...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Day 2646: DOCTOR WHO: Max Warp


When the most ADVANCED spaceship that Planet Earth can manage is a remote-controlled Ocado van, what FUN to look forwards to the time when they will be SLEEK and STYLISH lifestyle accessories like modern CARS are today.

Come on: I will drape myself decoratively over this electrum-plated gravity-impulse-stabiliser fin and you can try out the genuine leatherette-effect acceleration couches while we listen to the next thrilling adventure from the Big Fish people when Mr Dr Paul reaches "Max Warp".

Here are Daddy's thoughts…

Let's get the obvious out of the way first: it's "Top Gear" in space.

Of course for legal reasons we have to say that the characters in no way resemble any of the cast of the BBC's premier motoring magazine show.

Gentle-hearted spokesperson for reform and moderation Jeremy Clarkson is cruelly parodied as Geoffrey Vantage, played by the undeniably brilliant Graeme Garden as an arrogant, opinionated right-winger in jeans too tight for a man of his years and dignity. Oh and he's a psychopath with a genocide-wish. So nothing like Clarkson at all then. Duncan James, who has appeared in the press so many times as "formerly of boyband Blue" that it's probably going to become his surname, plays Timbo "The Ferret" (I presume you can see what they did there) who is very tastefully killed off in a hideous spaceship crash within minutes of the opening. And James Fleet does the humble bumbling shtick that he's made his trademark, boring the pants off all and sundry with his engine obsession as… the third one.

This is, obviously, the funny one. And it is genuinely amusing, thanks to the delivery of the cast and mostly to the script. There are – this being Johnny Morris writing – a few moments where it is too painfully trying to be Douglas Adams: the most clunking is the description of Timbo's doomed Kith Sunstorm as "looks like a brick, steers like a shopping trolley"; all too reminiscent of Zaphod Beeblebrox's description of a Lyricon Custom spaceship that overtook him only subsequently to smash into the third moon of Jaglan Beta: "looks like a fish, moves like a fish, steers like a cow" (Douggie's "Restaurant at the End of the Universe" if you didn't know). Some people might call this homage, though.

Alex suggests that even more Johnny is trying to be Gareth Roberts trying to be Douglas Adams (and some might say a rudimentary comparison of "Max Warp" with the Gareth Roberts penned "Boom Bang-a-Bang" proves this), and this illustrates the point: Gareth Roberts has gone on to great success writing in his own voice.

The comedy plays to one of Sheridan Smith's many strengths as her character of Lucie mixes a wry line in put-downs for all things male and hormone-driven while becoming increasingly ditzy in her efforts to solve the mystery by means of her knowledge of TV detective stories. It's all too tempting to do so, follow the conventions of drama rather than real detection, and I confess I too fell into the trap, fingering the President's "Spindroid" on no more grounds than that it would be an obvious blind. There's a definite charm in the way that the Doctor patiently counters all of Lucie's suggestions with logic and mild embarrassment.

(And yes, the elected leader of the humans is obsessed with her popularity and guided in all matters by her spindroid: it's a rather clumsy political gag, as is the Doctor's later remark that things get better as soon as she stops taking the "spindroid's" advice.)

The mystery – the Doctor declares Timbo's apparent crash to be murder so he and Lucie masquerade (with a hint of psychic paper assistance) as investigators – is compounded by apparent assassination attempts on the visiting Kith Ambassador, a sort of sinister-ish sponge with a West Country accent, leading to the threat of galactic war.

That accent is actually quite clever: it makes the Kith seem endearingly homespun, helpful in a comedy show but also disguising their nature as very competent starship engineers who have recovered from the recent war far more quickly than their human rivals and now have a significant fleet of powerful ships, albeit ones apparently vulnerable to sabotage.

Anyway, the resolution is entirely as ludicrous as any of the suggestions that Lucie comes up with, with unbelievable disguises and multiple faking of people's own deaths before the villain is unmasked and escorted off to justice. As is entirely proper, even in a spoof like this, all of the clues are there for you to work out whodunit.

(Though there is one tiny cheat: the Doctor and Lucie leave the ambassador's room and head somewhere because the Doctor knows what the killer is going to do next. Remember that when we later find out who the Doctor has gone to with his warning.)

Paul McGann uses a light touch to give his Doctor a very dry sense of humour, particularly in the scene where he warns Security Officer Gilbride that if he tells her his mission he'll have to erase her memory… in fact he may already have done so. The Doctor's breathless enthusiasm for shiny spaceships – and his defensiveness of his beloved TARDIS in the face of Lucie's affectionate teasing – recall his "time's wet-nosed puppy" persona from his TV appearance in "Time Waits for No Man", but in a good way, as part of a multi-faceted character rather than a cartoon. It makes sense that that boyish enthusiasm is still in there, waiting to be evoked by the right kind of fun.

Nick Brimble plays the Kith (all of them): we think of him as Francis Urquhart's loyal gallowglass from the "House of Cards" sequels, but here he is really rather brilliant in the serious/comic role. Katarina Olson (last year's "Headhunter") returns to play Gilbride and, between them, she and Brimble have terrific fun doing all of the "public address voices" as well.

These are occasionally quite funny, although given that in Jonny's previous Big Finish audio "Flip-Flop" the Slithergee were enormous blind slug-like creatures the announcement of a "Slithergee Ice spectacular" sounds like a recipe for disaster.

The setting is the Sirius Inter-G Spaceship Show, so presumably we're on (or rather aboard a space station in orbit around) one of the worlds of the Sirius System. But it's probably an awful long time after the events of "Frontier in Space" (where the Master poses as a commissioner from Sirius IV) or even "The Caves of Androzani" (where Trau Morgus controls the Sirius Conglomerate)."Max Warp" the Vide-show is – according to Geoffrey – watched throughout "the seven galaxies" which has to make it the very distant future. We generally accept that intergalactic travel doesn't happen until the "Star Pioneers" reach Andromeda some time after 5000 A.D. ("The Ark in Space") but it is reasonably commonplace by the time Iceworld provides shopping services to "the nine galaxies" in "Dragonfire" which is probably… (if you accept that both this and "The Mysterious Planet" are Sabalom Glitz's native time) set two-million years in the future.

The people here are apparently human, and Sirius is not very far from Earth, so it seems a little strange (though not impossible) that the homeworld doesn't get a mention, unless we are upwards of five-billion years in the future and Earth has been toasted.

The Kith refer to human space as "The Varlon Empire" …which might just be a "Babylon 5" joke or it might be because they are confused about it being named after President Varlon, unless she is named after it, King Peladon of Peladon-esque. All indications are that the Kith Oligarchy is right next door, which might not flatly contradict most of Doctor Who history, but does seem to at least beg the question of where they were during the Earth Empire (destroy all aliens), or Federation (we love all aliens) or Daleks' Master Plan (we need alien help!) eras. Though I suppose in a time of routine intergalactic travel "right next door" might be a lot further out than in earlier eras.

I really enjoyed this, though – like the preceding story "Dead London" – it is just a bit "wacky". Maybe Big Finish are trying to cut a distinctive swathe away from what the TV series is doing, or maybe they're just trying to work something out of their system before the hyper-trad story they're threatening to finish this season on. Whatever it is, it's certainly distinctive and – unlike certain other Eighth Doctor eras – not remotely dull.

One for the "funky" side of the "funky board".

Next time… plastic fantastic as Lucie and the Doctor discover a "Brave New Town"

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