Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 043. Doctor Who and the Pirates, or The Lass That Lost a Sailor by Jacqueline Rayner (April 2003)

To the question “Should I write a Doctor Who musical episode?” the answer should reliably be “yes.” From the melancholic harmonica opening at the get-go I knew this would be one of Big Finish’s great scores, and composer Timothy Sutton pulls out all the stops at every juncture. Part Three of course, is the big show-stopping moment, twenty-eight minutes of non-stop, beautiful folly. It’s not just the score though; the direction is absolutely sumptuous, expansive like few other audios, filled with a myriad of figures clashing and fighting to really convey the scope of the High Seas (and if the cheers of the crew sound faintly generic, we can blame that on Evelyn’s telling of the story).
Jacqueline Rayner quite clearly writes better for Dr Evelyn Smythe than anyone else does (although Shearman comes close); this is the best our old friend’s been since, well, The Marian Conspiracy. Her scenes with student Sally are great fun, fleshing her out a bit more and allowing her narrative control over her own story (though I’m coming to that). Even within the pirate story itself she’s on terrific form, taking no nonsense from the Captain, sorting out the burning ship, playing “Evil Evelyn”, and so on. She is at her best when sympathising with people whom she cannot properly save or whose fortune she cannot alter, but whose lot she can ameliorate for a little while – with Derek the Dalek in Jubilee, and here with Jem the cabin boy. It’s a pretty definitive Evelyn story.

The overblown and colourful world of panto piracy is another one that really seems to suit the Sixth Doctor, that man of bombast (goodness, Big Finish are finding ever more interesting things to do with Colin Baker, aren’t they?). He throws himself into such a world with aplomb, defeating Red Jasper in a duel on the deck of the Sea Eagle in the first ten minutes, and Baker’s singing in Part Three (his pantomime training must have contributed here, methinks) is exemplary. “The Very Model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer” (which I confess I had heard long before this on YouTube, because it’s so marvellous) deserves to be heard by many more people: it’s funny and clever, it’s got some lovely name-drops, and it sums up the Doctor in general and this incarnation in particular, even having the time to debate the canonicity of K9 and Company and make a joke about Gallifrey’s allegedly Irish nomenclature. Similarly beautiful is his piratical contest with Merryweather (right down to quaffing rum!). The only correct response is to clap.

Rayner writes very literary Doctor Who, I find, full of all kinds of narrative tricks you couldn’t necessarily do on television. I had absolutely no inkling a Doctor Who pirate/musical story would be this cleverly written and experimental, so full credit to Rayner, easily one of BF’s best writers. That the story (often at key moments) is interrupted by little asides between Evelyn and Sally (a great performance from Helen Goldwyn) is riotous fun, especially given it seems like a call-back to The Princess Bride with its grandfather and grandson also reading an adventure story and making meta remarks all the way through. Sally is a bit like the cynical younger generation who has grown up without Doctor Who whilst Evelyn is the old-school fan who insists the story is as good as she remembers. The tricks, switches, back-pedalling, twists, doubling up of roles etc., are beautifully done and the sudden insertion of Sally, only to have her replaced by Jem, is great too. Rayner deploys every piratical cliché in the book and then sends them all up with elegance and panache – in its own way, this is as clever as The One Doctor, highlighting all the ridiculous elements of Doctor Who stories and then carrying on anyway. It gets even cleverer in Part Two when the Doctor shows up at Sally’s and the narrative is split between them, and then again of course when Jasper relates his own tale of serving under Ezekiel Bones. Narrators within narrators; the transmission of texts handed down from one teller of tales to another. But the thing about the transmission of texts is details get garbled and emphasis distorted – pirates themselves are the victims of this as much as anything else in history, being transformed from properly ruthless killers to fairground whimsy; Rayner’s script acknowledges this balance rather well, transitioning from fun Gilbert & Sullivan ditties to cutting out a man’s tongue with abruptness.

The moment where the Doctor’s, Sally’s and Merryweather’s melodies intertwine in the song “Jasper’s Man” is particularly fine; that it seeps into the present and the very real-life struggle Sally is coming to terms with – the death of her lover in a car accident – is a sudden but very welcome turn up for the books, and one that feels rather like the NAs in tone. Silly stories about pirates in such a grim world as Sally’s: what is the point of them? The closing moments of Part Four are beautifully, delicately rendered, with stunning characterisation for each of the three present-day characters: not only do we get a heart-breaking glimpse of Evelyn and the story “so close to her heart”, we also see the Sixth Doctor at his very gentlest, and Helen Goldwyn truly delivers the goods with a layered performance as the tortured Sally. This is the show’s best depiction of mental health for some time.

It might be ten or fifteen minutes too long, but what’s so perfect about Doctor Who and the Pirates (and how much more appropriate that a panto-riffing story like this gets its full title rather than something like The Silurians) is the balance it strikes between sending up, indeed mercilessly parodying, musicals and the cliché of happy-ever-after endings and yet reiterating their worth and exactly why in certain instances we need them. Sally needs them, and so do we. It is our stories –examples, gestures and glimpses into other lives – that heal, not rhetoric or other attempts to cure. Perhaps not necessarily our fictional stories: memories, after all, like Evelyn’s, are stories. But we’re all stories in the end. Sometimes those stories are riotous romps, sometimes they’re terribly sad. The best ones are both.

