Thursday, 22 October 2015

Bonus Releases IV. Cryptobiosis by Elliot Thorpe (December 2005)

Fortunately, Cryptobiosis, which sees the debut of new writer Elliot Thorpe, a sometime-contributor over at Den of Geek, is a distinctly classier production than Her Final Flight the previous December. It blends something of the atmosphere of Horror of Fang Rock (the two stories are set in a similar period) with a considerably more supernatural bent, making the final package a reasonably effective hour of Doctor Who. As the play begins, Peri and the Sixth Doctor have spent the last six days on the Lankester, a ship travelling from Madagascar to New Orleans in October 1901 (and presumably named after Sir Ray Lankester, who lived from 1847-1929 and was one of the 19th century’s most respected zoologist/biologists). Doctor Who on board a ship in the past always feels to me like a base-under-siege structure with a bit of twist, as there’s the added historical dimension and atmosphere gained from the (in this case quite detailed) Patrick-O’Brian-esque maritime trappings. Just as you’d expect, Gary Russell pitches us into the high seas very convincingly – one of the most obvious settings for an audio medium in a sense, given the number of different ways you can signal your surroundings effectively with water – and, for a composer who certainly has the occasional off day, Darlington’s moody score is one of his best.

Thorpe makes the refreshing move of having the Doctor and Peri already being a long-established part of the action when the play opens; Cryptobiosis resembles the second half of a Season 22-style two-part story in which the Doctor and Peri take a great deal of time getting ingratiated with the crew amid the regular suspicions and so on. Thorpe simply skips all that, and that is to the structure’s benefit. It’s also (surprisingly) something of a novelty to hear this classic pairing working together; since Evelyn’s introduction, Peri’s BF adventures seem to be almost exclusively with Davison’s Doctor. Baker and Bryant work in this atmospheric period-piece milieu just as well as you’d expect (my personal highlight between them is the following exchange: “Doctor, it could be dangerous!”/“Then I’d appreciate some support!”, although the Doctor saying Peri “is entitled to a wonderful future” is also a treat), and the Doctor even gets to use his medical knowledge when he plays at being the ship’s sawbones. The zoological slant to the adventure gives Peri way into the action; even if it’s a touch obvious to pair her with the only other female character for much of the story, the scenes she shares with Amphitrite are still quite nicely done, and it means the palpable anger she feels against De Raquin is emotionally true (and well-played by Bryant).

As Jacques De Raquin, Tony Beck’s French accent leaves a lot to be desired, and his guilt is fairly clear right from the off (he’s clearly the only one who could have killed Crawford, etc., and the Doctor and Peri drop some pretty unsubtle hints about their dislike for him) which makes almost any scene with him in predictable and tiresome (it doesn’t help that Beck is terribly hammy; bloody hell, that laugh!). Michael Cuckson fares better as Captain Callany, last of the old guard of sailors. The inclusion of the wheelchair-bound “Amy Ivens” (Naomi Paxton), on the other hand, is a nice touch and adds another layer of pathos and intrigue to the storyline, although even here I did suspect pretty early on her potential link to the legless villains of the piece. The small doses of mercury with which De Raquin is poisoning her make for an interesting nod back to David Whitaker: mercury, here, is something that’s being abused, a substance imposed upon a young woman against her will, the emblem of fatal change and malicious chaos, not the cheering variety the Doctor leaves in his wake.

The central meat of the plot revolves around mermaids – yes, you read that right. Notably, there’s no particular effort made to establish these mermaids as alien or to give any rationalist explanations for them; the Doctor has strayed straight into the realm of mythical beasts, and we’re all (justifiably, I feel, given the show’s long relationship with myth) expected to be OK with that. They are, after all, one of the oldest myths we have, predating even Greek civilisation by millennia and stemming first from the Assyrians (although here it’s the more familiar Greek/Roman mythos that is explicitly played up to – Amphitrite’s name is borrowed from Poseidon’s wife, Galatea is both a nereid in Hesiod’s Theogony and a sea-nymph in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Nereus is the traditional River God). There is something of a neat twist, however: the mermaids of Cryptobiosis may be ancient creatures, but they’re not victimised rather than malicious. De Raquin’s narrow-minded goal, to turn Amphitrite and Galatea into imperialism’s playthings, commodities set to raise high prices at the next auction, is an element shared with Other Lives and C’rizz’s treatment in the Victorian era and one of the smarter, more nuanced parts of the story: just look at the way De Raquin dehumanises Amphitrite, interrupting his own “she” and correcting himself by labelling her an “it” (it’s a shame he’s such a hokey villain, really). It is thus a moment of properly transcendental triumph when Nereus and the other mermaids drag down this despicable profiteer to their kingdom to become *their* circus attraction.

Thorpe tells a straightforwardly ripping yarn good complete with historical detail and enlivened by some fun performances, that slowly becomes something subtler and stranger. It’s never especially ground-breaking, but it’s well-written and the splashes of well-researched colour Thorpe gives to the Edwardian naval setting, as well as the lyricism of the mermaids, are very welcome. Cryptobiosis is a nice little musing on not abandoning your own, whether ship, crew or family. An enjoyable listen.

Although what *is* that title all about? Edit: Cracking answer from elvwood over at Gallifrey Base, which reads "It's from the Greek (appropriately enough), meaning something like "hidden life". However, I'd be very surprised if the reference isn't slightly less direct, referring to the noble science of Cryptozoology - basically the study of conspiracy theorist and urban mythological animals like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. I'm sure mermaids would count, too!"

Other things:
This is my favourite bonus release behind Shada – which sounds like damning with faint praise when the other two are Real Time and Her Final Flight, but it really is much better than either.
“We’ve entered a new century. I’m not sure an old sailor like me fits in anymore”: kind of overly heavy bit of period-setting there.
“My sea-legs are fine, Doctor, it’s my sea-nose that’s having trouble adapting.” (Peri, on the smell of fish)
“Sure, I’ll walk right up to the Captain, and say, “Hi there, Cap’n, do you mind if my friend takes a look at the knife you’ve accused him of using?!””/“If you could?”
The Doctor compares Crewman McTigh to a “remora. Suckerfish. Sticks to the hulls of boats and never lets go; the sides of turtles; sharks, too…”
“I do like an overcast sky with my breakfast.”
“I don’t remember being drugged.”/“That’s why they call it being drugged.”
De Raquin’s password? “For King and Country.” Interesting…
“Have you found what you’re looking for?”/“Now, there’s a million-dollar question.”
“You know something, don’t you?”/“I know lots of things. I’m an almanac. With wit.”
The Doctor paralleled to Callany: “A captain never leaves his ship.”
“What’s it like…being a mermaid?”/“How am I to answer that? What’s it like being human?”
A nice lyrical description of the world of merpeople: “You probably expect the sea to be all bare and cold. It’s not. Our land is a desert of brimstone, and we float above it, bathing in its warmth. There are colours and shapes that you can only dream of. Our trees and plants move with the slightest current, as though they are reaching out to touch us. Our homes are made of coral, with rooves of mussel shells that open and close with the flow of the water. The pearls inside glisten and sparkle, and when there’s a dead calm on the surface, the yellow sun brings them alive. You can feel the water caressing your skin as you swim, fish dart in and out of our hair, and they eat out of our hands like birds do to the sailors on board your boats.”
The Doctor’s scene with Nereus in the underwater sea cave, and his delight at seeing such beautiful new creatures, is great (although it’s hard to quite believe in the scale – I was never convinced he was surrounded by hundreds of them).
“I only have a swimming certificate for doggy paddle” – the Doctor’s talking out of his arse here, clearly.

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