Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 056. The Axis of Insanity by Simon Furman (April 2004)

Almost every aspect of Simon Furman’s The Axis of Insanity – unfortunately, right down to some of the dialogue – is colourfully comic-book. The Axis, the story’s central locale, is a great notion, and Furman goes to great lengths to establish the Axis as a weird and wonderful place, even if most of it would actually work better on TV – there’s invisible dancers carousing around the Doctor, fire-breathing dragons, Escheresque staircases, children reading closed books with shut eyes, impossibly complex patterns of building blocks, a casino where the guests bet on the fate of planets, impromptu flash floods, unicorns, distorted mirrors (one of the obvious reference points for this story is Alice in Wonderland, which Erimem is reading at the opening; this is reasonably effective, despite having been done by Zagreus not six months ago). Furman’s script expands its canvas rather nicely as it goes on: the insane and decaying timelines start to threaten the rest of the universe, the Jester and Erimem end up in Pangorum, we get the magma-fields, and so on… Ironically, this would have been a bloody wonderful Divergent Universe story, and you could have handed one of the 80s Doctors Kromon or Kingdom instead: the twisted fairy-tale aesthetic would have suited 8 and Charley very well.

The most obvious observation to make about this story’s antagonist is that (s)he resembles Batman’s Joker, right down to the irrepressible timbre of his voice and his demonic laughter. Simon Furman being a noted writer of comics, this is hardly surprising. This Prince of Fools, the Jester, is very well-portrayed by Garrick Hagon (the story’s big guest-star), right down to the perfectly timed frisk of bells on his sonic costume, and the story sets him up as a powerful enough figure such that the stakes are suitably raised. As time goes on, Furman’s writing of the Jester’s quirks becomes more annoying, even though that’s part of the point (“I’m the spanner in the works, the ghost in the machine-”/“ENOUGH!”) – but just in time, he throws a new element into the mix, reimagining him as scientist Jarra To (Liza Ross). Jarra To yearns for chaos to come again, which is largely why she is so terrifying to the rest of us – not for nothing was chaos the bugbear of the Elizabethans! – and why she is “the sum of all our fears”.

My issue with the whole Jester plotline is its rather unintelligent treatment of madness – indeed, of the titular insanity. Lines like “we must stop the madness from spreading!” and the Jester’s demonic personality bother me, as much as (the admittedly wonderfully made) The Dark Knight bothered me. Simply put: I don’t like stories that demonise madness. You might say, I probably have an issue with most Doctor Who, then(!) but most Doctor Who isn’t quite this explicit about “insanity”. Simply portraying the Jester/Jarra To as a lover of chaos would have been sufficient, but adding in all the guff about how mad (s)he is feels a little uncomfortable to me. Not all mentally disturbed people are narcissistic, murdering psychopaths, and it’s annoying that mainstream stories love to reinforce this insidious stereotype. There could have been a more sympathetic treatment of madness, but the writer chose not to explore that. It’s unfair to lampoon Simon Furman for that too much, but still, it’s irksome and a bit much.

Davison gives a very strong, mordant, world-weary performance with a particularly great speech in Part Four – it’s one of the stories where you can really hear the years in his voice. His performance as the false Doctor is also good, subtly creepy and off-kilter. Erimem learning to read is a nice touch, showing us once again her relative newness to TARDIS travel (and its relevance to two later plot points, her inability to read the instructions in the lift and her proving her identity by quoting Alice in Wonderland, works well), but regrettably the shrill quarrelling between Erimem and Peri starts to feel mid-80s in the worst sense. Nicola Bryant doesn’t seem as on the ball as she has done in the past (“I hate my life!” is a definite low point) – and whether it’s the script or the performances, neither of the two companions quite gel here, at least not at first (the stay-in-the-TARDIS plotline with Tog is particularly uninspiring). Luckily, Furman gives both of them more things to do as the story hits its second half – matters pick up for Peri at least once she’s in the carnivalesque marketplace, and Erimem gets some good scenes with Jarra To, outwitting her with the rather neat Chicago trick. There’s a terrific scene in which Jarra To taunts Erimem over her status as the Doctor’s companion: “You’re just a hitch-hiker, riding on the shirt-tails of the great and grandiose. I wonder sometimes why exactly the Doctor saw fit to allow the likes of you and that Peri to tag along at all. I mean, compared to him, or me for that matter, you’re plainly a lesser life-form. Perhaps he thinks of you as pets. Something to stroke and make a fuss of now and then. Something to fill the long silences with idle noise. I imagine he thinks it makes him look important. Having you two hanging on his every word and deed impresses the natives, you know.” The pet comparison suits Erimem, the only companion to bring a pet on board, and the later description of companions as “fashion accessories” harks back to Scherzo rather neatly, too.

With a few tweaks to perhaps make it more suitable for the 1980s’ budget, The Axis of Insanity would have been a wonderfully bizarre TV story in the manner of The Mind Robber or The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, both of which it resembles. It’s not the most engaging Fifth Doctor story ever, and the character of Tog is a bit of a non-entity there for a banal self-sacrifice, but for sheer vibrancy, pace, and comic-book colour, it is pretty unique and would have been one of his better ones on television. It gives Erimem a nice mini-arc, and it’s long on atmosphere and a vivid imagination, which it’s worth hearing for alone.

