Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 072. Terror Firma by Joseph Lidster (August 2005)

It’s rather interesting that, before Terror Firma, the last “regular” Eighth Doctor story set in this universe, without any anti-time/Zagreus/Divergent business, was…The Time of the Daleks. Another Dalek story. In every respect, then, even in the book-ending of the awkwardly handled anti-time/Zagreus/Divergent arc, Terror Firma is a mission statement to redefine “normal” Doctor Who. The first thing the Eighth Doctor does now that he’s back in this universe is run into the arch-enemies he last tussled with shortly before leaving it; the arch-enemies, that is, plus their creator, in an unexpected sequel to Remembrance of the Daleks which ties up the Seventh Doctor’s reckless actions. Everything about this screams “exciting season opener” (although, irritatingly, it doesn’t kick off an actual season, McGann’s Doctor having been relegated to popping up in the monthly range now that the new series is well underway). Even more interestingly, everything about this seems, at a glance, to scream “Doctor Who like you remember it” – I’ve already touched on all the familiar elements, but as Lidster himself mentions in the liner notes, it’s not just the actual story details but an atmosphere of almost aggressive nostalgia going on here: dripping caves, tunnels under the sea, gargling monsters, and a nightmarishly fluorescent green (and there’s the story’s opening exchange – “Oh, it’s just another corridor.”/“And it’s dark.”). The travellers are definitely back in Kansas.

Except, in one key respect, the story does something that isn’t “classic series” at all (perhaps the closest attempt is Terror of the Vervoids): by retro-actively inserting them into continuity, Lidster casually introduces two new companions – long before a future production team does the same thing with a new Doctor. One of the fascinating effects this has is to ram home how big and unseen the Doctor’s life is in general, and the Eighth Doctor’s in particular, since the writers can add and embellish and basically tinker the hell out of it; sure, the Dalek-shaped half of the equation is known to us, but if you think of the four-part construct of Davros/Daleks/Sam/Gemma, every single element of that is completely new to C’rizz, and yet they’re all fully familiar (after a bit of regained memory) to the man who didn’t know a single thing about the universe they were just in. It means we come back to a universe that seems bigger and even fuller of unseen adventures, stretching back to some pre­-Storm Warning date. Samson and Gemma Griffin are interlopers, disrupters of that dreaded word “continuity”, just as much as John Hurt’s War Doctor will later come to be (and this extends to disrupting the story’s structure, too: these new upstarts with whom we, the audience, are unfamiliar get to bag the much-coveted cold open spot, but there are also fairly random – no, that’s too kind; absolutely WTF-IS-GOING-ON baffling – cuts to their mother Harriet Griffin in Folkestone in between the more “trad Who” adventure with the Daleks).

Lizzie Copley and Lee Ingleby acquit themselves reasonably as these one-off regulars, if such a phrase makes sense, although they’re notable more for the concept of their introduction than their particular performances. In a story that’s soaked in tragedy on a cosmic scale, these two are the true human cost: the Doctor’s former companions, taken as pawns of Davros, now unforgotten memories. It’s remarkable how effective Lidster makes this all work in their debut, presumably a one-off story. There are lots of nice devil-in-the-detail moments surrounding them: “We’ve all got to go at some point”, Gemma says early on; the re-use of “nothing ventured, nothing gained”; and the way the Doctor still says things like “This way, children, follow me,” to Charley and C’rizz after learning he used to say “now, now, children” to Sam and Gemma. I like that they called him “skipper”, too, it’s a lovely little touch.

Thrillingly, this “gate-crashing” of Sam and Gemma’s world into the Charley/C’rizz narrative spills over into the (slightly less obvious) level of innovation Lidster brings to everything else: a schizophrenic Davros, for one thing, is something we haven’t heard before, and Molloy is reliably terrific, although the “Davros kinda makes good” idea has been done in all 3 Davros audios now, and how many times does Davros has to have a key scene revolving around an important vial? Cool, though, to see that Davros’ penchant for lambasting the effect the Doctor has on his companions is not just limited to Julian Bleach’s time at the wheel. This is a Davros story, not a Dalek story, and what we learn is…Davros is jealous of the Doctor’s friends. He’s jealous because he’s lonely. The revelation that the embittered Davros has set a viral plague to devour the Doctor’s beloved Earth and convert humans into Daleks, that he did all this through the Doctor’s companions, is particularly twisted. And Davros’ terrible evil is really the product of a sad, lonely, miserable man who makes the same mistakes again and again. We thus get an Earth that’s post-Dalek Invasion (whiffs of Jubilee here), with a great twist about who the Resistance really are, plus the Adamsian whimsy of a little town that’s decided fighting the Daleks is pointless and it might as well have a shindig instead (on which note, the cliffhanger to Part One, with its "WE NEED YOU TO FIND DAVROS!"/"AND THAT'S WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT!" Davros/Hokey Cokey mashup, made me laugh for ages!).

The Doctor seems pretty enthused to be back on his old patch, joking about with pretty much everybody, mocking Davros, doing his best to be the centre of attention. As he hints in his conversations with Davros, he’s practically as delighted to see all his old enemies as we are, whooping and laughing all over the place. That’s not all he gets to do, though, as on a dime he becomes enraged, McGann getting some serious material opposite Molloy that he rises to wonderfully, particularly musing on the innate nature they each may dislike but cannot escape from, and how he will always be just a Time Lord where Davros is just a Dalek. He really goes through the wringer here, but alongside his steely voice he retains his zest for life; it strikes me that this incarnation possibility goes through some of the worst experiences, yet remains as optimistic as he’s ever been (in fact, that balance rather hurts the story’s climax, because he’s all guilt-guilt-guilt and then suddenly partying it up in Blackpool. Hmm).

