Friday, 27 July 2012

Audio Review 20: Winter for the Adept, written by Andrew Cartmel (2000)

Released: July 2000

Cast:

The Doctor – Peter Davison
Nyssa – Sarah Sutton
Alison Speers – Liz Sutherland
Peril Bellamy – India Fisher
Lieutenant Peter Sandoz – Peter Jurasik
Miss Tremayne – Sally Faulkner
Mlle Maupassant – Hannah Dickinson
Harding Wellman – Christopher Webber
Commodore – Andy Coleman
Empress – Nicky Goldie


Main Production Credits

Producers – Gary Russell & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Writer – Andrew Cartmel
Director – Gary Russell
Incidental Music – Russell Stone
Recording and Editing – Alistair Lock
Sound Design and Post-Production – Andy Hardwick @ ERS
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Remastered by Mark Ayres)
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producer (for BBC Worldwide) – Jacqueline Rayner


Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

Nyssa finds herself accidentally teleported to the Swiss Alps in 1963, after taking part in one of the Doctor’s experiments. The whole area caught in a midst of a snow storm, a local policeman, Lieutenant Peter Sandoz, takes Nyssa to shelter in a nearby girls’ finishing school, which seems to be haunted by a powerful poltergeist...

The Doctor tracks down Nyssa in the TARDIS, and becomes fascinated with the mystery of the ghost, and its origins. The sheltering locals however, including two attending pupils Alison and Peril, are more intent with trying to evacuate the area to safety. When escape becomes impossible, it remains up to the Doctor to help make the school safe by finding out the truth about the poltergeist. He later discovers that Alison and Peril both have powerful Psychic abilities, Alison been aggressively telepathic, and Peril passively telekinetic, who are also both unconsciously affected by the ghost of a dead hiker, Harding Wellman, who suffered with epileptic fits. They all act as a chain reaction, or gestalt entity, each one reacting to the other and influencing the next, creating the poltergeist phenomena, with Harding’s mental fits sending out surges of psychic power which accentuates it all the more.

However, these gathering of psychic minds were far from coincidence. The Doctor correctly works out that the girls’ school has been deliberately inviting and vetting pupils with such strong psychic abilities, at the behest of two agents of the Spillagers. The Spillagers are aliens from another dimension, who seek to invade this one, so they can consume it, destroy it and move on to the next. They have gathered these psychic girls here as their powers will enable the opening of a wormhole between dimensions, which will allow the Spillager invasion fleet to enter our reality. After the two Spillager agents are dealt with, the Doctor uses Alison, Nyssa and Harding to use their psychic abilities to close the wormhole, trapping and destroying the Spillager invasion fleet between dimensions. The Doctor treats the survivors to a trip home in the TARDIS.


Story Placement

Between The Land of the Dead (BIG Finish audio) and The Mutant Phase (BIG Finish audio).


Favourite Lines

Miss Tremayne – “...and his harlot”.
Nyssa – “What’s a harlot?”
Miss Tremayne – “Whore of Babylon!”
Nyssa – “No, I’m afraid I still don’t understand the reference”.

The Doctor – “But there’s a limit to scepticism, you know. You’ll end up cutting your throat with Occam’s razor”.


Review:

The appreciation of Andrew Cartmel as a Doctor Who writer has usually divided itself into two camps – those who love the 7th Doctor era on Television that he script edited most of, and those that don’t. That’s not to say that the people who don’t do not like any 7th Doctor television episodes at all, just that they disliked his view and creative vision for the show. His critics either rail against his youthful inexperience (usually pointing to Seasons 24 and 25), or they see the darker developments in the Doctor’s character, and more adult developments on Doctor Who in general as being at odds with the spirit of the programme. These criticisms particularly came to a head during the 1990s Virgin Doctor Who novels, The New Adventures, which followed this darker, much more adult direction, and took it as far as it could be naturally developed (although it could be argued that some novels took it to extreme levels), concluding with Lungbarrow. Some Doctor Who fans label this as the ‘Cartmel Masterplan’, although I’m still unsure as to how much authorship of this approach can solely be attributed to Andrew Cartmel, even now. However, my somewhat long point is this – scripts like Winter for the Adept, in my view, conclusively prove that Andrew Cartmel knows a lot more about how Doctor Who really works, than many have really given him credit for.

