Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Doctor Who: Classic Doctors, New Monsters

A common criticism of the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who as it aired was that it wasn't coming up with any good recurring monsters. I think that's true... so far as it goes. There aren't any good recurring monsters in that era, because the show wasn't trying to create any. It went instead for the splashy thrill of having something new almost every week, and using standards like the Daleks and the Cybermen when it wanted an old enemy. Which is perfectly acceptable practice, but makes things awkward for Big Finish's latest New Series boxset, which throws the 20th-century Doctors up against monsters created for the RTD era. Most of these aren't monsters designed with multiple appearances in mind, which has interesting consequences for the boxset, both good and bad.

We begin with a monster that, whatever the original intention, has become recurring: the Weeping Angels. Fallen Angels is basically a remake of "Blink," but with the fifth Doctor instead of the tenth Doctor, and Michelangelo instead of Sally Sparrow. Which sounds goofily high-concept, but in the broad strokes it's reasonably successful. There's some neat stuff to do with how these Angels wound up on Earth and how they're achieving their ends. The problem is that the Weeping Angels don't work on audio. The first scene is effective, but that's about atmosphere and the over-the-top villain (with an over-the-top Italian accent to match), not about the Angels. Later on, when we're supposed to be terrified that they're closing in, the repeated use of the "It moved!" sound effect from "Blink," divorced from any visual experience, becomes amusing rather than menacing. You could play a drinking game.

The other issue is that the story takes too many of its cues, large and small (and some spoilery), from "Blink." There's only so much you can do with the Weeping Angels without changing the rules, as Steven Moffat did when he brought them back to TV, but this story is too content to say, "Did you like 'Blink'? Well, here's a version set in the Italian Renaissance!" The fifth Doctor reuses a tenth Doctor catchphrase at one point, and there's even an embarrassingly nudge-nudge-wink-wink callback to That Line. Come on, writers: if you're going to invoke That Line, at least extend the joke. Don't just turn to the audience and say. "Remember that joke? That was a funny one, eh?"

Whatever its limitations of concept, Fallen Angels is well-executed. The script speeds along as a one-hour Doctor Who story must. Peter Davison is on fine form here, bantering with one-off companion Gabby Finch, who can't quite believe that she's been transported from 2015 to 1511. Diane Morgan's performance as Gabby is the high point of a guest cast in which Matthew Kelly also does solid work as Michelangelo, playing the script's stock "temperamental artist" bits without turning him into a caricature rather than a character. The characterization of Michelangelo is a good synecdoche of Fallen Angels' shortcomings, actually: it takes an established trope and simply invokes it in a particular context, rather than adding the little twists that would be necessary to give it new life.

If the Weeping Angels only seemed suited to star in one type of story, the next monster is an even tougher sell: it was barely the star of its one meaningful television appearance. But Judoon in Chains takes that into account and pushes the boat out, evolving the Judoon in an effective way that's difficult to discuss without spoilers. This is probably the story from this box that has the most dramatic potential. The trouble is, it's a tale of two halves that don't quite mesh, and the interesting half isn't the one the story's ultimately built around.

The main plot is a standard Doctor Who story about a corrupt space corporation that is soon sorry it ever crossed paths with the Doctor. It's fine, though the villain is one-dimensional and not especially menacing, and the final confrontation is thus kind of flat. In the middle of the story, though, is an interlude where the Doctor and the amnesiac Captain Kybo of the Judoon are trapped in a Victorian circus, and befriend Thomasina Thumb, charmingly played by Kiruna Stamell. There's what I can only call a gentleness to this material, a quietly sentimental focus on character as Kybo becomes something more than the average, and I wish the audio had stayed with it, rather than dumping it in favor of the usual stuff. You could actually strip the space corruption element away entirely and tell a different, perhaps more tragic version of this story. Ah, well. What we got is more than good enough.