Charley and C’rizz do get some decent material, although they’re rather side-lined here in a pretty full story; I like the fact that C’rizz understands the Daleks wanting to end their suffering, though, and his plotline works nicely with his Church of the Foundation origins; his rage as he destroys the Dalek, screaming, “I am sick of being told what my destiny is! I will be who I choose to be!” is great. His final scene, with the dead voices in his head, is haunting. Some of the dialogue Lidster gives them seemed rather clunky to me, full of feeble flippant-isms, but I then decided that not just in the narrative juxtapositions but even in the dialogue he was pretty much taking the piss out of old-Who, and rolled with it (“Don’t you ever find it dull, being so predictable?” the Doctor and Davros ask each other; “captured by Daleks, imprisoned, rescued, then captured again” – yep, definitely spoofing the series’ old conventions). Even the title does it – taking an old staple (Terror of the X) and making it into a pun.

And that sums up Terror Firma really: rolling with the clunky, piss-taking, padded bits. Because this is just so much fun. It’s enormous fun. It really is. I can see why this was welcomed as a return to form after the Divergent Universe arc, even though it sounds like I appreciated that arc’s plus points more than some. There’s not the same thematic richness of Master, but this is big, insane, disorientating Doctor Who that packs in idea after idea with far too much fun dialogue to quote, and Lidster suits it well. There’s invention, wit and heartbreak, and one of the finest instances of romanticism and intelligence triumphing over brute force and cynicism. The Eighth Doctor’s major stand-off with Davros is an absolute blast. It’s so much more fun than Time of the Daleks that even comparing them seems a bit weird, and this is for my money easily the next best BF Dalek story so far after Jubilee. Which sounds like damning with faint praise, when it really isn’t. It’s a glorious mess, and I fucking loved it.

Other things:
“It is dark. Step into the light. Closer…” How does Terry Molloy make everything sound creepy? And his laughter is perfectly pitched.
After initially being keen on the David Arnold arrangement, I’ve gone off it. It doesn’t work for dramatic cliff-hangers; there’s not enough “sting”.
“I think we’re meant to be screaming or perhaps proclaiming, ‘Daleks all along, we should have realised!’”/“Charley, you stole my line!” Beautifully delivered by both performers.
“Doctor, you were expected.”/“I was? Well, that makes a change.”
“Sober people are so gauche.”
“This door isn’t just going to open by itse-” *door explodes open* “Did I do that?”
“Who are you?”/“The Resistance!”/“There’s a surprise!”
“How does one address an Emperor?”/“Politely!”
“I’m back! In a universe with candy-floss, chunky-monkey ice cream, cuckoo-clocks that work!”
“I’m a Time Lord, and I finally have some Time to lord it over.”
“My husband died many years ago, which to be honest was about the only interesting thing he ever did.”
I adore the cuts between jazz and Dalek firepower, and between the Hokey Cokey and Davros’ torment. Julia Deakin is a delight.
“We need you to find Davros!”/“Well, that shouldn’t be very difficult.”
The Doctor to Davros: “It’s what you look like on the inside that counts, or at least that’s what you tell the girls.”
“A Dalek can’t change its bumps!”
“Half of my lot are crazy and corrupt, and the other half – well, they’re duller than you can possibly imagine.”
“Did I have the right, yadda yadda yadda? I had the right!”
“So you’ve made yourself another Dalek army? Originality was never your strong suit.”
“Perhaps, Doctor, it is not your destiny you should fear. Perhaps it is your past.”
“You mean the whole world is covered in metal and ruled by the Daleks? All of it…except for Folkestone?”/“Well, it is a very pretty town. Pre-occupation, it was voted one of Britain’s Top Ten Tourist Destinations.”
“France was one of the first countries to fall. Quelle surprise.”
“Welcome, Doctor, welcome to the home of 8 billion Daleks! Can you hear the human race as it cries out to you?”
“They went away, you see, Samson and Gemma, over the hills and far away – and only he came back…”
“He’s talking about my Doctor!”/“Your Doctor? You mean your local GP?”
Paul McGann will make you absolutely jump out of your skin with “I remember!”
Agatha Christie travelled with the Doctor for a while? After The Unicorn and the Wasp in her timeline, I guess? And the thing about the last page of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is missing is a nice fit with the Doctor’s behaviour in The Angels Take Manhattan.
“Dad? I’d rather be the cool uncle!”
“The guitars, they’re coming to life! Samson, Gemma, run!”
“I wanted to break you! I wanted to take everything you held precious and smash it in front of your eyes!”
Nice tie-in to the poor old lonely Doctor of Storm Warning, out there looking for his TARDIS manual.
Harriet’s priorities: “Charley – can you go through to the kitchen and fetch some tin-foil, there’s a love. To cover the vol-au-vents, of course, I don’t want them going to waste. Okay, everyone, let’s take back our planet!” Sublime.
“WE ARE THE RESISTANCE!”
Davros to himself: “They are coming. You always knew they would. You always knew they would turn on you once more. You made the same mistake. You made them too powerful, and too single-minded.”
“I am not a Dalek!”/“YES, YOU ARE!”
“You humiliated me, Davros. You took everything that was good about me, and you twisted it, used it for your own ends. Look at me, and consider what you’ve put me through. You’ve destroyed my friends. You’ve destroyed my identity. You’ve destroyed everything that matters to me. And yet. And yet. I’m still choosing life. I should kill you, give you the freedom you so desperately seek. But I won’t. Because that would be too easy. Because – and you can sneer at the cliché all you like – where there’s life, there is hope. I have the possibility to meet new people, visit new places, experience new things. I’m not going to let what you’ve done to me destroy that. Killing me would make me like you.”
“In this universe, they forget the dead.”

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