Thursday, 8 October 2015

Main Range 076. Singularity by James Swallow (November 2005)

Russian arts in general and Russian literature in particular are tremendously important to me, so Singularity was a big hit on that front, not to mention appropriate material on today of all days, what with Russian novelist Svetlana Alexeivich having just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What James Swallow does with Moscow here is akin to Paul Magrs’ canny treatment of the City of Canals in The Stones of Venice – by setting the audio in the not-too-distant future (the late 21st century), Swallow avoids the need to hew too slavishly to known historical events or tones and yet is still able to capture some of the flavour of its grandeur without inventing a new setting. Furthermore, casting Russian (or, at the very least, Eastern European) actors as most of the guest cast is a good move from Gary Russell; nothing hampers believability more than dodgy foreign accents. Some of the performances are variable, but Natasha Radski is a generally engaging presence as Lena Korolev, a strongly written guest character at the centre of much of the story’s emotional arc, and her quiet little scene with Turlough in Part Two is rooted in a very real and humane emotional truth (“You have to be strong to be alone…Some days, sometimes, I wish that I could be weak. I want to be fragile and delicate and have someone care for me, be strong for me. I get so…tired”), while Max Bollinger also acquits himself well as the paranoid Pavel. The Russian-influenced score is excellent, helping to make this audio’s soundscape distinctive, whilst the post-production is also strongly evocative (the explosion of the Somnus Tower, for instance, has to be heard to be believed, and the Hitchcockian scene where a flock of birds attack Lena is great too). The direction isn’t perfect, and Singularity does have some pacing, tension and performance issues, but as an overall story it’s solid, with some very good science-fiction ideas woven together with the Russian setting in a colourful, inventive way. Add to the mix the debut of a clearly distinctive new writer, and the return of the inspired pairing of the Fifth Doctor and Turlough, and you’re on to a winner.

As we established in Loups-Garoux, there’s a repressed upper-class English gent thing going on when it comes to both the Fifth Doctor and Turlough; yet because neither of them actually are English gentlemen (“I’m not English; neither of us are!”) but merely possess the affectations thereof, and since both of them actually hail from far-flung worlds, the simplest way to place them in a disorientating, alien setting is to let your story take place on Earth (and, brilliantly, the familiar ‘English’ figures of the Doctor and Turlough are actually the only aliens in the whole story). It’s worth noting that all three of the Five/Turlough audios are set on Earth but also that two of them take place in countries generally alien to Doctor Who, with the timeframe being the latter half of this current century (Loups-Garoux is 2080, this seems to be a few years later). Loups-Garoux and Singularity have in common a certain exoticism automatically lent by Rio de Janeiro and Moscow, especially as both plays are temporally removed enough from our own time without being improbably distant (not to be morbid about it, but they’re set in a period probably just towards the end of, or indeed slightly beyond, the likely life expectancy of today’s average listener). The Doctor and Turlough aren’t quite as ill-fitting here, but surprises still abound – “this city and I are old friends,” the Doctor says, only to find a huge and out-of-place tower looming above St Basil’s Cathedral. Russia – on Europe’s doorstep, infusing the books we read and the zeitgeist of our continent – is much closer to us than the jungles of Brazil, and as such this is no Heart of Darkness tribute where one finds one’s inner self in the depths of a foreign setting. Rather Singularity weaponizes its Russian setting tremendously effectively; there’s a case that it’s the single smartest move James Swallow makes in writing the entire audio. It’s not just an effective and noteworthy change of scene, but in relation to the country in which most Doctor Who is made and produced, Russia has long represented that fascinating enigma – its alphabet contains some of our letters and some that are totally unrecognisable, and it’s located far enough to be a cocktail of Oriental and Middle Eastern culture, descended from the steppes and the Mongol plains, yet close enough that its aristocracy spoke French almost exclusively in the 19th century. Moscow is an iconic Russian city in the way St Petersburg feels more European. Russia is both the cosily familiar and the bewitchingly strange.

