Saturday, 10 October 2015

Main Range 077. Other Lives by Gary Hopkins (December 2005)

Doctor Who and I share a dark secret: we both really love Victoriana. I say ‘dark secret’ because there’s something innately problematic about wilfully blind appreciation of any period of the past, particularly once you reduce them to a string of stock characters, stereotypes, clothing, images and simplistic iconography – in effect, “theme park Britain”, as it’s been called before – yet there’s also something specifically problematic about the Victorian era. A time of jingoism, imperialism, monarchism, missionary zeal, sexual repression, horrific poverty and social customs, social Darwinism…the list of its dark sides could go on and on. Yet, for all that, it is as complex a period in history as any other, and there is still much I admire about this time in our history. I appreciate the quaintness of the aesthetic (“the Victorians certainly knew how to put on a show”), the architecture, the literature, the poetry, the paintings, the enormous focus on public philanthropy that seems to be something we as a society lack today…perhaps it’s fair to say that presentations of the Victorian era function best when they display both these qualities, as Dickens does by showing both the aristocracy lounging about in a Lincolnshire mansion and the poorest of the poor chimney-sweep boys in his 1851-3 masterpiece Bleak House.

The same year Dickens began serialising that novel, the Great Exhibition opened at Crystal Palace. My knowledge of the Palace – aside from a fleeting visit or two – is mostly limited to a childhood obsession with the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (along with nearly every other sort of dinosaur), so I can’t speak for the historical accuracy of Gary Hopkins’ second audio, Other Lives, which deals with a visit to the Great Exhibition by the Eighth Doctor, Charley and C’rizz, but it certainly seemed vividly real to me. Here, of course, Doctor Who’s love of Victoriana comes into play; I’ve said it enough times now, but Paul McGann’s Doctor is every bit the aristocratic 19th-century gentleman – at least, he is in these early years; he looks to undergo some changes before his regeneration in the early days of the Time War – and as such he is a perfect fit for a pure historical set in Britain in 1851. Indeed, it’s something of a plot point.

Unfortunately this comes complete with what seems like some of that era’s attitudes. “The Victorians aren’t quite ready for Eutermesans,” the Doctor tells C’rizz to justify leaving him in the TARDIS, which irritated me somewhat; on the one hand it makes a great deal of pragmatic sense, given what happens to C’rizz in this story, but on the other, this is supposed to be a character fixated on broadening people’s minds and not caring what others think. On balance it is just about a Doctorish thing to do (and recalls classic stories where one of the companions is inexplicably left in the ship), but for me it only hits home how much Charley and the Doctor are a fully-fledged team while C’rizz is still an outsider in the TARDIS. On the plus side, this means we get to hear Paul McGann and India Fisher bouncing around the Victorian era as excited as can be, which is of course enormous fun. The expansive atmosphere of the Crystal Palace, of the circus, of a charming restaurant, are masterfully rendered here with crowds, music (the British Grenadier), laughter…it feels so alive in a way that recaptures the breathlessly joyful feel of Eight and Charley’s early adventures (are we sure this is by the same Gary Hopkins who wrote The Last? They are incredibly different in almost every way). The flipside to this, of course, is the ease with which the devil-may-care Doctor gets into trouble even in such a picture-postcard setting; barely ten minutes in he’s already being reprimanded for sneaking in without paying. McGann gets some particularly great material to play with, as his Doctor’s susceptibility to amnesia is comically nodded to in the half-way twist when Mrs Georgina Marlow believes the Doctor to be her memory-loss-prone husband. His youth and romantic nature, as Doctors go, means he suits this storyline very well (I love his line reading of the half-earnest, half-hesitant “how are you…dearest?”) and I’d like to see more of him in these kind of emotionally tricky situations.

