Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 064. The Next Life by Alan Barnes & Gary Russell (December 2004)

Of late I have been massively enchanted by the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a superbly rendered historical fantasy miniseries from Toby Haynes and Peter Harness, and I’ve since gone on to re-read the original 2004 novel, quite simply one of my favourites of all time. Susanna Clarke would write a blindingly good Doctor Who story, I suspect (she’s a *massive* fan, to the extent of scheduling her work and social commitments around episodes’ broadcast dates). The reason I mention all this is to touch on the magical in Doctor Who. In some ways, The Next Life is a story explicitly along the magical lines – right from the jungle conjuror at the story’s opening to the Doctor himself (“Charley? Come and see some magic!”), with all the flamboyant flourish of a Regency-era magician in the Jonathan Strange mould (“Doctor Who isn’t a scientist. He’s a wizard”, said William Hartnell, exactly 50 years ago this year). As in Clarke’s novel, magic (and indeed narrative) is something both capable of cheap and easy tricks or of real, terrifying, concrete power. Count the number of times characters declare something “impossible” in this one story alone, for instance. The story constantly takes us into the magical realm of the impossible – the dead revived, ghostly dreams crossing universes. However much the Doctor cites “basic astrophysics”, the narrative rules are Barnes’ and Russell’s, devised, as it were, by the minds of two madmen.


What a joy it is to hear the TARDIS crew so cheered by the recovery of the time machine! The scene at the start between the three of them – as the Doctor “conjures” the different hues of C’rizz’s skin, and Charley jokily pours scorn on his efforts – is the happiest they have been for ages, and makes a pleasant change from all the bleakness of other DU stories. The Doctor is jokey and flippant, and just generally upbeat (“nil desperandum, fair Charlotte!”) leading nicely on from Caerdroia. His plot in this one sees him washed up on a tropical, volcanic island (so pleasantly rendered on the cover) crawling with hermit crabs and their 10-foot-long, carnivorous queen mother, shortly before a tsunami breaks, only to find killer crocodiles, leeches and violent natives. Business as usual, then. All the while we get his two companions questioning his motives – he’s every inch the joyful traveller with that undercurrent of unreliability that makes him so compelling. For the most part McGann is back to his old self, revitalised perhaps by the TARDIS’ return (see the pleasure he takes in beginning to rattle off his sins as a confession to Guidance, although I could have done without the “snipe wot was brought up in the Gallifrey gutter” line). Indeed, with the number of women showing an interest in him (hardly my favourite part of this story), he’s practically a Byronic hero as well as a magician.

In turn, Charley finds herself back at square one, where the R101 will first take off, with her mother Lady Louisa Pollard (from Zagreus), discussing, well, the next life. The arc of Charley Pollard, let alone the Divergent Universe, has done a full turn, right back to the (biological and narrative) start. Closing the circle, if you like, but with many salient points around the circumference: she reminisces about Rathbone’s “pointless, violent death”, the first death she saw in Storm Warning, and all the countless other deaths she’s seen. “I couldn’t go to sleep without seeing their faces,” Charley says – reinforcing the trauma I mentioned Charley had gone through when discussing her in Caerdroia. Life with the Doctor has shown her a lot of awful things; it has only intensified her ache to live fully and properly. The treatment of her feelings for the Doctor works well here in that it’s not too overdone.

I was glad to see the return of C’rizz’s moonstone pendant from The Last, and in fact to see a bit more of the Eutermesan’s pre-Kromon life – thrown back in time to his romance with L’da, the morning of his wedding (is he the first companion pre-Amy Pond to have a marriage be a major part of his backstory?). Also neat that we learn more about the Church of the Foundation, his original religious order with a bit of a penchant for killing (and Faith Stealers themes of healing and redemption feed very well into this). Much as Charley’s arc here builds on what I mentioned in Caedroia, this story illustrates just how hellish and violent C’rizz’s life used to be and what healing the Doctor has brought him (yet he’s still ready to believe the Doctor would betray him, certainly more so than Charley, and his Turlough-like instability means he betrays the Doctor to Rassilon). It might be the most effective he’s been yet, and his scenes with India Fisher both in the TARDIS and the jungle work very well. This brings me on to Paul Darrow’s great performance as Guidance, revealed to be C’rizz’s father in a cool mid-story twist, allowing yet more background for the tortured Eutermesan and some discourse on how their race mould themselves around the people they spend times with (“socially and mentally chameleonic, as well as physically” – not a great person to fall in with the wrong sorts).

And then there is the character of Perfection, played by The TV Movie’s Daphne Ashbrook (complete with a few “Grace?!” jokes here and there); Ashbrook isn’t amazing and the character a tad annoying (the Part Four cliff-hanger really is bad) but she and McGann have an obvious, well-formed chemistry. The detail of her abuse at her husband’s hands is rather skimmed over instead of confronted head-on, although that adds a somewhat sympathetic element to her past. Much of this plot is, unfortunately, either underdeveloped or long-winded (her husband Keep is a poor addition to the story; the tying of his bizarre French accent to the random reference to Jacques earlier in the story sounds like a great curveball, as does the insect swarm call back to The Creed of the Kromon and the concept that he’s the alternate future DoctorCharley from Scherzo, predating the DoctorDonna by quite a few years, until you think about how many languages the Doctor knows that also ought to be present in his speech patterns). It makes a long slog even longer that Perfection is unveiled as Zagreus at the end (although I think, fortunately, this must be the last Zagreus story).

