Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 020. Loups-Garoux by Marc Platt (May 2001)

Loups-Garoux sees a few firsts: the first time we've had a Doctor Who title in a language other than English, here the (somewhat idiosyncratic spelling of the) French for "werewolves", the first Big Finish story set in Latin America (soon to be followed up on in Bloodtide) and the first Big Finish story to be penned by an author of one of the original programme's scripts, in this instance Marc Platt, responsible for the quite astoundingly good Ghost Light. It is no surprise, then, that Loups-Garoux feels like a somewhat different beast (again, pun very much intended), and one on which I intend to spend many, many words, difficult though it is to find how to begin.

The curtain rises, as it were, on Cologne in 1589: an ancient world to us, medieval and mythical and full of strange legends and creatures. The growls and howls of the creature are terrifying, the tolling of church bells. The pronouncement read out against Pieter Stubbe is horrific and vivid – and no wonder, given Platt borrowed a real-life court sentence for the scene. And then, in the manner of the best narrative juggling tricks, Teutonic cold gives way to a humid air suddenly thick with the buzz of cicadas and the song of exotic birds. The transition to the Rio de Janeiro of 2080 is adeptly done, and futuristic Brazil is an absolutely inspired setting. It’s probably the first locale that completely and utterly would not have worked on TV – in fact it’s hard to imagine the BBC Wales crew pulling off the Corcovado location shoot even now.

The world-building here is every bit as marvellously detailed as 23rd century Venice: "You see over to the northeast beyond the space-ports? That's where the rainforests used to be...up until about twenty years ago...the Amazon was so intensively farmed its ecosystem completely caved in. The forest and the plains dried up through lack of rain, and the so-called lung of the world turned into a monumental dust bowl stretching from here to the Andes. Thousands of unique species, birds, animals, plants, were decimated... There was nearly a war. But by then the Earth government had a new toy, the untapped resources of the Moon and the asteroid belt, to exploit." Bleak though it is, there is a terrible beauty about this vision of the forest that teemed with life now turned dusty wilderness. Platt gives us a good multitude of settings, too – the ruined jungle, the bustling city, the carnival, the train, up on the Corcovado – which give the story a nice sweep. The imagery is superb: outside the train is "just desert and the ghosts of dead trees." Another beautiful example is the moment, as viewed from a hover car, with the cloud of dust as the wolves race across what was left of the rainforest. That Platt is using the medium to tell such an expansive story in such a vivid place is laudable and exciting in its own right. But of course the main strength is the story he tells when he gets there, and the superb performances Nicholas Pegg coaxes out of his main cast.

Loups-Garoux proclaims itself in the title: this isn’t just a werewolf story (if it were, it could be called “The Wolf of the Black Isle” or something) but it’s explicitly an exotic werewolf story. It takes going to the faraway jungle for us to see the monster and the black side in ourselves. As the Doctor says, "Even the most advanced civilisations are barely an inch away from primal chaos; you can barely shine a moonbeam between the two." There is a very explicit textual link to Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. Conrad has been wrongfully accused of a racist and colonialist attitude by many, when the story makes it very clear that 19th century London is as dark and void as the blackest jungle night – it’s just we fail to notice it because of the trappings of civilisation. When those are stripped away, we can see into the wildness within, the primal nature, unrestrained sexuality and appetite. We can see this in Rosa taking the forest spirits into her head: "I can't get to sleep because [the spirits] are in my head doing wild, crazy dances. All the trees and the birds and the animals shaking the ground..." the jungle, the Other, is what we fear will transform us and show us what’s inside. “It waxes and wanes in all of us.” We are the monsters.

This comes up in a myriad of ways. That the stunning Rio was built on slave labour calls to mind Magrs’ treatment of the underclass in Venice – "Like most triumphant enterprises it has its rotten underbelly." As with the earlier story, we are presented with an image of glittering grandeur undermined by brutal, ruthless human nature: the beast inside. This is of course signposted through the wild and rampant otherness of the carnival, in which humans wear bird and animal masks that are "almost alive". In the Doctor's words it’s an "atavistic expression of the inner human self... Positively Bacchanalian." Turlough's response "Or maybe humans are just plain earthy...this is what people are really like" is something both to be celebrated and feared. The metaphor becomes plainer throughout as Victor struggling with the dark side he’s inherited, Platt crystallising the story around his descent from man to beast. The werewolf destroys an automaton at the train platform – the bestial realm undoes the order of civilisation. Just as Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) shows us that the darkest parts of ourselves are horrifically and irrevocably inhuman, and yet that is what makes them most terrifyingly banal and human, so too does this. Like The Stones of Venice, this is a love story as much as it is a ghost/horror story: a story about bestial, selfish, unhealthy love, the kind that clings to its objects in the dark and won’t let go.

