Friday, 29 June 2012

Audio Review 19: Year of the Pig, written by Matthew Sweet (2006)

Released: December 2006


The Doctor – Colin Baker
Peri – Nicola Bryant
Toby – Paul Brooke
Nurse Albertine – Adjoa Andoh
Inspector Chardalot – Michael Keating
Miss Alice Bultitude – Maureen O’Brien

Main Production Credits

Producers – Gary Russell & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Writer – Matthew Sweet
Director – Gary Russell
Incidental Music – Andy Hardwick
Recording – Toby Robinson at Moat Studios
Sound Design, Post-Production and CD mastering – Gareth Jenkins
Title Music – Ron Grainer, arranged and performed by Dominic Glynn
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producer – Gary Russell

Story Summary (BIG SPOILERS!):

The Doctor and Peri are enjoying a relaxing holiday at Ostend, on the Belgian coast in 1913, however the peace doesn’t last for long. The Doctor saves a drowning police detective, named Inspector Chardalot, who despite his proud bluster and fantastic tales, is far from who he claims. His real quarry is a retired performer, hiding away in a secret hotel room, who he seeks to capture at any cost...

The performer is one Toby, the Sapient Pig, the star of numerous popular worldwide animal freak shows, who travels with his trusty minder and companion, Nurse Albertine. However, he strongly believes he is the victim of a future that has ceased to be, a future where all great talents and pioneers were also pigs. The real truth is in fact that both Toby and Chardalot (who was originally called Charlie), were two pigs who were biologically and psychologically experimented upon by aliens. Their mental capacity and intelligence were hugely increased, and they were psychologically trained like children to not only speak like human beings, but also behave like them too, including being taught elocution, manners and etiquette. Realising the truth of their origins, as well as recognising their sibling relationship, Toby and Chardalot reconcile their differences. The Doctor and Peri quietly move on, allowing the two intelligent pigs to start a new positive chapter in their lives.

Story Placement

Between The Reaping (Big Finish audio) and Synthespians (BBC Book).

Despite Big Finish’s placement directly between Timelash and Revelation of the Daleks, due to references to both the Morlox and H.G. Wells in the script, the much calmer relationship between the Sixth Doctor and Peri during Year of the Pig means that it makes more sense for the story to actually happen much later in their travels. As they’re on holiday too, it also makes sense to place it after the characters’ previous audio release, The Reaping, during which Peri endured a particularly harrowing experience.

Favourite Lines

Peri – “There’s a character, an artist, who drops dead in the middle of the second volume, and then turns up again in the third”.
The Doctor – “Happens to the best of us”.
Peri – “That sort of thing is ok in real life, but it shouldn’t happen in fiction”.

Toby – “The Doctor is here, and he’s stick me!”

Toby – “If the human race is to end tonight, at least its last member can die...beautiful!”

The Doctor – “And to think, I, grabbed him by the shoulders and called him Marcel.”
Chardalot – “Yes...”
The Doctor – “...and breathed port fumes up his nose...”
Chardalot – “Yes.”
The Doctor – “...and told him what I thought of ‘Swann’.”
Chardalot – “Yes.”
The Doctor – “How embarrassing!”

Toby – “Do we keep them prisoner...or eat the evidence.”

Toby – “I see death, I see blood, razors, barbed wire, cruelty, torture, rats, poison gas, boys dead in the mud, with photographs of their mothers and sweethearts stowed next to their silenced hearts, I see the blasted earth, I see the carcases of horses half-submerged in the slimy feculence, I see women weeping over fields of whitewashed graves, I see war. War and revolution!”

Toby – “Professor Prometheus, the fireproof Carcassian, the incomparable Hildebrand, the blonding donkey, but what a bill! You don’t get turns like that anymore.”

Toby – “To eat, to eat, perchance to lunch”.

Toby – “...but Taxidermy! It makes me feel dirty, Miss Bultitude. Dirty!”


