04 July 2013

Beyond History’s End | 50th Anniversary Doctor Who Review 6 of 12 | The Curse of Davros written by Jonathan Morris, The Fourth Wall written by John Dorney and The Wrong Doctors written by Matt Fitton

As long as Matt Smith remains playing the part of the series’ titular Time Lord, Colin Baker will be able to keep on referring to himself as its “central Doctor”. Whilst it doesn’t have the same ring to it that “Old Sixy” does, the sixth Doctor’s latest nom de guerre really struck a chord with me as it encapsulates perfectly my feelings toward the multi-coloured cat that walks through time - at least insofar as his aural exploits go. For more than a decade now, Baker’s Doctor has been the backbone of the company’s flagship Doctor Who monthly range, not to mention the incarnation that lays claim to the greatest share of its most-prized offerings. You’ll find fewer missteps and more enduring hits in Colin Baker’s back catalogue than you will Tom Baker’s, Peter Davison’s, Sylvester McCoy’s, or even Paul McGann’s. And it’s largely for this reason that I find myself unable to restrict my pontificating here to his January 2012 offering, as I had originally planned. Instead, I’m going to tackle three four-part adventures from the last two years: The Curse of Davros (January 2012), The Fourth Wall (February 2012) and The Wrong Doctors (January 2013).

The trilogy-opening - some might say era-opening - Curse of Davros is a funny onion. Gleefully eschewing the weight of earlier Doctor / Davros audio encounters, Jonathan Morris’s four-parter meanders between the moods of The Chase and Jubilee. As Joseph Lidster had drained every last ounce of audible angst from Davros in 2005’s Terror Firma, which marked the Dalek creator’s last Big Finish appearance opposite the Doctor prior to this, it’s easy to see why he was brought back in a story that’s so far removed from Davros, The Juggernauts and Terror Firma that it’s almost impossible to view it in the same context. Those pieces were carried, defined and I would say elevated by some seminal sparring between the Doctor and his twisted nemesis, but that just isn’t on the cards here; at least not in a familiar form. Hell, Terry Molloy hardly utters a word in the first half of this story despite it being dominated by Davros. The Doctor, in contrast, is uncharacteristically contained; his first and second episode appearances typified by a confined, brooding sort of scheming that you’d normally expect from his opposite number. This is, in essence, the central theme of the play, as it studies what it’s like to walk mile in another man’s shoes to mostly comic, but occasionally unnerving, effect. Both Baker and Molloy seem to relish the unique opportunity that the story presents them with, taking the aptitude and passion that made the almost exclusively two-hand Davros a classic and turning it to a new, unexpected purpose.

To my surprise though, the play’s most stirring moments didn’t feature Davros at all - the crippled genius has a fighting force of unusually-loyal Imperial Daleks in tow to do his bidding this time, albeit in a revolutionary new form. Now able to transfer their consciousnesses into the bodies of human beings, these Daleks are able to cut out middle-men duplicates and insidiously take over the 21st century authorities directly. They’re able to displace the minds of the men fighting at Waterloo on that fateful Sunday in the summer of 1815, and fight that battle in their stead, much to the ruin of established history - and, most terrifyingly, the men who suddenly find themselves in the body of a Dalek mutant. There is a scene in this play in which one of the characters describes what it felt like to be a Dalek, and it’s absolutely horrifying; almost too ghastly for worlds. The ubiquitous taste of vomit. The feeling of being burned alive. The in-built, genetic anger; a never-ending rage fuelled by nothing more than biology. It’s masterfully written and perfectly played.

The principal plot, however, is just a little too far-fetched as it rests on the listener accepting that Davros (a) admires a human being, albeit one as autocratic as Napoleon Bonaparte; and (b) would wish to help the human race fulfil what he sees as its military potential, albeit to the favour of the Daleks. I just can’t see him admiring anyone but himself and his creations, and I certainly couldn’t see him acknowledging the martial merits of any species that he didn’t create. Ultimately though, it doesn’t really matter as the main plot is meant to be a colourful backdrop to the character comedy and drama, and in these terms it succeeds admirably.