And yet the most interesting treatment of this theme comes in the form of one Vislor Turlough. More than any other story, more than anything we see on TV, this is his moment. He is better characterised here than he was over the space of several hours from 1983-4. This is the story of his sexual awakening. Turlough, the epitome of the public school boy figure, of British reserve and oppression, here sees the mortality and sexuality and black side to his own life. The scene where Jorge and Lichtfuss urge Turlough to look into the mirror is terrific, an absolutely iconic one: "you have another side that no one else has recognised. Look in the mirror. See for yourself...keep looking. Look hard...look through yourself. Look at the real Turlough behind you. What do you want to see? What don't you want to see? What doesn't he want us to see..."/"it's behind me! Take it away!"/"we're all of us surprised the first time we see the truth." The scenes in which he comes to realise the darkness in himself, the “blood red shadow”, are electrifyingly good and Strickson is obviously relishing the best material he’s ever been given for this character. He sees his shadow: his mortality, his urges, his longing in the void of his existence. That he then sleeps under the pelt of a wild animal with Rosa (did anyone else think immediately of Jon Snow and Ygritte from Game of Thrones?) confirms this key trajectory in his character arc. Sex and death, the desire to procreate and further our species set against the terror of the abyss, are and always have been inextricably linked. And it changes us – for Turlough is “no milksop puppy. He has claws of his own.”

Platt’s treatment of the Fifth Doctor is equally impressive. In fact, I’d go so far as to say Davison has never in all his tenure had a script this artistically brilliant. Kinda comes close, and The Caves of Androzani is more important and probably ultimately more hard-hitting, but there is a thematic unity to Loups-Garoux that shimmers with an unequalled piercing intelligence. Five is characterised here as the dashing Edwardian schoolboy, complete with looking for his magnifying glass, and yet the otherness of the jungle works to destabilise even the Time Lord. His near-asexual awkwardness with women (particularly the one offering him a samba dance) plays out marvellously well here, very much in keeping with his TV persona: he’s almost as much of a public school boy archetype as Turlough is. The scene in which they discuss sex without ever mentioning it is an absolute hoot: "Women, they're not exactly my area." The Doctor IS repressed, isn't he? And yet he’s also at his strongest, most driven and most heroic in the face of this uncertainty. Here he represents the beacon of understanding and respect even to horrific creatures, and Davison’s performance is full of gutsy compassion: "I'll fight it! I'll defend every right of the wolf people not to be cured..." Lock's score builds to an epic cliff-hanger around Davison’s speech at the end of part 3: "Pieter Stubbe! Stand away from her, Pieter Stubbe. She's no longer yours. Time's left you far behind and you've lost its scent. You're burnt out! So just give up and go back to the slime you crawled out of!... I'm the Doctor, and I'm offering Ileana my protection. I'm stronger and more worthy than any puny human or wolf!" Davison delivers this so well, I genuinely had goosebumps (but of course the Doctor being the Doctor, his awkwardness at Ileana's husband revelation immediately after is just as good).

He gets another iconic moment (unbelievably, Platt just keeps them coming), this time bravely facing down the ravenous wolves: "My friends, how good it is to see you come when you're called! First to Pieter Stubbe's will and then to my whistle. Splendid stuff! I'm sure that Pieter Stubbe knows best, because he's an honourable wolf. So it's good to see you out in the open, not skulking behind your own shadows... Stubbe's a good fellow. He'll have it all in hand. So tell me, how will you manage to feed and water the cutclaw herds? The stupid creatures can't look after themselves! And what about the human troops, when they roll up to take back their city? ... From up on a hill? Loosing his dogs of war against smartweapons and wolf-seeking missiles? How magnanimous of him! You used to run free and choose for yourselves, but now he does it for you. Soon you won't have to think at all! Soon you'll be nothing but a kennel full of the honourable Pieter Stubbe's lapdog poodles!" I truly think this is one of Davison’s strongest ever performances in the role, and this is partly because he rarely if ever gets material this good.

