Sunday, 8 March 2015

Audio Review 25: Renaissance Man, written by Justin Richards (2012)

Released: February 2012

Cast:
The Doctor – Tom Baker
Leela – Louise Jameson
Harcourt – Ian McNeice
Jephson – Gareth Armstrong
Christopher – Anthony Howell
Lizzie – Daisy Ashford
Beryl/Professor Hilda Lutterthwaite – Laura Molyneux
Dr. Henry Carnforth – John Dorney

Main Production Credits
Producer and Script Editor – David Richardson
Writer – Justin Richards
Director – Ken Bentley
Incidental Music and Sound Design – Jamie Robertson
Recording – Paul Midcalf at Audio Sorcery 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!):

On a visit to the Morovanian Museum, on Morovania Minor, the Doctor and Leela find themselves in a bizarre recreation of twentieth century Britain, from the ruins of Castles, to a forest and country house estate, where they hear about a mysterious collection. Entering the house, they come upon Harcourt, an “intellectual jackdaw”, whose eagerness about knowledge and learning, prompted him to start a collection upon everything, and anything. The Doctor’s suspicions are raised however, when a couple of his own cultural anecdotes, suddenly appear as part of Harcourt’s impressive exhibits...

The suicide of a Lepidopterist brings the Doctor to the conclusion that Harcourt, is literally draining the knowledge and experience of his intellectual guests, and that he and Leela, are next on the menu. However, the truth is even more perverse. The Doctor and Leela, have arrived at the Morovanian Museum, but have arrived early in one of its new exhibits. The new Renaissance section of the Museum, was built at the behest of one man, Jephson, who seeks to own all the knowledge that has ever existed. This knowledge is drained from its participants, whose consciousness’ are neutralised, before being fed into androids, blank ciphers, who are used as “collectors” of new data, through sight and sound. Harcourt is himself a machine, albeit one with personality, only his prime purpose is as storage for Jephson. The knowledge itself has been realised into physical existence, within the section of the Museum, hence the mish-mash of various historical buildings and cultural environments. Jephson plans to absorb the knowledge of all the experts and intellectuals he has invited to exhibit’s opening.

The Doctor thwarts Jephson, by cunningly giving him new unknown “knowledge”, which he made up himself. The integrity of Jephson’s absorbed data is now comprised, gradually corrupting, until the physical environment of the exhibition collapses. The Doctor and Leela escape in the TARDIS, as the Museum’s systems reboot, restoring those who survive to their former selves.

Story Placement
Between Destination: Nerva (Big Finish Audio) and The Wrath of the Iceni (Big Finish Audio).

Favourite Lines

The Doctor: “How does it feel, not being the cleverest man in the room?”
Harcourt: “I wouldn’t know. How does it feel?”

The Doctor: “Looks like the Game is up, Harcourt!”
Harcourt: “It’s Marshall Harcourt.”
The Doctor: “Really.”
Harcourt: “No, not really.”

Review:

Renaissance Man is a delightful small adventure that exhibits both Doctor Who’s trademark flair for great high concept stories and its light moral wisdom. Renaissance Man is only the second of BIG Finish’s Fourth Doctor adventures on audio, but it is already an improvement on the mixed results offered by debut adventure, Destination: Nerva. Renaissance Man’s premise of an intellectual obsessed with knowing everything, by having a living computer absorb the minds of the Universe’s experts, is a simple and effective concept that wonderfully juxtaposes the archaic with the fantastical. Destination: Nerva did this too, but it wasn’t concise enough an idea to fit itself into the new shorter format BIG Finish has created for the Fourth Doctor audio series. Renaissance, on the other hand is a much better fit; there’s no feeling of an interesting part of the story being left out, and its plot nicely comes to a natural conclusion in the last ten minutes. Or at least it nearly does.