Other thoughts:                                                                                                                 
“It really isn’t a good time.”/“Nonsense! It’s a perfectly good time!” Evelyn is so wonderfully lacking in niceties at times, it’s great.
“Imagine if you will that your favourite lecturer and confidante had the opportunity to travel in a time machine… Could you pass me a plate, I don’t want to get crumbs everywhere.” This is why we love Evelyn, she has this great gleam in her eye (OK, not literally, but in her voice) and a twinkling of magic and mischief but at the end of it all she’s so loveably pragmatic and down-to-earth, too.
“I say, what’s going on. My hammock’s all wet!”
I love the idea of a B-list pirate like Red Jasper, one even the Doctor hasn’t heard of, and in Bill Oddie’s hands the larger-than-life character leaps off the page. Nicholas Pegg, too, gives a hilariously overdone performance as Captain Swan.
“The Great Fire of London?”/“Ah, now that he doesn’t like to talk about.”
“I honestly have no ideas how many of his tales are true. I don’t know if he has. Fantasy and reality can get confused after a while.”
“Sliced to pieces by a non-entity? What a way to go!”
The bit where Sally points out the plot holes and Evelyn goes, “Sssh. The Doctor’s making a big speech” is quite probably the show’s best meta gag since The Curse of Fatal Death. Perfect.
“I think the Mate may have had a bit of a thing for the Captain, which was very odd, because Captain Swann was an extremely unattractive man. He had sweaty feet and oiled his hair.”
“It was awful. Not just the death. But that no one really cared. If there’s someone left behind who cares, it makes the life more meaningful. Terrible for those left behind, but I think it’s important. Perhaps if you have just one person who cares, you’re able to go on living. You’re not so quick to throw your life away.”
“Could you just accept he’s an evil pirate, please?”
“It can’t possibly get any worse! The dialogue is totally over-the-top as well as anachronistic. Is there a story at all?”
The Doctor to Evelyn in Part One: “Don’t start singing, whatever you do!”
“I’ll come over there and untie you if you come over here and get this lid off and help me out.” – this scene had me laughing out loud.
The bit about Red Jasper’s “dastardly reputation” made me think of the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride – I’d be very surprised if Rayner wasn’t familiar with the story.
The Doctor, on the struggles of telling stories in which terrible things happen to good people: “it’s very difficult, because you cared.”
“I don’t have any treasure map!”/“That’s what they all say!”/“Well, perhaps they’re all telling the truth!”
“I know virtually everything not related to maps or treasure.”
“The future seemed to stretch before us. I thought it would all end happily, as it usually does. That young boy would go on to make his fortune, find a sweetheart, have his own ship, that sort of thing, have sons of his own, sit them on his knee and tell them tales of his adventures, maybe laugh with them at stories of a strange old woman who came from nowhere and got trapped in a barrel. I didn’t know then that his future wouldn’t even stretch to another day.”
“I want things to have a happy ending. This was the wrong story to tell. Good doesn’t win.”/“Virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances.”
“If you’ve had to sit through as many musicals as I have…”
“Good never wins out in real life. Love doesn’t conquer all. There’s no such thing as happily ever after.” Oh the student cynic.
The Rassilon/“hassle from” rhyme is … just superb.
“When homicidal duty’s to be done (to be done)/an assassin’s lot is not a happy one.” Brilliant.
“I mean to leave the Earth, I mean to fly/I’ll be no more alone, just me and I.”
“Killing is usually the easy option.”
Six, faced with advancing pirates: “I don’t suppose it would work if I told you I was an orphan?”
“People in the past are always impressed by Dairy Milk.”
I love that the Doctor proposes fresh mint toothpaste as a dessert.
“We need to end the story.”/“Why? Stories don’t end in real life…There’s no happy ever after. There’s happy, and then there’s the day after, which might be happy, and then there’s the day after, which might be happy…but keep on going far enough and you’ll get to a day that isn’t. There’s never a final end.”
“That’s the wonderful thing about life! You can’t rule a neat line under it! But individual stories can end, and then you move on to the next one. It might be a better story or a worse one, it might be a sequel to something you’ve done before, the important thing is that they’re your stories and that no one can take that away from you.”
“Behind the times? I’m a Time Lord! I’m behind, in front, on top and underneath the times!”
“Locked up by my own men! Mutiny this is! Again! Mutiny squared!”
The last cheeky detail of the pirates on the island coming across Pin the Tail on the Donkey is glorious.
Evelyn wants no rubies; “there’s a reason they’re blood red.”
“I can’t change things but I have the gift of time. I gave that to Evelyn so that she could give it to you. An extra night. Get through the night, they say. Things are darkest just before the dawn.”

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