Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 007. The Genocide Machine by Mike Tucker (May 2000)

Mike Tucker’s first script for Big Finish is a bit of an oddity. It’s full of good ideas, but none really breathe. It has some strong individual elements, but the whole is ultimately less than the sum of its parts. And for someone who’s written for the Seventh Doctor and Ace before, it feels curiously dissimilar to the McCoy-era tone. To begin with the elephant in the room: the Daleks. The first “classic” villain to appear on audio – and justifiably so, though only by one story. The familiar throbbing ‘heartbeat’ noise in the Dalek control room is a nice way of signposting their presence early on without giving it away, but it’s undone by having one talk a few minutes later (I know they’re on the cover of the CD, but still!). The best thing Tucker does with the Daleks here is have them as plotters and schemers, more like the 60s Daleks than the warmongering robots they become later. They are ‘devious and ruthless…lurking in the undergrowth’, and this adds to their menace. Their plan feels well-imagined and threatening, their plotting comes off, and they do get to exterminate a fair few people. We get a nice brief glimpse of the Emperor Dalek on Skaro, too. They come off fairly well on audio, so good marks to Big Finish for that one – their spaceships, the heartbeat sound, their voices, it all works rather well. Any fears they couldn’t be realised in a different medium are unfounded. The Dalek going mad after downloading all the knowledge of the Universe is a wonderful scene, complete with effective screaming Dalek, and it makes for a truly eerie – yet almost sympathetic – part 3 cliffhanger.

And their scheming takes place on a very well-realised alien world. Kar-Charrat is a triumph for director Nicholas Briggs, partly because it’s not just one generic space base. Between the Library, the rainforest, the waterfall, the wetworks facility, the Ziggurat, and the Phantoms’ back-story, Kar-Charrat feels well-constructed and thought-through as a planet. But better still, given they seem to have more of a trouble with SF landscapes (or perhaps it would be fair to say, their realisation of historical locales seems to be their most sophisticated, in general), Big Finish do a great job here. Dripping trees, falling waterfalls, the call of alien birds, the hum of electronics, an eerie score … it feels like a wonderful locale, even if it’s more of a 1970s location than a McCoy-era one. The library is a great concept – projecting an image of it as it will appear 3,500 years from its current date is especially neat – but the central conceit of its invisibility works particularly badly on audio as we get a fair few ‘state the obvious for the benefit of listeners’ kind of moments. The revelation about the Kar-Charratian Phantoms is nice and unexpected, but it’s too little, too late to redeem the plodding plotting on show here.

And that’s the problem. This story has good concepts, but doesn’t give them enough space. Imagine if this had been a fascinating discourse on what knowledge is, by examining the library and a single Dalek driven mad by what it has learned. Or an exploration of oppression by bringing the Phantom Kar-Charratians centre-stage. As it is, all the elements jostle and compete, and none especially effectively. There aren’t many lines that don’t further the plot, or give people character moments at all. This ends up leaving the story quite hollow and Doctor-Who-by-numbers. There’s quite a lot of clunky dialogue, too (between this and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, perhaps salvage teams just don’t work well as Doctor Who characters…) and Bev Tarrant doesn’t make a particularly strong impression. Elgin is serviceably pompous and Oxford donnish, the epitome of knowledge as a pointless end in itself, rather than turned to any purpose. The hardly-speaking Prink character sounds like a good idea, but ultimately is a bit of a poor gag. ‘Prink will talk!’ says Elgin of his taciturn subordinate once he’s been captured by the Daleks, and one has to facepalm. ‘Well, say something Prink!’ – a few minutes later, and one has to double facepalm. ‘He is such a blabbermouth, after all’ GAAH. When he does leap into action, it’s relatively subdued and doesn’t justify the four-episode long build-up.

Even the TARDIS team is short-changed, disappointingly so given the lovely dynamic in the opening scenes. It’s nice to hear Ace dossing around, checking out the Doctor’s books in an offhand moment. The Doctor’s system of categorising his books is bafflingly loopy (alphabetical all the way! Why on earth colour? Or putting Bleak House under architecture?) but in a way that’s cool too, showing us how his mind functions. The conceit of Doctor needing to return his library books is a nice way to get them to Kar-Charrat (a bit like the advertisement at the start of Greatest Show). Ace is a bit bored and uninterested by the fascinating new planet, which is a shame, as she comes across rather too petulant for my liking. Her duplicate subplot is perfectly serviceable, but again it feels rather 60s Dalek story. This just doesn’t feel like a particularly authentic McCoy-era story. Sophie Aldred doesn’t give a particularly strong performance as the duplicate, either, and the confrontation between the two is painfully cringey. McCoy is decent, his meeting the Daleks in part 3 one of the better moments, but while his moral outrage in part 4 is nicely written, it sees McCoy in unfortunate ‘unconvincing anger’ mode.

This doesn’t feel anywhere near as well-tailored to the McCoy era as The Fearmonger did. Nor is it as interesting or as well-done. But I suppose few audio dramas will be.

Other things:
“Water tanks! Don’t tell me you’ve decided to start a trout farm!”
“Time Lords are devious.” A nice word choice, given it echoes the Doctor’s description of the Daleks earlier.
“Whatever it was that was inside it is probably out here with us.” – inversion of Horror of Fang Rock
“A life-form in the rainwater that has slipped into legend.”
“It is our destiny! It is our right!” – interesting Dalek vocabulary in this one. Leaning perhaps a little too heavily to the terminology of a Nuremberg rally.
“You will come with me”/“What? Tea-time already?”
“I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to talking to raindrops.”
“The Daleks always bring out the worst in people…the worst in me.” It’s a great line, but we don’t see a huge amount of evidence for it in this story.
“In a good old-fashioned book” (nice final line).

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