Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 073. Thicker than Water by Paul Sutton (September 2005)

Doctor Who sequels tend to fall into two categories: a) repeat the same basic formula slavishly, which is arguably what happens every time the Silurians pop up on screen, or b) pick up the story a few years later with the status quo or the central concept radically different. Just as The Time of Angels was to Blink what Aliens was to Alien (I’m only the four thousandth Doctor Who fan to make that observation), so Thicker than Water is something of a souped-up version of its predecessor, 2004’s Arrangements for War. On balance I don’t think I enjoyed Arrangements for War as much as the consensus; it was melodramatic and mawkish at points, mostly the young lovers’ scenes, and the production couldn’t sell the scale, even if the central performances were mostly very strong. Jubilee, Doctor Who and the Pirates and Project: Lazarus was for me Evelyn Smythe’s most effective run of stories. But Arrangements for War did do one thing very well, and that is to hint at a broadly possible ending for this wonderful character, living out her life on Világ with Justice Rossiter. It was an ending that, back then, did not come to pass, as Sutton chose to end his quasi-Central European saga with a succession of tragic events. In Thicker than Water, then, Sutton returns us to Világ to see how Rossiter and his family have been faring in the Doctor’s absence. And it just so happens that Evelyn Smythe has been living there for the past two years.

“Who’d have thought defeating an alien invasion and saving the planet would be the easy part?” You could say much the same about Paul Sutton’s scripts, where the character drama takes centre-stage and monster invasions and mystery plots are firmly in second place (case in point: there are no monster invasions here and the mystery plot is decidedly average; I had Szabó pegged down as the baddie from Episode 2, just as much as it’s obvious who the bad guy is in Mark Gatiss’ The Hounds of Baskerville – the nice one). Rossiter’s above quote about saving the planet being the easy part ties into his strained relationship with his daughter, and the fact that, as so often turns out to be the case, the Világians are the monsters, the brutal Killorans from last time now chained guinea pigs in an undercover experiment. It’s so often the day-to-day that’s haunted and heart-rending, not the cosmically vast.

This is a generally tighter story than its predecessor and the treatment of the guest characters slightly better. Calm, sweet Rossiter is fantastically brought to life by Gabriel Woolf, as ever (his tolerant “you acted…the way you acted” is a lovely line), but Patrick Romer’s unctuous tones do well with the hackneyed part of Dr Andrew Szabó, not to mention Rachel Pickup as the young firebrand Sofia. Simon Watts is overly melodramatic as Sebastian Lawrence and Matt Dineen forgettable as Jenner, although they’re still much better than the worst excesses of Kraig Thormber as Arrangements’ Commander Pokol. Given the audio’s focus on Evelyn, Mel is naturally rather sidelined, but given that she’s already starred in three audios in 2005 I don’t feel that loss too badly; although all she really does herself is get gassed, punched and taken hostage, she makes a great foil for Evelyn to bounce off in conversations. I wonder if this is earlier in her time with the Doctor than the placement would have us believe – they bicker a lot, she tires of his grandiloquence, and the Doctor says she has a “tendency to panic” which seems a bit harsh after stories like The Juggernauts in which she’s super-competent.

On the one hand, it’s hard not to feel cheated that we never actually saw Evelyn originally leaving the Doctor as its own story. Together with the reintroduction of two new companions in Terror Firma and that great ‘cut’ in The Juggernauts, it almost feels like a narrative gap too far, another space hopped over – if 2003 was the year of experimenting with structure and 2004 was the year for working out how to tell stories with no progression or history, 2005 is the year of such narrative jumps. On the other hand, it allows Sutton to do something we never really do, which is to dwell on what kind of person Evelyn is after leaving the Doctor rather than on the build up to it (we do still get her first leaving scene in a Part One flashback, and of course a proper leaving scene at the story’s close). That means we get to see Maggie Stables do something we’ve never really seen anywhere apart from Világ: be at home. She’s a settled, established, indeed powerful member of a community here every bit as much as she was restless and under pressure in Sheffield Hallam.

Even here, however, where her heart condition may yet stabilise, time is not on her side; right from her first scene there’s obvious generational conflict, as Rossiter’s daughter Sofia lays into her stepmother’s over-emphasis on the past (and if there’s one thing you can accuse a historian of…). But more fatally there is the matter of her heart condition; Evelyn Smythe remains a fighter to the end throughout this story, however much her time may be up. Sutton writes her with a keen awareness of her flaws and short temper, and yet still immensely sympathetically despite, or even because of, this awareness. It’s all more subtly rendered than in the previous audio, which was sweeter but more anodyne. I do like the idea that the Doctor often talks to Mel about Evelyn’s positive influence and that he simply takes one companion back to meet another one he once left behind (a far cry from the “I shall never see them again” mournfulness of the new series). Her reunion with him is a superb moment. The fact of the matter is that Evelyn did have a big impact on him, and there’s a case to be made that Maggie Stables has been almost as crucial in reviving this Doctor’s reputation as Colin Baker has himself.

