Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 058. The Harvest by Dan Abnett (June 2004)

Following on from Simon Furman, the writer of The Harvest, Dan Abnett, is another prolific comic book author, associated not so much with Transformers but with 2000 AD, having penned hundreds of short stories and novels. He must surely be the only writer for Big Finish thus far who has gone on to have his work turned into a behemoth in the Hollywood superhero film industry (Guardians of the Galaxy). In other words, he’s quite a catch. And, like Furman, you can almost see the colour panels and speech-bubbles as you listen to his audio debut.

The Harvest’s single most important function is the introduction of new companion Thomas Hector Scofield, ‘Hex’, Big Finish’s fifth original companion to date. On the basis of this story alone, he’s going to be more successful than C’rizz: he’s a quietly likeable, competent medical man, popular and grounded but not laddish. Philip Olivier acquits himself very well, giving some very considered line readings in a pleasant Scouse accent. His underplayed reaction to seeing a former flatmate of his on the operating table (though mostly done through silence, it has to be said) is still leaps and bounds ahead of C’rizz’s overdone trauma. There’s a great moment at the end where he checks his injured colleague is OK before dashing off to join the Doctor and Ace. Better still, his presence allows Sophie Aldred to up her game, because now Ace has got a well-characterised person of her own age to talk to, an equal, yet also someone who’s new to the Time Lord’s world. It helps her grow up, and not in the annoyingly angsty way: she’s suddenly a lot more likeable and sympathetic herself. As companions tend to do, she’s slowly becoming more like the Doctor: witness her enigmatic coyness in Part One and her delight in introducing Hex into the TARDIS itself – Abnett gives her whole new types of scenes to play as Ace, and she does them marvellously.

What is it with the Seventh Doctor and bloody brilliant entrance lines? I’ve already enthused about ones in The Fearmonger and Master (and who could forget The Wormery) and here we get another two corkers – sneaking undercover as the hospital janitor and drily observing when tasked with fixing the coffee machine, “It’ll go on my list of things to do”, followed by the even more spine-chilling and so perfectly apt “Oh my God!”/“No, I’m the Doctor. But hello, just the same.” Particularly early in the audio, it’s one of his best performances, downplayed and lurking round the edges, boasting a great rapport with both Ace and Hex (they chorus “Yes, Doctor!” in weary unison like they’re his two teenage children). His flirty chat with System is particularly funny.

The Harvest is at first atmospheric and then pacey, but always entertaining: Abnett mingles a spot of Casualty-style drama with a few of the trappings of spy films, some good action sequences and excellent body horror, but best of all ties it all up with some great characterisation. After a string of underwhelming audio plays featuring the Doctor and Ace, it’s such a relief to hear them in a good, solid story for a change.

Oh, we should probably mention the Cybermen. Yes. This is the second Big Finish ‘take’ on the Cybermen (I’m kinda jettisoning Sword of Orion, since it was written for an earlier line of audios), and they’re used sparingly, but effectively; the Cybermen are often at their best thus. Abnett doesn’t simply ape Spare Parts, although there is a clear thread from the previous audio to this right through to The Age of Steel and Doomsday. For a start, the setting: this isn’t some distant past, but hyper-contemporary, with more than a whiff of The Fearmonger about it. It’s the London of tomorrow, but a tangible, real place, populated by believable characters – we’re not far off Mickey, Jake and Mrs Moore. The Harvest takes place in the film noir, cyber-punkish London of 2021, a London in which the Gothic architecture of the Houses of Parliament is now nothing more than a fusty museum. I picture it as resembling Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner aesthetic.

Isn’t a hospital an irresistible setting for these particular monsters? It’s where machine meets man, slick technology patching up the wear and tear of bodily decay. The Cybermen are the natural endpoint of hospitals, after all. The key catch-all term, “harvest”, might be a sinister one, but what are kidney transplants and organ donations but harvesting? It should also be noted that there is a class reading to all this – in the background, perhaps, but it’s there. I don’t know if Hex was written as strongly Liverpudlian as he is played, but if not Olivier’s performance adds another level of Northern grit to his scripted distaste for the swanky “gits” with their “Merc” who treated him like a “pleb”, and it’s a level which it almost goes without saying everyone’s favourite rebellious Perivale inhabitant slots right into very neatly. As in most good Doctor Who, the character focus is well tailored to the monster-mystery plotline, in this instance Abnett’s reimagining of the Cybermen not as a desperate attempt to salvage a dying community, but as an exploitative super-company keen to win a space race, and perfectly happy to sacrifice the lives of invalids, the sickest, the weaker elements of society, to do so, and all in the name of sensible management (yes, the Human Resources gag is both funny and clever; it’s not overlaboured, but the more you let it work on you, the more it seems like it’s the whole point of the play). Farrer and Garnier, the two human bureaucrats in league with the Cybermen, are prepared to cannibalise the anatomies of others for their dreams of grandeur. None of this ever quite builds to a coherent political screed, or an attack on any one target in particular, but it’s a frightening glimpse of how far those in power might be prepared to go: witness the awful, coldly logical massacre in the hospital.

