Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 041. Nekromanteia by Austen Atkinson (February 2003)

As I’ve made clear on this blog, I generally find it much easier to love works of art than I do to hate them. Let me clarify this position: I do not mean I consciously inhibit my critical judgment, or love things blindly without being aware of gaping flaws. I mean I tend to find something of worth in most works of art, regardless of flaws – and that I prefer to examine things from the point of view of what it is they are trying to do and what they do well, even if it doesn’t all quite come off. Dickens, for example, is heavily flawed (those plots are creaky as hell, and we all know it) but the brain is quite capable of engaging the two contradictory trains of thought – that the plotting is flawed as anything and that there’s an energy and vitality to it that captivates so much it just doesn’t matter. The best Doctor Who stories in my view – City of Death, The Caves of Androzani, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang – are still the ones where, as I watch, I know exactly what they’re doing wrong, what the weaker elements are, and what other people may not like about them. That doesn’t matter to me. They’re strong enough that I just don’t care. It’s genuinely less effort to enjoy them than it is to niggle.
Continuing my long digression, the night before I began listening to Austen Atkinson’s Nekromanteia, I quite incidentally went to watch Molière’s “The Doctor in Spite of Himself” at the theatre. It’s a piece of farcical French comedy written in 1666 and centred on the unpleasant, misogynistic Sganarelle. The women have very little to do and are by and large treated as trophies or comical sex objects. And the thing is, I love Molière’s stuff. I know he’s a master of the form. I know he’s a great playwright. And I felt like I owed the canon some effort to try and like it; I wanted to like what I was seeing. I really, really did.

But some things carry on too far to the point where you simply can’t pretend to like them anymore, because it would be wrong and unjust to do so. Such is Nekromanteia. I love Doctor Who, and I love almost everything it can do. But some things are not easy to forgive, and sadly Austen Atkinson’s one and only script for the show is one of them.

Beginning with a melodramatic bunch of chanting, screeching witches and unpromising signs of a “holy relic” did not fill me with confidence, and once we get on to blind beggars doing Drusilla impressions as they whittle vaguely “demonic” statues I started to become more concerned about the pulpy nature of what was to come. Summoning gods, raising the cadavers of dead witches, decapitations, cutting out tongues and hearts, the shrieking performance of Gilly Cohen as Jal Dor Kal… it’s a bit much. It’s also hardly ideal, if yours is a story which already suffers from problematic portrayals of women, to make one of your major female characters a screeching harpy.

Davison allegedly made a request that Atkinson never be invited back to write for Big Finish, and it shows; he sounds bored as hell with the material. Seriously, this is his weakest performance to date. He mumbles his way through lines, seemingly deliberately fluffing ones like reference to Peri’s perfume or Thesanius as “not entirely fond of humanoid females” because he’s genuinely embarrassed by what he’s being asked to say. “Between the two of you I could develop quite a persecution complex,” is another horrible line, hinting at how he is nagged by the two women with whom he keeps company, both of whom have at various points saved his life (and the thing is, it’s not just the line in isolation, but the fact that it is only one part of a story that does this repeatedly). The concept of him appearing in a cricket dreamscape/time-loop when he thinks he’s dead is the story’s only great idea.

Nicola Bryant does some good work early in the story, as she and Erimem go off to explore the market together; she seems to be in a slightly cheekier mood than she is normally. There’s also a nice moment where she finds a stall selling herbs at the bazaar, and it’s good to see Erimem exploring a new planet – not to mention a pleasant nod back to The Eye of the Scorpion in Antranak’s reappearance.

But these rare flashes of charm are few and far between. Peri is now all perfume, face packs and obsessing over finding a man with a “body to die for” (shitty choice of words, Atkinson! Rewatch Mindwarp), where she hadn’t been remotely like this before; it feels like a shockingly lazy attempt to pad out her lines with “girls’ stuff”. And when she isn’t doing that, she reverts to the Sawardian trope of “peril object”, verbally and physically abused, intimidated and incarcerated, covered in anointing oils (seriously?! I didn’t know till now it was possible to shamelessly pander to the objectifying male gaze over audio, but we sink, it seems, to a new low). Erimem also gets treated in this manner, which I’ll come to presently.

