Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Unbound 03. Full Fathom Five by David Bishop (July 2003)

“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”
-William Shakespeare, The Tempest, I.ii

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you.” The oldest, most banal phrase in the book, and yet here when the Doctor says it, he means it.

David Collings is immediately memorable as the “darker” Doctor: he’s boorish and rude, he patronises, he swears, he betrays Vollmer’s trust, he bribes and cavorts with smugglers, he destroys important evidence that might clear Vollmer’s name, he torments a dying man, he kills, and he covers up terrible things. Oh, he’s certainly clever – setting up a counter-signal to persuade the mines into thinking that their sub is organic – and he’s the same old Doctor in many ways: he’s spent years caring for Ruth, he’s inquisitive and brave. But that’s why it’s so scary – Collings is just plausible as the Doctor as pushed over the edge, as the Doctor who goes too far. Capaldi is never quite this dark, but sometimes he’s not far off – the moment where the Collings Doctor calmly analyses Hoskins’ corpse has resonances with certain moments from Into the Dalek and Mummy on the Orient Express. Collings’ line reading of “Smith. Doctor John Smith. But everyone just calls me ‘the Doctor’. I’ve come to save the day” is in no way a punch-the-air moment, let’s put it that way. He’s explicitly paralleled with the monomaniacal Flint (the latter saying “no loose ends” transitions into the Doctor ripping up Vollmer’s research). The darkest moment, for my money, is when he advances on Lee and states calmly “the ends justify the means” before shooting him.

Siri O’Neal is the surrogate companion Ruth, a woman for whom the Doctor has served as a kind of father figure. She’s plucky and brave and determined to find out a bit more about her past. O’Neal does a good job and her character arc works reasonably well (the “Dad? Dad? He’s still alive?” moment, mistakenly addressed to Flint, gave me goose bumps, while her rage towards the end is just the right side of melodrama and palpable enough to convince). Ed Bishop’s Flint is a little bit hackneyed, though. I’m not sure the characterisation on display is the strongest, but the plotting and the atmosphere are wonderful.

We haven’t had a properly subterranean story in a while now, and Full Fathom Five takes us right to the bottom of the sea-bed, to a futuristic energy exploration project. It’s unclear which “era” this is supposed to represent, although the fallibility of the Doctor and his darker nature makes me wonder if it’s supposed to be an 80s-vibe – there are certain parallels with Warriors of the Deep and some McCoy stories, for instance (and Collings sounds like Colin Baker on certain line-readings; perhaps I’ll adopt the head-canon that this is the darker Doctor that Six could have become, although how this fits with next time’s Valeyard-fest I don’t know).

David Bishop (best known for his Judge Dredd work) has written a shadowy, morally murky kind of story which lures the listener in with consummate ease, cutting straight to the drama with minimal fuss. The various tensions between the different figures on the D.E.E.P. back in 2039 are well-crafted: Vollmer makes for a good parallel with Lee and Flint, the long-term idealism (“the bleeding-heart liberals of the world”) paralleled with their greedy short-term fix solutions. In fact, this is a classic thriller story in that we don’t really know anybody’s motives and nobody quite trusts anybody; furthermore, splitting the story between the two different time-frames allows Bishop to drop-feed us the information at just the right moments.

The final scene is an absolute corker, the flipside of the comic end to The Curse of Fatal Death as the Collings Doctor regenerates into the Brooker Doctor, and is killed immediately. “I wonder how many more lives this bastard has left.” Jesus. Full Fathom Five is a powerful work, full of desperate, selfish people. As ever, you wouldn’t want all Doctor Who to be like this, but for 70 minutes, it’s tremendously gripping. The Unbound range is shaping up very nicely.

*looks at who’s writing the next one and sighs*

Other things:
Superbly evocative title, for the third release in a row. And I love the next one, too, which also comes from Shakespeare.
A tad predictable that Ruth stowed away on the Neptune, but I’ll let that pass.
“I won’t be responsible for the consequences, Ruth!”
“A man who devoted his life to science, who even abandoned his own daughter, all in the pursuit of glory!”
The in-text nods to The Tempest are nice, even if they’re rather overdone: Vollmer & Ruth are paralleled with Prospero & Miranda, it seems, and the repeated refrain of “rich and strange”. Also, what kind of father reads the scariest bit of The Tempest to his daughter to try and get her to sleep???
The score when Hoskins discovers the “police public call box” is terrifically chilling.
It’s not hard to tell this came out in 2003 – some of the twists feel rather reminiscent of that year’s focus on the unreliability of the Doctor, on his past actions having major implications on others.
“A horror show, an exhibition of atrocities, all in the name of science, perpetrated in the name of progress.”
Ruth’s scream of “It’s a baby!” is blood-curdling.
“I make it my business to know about this sort of thing, and to prevent it.”
“You’re either an enemy agent or some kind of eco-terrorist.”/“You make that sound so negative…”
“How can you say that so calmly?”/ “Because panicking will get us nowhere.” I like the Doctor when he’s like this, even if it’s rather dark.
The convulsing Vollmer and Flint are very grim.
“Should an executioner repent?”
“I don’t know you, Doctor. I don’t think I’ve ever known you. All these years I thought you were my friend, my guardian angel, and now you admit to murder!”
“Time has little meaning when the sun no longer rises above you.”
“What’s the cliché? If something doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.”

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