Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 069. Three’s a Crowd by Colin Brake (May 2005)

All of a sudden, let’s be fair, Big Finish does look a touch nostalgic and reactionary. There’s a sexy new series and it’s the best thing on television, full of innuendo, pop culture and even leather jackets. Old-school space operas about colonies and hungry lizards landing in the same month that we also get Father’s Day and The Empty Child – well, they just can’t compete, can they?

But.

Even without having heard future audios, I expect that there’s a case to be made that the TV revival fundamentally shifts Big Finish’s intentions. No longer are these audios the experimental “definitive future” of Who – not even for Paul McGann’s Doctor, because by this point he’s been supplanted. Instead they are treats, extras, add-ons: nostalgic call-backs to what the series used to be like. If all the BF audios were like that, yes, we would have a problem on our hands. But in conjunction with the new series, a move toward such an emphasis is at the very least understandable. Even RTD is going to get formulaic at points over the coming years, and in turn BF will no doubt be there to provide a more experimental, low-key alternative to the sound, fury and CGI we get on Saturday nights. What I’m driving at is that Three’s a Crowd illustrates for me – despite the fact it was recorded in January and March of 2005, before the new series’ aesthetic had really launched* – the way BF-Who and BBC-Who can co-exist. Those who want a pitch-perfect 21st century reinvention can have that. Those who pine for “like you used to watch” Davison-era tales can have more of those too. With no judgment on quality from either side. I like to believe the series and indeed its fandom is one colossal, slapdash, messy whole, after all, not a successively acrimonious sequence of jaggedly divided, opposing camps.

And I’m willing to defend the nostalgia. You can’t reach this period in the lifetime of a 52-year-old programme without a little nostalgia here and there. Remembering the basic and joyous texture of the programme, remembering the horror it made you feel as a child, the structure of the base under siege story or the imagery of monsters waking up, is essential to the success of today’s scriptwriters, as is then being able to occasionally replicate without slavish imitation. A story like Three’s a Crowd would aesthetically feel at home in Season 21, it’s true. But the writers of these audios are by and large good enough at what they do that they spend most of their time evoking without repeating.

Let’s take a look at the new things Three’s a Crowd does. It has strong character & detail continuity carrying over from The Roof of the World (the frozen pool; poor old Erimem; the general dynamic between the three characters), which already lifts it above quite a lot of the writing for the regulars in the Davison era proper. It examines the internal dynamics of a tripartite TARDIS team well, deconstructing the old notion of “two’s company, three’s a crowd”, suggesting that the Doctor plus two companions is ideal but that three companions is generally too much of a good thing. It introduces a surreal countryside field/pond room in the TARDIS. It’s one of the major Davison stories to examine a companion’s doubts over time travel and their serious intent to leave. It invents a nightmarishly Kafkaesque world where no one dare talk face to face, makes a whole storyline out of the innovative notions of exploring agoraphobia and people living alone in ‘habitat cells’, and addresses the question of human alienation through the prism of virtual social interaction and “improving” behaviour, a question that is arguably much more pressing and prescient in the early 21st century than it was in the late 20th. It ties that to the space station’s name – the Medusa (one must never look a Gorgon in the eyes, a fact that Jack London among others has interpreted as being an essentially nihilistic outlook on the world: failing to confront grim reality and the world outside oneself). The colony is implied to be a failed, abortive United States, seeking independence as it did from the rest of the Federation. 

The whole thing is shot through with a sense of melancholy, but also of compassion. It focuses on oft-neglected types of characters like poor, sensitive, anxiety-riddled Bellip, afflicted with panic-attacks, finding it so difficult to talk to others (something that came up equally impressively in Colin Brake’s recent Doctor-Who-focused Doctors episode, BTW). I like Bellip in particular; her scenes with both Laroq, the nervous, over-rehearsed conversations, and with Peri (giving Bryant some great stuff to play with) are very nicely rendered. It parallels the fears of individual weakness with the Nietzschean militarism and social Darwinism of the Khellians. It finally examines the interesting circumstances of Peri introducing Erimem on board TARDIS life back in The Eye of the Scorpion. It knows exactly the right things to borrow from The Ark in Space. It says, “don’t be alone”.

