Tuesday, 22 May 2018

The Lure of the Nomad written by Matthew J Elliot and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: For thousands of years, it has drifted through space, unimpeded, forgotten, seemingly lifeless. Now, finally, it has been discovered. Responding to a distress call from the mysterious hulk, the Doctor and his companion, space pilot Mathew Sharpe, walk into a desperate situation. The multi-tentacled semibionic Makara were tasked with renovating the abandoned craft, but now they’ve begun murdering their employers. The Doctor soon realises that the Makara have been programmed to kill, but by whom, and for what reason? Finding out the truth will mean uncovering a secret that threatens the entire Universe.

Softer Six: He promised Matthew one trip in the TARDIS but things have gotten waylaid somehow. They’ve had adventures with the Quark, the Mermadons and the Chronosaurus with Samuel Pepys. He thinks the TARDIS must be due for a complete overhaul, top to bottom. Ever boastful, he modestly claims that he is quite the climber and used to scale the side of Mount Callisto on Gallifrey. Apparently, he was also responsible for calling the TV show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Name dropper. He’s incredibly verbose in MJE’s hands, but full of good humour and smart observations. I was pleasingly surprised at his characterisation here. The Doctor mentions Peri, which places this story after her time (or at least her first tenure with him). Usually the camera loves him! Curly hair is a look that he keeps coming back to. He’s known as the Doctor, omniversally and his reputation precedes him. He’s knowns as the protector of all things solid and magnificent, at least to the Geist. Unlike his predecessor he has looks and perspicacity to spare. For the first time ever somebody finds the Doctor’s wardrobe extraordinarily tasteful. It is revealed (somewhat slyly) that the coat is from the collection of the Contessa Withagee of Kolpasha. He’s not accustomed to putting his faith in braggats boasting with guns…and he’s not afraid to say so either. You could say how the Doctor has been duped so spectacularly for such a long period of time might make him look like a galactic dunce but his new companion being comprised of an entire universe means that he could justifiably have the advantage. Also the sixth does have form for this kind of blind spot…remember mysterious Charlotte Pollard? The best part of the climax features the Doctor being a cold bastard and turning his back on Mathew, who is begging him for help.

New Recruit: I remember when this tory was announced and it seemed clear that the sixth Doctor was going to get another new companion. Because it had gone so well with Brewster last time. Actually, I was quite keen on Brewster, even though I think he struggled to establish himself with the audience at large. The questions on most people’s lips seemed to be why was the sixth Doctor being offered a regular stream of new assistants when Davison and McCoy weren’t being treated with the same luxury. Was this a one trick pony companion like Fitz in Company of Friends? Or was something more sinister going on and he isn’t at all what he seems to be? With his ‘look at the size of this place?’ I sensed that MJE was trying to capture a Doctor/Jamie vibe. He met the Doctor when his ship got into a spot of trouble over the planet Omelia. Unfortunately, the Doctor had a few errands to run before getting him home. It’s a bit like a replay of that moment when the Doctor shows up in Night of the Doctor but without the drama of the immediacy of the situation. The Doctor mentions that he reminds him of Harry Sullivan. All MJE had to do was bring up Ben and Adric and we would have all the young male companions alluded to.

Standout Performance: Remember when Big Finish could introduce companions like Evelyn and Erimem and Hex apparently with ease. The companion introductions these days (Daniel Hopkins, Matthew Sharpe…even Flip’s initial story failed to make an impression) are far less memorable and vivid. George Sear is brought in to represent new companion Matthew Sharpe and it’s a surprisingly muted performance, rather than one of youthful exuberance that I was expecting. Sear has good chemistry with Colin Baker and that is the more important thing because I was genuinely convinced that they had had a relationship together before this story. I got the impression that Sear hadn’t done a great deal of audio drama before and didn’t quite have the naturalism that I have come to expect. However, I thought it was a perfectly likable performance for a one-shot story and while the character never stood out like some companions do in their ‘first’ story, I warmed to him enough that by the time his true identity was revealed, I was sorry to see him go. Let’s call it a qualified success. Sear has much more success as Mathew than as a galactic superbeing from another universe, it has to be said. It’s great to have Anna Barry back in Doctor Who (Anat from Day of the Daleks) – a terrific actress, giving a suitably weighty role.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Please be aware that we do not wish to kill you. We simply have no choice in the matter. We hope that you will accept our sincere apologies for your murder.’
‘I have always been of the opinion that truly civilised beings should always have freshly brewed tea to hand.’
‘In an unreliable universe you have been a solid presence.’
‘You’re saying I’ve been off the air for seventy-two years?’
‘You have made an enemy today, Doctor!’ ‘You’ll have to join a very long queue, I’m afraid. Even alphabetically, you’re nowhere close to the front.’

