Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 022. Bloodtide by Jonathan Morris (July 2001)

This is one of Doctor Who’s most purely “classic” concepts: the Doctor and Charles Darwin team up to fight Silurians rising up from beneath the Earth in the Galapagos Islands. It’s one of those ideas so obvious you wonder why it’s not been done before – but this is partly because I’m viewing it with the hindsight of a decade of New Who’s celebrity historicals. And yet if we view this in the landscape of 2001, this is a new move. The classic series rarely touched on celebrity historicals, and this is one of the first real efforts. That in itself makes this story more of a step forward than it looks like (much like doing an Ice Warrior story actually set on Mars was a subtle but key change from their usual appearances) – and though Morris plumbs the best of classic Who to make this story feel as old-school as he can, it falls on the right side of the derivative/innovative divide, for me.

The Silurian voices aren’t the finest, but they’re reasonably in keeping with the classic series (the voice modulation makes them sound curiously like the Game Station droids from RTD’s Bad Wolf). It’s a neat move to open with the creatures – as it’s understood our familiarity with them will keep this early scene tight and easily understood. The individuals are reasonably well characterised too: Tulok in particular, the radical, rebellious scientist at odds with his own society. He’s definitely a mirror of the Doctor, though as is usual by this point a dark and inverted one: the brilliant maverick who is exiled by his own people, an appropriate parallel given the usual efforts made to ensure Silurians don’t come across as bog standard monsters. Sh’vak is the more bog-standard “sympathetic” one on the fairly familiar side of the belligerent/sympathetic dichotomy we tend to find in most Silurians, but Helen Goldwyn does a decent enough job with the character. It’s also a nice touch that both the Silurians and the humans of the story begin in stern courtroom scenes culminating in harsh sentences of death. Morris does a good job in giving the Silurians a bit more backstory, explaining why they never awoke out of hibernation, and so on (that he includes the Myrka from the much-reviled Warriors of the Deep is a wonderfully cheeky move, but actually it comes off rather well (mostly because we can’t see how abysmal the creature design is!) and its attack is a triumph of audio and voice work.)

I like that the Doctor has put lots of pieces in place (“behind-the-scenes tinkering”) before arriving on the Galapagos, arranging his visit as a surprise for Evelyn and so on. It’s a lovely detail of the respect and amiability between the two, despite all the grumbling. Yet he remains the passionate fighter of justice, storming from the dinner table when he can’t stomach Lawson’s cruelty, rowing across the ocean toward the Beagle as quickly as he can, and generally being a strong and active force in part 3, destroying Lawson’s video link, etc. (complete with a wonderfully cheeky “Butterfingers!”) The way he neatly defeats Tulok is another highlight.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Baker’s Doctor, yes, but it’s been a full 11 audio plays without hearing Maggie Stables as Dr Evelyn Smythe. Her opening scenes with the Doctor while he booms Hermann Melville into the Pacific air are a joy to listen to: it’s lovely he’s in such a great mood. I’d already forgotten how much fun this TARDIS crew is. The scene in which the Doctor and Evelyn take pleasure in seeing a giant tortoise for the first time is another joy, and a rare example of characters taking time out to wonder at things on their travels. The warm, velvety tone of Stables’ voice with just the right hint of sarcasm is as good as ever on audio. Her “hypnotised” performance is a hoot!

Miles Richardson is pretty good as Darwin himself, and his first scene together with the Doctor and Evelyn is strong. Jez Fielder gives an impressive, sympathetic and impassioned performance as the fisherman Emilio driven mad by the devils he’s seen. Julian Harries does strong work as Governor Lawson, too; the scene in which he proves able to detect the taste of any tortoise is a marvellous detail. Moreover, his disgusting fate is very well rendered. Jane Goddard is the only unusually weak link as Greta, complete with hideously hammy accent; her character never quite convinces, and her sacrifice doesn’t have the intended impact.

With Nicholas Briggs on directing duties you know the story is going to be well-realised and atmospheric, and this one doesn’t disappoint. The underground Silurian lair is pleasingly evocative, as is the mausoleum, right down to the wet slap of the Silurians’ tread; the Galapagos Islands themselves are brought to full and exotic life: the cries of wheeling birds, the sound of shingle, the roar of the sea, the chirping of crickets…

Of course what this story has at its centre is science and religion. The Silurians’ mythology of Earth being destroyed (the sea boiling like acid, the storms, etc.) – explaining why they went into hibernation – strikes me here as resembling the Flood in Christian mythology. Each has their own set of stories about their ancestors and the world of long ago. Seeing the creatures, primordial lizards from before we existed, means Emilio “has reverted to the level of his primitive ancestors… Each of us, deep down, retains certain experiences from previous generations on a subconscious level. A race memory, if you like…Centuries ago, humanity was very different from how it is now. Mankind was essentially a species of apes. A very special kind called Australopithecus, but apes nonetheless… The clock has been turned back…the most powerful emotion he is feeling is fear, a huge overriding fear of these creatures, the Silurians, buried deep into the instinct. The shock must have brought that fear to the surface and caused centuries of progress to unravel.” Mankind are presented very much as animals themselves here, both aptly so for a story about Darwin’s theories, but also as an intriguing parallel to the Silurians. As the story goes on, Darwin becomes more and more convinced of his theories, and his conviction that “we are just animals. It is only through our arrogance that we put ourselves above them. Such supreme vanity that we think ourselves the image of some God… But I believed, Evelyn. I truly believed.” While Morris doesn’t have the time to explore all of Darwin’s inner insights, the struggle of faith he has to deal with is well rendered.

