Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 052. Scherzo by Robert Shearman (December 2003)

Scherzo is quite simply one of the most experimental, unusual Doctor Who stories in existence: set almost entirely in a blindingly white Divergent Universe, a world where senses, space and time have no meaning, only the sound of two individual voices for us to follow. The audio landscape is perfectly rendered: the hum, the faint whine, the clink of their footsteps as though on some kind of glass floor, the echoes. There’s a little bit of The Matrix here – we don’t quite know what the world is in which the Doctor and Charley find themselves, what kind of “real” it is – but the most obvious antecedent is surely The Mind Robber episode one (the white void, the lack of TARDIS, the occasional filling-in-the-gaps by the brain when it is dealing with a world of nothings). It must be said, one of the few issues with this is the glaring need for the Doctor and Charley to state the obvious about what they can see, but I don’t see any way around that in this particular instance, and the very uncertainty of their world and their senses softens that blow a little.

Scherzo is a properly different take on alternative universes – a take that turns our very notions of the senses, of the passing of time, upside-down. The world is completely, utterly, alien and bizarre – Shearman’s approach to the world as self-repeating prison reaches its natural zenith here: everything collapses inward so much that the world is almost entirely featureless, a glass tube in some tyrannical scientist-god’s laboratory where the Doctor and Charley must eat alien meat day in, day out, for weeks, and let a creature made of pure sound gnaw at their throats every day.

Charley’s devotion to the Doctor in the face of such bleakness is absolute, determined that they face it together. It’s a terrifying world, for certain; the notion of being able to starve to death without noticing is also creepy as anything. “Not much of a life”, as Charley puts it, “but better than no life.” In his turn, the Doctor is uncertain he wants this “cut-price parody”. And yet, as we all do when something terrible alters the course of our own life to such a degree that it feels like a cut-price parody, they adapt. One can adapt to all sorts of routine, torment and pain, one can settle into one’s position and cope, slave though one may be to the world’s torturous rhythm. Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic shows us how the Master becomes dependent on the fruits of the Slave’s labours; this power-play between the Doctor and Charley, creators of the sound-creature, and the sound-creature itself, is probably the greatest source of the tension in Scherzo.

The sound creature is a chilling creation, emerging first out of Charley’s humming, then repeating all their words back at them without comprehension or meaning, rather like the Midnight entity (Russell’s inspiration?), fashioning out a makeshift collage out of a babble of pointless sounds. The nightmarish repetition of “I love you” is scary as anything, and its various assaults on Charley and the Doctor well-done. Yet again, as in The Holy Terror and to a lesser extent in Shearman’s other stories, it’s a twisted child “performing” for its parents’ approval over and over, here rewarding them with alien carcasses when they are happy with it. The creature becomes Charley – another perfect element of Shearman’s little self-contained world: the villain itself is played by the same actors as play the two heroes – a creature the music assaults. This toying with how sound affects the world around us is, needless to say, a beautifully apt story for the audio medium. The moment where the Doctor finally permits the creature to get at the source of all sounds – his vocal cords are slashed open – and all manner of arias, operettas, string concertos bleed out is one of Doctor Who’s most stunningly inventive (and, crucially, audially inventive) twists yet.

Let us go now for a moment even further back than the play’s beginning to that title itself, because it can tell us a lot. Scherzo. A small movement within a much larger work, which is what all Doctor Who stories are in their own way. But where Zagreus launched a cacophony, music as a myriad morass, the very next story is deliberately the second movement, the one where the composer can let the intensity – and, it must be said, the length – drop for a little while. A scherzo is light, and delicate. But more than that, and somewhat surprisingly given Shearman’s earlier oeuvre, a scherzo is playful. The etymology will aid us as ever – “scherzo”. From the Italian “I joke, jest, play”. So I put it to other listeners that the great unsaid thing about Scherzo is that it is, in fact, a comedy.

