Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 055. The Twilight Kingdom by Will Shindler (March 2004)

The Twilight Kingdom is a solidly traditional tale in the vein of The Creed of the Kromon. The setting isn’t bad – a Kinda-esque Amazonian jungle full of carnivorous, poisonous plants and caves inhabited by vicious rodents – though not always especially vividly rendered. That said, writer Will Shindler has a strong knack for body horror: the stripped corpse of Fraxin covered in damp soil, the rotting torsos bobbing up and down in the crimson lake, Vayla slowly dissolving into the wall, oh, and we also get burning acid which always makes for a pleasant ingredient on a Who story shopping list. Shindler does a decent job at launching the story reasonably quickly, too – a bonus for a more trad tale like this. Alas, for the most part the action is mostly limp, the characters unmemorable and the cliff-hangers/resolutions insipid. Unusually, the production is a bit sub-par too – it just sounds like actors in a studio – and the music doesn’t always seem to quite suit the scenes it accompanies.

In all honesty this guest cast is far too big, and there’s some very poor acting among them (Dale Ibbetson as Quillian, I’m looking at you). It doesn’t help that Shindler doesn’t give us any sense of the Ondrokkans as being notably different to humans. He makes a few motions towards implying they’re morally grey, but none of it especially engages. The Ondrokkan backstory is a blandly delivered infodump, and Koth’s is little better. A rare, and rather strong, exception is Vayla, whose little monologue in Part Two, recounting her sister’s death from the vicious plague, watching her melt away on the video link, is powerfully done, and Koth’s manipulation of her works well.

Michael Keating plays the whisper-voiced Major Koth, a figure who the liner-notes hint at as being some kind of vague stand-in for Osama Bin Laden or similar 21st century terrorist leader. In their turn, the various military figures hunting Koth would appear to represent the United States’ soldiers carrying out the War on Terror (although, as Shindler himself confesses in the CD’s booklet, this never really goes anywhere). Koth is clearly set up as a sort of inverse parallel to the Doctor – right down to their simultaneous convulsions when the Doctor first enters the cave. The notion of the cave as one vast, horrific organism is an absolute corker (“we’re in the belly of the beast”), a clever way of tying in the notion of Koth’s superiors and giving us a strong visual hook with regard to the villains. Koth’s sudden power over the TARDIS took me quite by surprise, too! The twist that the Koth-creature had been brought to Sartaris by some greater malignity is a good step forward in the Divergent Universe arc, confirming that the Doctor, Charley and C’rizz have been pawns in a vaster game, specimens in a cosmic laboratory – a nice bit of absurdist bleakness. Good to see our old friend Stephen Perring back as the Kro’ka, and the final scenes (as ever) work effectively; the revelation that the Doctor is hunting Rassilon came rather out of left-field. I don’t yet know what I think of that twist, but what the writers do with it remains to be seen.

Charley observes that the Doctor is snappier, more judgmental, and less certain of his morals in this new universe, while Koth notes he is more uncertain, worried and apt to lash out; in the real world, you can tell McGann didn’t enjoy this script as much as the previous one and indeed he sounds rather bored. He gets a few decent things to do, including exploring through the cave systems and leaping into pools and so on. But aside from a few brief flickers it’s all very bog-standard fare after his bravura performance in The Natural History of Fear. Shindler writes some poor dialogue, both for the regulars and the guest stars. Yay, the girl one is the whiny one! How marvellous, aren’t we clever. After so long doing such sterling work, it’s a great shame to see Charley reduced to such banalities (oh, and whoa, patronising Doctor much: “Charley, if you’re developing a political conscience, I’m absolutely delighted for you.” What an arsehole).

As for C’rizz, the “freaky friend”, we discover quite how trusting he is, quite how used to peace and serenity, and get to see him learn about weapons training. It’s good to see a bit of development, although he still makes very little impression – particularly up against Charley’s engaging and engrossing arc. His only real ‘moment’ here comes in Part Two, insisting on his own normality – “I’m not different. I’m a man, I may look different but I’m simply a man, with the same principles, dignity and self-respect as any of you” – but this raises its own problems, because if he’s just an ordinary bloke, why bother making him a Eutermesan? Charley and C’rizz do get one good scene together, a scene which seems to establish their position to one another: he as the junior companion, Charley as the more experienced one.

