Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Unbound 01. Auld Mortality by Marc Platt (May 2003)

“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.”
-William Shakespeare, Hamlet III.i

The very first CD track of Marc Platt’s Auld Mortality, the first in the Unbound range, is called “This Wasn’t Meant to Happen”. The same cannot be said of Marc Platt’s Auld Mortality. It’s very much the sort of thing that leaves one wondering why no one has tried it before. Perhaps because it is, on paper, rather audacious: portray the Doctor as though he never left Gallifrey and had never gone on a single adventure. But what could have been an overdone cosmic story, about the vital importance of restoring the “correct” timeline such that the Doctor is returned, becomes in Platt’s hands a much more fascinating character piece – and, better still for me personally, the kind of story that hits all my favourite kind of notes. I immediately want to listen to it again. And again.

Platt centres much more on what sort of person the Doctor might have become, given such a situation, and he does it with consummate ease and elegance; the opening is particularly notable in its confidence: “The sound of trumpets echoed up the misty valley: a harsh challenge, unworldly and defiant. The possibility of fresh snow spiced the air. Leaning on his stick, the adventurer picked his way between the rocks and down the mountainside. His ship sat behind him, a black casket squat against the snow-line. Again the clarion echoed out of the mist, and then the adventurer saw the army, grey shapes emerging from the mist, like an armoured serpent bristling with spears, riders and footsoldiers marching six abreast, and great alien beasts, ears flapping with wooden turrets on their backs, glinting with more weaponry.” Isn’t that a marvellous opening? It’s ingenious the way Platt tricks us into thinking this is a high fantasy sort of planet – with creatures rather like the Oliphaunts from The Lord of the Rings – only for us to discover it is in fact Hannibal crossing the Alps (yep, sometimes not reading the liner notes first is a good thing). This is clever not just because of the misdirection, but because meeting Hannibal is just the kind of story they might have done for Hartnell in 1964 (I believe Farewell King Macedon was planned for around this period). Better still, the “fictional” adventure with Hannibal seeds into the “real” world of the Doctor’s life – Hannibal’s war is entirely down to “family business, as usual”, just as the Doctor’s issues on Gallifrey are, too. And both are old, ennobled, distant worlds filled with a kind of exoticism to us. Yes, Platt has woven the two stands together very neatly.

Geoffrey Bayldon gives a very interesting performance. The way Platt has written it is, obviously, meant to be reminiscent of William Hartnell, and Bayldon borrows a few of his mannerisms too (the repeated “Mm?” and “This is intolerable” both spring to mind as particularly Hartnell-esque). But he is very much an original creation; this Doctor is no pioneering traveller, no scientist, his mind not yet opened by the places he’s seen, and yet he’s passionately inquisitive and creative, a drinker, a player of chess, “a doctor of history”, a novelist with a room covered in stacks of paper, much more of an artistic figure; it’s an unusual take and one I hope will segue nicely into Martin Bannister, the novelist hero who is alleged to front Deadline. He’s still fascinated by Earth and its history, of course (entirely appropriately), he’s irascible at points, but fundamentally kind and warm-hearted. He is, simply put, the Doctor. And an utterly magical one at that.

And, of course, we see Carole Ann Ford return to the Doctor Who fold, the perfect foil for this newly-created Doctor. She doesn’t need to revive her youthful voice, as this is a much older Susan, one with grandchildren of her own. At first I was unconvinced – breaking through a door, shooting an android and saying in a badass voice, “Do you know who I am? I’m his granddaughter!” doesn’t sound like typical Susan behaviour – but Ford acquits herself well and makes a good pairing with Bayldon. She never, ever got writing this good in the 60s.