To Hopkins’ credit, he doesn’t simplify glorify the world in which the Doctor and company find themselves. In the manner of the best Victorian satire even the respectable and important are (gently) mocked – see the De Roches’ amusing belief that the TARDIS is a hot air balloon of French make – and, as in Bleak House, all ‘levels’ of society are represented (“You wouldn’t know about ordinary people, would you? We’re just there to work hard, die young and make the rich richer,” sneers Christian Griswold to the Doctor, mistaking him for an aristocrat). There are also darker undercurrents here that threaten to come to the surface and boil over: the way all the men talk down to all the women (“anything to oblige a pretty young gal”; “out of the way, you stupid cow!”; Dimplesqueeze’s hinting at the “perfidious outrages” that could befall a young lady of the time and, later, his awful suggestion of how Charley repay him and automatic assumption that she’s a prostitute; “what a slovenly and bedraggled creature you are”); assassins armed with pistols bursting through crowds of happy visitors or threatening to cut ladies’ throats in the middle of Hyde Park; and last but certainly not least C’rizz’s humiliating and upsetting Elephant-Man-esque treatment at the hands of Jacob Crackles, knocked out, chained up, forced to strip, and exhibited to the paying public as some freakish “curiosity”. His eventual revenge on Crackles feels both justified and uncomfortably horrible. The two strands get tied together nicely with the parallel that the crowd are as happy to gawp at French diplomats as they are at “deformed” specimens: otherness fascinates.

Other Lives naturally benefits a great deal from the performance of the late, great Ron Moody as Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. On the day of his death I rewatched the 1968 musical version of Oliver Twist; frankly I still consider it better than any other version before or since, possibly including the book (no, seriously. The novel has numerous subplots which go absolutely nowhere, as though Dickens didn’t know what he was doing with them, and the musical irons those out. Plus, it has Oliver Reed). A great deal of that triumph comes down to Ron Moody’s unforgettable performance as Fagin; similarly, the man who could in another life have been the Third Doctor is an utter joy here, selling great dialogue like “Bit of advice, my dear, never grow old. Oh, what dainty little feet you have. Not like my canal barges!” with conviction. The scene in which he first meets Charley and she tells him he looks just like the Duke of Wellington is a delight, but he makes equally neat work out of their conversation about his mortality and Charley’s reports of Britain’s future. Including this historical character, so known for the Regency era and his role at Waterloo as opposed to Victoriana, in a story set in 1851 is an interesting choice but works well (I had no idea the Duke died as late as 1852). Francesca Hunt also makes a strong impression as Mrs Georgina Marlow, introduced as merely a desperate mother trying to find her missing ten-year-old, but then drawn inexorably into the Doctor’s storyline in a clever, and surprisingly emotional, way; their scenes opposite one another are very effective, particularly their goodbye. At first I thought it a curious decision to have Westmaas and Fisher playing dual roles; their French accents aren’t awful enough to wreck the story, but especially after we had such good Russian actors in Singularity, I wondered why BF couldn’t have hired some French actors here instead. Of course, with the mistaken identity stuff that comes into play later, it becomes much clearer why this is; at first I couldn’t decide if C’rizz and Charley pretending to be Monsieur & Madame De Roche is awkward/silly plotting or a terrific gag, but once we got the beautifully meta line from Charley about “who’s to say I’m not Madeleine De Roche” I was sold on the whole idea.