Why? Well, because Winter for the Adept is a reasonable break from the tone of Cartmel’s previous Who work for the 7th Doctor. Interestingly, it’s done for a very different version of the character – the 5th Doctor, which is fascinating precisely because of how different the two eras of the show are, both in the tone and type of stories they had on Television. Both eras were a period of transition, evolution and increasing variety; part of a decade of Doctor Who that was still trying to get away from the more traditional stories of the 1970s, which were often just about the Doctor defeating a malevolent evil menace. The key difference is the 5th Doctor era was only the beginning of that change, and a fairly gradual one at that. The tone of the show was still significantly lighter than the darker approach Andrew Cartmel instigated from 1988 onwards, even though the script editors after Douglas Adams (who left in 1980) were just as keen on introducing more drama too. So it’s a welcome surprise that Cartmel can still write well for a version of Doctor Who that is simpler, less adult, and much less dark than the one on which he cut his writer’s teeth on for ten years (1987-1997). Although listening to Winter for the Adept I sometimes can’t tell if Andrew Cartmel wrote his script as in interpretation of what Doctor Who was in 1982, or what he thought it should have been. I suspect the answer is a bit of both, creating a story that fits both the fresh variety of stories in 1982, while also keeping it fairly traditional, but also moving it a step towards the darker and more ambitious adventures of the late-1980s.

Considering how much gothic and Victorian horror fiction has influenced Doctor Who over the years, it is surprising just how few ghost or paranormal-themed stories there have been. For the most part, Winter for the Adept offers a beautifully simple atmospheric adventure about being trapped in a haunted girl’s school, with the Doctor trying to investigate the phenomena in order to make it safe. The added fact that the school is mostly evacuated, aside from cunningly keeping the story’s cast of characters small, adds to the chills of the story, creating a place of emptiness, where mysterious noises and creaks suddenly appear when and where they shouldn’t. All this build-up and maintaining of atmosphere helps to perpetuate the macabre tone of the story, which is just as well, considering that is mostly all it is about. For the first three episodes, Winter for the Adept is almost entirely atmosphere and mystery, with the occasional establishing and background scenes to help develop its guest characters a bit. Andrew Cartmel partly gets away with this due to how brilliantly he structures and establishes the story and its characters in the first episode. The Doctor is deliberately held back till the end of the episode to help slow or stagger the plot, but also to give Nyssa a welcome chance to shine, by leading the episode and confronting the mystery of the school face to face. Giving Nyssa the limelight for a while means not only that the character gets more to do, but also more meaningful things to say for a change, revealing more sides and dimensions to her character, as well as proving once and for all how intelligent, resourceful and proactive she is as a companion. Cartmel’s masterful first episode, just like the rest of the story is also structured so we don’t find out everything straight away, or have huge scenes of dull exposition. Each character is intelligently introduced individually and organically into events, before we actually get the full picture, or at least enough of it to work out what the story is about, which is the point the Doctor finally arrives. I also like Cartmel’s framing device for the story, of Alison reading back on events from her diary many years later. It’s a lovely way of making (or reinforcing the way) the Doctor’s adventures seem just as mythical and fantastical as the genre of storytelling which Winter for the Adept aspires to be part of. Once we reach the story’s climax, Andrew Cartmel also produces an explanation that is interesting, logical and completely convincing, while simultaneously being satisfying and very traditional in Doctor Who terms. The idea that aliens have been gathering up girls with psychic abilities, so they can form a powerful gestalt entity with an epileptic ghost, to help open a dimensional gateway, is certainly one of the most original and novel Doctor Who ideas I have ever heard to date!

Just when it looks to be a potential Doctor Who classic though, the story seems to fall apart in the last episode. Now, I don’t mean that the story itself doesn’t make sense, just that Andrew Cartmel takes one of the freshest and most enjoyable story ideas in years, and numbs it with one of the dullest, laziest and most disappointingly stereotypical endings he surely could ever have scripted for it. I honestly can’t tell whether while writing he just unintentionally backed himself into a corner, and struggled to think of a decent way out of it or just gave up in general, it’s that dreary and feeble. After going through the trouble of creating an intelligent explanation for the poltergeist, as well as a very skilful and subtle build-up for the Spillagers throughout the story in general, the Spillagers turn out to be yet another race of invading aliens who want to destroy everything, and not very interesting or original aliens at that. Added to that, after more running down corridors, the Doctor dispatches the Spillagers easily within minutes, and solves the problem of the invading fleet similarly glibly with a scene that takes place outside the audio altogether, of the psychic gestalt closing it at his encouragement. After building up to climax throughout the story with subtlety and care, and gradually raising the stakes along with it, the resolution is so throwaway and shallow; I was incredulous as to how amateurish it had suddenly turned into. However, as it was Gary Russell who advised the insertion of the wormhole resolution, maybe Andrew Cartmel just couldn’t enthusiastically get behind it. Cartmel’s script also has other flaws though.

