Friday, 5 February 2016

Main Range 084. The Nowhere Place by Nicholas Briggs (July 2006)

“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
-John Donne, Meditation XVII, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, 1624

Nicholas Briggs – one of the heavyweight names over the years when it comes to Doctor Who, particularly on audio – has in fact by this point in 2006 not contributed a single Doctor Who story for quite some time. The last prior to The Nowhere Place was Creatures of Beauty in May 2003, which we established as being his best work yet. Between 2001 and 2005, it seems that Briggs took a backseat from his Doctor Who contributions (aside from voicing the occasional monster) in order to focus on the two spin-off ranges for which he is (almost) single-handedly responsible – Dalek Empire and Cyberman. But as the Gary Russell era of Big Finish draws towards its end, Briggs returns to the fold, back on directing duties for Something Inside and returning to scripting duties for the 84th main range release, the charmingly-titled The Nowhere Place. Much like Creatures of Beauty and his Dalek/Cyberman work, it’s another instance of a completely Briggs-dominated release, in which he contributes the script, direction, music and sound design and plays one of the characters. Say what you like (and there are flaws within this story), but you can’t accuse him of not being an all-rounder.

It’s not just Briggs who’s back, but the combination of Colin Baker and Maggie Stables, last heard in the deathly dull Pier Pressure and, before that, Stables’ departure story, Thicker than Water. Baker starts out on now typically summery form – his grandfatherly rehabilitation continues – but gradually morphs into giving a very compelling, dynamic performance as his Doctor gets slowly more and more frightened by the existential nature of that which threatens him. This leads him back towards his pleasingly brash and abrasive self on occasion, but never losing that quintessential warmth underneath. Maggie Stables is, obviously, excellent (“well, that’ll help, being smug. Well done” and one of the best comments on the Doctor’s character: “the sillier your stories get, the more serious I know the situation is”), and like the Doctor she is pushed into a rather unusual place as she gets puts into a trance; she hasn’t really been monstered hitherto, and it’s good to see Stables get to do something pretty different, but it isn’t long before she’s back to being as heroic as she’s ever been, standing down a fleet of missiles for the Doctor’s sake.

Of the other characters, Martha Cope as Tanya Oswin (the Valiant’s captain) is tiresomely officious, but no doubt intentionally so (“oh, the limitations of the military mind”). And, of course, because it’s a Briggs script, we get a Briggs character, in this instance Trevor Ridgely, captain of the Ivy Lee steam train in 1952, and sounding much posher than he usually does; Ridgely is a surprisingly great character, a stuck-up but quirky man whose monologue at his silent colleague Palmer, as he tries to construct a formula to work out how the notoriously passive man will react to his attempts to be as annoying as possible, is actually quite funny; his prattling rapport with Evelyn is great fun, too.

Dalek Empire and its attendant trappings are clearly still buzzing around Briggs’ brain, because the concept of the aircraft carrier Valiant (Russell, you sneaky man!), policing the outer reaches of the solar system against alien Andosian raiders, all on high alert etc, feels like it could’ve been lifted from Alby and Suz’s adventures. What Briggs does here though is to couple it with a very old-school bit of historical drama in a way that he can only do in Doctor Who rather than Dalek Empire, and which he clearly relishes returning to. As I said re: Something Inside, Briggs has nailed how to direct space-opera stories, and the quality of his direction here is no exception. The setting in question is the Valiant, orbiting Pluto in 2197 (does that seem a tiny bit early to anyone else? My bet would be on the 2500s, but who knows eh), and as you’d expect the atmosphere is rich – but all the more so when Briggs couples this space-age setting with a creepy 1950s-era bell tolling out. The sheer incongruity of this juxtaposition (a space war with Damocles fighters, and an English steam train on an insignificant railway line) is a key part and parcel of the story: the extraordinary and the epic, the mundane and personal, bound together not by remarkable visuals – as you’d imagine with some mirror or portal in a TV story – but by unnerving sounds.

Why a bell? After all, a signal bell is not the most obvious sound associated with a train (that would be either the chugging or the whistle, surely?). And why is the Doctor so taken aback and scared by the sound of a bell? There is, of course, an enormous amount of symbolism associated with a tolling bell that goes far above and beyond a train signal. As one of Armstrong’s colleagues on the Valiant jokes, there’s the well-known John Donne line, quoted above, and subsequently Ernest Hemingway’s great novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). Bells toll at funerals, yes, and thus they can unnerve us because they remind us of our own mortality. But more originally, they were a summons, a call to gather; the very idea of the bell tolling for somebody is meant to remind us that Death is calling us to him. As one of those afflicted by the bell-ringing states, “it wasn’t just a sound.” It functions as a memento mori – and an atmospheric one at that.

