Saturday, 29 September 2018

Signs written by James Goss and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: River Song is on the trail of the mysterious, planet-killing SporeShips. Nobody knows where they come from. Nobody knows why they are here. All they do know is that wherever the SporeShips appear, whole civilisations are reduced to mulch. But River has help. Her companion is a handsome time-travelling stranger, someone with specialist knowledge of the oddities and dangers the universe has to offer. For Mr Song has a connection to River’s future, and he would never want his wife to face those perils alone…

Hello Sweetie: The opening scene of Sign contains a ruse that seems to suggest that River is going to have some kind of alternative death to the one which was on screen. It’s a similar problem to the one that the classic Doctors have with Big Finish (and all of the televisions companions). They have already been given a beginning, middle and end in their television adventures and so Big Finish is merely filling in the gaps (and hopefully enhancing them along the way). To suggest that this is where River gets off is fruitless, it’s false tension, because we know that she is going to end up plugging herself into CAL and losing her life. A shame, because otherwise this was a pretty arresting opening. The Doctor has so many faces and she finds all of them infuriating. River is pretty annoyed to be dying. She wakes up having forgotten and then she remembers and then she wishes she had never woken up. I can imagine that is what a lot of terminally ill people go through each day. River genuinely believes this is the Doctor in her company and so we get a very intimate rendition of her boundless affection for him. Recently I found the inclusion of a plot driven brain tumour in The Dispossessed an extremely tasteless experience and especially how flippant the dialogue was about how easily it could be cured and how the revelation about it was dropped with relatively little reaction. James Goss shows how a real person would react to a terminal illness here, by having River express anger and frustration and desperation. It’s quite subtly done, which I weirdly through putting her through this terrible ordeal I felt closer to the character than ever before. I was like that with Clara too; generally, a character I couldn’t warm to but when she was put through the physical or emotional wringer (Dark Water, Last Christmas), it was easy to empathise. In the previous story River was praised for her deductive capabilities but it is in this story where she really expresses them. She considers the Doctor to be her idiot and if there is another iteration of the Doctor to get to know then there is another life to live. When her gloves come off and she confronts ‘the Doctor’, River’s nasty side emerges and Kingston is impressively frightening.

Standout Performance: Samuel West has quite a tricky job to perform here and he handles himself with great aplomb. He has to try and convince that he is an incarnation of the Doctor that we have never met before and sell that Doctor to River, a woman who knows him intimately well. I really liked that he didn’t try and make him too confident or cocky or even too eccentric. He generally convinces because he is up for anything, he’s by her side and he encourages her to do what she does best. I thought it was a rather impressive turn, and given this is a two hander it is rather important that they get the chemistry between the two characters right.

Great Ideas: The SporeShips are like doodlebugs, flying out into space and dropping onto worlds and obliterating life. They are one of the great mysteries of the cosmos….along with all the others. Nobody knows very much about them, or how long they have been at this. Are they doing all this at random? Or by design? All the worlds they have landed on are now dead it has never been spotted that the SporeShips have never ‘attacked’ a planet without life on it. None of the boring worlds. That’s not random, that’s a plan. Are the SporeShips attempting to wipe out civilisations that are getting out of control? Somewhere in the Dark Time a race glimmered into existence and they flourished and brunt brightly. But they’re time was over so quickly, it turned out that their great universe that they felt so proud of was only theirs on loan for a little while and they felt jealous. And so their last of creation was to create the SporeShips and they didn’t want anyone else to enjoy their universe. Or are the SporeShips the leftover remnants of the weapons that destroyed the last universe, or that they’ve slipped back from the end of this one. Let’s posit a race, the first people. They sowed a range of species on different planets and then stepped back and left them to develop. They’re using the spores to thin out the worlds that are developing in the wrong way.

Isn’t it Odd: As soon as this fellow pretending to be the Doctor states that maybe they should pop off and leave this population to the fate of the SporeShip – that some events are fixed points in time – I knew this could never be the real deal. The Doctor has used this excuse before but only when he was sure. To abandon people on a chance that this is a fixed point, without even trying, is not like the Doctor at all. I really liked, however, how like the Doctor he ultimately turns out to be. From a race of indolent people, a reactionary, a revolutionary.

Standout Scene: River delivering a speech about the SporeShips to the many iterations of the Doctor. It’s quite a surreal moment when you realise who the applauding audience are.

Result: It’s almost a shame that the second the Doctor gets involved in the action that the interest levels of this box set improve exponentially. I say almost because to have something worth listening to is a godsend after the first two instalments. However, I do think that this series should have had time to establish itself before introducing elements of Doctor Who into the mix because now it feels as though it has been a bit of a failure and it needs the support of big brother to make it through the finish line. Look at The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood, both forging their identities before introducing the Doctor into their worlds. Whilst Signs isn’t quite what it first appears to be, it carries all of that Doctor Who baggage with it and a borrowed relationship from the TV series. A lot of the substance here is because so much groundwork has been done in the first place. Now, stop being such a pessimist, Joe and tell everybody why this one was a winner. It’s a two hander, very nicely written with some juicy dialogue, a twisty turny plot and a surprising climax. I really enjoyed the chemistry between Kingston and West and even though we know that this cannot be the Doctor (Unbound aside, Big Finish would never be given permission to start making up new Doctors) there is enough substance (the mutual respect, the flirting, the shared history) to make it feasible. If it was unconvincing then River would look stupid and that’s something that should never be allowed to happen, not in a box set that is supposed to be convincing us that she can work on audio. The SporeShips are the first great idea of the set, a genuinely intriguing mystery for River and the ‘Doctor’ to solve that has serious consequences if they don’t. There is something of the Hoothi about them but that’s a pretty fearsome foe to get your inspiration from. If the first story was your bog-standard Benny and the second was your traditional Doctor Who story, then Signs is the first tale that aspires to be something with a little more initiative. It’s also infused with a passion that the first half of the set lacked, a passion in the writing and a passion between the characters. Alex Kingston delivers a very strong performance, raising her game as the material offers her more opportunities. You can always rely on James Goss to bring something fresh to the table, and he doesn’t disappoint. It feels like a story worthy of the character: 8/10

1 comment:

Unknown said...

By far the strongest release of the set (sir far) I thought. I agreed with what you said about bringing the doctor on suddenly makes the release more interesting...but I think there is a danger that these box sets will follow the pattern of 3 average stories and a pay off involving the doctor.For me the Christina and Jenny series all have much stronger starts with supporting characters. None of whom are necessarily bigger than the feature character.