Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 044. Creatures of Beauty by Nicholas Briggs (May 2003)

“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”
-WH Auden, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Briggs has taken a step up from the already strong Embrace the Darkness, delivering a fascinating story with solid direction and a very atmospheric score. His experimenting with narrative form and structure is welcome, however uncomfortable a result it yields. Initially bamboozling, tough to follow, not easy listening, it is nevertheless a majestic accomplishment. Creatures of Beauty sees us return to the more sombre, serious TARDIS team of the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa. I do enjoy the Peri/Erimem rapport but there is something about the Fifth Doctor alone with a single companion that allows him space to breathe and be a bit more world-weary; with both Turlough in Loups-Garoux and Nyssa in Spare Parts and Primeval, the stories feel a bit more mature for that very reason.
“It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? There are a lot of different perspectives on this planet, a lot of deeply held convictions.” Indeed there are, and there’s a fascinating and intricate structure at play too. Briggs’ decision to write and present the whole script out of sequential order but record it in chronological order pays dividends; this is mostly because the actors are completely in tune with the material – far more than we are – thereby lending scenes an emotional weight even as we’re left in the dark about what’s actually occurring (as TS Eliot says, “poetry communicates before it is understood”). Sometimes it means Briggs has to fall back on slightly more exposition than he might otherwise, but for the most part it’s well crafted. Much like the previous release, this is in many ways polyperspectivist: we get numerous instances of characters commenting on the playback of events, re-watching events, re-reading statements about events, filtering events with knowledge of future events; the world is almost Stasi-like in the amount of surveillance, interrogating and repeat analysis going on. The first episode in particular is a masterpiece of misdirection, wrong-footing the audience and building to a cliff-hanger that’s creepy as hell without us really knowing why. Who’d have thought the word ‘beautiful’ could be so unnerving?

Like the best stories, Creatures of Beauty gets better and better the more you think about it. I think probably this is one of the stories most deserving of a re-listen just to get the internal chronology all sorted out in my head. (Incidentally, has anyone tried re-sequencing it and listening to it in “the proper” order?). It boasts an irresistible sci-fi premise and a number of rather cracking ideas: the intergalactic war between the Veln and the Koteem makes an effective backdrop; the genetically disfigured face of Brodlik and indeed all Veln with their “distorted skin tissue and abnormal bone structure” in comparison with the “beauty” of other races, specifically the Koteem; the way the story is kind of a mash-up of a Saward alien war story with Black Orchid’s country estate. For all this, the story is actually very simple and small-scale; its sequence of events is broadly eschews the familiar monster-of-the-week format for a more interesting and nuanced sci-fi morality tale with some interesting twists on perspective. We get insights into the viewpoint of both the Koteem and the Veln, and the narrative is much stronger for it. The words ‘ugly’ and ‘beautiful’ get bandied about a lot in this audio, and that in itself is rather clever, given we all know the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, and the story’s events in part stem from the Doctor admiring the beauty of Lady Forleon’s architecture. What is beauty to one is ugliness to another. A huge nuclear explosion spreading pestilence and plague is almost a thing of beauty, but a well-preened and well-protected aristocrat who got where she was through bribery and corruption is an ugly sight. This in itself may not be a particular cutting message, but that the story’s narrative structure reinforces it – we only ever see parts of the picture at once, disjointed, lacking, and none of the characters within ever know the whole truth; it’s rather like my favourite series The Wire in that respect – and crucially the story damns the characters most likely to come down on the side of “beauty” in any Doctor Who narrative.

The trials Nyssa goes through – the beatings and her time in custody, the psychiatric assessments – are so much more sensitively handled than those in another Fifth Doctor story we could name. As in Spare Parts, Nyssa is much more effective as a character when she witnesses awful experiences and is consumed by grief and empathy; she must be one of the most selfless and compassionate of the Doctor’s companions.

