Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Main Range 087. The Gathering by Joseph Lidster (September 2006)

The Gathering is the second part of a Cyber-duology by Joseph Lidster to be released in September 2006, though it is simultaneously the first from the Doctor’s perspective, the third from our perspective, and the middle one of three from the Cybermen’s perspective and from the point of view of chronological order (bloody hell, Joe!). Yes, this “wraps up” a loose trilogy also comprising The Harvest and The Reaping, although I think it’s fair to say that ‘loose’ is very much the operative word – the two Lidster stories are properly entangled together, whereas The Harvest (understandably given it came out in 2004) has a more tenuous connection to the other two. We’re thus denied the neatness of the Excelis trilogy or the unobtrusive thematic arc of the Black Guardian trilogy, as instead we get a top-heavy pairing and a less related third act…which makes for an odd sequence, let’s be honest, though it’s potentially better in chronological or Doctor order.
But The Gathering is an unfortunate oddity in other ways, playing the now-redundant role of a coda to Tegan Jovanka’s time with the Doctor. Lidster sets the story in 2006, more than twenty years after she first said goodbye to life on board the TARDIS, and in her native Brisbane in Australia. As I understand it, this was thought by all involved (including Lidster and Fielding) to be the last ever Tegan story – a one-off lap of honour – but its status as such has since been rather usurped by Fielding’s return to join the Fifth Doctor in other audios. This story is therefore trapped in a rather strange limbo, not quite achieving its original purpose (and relying on creaky coincidence to have to fulfil said purpose!) but still serving as a pre-emptive look at where the Tegan we know will end up.

There’s probably one simple reason why The Reaping was a stronger story, though, and that’s that its characters were more engaging. Eve, Michael, James, Jodi etc. in this story don’t especially stand out in the way the clearly-drawn figures in Lidster’s first play did (Michael and the Doctor end up in a rather dull side-plot of their own). On the plus side, Kathy Chambers at least is more distinctive than everyone else – her general bitterness and fear of the Doctor in particular work well – and of course, Tegan we know far better than any of these other characters. But then we run up against a wall, in my view, which is that Tegan isn’t all that great. Peri is immensely likeable and well-characterised in a lot of her stories, and occasionally even has the odd tragic dimension to her character. But Tegan…I never had much time for Tegan. It’s not that I want every friend of the Doctor’s to be full of wide-eyed admiration for him (suspicion and conflict are great, and as a case in point I like both Ace and Clara), but her dour, hostile presence throughout the Fifth Doctor’s era always made her one of my least favourite of his friends.

This raises an interesting question, though: why do we need our characters to be likeable? Perhaps Tegan Jovanka had good reason to be bad-tempered. As the marvellous feminist critic Roxane Gay puts it, we don’t read to make friends, and as a society we have unrealistic expectations particularly of female characters that they should be all sunniness and light and acquiescence (because brooding emotional angst is what happens to men, obviously). Sure, Tegan puts me off in many ways, but I don’t think she has to fulfil some box-ticking likeability quota to be an interesting presence in a story, and sure enough, she is a more interesting person here than she was on board the TARDIS (where, frankly, I found her both unlikeable and uninteresting). Her internalised bitterness and disillusionment at life’s banalities – relatively new territory – as set against the Doctor’s utter obliviousness at what she’s been through, and his rather high-and-mighty expectation that she “do more”, is a very effective emotional beat. The addition of her fatal tumour adds some pathos to her otherwise banal life in Brisbane. Fielding ups her game admirably with a good, well-rounded performance, and there are plenty of nice little moments (her noting that Turlough, like her, eventually went home; and, despite myself, I approve of her stuffing his celery in his mouth!). Their final scene together is a gem, blowing apart the rather silly idea that Tegan had been in love with the Doctor, but also reiterating her worth and sense of self, and her commitment to making the best of what remains of her life.

