Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Three Great BF Audios (as stated half a decade ago)

[Three positive Big Finish reviews that I just rescued from the Jade Pagoda Audio archives of 2005 and post here with very minor tweaks because I've been too busy tonight to write anything new]

Spare Parts - Marc Platt

Spare Parts
has, quite justifiably I think, been held up by fans of Big Finish as a prime example of how good the audio format can be. Written by Marc Platt , one of Who's biggest names/mythmakers, and featuring the origins of the Cybermen, it's an obvious one to claim as a highpoint in the early BF range.

The writing itself is first-rate; Platt has a good ear for dialogue and - unlike some BF plays - the various characters can easily be told from one another due to the things they say and the way they say them, rather than because everyone uses everyone else's names every time they speak (nothing worse than the 'So what do you think Doctor?'. 'Well Dravid I think that..', 'Oh look here comes Jonquar' style of writing). Additionally, there is an emotional depth to some scenes which is both unexpected and welcome (and, to be frank, not often greatly in evidence in the original series). The scene where a newly converted Cyberman attempts to go back home to her family, for instance, is genuinely moving in a a way that the TV series very rarely managed.

The acting too is excellent throughout - Davison turns in his best audio performance; Sarah Sutton is perfectly competent and the supporting cast fill their roles with aplomb (Pamela Binns as Sisterman Constant is particularly effective). The sound quality is also good - again unlike some of the earlier BF output, everyone can be heard clearly - a particular pleasure especially when the cybermen talk in their sing-song Tenth Planet voices. The only downside in this respect is the voice of the Cyber-Planner which can be quite hard to understand at times.

With all this praise, I best think of someting negative to say about Spare Parts or lose my well-earned reputation as a curmedgeon. Let's see.

The final twist in the plot - that the Mondasians use the 5th Doctor as a template for the new Cyber race - is merely clever, rather than good. In fact, this kind of thing - attempting to tie two apparently unrelated elements of an oeuvre into one another - has always seemed to me to be one of the signs of the death-knell of a series.

In sf book terms i's Isaac Asimov's last few sad novels, where - in the space of over a thousand pages per book - he tried to shoehorn his three main storylines (the Foundation; the Empire and the Robot storie) into one universe, all interlinked and interconnected. The result is a cluttered, strained and - most importantly - unnecessary mess. Just as Asimov's stories stand up fine by themselves, so there is no need to make the Doctor any more linked to the Cybermen than as their implacable foe. It simply smacks of fanwank at its most damaging - far more so in fact than Gary Russell's less well written and more often lambasted efforts - to make him have an organic link to them (and - on another level entirely - that's ignoring the in fiction 'fact' that future Doctors appear to have forgotten this link during Killing Ground, Attack of the Cybermen and Silver Nemesis - you would think he'd have mentioned it at some point).

Given that Spare Parts was the 34th release from Big Finish and had been followed by some very continuity heavy audios, maybe this last is another reason to be glad that a new television series arrived, before Doctor Who disappeared, cybersnake-like, up its own behind.

Spare Parts can be ordered here.

Davros - Lance Parkin

I stuck this audio in the car cd player with a huge raft of expectation, given that I had adored Lance Parkin's nove, The Infinity Doctors and thought Terry Malloy the best Davros.

In the main I wasn't disappointed - Malloy is immense and gives one of the finest performances of any type in Who history. Rather than the cliche ridden meglomaniac of, say, Remembrance, this is a well rounded character who for a fair length of time does seem genuine in his desire to change but who, even when he fails andreverts to type, never comes across as merely a ranting voice.

That part of this high quality is down to the excellence of the writing is undeniable - Davros' extended speech describing the torture of his 90 years floating alone in space, only for it to be revealed that all of the terror, fear and horror took place in merely the first second of his imprisonment is, perhaps, not terribly original, but it is commendably well written (and played). Similarly the flashback scenes set on Skaro, with Davros falling in love, being asked to commit suicide, or visiting the woman he has betrayed as she awaits execution are all very believable and slot into the main body of the narrative seamlessly.

As an added bonus, there's a sly dig at David Irving, the Hitler apologist historian, in the character of Lorraine Baines who has written several popular, but ill-informed books on Davros and who Parkin paints as a deluded fool (even her name as first presented - LRS Baines - is an anagram of 'brainless') whose eyes are only slowly opened to Davros' real nature and who pays the price in terms of arrest at the end of the play.

