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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Shearman’

Well, one consequence of the recent transformations in my life is that I am now sharing the garret with 700+ CDs and DVDs (not to mention a couple of dozen World of Darkness sourcebooks, but I suspect they may be a bit too niche even for this blog), including the majority of existing TV Doctor Who and the entirety of the first six years of the Big Finish audio range.

I suspect that, ironically enough, the rise of Doctor Who to its current world-conquering televisual status has been really bad news for the audio range. These initial CD-and-tape releases were a massive deal for Whodom in the early 2000s, being the only place you could find proper actors doing proper new Doctor Who stories (followers of the novel range were prone to grumpiness on this point). Now, however, they are as niche as they have ever been – with all-singing, all-dancing Doctor Who readily available (and, occasionally, seemingly inescapable), you have to be especially dedicated to want to pay for even more.

I have to say that the only new Big Finish productions I’ve listened to in the last nine years have been their fiftieth anniversary special and a few Paul McGann stories that turned up on digital radio back in 2011. Increasingly I am beginning to wonder if my life might not be a little bit brighter if I dipped back into this particular world on a more regular basis: God knows I am disenchanted enough with the current version of the TV show, and the moment where I part company with it entirely is (I suspect) only one more change of lead away. Plus, partaking of more Doctor Who means more opportunities to write about Doctor Who, which is always something that makes me happy.

May as well start with a good one, so the first story I figuratively dusted off was The Holy Terror, from 2000. This tale was written by Rob Shearman, notable for being probably the only writer for BF to graduate to working on the TV series itself (a few others have come up through the ranks of the various novel ranges). It was highly regarded at the time, at least by those who bought it: however, it was apparently rather less successful than other plays of the time, something which the producers ruefully referred to as the Penguin Effect – shorthand for the tendency of insular fans to eschew stories they don’t consider to be ‘canon’.

holyterror

Insular fans are idiots, if you ask me: more than a decade on, The Holy Terror still sounds superb. Shearman’s audio stories tend to be set in strange pocket realms cut-off from the rest of the universe, and so it proves here. Irked by the Doctor’s current companion, Frobisher, interfering with the systems, the TARDIS lands in a very peculiar castle. The ruler of the population is venerated as a god by his or her subjects, and intricate systems and rituals have long been established to dictate the behaviour of virtually everyone involved. The newly-installed God, Peppin VII, is very unsure of his suitability for the position, but the grinding wheels of tradition look set to crush his rather tentative objections – until the Doctor and Frobisher (who closely resembles a large talking penguin) find themselves mixed up in events. But a homicidal, near-omnipotent presence is incubating in the depths of this very strange place – but what exactly is it? And does it have any connection to the strangest fact of all – that the castle has an inside, but no outside…?

Doctor Who on audio is a somewhat different beast to its 20th century TV incarnation, and vastly unlike the thing which is currently on TV. In some ways this is beneficial, as dubious sets and problematic special effects are considerably rarer in a sound-only environment. Certainly the story is (obviously) much less reliant on action and visual spectacle, but I think this rather helps it attain a state of true Whoishness: the series, for me, is all about strong ideas and characters, properly developed, and The Holy Terror is almost too densely packed with these.

Then again, this is a Rob Shearman script, and these are usually distinguished by savage black humour, unflinchingly graphic violence, and a fearsome density of ideas and themes. On the surface, The Holy Terror initially plays like a pastiche of I Claudius, played especially for laughs, and much of the play is about the seeming-absurdity of religious belief – characters complain about not being executed in the manner they expected, and so on. Then again, the play does have things to say about the importance and comfort of ritual, both religious and otherwise, which did not seem to me to be entirely unsympathetic. Then again, by its closing stages the story has moved on to be about guilt, and the effects of being caught in cycles of violence, and what it means for a parent not to love their child. On top of even this is a more scientifictional concern – namely, the morality of the treatment of sentient artificial beings. Just because someone isn’t objectively ‘real’, does that mean their feelings are of no import?

There is, obviously, much to contemplate here and it’s to Shearman’s credit that he manages to juggle these concerns and still keep the story intriguing and frequently very funny. That said, anyone used to the recent TV series will probably find it very talky, in additional to being tonally quite different: to say nothing of the fact that Shearman is quite happy to concentrate on his own characters for whole scenes at a time – not only are there key moments in which the Doctor and Frobisher aren’t present, they aren’t even discussed by the other characters.

Just as well, then, that the performances are so universally strong: the characters are usually stereotypes, but then that’s the point, and the players bring them vibrantly to life. The big names in this play are Peter Guinness, Roberta Taylor, and Sam Kelly, all of whom are excellent – Kelly gives a remarkable vocal performance in a dual role – but even a supporting actor like Peter Sowerbutts finds real pathos and poignancy in his scenes towards the end of the story.

Clearly revelling in it all is Colin Baker. His era of the TV series is still, for good or ill, relatively little-loved, but possibly the best thing about the whole Big Finish range is the opportunity it has given Colin Baker to show the Doctor he was moving towards being on TV: here he is slightly pompous and doesn’t mince his words, but he is still perceptive, intelligent, and deeply humane. Many other great Colin Baker audios were to follow, but this is perhaps the first that was truly outstanding.

