Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Unbound 02. Sympathy for the Devil by Jonathan Clements (June 2003)

Three things immediately leap out about Sympathy for the Devil, almost before listening: The first is that, in a manner unusual even for most Wilderness Years audios or books, this feels like it explicitly engages with the era of Doctor Who it (broadly) comes from. This is a story for the late 90s, set as it is during the Handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. The second is that the story is notable for being written by Jonathan Clements. I don’t usually talk that much about writers’ backgrounds or histories, but Clements is a very interesting case – perhaps the most prestigious author Big Finish have lured to their writing table to date (only Nev Fountain with his Dead Ringers work and Rob Shearman with his playwright career under Alan Ayckbourn would come close). The man’s only 43 but he has already translated over 70 manga and anime products, written the definitive history of anime, has published extensively on Chinese history, Confucius, Mao, Beijing, the Ming dynasty, Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, the Samurai, modern Japan, a history of the Vikings, a biography of the Finnish president Mannerheim… the list goes on. I don’t do this to sound fawning, but to point out that here we have a good example of a writer coming to Doctor Who with a very, very different skill-set and background – not like most writers who bring to the table their English degrees or their background in science-fiction, this is more like Louis Marks with his PhD in the Italian Renaissance. No wonder we get a story set in East Asia, a rarity by Doctor Who standards. The third point, of course, is that this must surely be the first Doctor Who story named after a Rolling Stones song. I hold out hope it’s not the last.

This story sees David Warner take on the mantle of the (sort of) Third Doctor, exiled to Earth. Except this time it’s Hong Kong in 1997. Unlike Bayldon, however, who was identifiably similar to Hartnell, Warner is very, very different to Pertwee’s dashing dynamism and I don’t think he gives quite as good a performance. His voice is nowhere near as commanding; he’s much more of a calm listener and a persuader, a man with measured tones. He’s a man conversant in Mandarin, Cantonese, Manchu, and Mongolian, who has visited China many times, knows Confucius well, and even has nicknames in the local language. He gets a sweet little scene with Ling in the middle of the story that allows him to show his gentler side. His relationship with the Master is well-written, and Gatiss and Warner know well enough to play the two as friends as much as enemies. The Doctor tricking the Master into entering the Little England pub as his TARDIS is superb; I laughed out loud as the tourists flood the pub and begin asking the Master for drinks!

The Brigadier also makes a surprise appearance, turning up as the owner of an English-only pub in Hong Kong. The tense scene in which he greets the Doctor with a rifle is the most uneasy their relationship has got since Inferno. Courtney does a wonderful job as always, this time turning his beloved character into a slightly bitter man, passed over for promotions, betrayed by old friends, missing an England that never was, regretting his slightly wasted life: this is the Brigadier who never spent most of the 70s with the Doctor. His rapport with the unlikeable Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood, a man who has no respect for the customs of Hong Kong, works very well (thanks too to a cracking, foul-mouthed, and very Scottish, performance from Tennant; it’s great hearing him do unpleasant roles). The little references back to what the UNIT era was like – particularly Yates’ noble sacrifice – are very effective.

The Ke Le storyline – the Master disguising himself as a European defector who flees to China and then wants to defect back – is slightly bog-standard Pertwee-era and indeed this is a sequel to The Mind of Evil (though Ke Le Machine and Keller Machine was so obvious as to be irritating). Mark Gatiss does a nice oily job with the role, a role which he is obviously enjoying very much. He’s got the villainous chuckle down rather well, and the moment where the Doctor and the Master ‘first’ meet (Terror of the Autons having never happened, of course) is great.

With the appearance of the Brigadier, the political intrigue, the Master’s scheme and the presence of Buddhist monk, this is very much an Unbound for the Jon Pertwee era. The actual plotting isn’t that amazing, but the whole thing is enlivened by fun dialogue, a great deal of colour and historical backdrops, some excellent performances and a good production. It nicely encapsulates that era’s interest in militarism and self-control, the dualism between letting rip and holding back, expansionism and withdrawal, reflected in the pleasant symmetry of the pairings: Brimmicombe-Wood and Lethbridge-Stewart, the Master and the Doctor, China and the British. The key scene between the Master and the Doctor, in which the one asks the other where he was during all the 20th century’s worst atrocities, why he never stops the bigger disasters, is a corker. All told: this isn’t Auld Mortality, but it’s very solid.

Other things:
Another new theme tune! They’re spoiling us. I can’t decide if I like this or the first one better.
Nice little pre-titles sequence: two young futures traders, awash with shots and casual racism (“Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the slaves!” actually elicited a gasp from me, I hadn’t seen that coming), kicked out of a bar.
Andy Hardwick’s “oriental” (much though I dislike the word) score is a good one. And Gary Russell is still a great director (the jet plane is a highlight), although it’s very obvious that he plays the Presenter on the news at the start.
“What year is it?”/“Year of the Ox!”
The Handover/hangover gag is fairly dire, but I suppose it is meant to be.
The Doctor to Ling: “Your English is very good.”/“It should be. I’m from Slough.”
“We call them FILTH. Failed in London, Tried in Hong Kong.”
“I wanted to talk to you in private.”/“Then use a phone. I’m in the book.”
“One wrong move and I’ll shoot you in the heart.”/“That may not be as easy as it sounds.”
“Is that Australian wine?”/“Unless the French have started putting kangaroos on their bottles, yes.”
“There are worse places.”/“Than Earth?”/“Than Hong Kong.”
The Doctor preferred Hong Kong “when it was just a little fishing village”.
“We’ll take him, war crimes and all, if he comes up with gadgets like this.”
“Think of it as a prison for evil.”/“Like Pandora’s Box.”
“Please allow me to introduce myself…”, “the nature of his game…”, “a deal with the devil”, “well-learned politesse” and “I’ll lay your soul to waste”; Operation Troubadour; the fleet nearly reaching Bombay; . Oh, nice. Very nice. Someone really likes their Rolling Stones.
I’d love to know more about the other two suspects the Doctor muses Ke Le might be – presumably the Rani? The Monk?
“It was your open mind that got you fired, Brigadier.”
“BARMY BRIG IN FAKE FLOWER FIASCO” – a great joke Daily Mail headline.
“Every time you ran a peace conference, someone seemed to get killed!”
“Doctor? The Doctor?”/ “I walk in the shadows. Just like you.”
“Abbot, I would tell you to say your prayers, but you’ve been doing that to long enough. Embrace the pain and chalk it up to a new experience.”
“When Mao started tearing down the monasteries, it opened a whole new can of … ha, well… ha… worms.”
“For all your well-learned politesse, you’re just a snob. You have no grasp of the big picture; you just turn up and help the little people, you never think of posterity.”/“Because we’re all little people, that’s why! Because I make a difference where I can with the people around me!” I can’t change everything but I can make a difference for the common good!”
The Doctor’s friendship with Mao, one of the more notoriously contentious bits of the Pertwee era, is well-scrutinised.
The Master to the Doctor: “You’re such a tourist.”
The ending is a little bit rushed and bungled – I’m uncertain that the nuclear blast suddenly allowing the Doctor’s TARDIS to roam space and time works all that well.
“Top priority is finding some new footwear…these shoes…they don’t fit me at all…”

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