Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 028. Invaders from Mars by Mark Gatiss (January 2002)

Aesthetically this romp-cum-Hallowe’en-creep-fest is placed in just the right release order between the pantomime antics of The One Doctor and another helping of Rob Shearman’s world of terror in The Chimes of Midnight. It’s more serious than the former, but not by very much. For Mark Gatiss’ second (and last, as far as I can tell) audio play, he turns away from the Hinchcliffe-esque mist and manor house aesthetic of Phantasmagoria towards a more open toying with the conventions of old Hollywood B-movies, blending shadowy gangsters with silly aliens rather well. I haven’t actually seen the movie from which Gatiss’ title derives, so I’m probably not his ideal audience, but there’s still a lot to enjoy and it’s told with more flair and panache than his previous effort.
Some claim the first episode is dragged down by too many characters but Gatiss does a good job on directing duties, plunging us straight into the story, with a great soundscape of honking car horns, antiquated radio voices, and a reasonably good stab at everything sounding authentically American (certainly more so than Minuet in Hell, anyway!) There’s some lovely detail, such as the forthcoming talk by a professor on the New Deal, the references to Chamberlain, the wider global context, etc. The atmosphere is kind of film noir in the opening scenes of stolen merchandise, private detectives and the subsequent rendezvous (The Angels Take Manhattan begins in a similar manner), although as with most Gatiss things it’s semi-pastiche in a half-serious, half-knowing way that good Doctor Who stories always do well. It’s also really nicely plotted: plenty of great twists and turns. The little brass flourishes at the end of each part, just before the cliff-hanger, are yet another example of this being an assured production that knows exactly the kind of atmosphere it wants to create and quietly and confidently gets on with doing just that.

Tying an alien invasion in with Orson Welles’ famous 1938 broadcast is an irresistible blend, but initially the story keeps Welles at a curious arm’s length and it rather makes one wonder why this choice was made: fortunately, this gets tied (sort of) into the main plot once the calls about the audio play being real run alongside the monsters themselves arriving, even if they’re mostly comic stooges and don’t leave a great impact. David Benson does the famous readings very well, beautifully accompanied by the appropriate score (and how wonderful that Don Chaney completely misses this historic moment!). H.G. Wells’ distinctive prose really adds to this story’s atmosphere and quirky charm, and there’s a wonderfully gruesome sequence where War of the Worlds is read out over Cosmo Devine injecting Charley with a truth serum.

McGann’s Doctor is becoming quite the name-dropper and giver of anecdotes, here referencing an unseen tidal adventure with King Canute. Nice little touch. His performance here is more assured and natural than it was in his first season, by and large; he sounds like a proper adventurer here, throwing himself into situations, pretending to be Halliday for the hell of it, and this most British of Doctors trying his hand at 30s Brooklyn slang with terrific results (“So Miss B, what’s the rumpus? You cracking foxy with me or is you in trouble with the Bricks? They gonna drag you down to the hole because some guy gets shot through the pump with a heater?... Local patter, Charley. Always helps breaks the ice. As it happens it’s a particular skill of mine.” Similarly his American accent at the hotel in Part Two is woeful!) His ingenious idea to use the hysteric paranoia over the H.G. Wells broadcast as a “fake” invasion to get rid of the Laiderplacker is wonderful, and finally offers an in-plot justification for the inclusion of Welles’ character.

There's a vague sense this story is doing something kind of clever in terms of it being an audio story about the audio medium, but that's kind of a one second realisation of "hm! clever" if you don't have a truly solid story to back it up. And Gatiss rarely does anything great with his themes aside from blend the pastiches together - the aliens aren't audio-specific, and they aren't defeated in any meaningful way aside from a vague reiteration that "the Orson Welles broadcast was so believable everyone thought it was true and EVEN ALIENS WOULD HAVE BEEN SCARED BY IT", which isn't really a theme or a point, it's just kind of historical fact plus the author's own whimsy.

India Fisher doesn’t get a great deal to do this time around, mostly spending the story locked up, and this is a particular shame coming after Minuet in Hell, but I gather this second series of McGann stories boasts quite a lot of good Charley moments so I’m willing to forgive on that front. The surrogate companion, Jessica Stevenson’s Glory Bee, works rather nicely, although the “twist” that she’s a Soviet agent when she’s got an “uncle” with a Russian surname is bone-dead stupid. Just makes the Doctor look like a bit of a plank, really. I can’t help feeling that the arrival of the two aliens (moments later in the story) should have been the Part Two cliff-hanger, not a revelation as obvious as the one we got.

All told, this steals a whole lot of different derivative and hackneyed bits and pieces, but it’s still a nice spin on something Doctor Who hasn’t really attempted before. Full credit to Gatiss, he can do entertaining well enough, even if he’s short on ambition. But that’s a bit of a quibble – by and large this is another solid if unexceptional release.

Other thoughts:
How good to hear the Big Finish Eighth Doctor theme again. It’s probably not my favourite, but simply because I associate it with more McGann, it’s always good to hear it at the start of a new adventure.
“There’s a fine art to successful chicanery.”/ “Aah, you don’t even know what that means!”
Love the names. Halliday, Ellis, Mouse, and so on.
“Well, judging by that skyline and that taxi driver’s language… and that dead man… I’d have to say New York City.”
“I see little green men all the time… all it takes is just a few hours with my old friend Jack Daniels!”
After Matt Lucas and Christopher Biggins last month, Big Finish is attracting some great names at the moment. Simon Pegg is fantastic (if almost unrecognisable) as Don Chaney (his best bit? Seconds after gunning down two hitmen with a laser: “Luigi, could we have the tab please?”), and we also get the equally good Jessica Stevenson as Glory Bee. John Arthur is also great as the flamboyant Cosmo Devine, playing up the man’s vanity with just a touch of Danny-John Jules’ Cat from Red Dwarf. Not to forget the marvellous Paul Putner!
“I never advertise the title [of Doctor] – people badger you to look at their tonsils.”
“I think you’re wanted, Cosmo!”/ “Uh-huh… in forty-nine states.”
“Something smells rotten here.”/ “You’re standing on a sewer.”
“Search me. Engage the man at the desk in conversation, you know – politics, weather, approaching war, that kind of stuff… well, failing that, feign death. It always works for me.”
Trivia: Gatiss uses the name Stepashin twice in his Who oeuvre, here and in Cold War.
The Doctor has a “weakness for Manhattan cocktails.”
“Every now and then I treat myself to a complete makeover,” the Doctor says of regeneration.
“Extra-terrestrial, or I’m a Dutchman.”
“The Martians have landed!”/ “I sincerely hope not.” Nice that knowledge of Who’s past in terms of the Ice Warriors looms over this story.
“I can’t let you do it!”/ “Well, boo-hoo.” (A great reaction to the Doctor, frankly).
“You know what young carnivorous alien mammal-like monsters are like. Always getting into scrapes.”
Noriam and Streath’s admiration of the bridge is priceless.
“It will make a glorious spectacle, as it crashes in flames, like the rest of this benighted globe.”
Cosmo Devine on the Eighth Doctor: “What is this, Victorian revival week?”
Mars is “Sol Four, the red one you probably passed on your way in.”
Lovely Scum Devine gag.
“How does it feel to betray your entire planet?”/ “A lot like betraying your country, but just that teensy bit more satisfying.”

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