The point is: even if it’s couched in the terminology of the old – killer lizards, teleports, Earth colonies – this stuff is still rather new. Doctor Who hasn’t really played with most of these ideas yet. And there’s your justification for Three’s a Crowd, right there. It’s flawed, sure (the actors playing Laroq and Vidler can’t quite anchor the scenes they have by themselves, for one thing; and Brake’s ideas are better than his plot structure), occasionally workmanlike or hackneyed, but listening to it really gave me the sense of why nostalgia trips like this are worth doing, and that’s because of all the new material they contain. Re-illuminating and re-invigorating the things you’ve already done is worthy in and of itself, just as much as I’d champion utterly new, startlingly original approaches. A programme obsessed with its past looks desperate. But a programme obsessed with its future at the expense of its past looks desperate too. It’s the balance of both in the present that makes Doctor Who great, one eye on each fork in the road, perfectly reflected in the actual content that takes us both forward and backward down that road.

Plus, killer lizards are a guilty pleasure of mine.

Other things:
*what will particularly interest me is once we get to the audios that are definitively made in the wake of the 2005 season, written and recorded with the knowledge of what “21st century Who” is. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what facets of the BBC Wales show are rejected/ignored at the expense of focusing on the classic era, and what facets the writers choose to adopt.
The “classic” tone I have already banged on about is reinforced by casting Deborah Watling as the Phoenix colony’s leader Auntie, the story quite literally opening with a voice from the programme’s distant past, plus familiar computer chirrups and exposition about within which system a planet lies. The Powell Estate this ain’t, but it’s none the worse for that. Watling plays the sinister yet ultimately pathetic Auntie very nicely, and her rapport with Butler is good fun (even if he is a poor K9 stand-in).
Almost the opening line of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: “You know, there’s an art – to the building up – of dramatic tension.”
I want a ban on the cringey line “Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness” and variations thereupon. I’ve heard it at least 5 times in the past few months of BF listening.
“It’s a complicated area: girls and their fathers. Trust me.” (I like this line. Rather understated – hints without telling).
“Remember: social contact is a privilege. Choose your social partner with care, and enjoy the social.”
“I remember real socials. Parties. Get-togethers. People would meet together, talk, eat, drink, maybe even dance. I used to like to dance.”
“Textbook landing. No complaints, I trust, ladies?”/“You want a spontaneous round of applause?”/“You can save that for the next time you’re watching me bat.”/“Let’s hope that won’t be for a while. At least baseball only takes hours, not days.”
“Splendid Isolation!” Indeed.
Very nice: “People are happy in their personal space.”/“People don’t know what happy is.”
“This is a dead-end world in a cul-de-sac star cluster.”
“We’ve forgotten what it is to be human… any animal will take cover from inclement weather, but when the rain subsides, they have to emerge and get on with living. But us? We’re still cringing in our caves.”
The one thing worse than finding yourself in an alien morgue: finding yourself in an alien larder.
“How could any civilised creature eat something with which he’s just had a conversation?”/“As a rule, I don’t. I was always brought up not to play with my food.”
Davison proclaiming he’s “top of the food chain” to the Khellians struck me as a very Tennant-esque moment.
Return of the immortal line, “I’ll explain later.”
“I am authorised to use offensive weaponry!”/“Isn’t all weaponry offensive?”
“I’m not really the organising sort. I like a certain amount of disorder, to be honest.”
The ending is a bit twee, and Auntie’s character arc rather underwhelming.
“Two’s company… but three’s a crew.”
Is Erimem the younger peril monkey suffering terrible things or is she the regal, resourceful warrior queen? At times, BF seem a little uncertain. I suppose she can be both, but what irks me about her character is the apparent need to both analyse her and her difficulties – see the trauma she goes through in The Roof of the World, not to mention Nekromanteia, those notorious few minutes of which in some way get to the heart of the Problem of Erimem in microcosm – but also to keep her as fun and easy-going as possible (The Axis of Insanity, The Church and the Crown) and I don’t know if the blend works. I think it’s a decent showing here though, in part because the trauma from last time and her subsequent recovery feeds into the story without overwhelming it, yet her seeing the isolation of the colonists encourages her to make the positive choice of staying with her two friends. Hopefully the next audio will build on the good character work.

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