Despite the brilliantly conceived first episode, the second and third instalments of the story consist mainly of scenes where characters are either running away from the effects of the poltergeist, or listening and discussing copious passages of exposition. As a result, a fair amount of padding creeps in. For instance, the moving and self-playing piano is amusing and creepy the first time round, but after the endless revisits throughout the story, it starts to become tired fairly quickly. It’s also apparent that Andrew Cartmel has still to get used to how to write for audio at this point, with some of his dialogue and scriptwriting being occasionally stilted and inexperienced. The reveal that the ghost of Harding Wellman has a very stereotypical posh British accent was also a joke that fell very flat for me.

The Spillagers aside though, Andrew Cartmel’s characterisation is much better executed overall. Nyssa in particular is well served by Cartmel, allowed the rare chance to show off her initiative, intelligence and character that had only been really hinted at during the TV series itself. Her sharp mind and strict scientific mind means that she isn’t afraid to question the mysticism that others (sometimes even the Doctor) seem to accept readily, even if it makes her a little too sceptical of less conventional life forms (in Nyssa’s case, ghosts). Winter for the Adept also shows that Nyssa has grown such during her time on the TARDIS that she can take charge of situations with ease if necessary, leading the others to safety when the poltergeist strikes during the first episode. Even from her very first TV appearance though, in The Keeper of Traken, Nyssa has always had some measure of courage and resourcefulness within her, so it’s great that Cartmel makes sure that that still comes through in his script. I also love that Cartmel remembers the fact that Nyssa is supposed to be an alien (as many writers don’t), and so she still isn’t quite used to all the human words or turns of phrases that are banded about around her, including even a direct insult that amusingly goes right over her head. However, I feel that Nyssa stays flippant and moody for perhaps a bit too long than I would like, have slight flashes of attitude that reflect the absent Tegan more than Nyssa.

Andrew Cartmel’s Fifth Doctor is also very good; even if he has the occasional Troughton-esque touch and quirk about him (I’m fairly sure Patrick Troughton is Cartmel’s favourite Doctor, maybe even more than Sylvester McCoy). His calm and assured manner never falters, well conveying that wise intelligence within his younger appearance. Even when the stakes are significantly higher, he faces both danger and his enemies with an equally calm and steely resolve, to ensure that he never underestimates them, or allows himself to make mistakes. Actually, it makes a welcome change for the 5th Doctor to be fairly in control of the situation. As fascinating as a vulnerable Doctor is to experience or read about, it’s important that he never becomes completely impotent or ineffectual, because otherwise he would cease being the same character, and for all his flaws, by this point he is most certainly the brave hero we all love, who’ll never give up, and has been for some time. In Winter for the Adept he also shows flashes of his previous persona, relishing the adventure ahead of him, and finding out the secrets of this ghostly manifestation.

The supporting characters are also interestingly drawn by Cartmel. Alison is refreshingly open-minded and insatiably curious, but also sharp witted, and never misses a trick. In fact at times she feels like a prototype Doctor Who companion, such is her apparent love of adventure, and ability to take the extraordinary in her stride. Peril meanwhile is a cheeky, impetuous and impressionable girl who is even more of a romantic idealist than her friend Alison. Both are fun and amiable characters that play a key part in the story, but while Alison isn’t changed by her hidden psychic power, Peril is convinced that she is cursed, and is strongly affected by the poltergeist’s victims, upset that all the death and disaster is her fault. It’s another fascinating layer to Peril that prove that some of her jokes and reckless mischief is at least in part to distract her from the distressing effects of her own unconscious talent at telekinesis. Miss Tremayne is also a great character, strict, very pious, and devoutly religious, which Cartmel fortunately avoids overplaying before it gets to ridiculous and camp levels. Despite being so simple a character, as Miss Tremayne is so austere and puritanical that it would be hard to see what more you could write for such a character. While her startled outbursts are often for comedic effect, Miss Tremayne is also a very realistic and believable character. A lot of traditional people in previous centuries, even the twentieth, would have thought and acted like that, which is why the character type has often been used as a stereotype in fiction; although in the case of Winter for the Adept, the character is a natural one to find in such a place and time, and is far from cliché. Likewise, Lieutenant Sandoz is a likeable character, as well as much more down to earth than the rest, that is until his real identity is revealed. Cartmel’s intelligent writing of him as someone who is naturally sceptical and suspicious of strangers, means that while he is using the script to make the audience suspicious of his true motives, his natural and protective manner means that listeners can empathise with him enough to doubt whether he is the real person behind all the intrigue and disaster of the story. It’s almost disappointing that he is revealed to be a Spillager too, as the twist is entirely predictable and expected, so no real drama or thrill is gained from it, particularly given how Cartmel flippantly kills off the Sandoz Spillager mere moments later. Miss Maupassant is the only real disappointment among the guest characters, a bland French tutor, who often ends up as a cipher with an accent. Although this could equally be deliberate by Cartmel, which is why she is also a clear obvious candidate for being an undercover Spillager. In fact I would go so far as to say that Cartmel makes it too easy for us, with Maupassant being fascinated with the TARDIS one minute and then frantically scared of Ghosts the next, as well as staying very much in the background of events.