Elements of The Twilight Kingdom are disappointingly bog-standard and inadequate, but there are moments which rise above the weak material. The Doctor’s showdown with Koth in Part Three is tense and well-scored. There’s some level of psychological angst, at least – this isn’t just all guns blazing. And there is a real sense that Shindler is trying to make the story about something – the motivating factor of the major characters, of Koth, of Vayla, of Janto, being grief. Shindler made it quite clear he wrote this story in a post-9/11 atmosphere when everyone knew somebody who knew somebody who had been affected, an atmosphere in which grief ran rife. It’s a shame his story gets bogged down in its weaker elements, as there is a nugget of something quite interesting here. The creature twisting all that is good in its insecure, unstable playthings is an effective reveal, though it comes quite late in the day, and Janto’s sacrifice and the creature’s defeat is slightly undersold, if thematically sound: compassion overcomes grief. And people say New-Who invented “power of love” endings!

The Twilight Kingdom has its weaknesses, but this ended up as a slightly more interesting story than it began. The Divergent Universe arc continues to intrigue, and I am looking forward to picking up the threads again with Faith Stealer...

Other things:
A lot of recognisable voices in this one – both Nick Briggs *and* Gary Russell!
“It’s beautiful, it reminds me of the Jokulsa Canyon.”/“Let me guess, the Eye of Orion?”/“Iceland, actually. I had the most wonderful mud bath there.”
“There’s nothing scarier than a well-meaning freedom-fighter.”
“I can still feel her [the TARDIS’] presence, like a little voice nagging me at the back of my mind.”
“What is England? What is summer? What are roses? What does plum pudding taste of?”
“These skimmed hunks of meat… I think they were people once.”
“I’ve seen armies of conscience before, Vayla, I’ve marched with the best of them, against tyrannies you couldn’t begin to comprehend. But this – this is a mockery! Look around you, look at your army, a rag-tag bunch playing at soldiers, going through the same old motions, with aging weapons that wouldn’t last five minutes in active combat.”
“The Doctor and I have been through a lot together. He showed me things I really never had a right to see. I should have grown up in another time, in another place, and lived a life far less interesting. He saved my life several times over, and as for the sacrifices we’ve had to make! Why do I feel so angry with him?”
“Everything changes, but nothing is really lost.” Eutermesans are a wise bunch, evidently.
“Where I come from, they say travel broadens the mind. I think it’s having the opposite effect on me.”
“Revenge is a funny emotion. It consumes you until you lose yourself in it.”
Koth on the Doctor in a world without Time: “I can feel your emptiness. It’s as if someone has detached your very soul.”
“Time. It’s the air that I breathe. The food that nourishes me. The very landscape I walk through.”
“They’re usually wheeling on the mind probes and thumb screws at this point.”
The whole “no one understands what time means” is a bit daft, isn’t it? If people understand that time is passing, then why do they need our own idiosyncratic term for it?
“Free will is an illusion down here, and you’re just as much a prisoner as any of us.” (Lines like this seem to tie into the Divergent Universe’s key themes I was discussing earlier).
“I want to be here so badly – and yet it goes against everything I hold dear.”
“It is… rotting flesh.”/“This whole chamber looks like it’s been lined with it. But you’re wrong, it’s not rotting. In fact it looks very healthy.”
“Major, that looks like some headache.”
The Doctor uses humour to “suppress his fear”.
“No great cause, then. No great moral crusade. We’re just snacks in the larder.”
“All he had to do was string you along, forever promising an ascension that was never going to happen.”
“I’ve walked inside your minds, tasted your emptiness, turned your weaknesses against you. In your case, Doctor, it was your curiosity, your certainty that you could defeat me.”
“What keeps you down here is your own fear of loneliness.”
Companion-strangling wasn’t cool in 1984, it’s not cool now.
“You have two hearts, but what do you know of heartbreak?”
“I’m a Time Lord in a realm where the term is meaningless. My pain has been infinite – eight lifetimes’ worth. I left my world to travel, to experience the universe, but there’s been a price for my freedom. Worlds I’ve seen subjugated or destroyed, friends I’ve lost…” Great speech, and good that the writers have been cracking open the Eighth Doctor’s more charming façade of late to show us how he can be quite a tormented soul.
“The creature has only tasted grief of others – it has never experienced it for itself.”
“Out of grief will come fury.”
“My soul went with my family. I have been a dead man on leave ever since.”
“Charley, just so you know, I’m very pleased that I met you.” Awwwww.
The notion of a “crucible world” is really rather good.
Does anyone know why this was called The Twilight Kingdom? I have no idea and I assume it’s not a My Little Pony reference.

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