Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 066. The Game by Darin Henry (February 2005)

One of The Game’s most notable tricks is that it takes an era that generally prefers pacey to languid storytelling – an era dominated by snappy four-parters, a one-off special and a trio of two-parters – and deliberately revokes that by fashioning a Six Part Adventure, that old mainstay of the 60s and 70s. Yet it does so in a curious way: by more or less retaining the length and indeed pace of a normal four-parter and lopping the length of each part to a mere 18 minutes or so, an innovation in a Big Finish range that has no need of a ‘formal’ running time and thus sees many of its stories run well over two hours. Needless to say, this singularly quirky choice has a sizeable impact on the way one experiences The Game, whether one experiences it in six chunks or all at once – it generally means the story zips along with exciting moments at regular intervals, and enough ways of changing the story’s shape to ensure it stays interesting. The mystery is all nicely structured and paced throughout.

The Game shares a number of Buffy-esque elements with The Rapture (even the beat of the music is similar, although its presence is a bit more inexplicable in this case). Both stadium sports and clubbing are overtly “mainstream” (hate the word, but it’ll have to do) interests, and therefore unusual but not necessarily impossible backdrops to a pre-Russell T Davies Doctor Who story. This script is on the one hand more alien than Lidster’s – we are on the planet Cray, not Ibiza – yet has a similarly anthropocentric take on alien life (sometimes this means falling back on generically ‘earthy’ dialogue between the competitors, for example, but at other points it rams home how very like our society all this bloodshed is).

The story’s treatment of its subject matter – the eponymous game, known as ‘naxy’, but let’s face it, this is meant to represent football – is polished. We get satire about the inflated importance attached to sports when it comes to international relations (the first people negotiator Lord Carlisle meets on Cray are a coach and player). We get a great bit where we find out that each team handles the other’s merchandise sales. We get those brilliantly funny interview moments where the distraught captain of the losing team tries to string together his thoughts as to what went wrong. But it’s not all fun and, well, games: the unpleasant machismo surrounding the naxy phenomenon (and this is a very overly ‘masculine’ world, in which women seem to be mostly just players’ wives) is roundly skewered (see Sharz’s sexism, Morian’s control over Faye by using a secretive drug like Torchwood’s Owen Harper at his most grim, and Hollis’ assumption that the Doctor must be gay, purely because he’s not having sex with the woman he’s been travelling with). And, as in the logic of a nightmare, it quickly becomes clear that naxy itself is deadly: like the tributes of Panem, like the gladiators of the Colosseum, it’s a game one fights to the death. The first naxy match in Part Two is a triumph, relayed through the tripartite means of Garny’s commentary, Nyssa’s horrified reaction and the Doctor right in the thick of it all. And, as it always does, the violence reaches its tendrils towards the home – we as audience don’t like Sharz, but it’s hard not to pity him and his poor family when we learn of their sticky end.

Darin Henry (of Seinfeld, Futurama, and a lot of quite good American telly), after initially pitching the story for Six/Evelyn, settles nicely into writing for Five/Nyssa, from whom we haven’t heard a peep since Creatures of Beauty – getting on for two years ago. Sarah Sutton gives us her best Mildly Sarcastic Nyssa, as opposed to Blandly Nice (“the thing is, Nyssa, I have a slight tendency to interfere.”/“No?!”), and it suits her character well, allowing her both to clash mildly with the Doctor but also sound more relaxed with him. Her scenes with Carlisle are marvellous, as we witness their all-too-brief surrogate father-daughter relationship. For his part Peter Davison clearly relishes the chance to hit his two big strengths as the Doctor – playing an excitable sports fan, and dabbling in a spot of moral outrage; he takes to both quickly. Incidentally, I like that this comes straight after Creatures, as we move from a terrible consequence of which the Doctor is completely oblivious to the more overt imagery of him participating in the naxy arena. Unsurprisingly, he becomes something of a short-lived totemic hero for the awful game.

It would of course be remiss of me not to discuss the story’s absolute highlight, the marvellous William Russell. It’s sacrilegious to admit, but I don’t always think Russell is that successful in his 60s stories – not necessarily his fault, more the fact that the most intelligent scriptwriting tended to favour Hartnell and the ever-wonderful Jacqueline Hill (IMO). This is a shame, as there were elements of Ian that I really liked; and, more crucially, Russell is a great presence whether on screen or on audio. In fact, if anything, I think he’s improved with age. It was a delight to see his cameo in An Adventure in Space and Time, and he really raises the bar of this story as Lord Darzil Carlisle, a petty, stoic veteran politician. Carlisle displays many of the characteristics of someone loveable – he’s got humorous weaknesses, such as a comic obsession with his food – without really ever reaching outright lovability, because of his slightly off-hand manner and fraudulent, Mr Copper-ish past; but he’s certainly admirable, as the Doctor’s potted history of his life illustrates. Most fascinating of all is his out-of-time acquaintance with our hero beginning with his death, à la Professor River Song. I don’t think this has really been attempted in the series at all by this point, and it’s pretty well-handled here; a good twist that it is in fact the Doctor who is the greatest peace negotiator of all time. We see the Doctor learn that meeting one’s heroes is often immensely disappointing: what a delightful paradox, then, that William Russell’s return performance turns out to be nothing of the sort. Carlisle’s death, this old friend he’s never met, is genuinely very moving; better still is the wide future of possibility that the story leaves open with regard to their forthcoming friendship.

