Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 016. Storm Warning by Alan Barnes (January 2001)

For the first-time listener, Storm Warning has one major draw: the debut of Paul McGann’s magnificent Eighth Doctor on audio. I don’t mean that’s the only good thing about it, far from it, but no one particularly went into this enthused about airships, Alan Barnes or a South African sexist pig. Storm Warning was big news because McGann, basically. And justifiably so.

The cold open, with his long monologue, is not nearly as uncomfortable to listen to as people would have you believe. Sure, one or two lines are unfortunately exposition-heavy, but I’ve never found this so irksome with the Doctor when he’s alone. He talks aloud to himself when he’s alone, and at some length too. We know he does – both T Baker and more recently Capaldi. On an even more metafictional level, it’s writer Alan Barnes taking a joyous pleasure in the fact that this is the first time anyone has heard the lilting voice of the Eighth Doctor, the incumbent, since 1996 – almost five years ago. How wonderful, then, to begin with him so totally centre-stage he’s just enjoying his own down-time, waffling about books he’s misplaced, reading about Byron, and so on. He also describes talking to oneself as a “terrible habit” and “the first sign of madness”, and is similarly disenchanted with his penchant for eavesdropping. But the way he says it is as of a disapproving uncle talking down to his reckless nephew, and the lovely thing about McGann’s Doctor is he’s both the uncle and the nephew…

McGann throws himself into the action superbly, running around all over the R101 and throwing coffee over a ravenous Vortisaur. As a key attribute of all the Doctors, he commands people’s attention and respect immediately, even an official like Chief Steward Weeks. That he cuts his arm with a shard of glass is nicely reminiscent of the moment from The TV Movie where he threatens to shoot himself – a nice sign that Alan Barnes has really thought about the Doctor’s characterisation. He ingratiates himself with Tamworth perfectly, and makes a delightfully amusing spy, particularly stumbling over the word ‘pigeon’ when he means ‘smidgen’. The Doctor gets a great speech here that is quintessential Eighth Doctor in its nature – “Breathe in deep, Lieutenant Commander! You too, Charley! You feel that pounding in your heart, a tightness in the pit of your stomach, the blood rushing to your head? You know what that is? That’s adventure, the thrill and the fear and the joy of stepping into the unknown! That’s why we’re all here, that’s why we’re alive!” His excitement when he realises the decks of the vessel have been moving around them is palpable, and almost more Tennant than Tennant. He also gets a lovely railing speech against changing history in part 4, and he’s adorably apologetic about using violence against Rathbone (earlier Doctors had no such qualms!) Riding a Vortisaur bareback away from an exploding airship is just so quintessentially man-of-action Doctor, it suits McGann’s adventurer down to a T.

The other key half of the equation, Charley Pollard, is, as with Evelyn Smythe, brilliantly introduced. The girl who sits in her cabin composing the Memoirs of an Edwardian Adventuress, then has to pose as Murchford the steward, is another innovative first scene for a new companion (and the dual life a gag so neat Moffat steals it for Clara in The Snowmen) – even if the disguise slips remarkably quickly. She’s instantly likeable, cheeky but with a striking love of adventure and a romantic intelligence that makes her a great fit for McGann’s suave, bohemian Doctor. Their bumping into each other is classic, and delightful for all the right reasons – they’re both outsiders and adventurers, both illegal stowaways in places they shouldn’t be. I can’t think of a new series dynamic quite like it (perhaps Lady Christina from Planet of the Dead is the closest?) Her emotion upon seeing the Triskele for the first time, recalling the dolphins at Regent’s Park Zoo, is a classic Doctor Who moment, as surreal as it is touching. Her joy at naming the Vortisaur Ramsay is beautifully done. And the final twist in part 4, that she is an anomaly in space-time, the girl who should have died, is a very Moffat-ish conception, and a great way of introducing a new companion. The unspoken silence as the Doctor is unable to tell Charley of the fate she ought to have suffered makes for an unnerving ending and one I feel sure will rear its ugly head at some later date.

Alistair Lock’s score is sumptuous with a lot of very noticeable motifs. There’s a great moment of heroic music during the cold open, and the music builds wonderfully as the R101 approaches the flying saucer; the melancholic score we get after the catastrophe is another highlight. The production team replicate the storm perfectly, the shrieks of the Vortisaurs, the crackle of lightning, the roar of air pressure as the R101 ascends to 5000ft, the whimpers of the Triskele, and so on.

The ‘Empire’ newsreels are a fabulous audio innovation, a great use of the medium, delivering exposition for the story’s backdrops very naturally as well as being a pleasure to listen to. The accents are wonderfully Edwardian and the 1930s period is superbly well evoked, right down to the antiquated intercom. Barnes opens with a great mystery – complete with Tamworth’s meddling, secret compartments, and an unnamed passenger in room 43. Very Agatha Christie, and the aesthetic is perfect for the Eighth Doctor. The narrative veers from atmospheric, lush historical to awe-inspiring science-fiction mid-way through (both literally and metaphorically, as the R101 slots into the Triskele vessel), but it doesn’t harm the story too much: instead we get soaring sci-fi vistas and gaping voids, which keep the attention equally well.

