Thursday, 28 July 2011

Spin-off Review 1: The Daleks - The Destroyers, written by Terry Nation (2010) - 7/10

Released: December 2010
Sara Kingdom/Narrator – Jean Marsh
Mark Seven – Alan Cox
Jason Corey – Chris Porter
The Daleks – Nicholas Briggs
David Kingdom – Alex Mallinson

Other characters played by members of the cast

Main Production Credits

Producer and Script Editor – David Richardson
Writer – Terry Nation (adapted by Nicholas Briggs & John Dorney)
Director – Lisa Bowerman
Incidental Music and Sound Design – Jamie Robertson
Recording – Toby Hrycek-Robinson at Moat Studios
1960s Dalek Sound Effects – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producers – Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):
A newly established human colony on the M5 asteroid, Explorer Base One, is attacked by a mysteriously large and unknown force of Daleks. A trio of Space Security Agents, including the feisty Sara Kingdom have been surveying the asteroid during their visit to help the new colony settle in. On their discovery of the massacred human base, they attempt to seek out and rescue Sara Kingdom’s brother, David, the sole-surviving member of the colony left alive, but missing.
David is a prisoner of the Daleks, kept alive for interrogation and to supply intelligence on Earth and its human civilisation. The Daleks are secretly planning an attack on Earth, and currently lie in waiting within an underground base on the asteroid. Sara and the Security agents, through their wits and cunning, successfully penetrate the underground Dalek base, but are just too late. The Daleks have evacuated the asteroid in a rocket, to join a bigger Dalek force elsewhere, as their Earth attack plans advance, taking David with them.

Story Placement
Possibly before Mission to the Unknown (TV Serial), but most likely outside of known Doctor Who continuity.

Favourite Lines
‘These tubes glow with a soft, pulsating green light, eerie and luminous in quality’.
‘The metallic tube jerks up at him. It flares with energy. Carson is blasted, engulfed in a merciless glare so bright that it would burn the image of his helpless writhing form as a negative onto the retina of any human onlooker’.