The supporting cast are excellent, with Eleanor Bron turning in a particularly strong performance as Ileana dos Santos. All of the principle figures – Ileana, Rosa, Lichtfuss, Hayashi, Stubbe – are layered and complex individuals. There’s the occasional accent fault, but that seems to be the norm for Big Finish by now and to be frank I find it quite easy to overlook by this point. But the real star of this story is the melodic, lyrical, frightening script. Platt addresses the relationship between creative vision and the loss of one’s self in atavistic nightmare particularly beautifully, in weaving fairy-tale references throughout the story and in the suggestion that the TARDIS runs on imagination. That the closing moments see the completion of Ileana’s mournful fairy-tale is pitch-perfect; with more space to breathe than Ghost Light, Platt is able to fill his narrative with a palpable, beating heart. The Doctor and Ileana’s failed love story is remarkably moving. And yet what we take away from this story most is the central interplay between the beasts we can become and the visionary imagination we are capable of achieving – encapsulated in the Doctor muttering the opening of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner to himself as he faces down a terrifying wolf. Animal or so much more? Imaginative creatures or overgrown apes? As Morrissey once sang, “Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?” The genius of the story lies in the way it refuses to answer that question.

I thought it would take a long time for anything to beat The Stones of Venice. Take a bow, Marc Platt.

