Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 067. Dreamtime by Simon A. Forward (March 2005)

Dreamtime is a story that’s openly concerned with myth and the modern world, and the tensions between them. This is clear right from the very opening (an opening which is woven back into the story at a later date): a loudspeaker announces to the inhabitants of an Australian shantytown that they must urgently vacate the area, the tinny intercom overlaid with traditional didgeridoo music as the two worlds mingle, and the soldiers go storming in with tear gas as their leader yells, “this is for your own good!” It’s uncomfortably real and reminds us of what has been happening in Australia over and over since the British first arrived in the late eighteenth century.

Where Simon A. Forward’s second audio most succeeds is in this unnatural blend of the two – standing stones (even a standing jeep!) covered in screaming faces, incongruously placed amid a modern city floating through space. Australia has not exactly been over-featured in Doctor Who’s history (just the one air hostess/a beach in The Enemy of the World), and Australia’s indigenous peoples even less so (only Four to Doomsday); the prospect of an audio exploring both is rather tantalising – and Forward borrows all sorts of imagery from such ancient animist traditions. There are bunyips, “devil spirits…monsters from the Dreamtime”, shadowy creatures I used to read about as a kid, here brought to life through a series of howls and shrieks. There are malatji, or what we might call dingoes. There’s a void of howling voices. And yet there is no identifiable villain – this is a wholly conceptual piece, full of big ideas rather than villains. The notion of Uluru (and we’ll call it that, not Ayers Rock) standing on a powered asteroid is an absolute corker, and alone wins this story brownie points from me; the sequence in which it is lifted from the ground and taken up into space, is a great bit of imaginative fiction, and probably what I will most remember Dreamtime for. Myth and legend permeates our landscape, our stories, our every terminology and classification, even our biological nomenclature – just look at the name given to the Australian thorny devil, “moloch”, one of Milton’s demons from Paradise Lost. The land is shaped and warped by the myths of the people who understand it. Their thoughts and dreams and stories are inseparable from the ground they walk on. The relationship is utterly symbiotic. This is no longer science-fiction, not at all. This is pure magical realism. If this had aired in Series 8 in place of In the Forest of the Night, I think some fans would have had heart attacks.

Fortunately for such people, there are at least some aliens. The Galyari were one of the most interesting alien races Big Finish had yet produced when they first appeared in The Sandman, another story explicitly concerned with the impact of myth on the present. They don’t get as much development here, mostly because the story’s focus is less explicitly on the Galyari’s history as such, more on their role as sceptics amid the mythical situation in which they find themselves. They form an effective parallel with Baiame and those who believe in the Dreamtime: the Galyari worship their avian ancestors, which is interestingly enough what Aborigines do not do – their ancestral figures are held in high esteem, they are heroic or supernatural figures, but they are not gods. The nod to the Galyari’s own mythical fears (the Sandman) is a welcome one, and illustrates that “mythologizing what one does not understand” is not exclusive to the Aborigines. In other words, each myth is just another take on existence, and healthy scepticism for one belief system is quickly undermined when someone else can just as easily be sceptical about your beliefs.

Into this melange we throw the regulars, with mixed results. “Which one of you’s life and which one’s soul?” Hex asks of the Doctor and Ace when they’re in foreboding mood; Philip Olivier brings a lightness of touch to proceedings and that’s part of what makes him work alongside this TARDIS crew in particular. The trio has some heavy lifting to do in the first part of the story, exploring an abandoned city sprinkled with monoliths with only themselves to talk to – while the abandoned city itself is undeniably a great idea, these scenes do drag slightly. Sophie Aldred doesn’t get much of a role in this, unfortunately – much like Evelyn in The Sandman – but her performance itself is quite good (I must steal Mike Richards’ point about Ace over at the old Outpost Gallifrey reviews site: “Dorothy really does go to Oz.” Genius!). I don’t think McCoy is on top form here, but his Doctor still gets a great moment strolling out into the past and through the Australian desert to meet a bemused Whitten; the stand-off with Baiame at the top of Uluru is also pretty great.

