Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Unbound 07. A Storm of Angels by Marc Platt (January 2005)

I have to confess to being slightly surprised that Geoffrey Bayldon and Carole Ann Ford were selected as the first faux-Doctor/companion team to return for the seventh Unbound audio. Not because Bayldon and Ford weren’t good – unquestionably Auld Mortality was one of the highlights of the first six Unbounds, and its ending is still one of my favourite bits of Doctor Who ever, which I’ve listened to on many occasions since first hearing it – but precisely because the ending of Auld Mortality is just so damn perfect that, if I had been Marc Platt, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it for fear of spoiling the effect. David Warner and Nicholas Courtney (Sympathy for the Devil) are much more obviously crying out for a sequel (which they will eventually get, to be fair, in 2008’s Masters of War). However, A Storm of Angels was released in January 2005 with Marc Platt’s name on it, so we are to assume that he didn’t think as I do.

Thank goodness for that.

A Storm of Angels is getting on for twice as long as Auld Mortality, and does probably demand that you’ve heard the earlier audio, but is every bit as delightful, picking up where that stunning ending left off. It retains its predecessor’s magic, but unsurprisingly spins off in all sorts of new directions and has a whole host of ideas other writers would choose to merely develop singularly. Taking his inspiration from “You can’t rewrite history, not one line!”, Platt imagines what would happen if the Doctor had unintentionally altered history, and subsequently concocts a fantastical cocktail of alternative 16th century England, present even to the tiniest, wittiest detail (the Mayan Alliance and their ship the Quetzel; the sitar-soaked Nonesuch Palace, in which Queen Elizabeth (a wonderful Kate Brown, frankly much better than Joanna Page) is winched down from the roof in a glass case; “like that film, The Comedy of Errors”…). John Dee ringing Francis Drake by telephone is an utterly irresistible image, the kind of thing Moffat will do again in The Wedding of River Song. Drake’s Golden Hind space vessel sailing an asteroid belt, navigating by horoscope – as the sailors feast on curry and chapattis, no less! – is another highlight, Platt borrowing liberally from the iconography of The Time Meddler, Enlightenment and Michael Moorcock but doing something wholly innovative with the ideas.

Everything about the European Age of Discovery is perfect for this tale – the world so much smaller and yet so much bigger than ours now, so much still unknown and yet so much left to the vividness of imagination – a fine parallel to the Hartnell era of Doctor Who. Platt gives us a critique of exploitative, imperialist materialism, here spiralling into hyperbolic proportions as that age’s most famous explorer travels through space, a critique of a philosophy bound up entirely in the value of objects (note the moment in which Susan and Drake note the human cost of the royal hoard). Burning desire and ambition run through A Storm of Angels like a stick of rock, in part thanks to the scenes surrounding the magical shewstone, a kind of mix of Galadriel’s Mirror and Harry Potter’s Mirror of Erised (“it draws in everything, like flies to dung”). This is all most vividly rendered in the form of the obsessive Captain Fettiplace – and later the entire court; the guilt is widespread – whose zombified body becomes encrusted with jewels, a classic Seeds of Doom-style plot but with beautiful trinkets rather than killer plants – Fettiplace banging on the vessel from outside in space, jewels bursting out of his skin, is a properly nightmarish image. And it’s oh so human, this vying for power, this love of gold that is quite willing to break nice things other people have made (cf. “perhaps it’s power that makes the monster,” but also Susan’s observation that the Earth viewed from space itself looks like a big blue jewel). All that glitters is not gold.

Bayldon’s Doctor is likeably irascible (“officious, bureaucratic, overgrown traffic warden, go and find a real villain to pester!”), and his chemistry with Carole Ann Ford is a charm (“Dear Susan, I’m just an old grump, but I couldn’t bear to lose you”). There’s something wonderful about this new-to-space-travel Doctor believing John Dee and Francis Bacon are scientists who are advanced enough to help him get his TARDIS moving again (and then something even better about the fact that, um, they kind of are). I really love the way Platt writes the Doctor and Susan in these audios – they’re recognisably the characters we know (Bayldon’s little chuckles), and yet they aren’t. The Doctor here is a “malicious sprite, all quick tongue and tricksy eyes that see too deep”, a mercurial and often deceitful figure to rival and parallel Dr John Dee himself. Ford gives a better turn than she did in Auld Mortality, too, giving two performances, the one more assured and confident, the other anguished and sickly; she’s better for being out among the stars (just take the first time she sees a Mayan galley destroyed by gunfire, for instance), but also gets a few opportunities to be regal in Elizabeth’s court and to show us how the Susan who was left behind on Gallifrey ends up. The twist that the adventuring Susan is a falsehood conjured by the possibility generator because Bayldon’s Doctor hated being alone – and that she is aware that she is an illusion – is heartbreaking. The two Susans in the TARDIS is possibly Ford at her best (“even I’m not sure which of us is real”), and their final switch – the dying Susan returns to Gallifrey, the dusty President sails the stars – another emotional instance of Platt’s triumphant championing of active living over staying encased within oneself.