Great Ideas: Willoway is a being of pure vapour, which is a pretty original idea for Doctor Who. Because she is intangible she finds the idea of solidity fascinating. The idea of Grand Designs being updated to Universal Designs in the future and following the adventures of new hotels and structures being built on other worlds really raised a smile. The Makara are another really fun idea thrown into the mix – biomechanical jellyfish that apologise when they have to kill you. That’s a Douglas Adams era Doctor Who type idea. How does a humanoid crew live through a journey lasting perhaps centuries without access to suspended animation chambers or faster-than-light engines? Inside a time bubble, of course and using artronic crystals where time runs at a different rate inside the bubble than without. Because the Nomad was the ship that famously transported the population of the doomed planet Mirelle to Erebus. The settlers were all murdered by the Myriad Army. You’ve got some great Moffat-style timeywimeyness with the use of the time bubble and Drazen’s seventy-two-year disappearance. The Myriad are every piece of matter, every person from another universe. The universe that exists after this one, where individuality has been wiped out. Mathew sought out the Doctor because only a time sensitive could retrieve Juniper from the bubble. The Myriad have an insane plan to cause a build up of radiation powerful enough to cause a big bang and end the entire universe and kick start there’s prematurely.

Isn’t it Odd: Clunky exposition makes itself apparent in the very first scene (‘we’re a long way from Mirelle…’). In typical MJE style, the story opens with the story talking all about a more interesting story that has already been and gone. It strikes me that the author has a number of solid ideas at the heart of his stories but just doesn’t have a clue what to do with them. He presents them in a very clear way and as a listener you can see the potential (a gaseous entity, bio-mechanical jellyfish) and they proceeds to have them waffle on for four episodes not achieving anywhere near their potential. It’s a little unforgivable to express imagination and then fail to capitalise on it. Drazen is a dreadfully unconvincing stereotype who spouts lines like ‘I’m rich and important and need rescuing!’ This kind of arrogant businessman turns up a lot in Doctor Who and it’s rare that they are as painfully unsubtle as this. I did appreciate the mention of his father to try and give his bullish behaviour some motivation, but it doesn’t account for the crassness of his dialogue. I find it a little odd when a writer delivers the same cliff-hanger twice without adding anything else to the mix. The climax to episodes one and two both feature the Makara menacing the characters of this story and the plot doesn’t seem to have advance one jot between them. You could pick up in episode three and it could the beginning of episode two. A competent scriptwriter would lay clues about the Nomad early in the script so that when the Doctor comes to reveal all the seeds of information about the ship were already in place but instead when the reveal comes it lacks drama because aside from one mention, we have no clue what the bloody Nomad is until the Doctor eventually deems to tell us.

Mind you don’t listen to me, check out the Big Finish website where the usual list of sites delivers their predictably complimentary reviews of every release. Honestly some online sites are becoming more of a propaganda machine for the company than DWM. Either that or they genuinely think every single release is worth endorsing and is the pinnacle of what Doctor Who can achieve, in which case I question the critical faculties of the people who are compiling those reviews.

Standout Scene: The end of episode three, obviously. Which is a terrific cliff-hanger as scripted but is somewhat undone by the central performance crucial to the moment. Which annoyingly is the reverse problem with the rest of the story (which is great actors salvaging a tricky script). I really love the fact that Mathew has been controlling the events of the story, even from before we joined it.

Result: The worst thing in the world has finally happened…my precious Colin Baker has finally been foisted upon with a Matthew J Elliot script! Given everything that has come before, the first episode isn’t that bad at all. Some intriguing ideas, some pleasingly memorable aliens and a new Doctor and companion team exploring an unknown location with some enjoyably witty banter. It’s almost completely lacking in incident, but I think we have to come to expect that from an MJE script now. John Ainsworth’s direction, which is always something a little bit special, is sympathetic to the script and he has utilised some fearsome talent to bring the verbose and stuttering story to life. Not only that but Colin Baker is attacking this script with real verve, which makes up for a quite a few of it’s narrative faults. An enthused Colin Baker means I get enthused when he is talking and that counts for a lot in these stories and where Sylvester McCoy struggled terribly with MJE’s fractured, endless dialogue, Baker positively revels in it like a pig in shit. If you’re looking for a story with a lot of plot advancement then I suggest you look elsewhere because Lure of the Nomad runs on the spot for it’s first three episodes with very little in the way of narrative development and then after the bombshell at the end of episode three has to explain everything away in a terrible hurry before the curtain call. Elliot’s writing is improving insofar as the dialogue feels more naturalistic but his ability to script a story in an artistic way is still sadly lacking. The last episode features some big ideas (destroying the entire universe shouldn’t be taken lightly) but I found that the universal super beings spent a little too much time waffling rather than kicking their grand plan into motion. And as usual so much of the best of this story happens off screen (the Doctor meeting Mathew and their adventures together, the Myriad attack on the Nomad, the existence of the other universe). I’m well aware of this story’s faults but there are a fair few strengths in there too and all told I enjoyed this far more than I didn’t. If I compare it to a story in last years sixth Doctor trilogy then it is a massive step back but Lure of the Nomad features some strong characterisation of the main man, an intriguing attempt to do something different with a companion, some nifty ideas (the time bubble is especially good) and enough pleasing dialogue to see me through. Sometimes that is enough when bolstered by strong direction. Who the hero of the piece turns out to be came as a complete surprise: 6/10


Anonymous said...