By that I do not, of course, mean that it is funny. No, no, not at all. There are one or two choice lines, as ever, but this isn’t Adamsian whimsy. Nor is it farce. Nor is it even the barbed but blackly humorous satire of Shearman’s first three audio dramas. No, when I say Scherzo is a comedy I am using the word more strictly than we usually do – as Dante did for his La Commedia, for instance, or a little closer to home, as Shakespeare would when he writes light-hearted little pieces about lovers who frolic in woods, get married and everything fundamentally turns out OK. Scherzo takes that whole tradition and reiterates it for the Doctor and Charley, framing it with a disorientating and very unfamiliar backdrop and a few nightmarish ideas, with a healthy dollop of Theatre of the Absurd. There’s definitely grimness and arguments and characters doing unpleasant things in Scherzo – but Twelfth Night has Malvolio’s “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” And more to the point, the storyline isn’t grim. Shearman isn’t attacking anything like monarchy or religion or servanthood, there’s no viciousness involved. There’s the sound creature’s endless gnawing at the Doctor and Charley’s throats, yes, but that is explained as a mindless, reflex action. The chief cruelty, perhaps, is the absurd world in which they find themselves, but the cruelty does not especially arise out of the characters – indeed, the story is entirely devoted to the Doctor and Charley’s reconciliation. They grow closer, in every sense of the word. They merge. Love for another involves self-negation, as it always has. “And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh” – the King James Bible, Mark 10:8. As all comedies end, the story ends with a kind of marriage, as much as it can be called marriage. And there is a kind of child, the creature that springs out of their voices, their music, if you will – the Doctor explicitly refers to Charley and himself as “its parents”.

The story is a “comedy” to the degree that it is about two friends finding healing. The Doctor’s bitterness and anguish towards Charley is at first difficult to understand, and I found it hard to go along with as he seemed much more like Seven. But this misdirection isn’t just banal post-Zagreus angst; rather, he loved her so much that he gave up being in the universe so that she might live, hence his resulting fury when she has left that universe to join him in a new, private hell just for the two of them. What is the point? The mingling of their obvious adoration for one and another and the very bleak places it takes them to – well, it’s a tough balance to sell, but I think all told it comes out well. Stephen King likes to talk about how horror stories are only terrifying and powerful if the love stories you’ve told first are fiercely convincing, for then the horror comes from the loss of that love, and I think he makes a solid point. Shearman is one of the first to examine the Doctor-companion love story from the point of view of the Doctor as an immortal being (something which becomes more commonplace in the new series): companions are reminders of his own mortality, memento mori, a little like humans keeping, and becoming enormously attached to, cats (and other writers – I think possibly Tom MacRae in a short story, but I’d have to check that, but certainly Moffat in The Magician's Apprentice – have since compared the Doctor-companion relationship to that of utter devotion to a sentient pet you will one day have to outlive). Paul McGann gets some knotty, tricky emotional scenes to deal with and absolutely sells the material. Fisher is more than capable of matching him, and between the two of them the 90 minutes fly by.

What’s effective is that this, at heart, rather heart-warming story plays out in a bleak, loveless universe, a universe in which they have no meaning. It is a classic Kafkaesque trick – to use the surreal to highlight the horror of the real. “We’re going to die here. We are going to die in this universe…There is no escape, not this time, no way out. Sooner or later, sooner most likely, as our continued existence is quite unbelievable and not something it would be fair to pin any hopes on. Sooner or later, we are going to perish in a world in which we have no meaning, where we are not meant to exist, where nothing we have ever touched or seen or made sense of can reach us, a world which will not have even the merest concept, when we die, of what our dead, useless bodies could possibly be.” So the Doctor describes their position in this terrifying new universe. But every single line of this could to some degree describe our own lives, much as we may not think exactly such thoughts day in, day out. It takes going to a bizarre new world to ram that point home, as the extraordinary can often help us re-evaluate the ordinary.