The Sycorax are another monster that wouldn't have seemed worthy of a return: they're scary looking and all, but they exist only to be shut down by the Doctor without a second thought. He even explains why they're not much of a threat. But Harvest of the Sycorax finds a way to make them dangerous again. This is probably the closest the boxset comes to an old-fashioned Doctor Who monster story, with an invasion and a base under threat. It's also the overall funniest story, despite having a tired and tiresome satirical context.

The society the Sycorax are invading is so over-medicated that people have personal computerized assistants who can prescribe something for the least twitch of emotion. This might have felt novel in, say, 2007, when "Gridlock" showed us mood patches, but nowadays all you can see is the glibness of it. I don't think overmedication is enough of a problem to deserve this kind of satire. There are instances of it, to be sure, but I suspect that when many people (not necessarily including writer James Goss) complain about the phenomenon, there's an implication that most of those on mood medication don't need it, which is an unfair and actively damaging attitude.

Anyway. Whatever the problems with the concept, the script uses it to good comic effect, as the assistant programs chime in at the worst possible moment. Sylvester McCoy is also pretty funny here, giving a restrained performance that works within rather than against the rhythms of the script. And Nisha Nayar, who was very good in the small role of the Female Programmer in "Bad Wolf" and "The Parting of the Ways," is equally good in the larger role of quasi-companion Zanzibar Hashtag (did I mention the satire here wasn't subtle?). After a wonderfully prickly introduction in which he's quietly irritable and she's thoroughly on edge, they get up to some good old-fashioned seventh Doctor scheming. As with the rest of the stories in the box thus far, there's nothing especially surprising here on the level of plot, but it's well-made and there's a zip to it that elevates it above standard fare.

The box closes out with an eighth Doctor story set in the Time War and featuring the new Sontarans. I have to admit that I've always found the Sontarans tiresome. Alien races obsessed with honor are dime-a-dozen in science fiction, and they're almost always one-note and boring. They're not necessarily interesting as a species here either, but excellent performances by Christopher Ryan and Dan Starkey keep them entertaining as a standard lone warrior revenge story plays out. (The Sontar-Ha chant is still awful, though.) The shifting alliances among that lone warrior, the Doctor, and the quasi-companion make for a story that's talky, but in a good way, as everyone is telling the truth, though not always for the right reasons. The Time War is used effectively here, kept offscreen yet shown to be devastating in its consequences. This bodes well for the eighth Doctor Time War boxset that's coming next year.

When the first Classic Doctors, New Monsters set was announced, I thought, "Really? That's what they picked for monsters?" Then I ran through the available options in my head and added, "Well, I suppose they took the best they could get." But having heard the set, I have to commend the writers on mostly finding interesting ways to revisit monsters who were conceived as one-offs, and weren't necessarily that exciting in those initial appearances. The biggest thing that works in the set's favor, though, is the single disc story format.

There's a reason most drama nowadays is done at this length: it allows enough plot complication for stories to become involving, but not so much that they bog down, and requires strict economy of characterization. Big Finish really ought to do more in this format for classic Doctors who aren't Paul McGann or Tom Baker. It's still called the Main Range, but it's hard to deny that these days the urgency at BF is elsewhere. It's nice to see the stalwarts that are Davison, Colin Baker, and McCoy get to take part in an energetic, attention-grabbing release like this. I'm very much looking forward to a new set of classic monsters in the next boxset, including the just-announced Racnoss. Like the Sycorax, they're basically a panto villain on TV, but I hope they'll become something more in Big Finish's capable hands.

2 comments:

  1. To echo your last two paragraphs, I was frustrated when on the CD Extras, James Goss opined it was nice to be allowed to give a classic Doctor a fast-paced, character-driven story. Like, why aren't ALL Big Finish stories fast-paced and character-driven?

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    1. It's just so easy to imagine the dull 4 x 25 minute versions of these stories. With each pre-credits scene stretched out to be the whole of Part 1.

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