Which brings us, rather neatly to the big let-down of the audio, which as with Spare Parts is the ending. I once pitched a pretty rubbish outline to Big Finish where the TARDIS kicks the Doctor out for, amongst other things, always allowing people to suffer in his place. Sadly, Parkin uses this most cliched of Who cliches to reach a satisfying conclusion - Kim, the underacted computer bod, kills herself so that the Doctor can, without guilt, crash the ship she and Davros are on and so prevent him unleashing his dastardly program on an unsuspecting galaxy.

Far too often in Who this is the solution to a problem - first, the baddie kidnaps an innocent bystander and - by threatening to kill the bystander - is allowed to escape by the Doctor. The bystander then either sacrifices him or herself or is otherwise killed by accident and thus the Doctor is released to do what needs to be done without besmirching his delicate conscience. It even happens in the new golden age, in episodes like Tooth and Claw.

Using this plot device here simply serves to give the author an easy solution to a seemingly insoluble problem. It would have been far more satisfactory to have the initial solution - that the Doctor is able to control Davros' ship whilst it remains in the planetary atmosphere - serve as the actual solution. That the Doctor then states categorically, and with no evidence at all, that Davros survived the crash (in spite of what appears to be a panic-ridden scream of terror from Davros seconds before the explosion) merely adds a second Who cliche to the first, that of the mega villain surviving in spite of all evidence to the

Project: Lazarus - Cav Scott and Mark Wright

And finally, a genuine 100% pleasure.

What Project: Lazarus actually made all too clear is exactly what was wrong with other BF audios from the same time. Lazarus is populated with actual real characters, created by the authors and built up into believable people, about whom we, the listeners, genuinely care (or not, as the case may be). Something like Master, which came out at the same time, has no genuine characters in it at all, merely a series of generic stereotypes - the man with the mysterious past; the blustering, rational policeman; the middle-class, philanthropist wife (plus Death, of course, but I'm sorry - much as fans of the NAs claim Death as a serious character in Who, every time he/she is mentioned I think of Terry Pratchett and his Death seated on the faithful horse, Binky). And it's very hard to become emotionally involved in the fate of such cardboard cut-outs.

In part one of Lazarus, however, the death of Carrie is genuinely moving - for once, the sacrifice of a character to allow the Doctor to escape is an emotionally involving one and, even better, the reaction of Evelyn is absolutely spot on (roaring and crying, and berating the Doctor for the fact he seems perfectly able to dismiss the death of innocents as a fact of life and quickly move on). This is adult writing, with actual consequences for implicated individuals. The discovery in part one that Evelyn has a serious heart condition has been derided elsewhere, IIRC, but I thought it was a reasonable and intelligent development, further re-inforced in part two by Sylvester McCoy's refusal to discuss Evelyn and his line that Evelyn never forgave the Sixth Doctor for allowing Carrie to die. Even the chief bad guy, Nimrod, is neither a blustering madman nor a raving sadist, but is a three dimensional character, working initially to right the wrongs of his past, but in time suborned by the task itself until he sees himself as first, an avenging angel then as the head of a shadowy group prepared to use the powers of the vampires he created to further the goals of King and Country (even when the King is long gone).

And that's just the first part of the story.

The second disc of Lazarus demonstrates another flaw in recent BF audios - writers seem to feel that there is a need for a twist, even when there isn't one to be had. I blame M. Night Shyamalan myself - after The Sixth Sense everyone seemed to think that a clever twist was a prerequisite for good plotting.

But it's not. The twist in Spare Parts was merely smart-arsed and took the shine off of an otherwise brilliant story, whilst those in Master were ridiculous - both enormously obvious and completely uneccessary. Spare Parts had no need of a shock value ending in any case - it was already brilliantly written and filled with incident and all the inclusion of the 'Doctor as prototype for the Cybermen' finale did was distract the listener from the quality writing which preceded it.

The various twists and turns in Lazarus, on the other hand, are integral to the storyline and at no point feel forced or included for shock value. The discoveries that first, the Sixth Doctor is a clone; then that there are dozens of other clones of him slowly dying in the room where Carrie was killed; and finally that the clone of the Sixth Doctor has only been alive for days, rather than the 3 years he believed are not always wholly unexpected, but they all flow without problem into the thread of the story and beautifully progress the idea of the clone's emotional growth until at the end he has become indistinguishable morally and spiritually from the Sixth Doctor.

All in all, Lazarus has jumped to become my favourite of all the BF audios - so much so that I can even forgive the writers for their (I think tongue in cheek) reference to Zagreus at the start of Twilight...

Project: Lazarus can be bought here.

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