Thursday, 14 March 2013

Audio Review 24: The Blue Tooth, written by Nigel Fairs (2007)

Released: January/February 2007

Cast:

Liz Shaw – Caroline John
The Cybermen – Nicholas Briggs
Story Narration and other characters voiced by Caroline John


Main Production Credits

Producer – Sharon Gosling
Script Editor – Alan Barnes
Writer – Nigel Fairs
Director – Mark J. Thompson
Incidental Music – Lawrence Oakley
Sound Design – Lawrence Oakley & Robert Dunlop
Recording – Steve Tsoi at Sound Magic 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!):

After Liz’s old university friend Jean and many other Cambridge residents go missing, the Doctor and UNIT investigate finding little but an unusual suicide and empty houses, full of bizarre damage and vandalism. Liz Shaw herself though, follows the trail back to her old University campus, and the onsite Dentist surgery, where horrific treatments await her...

The body UNIT recovers from the suicide is covered with a fantastic alien and blue living metal that defies analysis, until Cybermats start erupting from within. Meanwhile, Amnesic from her experience at the Dentists, Liz is horrified that a sample of the living metal has been implanted in a filling inside her mouth, but more horrors are yet to come as Liz comes under the control of an electronic radio signal. The Doctor’s fears confirmed he allows himself to be lead by the semi-controlled Liz to the hideout and crashed spaceship of the alien aggressors – the Cybermen! However, the original Cybermen seem to have died on impact. It appears an Earth scientist discovered the spaceship, and while examining its properties created the blue living metal, and became cyber-converted in the process. The former scientist, Gareth Arnold, now a Cyberman of sorts, has been implanting micro Cybermats into the mouths of patients at the dentist surgery, which with the metal absorbed from their homes have gone on to gradually convert the humans into a new kind of Cyberman. One of these new Cybermen is the missing Jean, and Liz witness with terror as everything that was her friend is lost and destroyed, turned into a cold, unfeeling monster.

The Doctor destroys the Cyber-converted scientist and escapes with Liz as the other converted humans remain motionless. However, before the Doctor can research into this new kind of Cyberman and reverse the conversions, the Brigadier and UNIT march in to destroy them, and any possible threat they pose. Her friend now lost forever, Liz understands more deeply the anger and frustration feels when life, even alien life, is needlessly destroyed.


Story Placement

Between The Eye of the Giant (Virgin Missing Adventure) and The Scales of Injustice (Virgin Missing Adventure).


Review:

These days it’s hard to watch and listen to the work of Caroline John without being reminded of her recent sad passing in June last year (2012). Her time on Doctor Who as the companion Elizabeth Shaw was sadly short on television, but her performance and character made a vivid and unforgettable impression on the programme as a whole. Arguably the first independent and reasonably developed female companion since Vicki five years previously, Liz Shaw was a highly talented, intelligent and intuitive professor, who was roped into UNIT as a scientific advisor before the Doctor returned properly. Liz still stayed for a few stories afterwards, but her character was partially neglected throughout her TV episodes, although fortunately was at least written with enough thought and decent lines to be convincing. Caroline John herself had to prematurely leave the show after one year due to being pregnant, but both Barry Letts and Jon Pertwee were unhappy with the concept of Liz Shaw as a character for the role of companion, feeling her to be too sterile and coldly intellectual to be a successful audience identification figure, which then led to Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks coming up with the idea of Jo Grant. So with Caroline John’s passing, it is some consolation then that through Big Finish, John was able to revisit Liz Shaw as a character, and get to play a far more developed interpretation of the sharp-witted scientist.

It’s rather a shame then, that The Blue Tooth is a rather so-so script and story from Nigel Fairs that only partly does any justice to both the character of Liz Shaw and the period of Doctor Who it’s so very clearly trying to emulate. Certainly it is good in places and has moments of brilliance, but I personally came away from this audio feeling a bit bored and underwhelmed. We got neither a real detailed insight into Liz Shaw as a character or a well-rounded, fully developed story.