Year of the Pig is a rather odd, but fascinating Doctor Who audio. That’s not because it’s about an intelligent speaking pig (or pigs), although that does admittedly give the tale an original and very quirky angle that’s certainly very Doctor Who in its subversion of a popular period genre. Year of the Pig is in fact more a showcase and study for eccentric characters, than it is a story; part comedy of manners, part word play, and part period observational comedy.

The main impression of Year of the Pig though, is that it seems to be Matthew Sweet’s love letter and homage to some of his favourite literary influences, cunningly crafted using the fictional world of Doctor Who as a vehicle, and its abilities to juggle and assimilate multiple fictional genres and sub-genres with ease. The most obvious of these influences is Marcel Proust’s key work, In Search of Lost Time, orÀ la recherché du temps perdu, which uses involuntary memory as one of its central themes. Involuntary memory, is a form of memory triggered by experiences that impact upon the key senses, particularly sight, sounds, smells, and appropriately for Year of the Pig, tastes also. Proust also reflects in his work as to how these involuntary memories are interpreted, and how they affect a person’s experiences and view of life, including explorations into snobbery and jealousy. Matthew Sweet even gives Proust a very neat cameo in the audio.

Now at this point, I have to hold my hands up and admit that I have never read Proust, or been a student of literature. Reading is something I’ve always enjoyed, but have never really been able to find the time to do enough of. My information on Proust is purely from internet research, so while I may not be able to appreciate all of Matthew Sweet’s references and literary tributes, I will try my best to identify a few, where I can.

Firstly, I’m glad that Matthew Sweet had the subtlety not to write the script in the first person, like In Search of Lost Time, although Toby cleverly has more than a passing resemblance to the book’s narrator, given both the descriptive and precise manner in which he speaks, and that it is he that is the main focus for Sweet’s use of the involuntary memory theme. Here is Matthew Sweet’s most brilliant homage to Proust. Toby not only has a picture slideshow of his past performances to encourage his reminisces, but being an obsessive food lover (as Toby is a pig), food also triggers another layer of nostalgic recall as well, for his favourite dishes, his favourite hotels and the times of his life that he associates them with. Sweet’s most clever use of the memory theme though, is that the few influences and items that surrounded Toby as a very young and malleable piglet have caused Toby to contrive an entirely fictional past in order to fill in the gaps, or distract him from the truth about his rather more lonely origins. Chardalot, who also turns out to be Toby’s pig brother, by contrast, doesn’t share these illusions, but in fact has created his own. Unlike Toby, Chardalot hasn’t had a successful career, and has also seemingly been biologically engineered to at least superficially resemble a human being, and being surrounded by the laboratory and place where he was experimented upon (as was Toby), he has fooled himself into thinking he was the professor who did the experimenting, and even believes himself to be human. The experiments are also the reason why Toby has a strong underlying fear of Doctors coming after him with a knife, unconsciously generated by hidden traumatic memories about those experiments. The more obvious references to Proust include the writer’s unspoken cameo, the Doctor reading his books and discussing their events with Peri, and Chardalot believing that he and Toby were bred on the planet Guermantis, which as the Doctor notes is merely Chardalot misinterpreting and misquoting Proust, as “Guermantes” is a fictional family who features during In Search of Lost Time, which is a clever meta joke by Matthew Sweet, who writes of a character referencing (and others paying homage) to Proust when he is doing the same himself.

However, to me it seems that In Search of Lost Time isn’t the only significant literary inspiration at work in Year of the Pig, as the story also seems to be influenced by Shakespeare’s very own Twelfth Night. Despite studying the Bard at school like most of all UK pupils, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the clear similarities had it not been for the TV showing of the enjoyable 1996 film adaption (still one of the best in visual media), which I managed to catch a month ago. Just as in Shakespeare’s classic play, Year of the Pig has two long-lost siblings, in this case Toby and Chardalot, who the plot eventually reunites; one of whom, is disguised in the appearance of something they’re not. Although, in another clever twist by Matthew Sweet, the script cunningly fools us into thinking that it is Toby, with his wig and attire, trying to hide from the mysterious doctor figure who is attempting to assassinate him, who the listener naturally suspects the suspicious and fake policeman Chardalot of being. We never really think for a moment that Toby is mistaken or even slightly delusional, and that Chardalot is in fact someone else entirely, until Matthew Sweet tantalises us with food-related clues, which he sprinkles throughout part two of the story, until Chardalot’s similarity to Toby becomes obvious.