I have a confession to make. I still have yet to enjoy the pleasures of Nicholas Briggs’ acclaimed Dalek Empire audio series. BIG Finish have produced so much great material, that even for those of us who have followed their work since The Sirens of Time, it’s been hard to catch up with it all. The Destroyers though gives a helpful taste of what it might be like. Of course I’m fully aware that Terry Nation is a much different writer to Nicholas Briggs. For a start, Nicholas Briggs can get to the heart of a character, and help make a story come alive with imaginative touches and interesting dialogue, whereas Nation’s forte was all about the big ideas. Fortunately in this production, we are blessed with both, although Terry Nation’s work doesn’t always deliver on the promise that the impressive entrance hints at.
The first thing about The Destroyers that leaps into your attention is the gloriously evocative descriptions written for the narration. From every tense extermination to every shadow and plant, the attention to imaginative detail here is astonishing, making the world of the lonely asteroid feel so very alien. Harking back to Terry Nation’s own past work, the asteroid feels just as creepy as the planet Kembel from The Daleks’ Masterplan, full of weird creatures totally unlike life on Earth, such as the sponge-like rock creature and the Spider-like ghostly spectre in the Dalek cave. One almost expects a forest of Varga plants to be lurking nearby. The behind-the-scenes material informs us that a lot of this great descriptive material actually comes from Terry Nation’s own stage directions. This was a happy surprise considering Nation’s infamous history of pragmatically-written scripts like The Keys of Marinus, The Chase, Death to the Daleks, The Android Invasion and Destiny of the Daleks (The Daleks and The Dalek Invasion of Earth were substantially script-edited by David Whitaker, while Genesis of the Daleks was script-edited by Robert Holmes). However, a fair amount of credit for the narrative passages also has to go to Nicholas Briggs and John Dorney. Being two of BIG Finish’s strongest writers at this point of time, I have no doubt that they improved the script for The Destroyers immensely.
The story of The Destroyers is an intriguing, but overall inconsequential one. Sadly it feels a lot like a missed opportunity for Nation as the plot consists of a string of set pieces without a substantial storyline to make it all feel worthwhile. We have the early Dalek attack on the human colony, weird alien creatures attacking our ‘heroes’, humans hiding from Daleks, humans attacking Daleks, and then suddenly that’s it. There’s no indication of Dalek intent or motivation, other than the fact that they’re planning to attack the Earth...again. I know this story was supposed to take place outside of Doctor Who continuity, but the lack of substance seems to hint at a lack of inspiration and imagination on Terry Nation’s part, which seems rather paradoxical considering some of his great prose in the script. The rescue attempt of David Kingdom, by Sara and the other Space Security agents is a reasonable plot in itself, helping to keep the narrative moving and interesting. However, the fact that they fail at the end of the episode, coupled with the fact that we know that the Daleks will exterminate David shortly once they’ve extracted what they can out of him, makes the whole endeavour ultimately feel a bit like a waste of time, both for the listener, as well as the characters. Of course I fully realise that this was supposed to be a pilot into a whole bigger adventure series, but it’s hard to see where the series could have gone, except into a more downbeat and protracted rehash of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, without the Doctor.  There are certainly no indications to suggest the contrary. To be fair though, the set pieces are truly magnificent and atmospheric; it’s just a shame there doesn’t appear to be much of a story to go with it.
It appears that Terry Nation’s prose is also significantly better than his characterisation, which I discovered was also true during The Destroyers. The lead, Sara Kingdom is a happy exception. Resourceful, brave, courageous, and yet vulnerable, Sara is every bit of the inspiring and wily modern-day heroine that viewers experienced during The Daleks’ Masterplan. Inquisitive and intelligent, she examines and takes in the alien environment around her with due caution, and when trouble strikes, can put up a fair fight. When Sara learns that her brother is missing and prisoner of the Daleks, we see her vulnerable and emotional side show, as a tragedy close to home reveals cracks in her usual calm and focused manner. This is partly why I’m glad Nicholas Briggs made David Kingdom the Dalek prisoner, rather than Sara just running around the jungle and becoming the prisoner, as it was in the original script, because it now means we can enjoy a more layered interpretation of one of Doctor Who’s strongest companions, rather than waste her in a more thankless role. This now means of course that David Kingdom is an even more thankless and dull character, because we know next to nothing of him, and all he does is throw a couple of protests at the Daleks, and that it’s entirely up to Sara to sell the loss of David to us. The other characters are only marginally better. Mark Seven is a clever and strong android, with a very casual and almost monotone delivery, and is actually supposed to be a one-note character, whereas Jason Corey is a stereotypical soldier type, who also has no depth in character to interest us. So once again, it is entirely up to Sara to sell the whole drama of the story. Even the Daleks fail to impress. Although every utterance in Dalek voice is usually music to my ears, they seem to spend the majority of the story just doing rather mundane duties, and appear to be just waiting for the call to evacuation. It really is a shame that even the stars of the show feel like a shadow of their former selves.
Fortunately though, The Destroyers is backed up by some wonderful production from BIG Finish at their usual high standard, and a good cast to match them every step of the way, with some more positive, dynamic direction from Lisa Bowerman. Jean Marsh delivers a masterful performance throughout the production, especially considering the 45 years that have passed since she played Sara Kingdom on-screen. Jean really brings the description to life with a brilliantly-judged reading, full of wonderful expressions; and also is able to perform young enough to make the character of Sara believable. A difficult feat indeed; and Jean Marsh pulls it off splendidly. Nicholas Briggs also continues his superlative Dalek voices with ease, although I just wish he had greater lines to say. The rest of the cast, namely Alan Cox, Chris Porter, Alex Mallinson, also perform well, doing their best, with what is fairly weak material for them to voice.
Meanwhile, supporting Terry Nation’s (and Nicholas Briggs and John Dorney’s) lovely prose is a great music soundtrack by Jamie Robertson. Beautifully simple and very effective, his score perfectly captures and reinforces the creepy atmosphere set out in the script. At times it sounds positively Dudley Simpson-esque. Even the Daleks have their own action motif. However, the style of the ‘title’ music is rather questionable. It’s good, but sounds more like The Incredibles than an adventure sci-fi series. No doubt Robertson had a brief to make something James Bond-like, to reflect the space security agents, but in this case I think it’s just unnecessary and rather brash and unsubtle in comparison to the rest of the brilliant score.
The Destroyers is an impressive and interesting example of what could have been. It succeeds as a pilot, in so far as it feels like the beginning of a setup to an epic Dalek adventure, and that there are many unanswered questions that would help intrigue potential viewers in the coming weeks. However, I’m not sure if it would have the substance to last the duration of a proper series well. I feel there are almost too many unanswered questions. What was the Daleks’ purpose in being stationed on the asteroid M5, and what was there that was worth protecting? What are the Daleks’ true intentions, or are we experiencing just another re-write of The Dalek Invasion of Earth? It wouldn’t matter so much if we hadn’t had any concrete answers, but surely there should’ve been some hints that this was a story that would be worth following. This lack of storyline, particularly for the Daleks, is certainly a important flaw, even if it does succeed as a pilot episode.
However, this is in some respects, all in the past, because a new and arguably better audio series was born out of inspiration from this unmade script, Dalek Empire (by Nicholas Briggs). What we can do though, thanks to BIG Finish is enjoy this missing adventure for what it is – a lovingly produced string of glorious, adventurous and atmospheric set pieces, tied together with expert narration, performed by a great cast, and set to an imaginative score. From the Dalek attack to the sponge-like alien predator; hiding in a living forest to the creepy spider-like spectre creature; these are all moments that we can sit back and savour with delight.

