Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 074. LIVE 34 by James Parsons and Andrew Stirling-Brown (September 2005)

Admittedly, there are whiffs of The Happiness Patrol, The Fearmonger and The Natural History of Fear, but this is very much a unique event – a Doctor Who story *entirely* told through the medium of radio broadcasting. Clearly, the immediate effect this has is to mediate the way in which the story is relayed to us. In most instances (perhaps the occasional news broadcasts in Arrangements for War or Thicker than Water make a good comparison), the broadcasts are used to convey a particular point, and then we shift locale. Here, however, we are entirely enclosed in a tiny space – in effect a recording studio, nay, smaller, because we’re simply listening to the broadcast of a recording studio. As in Scherzo, everything is just sounds in our ears and there is no world outside it. In other words, we’re only seeing the faint reflection and reportage of events, not their actuality, the shadows on the cave wall rather than the beings themselves. This introduces a fascinating element of doubt and uncertainty that it would be nice to see more of in Doctor Who stories. As the Doctor points out, how can we trust reports on incidents when the incidents themselves may be manipulated? Or stories where names and places are bleeped out, voices disguised, phrases changed, cuts made? When our own planet is a world of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, the NSA and GCHQ, the DRC, the Stasi and North Korea, it’s a question that’s not just limited to Colony 34 – and yet, oddly, the story must by definition be favourable to the notion of broadcasts, not merely because the audio medium is the means by which the writers are earning their keep, but because it’s the only way they can tell their story, the only way that anyone on the audio-only Colony can learn anything.

New writers James Parsons and Andrew Stirling-Brown (who won the opportunity to write this script in an open submissions competition) do a sterling job (sorry) on LIVE 34. One of the best ways they turn the format to their advantage is in the way they write Drew Shahan’s long radio sequences. These are by their nature expository – since what is the news but a form of exposition? – but work well as stand-alone broadcasts, interviews and documentaries, not usually landing us with too much information (despite some good world-building, the writers note that the planet’s name is never identified, because why would the news remind colonists of the name of their colony planet?), while cut-away footage and pre-prepared coverage are used effectively to pull us all out of the studio space. Look at some other lovely details, too – like the way the drought is finally broken and life-giving rain is expected at the point at which news is slowly starting to trickle out about the Jaeger regime; and simultaneously horrific monsters out of the ground are excavated and unearthed. “The skeletons in the closet are coming home to roost,” as Tom Stoppard puts it in The Real Inspector Hound.

What Parsons and Stirling-Brown do here is to make the presentation of this story highly unconventional but its actual subject matter relatively straightforward. Or as straightforward as a very explicitly political tale within the often apolitical Doctor Who canon can be. Its story is “the Doctor brings down a government”. In fact this entire audio could have been called The Sound of Empires Toppling, that beautiful line referring to Terra Alpha in The Happiness Patrol, given that that is in all essence what the entirety of the work is: the sounds of empires toppling. Ironically enough, I find a lot of overtly political effort in art often hard to digest – it’s not that I don’t think art should involve itself with political or material questions by any means, but that it takes a good writer to avoid putting an audience off by being too preachy. It’s why I’ve never really liked Brecht, despite the fact that he’s obviously very good at what he does. LIVE 34 pulls similar tricks to Brecht – keeping the authorities and Premier Leo Jaeger (Putin-esque? Chavez-esque? The list of parallels grows far too long) in the shadows for much of the story – but never feels that it has quite the same aggressiveness of message. It’s more about not being able to trust what we hear or be charmed by what we see, not simply “communism is great!”

It’s a story that positions Doctor Who as *firmly* on the side of the rebels and anarchists (although still, noticeably, as leading the rebels and anarchists), as a disruptive rather than conservative force, as the power that turns over every stone and reveals the ugliness of corruption, concealment and horrifying “meat wagons”. Not every Doctor Who story has the same ‘party line’, as it were – there are certainly those that say “thou shalt not mess with the universe, or thou shalt suffer muchly”, whereas others, this one included, condemn non-interference. This kind of scatter-gun approach to the show’s intrinsic “morality” (if we can be so ludicrously crass as to try and gather up hundreds of Doctor Who stories under one big tent) doesn’t bother me all that much; I’m quite happy with an ongoing saga in which the principal characters – many of whom vary and grow over time, in any case – occasionally adopt an isolationist “this is not our fight” standpoint, and yet occasionally roll up their sleeves and absolutely throw themselves into the fray, becoming freedom fighters, emergency paramedics and even firebrand politicians in their efforts to bring everything crashing down.

“There are those who would seek to undermine us, both from without and within.” I like this line, because it’s essentially meaningless. Or, more accurately, it’s so rich and pregnant with manifold contrasting meanings that it’s hard to get traction on it. It is in essence paranoid and used to justify awful atrocities, as we may well be aware from our own times and places. And yet it is actually true. Perhaps not in the way it is always intended, but it is true that Jaeger is undermining the colony, and that there are people seeking to undermine Colony 34 and the Jaeger regime. Unsurprisingly, Sylvester McCoy works very well in this kind of experimental story, in which he is required to be quietly angry and despairing; he’s particularly strong in the final part, saving Ace at the last moment (“…death to this! Death to that! Death to the other! You know, you’re developing a morbid obsession. Very unhealthy. There will be no executions here today, tomorrow, or any other day!”). His showboating on the political podium is a triumph, lilting every twist and turn and flourish in his fabulous Scots burr. McCoy is absolutely on the nose here.

