...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Day 2212: DOCTOR WHO: Immortal Beloved


Apparently, the BONES of a WHALE are to be put on display in the National History Museum. No, it’s not Sir Mr the Merciless on Mr Andy Marr’s sofa!

THAT was mostly jolly good, with a strong riposte to the polling figures and the comeback to questions about Lebit was good, once past the groan-inducing “Lembit is Lembit”, but one tip for Sir M: try not to dismiss the idea of a referendum on Scottish independence because people aren’t interested in “yet more constitutional activity”, just after you’ve called for a new constitutional settlement for the whole country.

We believe in proportional representation and that means in making coalitions after the elections, and THAT means being willing to negotiate with other parties over which policies they have their hearts set on. We all know there are policies WE do not want to give up!

Anyway, speaking of ANCIENT and TERRIBLE powers, Daddy has been listening to some more DOCTOR WHO.

Clue to Daddy Alex: remember not to read this until you have heard the recording we made for you!
After, I have to confess, a certain disappointment with the first two stories in this “season for radio”, this came as a real delight, a story based around ideas and driven by the characters that properly filled its time.

The TARDIS arrives… well somewhere. The continuity announcer said it was Greece, two thousand years ago but there’s nothing to say that that is really when the story is set. Sure, there are characters calling themselves Zeus, Hera, Ares and Ganymede but they also confess among themselves that these are not their real names. And we don’t meet any genuine locals – although the “gods” allude to having locals to rule. So it could be classical Greece, and an “explanation” of their gods. But equally it could be a future Earth colony where the characters here have merely adopted the names and styles of the classical gods.

Importantly, this doesn’t actually matter. The story isn’t about anything so mundane as “explaining” that those people who the Greeks called gods were actually aliens or time travellers. In fact, the story toys cheekily with exactly our expectation that it is that sort of tale, having characters refer to “chariots of the gods” only for them to be quickly debunked as “helicopters”. It’s soon revealed that all the talk of “magic wands” and “ether trumpets” is just twaddle to keep in character. Because what is really going on here is men playing god – and in more than one sense.

These people may not be divine, but they are certainly immortal and, interestingly, in a way that actually sounds practical: cloning. Suddenly the story is quite modern and relevant: in order to perpetuate their own lives, the gods are preparing generation after generation of clones so that there is always a new body for them to slip into should anything fatal occur.

Writer Jonathan Clements has thought this through: a clone is just an identical body, it’s not you – so they have a mind transfer machine. It’s no good if the clone is just the same age as you are, so he has them being almost farmed to make sure there is always a replacement in the right age range for perfect rejuvenation.

As Zeus so charmingly puts it: “he’s my heir and my spare”.

It’s not a wholly one sided deal: each clone has a chance – if their older self doesn’t die during the narrow span when they are fit for being used, then they get to retire with a rich pension. But would you bet your life for that prize? And anyway, you don’t get a choice: you’ve been bred to be used.

The Doctor refers to their mind transfer machine as banned throughout the galaxies – which is the sort of thing he’s always saying. But it could also be a satisfying reference to “Mindwarp” (or “Trial of a Time Lord” parts 5 to 8) where we see the Time Lords take precipitate action against a similar device.

So it’s a morality play: what gives the elder gods the right to live if in order to do so they have to kill the mind of their younger clone?

But it’s more than that.

The TARDIS arrives… and interrupts the suicide pact of young lovers Kalkin and Sararti. “Oh it’s gone all Romeo and Juliet,” declares the Doctor’s companion Lucie. A mite heavy handed you might think, but it flags up the next major theme of the play. Look out for all the “he thinks she’s dead / she thinks he’s dead” moments.

Because, obvious really in this set up, Kalkin and Sararti are both clones, of Zeus and Hera respectively. And their love is just a pale reflection of the love that has been between Zeus and Hera for thousands of years. Boy, when they said their love was forever they really meant it.

So it’s a love story: one that spans the millennia, and does that change the way we view Zeus’s motivations? People often say they will do anything for love, and the love will last but would they mean it if that mean taking another person’s body just to keep your love alive?

We also, cleverly and unusually, get to see two aspects of our Romeo and Juliet: young, passionate, naïve in the forms of Kalkin and Sararti; old, weary, decadent as Zeus and Hera. Much kudos goes to the cast for making all of these people – or, from another point of view, both of these people– believable. Jennifer Higham and Anthony Spargo give great performances, appropriately theatrical and manage to hold their own, but the play is really made by its special guest stars.

Ian McNeice you may remember him from “Rome” of even “Edge of Darkness” (if you are Jason Haigh-Ellery anyway) but in this context you really ought to remember him as Baron Harkonnen in Scifi’s adaptation of “Dune”. Here he simply is Zeus: a wicked and venal old goat, selfish and lusty, and yet still driven by a powerful love for his Hera. He becomes strangely sympathetic without losing any of these repellent qualities. Perhaps it’s just the way that he is so totally casual about his baseity. He makes no effort to cover up from the Doctor the technology that he and his cohorts use to perpetuate their pantheon.

“Don’t let the mystic mumbo jumbo fool you,” he says.

“Who is it supposed to fool?” demands the Doctor.

Elspet Gray has been in Doctor Who before when she played a Time Lord – so next best thing to a god. As Hera she is world weary and worried that she is no longer remembering. In fact, there is a fault with their “human photocopier” (another from insightful Lucie) and they really are losing something of themselves with each successive transfer. But the fear of losing your mind in old age is a third powerful theme here. Like Zeus, we find ourselves sympathetic for Hera and her worries. None of us want to get old, and none of us want to face the horror of losing ourselves. How many of us would take a chance on some miracle medical procedure, and damn the ethical considerations?

In passing, I should add that Sheridan Smith shines here too, conveying a lot of descriptive dialogue with pace and wit and putting across her Lucie’s character: thinks she’s all worldly-wise but actually rather sweetly naif.

McGann holds it all together with his by now assured performance. The relationship with Lucie has mellowed from “Blood of the Daleks” without going into the treacle of “Horror of Glam Rock” and is reminiscent of the sixth Doctor and Peri’s “Trial” era gentle ribbing.

Even as they leave, Lucie and the Doctor are still discussing what the last of the gods will do with their machine, whether they will live a human life or in the end chose to use it again, even with its failings. And a good thing too. This is a play that raises many issues and should leave you with much to think about.

Simply divine.

Next time… There is nothing to fear but fear itself: “Phobos”

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