Gary Hopkins certainly knows how to put on a show. This isn’t just a different kind of Doctor Who story, it’s even a different kind of Doctor Who historical – miles away from the historical import of events like the Council of Nicaea or the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. There’s not even a great deal of a plot. Instead it’s a glorious gem of a character piece against the interesting, vibrant and fun backdrop of a historical setting without losing sight of some of that era’s inherent nastiness, exactly the kind of play the Eighth Doctor adventures have been missing for quite some time*. In essence this is a story about what happens when Doctor Who gets stuck in too much Victoriana, to the point where the main characters think for a while that they will have to live “other lives” than their real ones, inhabit a world which they are not used to: a hostile world of as much power-play and monstrosity as any nuclear-ravaged wasteland (as C’rizz puts it: “freakish”). None of the TARDIS crew quite fit in with the Victorians’ way of seeing things – all of them found in the Crystal Palace, as it were, like foreign exhibits; mistaken for things they are not, forced to pretend to be something other than they are; or paraded and abused for being different – and yet they all leave a lasting impact, one might say footprint, on the skin of the world they visit, tangled up in others’ lives. The Doctor is not entirely telling the truth when he claims “I make a point of never becoming involved in local politics.” Other Lives cleverly shows the extent to which the Doctor, Charley and C’rizz could settle into an entirely routine existence in one fixed point of history, all with their own roles to play (Edward Marlow, a doctor who travels the world, is not so very different to our hero, is he? The Doctor himself calls the possibility of married life “not entirely unpleasant” and confesses “a part of me wants to stay”), and yet simultaneously the extent to which they never could lead such ordinary lives, must break free of the cruel limitations of one story, one genre, one life, and go off into the stars to find distant glimpses of the alternatives.

Other things:
“I’m really not sure about this costume. Can’t I wear something a bit less…oh, I don’t know, something just a bit less.”
Many of the names are straight out of Dickens: Fazackerley, Jacob Crackles, Rufus Dimplesqueeze (my absolute favourite, I can neither hear it nor type it without laughing – and the same is clearly true of the writer, because he slips the full name into the script at every opportunity).
“You know what they say about small packages.”/“…that they’re bitterly disappointing?”
“I told the Duke of Wellington to hold my shoe! How embarrassing is that? And he massaged my foot.”
“The TARDIS is a craft, a vehicle, a horseless carriage, si vous voulez.”
“It’s OK, Mr Fazackerley, I’m on your side!”/“Yes, and I’m the Queen of Sheba.”/“Really? You don’t look like how I remember-”
Drunk Charley is a hoot; India Fisher is clearly having a ball with this one. It sounds like it was a lot of fun to make.
“What’s that dreadful smell, Fazackerley?”/“Miss Pollard, Your Grace.”
“This Doctor of yours married?”/“I’d feel very sorry for his wife if he was.” (C’rizz says much the same thing later on).
“Anyone with half a brain could see through the idea!”/“Fazackerley, you have half a brain, what do you think?”
Possibly my favourite line, as Wellington is miffed that the short-ish Nelson got a monumental column to his honour in Trafalgar Square: “Horatio’s taller than the rest of us now!”
Wellington, on the phrase “we’re history”: “Curious expression. I thought some of us were that anyway!”
“You haven’t told me anything I couldn’t have worked out for myself. So the world of the 20th century and beyond will continue to learn precious little from its past. Mayhap some mistakes will have to be repeated before lessons are learned.”
“I fought Napoleon Bonaparte twice, and believe me, sir, you do not even remotely compare with Napoleon Bonaparte!”
There’s even a Dickensian twist in that a character we know from one context (Rufus Dimplesqueeze) turns out to be someone’s unexpected relative (Edward Marlow’s uncle). And he’s a bit of a Scrooge-like figure, too.
When Charley lets slip about her being mistaken for a prostitute and C’rizz is curious: “Oh, it’s just, ah, a random example.”
“Could you lend me a shilling?” Sweet, funny, perfect.
The reunion scene at the end is terrifically funny. “MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS!”
“Goodbye, Charley. And good luck…in the future.”
“The beard will have to go” – what a great final line.
*a quick note on this front: although (for me) Other Lives is probably the best Eighth Doctor since Gary Hopkins’ previous effort, maybe beyond, I am a little perturbed at the direction the Eighth Doctor stories are going in. It feels as though slotting them into the regular monthly range set of rotating past Doctors has hampered all notion of forward momentum and arc storylines. I know I’ve only had three stories set in our universe since The Next Life, but there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly linking Terror Firma, Scaredy Cat and this one, so I’m not entirely sure what overall ‘tone’ this era is trying to establish. Presumably this slightly meandering direction will be rectified once the Eighth Doctor is paired with Lucie Miller.

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