In the end, of course, the bureaucrats die too, because they’re just as easily gunned down as anybody else. Subject One’s dying moments are particularly memorable, as it first experiences pain and fear: “Ah yes,” the Doctor tells it. “The flesh is weak, isn’t it?” followed by the simple monotone sound of its organs flatlining. The junior nurse and the EU Health Minister are both going to decay, their flesh shall rot together, and the powerful would do well to remember it.

Other things:
Although it’s a great script, Gary Russell bungles some of the action & Darlington’s score really is this audio’s key downside – it’s almost as inappropriate for the subject matter as the one for Colditz.
“On the list of things in this universe that are going to kill me, sugar is a long way down.”
“Isn’t it illegal for a medical professional under the age of 30 to turn down an after-work booze-up?”
Ooh, Hex follows Ace home into a Totters’ Lane parking bay, a cool inverse of the very first discovery scene.
“You can’t see my place from here. It’s compact and bijou.” Cracking description of the TARDIS.
“What is this? How-”/“’How’ requires a two-hour lecture with flipcharts and slides, and I’m afraid I don’t have the time just now.”
“You’ll find the initial open-mouthed shock fades after an hour or so…it’s replaced by an uncomfortable, nagging sense of the uncanny which never quite goes away.”
“Is this some kind of joke?”/“In the unfathomably cosmic sense, most certainly.”
“This doesn’t make any sense.”/“Very few things in space and time do. Shouting about it seldom helps.” That’s so apt for this fandom, I’m nicking that for my sig :D
“I never like it when you use words like ‘incident’.”
“It’s not like you to be so careless, Ace, getting an innocent party involved.”/“Like you never do that!”/“Touché.”
“The one thing mankind always seems to be good at is secrecy – its greatest failing, in my opinion.”
“Is it always this cloak-and-dagger stuff?”/“Not so much cloak-and-dagger – it’s been anorak and baseball bat a few times. Panama hat and jelly baby. Usually it’s your basic shambling horror and nasty pongs. Just promise me, if it gets all eyestalks and sink plungers, you’ll warn me and run like hell.”
“Say no more…” Haha.
Matthias is hilarious – “Lives to save and an aspirin to find. Should be able to do one or the other. I am a doctor, after all…”
The Doctor gets to use a lot of technical knowhow and jiggery-pokery in this one, with much of the second episode taking place over micro-voice transceivers.
“Don’t threaten me with your rentagoons!”
“Are you telling me that these Cybermen aren’t human?”/“Yes…and no.”
“Tell it to me straight!”/“That will result in another one of your ‘oh my God’ sessions.”
“Hold on to your hat.”/“I haven’t got one?”/“Then hold on to mine.”
“Spare parts – build your own Cyberman, small parts not suitable for unsupervised humans, danger of genocide…”
Andrew M. Lanning is a nod to Abnett’s long-term writing partner.
“My life has taught me not to expect much at all, except surprises and disappointments.”
“Who’s the real menace here – Cybermen or bureaucrats in Belgium?” Funny, but disappointingly parochial in its politics.
“You’re needed. Well, bits of you, anyway.”
Hex recognising Damien is the most obvious debt to Spare Parts, even if *nothing* will ever top Yvonne’s cry of “Da-ddy?”
“You will all be soulless silver monsters marching to a sterile alien logic along with the rest of humanity!”
“We have wearied of our cold existence…”/“Oh really? My hearts bleed!”
“The destructive legacy of the Cybermen casts a long and indelible shadow over everything!”
“Resistance is useless.”/“Sometimes, Cybermen, resistance is all that counts.”
For a brief while, there’s an inkling that the Cybermen want to be human again, want warmth and the feeling of blood in their veins. What an unusual element to a Cyberman story; the Doctor himself stutters and hesitates at the revelation. Flesh, with its “subtle traits… its fallibility… nuances of thought and behaviour”, could make their race even greater. So unusual, in fact, that it was a lie; which is something of a pity, as that could have been a fascinating avenue to go down. Maybe next time.
I really like how the Doctor calls the new companion “Mister Hex”. It sounds so wrong, it’s perfectly befitting the era of “Professor”.
“I’m not really very good at goodbyes.” (You won’t change there, Doctor).

2 comments:

  1. Listening to this at the moment. Yes, the "Eurocrats in Belgium" line from the Doctor did rather stick in my craw at the present circumstances. Hard to nelieve that the Doctor would be Leaver, although obviously he doesn't have much time for the kind of bureaucrats who would authorise harvesting body parts to create super-(Euro)-astronauts.

    Interesting that the vision of a Euro-integrated 2021 is not one we are likely to be going to see. What will get wrong (and right) about 2033?

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    1. Yes, I find myself considerably concerned about the current debate.

      But as you say, the Doctor who is always urging us to open our eyes, and to treat the Other with as much compassion as we treat ourselves, would surely be for In!

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