Ace also gets a solid showing as the “Rebel Queen”, and her interview with Ryan Wareing in Part Two is strong. “When I arrived in 34, the first thing I saw was the most gorgeous, snow-covered valley, sparkling in the light of two moons. It was like a beautiful painting”: the classic Caspar David Friedrich beauty is rendered ugly in the advent of the modern age: at the end of the valley is the wreckage of an aircraft and a snowfield strewn with bodies. Her desperate appearance in front of a Coriolanus­-style mob is more nice work from Sophie Aldred. In the meantime, it’s a shame that Hex doesn’t get a look-in until Part Three (didn’t they learn from C’rizz?), and yet he gets a sound storyline once he is involved, opening up to reporter Charlotte Singh about his family over the course of a quietly lovely lorry drive. The scene in which he finds a mass grave beneath an old lady’s home is a particularly dark highlight. And, of course, special praise to Andrew Collins, who has a lot of heavy lifting here with minimal variation in what he’s asked to do, and yet somehow manages to hold it all together, and Zehra Naqvi, who takes a similarly largely one-note character and makes her sympathetic and wry (“I’m sure there are some interesting cups the listeners would like me to tell them about”).

Much like The Natural History of Fear and Creatures of Beauty, this is a very uniquely audio-ish audio, but is in no way an easy listen, in part because of the bleeps and static. Something as simple as getting rid of opening/closing titles and cliff-hangers can really fragment the structure and disorientate the listeners. The concluding episode is a giddy rush of events and revelations only matched by a wedding scene at the end of a Shakespearian comedy – which is one sense a structural flaw (certainly, there’s a case it is dramatically unsatisfying and ludicrous), but in another is part of the whole canvas of what LIVE 34 is about. The crazed, frenzied narrative that unfolded in Tahrir Square or in Damascus was piecemeal, oddly staggered, and often hard to fully grasp. Such is the news: a programme that’s hard to unreservedly love, but to which we all know we have to keep listening. Because the ignorance of silence is worse.

Other things:
A great sequence of questions: “You try hard to be fair and impartial, don’t you? Your predecessor had an inquiring mind, didn’t he, a little too inquiring for his own good? I think you do too, despite your best efforts to hide it, and that’s terribly important in journalists, don’t you think? The desire to seek out the truth, regardless of whether that truth is comfortable or convenient, that is what journalism’s all about, isn’t it? Otherwise it stops being news and starts being propaganda. And I’m sure that your station is not in the habit of being used as propaganda, is it? But is that enough, I wonder? Who’s really dictating your agenda? You report what has happened fairly and honestly, but what if the events you report are being manipulated? How do you check your facts, when the government has a near-monopoly on information?”
“If I could speak to the people responsible, I would remind them that blowing things up is not the answer, at least not in this case.” As soon as the Doctor uttered this line in Part One, I knew the bombing had been organised by Ace.
“For now, security is paramount and the needs of the colony must take precedence over the so-called rights of political agitators and rebel insurrectionists.” Chilling.
“It isn’t usually the monsters that are behind the sofa.” A really great line with a lovely dual meaning: a funny Doctor Who in-joke, and a reminder that atrocities are often committed in plain sight.
“The problems here are not imported ones, but home-grown. Using immigrants, or monsters, or gremlins at the bottom of the garden as a scapegoat is just another way of deflecting from 34’s real problems.”
“This is a sad, dangerous place, where people disappear, rumour has replaced fact and the government can do whatever it likes in the name of security. But just how secure do you feel?”
The Doctor’s face emblazoned on a political party poster is a compelling bit of imagery: “RESIDENT DOCTOR NEEDS YOU. It’s the man’s eyes which really strike you. They always seem to be staring straight back into yours, wherever you stand.” (It’s like T.J.Eckleburg’s eyes in The Great Gatsby).
Hooray, Ace is actually called Ace, not McShane!
The story’s worst line: “Is there some animosity between you two?” Yeah, NOT a journalist bit of dialogue, surely.
“It’s rather strange to have these ancient dead creatures here when only two floors above me new babies are being born. In the torchlight you can almost imagine these things are trying to struggle out of the mud.”
“I’ve met a few people from Colony 48 and they nearly always avoid admitting where they’re from.”
Ace’s best response: “Give yourselves up and no harm will come to you!”/“Sod off!”
The Doctor to Leo Jaeger: “Oh, do SHUT UP!”
“Let’s see…electoral results declared void, presidential staff arrested, security forces under new command, the political prisoners freed, officials brought in from the Colony Central…now, what else did I have to do? Oh yes! Reveal the truth about Premier Jaeger.”
Human bodies as fuel? Immigrants as a means of combustion? Nasty. And Maria’s Story is about as real-world grim as Doctor Who gets.
The final scene feels like The Natural History of Fear in that there is no real sense as to whether things will get better for society, or not.
I can’t decide which the best audio of 2005 has been; although the last run of The Council of NicaeaTerror FirmaThicker than Water – LIVE 34 is the best so far, all of them have squarely hit “very, very good” as opposed to “exceptional” status, for me.

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