Friday, 26 February 2016

Main Range 086. The Reaping by Joseph Lidster (September 2006)

I’m sure one can make the argument that a number of Doctor Who companions were underserved, but arguably it wouldn’t be truer than in the case of Perpugilliam ‘Peri’ Brown. Big Finish have made a number of efforts to explore Peri further, although it is notable that the more recognisable on-screen pairing of Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant are all-too-rarely reunited in these audios (with December 2005’s Cryptobiosis the first in a long while) – in favour of Evelyn or Mel. Joseph Lidster’s The Reaping, then, feels like a breath of fresh air simply because it also feels so perfectly like a Season 22 story – with the JNT-style foreign setting, the old enemies, and the Doctor/companion pairing all just as they should be. It just also happens to be a story that puts Peri front-and-centre in the manner of the best character-driven audio dramas.
Nicola Bryant obviously has a great deal of fun playing the “younger” Peri – before we know her, in a hotel in 1984 Lanzarote with her mother and stepfather. She’s pleasingly sarcastic and mischievous, in a way that’s even more pronounced than her early years of travel with the Doctor, and Lidster/Bryant capture this side of her pretty well; it feels very much of a piece with her characterisation elsewhere – just look at her very subdued “yeah, it’s cool” in response to the Doctor’s enthusiasm early on in this story. It’s not just 1984, though, as she begins this story in the far future – during an era in which people access recorded media via something called the Gogglebox (the future thus resembles the interior workings of Channel 4 some point after 2013; nice prediction!)…which is in the centre of the moon, because why not?! It’s these sorts of brash imaginative moves that Lidster can really excel at when he goes for it (some of the bolder ideas in Terror Firma spring to mind, too) – and makes a neat timey-wimey reason for us to go back to Peri’s former life, as she sees a news broadcast from 1984 and begs the Doctor to take her back to Baltimore (very nicely echoed towards the story’s end, too).

This segues into a rich exploration of the family Peri left behind and their grief when she disappeared – just like Russell T Davies does with Rose in Aliens of London/World War Three*. The setup is mined for some dramatic character work: instances such as Peri begging the Doctor “don’t turn this into something. This is my home, yeah? My family. My friends. Don’t turn it into some big adventure”, or the frosty reception she receives from her mother, or her tearful graveside farewells to Anthony Chambers, linger in the mind afterwards. Claudia Christian is great as her mother Janine (the blessings of authentic American accents!), playing something of the Jackie Tyler role – but there’s a great section where she takes charge in the second episode that leaves you punching the air. Time-travel has dislocated our chirpy botanist friend, and ripped her savagely from her roots, to the extent that she cannot really go back; the scenes of Peri listening to her best friend and her mother tear her into little pieces in a way far worse than monsters ever could are a little clunky, but also terribly heartbreaking. Bryant properly runs the range of emotions in this story; the moment where she tries to sum up their relationship is another highlight of the story – another indication of how far they’ve come since The Twin Dilemma. And while this is not a particularly demanding audio for Colin Baker in terms of his range, he still gets to give us a wonderfully cheeky, dynamic and likeable take on his Time Lord – one that’s reasonably close to his TV persona but with just a little dash of extra warmth.

Oh, and there’s some Cybermen, appearing in a graveyard as they are wont to do. Poor old Anthony Chambers arising from his coffin as a silver giant is the imagery of nightmares, to be sure, but it’s fascinating how similar this kind of body horror is to that which Steven Moffat will deploy in Death in Heaven (“the dead will walk” etc, looting the graves) – I know opinion is split on the effectiveness in the latter instance in particular, but it’s interesting to consider that these two stories are much more alike than, say, the action-movie bluster of the graveyard scene in The Next Doctor. There are even parallels in that a major character’s father is ‘monstered’, even if Anthony Chambers is a mere pinprick in Doctor Who’s history compared to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and even if the “it is…dad” moment means that this story never quite escapes the long, long shadow of Spare Parts (a shadow of which we are further reminded by a brief cameo from Commander Zheng). The Cybermen are at their best in the earlier phases of the story – all horrifying atmosphere and shadows – but still hold their own once we reach the “it-was-all-a-trap-for-the-Doctor” twist, which is a lot more interesting than a Virus McGuffin. There’s also something rather delicious about setting a Cyberman story in 1984 (which the Doctor himself points out) – the year that everyone was supposed to conform; as you’d expect, the Doctor gets some good dialogue with the Cyberleader in which they discuss the merits of a universe based entirely on patterns and order and one that is based on chaotic emotion.