So what do we have here? A story with one of the most abstract presentations in all of Doctor Who, and unusually, it is abstract both in content and in form. A story in which the Doctor and Charley, after all the pain of Neverland and Zagreus, make some kind of peace with one another. A story in which the “world in which we have no meaning” is refuted – indeed, shattered just as I could shatter a little glass tube – simply because they merge, they find one another and choose to stick by one another, and then split apart again, as they must. Separate but together, unified yet composite. It’s not sexual, but there’s a sexual undertone to their “merging” into one body, and while I don’t think Shearman is implying the Doctor and Charley have physically had sex, this is merely the alchemical representation of that element of a relationship. In other words, the Doctor and Charley’s relationship, sometimes incredibly close and intimate, sometimes simply hand in hand, is what saves them from the bleakness of the world they (and let’s face it, we) live in.

This would, in itself, be enough to place Scherzo in the upper tier of Doctor Who audios. But I cannot help covering how the form bleeds into the content – this is an audio entirely focused on sound (no, that’s not as tautological as it first appears), a story very much about music and rhythm and lack and abundance thereof. Scherzo would not work as a TV script, not in any way, but is completely unique to its medium. The entire thing is a soundscape: no music, no impressive vistas, no action, just voices. The Doctor and Charley are in our ears, because that’s the way in to our heads, as the story itself says. How appropriate, then, for a story that sees them challenged by their very own sound-creature, a being composed of their own words. With this regard, Scherzo perhaps has most in common with Deadline rather than the three earlier Shearman audios, those which more obviously take place in Doctor Who story locations, which for all the metafictionality boast a real world of texture and sense of space and people, which lean more obviously to big speeches and “theme in dialogue” moments. Both Scherzo and Deadline are more a sophisticated stream of impressions and moods, both are intimately concerned with the effect that the conversation of art, whether scriptwriting or music or even talking to another person, can have on the individual (both positive and negative) and both give a kind of hope to the desperate. Scherzo ends more positively, of course, for Martin Bannister’s happiness was only in his head, whilst the Doctor and Charley’s lies in each other. And its emphasis on the sound of our lives, the rhythm of our lives, ably complemented by the fairy-tale story McGann recites, makes it in one sense the ultimate Doctor Who audio. I don’t know if it’s my favourite of Shearman’s six Doctor Who audio stories. But it is the one that says, “This is what Doctor Who on audio is”. It’s a loving justification for Doctor Who in a world without sight, a world of pure sound, and proof of the fact that the Doctor can go anywhere – he can be cast out of the universe of television seemingly forever, wash up on strange new divergent shores, travel along fibre-optic cables and become a being of sound-waves alone, journeying on, making new friends, ever believing that one day he might return to the universe he came from…