But unsurprisingly, it’s Rassilon who is the least interesting thing about all this. Don Warrington is a good actor (though he really needs to work on his evil laugh), but the programme’s treatment of Rassilon always seems to end up treading old ground, and that’s not much avoided here. He’s a bit moustache-twirling and manipulative, behind the Eutermesans, exploiting religion, fashioning the entire Divergent Universe’s very nature. And he quotes Shakespeare dubiously often in place of actual dialogue. How exciting. Similarly, the Kro’ka feels rather shoehorned in after Perring’s strong showing in Caerdroia, and we’re still not left with much of an impression of what he looks like (though the bit where we see him typing away Charley’s mother’s dialogue like some infernal creator out of The Truman Show is a delight).

The Next Life is an attempt to bring the Divergent Universe arc to a somewhat hasty end, elements of which it does quite well, addressing the cyclical nature of a universe in which “all things must die” over and over, tying this into C’rizz’s religious background and the scientific experiments we’ve seen throughout these two seasons, and finally defining properly what a universe without Time means. It also feels like a more worthy successor to Neverland than Zagreus does, and indeed its Zagreus-like elements are its least successful (it shares the issue of being far too long and padded: did this need to be six episodes?! And the whole Foundry/Divergents/Zagreus over-referencing was more irritating than anything else). It’s still more focused than the anniversary story, however, and touches upon many of Neverland’s themes – the ache of life and living, how we approach death and the concept of not-being, people as faint memories that flare up and fade and re-occur, how each alternate path has its own joys and terrors. The thought of endlessly re-doing and re-enacting is an untenable horror, the fate Rassilon and the Kro’ka eventually suffer, thrown back to the arc’s very beginning in the form of Scherzo’s blinding whiteness; C’rizz himself seems to be clear that falling in love with L’da again would not be worth losing her again. Yet as long as what is next is different to what was last, perhaps there is something to be said for the cycle of death and life, endless death and life. It’s the way the pattern of the Doctor’s lives works, after all.

To couple these thoughts together, life ends and yet it prevails. Something must die to allow the next story, the next life, to carry on. Any given moment must be sacrificed on the altar of the coming moment. In 2004, the Divergent Universe must come to an unceremonious end because we’ve seen the next chapter and the future is Mancunian. There’s simply no alternative. In a 2015 audio marathon this is even truer. All things must die, yet all things must carry on, and on, and on… The King is dead, long live the King, etc. (not to spoil the current mini-series too much, Clarke does much the same thing at the end of her novel). This audio is a mad, magical, humanist fairy-tale, and awfully flawed though it is, I enjoyed it.

And so the Eighth Doctor takes his place as the non-current Doctor, as merely one era running alongside another set of Doctors; he embarks, as it were, upon the next life.

Other things:
Beautiful case this one comes in!
“If you’re going to have pre-wedding jitters, you might at least have a fantasy where you get shot of me without actually killing me. I could get quite put off, you know.”
Charley: “I’ve seen above the clouds. I’ve witnessed the birth and death of a universe. I’ve seen a million different worlds, met a billion different people… Life and death on such a scale that it no longer holds any meaning…”
“No one can ever quite accept they’ll die, even though they know they will.”/“Not me. Not anymore. No next life – one life, make it worthwhile!”
The first Simon Murchford scene, as he boards the doomed R101, is oddly affecting.
The Eutermesans have church bells and weddings *exactly like ours*? I suppose it is a fantasy, but still, that’s a touch dubious.
Charley waking out of her dream-life, gasping for breath, feels very like The Matrix.
“We’re Catholics, not C of E!” Charley exclaims to Reverend Murchford. “Just like your father!” her mother mutters under her breath.
The score is as good as ever, all stirring strings and haunting vocal work, some lovely reworking of the Scherzo theme.
“I fear he pressed Button A where he should have pressed Button B, or some such nonsense…” Way to skewer your own plotting!
“Hello? This is Robinson Crusoe paging Man Friday! Shipwrecked sailor seeks similar to share paradise island! Non-smoker, good sense of humour essential!”
“Now you’re just being shellfish! Stupid Doctor, a bad pun for an epigraph!”
“I’m Perfection.”/“I don’t doubt it.” Oh, the flirt!
“They told me that all things must die. They told me that death was a transfiguration, a route into the next life.”
“I say ship, of course, but it doesn’t sail on the sea. At best it sort of bobs around a bit.”
“I never got puffed-out before my 900th birthday, but you know what they say, you reach the big 9-50, and everything goes!”
“My oratory has won me plaudits from the Oxford Union to the Court of the Russian Czars!”
Eurgh, Jembere-Bud’s fate is nasty.
“I was a terror until 120… late developer.”
I like that the Doctor knows 50 years’ worth of Liverpool strikers and goals, and appropriate for this incarnation in particular, who seems to be both a football fan and a Liverpudlian.
“Better an honest villain than a counterfeit hero” (and later: “I’d rather spend my time with a noble liar than an honest brute.”)
There’s a lovely bit of hero music as Charley threatens Daqar Keep with humbugs and gobstoppers hurled from a catapult.
“Women’s intuition, vastly underrated. Underrated by most women, too, I should think.” Nope; terrible, patronising dialogue, as is the horribly done bitchiness between Perfection and Charley.
“I’ve always liked penguins.” N’awww Frobisher.
“The dead stay dead. That’s how it is. And it’s hard.”/“Not here, Doctor. Here the universe repeats itself, over and over again. Everyone who ever lived is reborn again, lives the same life over again.”
“All these corridors look the same to me!”/“Oh, you’ll make the ideal companion!”
The arguing at the end and the “group hug” moment is very silly. Its heart is in the right place, but it’s ineptly handled (though at least the rationales and motives behind Charley’s and C’rizz’s behaviour are fairly well done).
Who was to have been the “final” new writer of 2004 if Barnes & Russell hadn’t had to wrap up the DU arc unexpectedly early? Anybody know?

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