The Reaping is a more subdued urban thriller than the souped-up cyberpunk dystopia of The Harvest, and it’s a little bit more rooted in continuity, but it’s generally as effective. Hospitals, graveyards, undertakers, morgues: these are the sorts of trappings all Cybermen stories should have. Like Terror Firma – which, of all Lidster’s previous audios, it most resembles – there is a wide scope and a colourful cast of characters, plus plenty of action, mystery and intrigue, but the more subdued, more humane moments sparkle too (little things like Daniel Woods sleeping alone in the graveyard after his wife’s death, for instance; Anthony Chambers’ video message; Mrs Van Gysegham’s phone call to her husband). It’s well-scored and tightly directed by Gary Russell, and the performances are all solid, especially Nicola Bryant. Like The Harvest and their TV reintroduction of 2006, this is a modern, heartfelt Cyberman story which emphasises the humanity of people – the warmth, the tears, the banalities – as set against the vast yet somehow lesser void of Cyberkind. It is one of those rare Cybermen stories which tells a good story in its own right (Peri’s Life), a story which would be good without them, but also one which does not neglect to give their part of the story sufficient meat to justify their inclusion. These dark mirror creatures may burst into Peri’s messy, chaotic, emotional life, and wreak havoc with it, but in the end The Reaping is all about her: her tears at the way home has changed, forever, and how the universe does not stay in neat little rows and patterns as we would like; her efforts to make amends; and the way random tragedy tears her apart in a way malicious monsters never could.

Other things:
*Though since we’re drawing the parallels, it’s interesting that here it is only a few months but feels like years, whereas in Rose’s case it’s a very brief time for her but a year for everyone else. Combined with the clear parallels with Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, and the overt emphasis on emotional ramifications throughout, it’s clear that BF and the TV series are moving along roughly the same path during this period.
Ooh, a brief snatch of Storm Warning on the radio there! And possibly Red Dawn, too…
Peri’s mother, the day that her daughter joins the TARDIS: “Knowing my daughter, there’s bound to be a man involved…” Four, as it happens (Turlough, the Doctor, Howard and the Master).
“The moon? My moon?”/“Well, I don’t think it’s solely the property of Miss Perpugilliam Brown, but yes – Earth’s moon.”
Gotta love Colin’s delivery of “mankind’s momentous first meeting with the Mysterious Mim!”
Faced with being able to see all of everything, Peri chooses home. I think many of us would.
A beautiful soft guitar score accompanies Peri’s emotionally devastating return home.
The Doctor ingratiating himself with Mrs Van Gysegham is hilarious; in fact, every scene between them is a joy – in a “what-IS-this!” kind of way (the Doctor’s excuse for his overblown costume? “I’m meant to be undercover…as an American!”).
That old phrase “there is nothing to fear” returns, tying this into the Cyberman series.
“1984…it’s never as good as the book.”
The Doctor on his poisoned coffee: “you can really smell that cyanide…and usually I take mine with a little dash of milk.”
“8687” is presumably a reference to these audio’s placements in the main range.
“I’ve got coffee, and I’m not afraid to use it!” – and again, the Doctor/Peri exchange in the graveyard where she’s holding a video cassette and he’s holding cyanide-doused coffee is great.
“There is nothing to fear.”/“I’m not one to argue, but actually, there is!”
For a good voice actor, Colin Baker has one consistent blind spot: his pronunciation of “Cy-bermen!” with the emphasis far too strongly on the first syllable. I only mention it because it also crops up in his (otherwise justly lauded) “ten million years of absolute power” speech from The Ultimate Foe.
“I need to be near [my dead wife],” Daniel says, and moments later he is cut down. Brutal.
“I’d say it was some kind of pod.”/“From space?”/“No, Janine, from Arkansas. Of course it’s from space!”
“I no longer require parties.”
“The future, Doctor. You shall see it.”/“Oh, I’ve been there. Bought the T-shirt. Bought the coat!”
“The universe is chaos. We will bring order.”
“You can be very persuasive, can’t you?”, the Doctor tells the Cyberleader. “Ever considered a career in marketing?”
“These Cybermen are inferior.”/“You ALL are!” – nice little trick with Mondas there.
“You’ll miss me.”/“You’ll miss me too.” – I found this inversion terribly moving.
Good lord, I never would’ve thought that Tegan’s voice would give me goosebumps, so it’s a testament to Lidster’s words and Fielding’s delivery that I now really want to experience The Gathering.

Next: 087 The Gathering, also by Joseph Lidster.

ADDENDUM - I had a nice conversation with Joe Lidster on Twitter about this story, and this is the upshot of what he said when I mentioned the similarities with Rose in Aliens of London - so although he wasn't necessarily inspired by it, it's a story he holds in high regard:

"I’ve just checked and it looks like I was writing it towards the end of 2005 so I’d have seen it happen on TV. But I think I’d started writing it as an attempt at a Missing Adventure long before I did anything for Big Finish. I’d always thought that it was odd Peri never went home etc considering her family set-up is very clearly defined in Planet of Fire. But yeah, obviously there are similarities with the TV series but Aliens of London is still my fave Dr Who of all time :) ... In fact I remember I started writing it in 2001 because I was on a train and that had given me the idea - for some bizarre reason!"

No comments:

Post a Comment