play out before on many science fiction shows, especially ones like Stargate and Star Trek. Where a regular is absorbed into a society that they visit and they have a profound effect on one another. But it is done here with such emotional honesty and naturalism that this really is the standard that the others should match up to. This reminded me of Goss’ The Winning Side for the Bernice Summerfield series, which was a real highlight of that period of the that range, insofar as I was engrossed by the cleanness of the writing where it felt like not a word was wasted, the quality of the characterisation and the doomy tone that led to some unforgettably dramatic scenes. The direction and performances deserve much praise, it takes some skill to make affecting drama like this seems so effortless. I really felt for these people and I had known them less than an hour. Cole thinks he’s saving these people from their deaths but all he is doing is providing them with an alternative purgatory. Watching this play out (given everything we know about Cyberman history) is devastating, but inevitable. All it takes is to put on a suit and all your problems will be over. The flesh is weak, technology is superior. Thoroughly absorbing and personal, this is audio drama at its finest: 10/10

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