Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 015. The Mutant Phase by Nicholas Briggs (December 2000)

When I was very young and first got into Doctor Who, I roughly divided the stories in my head between “the ones that were like Star Wars” and “the ones that weren’t”. Needless to say, my seven-year-old self had a decided bias. And yet the more familiar I have become with Doctor Who, the more I’ve taken to analysing it, the vastly more I have taken to the non-space-opera elements of the show. The Mutant Phase opens firmly in the former camp, with its spacey sound effects and allegedly important, utterly unengaging technobabble-banalities not boding well for the rest of the story. And then a character looks upon a planet he recognises, and says in a hushed voice, “Skaro”. And Nicholas Briggs’ knowledge of the weight of Doctor Who continuity manages to save the tone from being outright Michael Bay – ambitious and spacey for the sake of being cool. Because much like The Apocalypse Element, this story is soaked in fanwank (much as I dislike the word) – time corridors (cf. Resurrection of the Daleks); time tracks (cf. The Space Museum); Skaro itself; references back to previous audio adventures and to Earthshock; a Thal starship (named after the young blonde from The Daleks); Ganatus also being named after one of the original Thals; the Daleks’ invasion of Earth; Robomen; HADS from The Krotons; The Ark in Space; and many more I’m sure I’ve missed out.
But it works on the whole, because the ideas play out quite nicely (particularly in the second two parts, which are unusually for a Doctor Who story significantly stronger than the first two) and the Doctor and Nyssa are on top form throughout. I have to admit, I’m a little bit sick of the Daleks by this point – they do get trotted out awfully frequently and we’ve now seen 3 stories featuring them out of 15 when all I’d really like is a glut of terribly inventive new stories like The Holy Terror – and yet I have to grudgingly hand it to Briggs, because they’re used pretty well here. This story is about the Daleks in the way that The Apocalypse Element wasn’t really. The notion of the Mutant Phase, and seeing the Daleks affected by a virus is a nice new treatment for them, and their genuine terror upon seeing the mutated creature at the end of Part 1 is a good moment – even if the revelation that their mutation stems from a simple Earth wasp is a tad bizarre. They’re much more shadowy, nebulous forces here than they have been in both their previous Big Finish stories, more Evil of the Daleks than Dalek Invasion of Earth. Their ruthlessness in the middle chunk of the story (around about the Part 2 cliff-hanger) is stunning, and their fear of their own racial impurity (along with their reproduction plants and their check-ups) seems like a thematic call-back to their birth as extra-terrestrial representations of Nazism. There does seem to be a lesson to be learnt – if you want to do the Daleks well, think about what made them strong in their early appearances.

And Nicholas Briggs really is the next generation’s Terry Nation isn’t he? – for better or for worse. He knows exactly how to spin a good adventure yarn, and keep up the tension and the stakes. He’s not bad on good ideas, either, even if he’s rarely stunningly original. The timey-wimey storyline is pacey and engaging without ever getting confusing. He does some great work on the score in this story, relying on synths and strings in equal moody measure, and he works wonders with the Dalek voices as he always does. The man is a maestro at that particular craft, no doubt about it: the mutants’ screams are especially creepily done.

“History sways on the simplest of pivots.” It’s a lovely line, but you can say the same about certain aspects of Briggs’ plots! His writing reminds me of RTD’s at times. He’s very, very big on McGuffins like Ptolem’s genetic retrovirus, which just turn up quite handily in part 4, and the plot resolution with the paradox being resolved is a tad rushed and hard to follow (but that’s one of the most commonly levelled, and therefore least significant, quibbles with a Doctor Who story). Plus, Briggs gets extra bonus points for addressing my last point in-story: “That doesn’t make any sense,” complains Nyssa about the Doctor’s complex potted summary, to which he replies “Paradoxes rarely do.” When she accuses him of thinking that’s incredibly clever, he gets a delightful moment in which he chuckles “Yes, I suppose I do really.”

It’s just one of several great scenes between those two. Sarah Sutton is cracking as Nyssa, showing the Doctor up with her technical know-how and her initiative throughout, and seriously packing a punch as Albert discovers! Their strongest moment together is definitely the very sweet and touching scene where she tells the Doctor he really ought to get some rest as “even Time Lords need sleep”.  It’s a lovely change of pace, as the central characters drift through the time vortex trying to figure out how they will stop the Mutant Phase, but with all the time in the universe in which to do it. Once Nyssa begins “When Adric died…” and seriously challenges and questions the Fifth Doctor the scene ups another notch: Davison and Sutton are truly excellent here.

Just when you think you’ve had enough of them, the pepperpot blighters prove you wrong by turning up in another story that is surprisingly effective, even at its most derivative. Damn you for winning me over, Nicholas Briggs. Damn you. And thanks for a good 90 minutes.

Other things:
“I don’t want you to take umbrage…” the Doctor begins, politely and patronisingly. Nyssa sure shows him up with her technical know-how!
The cultivation field is a nice location after the overdone Trekkie aesthetic of the opening. Briggs does a good job of shifting settings to keep things interesting.
[upon finding out they’re in Kansas] “Does that mean we’re near Alaska?”/“Cosmically speaking, yes, but it’s hardly walking distance.”
The American Roboman is fairly bland, but not offensively bad.
“TARDIS? Well, it’s a sort of cake, really, covered in hundreds and thousands, and we’re feeling rather peckish. That’s why I said, “run”, really…” Davison’s Doctor gets some particularly eccentric lines.
“Someone’s coming.”/“At least they’ve got feet…could be friendly!”
Mark Gatiss is slightly hammy as Professor Karl Hendryk, but it’s no less wonderful a performance for that; the character is crazed and mad in the tradition of all the best Doctor Who scientists.
“I see… or rather I don’t see.” *cringe*
“Congratulations, Doctor. You may qualify as the universe’s greatest optimist.”
“You’ve got all the persuasive power of a food dispenser.”/“A food dispenser with a gun, Ptolem.”
The Doctor’s opening words to the Emperor Dalek – “Looks like we’ve both had a facelift since we last met.” In fact the Emperor Dalek is a rather terrific aspect of the plot here, devious and scheming, inserting himself into Ganatus’ mind. The Emperor’s scenes in part 4 are especially delightful - its careful and precise exposition of the Dalek Invasion of Earth is a fantastic slice of humour (“now you really are going to have fun explaining this!” quips the Doctor).
Given how well Briggs generally writes for the Daleks, lines like “time is of the essence” really don’t ring true at all.
“There are some secrets of time I just can’t risk divulging… There will come a time when you and I will part company, and neither of us has any way of knowing what you will do, or who you will meet, or what you may tell them, or what they may force you to tell them. Nyssa, there are some secrets that a Time Lord must never, ever reveal.” Davison’s performance here is very strong.
“All the corridors look the same.” – OK, I really have heard that joke a lot of times now, Big Finish.

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