...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Day 2596: DOCTOR WHO: Dead London


Returning for a "new series" are the stars of BBC7's Radio Series "Doctor Who", sadly only on Big Fish CD this year it would seem. Mr Paul McGann is "the Doctor", Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, and Ms Sheridan Smith is his current chum, feisty Lucie Miller. It's great to have them back, but what a shame that BBC7 seems to have passed on the opportunity to bring them to a wider audience. I hope it is only because "Torchwood" has nicked the "between Christmas and Easter" slot!

Here is Daddy Richard's review of the new series debut:

For the start of the new series, Big Finish producer and part-time Dalek Nicholas Briggs tells us in the usual CD extra features, they had the choice of starting with something very traditional or going for something rather more out there. I ever so slightly wish that they'd chosen to go "trad" instead: after the rather intense farewells to first C'Rizz and then even more alarmingly Charlie Pollard (the amazing India Fisher, currently narrating Master Chef, lord help her!), it might have been a bit more reassuring to have a cosy reminder of the set up in this new TARDIS team before weighing in to the whacked-out psychedelia!

Having, by the end of last year, got to the stage of their relationship where the Doctor and Lucie were sparking off each other, it's a shame that this story splits them up before it starts and keeps them on separate tracks until a good two-thirds of the way in.

The Doctor instead finds himself in the dock with "Spring-heeled" Sophie (Clare Buckfield), a Seventeenth Century funambulist (that's tightrope walker – just the start of much fun to be had in the wordplay, and playful use of words, as in the Doctor translating for us the Seventeenth Century's catalogue of criminals to whom he is disfavourably compared). The Doctor and Sophie face off against "hanging" Judge Jeffries, while Lucie is stranded in the First World War during the blackouts.

Actually, it's not a bad opening, playing to the surreal nature of the Doctor's life rather well, and the Eighth Doctor's tired surprise to receive a sudden death sentence for a parking offence is reminiscent of the Ninth when confronted with Davinadroid.

As on television, this is followed by the crashing opening of the theme tune, and I do mean "crashing" as after seven years the floating tones of David Arnold's Eighth Doctor arrangement have been retired in favour of something a bit more like Murray Gold turned up to eleven. There's a lot of the original "TARDIS" theme as realised by Delia Derbyshire in there, but also the rising arpeggios of the Pertwee Era and the twanging electronica of the Tom Baker years. And probably Colin Baker playing the kitchen sink too. "Brash" doesn't begin to cover it. Not that it's bad, it's rather jolly, actually, it's just a handbrake turn from the old one.

Anyway, as you may have guessed by now, far from being "Dead" this is a London scrambled through time, with adjacent eras jostling for position along the banks of the intermittent River Fleet.

There is more than a slight flavour of the War Games involved, as the inhabitants are all kidnapped from their native time zones and, it would seem, the Doctor is unable to return them home at the end. You might also throw in a soupcon of "The Chase": in that story, the Doctor wrongly gets the idea that they may have landed inside someone's imagination (or perhaps the "collective imagination"). Writers have been trying to do that for real ever since, perhaps to suggest that the first Doctor wasn't just being a loon. So the neat twist here, tossed in at the end, is that rather than kidnapping people to his own planet, the villain has stuck them inside his own head. And of course we have seen "dreamscapes" that you can physically enter in a number of stories, most obviously the Time Lords' Matrix (as in "Trial of a Time Lord", though not as seen in "The Deadly Assassin" – the Doctor enters the APC net mentally in that story).

We don't really see enough of the "Londons" for it to be properly satisfactory – visiting only 2008, 1917, 1685, and 60 AD – and perhaps a longer story would have let us explore this interesting idea in the detail that is deserved. 1917 and 1685 are served very well, pitching a flavour of the times and tossing in interesting facts; 2008 though is just for the framing, and 60 AD is well, "sketched".

(I say 1685 as the Doctor addresses Jeffries as Lord Chief Justice – but then he also asks after his wife who had died in 1678… mind you he is trying to trick "Jeffries" at that point. Roman Londinium was razed by Boudicca in 60 or 61 AD, though there is no evidence that she staged a re-enactment of 1973's "The Wicker Man" while slaughtering the population.)