I am in awe of Platt’s ability to suit whichever period he writes for, writing arguably two of the definitive Fifth Doctor stories and certainly one of the definitive Seventh Doctor ones, and here he manages to hit all the right notes for the very dawn of the programme – although he also borrows liberally from his own cod-Shakespearian, cod-Gormenghastian novel Lungbarrow, complete with ludicrously redundant titles like “Ordinal-General” and indeed the characters of both Quences and Badger. A stuffy great-uncle might not be the kind of area we want to see covered in Doctor Who – after all, the show tends to shy away from his family – but in a different dimension like this, it’s certainly permissible. And how perfect that the Doctor’s family want him to go into politics yet he is determined to create vivid adventures and be Gallifrey’s greatest novelist. The Time Lords, ever the symbol of fusty decay, are well personified in Quences and his awareness of even their far-away transience, wearing as he does “robes of light that drink the night. I am traditional…All remember, my Lord, that nothing endures. Even the greatest power is transient as water. Make of it the most. It trickles from the tightest fist like dust.” There’s always been something mildly depressing about Gallifrey, in my view, and this story displays it well. Beautiful, certainly, and awe-inspiring to see, but tinged with an awful, almost ugly stoic quality, full of navel-gazing and musing, without any action. I suppose that is what enables us to relate to the Doctor, of all Time Lords – we can think as much as we like, but fundamentally, we have to be creatures that do. Platt is still the anti-establishmentarian of Cartmel’s late 80s band at heart, and Quences, who embodies Time Lord decrepitude, is quite literally an embodiment of death – of “auld” mortality itself, “just behind the new President, whispering in his ear.”

At the core of the “what if” is the possibility projection, permitting the story’s dual focus on Gallifrey and Hannibal’s journey over the Alps to Italy, permitting the Doctor to mentally travel and see as much as he can, to do, as it were, in his head. As Susan says, he is “still finding wonderful things” even in his dreams. The moment in which the Doctor discusses planning on travelling away with Susan is superb; yet if he had done so, “there would be none of this”. Auld Mortality reminds us that there is a trade-off in every direction, in every choice. What binds the story together so wonderfully is the way Platt couples the Doctor’s decision to stay with Hannibal’s route across the Alps. As Hannibal says, “Perhaps there could have been a better route.” But all six of the ways across the mountain scenery Platt so elegiacally describes through Bayldon’s narration would contain beauty, brave choices, and fatalities. The Doctor’s route into the stars yields the same three, but so too of course – in its own way – does remaining on Gallifrey. This leads us eventually to the possibility tree, surely one of the entire programme’s most magical images. The actions we take and the half-remembered dreams of what we wish we’d done. Reality and fiction complement each other, weave in and out, intermingling superbly in Platt’s script: the moment where they intersect, as Hannibal and his elephants storm Gallifrey’s Panopticon, is a stupendously good moment, almost up there with some of the best bits of metafiction from The Big Bang. Of course the TARDIS on the mountainside wasn’t real, but then nor is this version of Hannibal, and nor is Gallifrey, and yet we can still weep over them, or we can laugh, or greet them like old friends, or change how we live because of them. Reality and fiction have a curious relationship, and there can be influence in both directions.

The revelation that Susan and the Doctor are in a TARDIS console, and that he has been all along, really knocked me for six. Carole Ann Ford and Geoffrey Bayldon sell the hell out of Platt’s excellent material: “Come with me, Susan. What’s to keep you? It’s what should have happened. But now, we can choose to go, both of us. No longer cut off from home, wanderers in the fourth dimension… So many possibilities…” This splicing of different possibilities together at the very conclusion is almost unbearably beautiful – poignant, uplifting, tragic, inspiring. I don’t really know how it made me feel. “And with the wheezing sound of an asthmatic elephant, the ship dissolved like vapour in the breeze… the teachers stopped the car and the headlights lit the name on the gates: I.M.FOREMAN…time opened like an eye to the departing ship, light surged around it as it cut a path through the void...it was a foggy night on Barnes Common…then the Doctor saw the opposing Thalek Armies, silver against black, and the air between them was full of fire… “Annihilate! Annihilate! ANNIHILATE!”… “Cigar, Doctor?”/ “Not for me, thank you, Winston!”… and the ship was now disguised as an old tree stump…a golden minaret…a wardrobe…revolving doors…an ancient black sarcophagus…and a Merry Othermas to all of you at home!” Suffice to say I almost wept.

I could quite happily show this off to anyone with an open mind and I think they would fall in love with the poignancy of the tale. It’s a million times more affecting if you love Doctor Who, of course, but even its basic appeal, I think, is that good. It would appeal to anyone who has dreamed of the things they never did, and lived out what they might have done in their dreams. And there’s no one to whom that doesn’t apply.

