Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 046. Flip-Flop by Jonathan Morris (July 2003)

Well.

“We always wish for what might’ve been, don’t we, until we find out it’s not actually any better than what we’ve got.”

In an era that seems to prize being experimental, it seems one can’t get more experimental than Flip-Flop, and that’s quite the achievement coming not long after Creatures of Beauty. I won’t try and summarise for those that haven’t heard it(!), but suffice to say Jonathan Morris juggles the two discs tremendously well – two completely coterminous, simultaneous timelines that dovetail beautifully, events weaving in and out of each other in an impressively elegant fashion. Much like Creatures of Beauty, the format adopted here permits the author to examine what happens when wires of communication are, as it were, crossed; when people don’t have the full picture, their actions look fundamentally absurd and nonsensical, as indeed does much of this story upon first listening. The dashing backwards and forwards in time, changing history and so on, got a bit tiresome at points (practically farcical), and felt more like The Curse of Fatal Death with the Master constantly falling into the sewers than anything else – but as the two discs wove one into another, and I began to understand what Morris was driving at, I came to appreciate Flip-Flop for what it is. It’s not a story I’ll ever label my absolute favourite, but it is skilfully and deftly written, and deserves applause for what it does.
What this story is when it’s not being an experiment in narrative is a satire on immigration, xenophobia, and the assumptions we make about ‘the Other’. The Slithergees are the latest alien creation, and an impressive bunch they are: completely blind, with a highly developed sense of smell, yet reliant on sight guides. They’re overplayed as the impoverished, suffering victims under President Bailey’s colony, a minority exploiting the word “downtrodden” seeking to manipulate society and bend it to its own will. At first this was incredibly uncomfortable listening – what was the author driving at, I wondered? A reactionary critique of tolerance? A dressing-down of political correctness that went too far the other way? Ultimately the story never becomes properly offensive, but it does sting slightly (for this listener, at any rate). There’s a near-xenophobic undercurrent here, although the fact that giant blind slugs aren’t just cartoonish villains, but are so explicitly The Most Ludicrous Pulpy Villains Evah means that the whole thing becomes more of a massive piss-take than a serious comment on any real-life situation. Either way, I’m not sure that area of the story was the part that was best managed and wonder if a more intimate and indeed heartfelt affair could have worked better than the political canvas does with regard to the central concept of “no one timeline is better than another”.

Where the story is strongest is in showing us that there are no easy ways out; that things are emphatically not black and white, however much we may choose to present them as such; that the clear-cut narratives we may love to fall back on simply don’t work and are in some senses actively harmful; and that trying to make sense of a fundamentally absurd world leads us round and round in circles. The two alternative timelines, neither properly resolved, but going on and on ad infinitum, are both as bleak as the other. For 2003, this feels enormously prescient of the more timey-wimey stories that would become part of the new series’ toolbox, and kudos to Morris for attempting to rectify the dearth of these types of stories.

This is the third audio to feature both the Seventh Doctor and Mel, and while I don’t think it does them quite as much justice as The Fires of Vulcan, it’s distinctly more effective than Bang-Bang-a-Boom!. Mel gets a few duff lines/line deliveries, but overall Bonnie Langford does a great job. McCoy continues his reasonably strong streak from Project: Lazarus, and doesn’t overdo anything on this audio; his performance is pretty much in tune with the material and this bodes well for his forthcoming appearances. Occasionally – as one can imagine in a story like this – there are tiresome moments where the Doctor and Mel take a while to realise things that, to be fair, they couldn’t possibly know but with which we as an audience are already familiar, which means it’s probably fair to say the second disc can drag a little more than the first.

Trevor Martin is truly a guilty pleasure as the jolly but sadistic Professor Capra; the moment where he tortures the “truth” out of the Doctor and Mel whilst singing ‘Good King Wenceslas!’ is a particular highlight, and has a kind of gleefully sick camp about it that I could see slotting well into the McCoy era. His death is ludicrously quick. Bailey is a bit of a damp squib of a character though, and I found her whole “horny president” act a bit daft to be honest. That said, the dual agents of Stewart and Reed are rather effective, with Francis Magee and Audrey Schoelhammer both turning in good performances.

In conclusion, then, what distinguishes Flip-Flop from Creatures of Beauty is that this feels much more like it could have aired in 1987 than 1982 – that is to say, it’s full of Cartmel whimsy as opposed to Saward nihilism. In other words, this is a mature story with a lot of grim things, but it also remains pretty good fun. There’s a lot of dark humour, clever little realisations, and quirks to embellish the bare bones of what is at heart quite a mature and bleak script. It doesn’t all work – certainly, the second “half” gets a bit repetitive as Morris has to keep a lot of the same thought processes, dialogue exchanges and “penny-drops” moments relatively similar to those on the other disc – but for sheer brio and panache, and for a level of narrative trickery we’re not that familiar with, Flip-Flop is a strong addition to Seven’s audio adventures, and a lovely addition to an era of the show that takes a satisfyingly high-brow attitude towards the way we tell stories and what the consequences of those stories are.