Other things:
A beautiful, beautiful score this time round: Andy Hardwick sets the surreal, foreboding tone very nicely. In fact, this is some of Gary Russell’s best direction for a while, too.
Peri: “I feel a bit like Alice myself some days.”
“In my experience, the quicker the fix, the faster it breaks.”
“The Molenski Univarius: it’s like a Swiss Army knife for Time Lords” (we need to see more of this, although I suppose its function overlaps rather with the sonic screwdriver, for which it is an obvious post-Visitation stand-in).
“Imagine the spokes of a bicycle wheel; each spoke is a damaged or truncated reality, a sort of dead-end in time. They’re formed by changes in established history, some big, some relatively small, which cause the flow of subsequent events to spiral out of control. Often catastrophically… it’s like cauterizing a wound to make sure the infection doesn’t spread.”
Time Lords “who are, well-intentioned or otherwise, prone to dabble and not really tidy up after themselves.”
“No sense of style, these omniscient types… which is ironic when you think about it.”
“I’m the Prince of Fools, the Joker in the Pack, the ‘ha’ in ‘ha-ha-ha’! I’m here to welcome you to the funhouse! Come with me, Doctor, join my merry dance!”
“Up – down – everything’s relative. I like it. Reality can be so humdrum. Altered perspectives, different strokes, that’s what punches my ticket!”
“Enlightenment comes out of the dark! We see our reflection in a stagnant pond, and all is revealed in murky perfection. These are the Children of Emptiness.”
“Here we get to play God: here we can do anything, be anything!”
“I see madness.”/“No, not madness. Creation, unchecked, unrestrained, unlimited. Here’s a universal truth for you, Doctor: to fully experience life, you must first know death!”
“Your very existence is a random variable.”
“Lost souls, shadows of once-and-future people, trapped in a prison not of their making.”
“I thought I’d better look in, see how things were, but, being omniscient, you probably already know that.”
The lunatics have taken over the asylum!” (I’ll say one thing: you can’t criticise Furman for being anachronistic.)
“I just borrowed a bit of his mind – how was I to know it was the bit that kept him young and beautiful?”
“I’m leaving! If, that is, I can find the door.”
“Imagine: he must have stood here, watching our dead-end lives grind on, watching us loop through the same tired bit of damaged history like a broken record, our needles skipping endlessly, back and forth, back and forth…I wonder, was he ever tempted to stir these waters, try and inject some semblance of pulse into our furred arterial flow?...It’s quite addictive, almost like being God. The power to create and destroy. But after a while, even that gets rather stale. What passes for reality reasserts itself, and everything falls back into its neat little loop. It’s a bit like watching endless repeats on TV. You start to yearn for something new. Something you don’t know the ending to.”
“You really are determined to give me my money’s worth, aren’t you? An all-singing, all-dancing Grimm’s fairy-tale complete with scary monsters!”
“I thought I told you to stay in the TARDIS.”/“Yeah, well, that never works.”
Furman nicely sets up the trip to the TARDIS junkyard with the chameleon circuit discussion in Part One and Erimem’s confusion over the TARDIS’ abilities. It’s a beautifully done little call-back to Omega, complete with ambiguity over the plural of TARDIS(!) and a majestic score.
“What do you want from me?”/“An audience, of course. Don’t we all?”
“You’re insane!”/“Define sanity, dear Erimem? If travelling randomly through time and space, nipping history here, tucking history there, is your idea of a 9-to-5, then: you got me. I’m m-m-mad! Mad as a Hatter! Mad as a March Hare!”
“It’s the unpredictability I crave: the coulds and mights and perhapses…they consigned me to a living hell of always knowing how the story ends. No surprises, no twists, no turns. Why haggle when you know the final price? Why spin the wheel when the ball’s already in the final slot? Why tell the joke when you already know the punchline?”
“Between the devil and the deep blue sea – or, at least, an orange magma sea.”
“Molenski Univarius a-go-go!” Oh dear.
“Time to get the hell out of … hell.”
“Some lively discourse before the end of everything” (most Doctor Who stories, then).
“Let’s talk about Time Lords. They’re a strange bunch, when you shake it all down, and I can understand how we come across as pompous or arrogant, but you see, we take our responsibilities very seriously…we’re expendable and we know it. We may occasionally have the odd delusion of grandeur, but ultimately we serve Time, not the other way round. And if Time is threatened, as it often is, by people meddling in its treacherous and muddy waters, then we are expected to put things right or die trying. It’s what it is to be a Time Lord. So yes, there’s a tendency for – shall we say – showmanship or eccentricity, which in turn manifests itself as a form of pomposity or arrogance, but, well, that’s because we’re always just one short step ahead of the Reaper, and we must be willing, should the need arise, to turn and embrace him. We can afford to court no long-term relationships, put down no routes, no, no security in any shape or form. You know I’m prepared to die right along with you if it means ending your threat right here.”
“Let me go, will you, there’s a good girl.” (It’s not just 12 who doesn’t like hugging!)
“Doctor, please try not to talk to me like I’m a pet!”

No comments:

Post a Comment