The Doctor wasn’t always as good to Evelyn as he could have been (not just the Cassie storyline, but see Evelyn dreaming of her wedding, and her disappointment that he never showed up), and this comes out most clearly in yet another unexpected appearance from Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, who really is making a habit out of turning up in his predecessor’s stories (this is at least the third time now, making them possibly the two most intricately interconnected incarnations; Seven seems to spend a lot of time revisiting his past self’s mistakes). As he often does in these tender little scenes, McCoy impresses no end, and his conversation with Evelyn is a tearjerker, a moving moment that neatly ties together a couple of concurrently running arcs – the Forge/Cassie plotline turns out to be wedded to Hex’s ancestry. This is a story all about that substance that’s thicker than water, blood: blood on one’s hands; blood as a plot device, a stream of little cells through which an unscrupulous scientist could infect his patients; blood as something magical and life-giving which unites and saves the Doctor and Evelyn; blood as the life-force that binds Cassie to her son, little Tommy, flowing through the veins of them both. It’s also very much about endings and the handing over of the baton – one era for Világ ends and a new one begins; Cassie’s storyline is put to rest just as Hex’s is starting; and Evelyn bids farewell to the Doctor but still finds time to give Mel her chocolate cake recipe. They finally get the goodbye scene they deserve – her declaration of love, followed by his inability to properly answer it and their joining one another in a dance – and it’s one of the most moving moments in Doctor Who.

I’m well aware she gets more audios after this (presumably set before Thicker than Water) and how wonderful that, like the Doctors whose time was once up, her travels can simply carry on forever. Except we know that they don’t. They can’t. I don’t know how many more audios with Evelyn I have left to listen to, but I can’t ignore the knowledge that it’s a number that’s never going to get any bigger. I’m not sure I wanted today to have arrived, but whatever comes next, it’s time to stop and say: goodbye, Evelyn Smythe. Goodbye, Maggie Stables. First new companion on the audio scene, and still my favourite. A different friend for the Doctor, a different friend for us, and far away one of the most important in all his lives. I’m pleased you got one of the finest departure stories of them all. Live long on Világ. Live well.

Other things:
The interviewer behind the 1950s-style broadcasts is played by James Parsons, who co-wrote the next story with Andrew Stirling-Brown.
“Fair Quiet, have I found thee here!” The Doctor booms a quote from Andrew Marvell over the moors, rather destroying his own peace.
All old-fashioned lighters, classical music and familiarity with cab drivers, the ambiance is more 20th century Vienna or Budapest than it is any other alien planet we’ve ever seen (I thought of The Third Man on more than one occasion, and there’s also something of The Enemy of the World about its focus on internal politics and opposing factions). I like the way Világ gets a reasonably well-structured history, a boon most Doctor Who planets don’t receive.
“She’s so sanctimonious I’d swear she glows in the dark.”
“Come on now, Justice, rulers of planets and defeaters of alien invasions do not quake at the approaches of their own wives.”
Idle thought: In a parallel universe, the mild-mannered Rossiter is actually both Sutekh and the Beast in disguise.
“Hasn’t the Doctor taught you anything?” Evelyn asks Mel. “Always act as if you own the place. You’re in control, not the Daleks or mutant vampire hunters.”
The creepy New Earth-type patients’ moans are very effective.
Sutton still can’t write tragic young lovers, I’m afraid – Sofia’s goodbyes to Sebastian are tortuously hard to listen to without laughing.
“Doctor, the patients are pawing into the corridors!” Ba-dum-tish.
“This really is a terrible vintage.”
“He’s poisoned himself.” Thanks, Mel. Your most redundant line yet. :facepalm:
“There’s something that has been preying on my mind. Your charming husband once mentioned that you would never forgive me. It’s taken a while, but I think I can show you something to try and balance that a bit more…I just wanted you to know that, despite our personal tragedy, something good emerged.”
Beautifully done from both Stables and McCoy: “Goodbye, Doctor.”/“Never goodbye. Just au revoir.”
“A reminder of one’s mortality can never be that hard a thing.”
“You’ve been such a great friend to me. I met you at a time when my life was going nowhere. I was in danger of joining the crochet and bowls brigade – I’d taken up knitting, you know, God alone knows why…I feel very close to you, Doctor, especially now that we’re blood related. What I’m trying to say…I know you know. But I’m going to say it anyway. I owe you so much. And I want to thank you. And to tell you that, well, I love you.”
Over the sound of Hungarian-style folksy music, Evelyn says, “Come on, Doctor, one last dance,” and your heart breaks.

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