Friday, 22 January 2016

Main Range 082. The Settling by Simon Guerrier (May 2006)

There’s no way of knowing if it was purpose or chance that caused two thematically connected audios, The Kingmaker and Simon Guerrier’s The Settling, to be released so close to one another (given BF’s delight in marketing things in trilogies and the like, I suspect the latter). Sometimes things really do happen by accident. But whatever the reason*, together they form a very strong double whammy of engrossing historical stories, Richard III and Oliver Cromwell being neatly partnered as blood-soaked butchers of history (they even get similar humpback/warts jokes...)

The historical event itself is the Siege of Drogheda (and its fellow, the Sack of Wexford), Ireland, in September 1649: a total bloodbath by all accounts. Very different in tone and scale to the murder of the princes in the Tower, but both suffused with terrible solemnity (and, as one would imagine, the spectre of historical ethics rises up once more, with both Ace and Hex adamant that they stay and help the besieged townspeople; compare Peri and Erimem in the previous story, who had greater disagreements with one another). The music, production and direction which sell this setting and this time in history – like the last couple of releases – are *very* nice and atmospheric. Drogheda is rendered in thorough, immersive detail (note the Doctor realising the fog is actually limestone dust from the bombardment, for instance), and the battle sequences are stunning, their confusion terribly effective. Likeable figures like Kieran are swiftly and mercilessly dispatched, and the screams at the end of the third part are horrifying. But Guerrier knows to slow the pace down sometimes too, giving us quiet, affecting scenes like the Doctor getting to know Mary Fitzgerald, her life and regrets effectively drawn in just a few lines as she confesses things to a face she somehow trusts. Clive Mantle (another big name guest star) makes a good Cromwell, gruff and brash (but with much-appreciated softer moments like telling the doctor to look after his soldiers). His line “He [God] wouldn’t want us getting bored” in response to Hex’s “no rest for the wic…er, righteous” is one of the most chilling parts of the play.

The Settling is, to my mind, clearly the most mature exploration of Hex Schofield yet (LIVE 34 came close – but even that minimalised his role a little). It’s even inventive enough to weave an emotionally affecting and historically appropriate plot out of his nickname. Not a punch is pulled when it comes to his being thrown into the thick of it at Drogheda; the detail that Hex’s first response to finding himself in Drogheda is “it’s a siege! Cool!” feels very emotionally true somehow…as does the reality slowly sinking in (“you hear ‘thousands dead’, and you think you understand it. But being there…it’s nothing like you see on the news. There’s bodies everywhere you look. There’s guts all over the street. It was people did that. People doing it to other people”). The nausea he feels upon seeing a battlefield doctor, too – the distortion of his own profession – is well done, and he gets some good scenes opposite Goddard. Better still is Hex’s attempt to understand Cromwell: what motivates someone to act like he did? What can he have been thinking all through these atrocities? The arguments which Guerrier places in the mouths of Cromwell and Hex point effectively to the controversy that has always surrounded this historical figure – whether he was a genocidal despot or the pioneer of liberty and democracy – and form much of this play’s real meat. Was he a monster, or was he a forward-thinking liberal? Or a bit of both? And who’s to say anyway?

It’s also a pretty great story for Hex’s relationship with Ace, and one which really allows the Seventh Doctor’s two protégés to shine, as they bond over the manipulative nature with which he sets them tasks (Ace on his cosmic schemes: “Small man’s complex, if you ask me”). These cutaway segments in which we are privy to quiet moments between the two of them, as they discuss the experience they have just been through, are particularly good, working much better as interludes than they would as a long extended scene after the event; him coming to terms with his survivor’s guilt is haunting. Guerrier develops the older sister/younger brother relationship between them very naturally (“I suppose I’m proud of you,” she tells him), with the Doctor plausibly cast as an irascible parent figure, which he always was slightly to Ace, anyway. Of course it isn’t *quite* that simple – as we learn here that Hex harbours certain feelings for Ace that, it seems, are not returned (will this be returned to in later stories? Time will tell).