To give Nigel Fairs his due though, firstly I’ll reflect on the good aspects of his script. The idea of the Cybermen attempting to convert humans by stealth via a Dentist surgery is absolutely fantastic, and one of the most original uses of the Cybermen in years. Rather wonderfully it also follows one of the best ever Doctor Who tropes, to introduce and juxtapose the alien within familiar and real world objects, locations and environments, which as it happens reaches its height (of use) during the Jon Pertwee TV episodes. The use of the Dentist surgery also adds another place on the list of everyday things that Doctor Who has subverted and made scary or unsettling. I’m also fascinated by his use of the Cybermats in the story. They’re used far more effectively here than they’ve been in any of their Television appearances, including their recent modern day revamp during Closing Time. Fairs astutely restricts them to creeping around in the shadows, doing weird things with metal, making small tunnels, and staying hidden until their shock reveal as they gruesomely break out of a semi-converted corpse. In addition to this, it’s clear that Nigel Fairs has invented a new and much more unsettling kind of Cybermen, one that pays homage to the creepy originals designed for The Tenth Planet, their 1966 debut TV serial. Instead of the standard iconic late 1960s image of them depicted on the cover, these are people who are gradually converted, implanted and taken over by the Cybermen’s new ‘living metal’ technology. So instead of the usual unsettling mechanical process, the narration describes to us an even more terrifying process of how the ‘living metal’, lines and moulds over the bones, gradually flows and progresses over the face and body, bruising the flesh that it moves against and destroys.

The first part of the audio is also filled with a fantastic suspenseful atmosphere as Liz reaches Jean’s house, and creeps about inside. The eerie stillness and emptiness are superbly conveyed in the script and performance, and positively gave me chills, like the first time I watched the famous Auton awakening sequence in Episode 4 of Spearhead from Space, where just before the Autons replicas activate in shop windows, there’s a creepy silence and powerful foreboding in the air, hinting at the horrific attack about to commence.

Then there’s also the cunning way Nigel Fairs uses the Cybermen themselves in the story. The idea of humanising a Cyberman has on TV really only been used in terms of being a weapon against them. In The Blue Tooth though, Fairs poses the question of whether Cybermen could ever evolve or be made to become more human as a species. Although Gareth Arnold’s emotions had been removed, there was clearly part of his human intelligence that survived and mixed in with the logical and single-minded instincts of the Cybermen, helped by the fact that the original Cybermen in the spacecraft had died years earlier. Although the question is never really answered, Fairs offers some fascinating suggestions that maybe Cybermen can evolve through their converted victims, although he never explores the idea to its potential, leaving other writers to maybe try and explore it further in future Doctor Who stories.

Nigel Fairs also uses the most effective dramatic way of presenting the idea of the Cybermen, and of conveying how horrific the concept of them can be. By introducing the listener to a friend of the companion, helping them get to know the character and then witness them being converted later on, brings out the emotional drama of losing what it means to be human, and seeing someone slowly die in front of your eyes. With this method, Fairs presents us with one of the best portrayals and most artful uses of the Cybermen as a concept...except he doesn’t, not really. Sure he comes up with the idea to use Jean, Liz’s friend as the emotional focus of the story, by having her fall into the Cybermen’s grasp and be converted, but he completely fails to develop Jean as a character, resulting in the same problem as a lot of other Cyberman stories, including The Rise of the Cybermen, which converts a character that the audience doesn’t really care that much about, and so isn’t really moved by their passing. If it wasn’t for the great description of Jean’s conversion in the narration, you’d forgive any listener for being blasé about it. Sadly there’s more disappointment to follow as almost every aspect of the script is either hampered or underdeveloped in one way or another.

The biggest problem I have is the many unexplained plot holes that are ignored or simply glossed over. Even if we assume that a Dentist randomly wandering around an Airport, falls into an Underground Cavern and comes across the dead Cyberman spaceship, it still seems odd that rather than contact the authorities out of fear, he then took a large portion of the dead Cyberman to examine, even if it could in some way be reasoned as some mad misplaced ambition to pioneer a new discovery in his name. I suppose it is likely that Gareth Arnold studied Forensic science in detail as part of his Dentistry at Cambridge, but it still doesn’t quite explain it. Furthermore, how does a Dentist not only have the abilities to analyse alien artefacts, understand their purpose, and then also have the abilities to create a ‘living metal’ substance, which can grow and takeover organic life forms, almost like an aggressive bacteria. As the Cybermats are instrumental in the delivery of this metal, it heavily implies that Gareth Arnold was already mentally taken over and semi-converted into a Cyberman, with the remains of a Cyber intelligence taking advantage of his skills and experience as inspiration for a new and more strategic method of conversion. It’s a great one too, which gets me wondering whether perhaps a stray Cybermat tried to convert Arnold while he was still in the spaceship, which also makes more sense in him picking up a sample of a Cyberman as well. However, that in turn raises yet another difficult question. How does a semi-converted Cyberman/Dentist move around Cambridge, re-engineer and physically restructure his own Dentist surgery, all without being noticed? I suppose the receptionist could be controlled by a Cyber-implant of some description, but there’s not much suggestion of that either, just that the receptionist is somehow in on the whole hidden conversion setup. Either way, I’m not entirely convinced the logic of the story has been entirely thought through. The simple plot devices of the random effectiveness of the fire extinguisher against the Cybermats in the UNIT Lab, or the lucky escape by the Doctor and Liz from the Cyberman spaceship by the inactivity of the remaining Cybermen are much less of an irritation in comparison; convenient ways to keep the narrative moving quickly, even if they are less satisfying than a more direct, logical or setup solution.