Score: 7/10

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Audio Review 5: Prison in Space, written by Dick Sharples (2010) - 3/10

Released: December 2010
Jamie McCrimmon – Frazer Hines
Zoe Heriot – Wendy Padbury
Chairman Babs – Susan Brown

Story Narration and other characters voiced by Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury

Main Production Credits

Producer and Script Editor – David Richardson
Writer – Dick Sharples (adapted by Simon Guerrier)
Director – Lisa Bowerman
Incidental Music and Sound Design – David Darlington
Recording – Toby Hrycek-Robinson at Moat Studios
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producers – Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):
The TARDIS trio arrive on a future Earth, ruled over by a predominantly female dictatorship, instigated and overseen by the 122-year old leader, Chairman Babs. Here, men are labelled and treated as inferiors, while women are taught and conditioned to believe in their own superiority. Despite the Doctor’s polite reasoning, Jamie’s barbaric and chauvinistic views get the two of them sent to a correctional space prison, while Zoe is forced to be conditioned into supporting Chairman Babs and believing in female superiority.
The Doctor and Jamie manage to successfully escape their cells and start a revolt from within the prison. After early success, Chairman Bab’s forces eventually outwit them. However, on Chairman Bab’s return to Earth, where the Doctor, Jamie and their allies are to be trialled, the more free-thinking female council stage a revolt of their own to overthrow the Chairman, inspired by the Doctor’s earlier attempt. Jamie breaks Zoe’s conditioning by repeatedly smacking her bottom.

Story Placement
Between Foreign Devils (Telos Novella) and The Krotons (TV Serial).