Probably The Curse of Davros’s main talking point though is the new companion that it introduces - or, rather, reintroduces. Having impressed most of those who listened to The Crimes of Thomas Brewster, Lisa Greenwood returns to reprise the role of Philippa ‘Flip’ Jackson as a fully-fledged companion, and this time she really knocks it out of the park. This is quite remarkable, really, as by all rights this type of contemporary character should seem stale by now. Flip takes the brashest shades of Donna, Rose and even Big Finish’s own Lucy, and amplifies them with the brazen frankness of youth. Hailing as she does from a world of JLS, supermarkets and stilettos, Flip is perhaps the ‘safest’ companion that Big Finish have created in-house, but particularly now that the television series insists upon producing companions whose existences are each somehow wound around the Doctor’s contrived, season-spanning arcs, I’m quite happy for them to take the tried and tested ‘Doctor meets average girl’ trope and run with it. And John Dorney just happened to run with it straight through a wall; The Fourth Wall, in fact.

After the off-kilter action of The Curse of Davros, I had expected the Doctor and Flip’s second adventure to have a much more solid, traditional flavour, but, if anything, it is even more of a concept piece than the story that it follows. With the first-ever Companion Chronicle audio play (as opposed to prose-driven audio book) and an aberrant fourth Doctor historical already under his belt, here John Dorney turns his ever-inventive mind to the human predilection for drama; the omniscience of writers; and the moral consequences of the same - issues that I find especially fascinating as they informed aspects of my own novel, The Tally. Borne of Dorney’s averseness to inflict gratuitous suffering and death upon his own fictional creations, these four episodes explore the creation of a new form of entertainment and the rise to sentience of its woefully-shallow protagonists, who suddenly find themselves pawns in the game of the man who created them - their god, as it were.

Despite the heavy philosophical nature of its subject matter, The Fourth Wall is a startlingly buoyant affair with a tone that is constantly segueing between sensation and satire; ferocity and farce. One moment, a character can be lost in a vitriolic monologue, renouncing the harrowing back story wantonly imposed on him by his writer; the next, another character can be arguing with the actress portraying her over who’s the prettiest. Picture one of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Moriarty holodeck episodes, only filled with incompetent porcine warlords instead of bald and bold human explorers, and you’re just about there.

The Fourth Wall’s tonal volatility extends to the Doctor and Flip, who quickly go from a sardonic squabble over the Space / Time Visualiser’s surprising lack of colour resolution to being separated by the fourth wall of the title, and then on to something altogether more sinister. Such constant flitting leaves the listener on edge throughout, uncertain as to whether death or humour lies in wait around the next narrative corner. It’s my ideal blend.

Fast-forward eleven months for the audience and half a life for Old Sixy, and newcomer Matt Fitton opens the series’ anniversary year for Big Finish’s flagship range with a celebratory adventure that sits somewhere between traditional multi-Doctor romp and a fanboy’s wet dream, The Wrong Doctors. Before I listened to this play, I had an inkling that I’d fall head over heels for it, taking as it does one of Doctor Who’s most intricate continuity points and complicating it even further still, and it seems that I know myself all too well - this four-parter is a top birthday present, almost on a par with The Name of the Doctor.

Of course, as with any story in the spin-off media that might sit ill with others that have preceded it, there is bound to be a little resistance from some quarters of fandom. However, Fitton’s script is so deliciously devious that even those who will listen to it weeping, clutching their battered old copies of Business Unusual to their bosoms, are sure to be won over by its “cauterised time”, memory erasures and never was, Vortex-dwelling antagonists. If I was still in the business of pedalling Continuity Corners, I’d have had a field day here - my prepositional musings would probably have been longer than this entire article.

