Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 030. Seasons of Fear by Paul Cornell & Caroline Symcox (March 2002)

What an interesting choice it is to use as the next returning monsters (only the fifth, after Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors and Silurians) those slightly silly guys from that old 1979 Christmas pantomime in your new script for Big Finish. It’s not even really fan service – no, they’re not popular enough for that; much like the Macra in Gridlock, this isn’t something for which even die-hard fans had been longing for years. The Nimon are well-used here (though hardly the story’s big draw) and function pretty reasonably in the audio format, so I wouldn’t say it’s fan disservice, which would be the trite answer: that the writers are knowingly doing this to piss fans off. Cornell doesn’t seem that kind of writer. But what is it? I think the answer is that Cornell and Symcox wanted a remnant of the show’s past, something totemic from its own mythology, but without having to resort to the quagmire of continuity and fan expectation that springs up around the A-list and even B-list villains – frankly, they wanted something whose reveal at the end of Part 3 is as much of a gag as it is a big dramatic beat.

What of the rest of the story? The stylish Part One is the strongest. New Year 1931, Singapore: like Brazil in Loups-Garoux, an inspired choice for a Doctor Who setting in the audio medium. How vivid, how marvellous. I’d have been happy if we’d stayed there! As I’ve said so many times before now, these kinds of settings really suit our main characters too, all classy hats, stunning buttonholes, tea gardens, and glittering firework skies over the junks in the harbour. As in The Stones of Venice, we get a lovely bit of melancholic Eighth Doctor, sitting alone in the tea garden, “my interest somewhat a matter of maudlin reflection… deep in my own thoughts when a shadow fell over me.” The chemistry between the two has never been finer and like The Chimes of Midnight before it, Charley’s complex backstory still looms large over this story. “Doctor, this problem with time…be honest with me: is it my fault?” India Fisher plays this scene wonderfully, confronting her rescuer over her illicit survival, and the Doctor’s refusal to accept Time will not let him save her is very touching. The two get another wonderful scene early in Part Three as the Doctor convalesces and they discuss Grayle and the Doctor’s antagonism. Charley describes the Doctor as “my best friend.”

As ever, Paul McGann’s Doctor gets lots of cool things to do. “You obstruct me again!”/ “It’s what I do.” In Sebastian Grayle, McGann finds a kind of Delgado-figure to deal with, both frustrated by and enjoying their continuous sparring. The Doctor definitely takes relish in hampering Grayle’s schemes, but isn’t afraid to hold back in challenging him – there’s an edgy moment where he confesses, “I think I actually wanted to kill Grayle.” He cuts a swashbuckling figure duelling away in 19th century Buckinghamshire under the moonlight, and falling out of the sky back into Roman Britain is a marvellous escape from what looked like an impossible scenario. Once again self-mythologizing (see The Fires of Vulcan), he describes himself to dazed Roman soldiers as “a messenger from mighty Mithras, a being of the sun fallen from the sky.”

A shadowy figure from the Doctor’s future who will later kill him corners him purely to gloat, tempting him into a trap using a past back-story unique to his companion, to which the Doctor responds by meddling and rewriting events, such that the figure only wants to kill him because the Doctor started meddling; and the culmination of the Doctor’s meddling allows the villain’s more innocent younger self to see what he will become. Moffat has been taking notes. Stephen Perring does a great job as Grayle/Gralae. An immortal figure, with various personas through British history, older than the Doctor himself, seeing the passage and ruin of time: what an irresistible premise. At first I thought I would have liked to have seen more darkness in him, mind; he felt a tad pantomime, but I did like that everything stemmed from the banality of necessity – he needed more money to marry the woman he wanted, and thus a chain of events is set on motion that in its own way kind of sort of accidentally means the Nimon can conquer the universe. Whoops. That’s a nicely subtle recognition that terrible things aren’t always raving lunatics, just people trying to get what they want, bumbling about, knocking things over, trying to pull it all together, all semblance of humanity slowly decaying in the meantime.

Then we get three stories for the price of one. The Roman soldiers joking about the Picts’ virility is rather amusing, their drizzly setting evocatively done and a wonderfully natural choice for the mythological trappings Cornell and Symcox want to include. The weaving of the Mithras legend and the soldiers’ Mithraism with the Nimon of Doctor Who legend is rather smart. The Roman empire is a nice substitute for the Skonnan one of The Horns of Nimon,too, and the fact that sacrifices and tributes are common to both cultures similarly makes the otherwise stretched parallels work. It also allows us the cracking joke of the Mithraist ceremony being identical to the Church of England – no surprise, given Symcox’s profession. What comes up next is a rowdy Spooner-style Hartnell historical in the court of Edward the Confessor, followed by a section that feels very much like Sheridan’s 1770s play The Rivals (right down to the duel), as well as the more obvious Austenian influence. It’s a romp that shows us British history through the ages, and although this never quite sits at ease with the very vivid and sinister idea of Grayle the immortal, I like both concepts so much separately that the difficulty the writers have in fusing them didn’t irk me too much when I sat back and pondered the story.