The body count is higher than most stories I can recall that aren’t Resurrection of the Daleks and the aesthetic very much standard Saward: Doctor Who as taking place in a world of ugly, exploitative corporations run by nasty, brutish people. The epitome of this is (Glyn Owen’s poor performance of) the gruff and callous Harlon. Let’s not beat about the bush: the end of Part Two, with Harlon’s beating and attempted rape of Erimem, is shameful. Horrific, in fact. It’s not just the idea of “stock male character lusts after the companion” itself – although that’s hardly something one wants to see in Doctor Who, it is something the programme has done before (as way back near the start as The Keys of Marinus, no less) and thus regrettably in the show’s tradition, even if I wish BF were above such things. It’s not just that. It’s the cavalier manner in which the whole thing is treated. Erimem picks herself up and carries on. It’s mind-bogglingly trivial, and the very definition of “gratuitous”. Because Atkinson is a shoddy enough writer that this story ends up never being actually about anything, the rape attempt, the scenes that treat Peri and Erimem as peril objects for males to rescue, all this becomes completely indefensible. I am not, of course, saying, “if these scenes had served the plot or the themes it would have been okay”. But it is possible to write good, adult fiction about traumas, both enduring them and surviving them. Nekromanteia is neither good nor adult – although it thinks it’s the latter. It couldn’t be further from adult. It’s juvenile, puerile and leering. The beautiful bounce of the familiar 80s theme felt, in a fashion, desecrated (if I might lift the story’s vocabulary) coming after such ugly storytelling.

Earlier this same week I also saw a filmed version of the Young Vic’s production of A Doll’s House. The day, as it so aptly happened, was International Women’s Day. The production was horrifying, heartbreaking, liberating and enthralling in equal measure, an indictment of the unequal brokenness of our world. It is still one of the foremost, superbly unsettling and superbly challenging feminist works of all time. It was written in 1879.

Writing something like Nekromanteia in 2003 is inexcusable.

Other thoughts:
I haven’t even started on the lazy Middle East/black magic connections. Atkinson said he wanted the story to be about “corporate world versus the ancient”. Sure, it’s there, in the background, but by god it’s piss-poor.
As one of the story’s pluses, the atmosphere is well-maintained by John Ainsworth throughout, whether it’s the deck of a starship, a jungle, or a bazaar; that the story is set in various locations in the Nekromanteia system does give things a wide scope. The score is also evocative and moody.
As ship’s names go, I quite like the Tempest.
“Tallis, find out which schools and colleges Harlon’s children attend. I fear something bad might be about to happen to them.”
A nice nod to BF continuity to see the Garazone system from Sword of Orion, especially as that was one of the things I actually did like about that earlier story (even if the background melody gets really, really annoying).
Pakhars. Just why?! At least Thesanius isn’t as annoying as Geri from Bang-Bang-a-Boom.
The Doctor carries smoke grenades now?
Yal Rom’s stuff doesn’t half drag on, though one can hardly blame Nigel Fairs – the sequences just feel tedious on audio.
“That’s what I like about you space boys! You know just what to say to a girl!” – Sigh.
“I’m Peri. Human. Female. I guess you noticed that last bit.” Stop it!
“I was born with trouble tattooed on my ass.” – What the fuck is this script?
“Either you’re an officer or you’re a woman. You can’t be both.” I give up.
The decapitated Doctor, while watching cricket: “It’s so easy to lose your head in this heat.” (Yay, finally, a great line!)
I love cats, but it’s both strange and unconvincing (and also, maybe, I dunno, awfully convenient for the plot) that Antranak goes everywhere with the main characters.
“Chaos will reign.”/“You’ll make entropy look like a welcome guest at a physics convention.”
A cat saves the universe? Well, that’s novel, I’ll give it that.
“Next time we visit Earth, the Doctor will find you a new Antranak.”/“Oh, must I?”/“YES!”

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