The moment in part 4 with Darwin focusing on his belief in evolution is perhaps a tad overdone. “I believe in descent through modification! I believe in natural selection!” The Doctor champions man’s ability to change and be changed, and to become master of his own destiny. “You are not God! There is no god!” It’s hardly subtle stuff, but it’s broadly laudable: that through a rejection of servitude, an acceptance of our place in the cosmos, death and fear can be defeated. How distressing, then, that it’s through Sh’vak that this triumph is achieved. And yet how true: mankind does not seem really capable of such a rejection, not yet.

Other thoughts:
 “The laws of nature! Nature is an unrelenting bloody battle of tooth and claw! There is no law in nature!”
Mostly an irrelevance, this, but it’s one of my favourite covers so far.
“This isn’t hurrying! This is my normal pace! If I was hurrying I’d be halfway over that mountain by now!”
Smythe is as gutsy as ever: “Put that ghastly book down and pay attention when I’m talking to you!”
 “I think I can just about manage to avoid being flattened in its path – if I’m swift.”
“It smells like a physics undergraduate!”
The Galapagos jokes are wonderful: “Actually, Galapagos is the Spanish word for ‘tortoise’. They named the islands after them, you see, which I suppose means that that is, in fact, a tortoise tortoise. And that’s something else I’ve taught us, haha!”
“It’s in their blood, you know. Criminals breed criminals.” This raises the interesting question of determinism and aptly so in a story dealing with evolution.
 “I thought you might relish the opportunity to see genius at work – well, another genius at work. You can compare our methods.”
“Trouble? Me? The very idea!”
Evelyn seeing a pair of bright lights beneath the water (the Myrka’s eyes staring out) is a nicely chilling image.
“Perhaps life is not immutable, moulded and set by divinity. Perhaps God’s hand has not shaped what we see… perhaps it is the result of natural order.”
“Survival of the fittest!”/ “what an odd expression.”
“The Doctor has many qualities… but being inconspicuous is not one of them.”
Evelyn’s academic tiredness of the tropes of Doctor Who stories – “That is just typical! A secret passage!” and “There’s no way out – not a ventilation shaft in sight!”
“I’ll explain later!” cries Six. I’m convinced this is an in-joke by the time of mid-2001. We’re long past the point at which The Curse of Fatal Death made it a running gag.
“It’s a sonic emission detector.”/ “What does it do?”/ “It detects sonic emissions!”
“Just as those creatures are to us nothing more than lizards… to them we are nothing more than apes…There is nothing to set man apart from nature! We are as much its subjects as any other creature! There was no Eden – it is a myth. No, it is not even a myth, it is a lie.”
The bacterial culture/plague subplot is reminiscent of Geoffrey Palmer’s fate in the original.
 “I don’t think I would necessarily believe him if he said all the world’s oceans were a bit on the wet side.”
The humans strung up in the Silurians’ larder like cattle, a visceral and disquieting image.
If this story has one key flaw, it’s the number of “locked-up-in-cells” scenes. Perhaps Morris slightly loses his tight grip on the latter two episodes, too, but the first two are so strong that I can’t fault this story too much.
“A god responsible for nothing may as well be no god at all.”
“In the skies above us are a million suns, each circled by their own worlds, and on those worlds, wherever there is the opportunity for life, you will find it. That is the miracle. Life endures. It thrives, it defeats every adversity. It creates order out of chaos. Above us is a universe full of wonder.”
The cliff-hanger to part 3 is bonkers but wonderful: “I created you. I am your God.”
Mankind “concocted, in a test tube somewhere”, yet ran wild. Quite the revelation!
“He has betrayed the natural order…the belief that is the foundation of Silurian culture, that life exists only as nature’s servant.” Tulok’s crime was to think himself set above nature itself – the same crime of which Morris implies humans are often guilty. His crime was to be too human.
“[the Silurian cities] were over a million years ago! Well, tell me, how many of your buildings would last that long? Your oldest structures are barely ten millennia old, never mind a hundred times that? Ask yourself, what will be humanity’s legacy? There won’t be any great monuments or fossils or graves or even one footprint. Not a single trace will remain. It will be as if mankind had never existed…You should see it as I see it. That’s history. All of human life just a brief candle in the darkness.” Another wonderful speech, delivered so well as always by Baker.
The Doctor’s cheek: “Bunker calling submersible! Can you read me? Over!”
Jokily dismissing Lawson: “Perhaps he had a domineering mother.”

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