Friday, 4 December 2015

Main Range 080. Time Works by Steve Lyons (March 2006)

“There are no beautiful clocks. Everything to do with time is hideous.” – Robert Aickman 

A brief nine-month period in 2005-6 saw something of a Doctor Who obsession with clocks and clockwork figures, from the villain of the Ninth Doctor novel The Clockwise Man to the automatons stalking Madame de Pompadour in the Tenth Doctor episode The Girl in the Fireplace…and, a couple of months before the broadcast of the latter story, the Eighth Doctor encounters yet another troupe of Clockwork Men in Steve Lyons’ third audio drama, Time Works. These Clockwork Men have less of a threatening physical presence but are instead powerfully psychological, stalking the nightmares and the fairy-tales of the people of the uncharted planet Industry; Lyons plays around very nicely with how we anthropomorphise clocks, making reference to “their clock-faces”, “their hands, one longer than the other, tapering to sword-sharp pointers”, and “cogs grinding where their hearts ought to be”. Do we not share faces and hands with clocks? Do we not talk, after all, of both a stopped heart and a stopped clock? Welding our means of measuring time to our own biology is a very neat move, and one of the first that helped this audio grab my attention.

Like Lyons’ first two stories, as seems fairly obvious from the title, this audio play is obsessed with time and the effects thereof. Unlike those two, however, it does not opt for a well-known historical setting to show us consequences in our own past, but goes for something considerably more inventive, bizarre and surreal. Lyons is good at strong imagery and this high-concept audio displays that talent to the full: take the dustbin lid with time set around it like amber, the people frozen in the village square (these early scenes in particular, as the TARDIS trio explore a world that sits entirely stationary around them, are classic Doctor Who – dropping the characters we follow into a tableau of another world and forcing them to judge what they see like art critics turned detective).

The way Lyons focuses on the Clockwork Men as a physical manifestation of the way time always stalks us, in our idle moments, continuing to count down with nothing we can do about it, lends the story a wistful air; like the recent Sleep No More, it paints a picture of a society so obsessed by work and productivity that there can be no chance of rest or pause, no disruption of the schedules. As another recent episode put it, “you will linger in the same place too long. You will sit too still or sleep too deep. And when, too late, you rise to go, you will notice a second shadow next to yours. Your life will then be over.” In such a world, it is small wonder the Doctor gets labelled as a ‘clock-stopper’, an interesting nickname given that he is also a figure to whom the regular rules of time do not apply. Lyons’ many other linguistic tics here are also quite clever (a militia called the Watch!), and I particularly like the idea that “looking Clockwise” means to be able to see the future, since human beings can only really see in an anti-clockwise direction, i.e. that which has already happened. The sheer Shearman-like inventiveness to this depiction of a world that can never rest – treating time and its clockwork minions as something to be feared, revered, almost worshipped, while their lives are governed by the incessant rhythm of the clock – is easily the strongest part of the audio. The Figurehead is never especially interesting (though it’s nice to hear Tracey Childs again), but the way that Lyons’ script effectively captures the horrors and pressures of banal modern life and the way it could naturally lead to revolution really put me in mind of The Natural History of Fear and other audios of that period in the Eighth Doctor’s life.

Another of the most striking (ha, clock puns) things about Time Works is its sumptuous atmosphere. The ticking and chiming of clocks, of course, is prevalent throughout, but such sounds are also wreathed in a ghostly, cello-dominated score: very nice work from Andy Hardwick and Edward Salt there. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the best scores I’ve heard from an audio drama: a properly lush listening experience. The surface of Industry, as the winds of time howl around without breaking in, is also well rendered. It’s one of the most polished productions I can recall for a while, with not a foot put wrong.