Why this is wonderfully apt for Singularity is because of its principal storyline, which revolves around themes of identity, familiarity, unity and alienation. Some of this plays out charmingly well on the level of character drama – brother and sister Alexei and Lena, for instance, anchor several scenes with a properly human touch – but by and large the canvas is cosmically vast. I was completely taken aback by the epic nature of the story, expecting as I was some historical jaunt in the days of Vlad the Impaler or such like. But if any Doctor Who story deserves the labels ‘ambitious’ or ‘high-concept’, it’s this one. Singularity is a work really grappling with big ideas, in the best tradition of Russian literature itself. The scenario it posits – the last dying remnants of humankind, in a bid for survival, try to go back to a blissfully ignorant distant past and usurp their ancestors – is tantalising (in the glimpses it gives us of the universe’s end), scary, bleak, and ultimately rather moving.

It is here that we should discuss the elusive Somnus Foundation, a concept that rivals Gabriel Chase in Ghost Light for its hugely complex array of interpretations. It begins, in effect, as a sci-fi version of Scientology, a false cult sweeping the nation, exploiting pseudoscience about “auras” and “psychic readings” and professing that it brings the “awakening of mankind’s potential”. We then learn that the Foundation is notably associated with a base control over animals, turning dogs and birds against human beings like some demented deity wreaking havoc with the Garden of Eden. Later, they become proponents of incorporeal being: faced with the physical end of all things, these creatures seek to attain metaphorical godhood and infinity, becoming an incorporeal hive mind and one pure singularity. And then it becomes clear that they are the last humans in existence, fleeing back to us through time from the day everything dies. In effect, they’re the Toclafane from Last of the Time Lords. They’re us. The cosily familiar and the bewitchingly strange.

As I say, there’s a lot of ways one could analyse the Foundation. “Somnus”, of course, is Latin for “sleep”, but also commonly used to mean “death” in a figurative sense – appropriate for an enterprise created in the desperation felt in the face of mortality and endless sleep, but also works nicely with the idea of all humankind becoming a non-corporeal singularity, a godhead, since that in itself is the sleep of creativity and death of individuality. Somnus could stand in for all manner of real-world Russian movements – the cult of startsy, holy monks, which swept through the monasteries in the 19th century (“Alexei has shown strength, by taking a leap of faith”; see also Somnus’ emphasis on godhood), but also, in their visions for a Utopian Earth, they are an excellent fit for the socialism that arose in this nation in the late 19th century and early 20th. Taking advantage of headstrong young men and women “wanting to belong” is all so exactly like the militant revolutionary societies Dostoyevsky describes in The Devils, but also later, of joining the Party under Stalin, where wiping of identities, brainwashing and rhapsodising about “mankind’s potential” were not just the trappings of science-fiction. And just as the Communists adopted their national literary icons for their own ends, there’s the way that the Foundation’s leader, Qel, wears the face of brilliant neuroscientist Natalia Pushkin, as though this new orthodoxy is a dark inversion of Russia’s own apogee of sublime culture, the man who is the foundation, as it were, of their own national myth: Aleksandr Pushkin himself. Like all such movements (Scientology, Christianity, Communism) that require the ultimate giving of oneself, the ultimate self-negation, Somnus wants to make people, living or dead, utterly uniform, and to refashion them in its own ideologically-motivated image. As Pavel says, “it would mean the death of identity. Total instrumentality. No flesh, no self. We’d lose all that we are.” The Doctor, naturally, highlights the flaws in what the Sleepers have envisaged: if all are to become one singularity, how can anyone lead? Like Gandalf with the trolls in The Hobbit, the Doctor encourages the discord amongst the Sleepers; humanity could never forcibly unite. For such a false and totalitarian ‘harmony’ to occur, teleology itself has to end, the arc of forward-flowing history ruptures, and human beings are left frozen like statues along the prospects and bridges of Moscow.

And yet it’s broader than just any particular parallel, otherwise Swallow could simply have set his story during the Great Purges of the 1930s. Instead the action also takes place on the planet Ember*, beyond the edge of the Spinward Deeps, trillions of years in the future, described as “the last outpost” and “the endtime” and another take on humanity’s final end (there have been quite a few by this point, but hey, it’s a big universe). This is where we get a blindingly good glimpse at myth, complete with a takedown of the Doctor’s moral character that’s strongly reminiscent of Creatures of Beauty. The word “sleeper” ties in not only to death and to Somnus but also the endless fairy-tales and myths (the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, Snow White, Alice, Sleeping Beauty, Gregor Samsa, CS Lewis’ Three Sleepers) about people who slumber and wake to find the world has changed; these are those for whom there will be no waking, but for whom there will only be vaster quantities of dark. There’s a proper undercurrent of existential fear here as motivating Qel and Seo and the others (a shame, then, that some of the villains’ performances are so pantomimic). The Sleepers are patched together with literal debris and scrap metal, “the last descendants of mankind, the final remnants of this planet’s children”, staring the abyss in the face as the last star slowly goes out. In another fitting parallel for disaffected youth joining revolutionary organisations in Tsarist Russia, they have been abandoned as lesser beings by the imperious Time Lords; it is small wonder they would manipulate their ancestors if it meant escaping the end of all things. Thus their fate is rendered both nightmarish and sympathetic.