Another aspect of Year of the Pig that I love is Matthew Sweet’s delicious use of language throughout his script, sometimes literally so. A grand range of words and beautiful adjectives are regularly unleashed upon our characters, particularly in the case of Toby, the Doctor and Miss Bultitude, who regularly show off their poetic verbosity with pride and affable eccentricity. The regular long lists of food that Toby receives sound so mouth-watering, it tantalises us with a gourmet picnic that we would all like to attend. Matthew Sweet has also packed the script full of wonderful wit, all of which is eminently quotable. In-jokes, word-play, one-liners, clever references to literature, film and television (as well as Doctor Who, of course, including Black Orchid and The Chase, among others), amusing faux pas, to name but a few comedy types that Sweet has weaved throughout his script. One of the most memorable is a random, but ingenious protracted joke about raining cows and raw beef that occurs at the end of part one, but doesn’t get a punch line till a brilliant time-travel twist that occurs halfway through part two. I also love this joke as it’s another fantastic homage by Matthew Sweet, on this occasion to both Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy simultaneously (you’ll have to work that one out yourself, I don’t want to ruin all the jokes).

However, like À la recherché du temps perdu, Year of the Pig doesn’t have much in the way of plot, and has a brief burst of action in the second episode, which helps to keep the story involving. With such a long running time though, Year of the Pig feels painfully sluggish by the end. Even a period Doctor Who needs a more complex story and/or plot to sustain the enjoyment and enthusiasm of its audience for over two hours. Part one in particular seems to have too many scenes of characters just sitting together chatting away with little relevance to the ongoing plot, which seems to meander more and more, the closer it gets to the cliff-hanger. It’s true that some, if not most of these exchanges are fantastically written, with some outstanding jokes, lines and character moments; but equally there are some scenes, or parts of scenes which I could see little harm in cutting out, and still create the intended effect. The last ten minutes of part one especially feels like prolonged padding as the now obviously suspicious Chardalot, wanders aimlessly with Peri, to get her confidence just so he can ultimately lock her in the sauna room. I defy anyone to tell me they didn’t see that coming. Additionally, I also feel that the story behind the fictional events of Year of the Pig is also quite simplistic, with little surprises beyond Matthew Sweet’s clever wit and dialogue, the narrative taking a back seat throughout most of the general proceedings, developing gently and quietly in the background, occasionally rearing its head for the odd plot point, until it finally spills its very guessable beans during the closing scenes. On the positive side, this gentler and more gradual approach certainly makes it easy for the listener to engage with and interpret the developing story and follow the writer’s train of thought. I certainly appreciated the subtlety in the script, but I also found it rather too easy for someone who frequently enjoys more complex ideas and storylines, both in other fiction and drama as well as Doctor Who. Wit and clever scriptwriting was never going to solely win me over, but it certainly helps raise Year of the Pig well above the more average of Doctor Who fare, as does its distinctive characterisation.

While Year of the Pig’s list of characters can certainly by defined by specific types, they are assuredly neither clichés nor caricatures. The non-regulars in particular serve two functions, firstly as multi-dimensional characters, and secondly as subjects to demonstrate and explore particular human personality traits, not unlike some of the characters created by Shakespeare and Proust, and most of the World’s best fiction writers since the beginning of time. Chardalot, for instance, is fairly pompous, snobbish, boastful and seems to operate mostly from a position of self-interest, appearing shallow and cold to the point of comfortably setting death traps for people who saved his life and jovially dined with him only a couple of days ago. He noticeably revels in telling his extraordinary and outlandish tales, and soaks up all the attention. However, underneath all this bluster, he is a lost soul, craving acknowledgement and affection from his brother Toby, and is determined to search, find and restore meaning to his lonely existence, whatever the cost to himself and others.

