Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 045. Project: Lazarus by Cavan Scott & Mark Wright (June 2003)

Let’s talk about sequels. Because, yes, unless you count the Eighth Doctor/Charley story arc which is more of a loose link between stories, unless you permit The Excelis Trilogy (which was produced in one continuous chunk and is thus more like one long story across different time zones), and unless you want to allow stories that include traditional Doctor Who elements (such as the first four, loosely themed, Doctor-centric 'Dalek Empire' stories), Project: Lazarus is by my count the first proper Doctor Who sequel story Big Finish have made that works only within their own continuity, in this instance a sequel to Project: Twilight. Nimrod and the Forge only exist within Big Finish and their return thus marks something significant for the company: they’re become confident enough to have their own major villains and their own repeat stand-offs. Frith and Crumpton aren’t all that interesting (even Frith’s nice character arc is a little undercooked), but Stephen Chance is excellent as ever playing the sinister Nimrod. The Forge is still a solid concept and a worthy rival to UNIT; you can see where the idea of Torchwood might have originally come from – they’re not completely villains, and they’re given a good set of their own motivations, but they make for some foreboding and nasty stories.
The first episode, rather set apart from the others, is superb: a Norwegian forest is nicely different to the slick urban environment of London casinos, and a good tie-in to the open-ended conclusion of Project: Twilight. It’s a well-realised setting with the flutter of wings, the hoots of owls, the wind in the trees, gruesome petrified bodies, and so on, and ably complemented by an eerie score. Better still, Wright and Scott rely on Norse folk legends here, specifically the concept of the Huldra, a seductive forest creature; I’m a huge fan of Doctor Who drawing inspiration from traditional folklore and this is done rather well. Much like their previous audio, Scott and Wright give this a grotesque, violent edge – in this instance Harket’s death at the hands of Huldran slime, not to mention Nimrod’s horrific nanobot-crossbow, the severing of an arm and the slitting of throats.

The Doctor’s first scene with Evelyn is terrific and a sign of how adjusted to the Doctor and Evelyn’s banter I have become that they feel like the most natural Sixth Doctor/companion pairing to me by far. This is another important story for Dr Smythe, as we learn about her heart condition for the first time. This will no doubt cast an elegiac, mournful pall over her future adventures – an excellent addition to her character arc. In fact, the writers do a good job on tying the themes of the story together: vampires are a natural fit with a plan to steal the Doctor’s regenerations and gain immortality, and coupled as this is with Evelyn’s own looming mortality it makes for a funereal musing on death, as most vampire stories are in the end. The Doctor’s Forge codename, Lazarus, is not a jaw-droppingly subtle one; but it does have particular potency in a story in which a significant character dies forever and we get a presentiment of the death of his best friend and companion.

Vidar Magnussen gives a good performance as Professor Harket, a fascinating character hunting fairy-tale creatures in the name of research, while Rosie Cavaliero gives Cassie more bite than last time round (no pun intended): her disillusionment and betrayal makes for a great, if depressing, twist. She’s a kind of anti-Buffy, really, a tragic distortion of that universe, and her death makes a strong impact (although it wouldn’t be as strong if one didn’t know Project: Twilight).

The Doctor has been tinkering away at the Twilight virus for quite some time, it seems, with a rather touching indication that he’s not the type to forget poor Cassie. I like the implication that he’s that sort of person, who goes around sorting out odds and ends from previous adventures every so often; but it’s nicely undermined by the fact that his neglect for Cassie thus far has led to some pretty radical results. Coupled with last month’s Creatures of Beauty it’s a rather effective double-punch critique of his character.

In many ways, the most surprising thing about Project: Lazarus is the end of Part Two/start of Part Three. Up until that point it has felt like a good, solid adventure: the return of an old foe, some atmospheric settings, some gory moments. But rather unexpectedly for half-way through the story, a main character – someone who’s been dragged through hell and back – gets mercilessly gunned down rather against our expectations. And Evelyn’s critique of the Doctor’s failing to save her is absolutely devastating; Baker and Stables act their socks off to sell the material. Evelyn storming off into her room to take pills to calm her down has a level of emotional truth to it we don’t often see in a Who companion.

And then Keff McCulloch’s Seventh Doctor theme tune kicks in. Sure, McCoy is on the CD cover, but it still feels like an audial transgression, as though the experimentation with our eardrums has stepped over some forbidden line. Sylvester has to cope with a few TARDIS scenes by himself, but by and large he works well here, and the conceit of pausing the story mid-way through and jumping forward a few centuries to pick it up with another Doctor a clever one. The moment where the two Doctors first meet (and their ensuing interplay) is just as great as you’d expect, and Seven does a good job at taking CloneSix down a peg or two. The dialogue Seven gets here is mostly underplayed and as a result Sylvester McCoy delivers his best performance for quite some time, even if the story doesn’t wholly belong to him. Together, with Baker putting in a raging performance as the genetic CloneSix, the two Doctors really sell the horror of dozens of mutilated CloneSixes. As a minor note, it’s a shame there’s no Evelyn in these second two parts, but I look forward to seeing the fallout of this story in Arrangements for War.