It’s a very intriguing and ambitious premise, as is the idea of a fifty-billon-year-old door which leads to nowhere, both of which draw the listener in quite effectively. The tension builds quite slowly in the first half, with increasing mystery and no hint of any answers, but the slower pace is well-done and doesn’t bore, and the change in tone between the two locales is an effective way of keeping things fresh. “The door to nowhere” itself has a twisted existential fairy-tale feel to it, lifting the ambiance above and beyond that of a mere base under siege: it’s both scary and yet very simple to understand even for a young child. The door standing in the middle of open space, hanging with nothing to support it, is a properly potent, even nightmarish image: bravo. And then there are Evelyn’s visions: a gigantic mouth opening wide so that it can swallow up the screaming faces, and speaking the words “Time’s End” over and over. That’s a genuinely extreme, hyperbolic vision (the kind of craziness Donne might have done actually)…

…and so this makes it all the more strange that the second half veers into what feels like a Doctor Who version of The Thirty-Nine Steps, or perhaps one of the lesser-known Agatha Christies (and note how Evelyn gets to play Miss Marple!): two men on a small night train, carrying War Office documents of national importance, on a sort of surreptitious Cold War mission at a fictional secret base named after a Lincolnshire village. Connecting the two settings (aside from the tolling of the bell) is the fact that they are both manned vehicles with some kind of important task to carry out, but not much else. And then we get the bombshell that this man from the 1950s has been doodling spaceships on his crosswords and dreaming about rocket propulsion – and that these scribbles will one day bear fruit, like da Vinci’s sketches of helicopters. The plotting that helps the segue between the two – sent back in time to cut off mankind’s gift for space travel at the root – is smart, and the fact that it’s a slightly buffoonish stiff-upper-lip chap on a train who turns out to be so crucial to the future is typical Doctor Who.

The last part is where things get a little muddied, as Briggs breaks the show-don’t-tell rule a couple of times (Evelyn and Tamsin describing in every detail the Doctor’s TARDIS “parked” just next to the door to nowhere is the audio equivalent of being able to see the strings). Colin Baker does a grand, echoey job speaking to the nothingness behind the door, but one can’t help feeling that The Nowhere Place is starting to collapse under the weight of its own ambitions. It’s messy, sloppily plotted, and overly reliant on jargon, but its sole remaining strength is that it is ultimately all about people being afraid to die, because they are terrified that their existence means nothing. That nowhere place, after all, is a scary thing. And the fear of being nothing can lead people to be the worst they can be. In all that final part’s muddle, this is actually pretty powerful stuff. A musing on mortality that starts as a space opera and goes through being a comic John-Buchan-style adventure towards existential horror: The Nowhere Place may not be anywhere near as tight or elegant as Creatures of Beauty, but it could hardly be more Whoish.

Other things:
I listened to this story on a train. Trainception.
“I know your planet’s history so well; it’s almost like popping in on an old friend for tea. But this time it was like stumbling in on complete strangers.”
I like that the plot contrivance of security locks being susceptible to high-frequency variations is then rather sent up by the Sixth Doctor not possessing a sonic screwdriver and thus resorting to scraping his fingernails down a metal wall. It’s nicely low-rent, even if the scene in question is a bit daft.
“You know those dreams where you go back to your home, your childhood home…and everything’s changed. You know it should be familiar, but not one thing is as you remember it, as it should be.”
I wonder which incarnation of the Doctor was the train-spotter. I can see most of them being interested in it, though maybe the Third would’ve thought it a bit beneath him.
“If we stay here, we’re just patching up a crumbling dam.”
“It was something so alien to the nature of time and space that I was instantly repelled, like an animal retreating from fire, like the fear of falling into the pit of hell. Almost as if something primal was triggered within me.” – deliberately antirational, which properly scares the Doctor.
“I’m not sure of anything anymore,” the Doctor says worriedly.
“She didn’t look Chinese though, did she? Or Russian, for that matter. Probably the lack of fur hat. Cunning disguise, eh? No fur hat. Ingenious. What will the KGB think up next?”
The Doctor’s disguise as a gruff 50s ticket inspector is good fun.
“If you [rip my ship apart], you’ll release the energies at the core of the TARDIS, and believe me, you don’t want to do that.” – a nod to Boom Town and The Parting of the Ways the previous year?
“I know fear when I see it. That’s absolute terror – etched on the face of a being who knows he’s about to die.”
“For those caught in that moment…it is an eternity, an eternity with all the chaotic forces of time and space at our disposal. An eternity where anything is possible, except reason.”
Wow, this is very similar to Singularity, with a dash of the bleak ending of Creatures of Beauty thrown in.
“No…I don’t need to know.” Great final line.

Next: 085 Red by Stewart Sheargold. I know absolutely nothing about this apart from it has a great title, a great cover, and the great Sandi Toksvig as a guest star. So my hopes are high.

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