As I intimated at the start, however, the revived TV series has seemed less keen to draw upon the audios for inspiration and talent than it has the novel range. Shearman only wrote one story, in 2005 – perhaps the process of writing eleven drafts of the script was not to his liking – and while Dalek is still one of the highlights of the revived series, it doesn’t have quite the depth or complexity of the CD story it was based on. Perhaps I, too, am getting more insular as I grow older, but it increasingly seems to me that the best of these CDs capture the essence of really great Doctor Who more closely than some ‘proper’ TV stories of recent years. And if you were drawing up a case to this effect, The Holy Terror would surely be one of the exhibits.

 

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I started properly reviewing old Doctor Who stories again partly because I hadn’t really done so for a long time, but also because I wanted to do something celebratory about the series in this anniversary year. That this has entailed my watching a large amount of Doctor Who is by no stretch of the imagination a burden, of course, even if for various reasons the quantity of material I’ve been able to watch from the sixth, seventh, and eighth Doctors has been rather limited.

This is not the case with the ninth Doctor. If any one era of the series contains within it a reasonable variety of stories but also lends itself to consumption within the space of a few weeks, it is that of Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation. But here we hit a bit of a problem – as I said, I’m trying to be positive and celebratory about Doctor Who, and the danger when writing about the ninth Doctor is to forget about that.

This is not because Christopher Eccleston is a weaker Doctor or his stories are somehow inferior, but for quite the opposite reason: this season, as a whole, is almost incandescently good. I’ve commented in the past on the succession of brilliant stories in, for example, Tom Baker’s third season, but to a modern viewer these are inevitably coloured by the technical limitations of TV drama 35 years ago. The Eccleston stories were made recently enough for this not to be an issue. You could transmit the 2005 season as new, right now, and it would seem as fresh and impressive as it did when it first appeared.

And so one inevitably wonders why they don’t – or, to put it another way, why the most recent seasons feel like so insubstantial and disappointing. The danger with writing about pretty much any Christopher Eccleston episode is that will inevitably turn into a false-flag hatchet job on the show as it exists under the curatorship of Steven Moffat. I like Steven Moffat, honestly, but I am still routinely baffled by how someone of his obvious talents and understanding of the show can think that getting rid of two-part stories is a good idea, and that episodes like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and Rings of Akhaten somehow fully exploit the potential of Doctor Who. Yet I don’t want to spend my time bashing the current show any more than I just have.

So I will try and avoid that and concentrate instead on talking about how good the Eccleston season is. I suppose one must ask just how Rusty Davies and his crew managed to produce something which at the time was a hit on a stupendous scale. And the answer must be that, firstly, they set out to produce something which was both iconic Doctor Who and yet totally accessible to a new audience, and, secondly, they were terrified of failing. This last is not to be underestimated as a factor in the success of many things: the first season of any new Doctor is largely made before the new incumbent is secure in the affections of the public, and this may explain the urgency and energy most new Doctors show in their debut year before settling down into something a little more relaxed and confident.

Of course, the debut year is all we got (and all, I suspect, we will ever have) of Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor. Watching these episodes again has really made me certain that Eccleston is grossly overlooked when people – especially fans – consider the revived series. He gives a brilliant performance week after week in this season, and yet the response to the news he had declined to appear in the anniversary story was essentially a grunt and a shrug from fandom.

I think that encapsulates fandom’s Eccleston problem quite nicely. Nowadays we are used to having Doctors who not only love playing the part, but are card-carrying fans in their own right. David Tennant is one of us, so is Peter Capaldi, and Matt Smith – though obviously a member of the lost generation – has given plenty of interviews about how much he loves Tomb of the Cybermen. Eccleston, on the other hand, is obviously a Doctor Who who wasn’t especially bothered about Doctor Who; it was a job, and one where he apparently didn’t like the prevailing culture, so he was quite happy to walk away from it when the opportunity arose. His indifference to the show has resulted in much of fandom seemingly being indifferent to his contribution to the series.

This is hugely unfair. Simply in terms of the acting performance, Christopher Eccleston is a better Doctor than Matt Smith and a serious challenger to David Tennant as the best of the 21st century bunch. It may help that he has better scripts to work with, of course. Anyway – I’m supposed to be reviewing a particular episode, not overviewing the whole season, so which one? When it comes to good stories one is really spoilt for choice.

dalek

I’m going to be a little obvious and go for Dalek, by Robert Shearman, simply because this was the episode that really and finally sold me on the revived series. To be perfectly honest I was initially a little nonplussed by the style of some of the earlier episodes, and could imagine myself being absolutely appalled by Aliens of London and World War Three had I stumbled across them unsuspecting. But Dalek was the one that made me relax and convinced me that this really was going to be something special.

