Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 037. The Sandman by Simon A. Forward (October 2002)

“The question you need to ask yourself, Evelyn, is how well do you really know me?” The question is directed at us, too.

A story which casts the Doctor in the villain’s role (and not just a villain’s role, but one around which an entire legend has sprung up) is, incredibly, not one they’ve really done before (the opening of The Invasion of Time plays at it, maybe, and there’s callousness often present, and Moffat’s era often suggests how terrified alien races are of the Doctor dropping out of the sky and destroying their world – but we’ve never seen anything on this scale), and Baker is more than capable of rising to the challenge; he really does seem to be in the middle of a run of particularly terrific audios. He gets to add in a dash of his Season 22 persona here, boorish, unpleasant, belittling and bullying others, and never less than electrifyingly dramatic; Baker does great work with his voice, alternately contemptuous, dismissive, egotistic, and viscerally fierce. His looming looms out of the mist bellowing “General Voshkar! I AM THE DOCTOR! I AM YOUR SANDMAN!” is electric; his maniacal laughter is really quite disturbing; and the detail that he has been collecting skins before the Galyari finished shedding them is truly horrible. That the Doctor’s ridiculously colourful coat physically pains the Galyari (indeed, it’s crucial to the story) is a wonderfully mad plot point, and like much of …ish, highly apt for this incarnation. The revelation, of course, is that it’s all a big misunderstanding, and the Doctor has played the part of a monster to frighten the Galyari away from destroying other races. The unfolding of the mystery and the ramifications of the Doctor’s relationship of the Sandman and their fear of him is rather elegantly done, but still leaves us a little on edge as to how the Doctor could knowingly terrorise an entire race for millennia, seeping into the nightmares of their young. It’s always good to be left mildly uncomfortable with our heroes.
Not much Evelyn here, and if there’s a trade-off for the amount of depth Forward puts into other parts of the story, then it’s Maggie Stables who gets much less time in the limelight, but what there is works: “If it’s dangerous it’s probably our first port of call,” followed by “A happy accident? Sometimes I think that’s exactly what you are.”/“I’m not always a happy occurrence. To some I’m the devil incarnate.”/“I always imagined the devil to be better dressed,” and possibly the best line here, after the Doctor has ushered her first with “Ladies before Time Lords”: “Well, I hope you’re just as chivalrous when we have to run the other way.” I’m uncertain her reaction to the Doctor’s quasi-villainy is sufficiently upset or surprised; a bit more time could have been spent on this. This said, she does get some good stuff with Mordecan in Part Three.

The Sandman gives us a brand new alien race, the Galyari, which novelist Simon A. Forward does a good job of thinking through thoroughly (even if the number of lizard-like aliens in the universe seems higher and higher every minute). The early scenes give a good sense of the world in which they live and work, their vast space fleet, their culture; plus the individual figures are well characterised. In fact, Forward’s setting is strong in general; the star gypsy, Mordecan, is also pretty nicely done and it feels like a lot of effort has gone into creating the world. The Clutch is a terrific invention and gives the story a real sense of scale: “an exodus on this scale is measured in generations” – the imagery of creatures flocking together in numbers, the weak and feeble being picked off by a predatory monster, is effective, with its roots in nature red in tooth and claw being rather striking. Mordecan and Nrosha’s scenes give an impression of these characters having known each other for a while. “Crime is complete anathema to them [the Galyari]. They simply don’t understand the mind-set”: the Galyari sense of justice is to crush criminality and punish those who transgress very harshly.  I really like the flash-back to an ancient battle scene in Part Two: it lends the story a really interesting backdrop and goes some way further to flesh out the Galyari and their history with the Doctor. The Srushkubr, too, the “memory egg at the heart of every Galyari world”, is another excellent bit of world-building, as is the growth-sickness, a concept growing very organically out of our own understanding of reptiles, and the detail that they are descended from an avian species and venerate birds as their ancient ancestors.

The timing of this particular audio is personally very apt, as at the moment I’m quite in the thick of working on the oeuvre of E.T.A. Hoffmann, who of course wrote the original Sandman story in 1817, Der Sandmann. It’s perhaps too harsh to say that this not being a story set in folkloric/medieval Teutoburg or somewhere similar in Germany is a missed opportunity (though I do hope we get one at some point), and silly to criticise Simon A. Forward for being a writer of rather entertaining stories rather than a German literature academic(!), but given that the ancient tale is rewritten into a kind of space opera, a blend that by no means should gel easily, it works pretty well. The Doctor is a good fit for a folkloric figure, a shadowy legend much like the original Sandman itself: similarly powerful, similarly awe-inspiring, similarly eternal. Just not quite as malicious.

Other thoughts:
A corker of an opening, as the Galyari nurse warns, “Remember, children, what happens to young ones who do not behave… the Sandman will come for you. He will tear off your hides and weave them into his cloak. Settle down, little ones, and make no sound. There now. Lay still in the dark and he will not find you.” The stuff of nightmarish childhood horror and classic storybook fears.
Wonderful incidental music and atmosphere – kudos to Gary Russell, as ever. The reveal of the Clutch in Part One is lovely, and there’s another beautiful theme for the sunbird in Part Two.
“There is nothing any of us can do against him. We are all of us at the Doctor’s mercy.”
Thanks to voice modulation, Anneke Wills is unrecognisable as Nrosha but it’s still a great performance.
“My black look, as you put it, is simply an involuntary outward manifestation of some less than savoury dark thoughts…”
“To the inhabitants of the Clutch, to the Galyari people, I am a bad memory.”
The Part One cliff-hanger is a great one: “I am every bit the monster they believe me to be…”
“I’m sitting comfortably. You may begin.”
Perhaps the highest praise I can give this story is that half-way through, I had absolutely no idea where it was going.
“I am the Sandman, come to haunt your dreams for evermore…to look directly upon me is death! I wear the skins of your dead. I am your nemesis.”
The logic behind the name “the Sandman” seems to have been reducing the Srushkubr to a fine powder, but surely the Doctor would have been aware of that figure’s mythic history too.
“I’m sorry, Evelyn; running and electronic wizardry just don’t go together!”
“The hero’s way should precede that of the coward.”
“It’s only natural to hate the things we don’t understand.” For the Galyari, the Doctor’s vigilante-style antics are unfathomable.
“For once, I’m grateful someone thought to bring a large gun.”
“You are more god than I, Doctor! You created me, this universe of fear and darkness in which my people live. You carved this apparition of fear in their minds.”
“Where I come from, death isn’t anything to be feared. Death is a form of ‘growth-sickness’. We just shed a new layer to allow a new skin to breathe.”
“We can’t always reap what we sow, but in the end, it’s what we sow that really matters.” Surprisingly lovely line.
“I’d hope I was still good for a spot of bedtime reading material, for the next few centuries at the very least” – another of my favourite lines, with a nice acknowledgment that many, many stories have gone on since Baker’s Doctor.

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