Other thoughts:
"Wits are like claws, you have to keep them sharp." Strickson plays tipsy Turlough marvellously.
"An awakening should be a precious, sacred moment."
“Will you dance for me, magistrate? Shall I set the whole of Cologne dancing to my tune?" Stubbe sounds like a demented Pied Piper of Hamelin here.
"Never absolve me! I can never rest, never! I stalk the earth for eternity!"
"This city starts to smell of death."
The Fifth Doctor taking snaps for tourists is amazing! I really love that he and Turlough are just chilling at a carnival together. It gives them a nice relaxed dynamic and in their early scenes their chemistry is excellent.
"A lot of things, I suppose" is what the Doctor claims he really wants, and implies he hasn't found it yet.
"I thought we were tourists!"/"yes, I suppose you could look at it like that." The Doctor, the great tourist of the universe.
"When you've studied humans as long as I have, it's hard not to find them somewhat endearing."
"It's amazing what they can do with computer graphics these days." Nice one, very knowing.
"Nasty thoughts are like buses, Turlough. You don't get one for ages and then a whole army come along together."
"Ancient. A scent like stillness. Like coming snow. No, no, like breaking ice on the rivers in spring. The scent after the lightning, before the thunder. Or fields after rain and the oldest forests, under the dark fir trees. Almost unearthly." It seems like this'll be the werewolf and yet it's the Doctor: a rather nice touch. Later, the Doctor "reeks of death" according to Ileana. He is "strange, a maverick. I tried to look into his mind, but he shook off my thoughts like raindrops."
The Grey One as a creepy rival for Ileana's affections; the twist that he sent her Choudhry's head has the same gleeful sickness to it as much of Ghost Light, as does the fact that Juro's body has been strung up with the other meat in the kitchen. Deliciously dark.
"The future will find me when it's hungry."
The British Rail privatisation joke is a lovely touch. Very much still the anti-Thatcher Who of the 80s.
"His mother's too strict with him. It's no good trying to stifle his natural instincts. That's what's led to all this trouble in the first place." - so McCoy-era. Sexuality as a dangerous force. Yet the Hinchcliffe influence is strong - surely Jorge and Lichtfuss are a sly Jago and Lightfoot gag?
"It's the very curse of my long, long existence." There is a melancholia in this that recalls Magrs, but with considerably more trappings of the horror genre.
"Poor Victor has no light left. He's all instinct. Like the dust, the shadows of the past lengthen around us."
"Time is my business. Well, one of my businesses."
The summer of 1812: Ileana's background is beautifully told. It makes the story rich, expansive, and vast.
Tiny gaffe: the sound fx for Stubbe's call to Hayashi sound dated now, let alone for 2080. Maybe they go down the retro route in the future.
The tension once Victor enters the carriage is unbearable and terrifically well done, while the transformation of Ileana is terrifying and a great cliffhanger.
Dissuading Ileana out of her wolfishness is, like the twisted love story in Venice, a bit of a new series moment.
"Like tomato sauce, money also covers a multitude of sins."
Platt eventually weaves Rosa into the plot in a nice and natural manner, and her scenes with Turlough are good. Her calling him a "yerpi-boy"and asking questions about Europe are lovely touches; and the moment when he overhears her describing him as her boyfriend into her com is great too.
"The first ones wrapped themselves in it, back under the first moon, when the world was the unripe seed before it grew into the forest." Platt is an excellent writer.
Like Magrs, there's a wide literary canon being invoked. Heart of Darkness as mentioned already, but the Doctor also quotes Cleopatra from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra ("I am fire and air; my other elements I give to baser life.") and paraphrases one of Antony's repeated lines from Julius Caesar. There's the obvious nod to Little Red Riding Hood (complete with Rosa/Red), but we also get an Alice in Wonderland reference, too.
"Exactly how old are you, Doctor?"/"that's a question I usually ignore. They say I'm a lot younger than I used to be." Neat.
"Where I come from, the forests are three times as tall. The leaves are all thick fleshy plates and you can walk on them in spirals right up to the top of the canopy. All mauves and purples, with blood-red trunks. And after winter, when the suns first get warm, there are swarms of moths. They've got wings like cut sapphires and they blot out the white sky like glittering blue smoke. Maybe it is [in my head]... But it's a lot better than anything I've seen in your real world." Thank god, Platt characterises Turlough so well and this lyrical and heartfelt description of Trion is one of the best companion speeches ever, period. This is such an important story for him and Strickson is clearly having a whale of a time.
Stubbe: "I am the oldest of the first-born, spawned out of the slime after the deluge. Time's byways are mine to prowl and hunt, and all other wolves are my progeny!"
"I might be too spicy for your jaded palate!"
I really really like that the werewolves call humans cut-claws.
Ileana's love for Victor is enough. She cannot force any love for Stubbe. Such bestial, passionate love needs to be faced, confronted but not completely and utterly such that it subsumes the self.
The gruesome fate of Hayashi is terrifying –though it can be necessary to give into one’s instincts (e.g. to run) it’s also dangerous. Creativity, vitality, the voices in one's head, these are all admirable things but things one must control.
"You, Doctor, tear off that pious mask and let's see the dark side of your nature!"
"You're monsters! All of you, monsters!"
“The humans love the chase as much as we do."
It is the word TARDIS which calls the Doctor back to his senses. His great love. So apt.
Rosa as inversion of Susan, maybe? With the whole grandfather thing. "You'd make a good grandpa, too." Appropriately enough for a story about sexuality this takes us right back to the enigma of the Doctor's own origins and offspring, significantly from the man who wrote Lungbarrow. But she's textually associated with companionhood, too, both when the Doctor refers to how companions always run off and when Platt cuts the scene between Turlough saying the Doctor is very particular about who he travels with straight to the Doctor and Rosa facing down hungry wolves.
I love it when the Doctor mixes his metaphors - "altitude is the thorn in his Achilles' paw."
Stubbe is "possibly the most deadly individual this planet has ever produced".
Silver: the "metal of the moon"
The TARDIS: "Once you get used to it, it seems like the only reality." The Doctor suggests "perhaps it's my reality". Turlough speaks eloquently and passionately about it: "while the outside's always changing, some of us are lucky enough to be allowed in here, looking out through a door that's never in the same place twice."
"Like in my head... What's inside is bigger than what's outside."
Turlough and the Doctor make for great banter, particularly when he teases him about "looking the part" for his date. Five snaps back, "it's not the end of term dance!"
Rosa on the TARDIS: "there's light, too, all around me... The walls in this place are all made of moons. Suppose there's other spirits outside the forest." There's something unbearably sad about her constant messages to her grandfather.
The use of the K9 dog whistle is absolutely inspired.
The implication that these age-old werewolves devoured the Grand Duchess Anastasia and Lord Lucan: there's a real Spike and Drusilla vibe to Ileana and Pieter.
Serious Five: "Pieter Stubbe, when I challenge you you'll have the decency to stay and face me."
Stubbe accuses the Doctor of being illusion, not of our real world. The real monster.
"Doctor, when you travel, what do you look for?"/"oh, that's easy. I explore possibilities. I look for things I could never imagine. I want to know how they work and perhaps help them work better."
Ileana as wolf-like even before she was taken by Stubbe: it is latent in everyone, all it needs is a nudge. The Doctor refuses to judge her but must turn down the love she wants from him.
"I can't take you. You're tied to the earth, to its old bones. To leave would kill you..." The Doctor cannot say it, but he will never give up the adventuring life, even for her. He sounds hundreds of years old as he sighs, "Perhaps I care too much..."
"The whole world's mine and I'll eat all of it." The ravenousness of our appetites. Yet it must have solidity to feed on, people or food or things. Stubbe cannot function high up in space. Imagination is in a loftier plane, one where such atavism cannot fully live out its ways.
"You can't devour it all, Pieter. The earth's bigger than you are. Perhaps you've had your fill."
And Pieter must follow the path, the straight and narrow path. We cannot fully give ourselves over to the animals in us.
Turlough and Rosa have such a heartbreaking goodbye. Yerpi-boy and jaguar-girl. This show loves its odd couples!
"I do like to find things I thought were never possible."
And how beautiful that the Doctor and Ileana’s farewell revolves around fable and faerie, in a story which sees imagination championed over base desire:
"The winter wolf died, but the woman had a cub and when the year grew old he left her snowy home and drove away the aged brown wolf of summer... And so it goes in endless terms, year after year...without him” – and beautiful too that Turlough cannot see it (rather like the Doctor and River in The Name of the Doctor).

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