It's possible that the writer was thinking visually, rather than for the audio medium; and you might imagine how these jumbled time zones might be realised on the page if I tell you that the writer in question is Pat Mills – known as the godfather of British Comics for his 2000AD work. Think of a London that is as crowded with its own history as any view of Megacity One, and we might be getting there.

The link between all of these "Londons" is Rupert Vansittart (General Asquith both pre- and post-Slitheen on the telly – and yes, he's Lord Whatnot in "Heart in the Title" too) in a variety of amusing accents. Well of course he's actually an alien, the oily ophidian Sepulchre, a snake-like creature from the Planet Quaglook, but that hardly matters; it's more a justification for the special effect on his "real" voice than a source of motivation.

His motive is something that is hard to determine. Sepulchre appears to "feed" off the action in his re-enactment chambers, but if he does, then why is he killing off his human participants? One of his guises, serial-killing Blind Huw, aka "the Blackout Killer", intimates that they need "new blood" – is there, perhaps, a limit to how much energy he can get from one individual; is there a limit to how many individuals he can contain? If both of these are true, then it would go some way to making sense of what is going on: he can only get more sustenance by making room for more people to be drawn inside his world.

In the New Adventure "Conundrum" (and its sequel "Head Games") the process of turning people into fiction in the Land of Fiction (from "The Mind Robber") is said to kill you, so even though your persona carries on in the Land you cannot ever leave. Perhaps that is what is going on here, as people inside Sepulchre's head are drained of their "life force" until they are just avatars themselves and can no longer leave. This might also explain the unsettling ending where the Doctor and Lucie depart in the TARDIS and leave a great many humans stuck inside an alien's brain – more disturbing still, it you consider that Sepulchre might well age and die, which would end their world rather abruptly.

But never mind all that, Vansittart is super; he's clearly having a whale of a time, relishing the different character quirks that he can work into the different "avatars" of Sepulchre who police his domain. It's a full and fruity performance for each of them, but crossed with bluster, laconic amusement, whimsy or just malevolence to distinguish the different "turns".

The source of Sepulchre's power is a cosmic remote control hidden inside a "Cista Mystica" that Sophie has conveniently stolen from the Roman temple at the head of the Fleet. The Doctor briefly mentions that her toying with the controls may have caused the time slip that affected Lucie, or even the one that affected him (drawing him to her from the 2008 time zone – though that slip was as convenient for Sepulchre as it was for her). A little more explanation would have been good here, as you might think that Sophie's theft has in fact triggered the Doctor and Lucie arriving in the TARDIS and the unravelling of Sepulchre's whole plot. Otherwise it's all a big coincidence. (Like that never happens in Doctor Who!)

The Cista Mystica is, as the Doctor describes, a snake box, but in fact a box for carrying the sacred snakes of the Cult of Dionysus (not Mithras as here). Obviously there's a fertility thing going on there, but that's the Romans all over. Nevertheless, the inference is literally that this is a box that contains a god – and indeed possession of the box does give Sepulchre god-like powers to control the re-enactment chambers and to summon people to his realm. And of course there is the added irony at the end, when we learn that all these "Londons" are contained inside Sepulchre’s mind: he himself is a snake box and, god-like, contains this world.

It's a world built out of the history of London, and that's clever and good, because London is built on her history, it's what lies beneath the surface. And, of course, so is a sepulchre, which is a container for the dead. Hence Dead London.

It's a shame it has to come to an end, and the ending when it comes is rather abrupt and unbelievable. Having gone to some trouble to avoid putting his prime person in peril from the Doctor, Sepulchre makes that dreadful villain's-mistake of turning up to witness the Doctor's "inevitable death" (this time in the afore-mentioned Wicker Man). A quick wave of the sonic, and he's trapped, a victim in his own realm. What a shame, when we were looking forward to some epic derring-do to penetrate his sanctum before the final confrontation.

As with the paucity of "Londons", we feel we've been robbed of a missing episode of fun.

Next time… murder, mayhem and galactic war, brought to you live from the Sirius Inter-G Cruiser show, with your host Graeme Garden. Stand by for "Max Warp"!

1 comment:

Nick said...

I think BBC7 are going to broadcast them, but this time it'll be after Big Finish have released them, not before - so probably after S4 has been on TV, and allowing BF to make more from sales this time.