Sympathetic is a good word for the overall tone of Swallow’s audio, which goes out of its way to humanise most of its characters. This is bonkersly high-concept drama alright, but still done on a human level. It has explicitly and almost ludicrously high stakes, escalates dizzyingly quickly, and becomes a struggle of colossal proportion, yet all the high-falutin’ technobabble is nonetheless grounded in Swallow’s evident gift for naturalistic dialogue and sympathetic characterisation. In its own way it marks him out as (hopefully) a good writer for the Cyberman 2 series I’ll be coming to in due course, as in both instances mankind becomes flesh and blood, relocated and mechanised in the far future, and the choice that lies at the heart of everything is “evolution or dissolution”. In both instances the very smallness of what it means to be human is significant. Befitting such a series, this audio takes place in what is ultimately a very bleak universe, in which we are “all just pawns in the game of fate, playing our roles, living or dying”. The story’s coda is a thing of beauty in this regard: an understated outro that shows us how hazardous the Doctor’s actions can sometimes be. On Ember, on the last day of the universe, Xen at last goes to sleep front of him, and he knows it was he who left them to their deaths after all.

But the solution to that realisation is to cling on to the humanity we do have (as another writer didn’t quite put it, the earth may explode in a ball of flame in the year 5 billion, but for now all we can do is have chips): to reject the apathy the Sleepers “seed like a virus” and to concentrate on the people around us. After all, “the future of mankind is already written. Causality moves like a river, inexorable, unstoppable. We can’t change it. Only the broad strokes have been laid down. It’s in the moments between the ticks of the clock where life truly thrives, where we can make a difference.” And on a Tuesday trillions of years in the future, the last of our kind will lay their aching head down. There won’t be a deity or a Time Lord there to send them on their way, only the bits and pieces of their individual memories that make them human. In the end it is both our triumph and our heartbreak that it is just down to us.

Other things:

