Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 025. Colditz by Steve Lyons (October 2001)

Landing Doctor Who in a landscape like World War II is difficult. The Curse of Fenric gets away with it by the heavy use of symbolism and a discourse on myth and the arc of history, so that it’s about something allegedly grander and more universal. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances doesn’t really focus on the grander scope of the war, and really only engages with British society’s flourishing both during and after the war, so it gets away with it too. But Steve Lyons wants to land us right in the midst of Nazi Germany itself, and not trivially like Let’s Kill Hitler either – which did it with such ludicrously minimal relation to 1938 Berlin it’s practically like an episode of Red Dwarf in its treatment of the iconography of history. No, Lyons wants a story about Colditz Castle, hence the ominous titling of the story. Everything about this screams that it wants to be taken seriously. It’s the heart of Nazi Germany in 1944. As with The Fires of Vulcan, Lyons has done a reasonably good job on the research front: details like the treatment of Prominente are welcome in fleshing out the confines of the castle itself. There is no getting away from the fact Lyons doesn’t want us to go into this expecting a light-hearted romp.
But that’s what it is. I’m sorry, that’s what it is (in my book, anyway). And the difficulty of reconciling an Indiana-Jones-style romp with something that wants to make us ponder “how history could have been different” permeates most aspects of the story – for example, the rowdy British prisoners are a nice bit of Great Escape/Dad’s Army -esque levity, but they really ought to be a bit more world-weary, down-beaten if Lyons is wanting to sell the threat. Worst of all, Ace is a children’s TV character, even if we grant that this is a post-NA version of Ace (about which there seems to be some dispute). “Hi Tim, sorry about the Nazis; they insisted on coming in!” – these kind of lines are just hard to listen to. The tone is not one of complete levity like The Great Escape, nor is it a sort of absurdist black comedy like Catch-22. Scenes like Ace with the Walkman just … don’t work. I don’t believe the whole thing should be completely po-faced, but one must do justice to the kind of themes one is working with.

(It doesn’t help that Sophie Aldred’s performance here is one of her weaker ones, unfortunately. Her taunting Kurtz as a “lapdog” and saying “heel boy!” to him is one of the least believable things I’ve heard in the entire Big Finish range so far, and this is coming up against Freudian dolphins.)

McCoy starts off rather bored-sounding in this, but warms to the material as he goes on. There is a great moment where he subtly gains the upper hand on Schäfer as the latter discovers his double heartbeat: it’s a very Seventh Doctor scene. Similarly, he excels in the confrontation scenes with Kurtz, once again turning the tables by asking Kurtz questions instead of the other way round – puncturing his fear of his own cowardice and insignificance as a cog within a huge machine is a typically effective way for his Doctor to work. Two further examples are when he calls Klein out on her forgeries and later when he manages to handcuff her to a tree. Alas, we also get “There’s no excuse for genocide!” – and this speech doesn’t suit McCoy’s Doctor. The over-the-top anger never really works.

And so David Tennant makes his first professional foray into the Whoniverse, as Feldwebel Kurtz. It’s a completely different role to that of the Tenth Doctor he would go on to play, and the two characters are utterly distinctive. Tennant lends his character an odiously quiet menace (the character is a pervert, after all) and the capacity for explosions of anger, often within the same scene. The accent’s good too; all told it’s one of Big Finish’s better guest star performances and a strong effort from Tennant. Kurtz and Schäfer do fall into the fairly routine belligerent-compassionate rubric, but the dichotomy works reasonably well and both actors give great performances.