I suppose you could say, “so what? It’s the story of Liz and her character that we care about”. Rather disappointingly though, The Blue Tooth doesn’t make particularly good headway in characterisation either. Firstly there’s Liz Shaw herself, who surprisingly is portrayed with little development beyond what we saw of the character. Fairs writes her as still a rather straight-laced and slightly haughty person, occasionally a bit prudish and superior, but of course still with a strong conscience and caring side to her. However, due perhaps to the strong writing during the Doctor Who TV episodes of her tenure, we knew all of this already, and in fact I’d argue that Liz felt more rounded, fun and likeable on screen, or during The Scales of Injustice than here. Her short tales of a few wild nights out as a student hardly tells us anything worthwhile and if anything feels like superficial filler, trying to pass itself off as character development. Even worse in my view is the introduction to the audio, trying to summarise Liz’s attitude to UNIT by lazily quoting word for word her dialogue from her entrance in Spearhead from Space, making her originally witty lines, feel cynical and tired. More frustratingly it misses the point that the original dialogue was a cynical joke by Liz before she joined UNIT. By making her view on life appear unchanged or even worse more narrow-minded and dismissive of her experiences with the Doctor seriously undermines the great character that we witnessed on TV. So effectively Liz’s character development for that moment is getting worse and not better. It also doesn’t entirely help that Liz spends half the story semi-conscious, relating the events in the third person, so not only do we lose the atmosphere and dramatic build-up to the climax, but we also lose Liz’s views and personal experience on what happened, something which I partly thought was the central point to the Companion Chronicles.

What is a fairly sizeable and great development though is Liz witnessing her old university friend on the receiving end of the alien horrors that her time at UNIT has led her to experience on a weekly basis, and furthermore be destroyed by them. It’s certainly a great way to convey the true horror of the Cybermen, and we get to hear Liz’s intense feelings for the first time, which otherwise would be partially would be hidden behind her brave face. Another interesting point is that through the loss of her friend Jean, Liz is able to fully understand the Doctor’s strong passionate feelings towards unnecessary loss of any life, including alien life. The chance of Jean’s condition being reversed is swept away in a moment by the UNIT forces stepping in to destroy the Cyberman spaceship and its converted victims, and Liz shares the Doctor’s frustration at the potentially tragic waste.

However, despite the fantastic idea and the wonderful chilling narration during Jean’s transformation, any desired emotional effect or character-based drama is almost completely undermined or made non-existent by the fact that we don’t feel for Jean as a character, or in fact know much about her at all. The narration describes Jean as a wild free spirit of the 1960s, who is both fashionable and has a striking hairstyle, who loves partying hard on the town from time to time, owns a cat with a silly name, and also loves a regular fry up for breakfast. Not really much to go on is it. The problem is that once again, all we know is meaningless superficial details that don’t really say very much, not to mention the fact that half of her description is a vague cliché of a 1960s hippie. There is no real character there to understand, relate or even empathise with. So the result is that when all these horrible things happen to her, that although we take notice of the event of her Cyber-conversion and its gruesome/creepy nature, I for one, was not really moved or shocked by her plight. Nigel Fairs’ wonderful ideas were entirely wasted dramatically, as he failed to execute them to their full potential, by not giving us a real character to care about.

The remaining UNIT characters are also disappointing, with the Brigadier resembling his own traditional clichéd persona, and the Third Doctor only faring slightly better, with even some curious anomalies. As a big fan of the Third Doctor myself, I can never imagine him ever addressing a Cyberman with “my friend”, even if he does address his friends with old-fashioned affectionate language such as “old chap”, for instance. I confess though to getting a small thrill to hearing the Third Doctor have a small vocal face-off with a Cyberman, even more so when you have an authentic Cyberman voice on the end of it.

