Saturday, 12 March 2016

Main Range 088. Memory Lane by Eddie Robson (October 2006)

“It’s not like when I was young.”/“No, it never is, is it?”

Eddie Robson’s Memory Lane is one of Doctor Who’s most beautiful and elegant marriages of the domestic and the surreal. The opening sets the tone for all this, and is a thing of wonder: the familiar electronic Eighth Doctor theme fades into a tinny ice-cream-van rendition of Greensleeves, birdsong, the click of knitting needles and the warm chatter of snooker commentary, while young Tom Braudy builds a spaceship out of Lego. And then Doctor Who, the television programme, appears in the living room. Sure, it’s technically some footage of a spaceship crew, but for all intents and purposes this is the replication of childhood, complete with ice cream vans, Lego, and Doctor Who on the telly; it doesn’t need to get any clearer or more brazen than this, right?…except, of course, it does, when the TARDIS promptly materialises in front of the TV and the Doctor, Charley and C’rizz emerge. Like a lot of the boldest and weirdest audio dramas (Jubilee, The Kingmaker), the paraphernalia of the show itself runs deep through Memory Lane’s DNA – right down to quirky little touches such as the Sky Ray Lollies and their accompanying trading cards, or the TARDIS itself being a dated object from back when there were more policemen on the beat. This is the audio equivalent of a camera zoom down from space to the confines of Rose Tyler’s flat – finding that marvellous intersection between everyday life and the portal to Faerie, the gateway to a magical, dangerous world.

The everyday life in this story is not exactly what you might call banal, however, for Memory Lane takes place on a single never-ending street where all the houses, gardens, curtains and inhabitants are absolutely identical: a classic example of taking one of suburbia’s most notorious features and exaggerating it to beautifully Doctor Whoish proportions. Robson carefully peels back the layers of this elaborate set-up, at first going no further than permitting the spaceship crewmembers from the television to cross over into the “real” world in the manner of Tom Stoppard’s equally bonkers play The Real Inspector Hound (where characters cross from the audience onto the stage with reckless abandon). And just as that play skilfully blurred the lines between actor and critic, so does this story blur the line between the ordinary “everyday” world and the fantastical.

Memory Lane’s everyday domesticity is a false one, one based only on memories of what the past sort of looked like if you squinted…a place where Doctor Who was on the telly every week but where children could always pretend that their attic was a spaceship. Where, just maybe, the everyday life was a lie and the stuff going on in the telly – with spaceships and foul creatures from deep space – was the truth. This metafictional element to Robson’s story (in which an endless looping cycle revolves around a child’s memories of a fantasy-world, clearly inspired by real-life childhood memories of watching Doctor Who) predates Steven Moffat’s various takes on much the same idea by a few years*. And this nostalgia, this “pain of memory”, is deadly…delusional…infantilising. It keeps you safe and warm like a comfortable blanket, but of course it isn’t real, it limits you and makes you regress, and ultimately it hurts you. It means you lose track of time and that reality passes you by. This always-sunny childhood memory prison in which Tom Braudy has been sealed seems more humane than the Cube in Something Inside, but is in many ways far more insidious.

I suspect that McGann, Fisher and Westmaas are well aware that not all the scripts that land on their desks are this good, because they sound very enthused with the material indeed. Quintessentially British whimsy suits McGann’s Doctor down to the ground, so he’s on great form, but it’s also a great story for C’rizz, who gets stuck in with the astronaut side of the plot fairly early on; the chameleonic way in which he absorbs bits of people’s personalities and carries them with him is put to great use here as it destabilises the cells of the prison – it’s an attribute that’s worth exploring further. Robson’s treatment of Charley is also one of the first in a while to have recaptured some of her old qualities – her Edwardian turn of phrase, for one thing, but also the little-girl-in-a-fairytale shtick, as we get to see the world of Lucentra infantilising Charley as well as Tom the astronaut (cue a lovely reappearance from Anneke Wills as Charley’s mother and a nice reference to Edith the maid). Her character’s potential is enhanced so much when you add her class and historical context into the mix, so it’s good to see a story or two that actually capitalises on that. Nina Baden-Semper and Neil Reidman do great work as the immortal grandmother Mrs Braudy and her “grandson” Tom (roles that could, by their nature, have very easily become one-note or repetitive). They’re ably accompanied by an atmospheric score and solid direction (particularly the wild whooping noises of the Lucentrans), making this a production that sounds as good as it obviously looked on the page; the only slipup is Gary Russell’s anaemic handling of the Part Two cliff-hanger, and the only cast-members that aren’t as engaging as the others are Neville Watchurst and Charlie Ross as Argot and Lest. If I had to make another complaint, it would probably be that the story’s quick-moving, complex second half doesn’t quite have the sheer elegant mystery to it that you get in the first half, but the disparity isn’t huge and, as we all know, answers are never quite as interesting as questions.