The second half of the story – as in The Reaping, really – is rather weaker than the first, as we have to shift from Lidster’s interest in dysfunctional relationships to the somewhat limp and anticlimactic Cyber-plot. Like last time round, it is the emotional essence of the characters which is most interesting, but it is not always neatly fitted to the sci-fi trappings. Of the three stories, this sees the Cybermen at their most disposable, simply a lattice for a conversion storyline that ties into both Nate Chambers (The Reaping) and System (The Harvest). The Gathering has a number of weaknesses, not all of them entirely Lidster’s fault (Dait Abuchi’s poor performance, for example). But it is also genuinely interesting for the way it rehabilitates Tegan and does new things with her character, showing us a flawed, broken woman trying to live her life anew even as she is surrounded by bits of debris from her youth. Her life does not revolve around the Doctor, even though he was tremendously important in it. She is annoying and grumpy and difficult. And she is also strong and tough and beautiful. And she has a very brave heart. Happy International Women’s Day.

Other things:
Joe tells me that a certain 2006 TV episode "is what really pushed me into the “people thinking Tegan loved the Doctor but OBVIOUSLY she didn’t” bit. I knew it had to be very different to Sarah Jane in School Reunion." So again - the RTD series has its impact.
Nice to see some authentic Australian actors here – between this, The Reaping and Singularity, we’ve certainly had fewer dodgy foreign accents of late.
I like that the author appears as (the head of) a Cyber-converted body on the cover!
This is also one of the few “contemporary” BF releases, I think, being both set and released in September 2006.
“You shouldn’t smoke, you know. It’s actually bad for you.”/“Really? God, they kept that quiet!”
Anyone else knew James Clarke would turn out bad the moment he said “there’s nothing to worry about” and “you will be like us” in casual conversation?
In stark contrast to the Seventh Doctor’s propensity for grand entrances, the Fifth’s in this story is rather swallowed by the Kathy backstory which surrounds it.
“more degrees than a thermometer” (ha!)
The Doctor’s cosying up to Eve is humorously reminiscent of his rapport with Mrs Van Gysegham in The Reaping.
“Is that the man without an appointment?”/“You know, I think you just summed me up beautifully.”
Fun though they are, I’m not sure that the Gogglebox and the clone Alan who’s a fan of the Doctor were necessarily worth the second appearance.
“There’s no records of you travelling alone!”/“I’ve left my friends in Monte Carlo.” – ah, so this story is contemporaneous with The Veiled Leopard.
“Er, hello, Tegan. Surprise?” the Doctor offers weakly at her birthday party.
“All human beings do nostalgia – it’s your version of time travel.”
I’ve just realised that every single one of Joe’s BF stories involves a party/clubbing/going out of some kind (even Master).
“What do you do? Tourism? Something travel-related?”/“We supply animal feed to farmers.”/“Oh, that’s…necessary.”
I hate celery!” (and so does Peter Davison, apparently).
“This is my life! This is what I do! I work and I sleep. That’s it. You thought I’d what? Save the world? Feed all the starving kids in Africa? Be the next James Bond? Doctor, I’m just like everyone else here. This is what our world is.”/“Well, I think that’s quite depressing.”/“Oh, you do, do you? Doctor, after I left you, what was I meant to do? Nothing could compare to that. One minute I’m out there, I’m seeing everything, the next it’s taxes and bills and buying bread. This is what life is: people bitching about each other at a party where nobody really likes anyone but they’re just doing what they can to – I don’t know – to survive.”
Cheeky nod to Billie Piper on the radio there.
“Animal feed? Well, I’m sure otherwise you’re an interesting person.”
“I know what life is like with him. You’ve got to move on. You’ve got to leave it all behind him and move on.”
“I work for humanity.”/“Really? So do I. Pay’s not too good, is it?”
Peter Davison’s laugh at the word “magic” is great.
The contrived Hex monologue at the story’s end backfires in my view, as it just reminded of the ill-fitting relationship this duology of stories has to The Harvest.

Next: the Eighth Doctor returns in 088 Memory Lane by debut writer Eddie Robson.

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