Friday, 20 May 2016

Main Range 089. No Man's Land by Martin Day (November 2006)

There is something tremendously appropriate about the title No Man’s Land. It’s a highly rich phrase anyway, packed with meaning; it can be said with overtones of contempt (land being fought over that, ultimately, belongs to no one), or read as a comment on how the countries the soldiers were fighting for was really on behalf of the women and children back home. When used – as it more usually is – to refer to the space between opposing trenches, it has a powerful, liminal force to it; an arbitrary spatial segment agreed for the duration of hostilities to belong to nobody, a fixed cartographical distance existing merely to have shells fired across it. And so to the personal touch, because I’m sure every family has stories that go back to the Great War in some shape or form: my great-great uncle, Cpt. Evelyn Marshall (who gives me one of my middle names), was shot in the stomach by Turkish forces in what is now Mesopotamia in April 1916, because he had headed out in the middle of the night to find some of his men thought to still be lying wounded out there … in no man’s land. I find the idea that my namesake met his end somewhere explicitly defined as a negative space, a non-space, both quite upsetting and yet somehow triumphant, because he was killed not so much – as it were – on “some foreign field” (Rupert Brooke), not so much for heated, proud love of his country, but because he was trying to bring people back from no man’s land, from being no man’s people, back over the trench wall to safety and life.

There is another aspect in which No Man’s Land is an apposite title for this audio; as hinted earlier, it has a quality of litotes about it, of defining itself exclusively by absence rather than by presence. This works well for Martin Day’s ominous, moody, mature drama, which (without this sounding like too much of a backhanded compliment, though the story does sag a bit in the middle) generally underplays things and goes for fewer incidents rather than more; it is set in a military hospital a few miles away from the front, after all. This absence extends to the science-fiction qualities, which only really place this story in the “very-nearly-pure historical” bracket (there is just enough psychic meddling and temporal-metaphysical trickery around the edges to deny it that label, though even something like the Angel of Mons, a mystical archer of Agincourt, can be explained away as Dudgeon’s brain playing tricks on him, as was often the case after the publication of the story that invented the Angels). The little hints dropped here and there that these psychological experiments are being conducted by a bigger organisation, and the eventual twist that it’s the Forge, tie things nicely back into that ongoing (though currently rather moribund) story arc. The other objection, I suppose, is that it must be one of the most male-heavy stories for quite some time; it’s tempting to wave that away as understandable given the setting, though there were a considerable number of female ambulance drivers and doctors out near the front too, so I think Day could have explored that a bit further.

Not much fun for Hex right now, is it? From the bloody sieges of The Settling to the trenches of World War 1, our Scouse nurse has quite literally been in the wars of late. Day makes sure to plunge the TARDIS crew straight into the thick of things, opening with them slowly convalescing in a military hospital; but more impressively than that, he does some excellent character work for Hex in particular, showing us his discomfort at the Doctor’s apparent chumminess with the army and, like Guerrier, getting good material out of the medical/military juxtaposition. There’s also the fascinating question of what effects Brook’s brainwashing methods might have had on Hex, and how that might impact on his travels in the future. Hex shares an excellent scene with Ace in Part Two, in which the script teases out the ways in which she is becoming more like the Doctor – the Doctor as he seemed to her when they first met – and his general dissatisfaction with the thought of her directing seductive charm elsewhere, even if only as subterfuge, is a nice nod to his feelings for her which I had been hoping future stories wouldn’t ignore. The chemistry between these three is quickly making the Seventh Doctor’s stories with Ace and Hex the current highlights, just as Baker and Stables’ early magic made the Six/Evelyn stories stand out.

The sound design is sparsely, judiciously employed, eerie claustrophobia and scratchy gramophones contributing to a great atmosphere; elsewhere, the chanting of the soldiers “Die! Die! Die!” overlaid over gunshots, screaming and a moody, quasi-electronic score makes for an effective and unnerving lead in to the titles sequence. While it’s probably not deliberate, it reminded me of the fantasy novel The Wind Singer by William Nicholson, specifically its unstoppable yet beautiful army of Zars who march endlessly and continuously repeat the word “Kill!” over and over. The Daily Hate might be a touch anachronistic in 1917, but is nonetheless very striking. Depending on one’s level of gregariousness, crowds can be scary even in a completely non-military context, and so this kind of in-unison thinking-as-one is a justifiable source of terror; details like “not wasting more than 3 inches of bayonet on a German” are horribly convincing in their sincere eagerness (and note how most of the soldiers’ conversations take place over wartime tunes of “Hurrah!” and other such jollity; both appropriate yet disturbing, war’s reality juxtaposed with the boys’ own adventure some saw it as). As the story says, “a soldier without a moral compass to guide him… is one of the most frightening things in the world”. This brings us to the machinations of Lt-Colonel Brook, and his various psychological games with the men under him, which are both shockingly callous and yet bleakly prosaic; one can imagine Haig and his cabal constantly striving to work out how best to stir up hatred in their soldiers and, while they may never have resorted to electroconvulsive therapy and other emblems of the age of Freud and Jung, it’s arguable that the subtler propaganda they did use was just as insidious.