Fitton’s story is built on the long-upheld idea that following the conclusion of The Trial of a Time Lord, the relatively young, very brash and offensively-colourful sixth Doctor returned key witness and not-met-yet companion Melanie Bush to her home village of Pease Pottage so that his older self (with whom she was travelling prior to being plucked out of time by the Time Lords) could collect her at his convenience and they could resume their adventures together - and he could do his level best to postpone their inevitable meeting and all the carrot juice-fuelled aerobics sessions that would follow it. As The Wrong Doctors’ first episode opens, a sixth Doctor who’s audibly far closer to the one of television fame than the more kindly fellow that Big Finish have brought to the fore, deposits his future friend in a Pease Pottage that isn’t quite the Pease Pottage that she remembers. Keen to be away, he doesn’t even stop to check the date and heads back to the TARDIS. Meanwhile, having polished off the last slice of Evelyn’s trademark chocolate cake, the Necros-blue Sixy that we all know and love decides that it’s time he catches up with his future, and so sets course for Pease Pottage where he expects to meet an eager computer programmer with the memory of an elephant who can scweam and scweam and scweam. Imagine his surprise when, instead, he finds his younger self in need of an attitude adjustment; a childlike Mel who shows little prospect of developing into the bright young woman that he met during his trial; an unhappy and displaced, yet worryingly familiar, Mel deposited by his younger self; and “a temporal daisy chain” that has pulled two centuries’ worth of events into one maelstrom of a Pease Pottage present. This isn’t just business unusual; it’s business unique.

The whole play is charged with a lovely sense of mischief as Fitton not only stretches the opportunities that a fateful quirk of continuity presented him with, but the fact that he’s writing the story with twenty-odd years’ hindsight too. The dialogue is often laugh-out-loud funny - take the Doctor’s assignment of letters to distinguish the Mels, prompting a flurry of decade-too-early Spice Girls jokes, for instance, or his description of the Time Demon as “an aftermath with malice of forethought” - and even the events themselves have a farcical edge that the cast really play up to; the double-duty Colin Baker and Bonnie Langford especially. There are shades of Caerdroia in the incarnation-specific, multi-Doctor quarrelling that burns throughout the first half of the story, though I think that Fitton and Baker are able to have a lot more fun with their sixth Doctors here than Lloyd Rose and Paul McGann had with their three eighths in 2004, as this adventure portrays two sixth Doctors that we recognise, as opposed to three discrete aspects of the eighth Doctor’s personality incarnate. And in many ways, what Fitton and Langford do with Mel is even more interesting. I won’t spoil the surprises for those yet to listen to the play; suffice it to say that the entire plot turns on some of Mel’s signature characteristics that are notably absent in her antecedent, and Langford does the finest of jobs in making the listener take notice.

But for all its subversive humour, The Wrong Doctors is an absolutely first-class piece of sci-fi too, its complex continuity punctuated with all the twists and scares that one would expect from Doctor Who. Even these often come from outside the normal Who sphere though, as Fitton turns to mellifluous melodies for menace and a historical preservation society to rob the world of its future. It’s terrifying to think that Big Finish found this guy’s ideas languishing in their short-lived slush pile, because his debut script is one of the most modern, well-rounded and most entertaining that they’ve given life to for quite a while.

I hope that this little sixth Doctor digest demonstrates that, whilst he’s seldom given his due by the Who-faring general public, and he’s soon to lose his numerical place as “central Doctor”, Colin Baker’s Old Sixy is still the cornerstone of the whole Whoniverse to many. And as long as there are writers the calibre of Jonathan Morris, John Dorney and Matt Fitton to fuel his exploits with episodes the quality of the dozen that I’ve touched upon here, then he will continue to be for many years to come.

The Curse of Davros, The Fourth Wall and The Wrong Doctors are each available to download from Big Finish for just £12.99. The CD versions (which also come with a free download) are just £14.99. Subscribers to the monthly range not only pay less overall (a 6-release CD subscription is just £70.00; a 12-release £140.00), but in addition, if their subscriptions cover a December release, they will automatically receive a special bonus release too. 12-release subscriptions also include a free additional release of the subscriber’s choice priced at £10.99 or less, and entitle the subscriber to a £5.00 discount on either a 12-release Companion Chronicles subscription or a season subscription to The Eighth Doctor Adventures.

The universe stands on the brink of a dimensional crisis – and the Doctor and Raine are pulled into the very epicentre of it.

Meanwhile, on Earth, UNIT scientific advisor Dr Elizabeth Klein and an incarnation of the Doctor that she’s never encountered before are tested to the limit by a series of bizarre, alien invasions.

At the heart of it all is a terrible secret, almost as old as the Time Lords themselves. Reality is beginning to unravel and two Doctors, Klein, Raine and all of UNIT must use all their strength and guile to prevent the whole of creation being torn apart.

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