Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 008. Red Dawn by Justin Richards (May 2000)

In one sense, the Ice Warriors are a somewhat odd choice for the second iconic villain to appear on audio – before the Cybermen, Sontarans and the Master? But whether undeservedly or not, their appearance in Justin Richards’ Red Dawn is ammunition to those who claim this story is too traditional for its own good. Admittedly this story re-treads old ground in the way Phantasmagoria does. But it’s fresh, somehow, and I certainly disagree that it’s dull. The alien environment is exciting; the location of Mars with Earth’s fledgling space programme is a nice change from the medieval surroundings of Peladon… Richards doesn’t revolutionise the Ice Warriors, but he gives them a solid story, and while this isn’t as stunning as some of the other audio dramas, it’s still highly polished stuff. Perhaps I’m a sucker for two of the story’s core conceits – firstly, the Ice Warriors themselves. I’ve always loved them, because they’re a damn sight more interesting than many of the races we meet in Doctor Who. Some fans call them moralising, but personally that’s what I found fascinating about them. Their voices are so perfectly sibilant for audio, and their culture is so gloriously evoked in a story as atmospheric as this, replete with doors which open empathically if one is sufficiently honourable, various forms of weaponry, the Hall of Memories, the monument, the medievalesque tomb of Izdal, the “coming of the Red Dawn” – it’s all so evocative, no wonder Gatiss puts as many such phrases as he can in Cold War. I also like that they reject the name we humans give them (“Do we also have to resort to the banality of labels and epithets?”) and particularly the way Zzaal addresses humans by their rank (commander, doctor) as it subtly reinforces the feudalesque hierarchy of their race. It’s this level of detail that makes Richards’ script so rewarding. It could be argued that it takes the Doctor too long to work out there are Ice Warriors here (I suppose the Doctor doesn’t know he’s on Mars, and actually in a nice rebuttal to exposition-heavy stories, there’s no particular reason for the other characters to mention they’re on Mars until the obvious moment the Doctor realises). The suspense builds nicely, and Part One in the tomb is classic Doctor Who.

Lord Zzaal is a great character straight from the off. Not clunky or tediously villainous, but sharp and shrewd. This shrewdness continues into his final moments and triumph over the pathetic small-mindedness of Paul Webster, wherein Zzaal sacrifices himself to the Red Dawn. His eulogy to Izdal is wonderful (“You cannot struggle against the weight of precedent”) and his final moments are powerful (even if his cough sounds a little human!). The other principal Ice Warrior, Sstast, is more belligerent perhaps than the dignified Zzaal, but retains his honourable nature.

The other element that was bound to win me over is that this is one of those near-future space stories set in our solar system – cf. The Waters of Mars, Kill the Moon, etc . I think it’s because such stories make the future seem much closer and more real, and yet vastly further away. If we can look up and see the adventure’s setting in our night sky, it renders it more untouchable, somehow, not less. And wow, that spacey score. It’s filmic and gorgeous, a bit like Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner. Probably the most successful score for an audio adventure yet. The windswept landscape of Mars, the buzz of the comm systems, the NASA shuttle – as expected for Big Finish now, it’s beautifully conjured. The Argosy under missile attack and its subsequent crash landing would almost certainly work better visually, but it’s not a complete disaster. The dialogue, music and effects manage to make it convincing, even if it’s probably the weakest part of the story.

The Doctor and Peri are on pretty decent form. Nice to see Richards give Peri some of her botanist background we see so rarely. Her excitement at the start to see the “brave new world” (not her first, though) coupled with her insisting she understands the physics makes for a good TARDIS scene opening. She’s relatively gutsy here, and comes out of it better than she did in Whispers of Terror. Richards’ MacGuffin to split the duo works nicely, especially as it arises from a quirk of the Doctor’s alien biology. Davison is positioned in the role of struggling, ineffective mediator. His Doctor works best when he’s either in an unusually strong and commanding position of strength, or when he’s completely desperate. This probably isn’t his strongest outing, but he does his best.

It’s a talky, diplomatic story, not an action-packed one, but I prefer this approach to the Ice Warriors to be honest, and it allows the central parallels between the Ice Warriors and the humans to emerge organically. Tanya is likeably portrayed by Georgia Moffatt, and the hints about her past are well-seeded, from her instinctively grasping the sonic gun to knowing Izdal’s name. Her status as Ice Warrior-human hybrid is another nice way of keeping the links between the two races strong, even if her reaction to her heritage feels a tad underplayed and her staying behind at the end a tad forced. Paul Webster, on the other hand, is incredibly unpleasant, mercenary, manipulative: a truly awful, closed-minded specimen (“There are no secrets, only commodities”).

The parallels are fascinating. Look at Ares One – I really like the nomenclature here. On one level it’s just a fairly appropriate term for Mars, Ares being the Greek equivalent to the Roman, a joke on the level of Bowie Base One; but it’s cleverer than that, due to Ares being the God of War and this story involving the Ice Warriors. I’d never claim all this mythological resonance was necessarily thought out by Brian Hayles, but it does seem to be implicit here. Argosy, too, means ‘flotilla’ or a formation of warships. Textually we are being encouraged to associate humanity with warmongering as much as we are these ‘aliens’. But where they act out of honour and centuries-old tradition, the human motivation here is a quick buck. The human perspective is the exploitative and villainous one (notice it is the Time Lord, not the humans, who is sufficiently honourable to be able to open the door to the tomb). I love it when Doctor Who reminds us of the monster in ourselves, and that we should not be so quick to judge what seems to be a foreign monstrosity: such stories are worth the telling.

Other things:
“Nitrous oxide, like chemistry class!”/“You’ll soon get used to it. Like chemistry class!”
Richards seems to have done his NASA research!
“I’m not sure I like to be led. I’m a great believer in free will, prefer to take the scenic route, explore the byways and avenues rather than just stroll along the main street, as it were.”
“In one way or another, we are all warriors.”
“You’re in better shape than the instruments say.”/“We know that. The instruments say we’re dead.”
The Doctor berates himself. “Humanity isn’t ready for this… There’s nothing I can say.” This is very much the Doctor of Warriors of the Deep.
“There is a nobility in her that transcends the others of her race,” says Zzaal of Tanya. Frankly I’d rather be an Ice Warrior than a human after listening to this one.

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