*I like to think the planet Ember we see in A Christmas Carol in the 44th century, all Dickensian England and Christmassy baubles, becomes the planet Ember seen here in the far future trillions of years later.
The villains’ terminology is in part borrowed from Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind (or, perhaps, from Neon Genesis Evangelion).
“Bracing.”/“In my experience, that’s just a euphemism for really very cold.”
Lenin was “a disagreeable man [with] terrible breath”.
Billy Miller’s Tev is a slightly pantomimic, grating villain, and indeed the voices of his kind are a curious backfire on audio – just over-modulated enough that it’s hard to catch every word. Some of Tev’s lines (“Take this filth from your sight!” etc) do get a tad repetitive and cartoonish, while some of Seo and Qel’s rivalry is a touch too melodramatic. Plus, in terms of execution on audio at least, most of the Ember scenes feel a bit lacking and oddly staged, even if the ideas are sound.
The chemistry between the Fifth Doctor and Turlough is possibly my favourite of any Doctor/male companion (the Doctor sends Turlough off to investigate with what is in effect his variant of “you know my methods, Watson – apply them!”). I also love the way they both cut slightly awkward, outsider figures; Turlough sums this up very well, saying “it’s cold, like a numbness like covers every part of you, as if the world keeps on turning without you. Like you’re – disconnected. I know how it feels”. Turlough is clearly toward the end of his travels with the Doctor, wondering if he’s been doing it for too long, becoming sick of being a mere passenger kept out of the loop, finding the Russian winter far too cold for him (a nice parallel with the tempting nature of sensual carnivalesque heat in Loups-Garoux), and longing to be “somewhere tropical, with beaches and pretty girls” (Planet of Fire). He can be so self-doubting, so self-effacing: “Time doesn’t care about us. It doesn’t care about the lives of the little people. Big events, all that huge history, rolls down like an avalanche and we get crushed underneath. You push time, and time pushes back.” There’s his own aptitude for survival (“You’ve got a cruel streak, Turlough. You’ve got the wolf in you,” another great nod to Loups-Garoux). And then there’s the yearning to belong, to be with his family, just like Alexei and Lena – which reminds me, if this were earlier in Turlough’s time, he’d likely be the one to give in and join the Foundation. But he does not. Note the hesitation at first before telling Lena she can trust him, and then the conviction; note his loyalty to the Doctor despite his frustrations with him – he’s come a long way. I’ve really liked the development of his character from Resurrection of the Daleks through Phantasmagoria, Loups-Garoux, Singularity and then on to Planet of Fire: it feels very natural indeed. The Doctor and Turlough’s stroll through the streets of Moscow at the end is one of my favourite scenes between the two of them.
“Someone once told me that the difference between traveller and tourist is that the traveller doesn’t know where he’s going, and the tourist doesn’t know where he is.”
I could have done without the return of the Molenski Univarius, but you can’t have everything.
“Future history”? Great idea for a museum.
“Where’s your sense of adventure?”/“In the TARDIS. In a box marked ‘Sense of Adventure’.”
The Doctor is firmly in knowledgeable and rationalist mode here, the raconteur-adventurer who’s seen it all and knows exactly where Somnus’ prophecies slip up.
“I suppose you could say that I deal in the futures market, on occasion.”
“May I have your name?”/“No. I’ll keep hold of it if it’s all the same to you.”
Entropy Tuesday gave me a good laugh. It’s both bleakly prosaic (the universe has to end on one of the days of the week, after all) and comically reminiscent of other significant days in, among other belief systems, the Russian Orthodox Church (Ash Wednesday, etc).
There are some instances of telling rather than showing that could’ve been a bit more elegant, as characters do a metaphorical address to camera and talk out loud about their thoughts when alone. Then again, soliloquies are a time-honoured tradition, and talking to oneself in Russian literature is hardly unusual.
“Entropy comes ever closer, and Time’s Predator is at our door.”
“Old Soviet Union ration packs. Guaranteed to last forever and withstand nuclear strikes.”/“If this was all I’d have to eat, I’d take the nuke, thank you.”
“Earth is nothing but ashes…lost in the dark. The cold is all there is now. Look into the night. The last sun, faint like a dying candle, kept alive beyond its demise by force. But now even that is fading away. The other stars are gone, bleeding away their light, collapsed to barren brown dwarfs. This is entropy, child. The death of the universe.”
“This is the end of existence. There is no place for hope here.” (Nod to the gate in Dante’s Inferno again).
“I’m the farthest thing from an authority figure you’re ever likely to meet.”
“I never know what you’re thinking, Turlough. That’s what makes you such an interesting travelling companion.”
“Your species thrives on struggle and conflict. It’s the best and the worst of you: your adaptability and will to endure.”
“I can’t die in the past!”/“Yes, it would be a terrible faux pas and rather awkward to explain.”
Turlough’s impatience with the Doctor: “Every time I leave him for five minutes, something ends up burning or blowing up or worse!” :D
Beautiful work from Davison: “That’s the problem with family, isn’t it? They compel you to make choices you never normally would. I have a family of sorts. Each time one of them leaves, I feel like I age a few centuries, but that’s the nature of things. This is the contract you make with fate. If you bring people close, you have to accept the pain of letting them go. I’d like to lie to you, tell you I could fix the hurt, but I can’t.”
“We Russians should do what Russians do best: endure. But I’m not sure I can anymore.”
“Hate is all they left us with, the only kindling we have to burn.”
“There are no walls in our prison. This is the last beacon of life in the whole of creation.”
The Doctor, the last man standing in the frozen city of Moscow, knocking on the Somnus Tower: “I’m here to see a man about an invasion!”
“The Godhead is coming, and we will be the masters of it.”
Singularity itself is rendered in a suitably trippy, whispering manner, as the Doctor finds his mind within a whirl of voices across time and space, where one can recognise the voices of your loved ones like picking out a familiar face in a crowd.
“Time Lord, what have you done?”/“I’m terribly sorry, but I think I may have broken your toy.”
Turlough on the Doctor: “I just wish that he could leave things alone once in a while.”
“The problem with looking after your own skin and forgetting the rest of us is: if you only ensure your own survival soon there’s no one else left but you. Terribly lonely way to go through life.”

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