...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Day 2702: DOCTOR WHO: Brave New Town


Daddy Richard says that his review of the next adventure for Mr Dr Paul as Dr Who (with his friend Lucie) from the Big Fish Productions people contains SPOILERS from the very first word… okay, SECOND word… so I've got to keep you occupied for a hundred words of my own so that it doesn't appear on the Blogregator and that you have got time to stop reading my diary, go out to the shops, buy the CD for yourself, listen to it and THEN see what Daddy thought of it.

Okay, that's enough time – here's Daddy's review:

"Post-communist Autons", that's the best way to summarise this great little story, even if in the accompanying "making of" documentary writer Jonathan Clements says that it all springs from the phrase "Autonomic Autons".

(Jonathan also wrote last year's excellent "Immortal Beloved" with Ian McNeice as Zeus, and one of the best of the "Doctor Who Unbound" series, "Sympathy for the Devil" with David Warner as Doctor Klench er Hwo.)

In many ways there's not a lot to this, especially if you know the twist… ah, sorry! And yet almost in spite of itself it is immensely satisfying, a product of excellent dialogue and cast and a plot that, while superficially simple, also resonates.

Initially, it all starts like a rather superior re-make of Terry Nation's "The Android Invasion" with most of the more stupid mistakes and plot-holes (including the great big giveaway in the title) removed. An English village where, for the villagers, every day is the same day, Sunday 1st September 1991. There are no roads leading to anywhere else, and the ferry never comes because there's no sea only miles of sand. Throw in mention of spies and it sounds like the Doctor and Lucy have discovered a post-apocalyptic Portmerion.

However, the classic sound effects – the 'hand dropping away to reveal the wrist-gun' sound; the whooshing Auton-gun sound; and the 'buzz buzz' of the Nestene control sphere (which Alex particularly associates with the classic/tragic "Destiny of the Doctors" computer game) – were all used in the trailer on the previous CD, so it's not really a surprise when the mystery of the villagers who don't appear to eat or even appear on infra-red is revealed to be that they're all made of plastic.

The setting turns out to be 2008 and the Aral Sea, or at least what used to be the Aral Sea – it's a completely real phenomenon that taking too much water for irrigation, most of it wasted, has resulted in the Sea drying up – and an island that isn't an island any more on the southern coast off Uzbekistan. (Apparently Aral Sea means 'sea of islands' ironically enough.)

The village (hard not to call it The Village) is a former communist-era school for spies, training them to appear English by having the agents in training mingle with synthetic Britishers, apparently devised by Soviet scientists messing with a captured Nestene energy unit. What they seem to have done is by taking a little bit of Nestene Consciousness and putting it into each of them separately, they've turned the Autons into individuals.

So, just as Uzbekistan gained its independence from the Soviet Union on 1st September 1991, the Autonomic Autons gained theirs from the Nestenes.

The main thrust of the story, then, concentrates on the consequences of both of these, with the exploitation of the Uzbek oil-fields conflicting with the agenda of the Nestene Consciousness which – as in 'Rose' – wants the oil for itself. It's about being freed from central control – which is a very Doctor Who theme – and yet cleverly even though it finishes with a happy ending, you are left wondering what the Autons will do with their freedom, and the example of Uzbekistan – obliterating the Aral Sea, exploiting the oil – should give you pause that while it's right to give them their freedom, that includes the freedom to do wrong.

Rather splendidly, the lead Auton-villager is played by Play School hero Derek Griffiths, playing it totally straight. There's something spookily right about learning that he was made of plastic all along. For real class, though, they've also managed to attract Adrian Dunbar to play the morally ambiguous Captain McCarthy. It seems a very simple role, but it takes a skilled actor to deliver the lines in a way that leaves you never quite sure whether he's potentially an ally like a future Brigadier or a dangerous threat.

The good news is that because the story is so very open-ended, it leaves either the Autonomic Autons or McCarthy or both available for a return match should the story for them turn up.

Cod-Russian accents make a cunning excuse for the rest of the cast to double up, playing faux-English residents of the village and the mercenary guards of the oil fields. But that's not to say that they're in any way bad; quite the opposite. Katerina Olson, Big Finishes mistress of a thousand accents, is charmingly dotty as villager Margaret and deadly serious as one of the heavies; Nick Wilton treads an Avengers-esque line between whimsy and reality as PC Sharpe, and also plays the world weary Karimov, Uzbek contact for McCarthy and reminiscent (in a good way) of Colonel Von Strohm from 'Allo Allo'.

Once again, I have to add praise for the sheer charm of Sheridan Smith as Lucie Miller. She has terrific comic delivery, enabling her to deliver all the usual 'companion says just the right thing by accident' type lines and still make it sound both natural and funny. Lucie isn't intelligent or knowledgeable in the way that the Doctor is, but she is smart, meaning she can always come back with a comeback line – most memorably responding to the Doctor's name-drop of Marco Polo with "the man who invented the mint". And she has a wonderfully different relationship with the Doctor where, with the two of them thrust together by no choice of their own, neither wants to admit that they're rather enjoying travelling together.

Any superficial examination of the plot would suggest that very little happens in "Brave New Town". To the extent that no one even gets to New Town. You could almost see the whole story in the scene where the plastic villagers, having been induced to march out over the sands that were once the seabed, are released from the summoning voice and decide to head home again. And yet, so much more of this is just in enjoying the performance being played out and being done well.

Definitely one where less is more.

Next time… we're off to the fabled Blue Desert of Metebelis… I beg your pardon, Indigo 3 for Sects, Sanctuaries, Symmetry and "The Skull of Sobek".

Do not forget! Mr Dr David is back tonight at 7pm!

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