Speaking of the Spillagers, they have to be one of the poorest excuses for an alien race in Doctor Who yet. Sure, there are many generic Doctor Who alien villains out there that want to invade the Earth, but few feel quite as shallow, insubstantial, tedious and amateurish as the Spillagers, which is something I thought I would never say about any aspect of an Andrew Cartmel Doctor Who script. Even their dialogue is false and stilted, regardless of which Spillager it is. The worst example though are lines from the Maupassant Spillager, who when revealed, calls out terrible puns like bad pick up lines and double entendres that you might expect to hear in old porn films (I haven’t actually seen any, you understand, just the accepted clichés which comedy has made fun of for decades).

Not for the first time, the best performances of Winter for the Adept were by those who had the best lines and characters to work with. Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton deliver the strongest performances of the production, totally assured, well-judged and convincing, full of conviction. Sally Faulkner’s Miss Tremayne is amusingly melodramatic, and beautifully plays up to the comic timing in the script, and successfully avoids a hammy performance. Liz Sutherland, India Fisher and Peter Jurasik also deliver decent and subtle performances, helping to make their respective characters believable and likeable. Sadly the lesser guest cast is something of a disaster. Hannah Dickinson’s Miss Maupassant is both bland and clichéd with her overpowering stereotypical French accent, which is anything but subtle and convincing; and her performance as the Spillager also leaves a lot to be desired, as do those of the other Spillager actors. However, this may be as much down to the director as the actors, as Gary Russell seems perfectly fine with the Spillagers all having hammy performances and pantomime-like stilted dialogue. It’s also bizarre that he seemed to be completely oblivious to the remaining problems with the last episode of Winter of the Adept, although considering he came up with the story resolution himself, maybe it’s not surprising he was ok with it.

Thankfully, the post-production of the audio helps to keep the good parts of the story stand out, by being rather exceptional. Andy Hardwick’s sound design for Winter for the Adept is as flawless and amazingly extensive as Big Finish has managed up to this point (2000). From something as small as light footsteps in the snow, to deafening gusts of wind, to even the wonderful subtle detuning of piano, every sound comes together to create a totally immersive audio experience that feels absolutely authentic and real to the listener. They also help to perpetuate the atmosphere that the script seeks to create. Russell Stone also produces another good incidental soundtrack, which also helps to make the script’s mysterious atmosphere more tangible. Stone will produce much greater work in the future, but for now sit back and enjoy that glorious linking piano theme of his which frames the story, its beautifully simple and I love it.

Despite having a lot of promise, Winter for the Adept proves to be something of a disappointment, and a missed opportunity, to create the definitive Doctor Who ghost story. Andrew Cartmel’s wonderful premise, interesting characters, intelligent setup and plot construction are partly spoilt by the most undramatic and amateurish resolution I’ve seen in a Doctor Who story for a long while; as well as the most pathetic, stilted and hammy alien characters that I can remember. All that exciting atmosphere and mystery that grabbed me at the start of the audio was wasted in less than 15 minutes. The post-production tries admirably to re-address the balance, but cannot fully overcome the flaws in the script, and maybe also the direction. To me it seems that Gary Russell is as much to blame for these as Andrew Cartmel, seemingly determined to impose his own ending on the story, although Cartmel inexperience with audio probably contributed to this. However, there are more than enough wonderful ideas, characters, performances and audio production to help savour the good parts of an audio that had the potential to be a fantastic Doctor Who twist on the ghost story. Personally though, I would recommend passing this over for Andrew Cartmel’s later Doctor Who novel Foreign Devils (featuring the Second Doctor), which deals with similar themes far more successfully and satisfyingly.

Score: 7/10

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