Saturday, 23 June 2018
Iron Bright written by Chris Chapman and directed by John Ainsworth
Softer Six: You might think characters talking to themselves would be a trap that Big Finish stories fall into quite often but it is rarely the case, the writers usually find imaginative ways for information to be relayed without having the characters sound as though they are directly telling the audience what is going on. Iron Bright begins with the sixth Doctor having something a monologue as he explores his surroundings and it sounds perfectly natural. If there was ever a Doctor who loved the sound of his voice and would vocalise his thoughts if he was alone, this is the one. He suggests there is a better way of resolving issues than rolling about in the muck (I give the prosecution the tussle with the mutant in Revelation of the Daleks as my evidence). One day he may audition for the circus, he’s certainly dressed for the part. There is a glorious moment when the Doctor realises that they are digging the Thames tunnel and he is congratulated, condescendingly, for knowing his own location. Often mistaken as a spy, it must be his face. He’s faced many hauntings before and as a man of learning he has been able to debunk them entirely. This Doctor is not used to facing laughing when he cries that everybody is in danger…but given how he looks I’m surprised he isn’t mistaken for a comedian more often. The sixth Doctor has a terrible habit of being swept away by the Thames (The Marian Conspiracy, Project Twilight, The Crimes of Thomas Brewster) and is warned that perhaps it is best for him to keep his mouth shut when it happens in the future. Perish the thought! The Doctor is asked if he was close to his father…to which a timely interruption stalls his response. He’s a man of nuts and bolts, a man of science and technology. He likes to think of himself as an honorary Earthling. What does the Doctor have in his pockets these days? Apple. Magnifying glass. British Rail timetable. Catapult. Ping-Pong ball. Another ping-pong ball. Yet another ping-pong ball… Compass, tooth brush, a key and a pair of ping pong bats. He’s from another world but he tries to avoid going back.
Historical Celebrity: Whilst the celebrity historical is something I associate with the New Series there is something of a precedent with the sixth Doctor on television and audio. He met George Stevenson on television and has worked his way through Darwin and Burke and Hare on audio. There’s something very natural about the bombastic sixth Doctor palling up with important figures from history. He waxes lyrical with such dexterity. Only his mother calls him Isambard Kingdom Brunel. His father casts a long shadow but the Doctor assures him that he will eclipse Marc one day. Isambard uses the clues to figure that there is something very different about the Doctor. Brunel sees a futuristic city and looks at it with nothing but awe.
Standout Performance: A stellar cast, which John Ainsworth has a solid habit of assembling. The Brunel’s are brought to life with real conviction and anchor the story with a familiar parental rivalry. MacCallum in particular brings a youthful exuberance to Isambard and the moment he sees into the TARDIS is a delight. A special mention to my friend Anthony Townsend who has a rich, deep voice that is perfect for audio. You always dread when somebody you turns up in something you critique but I needn’t have feared, he gives a committed, natural performance. Becky Wright as Flo sounds a lot like Lisa Greenwood’s Flip, which is odd given this is a Colin Baker story.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘London 1828! Chimney’s brimming with fire and soot! The Industrial Revolution is just getting underway.’
‘I imagine a world clad in iron, bathed in function. You could help me forge that world Doctor.’
‘Whatever is haunting you…you are digging straight towards it.’
I never thought I would hear the Doctor saying ‘you on top, obviously’ to a member of the fairer sex!
Great Ideas: The opening reminded me very strongly of Attack of the Cybermen and it is directed with similar dynamism; two workers underground bantering with each other and attacked by something in the dark. The sound effects used in this sequence were effective at generating a creepy tone (the female panting especially). Sticking to Doctor Who’s original remit, there is a glorious educational aspect to this historical and the method of digging a tunnel under the Thames is explained in some detail. Because the Doctor is so enthused by it, so was I. The TARDIS is described by Brunel as a machine that breathes, which is gorgeous. A ghost with a glitch? A Tribute is a collection of weaponised subatomic particles - a soldier existing on a micro AND macro level. So they can become solid when it suits them - or suits you, but they can move through anything. They are each a tribute to one who has died – an exact copy of that individual. A true lasting tribute, frozen in time. Over five hundred observation windows popped into existence on Luceat, windows that they can observe the Earth from. Windows between London and Luceat, tunnels that span between two worlds. And they have been used for tourism! We’ve seen time tourism before (The Last Resort, Hotel Historia) but this feels quite different. The toxins created by the Industrial Revolution, the chimneys belching out smoke, are insatiable and deadly to the people of Luceat. Hence they have had to cloak themselves in atmosphere bubbles in order to observe or they would die. Warriors are being made that are impervious to the stench of London to destroy the cause of the pollutants. They will be let loose on the city, thousands of them, to kick down every chimney, demolish every factory and furnace. Instead of transporting their test device from point A to point B, the scientists on Luceat managed to combine A and B into one single space. The sub-matter explosion tore through two cities. Not just Luceat, but through its parallel in another dimension. London and Luceat, twinned from that moment. Ever since, the windows have been acting as a vent – and now, they’re sucking in London’s pollution.
Audio Landscape: The attack of ghosts does sound remarkably similar to the Gelth, but it’s such a scary sound effect it doesn’t really matter. I love, love love the use of the Thames at the climax. It’s brilliantly dramatic.
Musical Cues: The use of the band of the Coldstream Guards at the climax to episode three was a great move.
Standout Scene: The moment that the Doctor and Brunel step out onto another world this story transforms into something quite different to what it had been. However, unlike The Curse of the Black Spot where the characters slip from a historical to a SF tale and it feels forced and unnatural, Chapman has already slipped in enough clues to make the transition an effortless one. He has such a command of the dialogue that he reveals the wonder of Brunel’s world opening up with real poetry. It’s a magnificent moment when he sees the potential of a world forged in iron. When episode three then begins from the point of view of the characters that have been infecting history, we’re seeing the story from an entirely new angle.
Result: ‘I cannot be part of a colonial invasion! You can’t look at somewhere new and think looks nice, I’ll take it!’ Chris Chapman scores another triumph. There’s pleasing elements of Mark of the Rani, Phantasmagoria and The Unquiet Dead to Iron Bright, but this story is written with greater substance than either of them. Chapman starts telling one kind of Doctor Who story and it feels as though this is going to be pretty predictable, if enjoyable, and then around the halfway mark he twists things entirely and it becomes something quite different. Think The Stones of Blood, but less jarring and more cohesive. The threat to the Earth (or rather London) is fascinating and original and it is happening because of something that we know is a problem on this planet (certainly Barry Letts had a lot to say about it) and the way the story winds educational history and science fiction is very cleverly done. Whilst it might be great for Chapman to take on another Doctor to see what he can do with them, he writes for the sixth Doctor extremely well. I defy anybody who loathed old Sixie on television to listen to this story and have the same opinion. And Colin Baker attacks these stories with such fervent vigour and skill, how could he be anything but my favourite audio Doctor even after all these years? In fact the entire cast is exceptional in Iron Bright, there isn’t a weak link and the performances are so energetic it’s effortless to be dragged along like a victim of the Thames. This is the sort story that Peter Capaldi should have enjoyed as his debut; unpretentious, smart, atmospheric and thoroughly enjoyable to listen to. Whilst this isn’t quite as spectacular as The Middle, Chapman’s full length debut, it’s still a remarkably smooth and pleasurable piece of work. A shout out for John Ainsworth’s superb direction, which made the entire experience an effortless listen: 8/10