Thursday, 3 December 2015

Main Range 079b. The Veiled Leopard by Iain McLaughlin & Claire Bartlett (March 2006)

The Veiled Leopard – that title, like an airport thriller! – is a short but sweet caper, a jewel heist set in the glamorous setting of the Majestique Casino, Monte Carlo, 1966. It is, in effect, Doctor Who does Bond (something the story itself makes sure we remember). In tone, it brings to the table something of the RTD “season openers”: it’s light and fun, full of pop culture references and easily accessible (though, like most of Big Finish, it requires more knowledge of Who continuity than, say, Partners in Crime). However, structurally it plays a different game: that of the ‘Doctor-lite’ structure that would become commonplace in the years following this audio’s release. Not a single Time Lord appears here, but the running time is given over instead to two pairs of companions: Peri and Erimem (who I last heard in The Council of Nicaea) and Ace and Hex (who have, presumably not long ago, just left a remote Scottish island following the events of Night Thoughts). This unusual conceit works in the story’s favour for the most part – allowing writers McLaughlin and Bartlett to tell a story with two simultaneously running strands, one for each “part” of the story, as the two pairs of companions both infiltrate the same casino. Hilariously, as they must be in any comedy caper, their motives are completely different: Peri and Erimem must prevent the theft of the diamond known only as the Veiled Leopard, whilst it is Ace and Hex’s job to steal it.

There in a nutshell is this hour-long drama’s entertaining premise; one thing it does well is to plunge the listeners into the thick of the story with minimal fuss. Nicola Bryant’s Peri is enjoyably excited to find herself in a Monte Carlo casino; her fun, sisterly relationship with Erimem makes a welcome return and the two seem very comfortable in one another’s company (it seems the days of Erimem’s discomfort and isolation in the TARDIS are over). They might not be especially convincing as jewel thieves, but their comic inadequacy is part of the fun, and they are both gifted with some great dialogue zingers and are fun to listen to throughout, especially their sass towards the casino’s seemingly obligatory bevy of sleazy men. Lizzie Hopley (fresh from playing Sue in Night Thoughts) gets handed a very different part in the form of Lady Lillian Hawthorne, and does charming work with Bryant and Morris. These three quite different women are all developed strongly in what is really quite a brief space of time.

McLaughlin and Bartlett are sure to play with the dual structure of their story, such as Peri referring to “that goofy little guy in a strange pullover” and having each pair spot the others across the room but not realise their significance. The involvement of Ace and Hex is hardly a big surprise to end the cliff-hanger on, given that we can see all four actors’ faces on the CD cover, but it’s done with such a sense of fun that it’s hard to complain. In the second part, we see what the Seventh Doctor’s companions were up to at the same time – and it helpfully and amusingly fills in the gaps in our knowledge (much like the different discs of Flip-Flop). Paralleling Peri’s supervision of Erimem, it’s great to see further evidence of Ace showing Hex the ropes (read: bossing him around) when it comes to missions for the Doctor. The second half is possibly even more fun than the first; it’s a great notion to hear companions involved in such fun shenanigans without the Doctor stealing the thunder, and Aldred and Olivier are a perfectly-honed joy in their parts (particularly pretending to be posh) – both a touch more convincing in their “heist caper” roles than their opposite numbers.

I do seem to be saying this a lot, but I love how Big Finish have expanded the definition of the Seventh Doctor as “manipulative” to include that he dabbles with actions of both his predecessors and his successors. After slipping into a number of Sixth Doctor adventures, this story sees him meddling with the Fifth Doctor’s “era”, and all told, it’s done to humorous effect; I could complain that the companions never get the inevitable “penny drops” realisation moment where they finally understand each other’s identities, but actually I find it slightly funnier in the more understated version we get. The ending could do with being a bit less rushed, but The Veiled Leopard is a good example of Doctor Who that sets out simply to entertain – and is solidly good at doing just that. A fun, smartly plotted little treat.

Other things:
I wonder if the title was in part a nod to The Leopard (the 1963 film of di Lampedusa’s novel): all high society and masked balls.
The score is terrific fun, echoing the Pink Panther movies with great panache – props to David Darlington.
“The Doctor said he got into trouble last time he was here; something about a waiter, a lobster’s claw, and a plate of soup that complained it didn’t want to be eaten. Oh, and a yellow sock.”
Shouldn’t Erimem know what a centurion is, following the events of The Council of Nicaea?
“This is what time travel’s all about.”/“Secret missions for the Doctor, or do you mean parties?”
“I’m very fond of our colonial cousins.”/“If you want your cousins to stay fond of you, you might want to drop the colonial stuff.”
“I’m sorry; I didn’t catch your name?”/“That’s because I didn’t throw it.”
“Where are my manners?”/“That’s a very good question.”
As with Project: Lazarus, an earlier Doctor’s theme is replaced by the Seventh Doctor’s.
Sophie Aldred’s “imitation” of Sylvester McCoy is hilariously awful, although as above that doesn’t really matter (and her “posh” voice is good fun).
“By the way, Ace, you look really nice. That dress really suits you.”/“Shut your face.”
“I always do what the doctor orders.”/“So do I…”
“I’m one of the Perivale Smiths. You must have heard of us. We deal in futures.”
“If he ever gets tired of what he does, the Doc could make a fortune as a burglar.”

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