Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 070. Unregenerate! by David A. McIntee (June 2005)

David A. McIntee has written a knotty, intricate script that outstrips his previous effort – Excelis Rising – in scope and ambition, starting by splicing his narrative between 1957 and 2007, making effective use of flashbacks, throwing out unpredictable curveballs out left, right and centre. Divergent Universe aside, Unregenerate! is one of the most experimental stories of this most recent crop and an addition to the growing number of fascinating Season 24 stories. It’s also, ironically, something of a companion piece to two of the 1980s’ most loathed stories, The Twin Dilemma (with which it shares the plotline of the Doctor’s madness and instability, and from a line from which the title is apparently drawn, although I’m dubious about that as the adjective ‘unregenerate’ is common enough) and Time and the Rani (which it immediately follows, and with which it forms an effective pairing of stories about scientific ethics and playing god with lesser species). The Klyst Institute scenes bring back unfortunate memories of Minuet in Hell, too, although they’re much better done.

The first episode is instantly atmospheric from the off, and very solid work from John Ainsworth (an indication, perhaps, that directors other than Gary Russell might be a Good Thing): the asylum, a great idea for a locale, is brought to spooky life with squeaks, clatters, scuttling, mad whispers, screams, and a very unnerving score, while the listener is sucked in by the intriguing, Mephistophelean character of Louis, throwing out hints and predictions about Johannes Rausch’s future and securing a kind of Faustian bargain with him (Jamie Sandford underplays rather than overplays his role as Louis, and it works better for that). The knowledge of the future that Louis, Rigan and Klyst possess (and their acting upon it, such as saving Rausch from the stabbing he would otherwise have endured) put me in mind of Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report and makes for some good, creepy listening; Rigan in particular is a horrible, horrible authoritarian character. While we’re on the topic of the story’s uncanny nature, the story’s lone creature here – a Feledrin by the name of Shokhra, a composite series of consciousnesses and an obvious stand-in for dissociative personality disorder – is conjured up on audio marvellously.

The idea of putting the Doctor in a Victorian-looking asylum that’s actually a ‘hollow fake’ allows Sylvester McCoy to do something very, very different with his performance – he’s not playing a clown, nor is he a dark manipulator. He’s playing someone who’s completely out of control, someone whose mind has snapped, garbling nonsense in distress. It’s a canny choice, because McCoy is one of the best Doctors to try and pull off this kind of story with. Some incarnations seem more mentally stable than others, if I may put it that way, and Seven with his lightning-fast wit, eccentric voice patterns and rapid-fire dialogue fits this idiosyncratic context much more believably than, say, Five or Nine. Initially I actually quite liked Sylvester’s portrayal of the mad Doctor, enunciating oddly, spitting out words like bad tastes, concepts jumping around his head; he makes a better madman than Paul McGann in Minuet, simply because, in the nicest possible way, Sylvester occasionally seems amiably potty even in interviews. Unfortunately, charitable as I want to be, it does get a bit over-the-top as the story goes on, which just makes it rather hard to listen to at points; that said, I guess it’s what the script asks for, but I wish that element had been slightly more toned down. On the plus side, there’s a lengthy flashback in Part Three with a trademark “brilliant Seventh Doctor entrance” (popping up in a janitor’s cupboard), during which time McCoy does a good job slipping back into his normal persona – popping by to visit the infamous Klyst in the wake of encountering all the greatest scientists in history in Time and the Rani.

One of the more conventional things that the script does, in taking the Doctor out of the action (mentally speaking, at least), is to grant Mel a sizeable slice of the action and plot. I’ve got so used to how good Bonnie Langford is with good material that it just seems banal to praise her over and over. Suffice to say, she’s reliably great. She also has fun chemistry with Toby Longworth, who makes a bloody brilliant cabbie, the type we expect to be a character with one or two lines but actually turns out against the odds to really participate in the story and even to have something of a backstory – enjoying reading stories to his kids, wife having run off with a copper, been in a few tough scrapes, that sort of thing; he anchors and grounds the story’s realism very nicely and in a manner particularly befitting the McCoy’s era love of blending the mythic with the mundanely human. His eventual fate, staying to help at the Institute, is one I could see coming but enjoyed nonetheless (“I just thought of something else I like about this gig – I’d like to see the Inland Revenue try and find me here!”).

Unregenerate! has some interesting and surreal imagery, sounds and twists, with strong undertones of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and implementing a similar critique of the abusive oppression under which a lot of these systems function. Figures like Rausch, the Doctor and even the Feledrin, which we’d normally expect to be the bad guy, are very much the victims. It’s the “authorities”, those running the mental ward, who are the terrifying, exploitative ones, the ones who effectively torment their prisoners to the extent that they want to tear off their own faces. The despicable, self-serving oppressors here might be Time Lords from the Celestial Intervention Agency, awash with sci-fi backstory, but the Victoriana which surrounds them belies the social critique and pertinent message. In among all this, McIntee gets his own little but important contribution to the mythos in that we get the first inkling of sentient TARDISes in other beings, notably in the scene where Rausch first speaks to the Doctor’s TARDIS and helps free the other sentiences. On the downside, this is a story that mostly provokes cerebral reactions – dense on plot rather than full of heart – and I think a little more warmth, a little more humanity, would have made this even stronger; not to mention the fact that we run into a few plot issues in Part Four: Louis changes heart regarding the experiments far too quickly and predictably (plus John Aston isn’t anywhere near as good as Jamie Sandford), and Klyst’s last-minute decision feels mawkishly easy. Much of the last fifteen minutes gets bogged down in hard-to-visualise technobabble. All round, though, this quirky, complex offering, like Flip-Flop and The Fires of Vulcan, still fits Season 24 well, and is a decent addition to the Seventh Doctor’s early adventures.

Other things:
At first I was a bit unsure about the news broadcasts – it felt like they were ramming the point home that it’s 1957 – but once we got the first cut to 2007’s news, the rationale became clear.
“You don’t look much like the devil to me.”/“The horns and the forked tail went out of fashion ages ago.”
“I’m what you might call a speculator. I deal in the futures market.”
“I know it’s a horrible cliché, but can you follow that car, please!?”
“Wonderful beings, most of them…gone now, of course. Gone for a long time.”
“Legs, one in front of another…consecutively, not concurrently!”
“Mental illness isn’t contagious, you know.”
“I’ve known a lot of authorities in my time and I’ve never known one I would describe as ‘proper’.”
“I didn’t mean to stand you up, but as it turns out, I’m taking a rather more circuitous route than I want to – which, like most circuitous routes, is probably a bit more interesting than the straight line.”
“The Victorian era. As bad as anything humans ever produced. Everything designed to remind you of your lowly place in society, or, if you had a high place, to make you feel relieved you weren’t one of the little people.” Much like Time Lord society, then.
“It’s an alien?”/“We all are, to each other!”
“Doctor, are you all right? You do sound more lucid.”/ “I’m where I belong. Among the stars. Among the stars but separated from them.”
The Seventh Doctor, right after a pitch-perfect imitation of Rigan over the intercom summoning the security guards to the garage: “Some people will do anything for a woman in uniform.”
“That’s the problem with eavesdropping. No way to turn up the volume.”
The third cliff-hanger should be the best but happens terribly quickly with minimal build-up. Rather disappointing.
“Helping is a doctor’s raison d’étre.”
“You can’t just bring down an idea with demolition charges.”
“I hope you’re not going to be running an intergalactic taxi service.”/“Oi, you say that like it’s a bad thing!”
“How many fares know their cabbie’s name, eh? I kind of like it that way. Like Clint Eastwood. The Cabbie With No Name.”

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