The First World War – as we now remember it – lingers on only in family anecdotes like mine, in novels of the day like All Quiet on the Western Front, and in the war poems of Owen and Sassoon (both of whom Ace mentions). Stories, like this one or Birdsong or Regeneration or countless others, can capture as much grittiness and historical accuracy as they like, but they will always have a tinge of unreality about them; for all their talent, how can Martin Day or Pat Barker or Sebastian Faulks know what it was really like? The moment at which Dudgeon confesses he doesn’t know which is the real world – war or peace – is shrewd and instructive; when one is conclusively on one side of that division, it is very hard to properly conceive of the other. But that is no reason not to try, and Martin Day’s fine First World War story about cowardice and commitment, thoughts and desires and the most secret parts of the mind, is one of many justifications for doing so. We owe the fallen that.

Other thoughts:
McCoy’s subdued performance of the “emergency shutdown Doctor” is very nice (and six senses? Intriguing…)
“Ace, tell me what you see.”/“Mildew.”/“Oh, very specific.”
Hex is “very good at wallpaper”.
There’s some good, sympathetic treatment of the “ordinary” soldiers like Private Taylor – all memories of home fish soup and how nothing back home had changed – which called to mind the enormously moving novel All Quiet on the Western Front/Im Westen Nichts Neues. And Dudgeon’s little speech – “even if you’re going up the line, you pass fields of poppies and corn. Farmers working the land. I don’t think I’ve seen so many skylarks in all my life” – is excellent (later we get Taylor dreaming of the England of Thomas Hardy, another nice touch).
“Where would any of us be if we questioned our orders?” the Doctor says ironically.
“I’m the Doctor.”/“You’re a civilian medic?”/“You could say that.”
“Smoking’s very bad for you, you know.”/“Only on the front – gives the snipers something to aim at.”
There are some great guest performances, especially Michael Cochrane, Rob Dixon and Rupert Wickham as Brook, Wood and Dudgeon respectively. 
“He is a soldier, trained to kill people with his bare hands!”/“Yeah, well he wouldn’t be any good at his job if he read Oscar Wilde and did flower arranging, would he?”
Oh, the typewriter twist is very neat, as is Wood’s identity as victim not killer.
Great moment when Dudgeon challenges the Doctor over the potential German use of the same manipulations Brook is using, and why he isn’t making that his priority too.
Great motto: "Don't confuse being peaceful with being passive."
"Too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly use", Wood's smear against Dudgeon, is taking from 1 Corinthians.
Lovely line from Ace: “As I get older, I suppose I should miss [my family], but the Doctor – and even you – you’ll do for now.”
“We want answers, Doctor.”/“Well, yes, I suppose we all do, deep down, but I tend to find you get the best answers if you lower your rifles.”
Is the resolution to the Part 3 cliff-hanger a cheat? Maybe, but The Caves of Androzani uses it too.
“You would do well to ponder the need for blindfolds at executions. The blindfold is not the victim. It’s for the benefit of the firing squad. Most people find it impossible to look someone in the eyes and end their life.” – both a great bit of war psychology and a strong callback to The Happiness Patrol.
“Blimey, Doc, you nearly killed us!”/“I know, fun isn’t it?”
How awesome is McCoy’s laugh as he hops on the motorbike!?
“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle” – the Doctor, quoting Edmund Burke.
“Everyone we’ve met is a figure in history. Your history. Your past. And as soon as we get back to the TARDIS, they’ll become that once more. Names in books and letters and museums, carved on village memorials.”

Next: 090 Year of the Pig by Matthew Sweet. I make no bones about the fact I’ve not yet read any Proust, so encountering “Doctor Who does Proust” should be interesting.

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