Into this melting pot Platt still has time to introduce another Time Lord, Temporal Agent Zeuro, who has been pursuing the pair from Gallifrey and is also converted into a jewel-creature: the lust for power can be found among Time Lords too. But the title of this melting pot is A Storm of Angels, and lustrous, angelic beings we get a-plenty, creatures inhabiting every geometric line, guiding the turn of the universe, “hundreds of them, like swallows in autumn”. There’s a clear distortion of biblical and Miltonian angels going on (particularly “Doctor Dee…be not afraid,” echoing the less sinister and more reassuring refrain of angels throughout the gospels – similarly, Dee is a refraction of the prophet Moses, playing the part in the establishing of the Promised Land but destined never to have any future beyond that day, a parallel complicated by the fact that it is Jewel-Zeuro who is named “Moses” in the script). For the angels are not angels, but sentient asteroids, glinting in the light of the sun, exploiting man’s gullibility and belief in higher forces. Illusory whispers of wisdom by expanding national powers only yield suffering, it would seem. These living jewels belong distinctly to the supernatural realm, where even these starfaring Elizabethans are distinctly human (“you are creatures of ether, while we are flesh, brutish and corrupt”); they wish to move from the “confinement of our own thoughts” to a corporeal existence, leading to a well-managed tension between the gestalt storm and the more individual Moses. Ultimately promotion from human to angel is a horrific fate, and can only be resolved by a Blink-esque solution, turning the mirror of desire in on itself (“there, that’ll give you something to reflect on”).

The actual structure of the story (a sort of invasion plot) is relatively familiar, but the aesthetic, the meat filling of the sandwich if you will, is thoroughly inventive. Indeed, this is something of a grander story than Auld Mortality – it’s kind of Auld Mortality meets Voyage of the Damned – and almost as lyrically transcendent, even if it is marginally less unique and moving. But together they make a fantastic pair of possibility-theory stories that really hold the mirror up to the Doctor Who we know and leave us with a world that’s a little bit bigger. I’m familiar with five of Platt’s Doctor Who stories now and they’ve all been top notch. A Storm of Angels comes highly recommended.

Other things:
“Behold the symmetry of the heavens!” As Dee sees the universe for the first time, there’s a stunning bit of organ and choral work to accompany his visions. In fact, the music for this alone is better than most recent main range efforts.
16th century shipmen on the TARDIS: “Could be a keg of ale, sir.”
“Sweet and sour mixed in one flagon” is a great description of the Doctor and Susan in the TARDIS.
“A steam-powered spaceship: it’s extraordinary! Pass the chutney, Susan.”
“Don’t forget how the Aztecs mistook you for their reincarnated high priestess!”/“Now, now, just because you weren’t first out of the tomb…”/“Didn’t stop you dressing the part!” I want to see this version of The Aztecs.
“What would you ask for, if you were offered anything you desire?”/“Well, so many things spring to mind. But no one ever asked me.”
“Desire conquers all things.”
“Earth is but one swift step away. Then the true journey begins.”
“…like a sealion jumping from one branch to another…or do I mean a squirrel?”
The Angels’ attack on the Golden Hind in Part Two is a sumptuous triumph of audio production.
Platt’s take on Coleridge’s Kublai Khan: “Many splendours have we seen, but none so great as the reef that girdles your realm. Far out, where the sun is just a spark, lies a churning wall of ice and rock to bound us from the canopy of heaven. A procession of mountains in unfettered flight. And there, deep in measureless caves, are treasure-houses, where jewels unguarded encrust the walls, throwing their own light back and forth like angels at play.”
“Envy rolls around this court, feeding on the vanity of the young, and the jaundiced tongues of the ancient.”
“It is a contract between Earth and Heaven, and he is transfigured, the Herald of a New Age of Wisdom!”
The communications between Moses and the other Angels are fascinating: “I drink the warmth of life, while you are still in the cold.”/“I? What is I?”
Moments That Remind You Why This Is Your Favourite Programme: Queen Elizabeth the First watches a jewel-encrusted reanimated embodiment of an immortal time agent, now belonging to a gestalt of ancient angelic beings, as said embodiment dances to Ravi Shankar sitar music on a space station orbiting the Earth but disguised as a 1530s palace.
Great Omega-esque Part Three cliff-hanger, as another Susan, Gallifrey’s President, appears.
Because it’s a Marc Platt story, of course there’s a section where the characters randomly transport away to a surreally different location for a conversation – this time a normal Earth duck pond.
“You warned the Aztecs that Cortes was coming… you even made Beethoven a hearing aid!”
Cameca got away lightly – a relationship with the Doctor would be “like marrying a crab-apple”.
“You rescued me from that terrible, stifling trap…you opened a door with the whole universe. You could’ve escaped to, but you stayed and got ceremonially archived like the rest of Gallifrey.”
“Beware of sweet, my lady Susan. With time, sweet cloys and turns to sour.”
Platt taps into the Elizabethan obsession with the Book of Revelation: “The Last Trumpet. The Day of Judgment has begun!”
“Too many jewels… human remains can’t bear the weight!”
“There’s always possibility.”
“It’s a Walsingham 68 rapid repeater!”/“You’ve been taking lessons, ma’am!”/“Better than playing the virginals!” (I love this Liz I).

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