On the surface, Miss Bultitude appears to be the stock eccentric character – excitable, almost always jolly, larger-than-life, very sweet, but also has a bit of a weird secret or obsession, which in this case is a deep fascination in taxidermy, and unusual animals in general. This also goes some way to explain her obsession with Toby the Sapient Pig, who is combines this odd fascination with her passionate love of theatrical acts, being a stage act performer in a ‘freak show’. However, her eccentric bluster and obsessions disguise her true nature, a sweet and innocent old lady who is just trying to spend some time with one of her idols. This is a nice contrast and difference to what we normally expect in complex characters. As demonstrated partly with Chardalot, an audience familiar with the conventions of drama, thriller, and mystery fiction, always expect a much darker persona underneath the surface of such detailed characters, so it’s very refreshing to see the complete opposite here.

Likewise with Nurse Albertine, who while always very caring, protective, reproachable and loyal to her employer and companion Toby, also has a more fun, cheeky and relaxed side to her, which keeps the tone of the script light and entertaining. The interesting thing about Albertine’s character though, is that her relationship with Toby is an almost mirror interpretation of that between the Doctor and his companion Peri. In some ways, I suppose this can be seen as a reaffirmation of the role of the companion in Doctor Who, examining exactly how and why it works, and maybe even reclaiming it from the recent redefinition of the role during the current TV series. Matthew Sweet reflects the best aspects of the companion role in Nurse Albertine – protective, loyal, brave, fun, but also independent, clever, proactive, and definitely not squeamish. I don’t have a problem with romance in Doctor Who, but as Sweet seems to suggest, romantic entanglements and relationships aren’t an essential ingredient in a companion character; in order for the audience to empathise, care, and feel for them, they just have to be well-developed multi-dimensional characters that we can believe in. This may also be a commentary on the quality of Peri’s character in general, as prior to The Trial of a Time Lord, Peri was more often than not, used by most writers as a screaming damsel-in-distress, not too far removed from the way companions were poorly written during the late 1960s, only additionally having frequent and annoying arguments with the Doctor on an episode-by episode basis. Of course, this was part of the overall strategy to start off the Sixth Doctor with a somewhat difficult and unlikeable character, although Eric Saward, in my view, took this repeatedly too far, and should have phased out the conflicts much sooner. However, I suspect Matthew Sweet’s main motive in presenting Albertine in this way was to make all the story characters, except Toby, proactive, and skilfully moves them around into various interesting double acts, with the plot split up between them. Year of the Pig opens with the Doctor and Peri, and Toby with Nurse Albertine. Miss Bultitude is paired up with the Doctor, until when Chardalot arrives and disrupts the equilibrium once again. After the dinner and the first meeting the characters have with Toby, Peri is paired with Albertine, and then Chardalot, while the Doctor leaves Miss Bultitude with Toby to join Albertine, who afterwards then encounters Chardalot. All these changes in character pairings create new, fun and interesting new dynamics on each occasion, and certainly livens up the pedestrian plot a fair bit, even if it doesn’t really compensate for the slow pace and padding.

Speaking of Peri, Matthew Sweet continues the more sympathetic, warm and likeable interpretation that Big Finish thankfully returned to, after hints of the more amiable relationship between her and the Doctor, started by The Trial of a Time Lord. It’s good to see the American companion at peace, and at ease after the bitter exchanges the character had to endure during Peri’s Television episodes. Sadly Nurse Albertine gets most of the best companion-like lines, but at least we can enjoy the pleasant banter that Peri and the Doctor share as good friends. The Sixth Doctor gets a far better deal in the overall scheme of things – witty lines, jokes, impressions, heroic deeds, and the usual peacemaking, this time between Chardalot and Toby. The Doctor finally gets to let his hair down, and even gets round to reading his collection of Proust, so for once it’s as much a holiday as an adventure! I also love the dinner scene, during which we get to hear the Doctor drunk, for only the second time to my knowledge (the first of which was by his successor, the Tenth Doctor, only six months earlier during the 2006 TV episode, The Girl in the Fireplace. Even if he was only pretending that time.), and make a fool of himself, with hilarious results. Also forget Theta Sigma, “Battenberg” must be the best nickname the Doctor’s ever been given!