I can’t get away from a semi-personal reaction to this, as I study German at university and feel passionately about the incredibly myopic view the British tend to have of Germany, with minimal understanding of the country’s history and culture outside of World Wars I and II. Thus a fun-and-games Doctor Who story which picks as its German iconography the bog-standard Colditz Castle but does nothing with it is not likely to endear itself to me. “This is some manner of brainwashing equipment!” Kurtz says of Danny Pain blaring out of Ace’s Walkman: the kind of joke that is genuinely funny and would work terrifically elsewhere, but taste-wise, I remain unconvinced. Certainly, it’s clever in that anarchic bands like the Stone Roses explicitly subvert much fascist ideology. I just don’t know whether one ought to blend these two universes in as cavalier a way as Lyons does. Sure, one of the most effective ways to challenge authoritarianism is to laugh at it: Kurtz is mocked at every turn, a sheet thrown over his head to which he bawls, “You have assaulted an officer of the German Reich!” It’s the same treatment we get with Hitler in the 2011 episode, but here it’s far more central to the story. And you have to do it well, and I just don’t think Lyons is up to the job.

Things do get more interesting once Klein (played by Tracey Childs) shows up (giving us a wonderfully unexpected, left-field cliff-hanger to Part One). Klein is a good figure for the narrative to pivot around, centralising the mystery in a way it’s harder to do with the whole populace of Pompeii. She’s the centre of a beautifully done Part Two cliff-hanger too, as the Doctor realises just what transport Klein has been using… but it all takes a turn for a worse as the story goes on. This is clearly by the same writer as The Fires of Vulcan: a distinct period in history with recognisable iconography, no clear alien villains, but a healthy dollop of time paradox to add spice to proceedings. I am reminded of Amis’ great short novel Time’s Arrow, with its unexpected ‘temporal shenanigans’ take on the Holocaust, not to mention Robert Harris’ Fatherland. The problem here is that Lyons pulls the same trick as he did last time – the TARDIS’ destiny is as fixed here as it was in Pompeii (though for an admittedly shorter timespan), and here it is much, much more mathematical, calculated and uninspiring.

Quite frankly, I find quoting Macbeth the most eloquent (if a little cruel) way to summarise this story: “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” A wasted opportunity.

Other thoughts:
One of the more overdone scores (too obviously trying to scream militaristic too much of the time). God it gets tiresome towards the end, all drums and cymbals.
The opening scenes with the wind rushing through the trees give us a nice impression of a chilly October.
“It feels like home and all,” Ace says of Germany in 1944. Frankly the area around Leipzig is probably much more pleasant than Perivale.
“No time to explain; come on!”/ “But we haven’t been shot at yet!”
“There’s no need to take it out on the cutlery!” Good line delivery, McCoy.
“I don’t doubt that you’re prepared to do anything, go to any lengths, so long as your victims can never ever fight back! Anything to relieve your frustration because you’ve found out just how important you are to the people who run this camp, haven’t you? And you don’t like the answer…”
“You seem quite well-informed”/ “I’ve played the board game.”
“Be silent!”/ “I thought you wanted me to talk… but then perhaps you don’t know what you want.”
“People fall to line unmarked graves. Who will care about one single girl when the dust settles?”
“It’s a free country… well, you know what I mean.” I’m not one to shirk at bad taste, but… really?
“You know how his sort wind me up.” What, Nazis? Jeez, Ace.
“I’ll assume you just want to show me your treehouse,” the Doctor says deep in the German forest with an alternative future Nazi. Beautiful line.
No one says things like, “Okay, Tim, we’re in the sickbay. Now what?” in fact, the whole Wilkins/Ace escape plan scene is pretty poor.
“You can’t just dismiss history, Klein. It’s more fragile than you can ever imagine.”
The Doctor seems to have a love for the 60s as a decade, somewhat unsurprisingly. Ever the liberal.
 “It’s never too late. There’s always hope. In fact, I think I can hear your Golden Age beginning to crumble already.”
“I wouldn’t skin my knuckles on this microbe… fascists like you make my skin crawl!” etc etc. Sigh.
“Your decision to shoot us, in our backs, in cold blood, one by one. And I don’t think you will.” And then turning and walking away: very Happiness Patrol.
A nice and subtle nod that the kids’ TV names of “Ace” and “Professor” are recast as “McShane” and “Doctor”.

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