The only other criticism I have of the script is that Nigel Fairs bizarrely includes some badly-timed/used inclusion of specific continuity references that while tie into the era they’re set, offer no real purpose other than some rather trivial and superficial fan service. I’ve already mentioned the irritating and lazy inclusion of Liz’s onscreen dialogue in Spearhead from Space, rather unimaginatively used to represent her general point of view, but there’s another reference which is just dropped right in the middle of the build-up to the climax of episode one, and for no good reason that I can see. After the atmospheric and creepy tone as Liz explores Jean’s empty and seemingly vandalised house, the Doctor turns up, and he and Liz have a quick chat about his new colourful jacket. Now this would have been ok halfway through the story in a quiet scene where little of any dramatic significance is taking place, but right in that placement within episode one it completely dissipates any tension successfully built up over the last 5 minutes or so, and undermines a lot of Fairs’ hard work. The basic Tomorrow’s World quip about the Doctor’s gadgets sunk like a lead balloon for me as well. There’s never any real dramatic tension again until the Doctor and Liz are trapped within the Cyberman spaceship. The Cybermat reveal at the end of episode two is good, but ultimately it’s more of a shock entrance than any real built up tension. Furthermore, it also strikes me that Fairs’ story and plot is very visual, and that while some magnificent narration relishes in the imagery Fairs creates, a lot of other images that would have come across brilliantly in video; don’t really translate as well to audio.

What does greatly strengthen the story’s success on audio however, is Caroline John’s great performance and delivery of the script. Despite the many decades that have passed in her last performance in the role, John settles back into the character well, reflecting her confident intelligence, but also brilliantly acting out Liz’s rarely seen vulnerability, particularly during the last two episodes. Although the script offers the Character of Liz Shaw a small portion of development, Caroline John takes this with both hands, figuratively speaking, expertly showing her disgust and terror as Liz witnesses Jean’s Cyber-conversion, while warming relating Liz’s reminisces of staying round Jean’s house in the past. Another great part of John’s performance is her wonderful underplaying, lending a natural subtlety to her acting, and making Caroline John a fantastic narrator. John’s impressions of the Third Doctor and the Brigadier though, aren’t as good, but then I’ve yet to hear many actors who can successfully impersonate fellow peers of the opposite gender, so it’s a common problem that’s always going to come up with narrated audio drama, it can’t be helped. Nicholas Briggs once again lends his skilled voice to the Cybermen and significantly helps in supporting the drama of the latter episodes of the story, by making it feel more real. Like his Dalek performances, Briggs’ Cyberman performances are always superb and lend a real frisson to the dialogue being acted out.

The production is a marked improvement too in comparison to Fear of the Daleks. Caroline John is clearly brilliantly directed, and gives a wonderful performance, as does Nick Briggs, but I suspect that Briggs probably directs himself in his alien roles as much as any production director, so it’s hard to judge that just by listening. The sound design is once again quite minimalist, but unlike Fear of the Daleks, which was supposed to be a futuristic city in outer space, it works much better, and feels more appropriate. Lawrence Oakley’s incidental music is a sizeable leap forward from his amateurish work on Fear of the Daleks. In The Blue Tooth though, Oakley’s composition is much better, still fairly simplistic, but it’s much more creative, and with the lead guitar-based sound gives a nice nod to the James Bond-style feel of the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who. Furthermore I also noticed the occasional neat homage to the early Dudley Simpson music of the period, particularly during pieces reflecting tension and danger. The soundtrack is still a long way off the semi-symphony written by Jamie Robertson for Robophobia, or even his superior Dudley Simpson-esque themes and incidentals for Destination: Nerva, but Oakley is at least back on form and going a few steps in the right direction.

Looking at the individual elements of The Blue Tooth, it’s hard not to once again be saddened at yet another missed opportunity, not just for Doctor Who on audio, but also for the Companion Chronicles as well. Nigel Fairs came up with so many great ideas, such as the Cybermen’s novel strategy to stealthily convert people through dentistry, or dramatically conveying the chilling concept of the Cybermen by converting someone we get to know throughout the story. However, all this inspiration was wasted on poor execution, one way or another, whether it be through glossed over unexplained plot holes or superficial and underdeveloped characterisation. I honestly couldn’t tell if it was the constraints of the Companion Chronicles format, a rushed script or an inexperienced writer. There are fortunately still many good aspects to enjoy such as Nigel Fairs’ mostly brilliant narration, his original ideas, better incidental music, but most of all, a delightful performance by Caroline John, returning to the role of Liz Shaw for the first time in 46 years. As I gradually get through more and more Big Finish audio releases, its increasingly clear to me that the Companion Chronicles is a fantastic format for audio Doctor Who that has the potential to create wonders given some finessing of the format and type of scripts it requires to excel as well as getting writers are more accustomed to the kind of scripts that work within such a format (of course these are past releases so these improvements have probably already been done years ago by now). Nowhere at this moment is that made more clearly than while listening to The Blue Tooth, because it’s an audio that had real potential from the start, and failed to utilise it. Overall I think it’s a great shame, because given some finessing and another rewrite or two on the script, The Blue Tooth could have been a real gem of a production.


Score: 6/10

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