Spot on review. The story overall is a bit boring with some good twists and glimpses here and there. I guess it would be better if they showed us more adventures with Mathew before the big reveal. That would be much more fun.

I also noticed a lot of praising sites with no negative reviews. They put their reviews quite early, so probably BF gives them review copies in advance.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous has a point. There can be an ulterior motive read into putting up a very positive interview, both in that they get retweeted by Big Finish (and thus get more hits) and they get review copies so their reviews go up earlier. Now in the podcast Nick spends five to ten minutes at the start reading the review excerpts out. I find that rankings like Timescales or forum conversations on the stories present a more accurate measure for how well a story goes down (adjusting for how constructive the feedback is known to be). I much prefer your reviews, as you break down the components and explain why they work or don't work for you.

One mercy from this script is that it isn't subject to the usual fanwank MJE insists on overdosing his stories with (Silurian Candidate you could make a potentially lethal drinking game out of each time he makes a continuity reference). On the other hand there's nearly three quarters of the story with the characters buggering about the ship trying to avoid the killer robots, with two out of the three cliffhangers being the characters menaced by the Makara, and all three involve someone's life being menaced.

It's disappointing that Mathew Sharpe, one T, E and the end, is revealed to be a deep cover operative who ends up killed off at the end, as when this was announced I was excited for a new male companion (last one was Oliver Harper in a superb First Doctor Companion Chronicles trilogy in 2011). Colin's Doctor has only had the one in Brewster, and he inherited him from the Fifth Doctor. Maybe if Mathew had been conditioned, and altered to be suitable as a host for one of the Myriad. It's a win-win, as there's still a deep cover agent angle but the Sixth Doctor gets a male companion to travel with.

Anonymous said...

that's the reason I only read yours and Styre's reviews (he's very harsh but has a great critic eye) and sometimes the timescales

dark said...

@Joe, I admit my review reading tendency is a little different, since I tend not to read reviews by item, but by person.
I'd much rather read a nuanced review from someone I disagreed with than a one note review, either positive or negative from someone I agreed with, indeed in the speculative fiction reviews I do myself over on www.fantasybookreview.co.uk (yes, shameless plug), I try to give a varied picture and pick out imho what did, or did not work and why I thought it didn't work.

So, personally whatever someone else's reviews are doing, especially reviews sighted by the company, this blog still gets a big thumbs up from me and thanks again for sharing well put together critiques on all aspects of Doctor who.

Okay as I heard lure of the nomad this morning I found this one a real mixed bag. Willoway was a lovely idea and I was genuinely sorry to see her get killed, and the Makara were that lovely mix of black comedy and genuine scare factor.

I admit I totally agree about companion introductions. Back in the day,companions had a point and gravitas, but these days the companion's roll seems so stratified that they fade into a sort of amorphous mass, heck in moffat era who they just randomly introduce one shot none entities like nephateetee and go "oh yeah, they've been travelling with the doctor having exciting adventures, same old same old"

So initially I really didn't like Mathew sharpe, he felt such a token character, as bad as random entities like Will arrowsmith.
yet, I actually found him growing on me quite a lot. Maybe it was the blatant sparring with Drazen who was such a git you had to like anyone who didn't like him, maybe it was the really subdued yet rather fun performance, maybe it was that for the first time since Steven Taylor I actually got the impression of someone who was at the same time both a young man from a future society with responsable positions like a space pilot, yet someone out of his time, adventuring and having rip roaring good fun, heck, maybe its just that Colin is my favourite doctor and I'm hugely biased.

Either way, I was genuinely sorry when he turned out to be big universe distroying bad guy, and even sorryer when said universe distroying bad guy turned out to be completely boring.
Really why is it that directors think just chucking a lot of superlatives at the script makes the threat seem worse? Honestly I sort of wish the makara had been behind it, either them or the poor journalist Esta who seemed to alternate between suspect, gutter press and damsel almost schizophrenically.

Really I feel genuinely conflicted about this one, a waaaay bit better imho than the helliax rift, but yee gods there was a tonne and a half of wasted potential.