However, the most interesting and entertaining character by far is Toby the Sapient Pig. Although his insatiable lust and hunger for food is something of a predictable character for a talking pig, Matthew Sweet writes and presents it in a very organic, natural, and amusing way; so that its every encore breaks up the tension in the story beautifully; giving the listener a wonderful distraction away from the protracted story. Toby is also amusingly neurotic and snobbish about his surroundings, always wanting to live in the highest comfort and quality of life; desiring things in life to be just so, from heated up linen, to correct word pronunciations. The most striking thing about him though, is that he’s also a very romantic idealist, given swathes of poetic dialogue by Sweet as he reminisces about his childhood and past theatrical career. There’s also the memorable moment when Toby seems to foretell the horrors of the First World War, summarised brilliantly, but powerfully with emotive words that effectively conveyed how tragic and harrowing it was. There is also the question as to the exact nature of Toby and Chardalot’s origins. It’s clear that Toby is unconsciously remembering the future events of the First World War, rather than foreseeing them like a soothsayer. So the pair of pigs definitely come from the future, but as to exactly who biologically and psychologically engineered them into the way they are, Sweet deliberately leaves ambiguous. Matthew Sweet astutely knows that these are only throwaway details that will only have momentary meaning, and are unnecessary to his real story, which is about Toby and Chardalot rediscovering exactly who they are and reuniting as siblings for the first time, while also paying tribute to the themes explored by Proust, namely the nature of voluntary and involuntary memory, as well as snobbery too. The Doctor seems to confirm that aliens did indeed alter and biologically engineer the pigs, even if it is not same ones that Chardalot seems to be thinking of. Toby's realisation that Chardalot is his brother is also one of the most heart-warming and moving things I’ve ever heard in Doctor Who, let alone Big Finish audios, and is another great piece of writing by Matthew Sweet that I gladly applaud.

None of these colourful characters would have been anywhere near as enjoyable however, were it not for such a talented and spirited cast. It’s certainly a testament to their range of skills that allow such a small cast to be able to sustain and invigorate such a long audio production as this. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant are on as magnificent a form as ever, effortlessly energetic in their roles, and yet more relaxed than I think I’ve ever heard them, clearly having a whale of a time with the fun script. Colin Baker once again relishes his complex and wide range of vocabulary with the utmost eloquence. Both Adjoa Andoh and Michael Keating also deliver entertaining and delightfully nuanced performances, giving their characters both a spirited edge and comedic spin (even if Chardalot isn’t too much of a leap away from Blake’s 7’s Vila for Keating). Maureen O’Brien on the other hand gives her all portraying Miss Bultitude in the most excitable and mad way possible, playing up to the eccentricities of the character in the script. As her first return to Doctor Who since the 1960s, O’Brien certainly makes the most of it. I’m glad though that Big Finish later gave her characters with more range when they invited O’Brien back again in future audio appearances, including her wonderful return to the companion character Vicki. The real star of Year of the Pig though, just as his character was, is Paul Brooke. Once again my affection for this great character actor is more than justified with his perfect delivery and tone. Brooke’s consummate trademark performance is both technically precise and naturally down-to-earth, with some superb underplaying (as well as over when the time calls for it). Unlike during his appearance in The Ghosts of N-Space though, here he gets a chance to also display his expert comic timing, which made me smile and laugh throughout the audio, and certainly helped the long duration of the production pass a lot quicker. However, it’s not all laughs, as Toby also has scenes of sorrow, melancholy and darkness, which Paul Brooke plays wonderfully too, with a great sense of pathos, and even a slight mean streak later on. Brooke also positively steals most of the scenes he’s in, and he’s certainly the main highlight of the production for me, in addition to Matthew Sweet’s witty script.