Other things:
Paul McGann just has the most perfect chocolatey-velvet voice for audio, doesn’t he? The fairy-tale monologues he delivers at the beginning of each part, accompanied by Russell Stone’s perfect score (the little screech that comes in on the word “tyrant” is sublime, and there’s a stunning build to convey the music wreaking havoc through the kingdom), are finely wrought and delicate, and arguably more reminiscent of Shearman’s short stories than his earlier audio dramas (since writing this, Rob has confirmed on Gallifrey Base that it was writing this which set off his interest in short stories).
Probably the most gorgeous Doctor Who cover artwork of all time, and a marvellous pun into the bargain.
A Time Lord has many more senses than the traditional five – “all to do with temporal awareness, our unique relationship with time. For us Time does not merely pass, we can see it, taste it. It’s all gone. It’s as if I’ve been blinded.”
The Divergent Universe has “no time and no lord to be a time of”: I would like to see this work itself out in the forthcoming dramas.
“The waste: these seconds are gone forever! What’s the point of filling them? Everything temporary. Only memories left, until the memories fade? How can you live like this? How can it not drive you mad?”
“This ship of mine used to be vast. A beautiful craft she was, spanning the dimensions… those were better days, eh, old girl? Now being whittled down to nothing.”
“You can’t just sit there and watch this happen.”/“Quite right. I shall stand and watch it happen. The captain going down with his ship.”
“Our eyes simply aren’t equipped to deal with this universe. It might operate on visual stimuli too subtle for us to appreciate, like a dog whistle which plays at a frequency beyond the range of the human ear.”
“There is one thing we can take some comfort in. Only one thing, mind. We’re not dead… Or at least, not yet. We should keep our options open.”
“Your hand. I’m holding your hand, and that’s all I can be sure of.”
“Just because a delusion is shared it makes it no less a delusion.”
The squeaking amoeba is a moment of pure surrealism. Love it.
The Doctor’s resting heartsbeat is ten times per minute, fact fans.
“I must say I do find our continued existence very frustrating. It makes no sense at all.”/“Yes, this hanging onto life against the odds is a bit of an irritant.”
“We’re dead and no one’s told our bodies to stop moving yet – like headless chickens running around a farmyard.”
“It’s not the words that matter, it’s the voice, the inflection, the melody if you like. It doesn’t respond to meaning but the power behind it. You could have said “I love you,” or you could equally have said “pass the salt”, had you invested it with as much passion.”/“But I didn’t say “pass the salt”.”
“I don’t want your love, Charley, I have no use for it.”
“It’s well known, of course, that music has the ability to induce and modulate different emotional states. It’s why we listen to it after all… I doubt that anyone at the philharmonic would take our footsteps and release them on CD, but there is a rhythm to them nonetheless. As we walk, we fall into a regular rhythm.”
“I can still hear my heartsbeat, regular as a metronome.”
“You’re going to dissect an alien creature with my best brooch?”/“Oh not a full dissection, I don’t want to be morbid.”
“Obviously, if I had the choice between travelling through all time and space in total freedom or walking blindly down a glass tube, only stopping once in a while to sample the local cuisine and have my neck nibbled, I’d choose the former. But this runs a very close second.”
Charley’s brooch, a lovely icon of her past, her family and her memories, now “clotted with alien blood”, wonderfully symbolic of the destruction that is wreaked and the lack of any kind of future, as there will be no offspring for her to give the brooch to. We learn that she has sacrificed a life of motherhood, a life of family relationships, for the Doctor. The visions at this point – Charley in her Edwardian house, with the Doctor as her daughter; the Doctor in his TARDIS, with Charley as his daughter – are beautifully bonkers.
“Soon we can eat again, just enough to keep us alive, and be eaten, just enough so we don’t die.” The lethal funambulism of life.
“This shouldn’t be how it ends! I should have the universe to explore! Or death, one or the other, that’s all I wanted, and it’s your fault! If it weren’t for you, I’d be dead or alive, not this half-way point! Why are you here, Charley? What do you want with me?...”
“The Time Lords thought you companions were all memento mori – reminders of death. Quite common things, really. On medieval Earth, courtiers would often keep skulls on their mantelpieces. They were very much the in thing. No matter how powerful you were, death was inevitable, you still had to remember your mortality. And Time Lords need to remember all the more.”
“I killed myself for you so you could live. And yet here you are.”
“We’re now as dinosaurs to modern man!”
“Tradition: the parent passes on to the child, and makes way for the child, and on and on for evermore.”
“Your job is done,” the child says to the parent eventually. “You can rest now.”
“How did you get inside my head?”/“Through the ear. Naturally.”
“You’d die for everybody, Doctor. You’d die for anybody.”
“I love Charley. But I don’t quite know what it means, whether it’s strength, or weakness, or insanity. I love her.”
“Live on with regret, but live on.”
“Is the music dead?”/“No. Merely silenced.”
“The man who had everything, and yet would give it up for something as small as me.”
“The Doctor and Charley, as it always was.” Separate but together.
I do like the final moment: “We can see now, we don’t need to hold on to each other.”/“I know. Take my hand anyway.” And so, to give Milton the last word: they hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow/through Eden took their solitary way.

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