The TARDIS lands in a bunker beneath Utah in the distant space year of 2012. The installation is owned by IT billionaire Henry Van Staten, who uses it to house his collection of extraterrestrial artifacts – some technological, some organic, and one living. On coming across the Doctor, he hits upon the clever idea of using him to try and persuade his live specimen to co-operate – little suspecting he is just enabling the continuation of the greatest conflict in the history of the Universe…

One should probably acknowledge Dalek‘s origin in the audio story Jubilee, a clever piece about how monsters both real and fictional are neutered through overfamiliarity. Dalek isn’t trying anything so complex in either its plot or its theme: it’s primarily about making the Daleks scary for a new generation. (Here is the bit where I would naturally bang on again about how awful Asylum of the Daleks is, which supposedly has the same intention, is by comparison, but I am restraining myself.)

And it works. Even for a new viewer, by the end of the episode you know everything you need to about the Daleks, even though only a single one of the creatures appears in the story: their psychology, their intelligence, how formidable they are in combat (subsequent stories have downplayed some of the innovations like the force-field and the rotating design). Like the rest of the season, it’s deeply informed by the history and mythos of the series but in no way beholden to or sentimental about it.

The other main job of the episode is to fill in a wodge of backstory about the Time War and the destruction of Gallifrey, most of which comes from that remarkable early scene between the Doctor and the crippled Dalek. On the whole I think the Time War works rather well as a narrative device, making a virtue of the gap between the two versions of the programme and actually giving the Doctor a bit of a character arc (and an accessible one at that). Eccleston is obviously magnificent in this scene, but so is Nick Briggs as the Dalek, managing to give that familiar rasp an urgency and pathos it has seldom had before.

Bits and piece about the Time War had been seeded into earlier episodes but this is the one where it all snaps into place and the ground rules of the modern series are established. Of course, you’re not really thinking about that at the time as the story of the Dalek’s escape and the Doctor’s increasingly desperate attempts to contain or destroy it understandably takes up your attention. That the story concludes with a cannon-toting Doctor intent on cold-bloodedly killing a Dalek which is only searching for freedom sums up everything that is innovative about the new series.

And, like many brilliant things, the danger when reviewing Dalek is that you just end up making a list of things which are good about it. As usual, it all boils down to the script, the acting, and the direction – and if we’re talking about Robert Shearman, Christopher Eccleston, and Joe Ahearne, we’re discussing three people who all knocked the ball out of the Doctor Who park their first time around, only to leave in very short order, unlikely ever to return. And, to return to my earlier point, that really is an immense shame. But it shouldn’t detract from an appreciation of just how good they were.

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The Obligatory When’s It Set Discussion

‘When’s It Set’ issues are a bit less common in the 21st century series, though quite why this should be I’m not sure. Anyway, Dalek is one of those stories giving an on-screen date of 2012, which seems simple enough.

Inevitably, though, the plot point of Van Staten believing his Dalek to be unique – and not knowing its name – is a bit problematic given the events of other stories. One can just about accept that even a man of his resources could have overlooked military records of previous Dalek incursions on Earth – I’m thinking here of Remembrance of the Daleks, set nearly 50 years earlier, and Day of the Daleks, very roughly 40 – given that he doesn’t know what the creature is called. However, his bunker must be very well-insulated indeed for him not to have noticed the swarm of Daleks over London during the Battle of Canary Wharf (occurring in 2007) and especially the Dalek Empire laying claim to the whole planet two years later.

Obviously what’s happening here is an actual example of time being rewritten (something we hear a lot about but hardly ever see on-screen): events as seen in Dalek have since been overwritten by something new as a result of the two stories mentioned. One wonders why the Daleks didn’t spring Van Staten’s prisoner in 2009, given it was emitting a distress signal – assuming they didn’t, in the revised timeline, the only major alteration to the storyline would be that Van Staten would know his pet’s real name at the start of the story.

Dalek’s spatio-temporal quirks don’t quite end there, for we also have the scene in which the Dalek reports that it can’t detect any trace of Dalek activity via the radio telescopes of 2012 Earth. One assumes they would be capable, which leads us to the question of why this should be. Certainly in the timeline of the 20th century show, there are Daleks native to the early-21st century – given they invade Earth in the mid-22nd and their origin is implied to be at least a thousand years previously, there have to be. So the Dalek should be able to listen in on the activities of its ancestors, should there be any in range.

Possibly the Dalek means it can’t detect any activity by its contemporaries, though I’m not completely sold on this. The alternatives are that the 21st-century native Daleks are operating beyond the effective range of human detectors (a comforting thought) or, more intriguingly, the entire history of the Daleks has somehow been removed from the timeline by the Daleks’ participation in the Time War.

This makes a certain kind of sense – the most obvious tactic in any kind of temporal conflict is surely to try and stop your opponent being born, and so placing your history out of harm’s way is an obvious defensive response (particularly so in the Daleks’ case, given the Time Lords made at least one attempt in this direction before the War even started). Quite how one would do this I leave as an exercise for the interested reader, of course. Doctor Who sometimes talks about the manipulation of history as a concept, but seldom really uses the idea. Dalek is one of the rare stories which – in the context of the rest of the series – gives us some inklings as to how this actually works.

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