Barnaby Edwards makes Rathbone suitably odious, especially during his repellent advances on Charley in Part 2. Gareth Thomas is absolutely terrific as Lord Tamworth, who is a great character even on paper, pompous, officious and stuck-up, but who is sufficiently enlivened by Thomas’ performance; his delight upon thinking the Doctor is a plant from the rival Zeppelin company is very nicely done, and his suspicion that the dolphin-like alien was Fu Manchu is hilarious. He also gets one of the story’s best moments in which he stands up to the Uncreator Prime.

The Vortisaurs are an off-kilter idea that work really rather well, and they’re reasonably effective monsters (rather like the Reapers), especially since they wouldn’t have come half as well on TV, even in the late 90s. On a similar note, the principal aliens here, the Triskele, are a solid creation, with melodious sing-song voices, some interesting technology, and a surreal culture. At the centre of the Triskelion we get this wonderful notion of their tripartite nature: the Uncreators (the emotive, destructive side), the Engineers (the constructive, rational side), and the Lawgivers (free will and mediation). That the Uncreators should war against the other facets of themselves is a good metaphor for the self-destructiveness that mars all of us. As Jonathan Franzen says, “all civilisation depends on restraint”, and in such a way, all human life depends on self-restraint – it’s one of the more Freudian conceptions of a Doctor Who villain we’ve yet seen. Barnes’ story condemns self-destruction but champions pioneership and mankind’s ability to invent – a key aspect of this story, enthused as the author clearly was by the R101’s refined workmanship – and a strong part of Doctor Who’s ethical DNA. It’s also resoundingly British: the charmingly toff-like Minister for Air sails into the stars with dolphin-like creatures to advise them on future pioneering.

I’m fully aware this wouldn’t necessarily rank as highly in my perceptions if it weren’t the Eighth Doctor’s first story on audio. But that’s no reason to hold that against it – the same could be said of The Eleventh Hour, and this story is so bound up in the joyous reintroduction of a fantastic incarnation of the Doctor that I simply can’t separate that element from the overall experience. All told, a great experience, and a very promising start to the Eighth Doctor’s adventures.

Other things:
Ironically, given how high-profile a composer David Arnold is, I was a bit uncertain about the Eighth Doctor theme we get here. It’s not abysmal, but it’s a little weedy-sounding, but it grew on me over the four episodes.
“I really must sort through these bookshelves some century soon.”
“It’s caught in a glitch in space-time, hiccupping its final moments forever.”
The Doctor is reminded of Jonah in the belly of the whale: “It’s like a giant ribcage stuffed with obscene, pulsating organs as far as the eyes can see.”
“And exactly to what end have you compromised the single most important flight yet attempted by an Englishman?”/“For the thrill of it, sir! Why else?” – Charley is SO Doctor Who companion material, isn’t she? Described by Frayling as “Fun, devil-may-care, that sort of thing” – yes, she’s a keeper.
The Doctor has Arthur Conan Doyle’s stethoscope, he mentions Geronimo, playing Lenin and the Empress Alexandra at tiddlywinks and was present at the Boer War: quite the name-dropper!
“Charley to my friends.”/“It’s Charley, then.” – this Doctor is a wonderfully easy-going, likeable one.
“I’m not sure what he is, but he seems to be very well-connected,” is how Charley describes the Doctor; “The Doctor – of most things, and some more besides, before you ask” is how the Doctor introduces himself; “the arch-humanitarian” is how Rathbone labels him.
“I’m wearing a tie,” the Doctor’s affronted riposte to being labelled a stowaway, is delivered with a delicious understatement from McGann. In fact he has a tendency to under-deliver his lines, which works in his favour most of the time.
“The accent is simple enough to master, but your colloquialisms are hard work,” – the Doctor, posing as a German spy getting the occasional word of English wrong!
“I haven’t a clue what I’m doing.”/“Why doesn’t that surprise me in the least?”/“Cheeky.” This dynamic is going to be a good one!
“That’s the trouble with five-dimensional predators, they make five-dimensional bite-marks.” A chilling idea: one’s arm aging thirty years faster than the rest of the body.
“We have travelled through places further than you have words for,” intones the Triskele (and isn’t that a beautiful name for an alien race!) I really love the Triskele’s habit of calling Lord Tamworth “Tamworth Lord” – it’s a nice subtle touch.
“A million planets circling a million suns, Charley. Where the starlight makes colours that human eyes have never seen…”
“I’ve known tyranny in my time, but this is the most benevolent autocracy I’ve ever come across.”
Barnes never makes it especially clear how people transition between the two vessels. It’s quite hard to picture.
“So, Engineer Prime, how exactly do we fly this bally machine?” Gareth Thomas is really rather wonderful.
“You’re heavier than you look.”/“I’ve got a lot in my pockets.”

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