Other things:
Man, the special theme for this is really good. Eerie and delicate. Love it.
Of course the Doctor has an animatronic manservant called Badger. Of course he does.
Talking elephants: why not, providing just the right level of surreal? Surus is marvellous (“He’s not Roman. He doesn’t stink of garlic. I have a nose for these things”): full credit to Ian Brooker.
Alistair Lock’s score is absolutely sumptuous, unobtrusive but leaving a vivid impression nonetheless. It’s perfectly matched with Briggs’ direction, which sees the old stalwart opening with a Gaulish ambush in a matter of minutes, and very convincingly too.
Hannibal concludes the Doctor is an astrologer: a reasonably good shout.
“Moth-eaten excuse for a drudge!” is a lovely near-Hartnellism.
The Thalek Empire, eh. Fascinating.
“Gold Ushers’ Captain takes White President’s Commander 3.” Time Lord chess!
“It’s nothing. Nothing at all.”/“A very persistent nothing.”
“Always the trouble: your characters always get uppity and write your own stories.”
“What’ll you do? Kill the author? Then where will you be?”
“I had a family, once. Long, long ago. It feels like one of my stories. That tiresome, grasping brood from the darkest of houses. But they disowned me, or I disowned them, one or the other…There was one, only one who saw the world my way. Dear little Susan. Always full of wonder, always looking for the best in things. The others hadn’t had a chance to corrupt her yet. But they soon took her away. She’ll be long grown up by now, long gone.” This is one of the play’s most magical, heartwarming moments, among some stiff competition.
“Badger, you constantly criticise my historical accuracy.”/ “You always invoke the excuse of dramatic licence.” In-joke at the show’s historicals, teehee.
I love the little asides that build up Gallifrey, like “Othermas”.
“I want to know what the aliens think and eat and smell like.”
It was only while listening to this audio that it occurred to me that “great-great-grandfather” sounds exactly like, um, “great, great grandfather.”
“Supper? I thought I’d had supper.”/“That was yesterday, sir.”
“He died years ago.”/“It takes us all. Some more finally than others.”
Susan to the Doctor: “Don’t you follow the news?”
The locked-away Doctor is a “madman in an attic”. I know this came before “madman in a box”, but one can’t help read it in that light.
Susan, having learned from the Doctor: “I’m going to open windows and blow out the stale air! And if I can’t open them, I shall throw stones through them!” Late 80s. All I’m saying.
“And then they saw the army. Grey shapes emerging from the mist, a bedraggled serpent trudging wearily through the twilight. Riders and footsoldiers and great alien beasts, all scarred and crestfallen, their weapons dull and disordered.”
The TARDIS “wasn’t real. It was just a literary conceit to get my adventurer from one place to another. And I believed it!”
“Without possibilities, there is no hope.”
The Doctor and Susan vanish simply by the power of imagination. As we all know, “time travel has always been possible in dreams.”
Ooh, the Doctor’s rose garden – is this where we see him in The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors?
“Sometimes I can’t tell where reality stops or imagination begins, if I’m awake or still asleep, and now we’re adrift on an unknown sea.”
Another Gallifrey where “the world was cursed and the children died”: the world of the Time War, as we know now.
“But always, always, Gallifrey watched, always did nothing while the universe burned. And, once, like a mirror, I thought I saw myself spiralling between worlds in an old TARDIS, just as I’d planned to do so long ago. Imagine that! … But I can’t, can I? They won’t let me. I’m a Time Lord, just like the rest of them. I have to stay at home.”
“You are perceptive. I don’t know if I like that in a President.”
“Smash Rome before it smashes Carthage – though I don’t remember taking this route.”
“Do you see the fires of the Aurora Temporalis, the anvils of heaven from where all time springs? The frost fairs of Ice Asgard, the Winter Star, where you can skate through the sky and carve sculptures in the clouds? And there, glittering torchlight on the canals of Venice – murder, intrigue and madrigals? Cities and jungles, alien kings and alien creatures, always darkness and light in perpetual battle. It draws you in. The possibilities blind you with diversity. Far safer to stay at home.”

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