Monday, 28 September 2015
Main Range 017. Sword of Orion by Nicholas Briggs (February 2001)
It doesn’t feel nice slagging off Nick Briggs, who does some truly great work on occasion, but this feels stale in the extreme. In one sense, it is: based on the Audio Visuals story Briggs penned in the 80s. Unfortunately, Sword of Orion feels so pedestrian and lacklustre, so “standard slice of Doctor Who” it just can’t possibly go anywhere all that interesting. The familiar beats of such a story are all in place; the characters are pretty flat and insipid; the cliff-hangers are especially limp. It feels reminiscent of a tired, familiar 80s story clinging to former glories, and really doesn’t suit McGann’s Doctor all that well either. Sword of Orion wants to both advertise its status as “big Cyberman story” and keep the tension of the Cybermen’s appearance building. It’s a very hard thing to walk the tightrope and do both well. This story’s success relies on an enormous amount of goodwill in its direction on the basis of it resembling “classic” Doctor Who; yet at the same time it wants to be tense and gripping, and Briggs just isn’t up to the task in my view.
In a way that’s become irritatingly popular with Cyberman stories, this one does an incredible amount of harking back to former glories, right down to the Cybermat. There are also strong 1960s influences and more than a whiff of Earthshock. The Cybermen’s voices are slow, ponderous and not especially evocative on audio.
The characters are pretty uneventful. Charley and the Doctor are not especially well treated, and the supporting cast are very unmemorable. Character deaths come and go with zero impact. Michelle Livingstone puts in a reasonable performance as Deeva Jansen, but is given such a thin framework to play with, there’s just not much hope there – and the characters take far too long to realise who she is; she is somewhat redeemed in the final part of the story, even if it’s a bit too late in the day. Somehow, the dialogue here is for the most part awful. I can only assume Briggs did not rewrite the script much in the intervening 15 years of scriptwriting experience, because there’s a hell of a lot of dialogue howlers here (far more than usual).
There are some pluses: There’s one truly great scene, where Paul McGann’s Doctor confronts the Cybermen using as much logic as he can in Part Four. The ending is actually surprisingly well done; I like the imagery of the main characters and the Cybermen floating through space. And to give him his credit, Briggs knows how to direct. The 26th century space design is very effective, all clinks, bleeps, airlocks and intercoms, and complemented by a wonderful, rather space-opera score. As good as you’d expect from Big Finish by now. McGann and Fisher do their best with the meagre characterisation they’re given, and it’s a joy to hear them together however dire the script. The Orion War is quite a nice backdrop to the script (with a faint touch of Blade Runner), but it deserved to be explored in a better way than it is here.
No, I’m afraid I can’t say very much that’s positive about this one. I’ve mentioned in earlier reviews that the crucial thing for Big Finish to do, in my view, is advance and expand the Doctor Who universe in a fascinating way. This is why The Shadow of the Scourge, The Holy Terror and The Marian Conspiracy have all been so interesting – they’ve added crucial and interesting elements or told new types of story. Sword of Orion falls far short of these lofty ideals. It’s backward-looking, trading on nostalgia, fails to create a new spin on a familiar narrative and is on the whole plain dull to boot. Disappointing.
I do like the echoey effect we get with Paul McGann and India Fisher’s voices when they’re talking in the TARDIS. It’s a nice nod to the spaciousness of his console room and by extension the other rooms in his TARDIS. The Vortisaur effects are evocative, too.
The Doctor admits he isn’t an expert in something!
For the second story in a run Eight is quite happy flying through the air, in this instance the grav-pad (“no bigger than a paving stone and travels at ten times the speed [of the R101]”).
The bazaar is an absolute delight, like the opening of a Hartnell story which launches the TARDIS crew into a strange world and just gives them the time to explore it. Charley’s little scene with the shopkeeper is nice and effective.
“But that’s inhuman!”/“We learn from our creators.” (We need more lines like this one!)
“A den of iniquity,” is how the Edwardian Charley describes the bazaar (she’s also disgusted at the idea of interbreeding).
McGann delivers “Everything’s cold in space, Charley” very nicely. His scornful chuckle at the Cybermen in Part Four is also a nice touch.
“You’re a nosy bugger, aren’t you?”/“Oh, he hasn’t started yet!”
"I hope you know what you're doing, Doctor, but I suppose it's a vain hope."
“Clawing helplessly at the void.”
Lovely continuity that the Eighth Doctor seems to be the biggest fan of tea.
“Cut the power!”/“They’ve cut the power.” FACEPALM.
“Is this your hobby….cause it’s a very dangerous hobby.” DOUBLE FACEPALM.
“You look terrified?”/“I am!” TRIPLE FACEPALM.
“The future of human society, in all its grim and grimy glory.” QUADRUPLE FACEPALM.“Resistance is useless!” I won’t even dignify this one with a facepalm, more just a sci-fi-saturated sigh.