Other things:
The great downside of iPods: I had no pleasure of actively taking the Black Disc out and replacing it with the White Disc, the story just played on…
“Quell the Quarks!” sounds like a war cry (and a lovely reference to The Dominators).
Lovely line to describe Puxatornee: “It does seem a bit grim. The sort of place that would have Lowry setting up his easel.”
“If you attempt to move you will be shot… Are they moving, sight guide?” It took a while to occur to me that the whole sight guide notion is a wonderful gag about the audio medium.
“For I am a poor sightless Slithergee…” (to misquote Hamlet, the Slithergee doth protest too much methinks)
I’ve gotta say, I did appreciate the “slip up” gag.
“Being a minority has nothing to do with how many of us there are. It is a – state of mind. Wherever we go, we find nothing but prejudice and intolerance.”
“The Slithergees do not recognise the concept of Christmas. We find it an affront to our ethnic beliefs… We would prefer it if it were replaced by Slimetide Solstice. We have no objection to humans continuing with their superstitious ceremonies but would like to make it clear that they are wrong.”
Is the mind-peeler another nod to The Princess Bride? Do I just see nods to The Princess Bride everywhere I look?
“We’ve been interrogated before, by experts.”/“Oh, if you know the form, that will make things so much easier. None of that fibbing business.” (is the first part of the line a nod to The Twin Dilemma?)
“We are telling the truth!”/“Well, that’s for me to decide, isn’t it?”
I’m not sure about David Darlington’s score – at times it feels like he’s channelling Keff.
“Refugees who travelled in a heavily armed battle cruiser! They said their home planet had been destroyed and they had nowhere to live.”
“If you could please speak, for I need to locate your voice in the ro-oom, for I am a poor blind Slithergee, and cannot see-ee…”/“No!”
“The web of time is delicate. One tug and the whole thing might unravel like a second-hand cardigan/one wrong ingredient and the whole thing could collapse like an overheated soufflé.”
“You mean that pre-determinism is merely a philosophical abstract, and that the physical reality of the universe is one in which all potential actions are permitted, including those whose effect is to cancel out their own logical cause?” I had to laugh out loud at this. That really doesn’t sound like Mel, does it!
Clarence and Bailey’s sex scene is one of the cringiest things Big Finish have served up yet. It might be simply that sex just sounds naff on audio, but the rather hurried and poorly done nature of the scene can’t help.
“I want you to give me my Christmas present.” Oh Lord.
 “What about all that changing of history palaver? Who’s going to sort all that out?”/ “We will. Or rather, our other selves will… I hope. They’re very capable people, you know.”
The concept of Capra’s family being “rationalised” is a gruesome yet nicely downplayed one.
“They were vaporised – a very efficient form of killing, although not very kind on the ozone layer.”
“You mean it might destroy the whole building?”/“Bigger than that.”/“The city?”/“You’re getting warmer. In fact we both are.”
“When I say run, run. Come on!” Hehe.
“Time travel isn’t an exact science, it’s more of a vague one.”
“I’m about as deceitful, dishonest and about as unreliable as they come.” Teehee.

2 comments:

  1. Well, I'm glad I didn't have to pay for this (BF were offering it as a free download over Christmas). I have to admit that I did find the presentation of the Slithergees extremely problematic, especially in the context of our current and ongoing crisis. Perhaps in 2003, you could get away with having a race of alien refugees that systemically manipulates the better nature of their weak and naive hosts in order to increase their economic and political power and reduce the thoroughly English humans of Puxatornee to the status of mere puppets, but these days it felt like wandering into a UKIP Party Political Broadcast. Despite there being two timelines, we don't get to see a more nuanced side of the Slithergees. We seem to be expected to take them as fake refugees. We are firmly in "Daily Mail"/"Daily Express" territory.

    Now, generally in "Doctor Who", invaders are seen intrinsically evil and are portrayed as being monstrous. In the 1960s, we were only a quarter if a century away from the prospect of invasion by murderous fascists. But, of course, we (Britain, the West) have often invaded countries, killed and subjugated the existing population and installed ourselves as the new rulers. Just a minute, doesn't that mean that we are the monsters?

    That might have been an interesting take for the story. In one timeline, the Slithergees are the "monsters" and in the other humans. But it's not want we get. And the world of Puxatornee seems thin and underpopulated, especially given we have to sit through this twice. Matters aren't helped by some rather unconvincing performances.

    This might be terribly clever if one has the patience to sit down and map out how the timelines interact. But the material simply isn't interesting enough to make one want to do that. However, this is an early example if timey-wimey in action. One could imagine Moffat (or - why not? - Chibnall) doing a two-parter with the gimmick that the episodes can be watched in either order.

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    1. Yes, I have to say that given the way the world has changed so dramatically in the last few months, even, any positivity I felt towards "Flip-Flop" has somewhat evaporated. Not Jonny Morris' finest hour.

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