This is a different sort of Paul Cornell from the one who wrote The Shadow of the Scourge: it’s bouncy and fun, suffused with a very different flavour to his earlier stuff as well as his new series TV contributions. Most quest stories feel a little bit messy and unfocused, and unfortunately this is no exception – the individual chunks along the way are a tad undercooked and throwaway, not amounting to all that much, and this makes it feel like a basically more sophisticated version of the Chase with some rather heavy-handed foreshadowing at the end. If this sounds like I’m being overly critical, I’m not really: this is fun and well-done. Perhaps it’s not the masterpiece one would expect from the writer of The Shadow of the Scourge.

It’s not great. It’s not awful. It’s pretty much good fun. It’s – dare I say it – temperate.

Other thoughts:
That the opening narration comes from our enigmatic central character is quite refreshing and different, and signals that this is a relatively personal adventure for the Time Lord (and I believe it’s a conceit that will be returned to in the finale).
When the Doctor asks Grayle’s opinion of his new hat: “Such folly. Such arrogance.”/ “Such a pleasure not to meet a yes man!”
“Are you confusing me with someone else? I’m not the one who says you must obey me, I don’t meddle, and I’m not a glamorous woman at the moment.” Witty, nice continuity flourish, and a reference to Time Lords changing gender long before the Corsair. Marvellous.
The Doctor exclaims “my aunt Flavia” when he wants to register how much a notion is piffle: “my aunt Flavia, he’s his granddad…”
“We have licence to meddle.” – a corker of a line.
“I don’t really know how to put this.”/ “How unusual!”
Oh, Doctor: “Now, just take a moment to consider how well we’re doing. For once we’ve arrived somewhere in exactly the right costumes, having thoroughly read up on our destination… it feels luxurious!”
“How exactly do you knock on a tent?”
The Eighth Doctor gets to use TWO future Doctors’ catchphrases: “Fantastic!” and “Geronimo!”
You’ve got to love Charley: “Oh, of course it falls to me to sort through the used undergarments of an ancient Briton.”
“You’re just in time for the bloodbath!”/ “Story of my life.”
Gosh, the Dalek by the gates of the fort was quite the surprise! All to be explained, I gather.
“You learn to see such details when you’re used to the bitchiness of Time Lords.”
“Doctor…who?”/ “My enemies never ask me that. Isn’t it terrible?”
“My hand wants to go to my mace and slay you for all my seasons of fear.”
“Sorry, I’m soliloquising again. Filthy habit.”
“I’ve ceased to notice the way the dust motes quibble. I concern myself now with no one but earls and kings and angels.” Now THAT is a fantastic line.
“the most beautiful woman in England… probably”. Not only a City of Death reference, but it seems the Doctor’s bumbled near-marriage to Edith doesn’t deter him from his later dalliances with Marilyn Monroe and Queen Elizabeth.
“We took off as soon as politeness allowed, possibly sooner than that.”
“Oh! Buckinghamshire! Another opportunity to wear a nice dress.”/ “Be a bit conspicuous wouldn’t it?”/ “An opportunity for me.”
The Doctor, about to duel: “Is it too late to suggest a round of bridge?”
The end of Part Three is a classic 70s Who moment, as ancient minotaur-like mythical beasts materialise in the underground caves of a faux-aristocrat (however the editing on these Big Finish cliff-hangers often leaves a bit to be desired; the sting always coming a second or two after what sounds like the most climactic moment – it really undoes the drama).
“He smelt of honey. He always let his tea cool for far too long before he drank it. And he always let me win at Scrabble…I think.” A rather touching tribute from Charley.
Stephen Fewell’s Lucilius gets a rather lovely little character arc, going from the lacklustre and mopey soldier in Part One, ashamed he never fulfils his purpose as a warrior, to the champion of Part Four who fights against the Nimon as Mithras did the demon bulls.
People are “insects that can die in a season”.
Those who don’t like NuWho’s reset buttons won’t be too  with the denouement of this one…
“My head, it’s full of different memories. Contradictory ones.”/ “That’ll last until you sleep. And then you’ll know some of them as memories and some of them as dreams. Don’t worry, everything will be taken care of us. The tides of time will wash us all clean.” – there’s a Series 6 short between Eleven and Amy, Good Night, that’s very like this.
“Do you know what the most wonderful thing of all is…I got through this whole business without referring to the horns of a dilemma or exclaiming “Holy cow!”’
Don Warrington’s surprise appearance as the “Auditor” and the creature that resembles Charley mean the story is laden with foreshadowing for this year’s season finale, Neverland. And I for one can’t wait…

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