Crucially, the Doctor – the programme’s mythical figure we know best – seems almost instinctively clued in on the potential ramifications of Uluru’s presence. As he says about both it and the Dreamtime, it’s simply not a truth that happens to fit with their (the Western time travellers’) version of truth. And yet all the dismantling and chaos that runs rife here is his fault for convincing Baiame to save Whitten and his men. The cultures cross-contaminate, the western ways interfere with the old tribal traditions, the Dreaming is lost, and so the Dreamtime strikes back (and no, I don’t see this as an attack on cultural integration, more an attack on one culture thoughtlessly trampling over another). There is a different kind of truth underpinning things to what we expect, that is to say the world of observable data – “it doesn’t matter what you understand, what you believe. The Dreaming holds sway here.” The story therefore emphasises the immense value of “the old ways”, if you like, over and above the technology or rationalism we might normally expect a Doctor Who story to champion. So many Doctor Who stories see religion or myth debunked, that I find this reversal of values helpful and refreshing, and essential to the show’s universe. Myth and science must coexist as elements of the Doctor’s character and his travels in my book. To misquote Terry Eagleton, “Saying that science has replaced myth is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.” It’s not so much that one is more important than the other, but that a balance is crucial, and Forward helps to redress that balance.

Note that it is a recording of Wahn’s ancient bull-roarer, broadcast on an external communication system, which helps the Doctor to placate the Dreaming, at the exact same moment as a gun-toting lizard from the far future is unable to kill a sacred kookaburra that he reveres as an ancestor as part of his race memory. Everyone would have been rendered inapatua, as stone figures, were it not for a) the Doctor’s technical know-how and b) the Galyari’s beliefs.  Science and myth coalesce to end the nightmare. Scientists and wizards both save the day (note, too, that as the TARDIS fades away, you can still hear didgeridoos in the background, as though myth gets the final word).

It is worth noting, of course, that this is a very Western take on indigenous Australian culture. The “Dreamtime” itself is in point of fact something of a Western invention, a mistranslation of the Arandic word acheringa – more accurately rendered ‘eternal, uncreated’ (even this I only know from a Wikipedia article written in English, so everything I can possibly learn about acheringa is being filtered through my own language before it reaches me). While one must be wary of mindless cultural appropriation, I would suggest that Dreamtime avoids the worst cultural misrepresentation because of the manner in which it suggests the truth, in one way or another, of all myths, whether belonging to the Ancient Egyptians or the Ood. Indeed, it makes it clear that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy, and gestures to something broader and more unknowable than even what takes place in the audio, as though Forward’s text is only the shadow on the cave wall, a dim reflection of the ‘truth’, and the real Aboriginal myth is a moving shape somewhere, out there… Let’s give newbie Hex the last say on the matter: “The realms of possibility are a bit like the TARDIS: from an everyday perspective, they seem pretty finite, but they’re a lot bigger once you’re on the inside.”

To conclude, Dreamtime’s mysticism is, on paper, even more interesting than The Sandman. And yet as an actual two-hour listen this is a curiously lacking, indeed disorientating experience…dreamlike being an apt word. I think it could have been a terrific novel (certainly, I like the sound of the novels by the same author; Emotional Chemistry in particular sounds right up my street), but Forward doesn’t especially tailor it to the audio format and Gary Russell and the actors don’t seem sure how to bring such a script to life. Unfortunately, Dreamtime sees a number of uninspired performances dealing with clunky dialogue – particularly Josephine Mackerras as Toomey, but the Dream Commandoes don’t impress much either. A lot of the makings of a classic are present, a lot of great ideas, but somehow the actual execution is off, more Battlefield than Ghost Light. Still, it’s worth a listen for its very inventive script, even if the end product doesn’t do the ideas justice.

Other things:
The didgeridoo, jungle-flute and bongo soundscapes are unusual territory for Doctor Who but I rather liked them.
“If this is paradise, something tells me we should have found it sooner.”
“I’d like to know what we’re all on…and I’m not talking about the asteroid.”
“Breath-taking is not my favourite word when there’s only a force-field between us and deep space.”
John Scholes put me off as Baiame at first – it felt like a British actor’s stereotype of what an Aboriginal shaman would sound like – but I warmed to his performance as the running time went on. I like the way he is paralleled with the Wizard of Oz in the final part, just a lonely old man behind the proverbial curtain.
Is this the earliest we see the sonic screwdriver post-Visitation but pre-Movie?
“Stones that hold within them the shapes of beings.”
A Noah’s Ark for humans – quotas of different cultures have to be represented?
“The land dreams what it will, and wills what it dreams. It dreams of a city in the stars for us, and we dream it too. Time dreams, and all things are possible.”
“Uluru will travel the stars until it beats in the body of another world.”
“You smother your dream in its infancy!”
“You may cross the bridge of a thousand years in the blink of an eye.”/“Walk in eternity. Don’t mind if I do.”
“The Dreamtime is living time. The Dreamtime is living myth.”
“I am father to this place. But the child no longer needs the guidance of its father.”
“…putting the Dreaming back to bed.”
Seven’s best line here: “Think of me more as an uncle, who drops by from time to time, when he can.”

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