This makes Project: Lazarus quite unique within BF’s oeuvre so far, seeing as it does the Sixth and Seventh Doctors encountering one another – yet a far cry from the anniversary-style shenanigans of The Sirens of Time, this is more like one Doctor guest-starring in another Doctor’s era in the vein of The Two Doctors. Interestingly, this is clearly a 6th Doctor story (Nimrod and the Forge, Cassie, etc., are part of Six’s era, and the presence of Evelyn also marks this out as within his continuity rather than the Seventh’s) and yet it is a future Doctor, not a past one, who is arriving to gate-crash the party.

This is the kind of narrative/continuity experiment it appears only Big Finish can really do, toying with the playthings of the classic series as they are (the closest modern equivalent is surely the two-second glimpse of Peter Capaldi’s eyebrows in The Day of the Doctor). It’s an anniversary treat (doesn’t 2003 seem long ago? I’d only been a fan for one year at that point!) but one that feels more like it’s using two Doctors to tell a unique and interesting story than it does a “big celebration” (though I’m sure the rest of 2003 will see plenty of those!). The structural tinkering here is another example of Big Finish riding the crest of a wave of ingenuity. I was unsure what this story would be like, fearing a banal retread of Project: Twilight, but I ended up enjoying this enormously. It’s not perfect – a tad over-rushed, perhaps, and it does feel a little bit A to B in some plotting areas, like most middle parts of a trilogy – but between the grim-dark tone of the Nimrod/Forge stories and the romp nature of The Church and the Crown, Cavan Scott and Mark Wright have established themselves as an impressive writing team and I very much hope to see more from them.

Other things:
The TARDIS kitchen re-stocks itself over-night!
There’s another nice invocation to broader mythology in the form of Rassilon and the Time Lord efforts to hunt vampires, to the extent that every TARDIS was fitted with the capability to hunt them.
“Sometimes you amaze me.”/“Oh, good, because I stopped amazing myself two centuries ago.”
The Doctor really likes sweet tea, doesn’t he? He has four sugars here and I’m sure there’s another couple of audios where he’s been keen on as many lumps as possible – not to mention he spoons five or six into his tea in Death in Heaven.
“Hunting? That doesn’t sound very Time-Lordy.”
Good old Sixth Doctor, up on his 17th century Norwegian poetry. He’s just the type to have debauched evenings with Lutheran priests, isn’t he! In contrast, the Seventh Doctor quotes from The Hound of the Baskervilles.
“Sounds like a night down at the student union,” Evelyn says of Harket’s tale of nymphomania, seduction and lust.
“Trolls just don’t exist!”/“I remember someone telling me that vampires don’t exist either.”
“There’s a homicidal goblin out here, let’s stay!”/“That’s the spirit!”
The Doctor is wearing his blue coat. Hurrah!
Also similar to The Day of the Doctor: the TARDIS gets transported by helicopter.
“I’m glad someone’s finally in awe of me.”
Evelyn: “Just trying to lighten the mood. It’s what I do.”
“We have enough filth scattered around this planet. We don’t need any more.”
“You don’t leave the Forge. The Forge leaves you.”
“I was quite pleased with myself – but I usually am.”
“Since our first encounter five years ago you’ve fascinated me.”/“Well, fans tend to restrict themselves to a simple signed photograph!”
“It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. It’s what you’re going to do next that matters.”
“Evelyn, I’m sorry. I don’t always win.”
Seven, mid-way through piano-playing: “I really should have listened to Elton. He always said I needed more practice.”
Frith, upon meeting Seven: “Oh God, I think I preferred the other one.”
“Evelyn never forgave you, right up to the end.” (a bit of foreshadowing? It does feel like they’re signposting Maggie Stables’ departure.)
“Dr Crumpton, do you have any other completely useless and contradictory data to give me, or is your doctorate as big a sham as everything else around here?”
If I have one complaint, it’s that the story doesn’t get much time to explore the whispering and broadly sympathetic Huldrans, although that said they still get the atmospheric first episode mostly to themselves.
As the guys at DiscCon point out, McCoy’s delivery of “For King and Country” sounds really like something else.
“I’m not a person. I’m just a few days, a few hours, old.”
Seven: “Where to this time, Doctor? Maybe it’s time I went home.”
The “Forge Beta now operational” is a bit of a lazy tease – I knew there’d be another one!
Who is the “director” of the Forge if Nimrod is the deputy director? Can anyone answer this? If this is a spoiler-y question, obviously I don’t want to be spoiled, but have I missed something?

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