Monday, 2 July 2018

The Mind Runners written by John Dorney and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: It used to be fun, Mind Running. Hopping into the heads of total strangers to see what they saw, feel what they felt. But one by one the Mind Runners are dying in a wave of suicides. And no-one on the planet Chaldera knows why. The Doctor, Leela and K9 arrive in the city that covers all of this dying world as it prepares to evacuate its people, and they immediately find themselves involved in a mystery. Who or what is responsible for the wave of death? Is it the motorised cult known as the Digitals? The enigmatic Mr Shift? Or did all the victims attempt to run the Night Mind, the demonic consciousness of legend that is so twisted and evil that it drives mad all who touch it? The TARDIS crew are about to find out.

Teeth and Curls: It’s another story where there isn’t a scene inside the TARDIS, starting as it does with the Doctor and Leela arriving and talking when they leave the Ship. There has been a concerted effort with this new season to skip to the point and cut out all the waffle that has plagued this line of stories. It’s very welcome because the stories feel a lot more solid and urgent because of it. Mind, this is the first adventure in the boxset not to jump straight to the plot but to have the Doctor regale Leela with some information about their landing and you do need a little of that. He talks romantically of New York, speaking of Big Yellow Taxis, glorious eccentrics and colourful characters. Perhaps he means Morton Dill. Hubris detected in the Doctor, according to K.9. The Doctor tries to convince Leela and K.9 that they are in New York to the point of obstinacy and until the facts are so lacking in his favour that he surrenders. He gets childishly excited at the idea of a rocket being built. He wonders what the point of asking ‘friend or foe’ is when answering foe would be terribly counterproductive.

Noble Savage: A viewscreen is a great window high above. Leela wonders whether New York is filled with the Big Apple that the Doctor mentioned. I love how she reasons things, they can be amusing observations but they are always intelligently analysed. If Leela wished somebody dead they would be dead, she would not talk about it first. The way Leela convinces Taraneh to let her pursue the mind runner makes me think that she would make a good lawyer (she’s so good at reasoning logically), albeit a very honest, incorrupt one. Given their effective (if abrasive) partnership here, I think there is a SF cop drama out there featuring Leela and Taraneh. She was a savage from an unnamed world, her partner was a hardened cop with no time for the mind runners. Together, they combine instinct and procedural skill to become one of the greatest crime fighting duo Chaldera has ever known.

Great Ideas: A dramatic first scene that ends in Mr Shift accosting his victim and apparently murdering them by pushing them both from a great height. The Mind Runners are considered punks, a bunch of bored 20-year olds dossing about. The city of Chaldera is the entire planet. Independent settlements developed, one became dominant, borders clashed, wars were fought and weakest settlements became part of the stronger ones making them even more dominant and eventually they form a single unit. The Doctor explains the logical history of a planet in this condition in one fell swoop. A rocket to take an entire population of a planet away is quite an inefficient option for a world with power problems. Teleportation experiments were looking promising until the man who instigated the experiments thought he would make the ideal test subject for the first run. Vital services are allocated the power on this world, but there is no entertainment, which means there are a lot of disaffected young people looking to spice up their lives. Mind running isn’t possession, it’s like hitching a lift inside somebody’s head. Once there you feel what they feel and see what they see. The Night Mind is a dangerous rumour that is circulating, because of you enter the demons head you might just lose yours. It’s a dark myth to scare the youth of Chaldera. The Digitals are a cult that believe flesh is weak and so they digitise their minds and personalities and upload them to computer databases. Insane computer monitors on wheels.

Audio Landscape: Bless the sound designers at Big Finish, even K.9 is perfectly identifiable as being powered by the clunking, painfully loud motor of season 15. What is up with the modified voices for the people of Chaldera? You know when an audio file is corrupted and sounds tinny and gravelly? It sounds a little bit like that. It’s not that it’s a poor creative choice, just a distracting one. I guess it does stress that this is an alien world, but it isn’t until I hear the voices of Tom Baker and Louise Jameson that I remembered that this wasn’t a tainted file, but an artistic device.

Isn’t It Odd: There was a massive disconnect between the two stories that are being told in The Mind Runners in the first 15 minutes of this story. You’ve got the Doctor and Leela exploring this new world and guest characters mind running in a clandestine location. As this is a four-part story overall it’s fine that the dots aren’t joined immediately, but you have one half the of plot where everything is explained in detail (the Doctor and Leela) and one half of the plot where none of the pertinent facts about the characters or the act of mind running are explained. As such I felt completely in the dark as to what was going on there. Eventually the two plots intersect and everything makes sense but for some considerable time I was listening to scenes and didn’t have a Scooby Doo what was going on. I don’t think that should ever be the case, especially if it dampens my enjoyment. In true Matthew J Elliot style the entire situation is elucidated in an extended dialogue scene between the Doctor, Leela and Taraneh. I’m not sure so much should be dumped on you in one whack rather than allowing the audience to experience any of these ideas through the regulars. It’s far more impactful to have the characters involved in the concepts than to merely have them explained. It’s a clinical rather than emotion approach.

Result: Another story that would have felt completely out of place in the seventies, which is precisely the approach I feel the 4DAs should be taking right now. I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t some problems with The Mind Runners (the detached approach to storytelling really made this a hard one to break into) but what I really took away from it was it’s slick worldbuilding and modern tone. The ideas it flaunts feel contemporary because they are presented in such a throwaway fashion. Mind running is a given on this world and you either get with the programme or you get lost. It means there is an element of distrust to the story, that you can’t ever trust that the person you are talking to hasn’t been hijacked. It’s nice to have a story where the Doctor, Leela and K.9 remain together for the most part and work as a team, this rarely seemed to be the case in season 15. The Doctor and Leela are both characterised very well but I would expect nothing less of John Dorney. It’s odd for him to create such a vivid world but to have it encapsulated by so few people. There is an epic backdrop to The Mind Runners which never truly felt that way because it’s such an intimately small cast. I really wanted to feel the desperation of the people of Chaldera, and to experience the excitement at the building of the rocket. What works really well is the feeling oppression and underhandedness; this is a world of criminal activity, of illegal mind jumps, murder and youth crime. Whoever said there was a feeling of Blade Runner about this story was perfectly accurate, but more in its content than its tone. Paradoxically, I feel that the script could do with John Dorney (script editor of this season) to give it the once over to iron out its fair amount problems, however since he is the author of this piece he’s on the inside looking out rather than on the outside examining within. I would have made the characters a little more likeable and the ideas a little more reachable. John Dorney has written some of the most powerfully emotional material that Big Finish has produced, so I can only imagine that the antiseptic tone was a deliberate choice. I feel like there is a terrifically involving version of The Mind Runners just over the yardarm but what we’ve got is being filtered through a cold, uninviting lens. A shame, because as I said there is much to recommend about this story. I’m conflicted: 6/10

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