Eddie Robson is clearly a welcome addition to the BF writers’ stable; he nails the show’s humour and weirdness and scale, combining it (in this story, at least) with a spot-on portrayal of childhood that is still somehow soaked in melancholia. He clearly understands that the key thing to nostalgia is that it feels like the thing you’re trying to evoke, even if it’s not exactly the same. That’s why food (ice-cream, fish fingers, roast pork with all the trimmings) and music (Greensleeves, Blue Danube) are always so important in these kind of stories (see also: Rob Shearman’s The Chimes of Midnight and its famous plum pudding; and, of course, Nigel Slater’s much-lauded memoir Toast): how a thing felt, how it tasted, how it sounded, brings these memories flooding back. That’s what Big Finish is for, really – evoking the classics and retaining some of their texture, even whilst being fresh and brand new. Memory Lane is probably the single most inventive Doctor Who story that still feels comfortingly like you’ve kind of heard it before, like it’s always been part of the programme’s DNA, and that is high praise indeed. Nostalgia, after all, is our version of time travel, and thus it can take you anywhere: it can mean you get endlessly locked up in the same prison cell, or it can mean you bask in the warm glow of something wonderful…if only for a short time.

Other things:
*Robson also pre-empts Moffat’s Series 6 fascination with the iconography of an Apollo astronaut, though I don’t know if the latter stems from The Ambassadors of Death or this story’s gorgeous/funny/sinister cover.
“They didn’t have it when your mum was little.”
“Space Lego isn’t for girls. Girls like building hair, dresses and flower shops, not rockets and satellites and all that good stuff.” – So of course the most significant, proactive astronaut we spend our time with is Kim; nicely played.
“You should never turn down tea when it’s offered. It’s impolite, and impoliteness is how wars start.”/“A war because somebody turned down tea? Has that ever actually happened, ever?”/“On fourteen occasions I can think of.”/“Oh, right – when we get back in the TARDIS I’m going to ask you for documentary evidence of each of those.”/“Well, maybe it wasn’t quite fourteen…”
“Who has a Whippy without a flake?”/“Chocaphobics?”
“C’rizz, you’re just meant to lick it, not shove it all in one go. Eurgh, you’re so parochial.” – great line, touching on Charley’s rarely-dwelt-upon Edwardian snobbery, and C’rizz reusing it later (like the chameleonic Eutermesan he is) is the icing on the cake.
The Doctor, on a joke about Attila the Hun: “It’s kind of funnier if you knew him.”
“They make these things with a stun setting, but nobody ever thinks to include a wake-up setting, do they?”
“The TARDIS has been stolen by an ice-cream man…?”
“Either you’re stronger than you look or I should get a refund on those cuffs.”
“Your guess is as good as mine…well, actually, my guess probably is better than yours, but regardless of that, I don’t know!”
“You have such a vivid imagination!”/“I didn’t imagine it. This all happened for real.”
“What is it with the TARDIS and prisons recently?” C’rizz says, comparing this audio to Something Inside (although it’s a slightly clunky reference, and could probably have been excised).
“What was that?”/“I shall find out by using my super Time Lord powers of looking out of the window!”
Love the bit where Charley and her mother kinda listen to a Doctor Who audio drama on the radio and think it’s nonsense…
“Revenge is a dish best left to go cold and then thrown in the kitchen bin. Trust a Doctor: prevention is better than cure.” (Great line)

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