Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 031. Embrace the Darkness by Nicholas Briggs (April 2002)

Oh, soul of mine, born out of shadowed hills,
To clouds and winds and ghosts that shun the sun,
How many deaths shall serve to break at last
This heritage which wraps me in the grey
Apparel of ghosts? I search my heart and find
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.” – Cimmeria, Robert E. Howard, 1932

Just as heightened expectations can be the bane of Who fans, sometimes we come across the opposite: lowered ones. I was a tad disappointed with Cornell’s second story based on how much I enjoyed his first; but Embrace the Darkness was significantly more enjoyable than any other of Briggs’ audio dramas so far, and no doubt in part due to my trepidation in approaching it. It’s as familiarly Briggsian as the others – space opera, lots of roving assault units and force fields and crews in terrible situations – and that always means it’s to some extent traditional, but since I was expecting this I was more taken by the ways in which this breaks from The Sirens of Time, The Mutant Phase and Sword of Orion than the ways in which it resembles them.
It’s getting tiresome to praise the Doctor/Charley dynamic, but it’s as great as ever. Charley is pretty resourceful here – accessing the TARDIS data banks and proving to the Doctor she does pay attention: “I’m not just an historical curiosity after all, am I?” I was a bit dubious about the immediate suffering she goes through on Cimmeria IV – her losing her sight is a bit of an obvious “put the female in danger” trick; but Charley’s indignant rage at the Doctor trying to leave her behind in Part Four, and her subsequent dressing down of his foolish wishes of martyrdom, is well done: it reminds me of Ace’s rant at the Doctor at the end of Love and War or the one we get from Clara in Kill the Moon. Her “I told you, I’m here to look after you” determination and her belligerent retorts to the Solarians are both pretty solid. Although it doesn’t form a significant part of the story, the growing sense of momentum that we’re headed toward some kind of explosive climax for her paradoxically alive character has me rather worried. She’s likeable and spirited, and I want her to stick around for quite a while.

In the first few minutes in which Briggs is trying to establish the roles of Orllensa, Ferras and Haliard before all hell breaks loose, they’re likeable, down-to-earth and relatively convincing as team-mates who are used to one another’s foibles and idiosyncrasies. Unfortunately they do have a tendency towards the generic throughout the rest of the story – but the actors do some pretty reasonable work with underwritten roles. The fate that befalls the crew early on is gruesomely rendered (particularly the scene where Charley loses all sense of the light); Briggs really doesn’t shy away from the implications.

“I can’t see a thing… A planet with no sun and the lights go out, this is not good!” It’s been a while since we had a story whose premise is uniquely suited to the audio medium but this is another such great idea. This would look dull as ditchwater on screen but when we only have our ears to listen with rather than our eyes to see Briggs is able to conjure up the shadowy half-lit darkness beautifully, characters hunting for each other in the black, trying to follow each other’s voices… echoey, awash with a slow beat of electro chirping, replete with all manner of sinister humming, buzzing, whirring, launching escape pods, the clunk of airlocks, and accompanied by a stirring score, Briggs really directs the hell out of this. Impatient as I was with Sword of Orion, this guy has a great knack for space opera stories and their atmosphere.

And the voices. Oh God, the voices. The first time the creepy Cimmerian tones appear, whispering “Embrace the darkness… you are safe forever…”, it doesn’t half send a shiver down one’s spine; that said, my personal favourite has got to be the terrifying “What – are – eyes?” Superb though that one line is, even that pales into comparison with this moment: “I can see your faces. You don’t know, do you? Your eyes… You’ve lost your eyes.” One of the best-done cliff-hangers from Big Finish for a while in my view, the music builds to just the right point and then cuts off so we’re in absolute silence for Charley’s final killer line. And the sting is perfectly timed.

The Cimmerians, small and insignificant-looking in the flesh, are a real aural force to be reckoned with, a strong invention with an interesting and rather tragic history. Their blindness and reliance on other senses is something a bit different for a Doctor Who creature, and allows for an interesting look at a new type of alien race. The “history stew” is another great idea, as through a bowl of gloop Doctor and Charley are able to witness the births and deaths of millions of Cimmerians. That they are borrowed from a proto-Iranian race which actually existed around 3,300 years ago, via Homer’s inclusion of them in Book 11 of the Odyssey and Goethe’s mention of the land of Cimmeria in Faust II, adds to the sense that they’re semi-mythological.