If there is a noticeable flaw with Time Works, it’s that its Divergent Universe origins are rather obvious (the TARDIS’ strange readings when they arrive, “nothing can advance without the passage of time”, the strong Caerdroia overtones, all the cyclical notes with which we are familiar, the lack of time or progression – on the other hand, it’s interesting to see how time is so abused here, given that much of the DU was about the Doctor suffering a universe without time). This is no particular fault of Steve Lyons, but it does highlight my growing frustration with this period of the Eighth Doctor era: it really does feel quite directionless, as though I’m sitting around waiting for the next big linking idea (akin to the Charley arc or the DU) to come along and set in motion. So far, this has been a string of four almost wholly unlinked, if mostly likeable, adventures, which is fine but feels like a bit of a backward step into the classic series and the usual lack of consequences carrying forward from one story to another. It’s exacerbated by the fact that the Divergent Universe is still ever-present, as above; these audios feel like a stopgap between the DU and Lucie Miller (one further irritation: that the Charley and C’rizz storylines have not quite been wound up by the time we reach Lucie’s debut in January 2007, resulting in an awkward overlap. I think I’ll listen to Absolution and The Girl Who Never Was before embarking on the New Eighth Doctor Adventures, sacrificing actual release order for my own preferred route). I also think this hesitance in direction affects how Lyons writes Charley and C’rizz, as they come across as painfully generic at times; some of their dialogue falls a bit flat (but I did like the way Charley expects the castle to be all grandeur and opulence whereas C’rizz is pleased to see the rulers are not lording it over their people – appropriate for both their characters). On the plus side, I quite like McGann here; he’s charismatic, funny and has good rapport with Beth Vyse as Vennet. We also get an excellent bit of characterisation where he discusses how he differs from his previous incarnation (“I know what it’s like to have an obsession, to spend every waking moment working towards an impossible goal, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody…I’ve learned to enjoy my work again”), and a lovely line delivery of “actually, I think I do quite well” when the Figurehead accuses him of being idle and jealous of others’ achievements.

Time Works has some problems, but is well worth exploring for the gorgeousness of the premise – a beautifully-done and intricate exploration of time and its ramifications, all suffused in a uniquely fairy-tale-cum-steampunk aesthetic, its creations like strange drawings out of the journals of Leonardo da Vinci come to life. Lyons has always struck me as one of the more Moffat-esque of the Big Finish writers (take as an example the creepy Episode One cliff-hanger and the way the same event becomes the Episode Two cliff-hanger, then gets its own Sherlock-style resolution), and although the pace is slower, there’s quite a bit of the future showrunner’s grandiose flair and time-tinkering disguising the relatively straightforward and low-key “overthrowing-the-capitalist-status-quo” plot. This is a good Eighth Doctor story with a unique, quirky feel; the McGann era adds another twisted fairy-tale to its ever-growing number.

Other things:
Nice title – serving to mean both “at last, time functions as it should” and “an industrial planet governed around time”.
“You want to know about the Clockwork Men? You will know about them soon enough. We work in their shadow every tick and tock of our lives. We hear them in the workings of the Great Clock. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. We work hard, turn our hands, but in time we all wind down. And that’s when they come for us. Most of us don’t see them. They work in the gap between times. In between the tick and the tock. They give us no warning – we always think we can steal more time. Hold back the end. But we do not know what they know. We do not face clockwise as they do. The clockwork men come for us when we can no longer keep time. When our time is up.”
“Even the best parties become humdrum once you’ve been to as many of them as I have, and very little ever happened on a sun-drenched beach. But outside those doors, right now, there could be anything, literally anything at all. Doesn’t that excite you?”
“Never done a tick’s work in all his tock” (love it).
“Funny thing about monarchies: on the surface, they always seem perfectly straightforward, one of the simplest systems of government – one person in charge of a country, or a world. But in my experience it is rare to find a king who has that much control…there are always people who need to be appeased, palms to be greased, not to mention the pretenders to the throne. I’ve known many a monarch become quite paranoid. You’re tired of life, Kestorian, you’re tired of your unchanging routine, but you’re terrified of what will happen if you break it.”
The child who fell into the clock tower’s cogs is a lovely bit of world-building.
All the clocks frozen at 5:01? That is strangely similar to the later TV story The Wedding of River Song, where they’re all frozen at 5:02.
“How did you escape my dungeon?”/“It’s a habit of mine, I’m afraid.”
“It is not easy to impose efficiency upon beings who are, by their nature, weak and inefficient. As they improve their quality of life, so too do they grow more tempted to enjoy that life at the expense of progress.”
“Sometimes the only way to make something right is to tear it down.” (cue lots of good, old-fashioned Luddite machine-bashing)
“I’ve brought down an unjust society in a little over two hours. Not my best time, admittedly.”
“Your people have been enslaved to the beat of your Great Clock for too long. It’s time it was stopped!”
I like the sweet little revelation that Vannet has been telling the entire story as a fairy-tale to the children of Industry, at some point in the future.
“We must decide for ourselves what makes our lives worthwhile. We must each choose our own paths to Completion.”
Nice final line as the TARDIS crew decide that it’s best to enjoy a few days’ holiday on Industry: “We’ve got work to do…but it can wait until tomorrow.” An admirable life philosophy I can get behind.

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