The Doctor himself, incidentally, is unusually sidelined here – in a rather Hartnellesque way – spending his time hiding away in buildings with Mary in what is more ‘traditionally’ the companion’s role; while you wouldn’t want to see that every week, it makes a refreshing change particularly for this most calculating and, arguably, threatening of incarnations. The fact that his role in history is refashioned from cosmic manipulator into helping a woman in labour – in the same story in which a male “nurse” (cue 17th century laughter) has Cromwell’s ear and Ace both sticks two fingers up at sexism and self-identifies as a feminist – make this the second historical story in a row that has some pretty good gender politics. I worried for a bit that Mary would settle down with Exactly Identical James after her husband was killed, but thankfully (that seems the wrong word, somehow) that happy yet kinda hokey ending was ruthlessly taken away from us too.

All told, The Settling is a very fine historical story; zippy and pacey without ever feeling “light”, it gets its teeth into some really interesting questions and gives the Doctor’s two companions, in particular, a fascinating bit of development. It’s emotive and intimate, despite an epic “period-drama” canvas, and finds moments of beauty (the birth of Mary’s son) amid horrific slaughter. Simon Guerrier has done a great job in following on from The Kingmaker, and together the two audios make a damn fine pair. Again (though less obviously), history becomes a story, a sequence of different perspectives – the stories Hex and Ace relate to one another of their time in 1649 after the event (see too the Doctor and Goddard trying to soothe Mary with tales of historical antiquity). Of course, The Settling takes a distinctly less loose approach to history than The Kingmaker (in fact, it is accurate right down to a lot of pretty minor details) – where Shakespeare and Richard III took on each other’s jobs, this simply tinkers slightly with what is by all accounts an already pretty confused battle (no one quite knows why the massacre at Wexford happened). The fact that Hex “creates” the story of the Sack of Wexford – he knows it will happen, and ends up making it happen, winning the Irish round to fighting for their cause against Cromwell – is yet again part and parcel of history’s inevitability. You can muck around with the details in the middle, but, as Lady Macbeth puts it and as Ace echoes at the story’s opening, what’s done is done, and it cannot be undone. What’s done is often so bloody and terrible that Hex is starting to wonder whether stepping outside and seeing what the world is really like is a good idea. But on the other hand, his actions (and Cromwell’s) have an indirect hand in setting up the Royal Society and helping save countless lives in the name of medicine, his career of choice. Sometimes doctors really do make things better.

Other things:
Great photo on the cover of Olivier in his NYC football club T-shirt & hoodie wielding a sword.
“I reckon the TARDIS latches onto hotspots in history – you know, events so big they affect the vortex. That’s why we always end up where stuff’s happening.”/“Like moths to a flame?”
“I suppose a time machine’s gotta have a sense of timing.”
“There’s nothing we can do.”/“There’s always something. You taught me that.”
“Well, you know what they say about twins.”/“They only get half the birthday presents?”
“You’re Oliver Cromwell?”/“…it’s the warts, isn’t it? Yes, everyone’s always heard about the warts.”
The exchange about the etymological provenance of Ace’s name is a great bit of light relief (the Doctor insists it’s Greek for ‘the gift of God’, which Ace was unaware of; she maintains she was named after the hero of the Wizard of Oz).
Mary feels at peace in the TARDIS, as though she is in a church – lovely touch.
The only clunky part of the story, for me, was the wording of the second cliff-hanger, as it felt a bit too focused on “poor Doctor, having to deliver a baby” when surely the emotional emphasis is on “oh, crap, Mary is giving birth in the middle of a battle”. But that’s a small niggle.
Hex being encouraged to perform a spell, followed immediately by Mary’s cries as she goes into labour, made me think immediately of The Crucible (set a few decades after this), in which every tiny action is considered to be witchcraft.
Staying in the TARDIS “would be like staying at home and watching the world on TV: why bother going anywhere when you can just stay in where it’s cosy?”
“Wounds are better avoided than cured.”
I like Mantle’s unusual pronunciation of “parl-ee-a-ment”.
The last scenes by the gallows have a remarkable future mirror in the climax of The Woman who Lived.
Great dialogue: “Would you kill for love?”/“Yes, I suppose I would.”/“Then it wasn’t love.”
“You should work out or something,” Ace tells Hex, and he rolls his eyes at her. No doubt a nod to Philip Olivier’s, um, healthy physique.
Mary’s highly unexpected survival actually sits OK with me – because the story contains so much bloodshed, is it that implausible that one woman makes an unexpected recovery?

Next: 083 Something Inside by Trevor Baxendale.

*since this review was posted, the author Simon Guerrier has confirmed to me on Twitter that Gary Russell approached him to write this historical with the preceding story's historical themes in mind - and indeed even sent him the script. So now we know!

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