The idea of a scientist or intellectual obsessing and pursuing over becoming a “super” intellect, or mutating into one, is an old idea in fantasy and sci-fi. It can be found in fiction’s long history of genius-like heroes such as Sherlock Holmes and Captain Nemo, superhuman intelligence as explored in Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John, or the plethora of Sci-fi B-movies of the 1930s and 50s. In Doctor Who, the premise of an intellectual person or being that obsesses over knowing everything has also been explored, most notably in perhaps Ghost Light. Also of note, the unmade 1980 TV serial, Shada shares a slight thematic similarity too, due to its’ villain, Skagra, wanting to “become” the Universe. Author Justin Richards gives this old idea, a further novel and dark twist, with the intellectual person, then absorbing the minds of all the universe’s experts to create a perfect visual record of knowledge for a museum. It’s this exhibitionism, treating obscure knowledge as trophies of status that gives Renaissance Man, a welcome and enchanting British flavour to the macabre, that Doctor Who often does so very well.

The plot is also executed efficiently, with a clarity and pace that helps to articulate the rich visuals conjured up, in what is surely one of Justin Richards’ most polished scripts to date. The first 15 minutes is one of the most perfect beginnings to a Doctor Who audio in several years, effortlessly drawing the listener in with small irresistible portions of intrigue, gradually giving us the full picture, like the perfect starter course, setting our senses ablaze in anticipation of the meal to come. Furthermore, the slow build of intrigue, mixed with lots of development, scene setting or action, feels just like some of the best Doctor Who TV stories, whose beginnings, entice the audience into the fantastic world and adventure they’re about to be immersed in. I also love the particularly neat conclusion to the story: The Doctor, bringing down the Villain’s “world” of knowledge with lies and false data, corrupting the entire library of information, to the point where it all collapses in on itself. The idea is so perfectly set-up, and feels like a very Doctor-ish victory to nicely round the story up on.

By the end of episode one of Renaissance Man though, the cracks unfortunately begin to show. The cliff-hanger at episode one’s conclusion sounds especially contrived and perfunctory, considering one of the previous characters was already dead, so another stock character didn’t need to be murdered just to labour the point, and Harcourt’s police masquerade was already in effect, giving the script no dramatic reason to delay the Doctor’s inevitable arrest, except for the artificial manufacture of a cliff-hanger of course. Then, during episode two, after Harcourt’s plans are exposed, and the Doctor sets in motion his counter-plan, the plot suddenly starts running on the spot, engaging in endless escape, run, and capture, which ultimately ends up being little more than padding, imaginatively disguised with as many new locations in the museum and visual gimmicks as possible. Sadly this has the effect, of taking me out of the story for a while, waiting for the action to tick by until it’s just the right time for the Doctor’s end game to reach its climax. For me it ebbs away part of the excitement, in what is for the most part a fairly thrilling adventure. I suspect it’s also partly compounded by the story concept being quite as simple and straight-forward as it is. I could easily imagine this production being 30 minutes long, instead of 50, and you wouldn’t really miss much of real significance out.

The original characters in Renaissance Man are rather simplistic too. True, the nature of what the villain has done to them has rendered them, as mostly mechanical slaves to the needs of acquiring knowledge, but often they mostly feel like a distraction from what’s really going on. Secondly, even in their original state as real people, every new character bar the two protagonists, come across as stock characters either playing out as stereotypes, like Professor Lutterthwaite, or generic amiable characters, adding a hint of their original personality before being changed into mere shells, such as Christopher and Lizzie, although as with Destination: Nerva, the shorter format of the 50-minute stories, does constrain what a writer can do with his character development somewhat. It’s a particular shame, as more time for development would have allowed the listener to get a real sense of the horror, of people losing their identities and personalities. Instead the audio is robbed of a worthy dramatic opportunity, just as with Destination: Nerva, to save time. This I feel is probably one of the few negative aspects of BIG Finish trying to emulate the revived Doctor Who TV series in its format. In the first place, there are some subtleties and drama that are easier to convey quickly on screen, via the physical performance of an actor, or a clever use of imagery and editing by the director. Trying to get away with this on audio is a tall order for any producer, writer or director. Secondly, the TV series has often cut around story events so the audience can move quickly from plot point to plot point. While this helps to maintain an enjoyable fast pace throughout the production, just as often I feel it has equally lost out on some potential drama or character development, that would make its revelations and machinations feel more momentous and substantial. I should add that, this isn’t the case all or most of the time, but enough times to be of note. Inevitably then, BIG Finish’s occasional attempt to replicate the “new series” experience in audio form, has also had decidedly mixed results.

