Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 010: Winter for the Adept by Andrew Cartmel (July 2000)

From the very first seconds of the opening – nay, from its intriguing title – I felt certain Andrew Cartmel’s audio play was my kind of Doctor Who. The piano score, quite possibly the best yet for one of these audio plays, is gorgeous, subtle, mellow, melancholic and sophisticated beyond the show’s usual remit – and also nicely woven into the plot in the chilling music-room scenes. The bookending narration works well on audio, though it’s not entirely without precedent in the TV show either – I can think of around half a dozen examples on screen. The recounting as if to a diary might be somewhat odd for a Doctor Who structure, but impressively lends the story a sepia-soaked quality of memory, lost in the mists of time. I’m a big fan of the production having individual titles for its tracks, too, like chapters in a book or a diary. In fact, the sumptuous production is highly effective: the howling wind gives this a claustrophobic yet expansive feel which is hard to pull off well, and the helicopter crash is a particular highlight. And what a unique setting the Swiss boarding school is: the Shining influence here is strong, but we’ve not seen such a thing in the show before, making it both familiar and different. It also calls to mind the disturbing liminality of Thomas Mann’s asylum/sanatorium stories in the Alps.

Perhaps the story never quite lives up to the impressive promise of that opening episode, but there’s lots to enjoy here about Andrew Cartmel’s take on the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa. How excellent to begin with her alone on the Alpine slopes, without the Doctor; at first, the means by which they are separated feels more like McCoy than it does Davison, but the bumbling mistake of teleporting her away suits Five down to a T. Davison’s lack of presence throughout Part One works well, giving Nyssa a succession of strong moments. She’s a little grumpier with the Doctor than usual, which works well with the idea that they’ve been travelling alone together for a while. As for the Doctor, his belated entrance mid-séance is strong and memorable (“Good evening. I assume it’s evening. If not, good morning, or afternoon.”) And when questioned on the Spillagers throughout the story, he’s nice and mysterious, hiding his Time Lord nature and the TARDIS interior too; such enigmatic behaviour suits his slightly older, richer tones, yet he remains the youthful adventurer keen to get to the bottom of the puzzle, taking command in a most impressive fashion. His manipulative nature using the mild sedative is also rather McCoy-ish. It’s his best performance on audio so far.

Cartmel’s script is poetic and memorable (numerous examples below) with a host of literary in-jokes (Maupassant only being the most obvious). His treatment of religion is that of a detached scientific observer, where everything is explainable: Doctor Who rarely does ‘straightforward ghost story’. The explanation of psychic signature as being that of young girls admiring the mountaineer Wellman – budding sexuality as a powerful force, even amid the stifling religious extremism of Miss Tremayne – is classic Cartmel-era stuff. However, Cartmel hasn’t quite nailed writing for audio, with some moments of exposition; his writing feels more suited to prose. The moments of the piano moving towards them or the skis flying toward Nyssa, in particular, are very hard to do without too much explanatory dialogue, but they are still strong horror ideas. The psychic daisy chain – with Wellman causing a smell to manifest, which sets off Alison’s migraine and causes her telepathy to bring about Peril’s telekinesis, which in turn affects Wellman – feels convenient until one realises how it’s been brought about by the Spillagers. The reason for their inclusion does feel rather “just because” in what is an otherwise atmospheric ghost story, but it grants us some nice gruesome stuff when Maupassant becomes the Spillager scout but continues to make quips about the girls’ French homework.

So all told, this is a successful little story, even if it delivers more on atmosphere and horror trappings than it does on the science-fiction resolution. I don’t think this will ever be anyone’s absolute favourite, but it’s a nice and well-told tale that tries something different for the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa. For the experimental nature, unusual locale, some good performances from our main cast, and its fantastic score, at the very least, Winter for the Adept is to be commended.

Other things:
“I will remember that winter as long as the embers of memory still glow feebly in my mind.”
“We must open our souls to the Word just as we open our windows to the chill, purifying air of the Alpine valleys.”
Nice continuity, Nyssa: “it’s worse than Alaska!”
“Yes, [a ship] for travel between worlds” – even a description of the TARDIS is made more literary and poetic by Cartmel.
“Stale air breeds spiritual staleness.” If anything, this feels more 40s/50s than 60s.
“May I ask why you’ve chosen a mad woman as your employer?”, “I take it this chapel is some primitive place of worship?” and “There’s a scientific explanation for everything” – go Nyssa!
“An Agent of Satan!”/“No madam, I assure you I’m very much my own agent.”
“How often have we ended up in the wrong place in the wrong time?”/“Oh, now you’re being philosophical.”
“Where’s your spirit of adventure?”/“Somewhere out there on the mountain slopes, expiring from hypothermia.”
Gotta love the Doctor interrupting kissing couples: “Excuse the intrusion!”
The Lieutenant’s contingency plan is pleasantly logical, and sure beats the way characters tend to act illogically in claustrophobic stories.
The name-dropping of William Blake and Walt Whitman is brilliant, but even better is the Doctor’s “possibly” when Nyssa asks if they’re Time Lords.
“It’s nothing to worry about, Alison. We are merely being pursued… by a piano. Good job it isn’t a grand.”
“Humanity will be reduced to a stain on the abattoir floor.” A classic Cartmel line.

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