There are some unmade Doctor Who television stories that were clearly unmade for good reason, a point sadly proven by Prison in Space.
The story appears to be a failed attempt at a Doctor Who twist on the type of comedy tale spun by the Carry On... or Ealing comedy film series. The sexism, both in the script and characters, is so blatant, that even its obvious uses to attempt satirist humour fail to make any impact. The story itself of a future Earth dominated by a mainly female society where men are the inferiors just reeks of male paranoia. It’s unclear whether the story is trying to support the liberation of women and their political rights, or is trying to suggest that the rights, roles and freedoms of men are under threat by the growing feminism movement during the 1960s. The script certainly seems to be critical of the idea of ‘superior’ or independent women, frequently referring to it as “unnatural”; and through Chairman Babs ludicrous lust for the Doctor, promoting the value of ‘masculinity’. Sure, the idea of men not being the child-giver, or the bread-winner in society is a prescient one for the time, as it is certainly a reality now, but the script misses the point of what really matters. In fact, the removal of these roles could almost be said to make relationships purer as they are more about the mutual love of each other, and less about a marriage of personal convenience. If the story’s premise had occurred on an alien or parallel world, minus the overt sexist script, meanings and dialogue, than it may have just passed muster. However, the poor characterisation and some awful plot resolution, betrays the writer’s old-fashioned views.
The awful plot resolution I am referring to is the ludicrous and outrageous method that Jamie uses to successfully free Zoe from her conditioning by putting her “across his knee”. Such is the outrageousness of the event that it’s clear that the writer intended it to be a joke, albeit a chauvinist one in bad taste. Don’t get me wrong, the Ealing and Carry On film comedies may not be among my favourite comedy media, as a child of the 1980s and 1990s, but I still find them amusing. The ‘humour’ in Prison in Space though, falls almost completely flat for me.
Of course none of this is helped by the weak characterisation either. The women are stereotyped as either butch shouty types (that take exception to anything that remotely hints at gender equality) or overly nervous and indecisive types, whereas the men are stereotyped as slightly yobbish, (at times weirdly mockney-like) and at times equally sexist too. In other words – paper thin. This is a real shame as the total lack of depth in characterisation takes away any need to care about what happens, and turns any satirical elements into a total farce. The central characters don’t fare much better. Chairman Babs is nothing more than a croaky pantomime witch that sounds more like a villainous Beryl Reid than the fearsome tyrant who we are supposed to hate. When conditioned, Zoe appears to turn into Chairman Babs’ personal propaganda-spouting robot, and becomes very whiny and annoying during part four. Jamie meanwhile is either the butt of almost every other joke, or the voice-box for the majority of the chauvinistic insults that the writer felt he could get away with, given that Jamie was from the 18th Century. It didn’t feel as bad during The Invasion, because the occasional chauvinism on display was a script device that helped to highlight the strengths of Zoe as a character, but in Prison in Space it is usually a bad attempt at humour. Even the Doctor has an odd moment when he very vocally champions male rights during the prison revolt.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the narrative has problems of its own. For one thing, Prison in Space has probably one of the most basic plots and storylines ever made for Doctor Who, and sadly is the epitome of all the negative excesses of Doctor Who that occurred during the Patrick Troughton era in the 1960s. There is padding to the hilt, a near-endlessly meandering plot that develops at a snail’s pace, far too many corridor scenes, and a convenient last minute plot device to resolve the story (the female councillors stage a last minute revolt on Chairman Babs, inspired by the Doctor’s efforts). I lost count of how many escape and re-capture sequences there were, and each cliff-hanger takes a painfully long time to assert itself (episode one in particular spouts out paragraphs of dialogue when only one or two lines would suffice). Even the Doctor’s gadget that helps the first revolt to work is a contrived one that appears at a convenient moment, having supposedly to have been acquired during The Dominators when the camera wasn’t looking. The result is to take an already badly-written story and turn it into a tiresome and often tedious listen.
Fortunately though, there are some great things about Prison in Space that make it occasionally likeable, even if they stem almost entirely from the production. The only significant good thing to come out of the script is the amusing sequence when The Doctor and Jamie first arrive at the correctional prison, and are chased around the station and even in the shower room till they finally cooperate with the prison authorities. It feels so synonymous with the amusing and fantastically fun camaraderie setup by Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines, between the characters of the Doctor and Jamie during the television series that one can easily picture it and smile, just like so many similar sequences setup in The Invasion and The Dominators.
By extension, one of the equally great parts of this audio are the main narrators themselves, Wendy Padbury and Frazer Hines who like in their recent 2010 audio releases with Colin Baker, effortlessly recreate their characters over 40 years on with great aplomb and enthusiasm. Frazer Hines is particularly impressive, with a near flawless impersonation of Patrick Troughton, channelling the true spirit of the great man himself into a very believable recreation of the 2nd Doctor. One of Frazer’s other brilliant assets is his talent for great comic timing, which still comes across, even if the written jokes aren’t mostly as good as what they should of been.
Meanwhile BIG Finish’s production values, well-directed by Lisa Bowerman are even better here than in Farewell, Great Macedon and truly feels like we are listening to a genuine soundtrack to a 1960s television episode. This feeling is strengthened by the magically poetic and ethereal music composed by David Darlington in one of the best ever BIG Finish scores to date. It is also worth praising Simon Guerrier for taking out some of the worst sexist dialogue, particularly that originally spoken by the Doctor, even though the majority still had to remain in order for the adapted script to remain faithful to the original.
Sadly though, even BIG Finish cannot turn a poorly conceived story such as Prison in Space into a work of art. With the tedious padded narrative, lazy characterisation, overt sexism, and a plot so basic you could write it on a post-it note, this serial was never going to work, either as a drama or a comedy. Even the idea of the correctional prison is ridiculous, feeling positively Victorian, and even more harsh in treatment to the male offenders here than the real-life suffragettes during the first half of the twentieth century. Take away the padding, deeply chauvinist meanings and dialogue in the script and it may have just worked as a light farce. As it stands though, Prison in Space is one of the weakest Doctor Who stories ever written. Fortunately we can count our blessings that this was never made for television, as any of Patrick Troughton’s weaker television serials would be more preferable to experience, even The Underwater Menace, The Dominators and The Space Pirates. We have top class actors, highly imaginative music and sound production, but just as most Doctor Who producers have discovered, it is nigh on impossible to succeed without a good script.

Score: 3/10