The villain of the piece, the real “renaissance man”, Jephson, is sadly also a stock stereotype, the ranting manic, who can’t see anything beyond his obsession. I confess it was clever of Richards to disguise him as pretending to be a mechanical slave of Harcourt’s, but it’s a shame that in an audio full of characters meant to be shallow, that the villain turns out to be just as uninteresting, if not more so. Harcourt, on the other hand, proves to be a worthy character foil to the Doctor, but only as one who endlessly spouts witty retorts to him, in their verbal duelling. In every other respect, for reasons that become clear later, he too is essentially a script device; albeit one that is much more entertaining and amusing.

I guess I feel that’s Renaissance Man’s saving grace. Above its flaws and generalised, almost workman-like characterisation, the audio, and Richards’ writing is enormous fun to listen to. The light-hearted manner in the dialogue effortlessly carries you along the narrative; the wit shining through with various amusing Anthony Read-esque* jokes and funny genre homages. Justin Richards’ expert attention to the tone of Doctor Who’s Graham Williams era on Television (contemporary to this Doctor and companion partnership) is very much appreciated by this listener, and in my view certainly pays off. Richards is undoubtedly one of the more successful writers in this approach of writing Doctor Who: taking the best of the past, while leaving behind its flaws, and adding inventions of their own to the mix. I noted it while reading his novel, Apollo 23, a near-perfect evocation of the tone of the early Eleventh Doctor era from 2010. While it’s an approach to Doctor Who that performs well, I don’t believe it should be seen as a template. Most often, it’s the innovations and reinventions to Doctor Who’s mythos, storytelling and characters that succeed the most; but the celebratory approach just happens to be the way that works to Justin Richards’ strengths as a writer.

Renaissance Man proves this further with Richards’ uncanny and attentive characterisation of the Fourth Doctor and Leela. Bringing to life, such an impressive and iconic duo in Doctor Who’s long history, would be daunting to many a writer, but Justin Richards makes it look easy and effortless, his Fourth Doctor sounding like a lost 1970s TV script, full of warmth, wit and wonder. Leela is brilliantly realised too, with better (and sometimes funnier) dialogue than in half of the character’s original TV episodes. Richards acutely and affectionately relays her point of view and literal philosophy, and clearly enjoys showing Leela’s amusing misunderstandings of different language and cultures, paying homage to some of her best and fondly remembered moments on Television.

Another layer of enjoyment to Renaissance Man is of course, the wonderful cast themselves, and Big Finish has chosen a particular fine ensemble for this production. In fact, I feel one or two are bit underused, like Anthony Howell, for instance; both by the constricted demands of the shorter story format on the script, as well as the status of their supporting characters in the narrative. On the other hand, the character of Harcourt seems to be written especially for the wonderful Ian McNeice, such is the verbosity and rich variety of words, the protagonist performs. Even the name Harcourt, is quite possibly an affectionate nod to Ian McNeice’s character in the superb 1985 BBC Drama, Edge of Darkness.

