Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 068. Catch-1782 by Alison Lawson (April 2005)

Alison Lawson, only the fourth woman to write for Big Finish in its first five and a half years of existence, turns in a time-twisting ghost story for the Sixth Doctor and Mel, fresh from their most recent Davros-shaped adventure. It’s a double-historical, if you like – 2003 is history, even when the story came out – and Lawson juggles the dual settings reasonably well, ably aided by a good production and a harpsichord score. She also writes rather good, naturalistic dialogue for the most part, even if few lines are actual highlights. The plot itself is, it must be said, both rarely surprising and extremely slight – one finds oneself waiting for the thing to shift into a higher gear throughout, but it never really does – and some elements rather fumbled (the McGuffin that sends Mel back in time is clunky, for instance). Additionally, there’s no just way Mel is going to end up stranded in 1782, so the listener is rather left looking at the clock and hoping the Doctor will hurry up and figure things out (and excruciatingly, all three cliff-hangers revolve around Mel being ‘lost’ when we know she’s nothing of the sort). It’s certainly laudable that there’s no villain, and it means Catch-1782 rises above a bog-standard alien plot, but that doesn’t excuse the utter lack of menace or tension – compare The Chimes of Midnight, with which this has some similarities, but was absolutely dripping with both menace and tension despite the lack of a “proper” villain. Simply put, the story isn’t tremendously gripping. Grips do not happen. It intrigues more than it grips – which, to be fair to Ms Lawson, can be good in its own way.

The characters and performances, however, are solidly entertaining. Following The Juggernauts, this story is another great one for Bonnie Langford’s Mel – indeed, the whole thing centres around her and her family history. It’s good to see Lawson crediting her character with a keen, intelligent, inquiring mind, an aspect so often neglected in other stories, and indeed a proud, upstanding, high-flying family. Dignity has truly been restored to Melanie Bush in her audio stories in a way that was heretofore sorely lacking. She’s still likeable and bubbly, but far less naïve-seeming, endowed with a pleasantly sarcastic and indeed jokily cynical streak. Langford does well in her dizzy, disorientated middle sections spent in 1781-2, too, managing the tricky feat of not over-selling the lines. This is the second story in which Mel spends a (from her point of view) long period of time in an unfamiliar story, separated from the Doctor, and copes admirably (although the cut from December 1781 to June 1782 isn’t as clever as the one employed by Woodard in The Juggernauts). There’s a good scene in the middle of the story where the Doctor sees Mel in 1782 for the first time, and plays along with the idea that she is the deluded Eleanor; Langford’s desperation is palpable. The story also subverts the literal idea of a “haunting” – an event, or a person, that simply will not go away; that is to say, Mel ‘becomes’ her own ancestor, writes her own past, and indeed solidifies her own future existence, even if only for a period of six months.

Mel’s Mendelssohn-loving uncle, Dr John B. Hallam, part historian, part scientist, is a delightful character, introduced chatting away to his cat as if it were his landlord (a good performance from Derek Benfield all told). It’s interesting that this polymathic Renaissance man does have time for ghost stories rather than dismissing them; as you might expect, the Doctor is formulated on the same lines, talking on and on about nuclear projects with old scientist mates of his but equally well fascinated by Mel’s genealogy and a good ghost story. Throughout we have parallels between the “future of scientific research” toasted in Munro’s speech and the murky past (quite literally, the past is excavated so that the present-day figures can place the future in the earth for later generations to discover). Keith Drinkel is good as John’s ancestor Henry Hallam, too, deftly managing his transition from kind-hearted caring to tormented desperation.

The 1781-2 parts of the story owe quite a bit to Mrs Radcliffe and similar writers of the period – respectable veneer hides terrible horror, although the horror here is rather muted – and in fact, Jane Eyre (1847) is probably the single biggest influence (mad woman in the attic, anybody? And Hallam is a reasonable Rochester analogue). The story toys with the classic idea of female hysteria from that period – Mel becomes all dizzy, amnesiac and with a mind jumbled with a variety of thoughts; the story lands firmly on the side of really listening to the mentally distressed, rather than knee-jerk medication (though it seems unfair to criticise the 1780s for that). There is a problem here, though, in that Mel herself has almost zero agency throughout the story, and essentially she is quarrelled over by four men – the Doctor, John, Henry and Dr Wallace; slightly uncomfortably, the whole thing is redolent of an old-fashioned damsel in distress story. It’s a sensitive treatment of one, to be sure, but TheJuggernauts did a similar thing and Mel still had a heck of a lot to do there. However, Lawson does manage to subvert all this, in that, as we know well, Mel is at least closer to the realities of the situation than even a professional medic – and furthermore, it is in fact the patriarch of the household who is, as it were, the distressed one in dire need of medical help, not to mention that it is Mrs McGregor who takes bold initiative in the story’s final moments by proposing to Henry. So I’m in two minds of how that element of Catch-1782 works for me, really.

I don’t imagine Catch-1782 is anybody’s favourite story. It’s certainly not mine, and I can see why it’s not the most discussed of audio dramas – it’s not quite different enough to other time-twisting historicals, nor does it have a remarkable antagonist to help it stand out. I don’t normally ask for more pizzazz, but here’s one which could have been pizzazzed up a little; the novel that gave it its title, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, plays with similar circularity but more importantly has a great deal of fun doing so. This, on the other hand, is deliberately slight and downplayed. It is charming and effective, and gives Bonnie Langford some great material, and that’s more than some stories have managed – but this could have been better.

Other things:
The opening chat is rather exposition-heavy, although it seems unfair to lambast this one story for that when most 90-minute exercises in world building tend to resort to the same.
Isn’t Mel from the 1980s, not 2003? I’m confused.
The Doctor goes through Mel’s mail? The sneaky bugger.
“A kink in time” is a thing now?
“Why I put up with someone so bossy I’ll never know.”/“Birds of a feather, Doctor.”
The Sixth Doctor is still a cat-lover.
“History is fact, and ghosts are fiction”: arguably, the story itself debunks this.
“I’ll introduce you to the director.”/“I’d rather you introduced me to the champagne.”
We usually see science bases as grungy labs and workshops in this show, so a glitzy bow-tie event makes a welcome change (was anyone else reminded of The TV Movie’s beryllium clock institute?).
The Kindly Uncle: “Just who the hell are you and how do you know Melanie?” Gosh, what a cliff-hanger, that’ll make us tune in next week.
“Brain and mind disorders are my speciality: mania, schizophrenia, hysteria, delusions, neuroses, dementia… all these I see with regularity in my work.”
I want to know more about why the Doctor needed a hangover cure on Zanthas IV.
Mrs McGregor accepts the time-travel scenario pretty quickly, doesn’t she?!
“It seems like today has gone on forever. I need a drink!”

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