Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Bonus Releases III. Her Final Flight by Julian Shortman (December 2004)

Julian Shortman’s contribution to Doctor Who is fairly scarce – just this single, slight, 74-minute audio drama on the back of an “open submissions” policy (although isn’t it odd to think that 75 minutes is the length accorded to the 50th anniversary special? It shows just how much the speed of storytelling has increased thanks to the new series). Her Final Flight doesn’t aim especially high, and that’s pretty much where it ends up: nowhere special.

One of its key ideas is the Doctor encountering Peri twenty years after they last met. Peri’s timeline is notably confused – the Thoros-Beta/Yrcanos ending never sat very well with me – but this story goes some way to exploring what happens to poor old Miss Brown after she left the Doctor. Nicola Bryant gets something distinctly different to do (play a bitterer version of her long-suffering character) but unlike Colin Baker in Jubilee she doesn’t get a great deal of material to work with. The issue with all this is that it should be more interesting and character-based than what we get. Her Final Flight feels like a box-ticking exercise to cover “a story with a post-Mindwarp Peri” rather than “how does that make us all feel”, and as such it’s rather underwhelming (case in point: the story’s so dry and devoid of character interest that it was originally written for Seven and Mel and it wouldn’t have made very much difference).

There’s actually more focus on how this reveal affects the Sixth Doctor than it does Peri – which is not in and of itself problematic, although I’d posit it’s an unusual choice (compare The Girl Who Waited, which does a similar idea much more successfully). Baker himself plays a pretty unstable Doctor here, prone to fainting, amnesia and hallucinations, but Shortman’s focus on the rather plodding mystery angle sucks the drama out of the intrinsically rich Six/Peri dynamic. He attempts to shift the focus onto the Doctor’s relationship with the TARDIS in the latter half, but it’s simply been done far better elsewhere (though the ever-brilliant Baker acts his socks off to sell his TARDIS goodbyes and Peri’s ‘death’).

Eventually, there’s a twist: all of this is in the Doctor’s head, it seems, and Peri is a figment of his feverish imagination. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exactly inspire the listener to see the previous dullness in a different light (“it was all a dream” is forgivable in certain contexts, but not if you were still waiting for the story to get good when you hit that old trope). It might have been original when Cornell’s early-90s novels first started diving into the Doctor’s interiority, but it’s become reasonably familiar by this point in the audio range (Scourge and Caerdroia have already done it better, just off the top of my own head) and so just falls flat here.

Westmaas does a decent job as the High Priest Damus, but the range of actors BF hires seems to be distressingly thin when they have to get a major companion actor cross over into another range (Heather Tracy is good as Rashaa, mind; can’t resist a feline mercenary). But elsewhere, the dialogue, characterisation and acting is mostly plot-centric, functional or serviceable (particularly the technobabble-y info-dump of Part Two – although the sudden jump from one situation to another as the Doctor’s unconsciousness means the plague gets worse in his absence is reasonably effective). We get a nod to the 70s notion of cargo cults, which can often be an interesting topic, but Doctor Who has done it earlier and better (The Face of Evil), just as it’s done the fertile planet as wasteland-to-be (the Excelis trilogy). Sure, it’s cool that it’s the TARDIS which is worshipped as a portent from a goddess (as opposed to the Doctor as myth), and the way in which the Doctor tricks Rashaa is actually quite clever, but the story’s world and plot are neither fun enough to justify this as silly escapism nor intelligent enough to justify this being something more interesting and serious.  Overall, this is a disappointing release even for a freebie, and a wholly tedious 74 minutes. Think what Deadline managed in 60, or what Blink achieves in 45. Frankly, it makes me glad the new series has upped the pace of things somewhat.

Other things:
I liked the gory little detail of Vordra unintentionally slashing himself to death.
The story’s production is weak, long sections of confusing sound effects and odd direction. I quite like Darlington’s music though. I gather Shortman composed the chanting in the temple himself, which to be fair is reasonably impressive.
“In a single day I saw his body wither like a dried fruit.”
The story’s funniest exchange: “Do you mind dressing as an old woman?”/“Well, it’s been a while…”
“The times I’ve tried to pretend I can come and go without the TARDIS having an impact… it’s just not true! From the smallest flattened blade of grass, she always leaves her mark too.” (Easily the story’s best line).
“Isn’t that amazing? Something so complex, and you can break it apart in just a few minutes.” Great line, but it could just as well refer to Rashaa’s plot. I know it’s an old Doctor Who complaint, but she could have just shot the Doctor without these contrived theatrics…
“Come on, legs!” Oh dear.

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