Davison plays the Doctor’s unease at working with Quain (just to give one example) really rather well, as we get to see the story from all angles. He’s a (justifiable) figure of fear here for a character like Brodlik: we return to the themes of The Sandman. The story is an effective – and indeed bleak – critique of the Doctor, babbling away to Lady Forleon in Part Two without knowing the full picture. The structure is used to Briggs’ advantage here, with Part Three the feigned ending, our heroes about to leave, and the beginning of Part Four the narrative’s very back-story. What a revelation it is that the Doctor and Nyssa innocently brought all this about. How many other occasions has his meddling ruined worlds? Were the Time Lords right to try and reign him in? What an indictment of our favourite character it is, and superbly it’s the fact that we are left with more knowledge than he at the end which is the true coup de grace. How many times has he landed on Earth, and not helped the starving or the oppressed for instance? And how many times have the tiniest of actions had crippling consequences?

Other thoughts:
This is a strong guest cast. When you can get Michael Smiley in as the rather minor Seedleson, you know you’re in for a solid set of performances. David Daker is particularly good as Gilbrook – a thoroughly nasty piece of work.
“Do you think we’re doing the right thing?”/“Now there’s a question. What exactly is the right thing? It’s often the trouble, isn’t it, that question? There’s never really one answer.”
“The clouds that we’ve had to stare at for four generations, dark blue at sunset and bright emerald in the midday summer sun.” Lovely and vivid. The ecological disaster angle is mined well, and the dyestrial pollution makes an effective canvas for Briggs to paint his story on.
The logic of the xenophobe, faced with any possibility of being wrong about ‘the Other’ – “Because her blood type doesn’t match with other Koteem samples? That just means she’s a Koteem with a different sort of blood!”
“I didn’t do anything! It wasn’t me! I’m not responsible for my actions! Don’t you think I’ve heard it all before? Maniacs and psychopaths gibbering in front of me, blaming it all on their mothers, begging for mercy! They didn’t know what they were doing, they don’t remember, I’ve heard every pathetic, miserable, despicable excuse there ever was!”
“There is an argument that no one is ever truly selfless in their actions; there’s always a pragmatic motive somewhere.”
“People like you, people who sit up here in your rich palaces, creaming off profits, bribing and corrupting but with so many government contacts no one can touch you, you think you’re perfect and beautiful. But to me, you know what, you are ugly. I feel sick to look at you!” There’s definitely a materialist and social critique to be made in this story too: whatever dismal hand the universe might have dealt us, there are always those who manage alright out of it.
“Trust is a commodity in somewhat short supply in this sector of the galaxy.”
“Ugly! Yes! Yes, you are ugly… Ugly and dying, all of you.”
“You can do a lot with a pretty face in this world, darling.”
Briggs goes for “less is more” on the sound effects and music front, keeping things tight, claustrophobic, echoey. It’s very effective for that and although I enjoyed the themes of Embrace the Darkness this is definitely superior in both production and script.
Murone’s petty viciousness is played well. “If he gives us any trouble, I’ll shoot him by accident.”
“There is no me.” – Veline stabbing herself is truly horrible. “It was almost as if there was something inside her that she was trying to cut out.”
“We’re not doing very well on the communication front, are we?” – I see what you did there, Briggs.
“Confusing, isn’t it? When you don’t know who the bad guys are. So much easier when they have a satanic beard or black ears.”
“The folly of youth” is how Davison’s Doctor describes the act of leaving Gallifrey.
“Sometimes if you stare at a painting for too long, and you get too close to it, all you can see is the brushstrokes. The more you stare, the more formless and meaningless it seems to become.”
“You’re not thinking we should take a look?”/“No.”/“Good.”/ “I’m thinking I should go and take a look.”
“Beautiful architecture is the sign of a friendly temperament.”
“This isn’t some intellectual puzzle! You’re treating issues concerning the survival of civilisation on this planet as a child’s guessing-game… is that what you do? Make light of other people’s problems?”
“Our civilisation isn’t dying. It’s already dead. All that’s left is the rotting corpse.”
“Two doomed races join to create a new one…”
“We value the sanctity of life so much that we are prepared to change the nature of life itself so that it may continue.”
“Should both races suffer because of the sins of their forefathers?”
“He saw the Koteem spaceship explode. He said it was like paint spilling across a table. He said it was almost… beautiful.”

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