However, the star of the show is undoubtedly the lead man himself, Tom Baker. The contrast with Destination: Nerva could not be greater. The great man is clearly enjoying the madcap world that Richards has conjured up, and the old subtle touches of dry-witted delivery and amusing sudden exclamations, of which I’ve always loved from Baker, have gloriously returned, hopefully, for many audios to come. If I didn’t know better, I would say Tom Baker was getting back into the stride of being the Doctor again, considering the Hornets’ Nest audios, required a different kind of performance, more in keeping with narration. However, this was actually Tom’s second Big Finish recording (the first is Energy of the Daleks), with Destination: Nerva being recorded out of order, a few audios later. To my ears though, I feel this is Tom Baker’s best audio performance so far. Louise Jameson continues her superb and faultless performance, with another strong showing to add to her list of previous superlative audio appearances. Tom Baker and Jameson between them, take you back to those golden moments of 1970s Who, as though they’d never left. I know it feels like I’m sprouting clich├ęs all over the place, but the attention to detail across the production, and the hard work on behalf of all parties to maintain that consistency of tone, makes the listen such a joy to any fan of the period. If that wasn’t enough, then there’s also the non-stop fun of hearing Tom Baker and Ian McNeice, two of Britain’s finest character actors, locked in vocal wordplay, as one tries to out-quip the other. Just 50 minutes of verbal gymnastics with those two would be worth the price of admission alone, but of course, fortunately there’s much more. McNeice also effortlessly slips into his various character parodies, every time he and the Doctor, enter a different section of the museum. The rest of the cast also do a fine job, although the more shallow natures of their characters mean that they don’t always get a great deal to work on.

Renaissance Man’s production is also of a high quality. Castle courtyards, forests filled with birdsong, a busy police station, the clinking of glasses and a honky-tonk piano of a Wild West bar, the ricocheting bullets of a spitfire diving into battle, and the comforting sound of a grandfather clock, lightly ticking away in the living room of a country house – all these victories of superlative sound design prove that Big Finish’s productions sound as fine as they ever did. Jamie Robertson’s music is still on good form, after Destination: Nerva, providing a nice Dudley Simpson-esque atmosphere to events, although on this occasion it’s starting to veer a bit closer to Keff McCulloch’s unflattering Dudley Simpson homage in the attempted BBC Video reconstruction of Shada in 1992. Robertson’s sound design though, seems to be absolutely peerless; although it could be that I’m mis-remembering the success of early Big Finish. I do love how Robertson brings back the specially edited “thump” from the TARDIS landing sound effect, that was used on and off, during the TV series between 1975 to 1978.

Ken Bentley’s direction gives us a much better cast performance on this occasion, and the editing certainly feels tighter (or maybe that’s just the script). There’s far less theatricality on display, and just the right level of irreverence, keeping the production smoothly ticking over, while the enjoyable tone consistently achieved, makes Renaissance Man always entertaining.

It’s teatime in 1977, all over again”, is the tagline for Big Finish’s first full series of new Fourth Doctor adventures on audio, and Renaissance Man is the first of them that I feel genuinely achieves that. A superb cast, and richly creative sound design, bring Justin Richards’ novel high concept story to life with aplomb. Then Richards and Tom Baker win you over with a wonderful layer of wit and whimsy that brings back to me, in part why me, and numerous others, loved the Fourth Doctor in the first place. Tom Baker re-captures what it is to be the Doctor, in a way he hadn’t quite achieved with the BBC Hornets’ Nest series, and it’s a joy to hear once again. Justin Richards succeeds admirably in creating a small love letter to the era in audio form, and I salute him for it. And yet, despite this Renaissance Man ends up becoming a romp. The supporting characters, including the villain, are fairly throwaway and little developed, and the narrative is padded out with action, losing the plot’s earlier pace and substance. In a bizarre way, this is how many mid-1970s serials turned out, so it’s hard for me to work out if this is intentional, or once again a negative constraint of the audio series’ 50-minute format, which likely also prevented much development on the characters too. Even with these flaws though, Renaissance Man is never anything less than great fun, and endlessly re-listenable. The future of the Fourth Doctor at Big Finish looks bright indeed.

Score: 7/10

(* = Graham Williams was the producer of Doctor Who on TV from 1977-1980. Anthony Read was the Script Editor of Doctor Who on TV from 1977-1979)