The Production is also fairly top-notch, with Gary Russell directing his last Big Finish Doctor Who audio with panache; although it would’ve been even better had he cut the padded segments. Gareth Jenkins’ sound design is up to Big Finish’s usual superb and flawless standard, with every sound atmosphere being utterly convincing, particularly by the seaside. Although my favourite sound effects occur during the various scenes on the train, which was a whole world away from the tired stock effects of the old BBC sound effects CDs, and simply outstandingly mixed. Another special mention also has to go to those exploding and moaning cows, which really helped to sell Matthew Sweet’s time-travel joke. The music by Andy Hardwick on the other hand, while effective and perfectly suitable for the production, was a bit forgettable compared to some of the music soundtracks composed for previous Big Finish releases.

Year of the Pig is one of the most original and creative Doctor Who scripts written to date. Many Doctor Who fans, me included, have harped on about how flexible a storytelling format it is, free from convention, free from being confined to any genre, with the inbuilt ability not just to evolve with the times, but also to allow writers to experiment and play with both story and character types, including that of the Doctor himself. However, the large scale and range of this flexibility has mostly only really been put to the test and explored properly by Big Finish Productions (some by the TV series itself, and the Virgin and BBC Book ranges, but here is where a lot of Doctor Who’s creative potential has been borne out). Year of the Pig is one of those audios that helped to explore that, by presenting us with an adult period drama that also acts as a clever literary homage to Proust, woven throughout both the script and the story itself. Adult, because while there’s nothing here that isn’t suitable for younger listeners, Matthew Sweet creates a story that looks at the adult themes of estranged families and lost childhoods. Sure, Doctor Who has been playing with literary genres since it started, most notably science fiction and gothic horror, but it’s not very often that it does this in such a culturally aware and metatextual way as Year of the Pig, and in a type of period drama that is notably more domestic and realist than fantastical in nature (there is of course sci-fi and fantastical elements to this, but most of these are superficial or metaphorical). This is of course, partly down to the fact that Matthew Sweet is a very educated and cultured writer, well versed in the best of the literary world. Like all the best Doctor Who scripts, he ensures that Year of the Pig is as much entertaining as well as dramatically and thematically interesting by inserting buckets of wit and clever references to lighten the story’s spirit. However, I would point out to listeners that some later script passages are a little ‘dry’, because once the characters are established, they continue along similar lines, with the script using example after endless example of their character traits, with little development beyond the occasional key plot point and climax of the whole story. Some jokes may also go over a fair few listeners’ heads; particularly if they’re not as knowledgeable about everything Matthew Sweet is referring to (I think I caught most of them though). Fortunately though, Sweet makes sure there’s something for almost everyone to like throughout the script. The overuse of scenes of characters in conversation, with little plot development, also leads to some notable padding in both the script and story, which I’m sure with some intelligent script editing could have been taken out, without negatively affecting the authorial intent. The story and plot itself is also quite simplistic and even basic at times. Most if not all plot developments are quite easy to guess in advance, but this is probably accentuated by the padding. As a result, the audio comes across as a bit slow, but I wouldn’t let that put you off. If this had been produced for Television in 1986, fans would be praising the production for its bravery to tackle this type of story. While in 2006, good domestic (or traditional/literary) period dramas may be commonplace on television, as they are a bit today, it’s a still a fascinating and unusual place for the good Doctor to visit. Year of the Pig may be a simple and cosy small scale adventure, but Matthew Sweet writes it with a clever and complex execution that fills the story-shaped holes with great dialogue, larger-than-life characterisation, shrewd and subtle literary tributes, and a lot of fun. Some listeners may not find it to their tastes, but I found it to be a truly wonderful listening experience overall. It may not be perfect, but it’s certainly an education.

Score: 8/10

(Illustration by Lee Sullivan)

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