What sets this story apart from Briggs’ other stories, other than the fact he gets to invent his own aliens rather than play with Daleks and Cybermen, is these irresistibly mythological dimensions to the toys in his toy-box. The obvious thing to point out here is the matter of the Cimmerians versus the Solarians is self-evidently associated with light vs dark, taking us via Christian theology way back into pretty much every pagan myth ever. It’s good vs evil, the explicitly Manichaean power struggle. What’s fascinating is the way it’s carefully and gently echoed in the characters themselves – Orllensa of course reflects one facet of this without being a direct and heavy-handed representative: the bitter and acrimonious cynic who has no time for sympathy with other creatures. The Doctor is the other “side”, the man who is even by name a healer, he who forges better worlds and stories just as the Cimmerians cannot help healing because it is in their nature.

But as you’d expect, this isn’t a Manichaean power struggle at all. That’s the point. Let’s look at the key phrase here – “Embrace the darkness or die.” What a fascinating sentence to make the centre-piece, indeed the title, of your story. For the Cimmerians it is of course true – they have evolved to the point where the light of artificial suns and the Solarians will spell their doom. But it also touches on what the pivot of that choice means. Continued survival means adopting the dark, just as the Cimmerians had to. It means accepting the world as a dark place, and being prepared to act accordingly, just as the Doctor frequently must. And yet the Doctor’s attempts to save the day nearly spell the end for the Cimmerians. And yet that end for the Cimmerians is in fact a reunion with the ancients of their kind. At every turn of the narrative, good and evil are downplayed, undermined, conflated, and blurred. Light and dark are in fact the same. The humans’ sight must be restored to them because that’s the kind of creatures they are, but the positively portrayed Cimmerians stay in the dark. What’s impressive is that this isn’t just arbitrary mysticism but is cleverly aligned with the Hitchhiker’s Guide-esque computer ROSM.  “I am one. My parts are many,” he states, echoing Legion from Mark 5:9 and encouraging us to understand these figures as complex shades rather than light or dark. Even clearer, it’s spelled out for us: “reality is uncertain.” Computers are unable to process the complexity of differing truths and untruths overlapping and contradicting one another. No wonder the mythological hinterland of Cimmeria features both here and in Italo Calvino’s postmodernist masterpiece If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. As that book teaches us, reality and even the stories we tell are anything but certain. There is in one sense no threat here, only differing agendas, misunderstandings, opposing points of view, which is very much the uncertain reality of our day-to-day lives.

Sure, it’s still got all of Briggs’ trademark flaws, and it drags a bit. But I think it’s quietly beautiful in its own way, and Briggs’ best work to date.

Other thoughts:
I like that the silly exposition lines we always have early in these kinds of stories are mockingly lamp-shaded for once: “That’ll be Orllensa.”/ “No, really?”
Like the last few episodes, there’s a little bit of foreshadowing for Neverland, here with the flotilla of Type 70 TARDISes, although it doesn’t encroach upon the episode much. “It’s probably just Rassilon’s Flag Day,” the Doctor surmises amusingly.
“Incredible colours. So bright.”/ “And then, one day, it wasn’t.”
The conceit of the TARDIS drifting forward in time at half a century per second is a great one, watching as the sun at the heart of the Cimmerian system dies out. Rather like the cracking scene with Clara in Hide.
Charley’s metaphor of a naughty schoolboy pulling the legs of caught insects fills one with a sense of dread: what will these creatures do to our heroes’ eyes?
Charley in a launch pod: it’s that scene from 42, five years early! Nicely done here, but a tad convenient it homes in on the nearest base, isn’t it?
The Eighth Doctor is every inch the poet, quoting away almost as much the Sixth: “Night's candles are burnt out and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain top” (Romeo and Juliet III.v)
Haliard’s screaming, his cackles and his conviction that he doesn’t exist, it’s all immensely sinister.
The Doctor: “I’ve spent most of my life being told I’m mad.”
“I may be feeling awful, but the one thing I’m not suffering from is an identity crisis, thank you.”
“Let us taste these eyes.” Creeeeeeeeepy.
“Why do you people always assume the worst?”/ “It’s safer that way.”
Orllensa singing a lullaby to the Cimmerian is an unexpected moment of grace and elegance amid all the sci-fi. I’m reminded of Abigail Pettigrew in A Christmas Carol.
“The first new dawn in the Cimmerian system for a thousand years… and it’s my fault.” This is Briggs with big ideas well-delivered, and the Doctor’s anguish over his actions is pretty well handled.
“Virtually every civilisation has its healer myths – stories of beings who can restore health, alleviate suffering with just the power of touch.” And the Doctor, of course, walking in eternity, is himself a healer.
“It feels compelled to heal, even at the expense of its own life.” This really reminds me of the Doctor, particularly in a story like The Caves of Androzani.
The ending is a tad undramatic even if the thematic implications are fascinating. But whizzbangs and explosions aren’t everything.
On a different note, I am unbelievably excited for Daleks quoting Shakespeare. I know it’s a bit divisive, this next one, but I have a feeling I’m going to love it.

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