Thursday, 11 August 2016

Main Range 092. Nocturne by Dan Abnett (February 2007)

A science-fiction version of the Renaissance going wrong; the relationship between art and catastrophe, creativity and war; a return to the theme of music; a gorgeously evocative title that’s perfect for an off-kilter Doctor Who story - there are plenty of things about Dan Abnett’s Nocturne which should make it right up my street. It’s a proper shame, then, that this fails to capture the imagination in the ways it perhaps could have done. The story features a number of good concepts, but simply doesn’t have a strong plot with which to weave them together; at the standard 4 parts/2 hours it feels rather over-stretched.

Still, it’s obvious from his first line that we’ve caught Sylvester McCoy on a good day: he’s giving an energetic, engaged performance here, and his defence of Nocturne in response to his companions’ rather sulky and teenage dislike of the place is good fun. The rapport between our 7/Ace/Hex trio is as enjoyable as ever - see Ace’s critique that the Doctor keeps them “in the dark” so that “he looks clever and we look stupid”, all in the name of “the grand reveal”. This comes back to bite them rather well, as the Doctor confesses that he should be more forthcoming about sharing information with his friends; the tender scene between him and Ace in Part Four is probably the story’s highlight, as McCoy implores her to believe him that he only brought them to Nocturne because he thought they’d like it, that he wasn’t expecting horrors of this kind, and that he will tell them everything in future (it’ll be interesting to see if the writers follow up on this, though; the behind-the-scenes extras suggest not, sadly). Hex kissing her and assuring her he’ll be there for her potentially promises something in that direction, too.

There’s still some stuff to like: Glasst City (rather like Venice, and evidently one of the Doctor’s favourite places) is a great locale, Steve Foxon’s classical-inspired sound-scape is nicely done, the backdrop of the human-Foucoo war is interesting, and the Doctor’s dictum that war often brings forth the finest art is a strong starting point for a story. As Orson Wells says in The Third Man: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” But - disappointingly - this is mostly charming backdrop rather than the story’s meat and drink; it consists primarily of fun, knowing jokes about post-pigmentism or bio-harmonics, vague comments that “every sound around us is a form of art”, or characters dropping into conversation that they’re composing a new epic or painting a new masterpiece, and then getting on with fairly banal stuff about robots going haywire. The secondary characters are merely OK: Trevor Bannister is decent as elderly composer Korbin Thessenger (and it’s funny listening to the Doctor teaming up with ‘Korbin’ in 2016). Although I’m tired of her having a new doomed crush every week, Ace does get some decent scenes with Will Alloran as he takes her round Glasst City; his description of the horrors of war is one of the story’s stronger moments, and builds on No Man’s Land rather neatly.

Eventually it becomes clear that “sonic disruption” unleashed by Lomas Alloran is responsible - music that kills, another sound-creature as in Whispers of Terror. But if any of this builds to anything, it seems to suggest that certain art forms are too dangerous to dabble in, and this is an oddly conservative attitude for a Doctor Who writer to take. Perhaps desperation does bring forth the best art; perhaps such prolific periods only flower when life is at its grimmest. Even if that’s true, what exactly is Nocturne saying about all this?* That art is the only way we can get through horror? But that some art adds to the horror? That art can be used to fight back? It’s all a bit of a jumble, direction, editing and post-production work included, and when combined with a slight plot and secondary characters who are never especially developed, this is more of a feeble tune than a masterpiece.

Other things:
The DiscContinuity Guide suggests that a number of the names in this story evoke artistic concepts, though I’m not entirely clear on this. Tanza: stanza? Tanz/dance? Foucoo: fugue? Foucault? Familiars: medieval familiars? The Sagrada Familia? All a bit vague, if you ask me.
The opening is a typical example of a hopelessly confused, unengaging audio sequence: beginning with the TARDIS arriving on Nocturne would have been much better.
“I’ve always been fond of the human race; there’s something about loss and suffering that brings out the best in it.”
Fun nod to Vogon poetry from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy - terrible lyric as torture.
“You on the other hand don’t appear to have changed in the slightest, which is a change.”
I like the use of the Germanic title “Oberst” for Cate Reeney, and “Veldt” to describe the wasteland.
“What is THAT?”/“Well, it’s not art!”
“So, you use the ‘I’m-just-back-from-war’ stuff to impress women, do you?”/“No, I use it to explain why I’m limping.”/“Oh, well, I didn’t mean - I really seem to be putting my foot in it, don’t I? Not that I’m boasting in any way about having a spare foot to do anything with. Oh God, is there any way you’d be prepared to ignore everything I just said?”
Hex as a model? Fun nod to Philip Olivier’s background.
“This is going to be a working holiday after all.”/“Do you see the slightest surprise on my face?”
Ace: “I’m just a menace to decent society, aren’t I?”
“We’ll find a quiet reading room and start studying.”/“This is getting to be more and more like my school trip to Venice.”
“I went to war and never even took my weapon off safety.” - a moving detail.
“The truth’s a funny thing: when I speak it, people tend not to believe me.”
The third episode cliff-hanger is nicely effective, as Will continues to play his composition with rising intensity…
“In the future, I’ll make sure I tell you.”/“I thought this was the future.”
“No art, however perfect, should be valued over life.”
“The muse does so like to stalk me.”/“Let’s hope it’s just the muse.”
It’s not a particularly good performance of the Midnight Sonata, is it?
The ‘Charge of the Leitmotif’ gag is the story’s best, although there isn’t exactly a surfeit of them.
“That’s the splendid thing about time travel - it’s never the end of an era.” (a Big Finish slogan, almost?)
“Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark! What discord follows!” - which Hex mistakenly assumes is one of Ragpole’s witticisms, rather than a Midsummer Night’s Dream quote, perhaps because he was off in Venice that day…
Nice little extras; I wonder if all Briggs-era releases have these fifteen-minute featurettes at the end, in which cast and crew talk about their experience working on the story. My favourite part was McCoy noting that Hex is, more or less, Ace's companion, and McCoy and Aldred griping about the new series being given credit for things that the old series had already done (i.e. Ace being the first feisty companion, Daleks going up stairs, etc).

Next: 093 Renaissance of the Daleks, from a story by Christopher H. Bidmead. Unexcited about the Daleks returning, but I do like Bidmead’s 80s work, so we’ll see. And not strictly relevant, but the trailer for Horror of Glam Rock sounds *amazing*!

*It's been suggested to me that the principal theme of Nocturne is that one shouldn't value art over the life it mirrors; this seems apt. It certainly holds true for Lomas Alloran and, to an extent, Lillian, who gets knocked unconscious for her pains. But I still don't think it's necessarily covered very well: these characters were by and large meddling with things they don't understand, so it doesn't hit home that they were particularly prioritising art over life. A figure properly, maliciously behind the "sonic disruption" for instance - a human villain - would really have sold that whole "you have your priorities wrong" thing. Like Harrison Chase in The Seeds of Doom, but with art v human life instead of plants! As it stands, it's more that the characters are pretty unwitting - they unleashed these forces by error. Still, it's interesting enough that we can have this discussion, which is more than one can say for some Doctor Who stories!

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