Morian should be an uninteresting villain – head of a crime syndicate, a cosmic mafia boss, everyone else merely his pawns (by the by, the whole thing being a trap to catch the Doctor is another rather new-series-esque trait). And yet, somehow, that works. I think it’s a deliberate choice. It’s boring that it all boils down to money, but then, on Earth just as on Cray, it all does really boil down to money. It’s like finding out that the incredibly corrupt FIFA is run by…Sepp Blatter. Or that Fox News is owned by…Rupert Murdoch. Evil can be this mind-numbingly banal, this devoid of imagination. See the key line as to why he wants control over the TARDIS simply to make a fortune in the gambling business – “There’s got to be a better use out there. But you know, I can’t think of one.”

Many Doctor Who stories are familiar games of one kind or another: formulaic runarounds, duels of opposing factions. The Game is like a new toy in the toy box. It’s slick, sharp and pointed, and has more resonances outside of its own limited running time than most monthly range one-offs do. Naxy may not be much in the way of entertainment – but Darin Henry’s first (and, alas, only) Big Finish story certainly is.

Other things:
There are twinnings and ‘sister planets’ in space now? Ha. I like that.
“Who told you I was looking for a camera?”/“No one. But the last thing you said was, ‘I need to find a camera’, and now you’re halfway inside that trunk.”
“Their skin… it’s so blue!”/“Face paint.”
“They’re staring at us.”/“Splendid. Saves us the trouble of attracting their attention.”
“Can you think of a good reason why I shouldn’t just eliminate you now?”/“Several hundred thousand, actually.”
“Half the women on Cray would kill to spend five minutes with me.”/“I must be in the other half.” Nyssa really shines in this story.
“The game is the war.” Great Episode 1 cliff-hanger.
Another similarity with The Rapture and its guest starring Tony Blackburn: Match of the Day’s Jonathan Pearce (even I recognise his voice) as Garny Diblick is a great draw, and needless to say improves the match sequence no end. His running commentary on his own fate is sublime black comedy.
“Naxy was once an innocent enough team sport. The game’s fans changed all that. Supporters of various naxy teams used to meet outside the arenas to fight before the matches. Vicious, deadly brawls they were. The people of Cray gradually shifted their interest from what happened on the pitch to the violence outside…naxy evolved into a lethal combination of the two.”
“Are you saying you’ve heard of the Doctor before?”/“Heard of him? He’s my best friend!”
“Yes, because honest annihilation is far better than the dishonest kind.”
“Are there any laws on this planet which favour the innocent?”
If this had been made for TV, the Velosian bornoxes would have been this story’s Magma Beast, I think. But on audio the set-piece in which they attack the arena armed with laser pistols is magnificent – the retirement home showdown in Part Six is a bit more clichéd, mind.
The idea that Faye is addicted to Morian is sick and twisted. In an effective way.
“So what do the history books say about this war on Cray, Doctor?”/“I suggest you wait and ask them yourself.”
When the bornoxes are confused who Morian wants them to kill: “THE ONES IN THE BLUE PAINT!”
“All I care about is the final score.”
Morian: “Did you know that most human backs break within a fairly narrow range of pressure? Unfortunately, I have been unable to find the results of similar testing on Time Lords. So, in the interests of science, I will determine the exact amount of pressure it takes to shatter the Doctor’s spine. The experiment begins in five minutes. Place your bets.”
Darzil Carlisle’s very own Singing Towers of Daryllium: “The last time we were together…you said something very strange to me. Just before you got into your TARDIS, you looked me over with that sad stare of yours and said, “You are my best friend, Darzil.” It seemed even more melodramatic than usual. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I expect you knew then that you’d never see me again… in your timeline, I mean…It was unfair of you to do that. You got to say goodbye to me but I didn’t get to say goodbye to you. The real you, I mean. And now I never will. He doesn’t exist yet. So here I am, dying, and I’m stuck with you. No offence.”
“Dammit, Doctor, call me Darzil like you always do.”
“Thank you for saving my life.”/“Just returning the favour. I still owe you several dozen.”/“Let’s call it even.”
“Say goodbye to your future self for me.” Sob.
It’s perhaps a touch too easy a resolution that the players unite *quite* so quickly against Morian.
“I’ve learned that when I try to get close to someone, things don’t usually work out very well for them… it’s not easy to explain.” Oh Nyssa.
“We simplify so all we can see is us versus them. Players sacrifice themselves for nothing except to keep the game alive.”
“It’s a little hobby of mine to find moral loopholes in people.”
Nice Blade Runner-esque usage of “retirement”.
The scene is set for a Morian rematch. Somehow I don’t expect there will be one.

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