Thursday, 11 August 2016

Main Range 093. Renaissance of the Daleks based on a story by Christopher H. Bidmead (March 2007)

A traditional way of knowing a Doctor Who story is in trouble is if there’s a ruckus about who actually wrote it or not - as though there’s some embarrassment about owing up to being the author of the mess that results. This is true for Attack of the Cybermen; by and large, it’s true here (one key exception is The Brain of Morbius). Director John Ainsworth’s comments suggest that he and Exec Producer Nick Briggs had to perform a significant amount of rewriting to get the story in under time once Bidmead’s proposed version fell regrettably short in quality but overlong in duration. He laments the fact that people often blame the rewriters rather than the original mess, as though they have somehow made it worse when he assures us this is not the case. Mr Bidmead, presumably, feels otherwise, demanding his name be taken off (though Ainsworth suggests that Bidmead only ever read half of the rewritten episode one, so it’s not clear he was even fully aware of what had been changed). If Bidmead was so dissatisfied with the end product, though, why did he even allow his name on the thing at all, even if it’s just a “from a story by” credit? Everyone’s still going to refer to him as the author, if only for brevity. So he’ll end up attracting more of the flak for bad reviews than he would have done if he’d taken his name properly off. Oh well.

Frequently hokey, incomprehensible, full of dodgy accents, with weird continuity nods to The Dalek Invasion of Earth and minimal sense of pacing or logicIs this the messiest story since Minuet in Hell? In a similar manner, it has about five million ideas (one or two of them even good ones!) and no sense of how to put them together. The production is uncertain, too, with its tone all over the place, scenes intercut far too quickly for any sense of location or atmosphere to be established, and a number of iffy performances (even Davison doesn’t sound like he cares that much). For better or for worse, this feels like Big Finish in its very early days - which I suppose it is in a way, given the handover. Maybe, if the audio equivalent of Keith Boak’s notoriously poor first production block in 2004 was Minuet in Hell or The Land of the Dead, this is the first hiccup of the new regime: The Beast Below or Victory of the Daleks hitting a production/budget crunch, perhaps.

One feels for Messrs Ainsworth and Briggs, tasked with having to rewrite this, because even with their no doubt thorough edits, there are countless lines of terrible dialogue or groanworthy phrasings (Tillington comparing predictions of a Dalek invasion to “harbingers of doom”); perhaps there were simply too many to get rid of them all. Then there’s the slapdash plotting: Nyssa’s brief excursion on the Knights-Templar-occupied Greek island of Rhodes in 1320, then a Civil War battle in 1864 Virginia, amounts to precious little. “The notion of Dalek-ness” is “permeating” all of time with “voices” (give me strength), planting ideas in people’s heads. There’s far, far too much technobabble. The American General Tillington whirls in out of nowhere as though we’ve missed half of Bidmead’s original set-up. The treatment of a Civil War slave is mostly perfunctory and undercooked. The Vietnam War appears for a few seconds as a rather pointless backdrop purely to introduce another character along for the ride. It’s like someone compressed The Chase into 25 minutes. The second half of the story heads in a far more Castrovolvian/Logopolitan direction (though here the setting is the not-quite-as-concise “Pan-Temporal Ambience”), but doesn’t really rescue the frustrating mess this has become.

Like all frustrating messes, mind, it’s riddled with some good bits. For instance, I like Alice falling asleep in the Zero Room murmuring “freedom, justice, honour” while two soldiers from two other wars look on; if the Daleks represent military justification and determination to fight one’s enemy to the death, then they really are everywhere in history at once. I like Floyd’s terror at meeting Daleks “giving me orders” now that he’s a newly-freed man. I do in principle like nano-Daleks, and toy Daleks coming to life, though I maintain it was done much better in Jubilee. I like the more high-concept setting of the Pan-Temporal Ambience in principle (a vantage point from which all of a particular timeline can be viewed), Daleks stacked into towers is a lovely visual concept, and the Greylish is an intriguing creation that’s nicely voiced by Briggs (though introducing it as the Big Part Three cliff-hanger dramatically misfires: the audience response is… er… what’s a Greylish?).

It strikes me that this must be how some New-Who-critics perceive the bigger, zanier, messier scripts set in various times and places, content to introduce characters briefly then dispose of them, a random crack-team of assorted personages from Earth’s history. But (though not everyone on this forum will think this) RTD and Moffat are solid entertainers, write funny jokes, and usually have a handle on whatever their principal theme is; they trust the majority of the audience will follow them and most of them do. Bidmead at his best was never usually all three of those things at once, and here it seems he’s none of them - or not fully, anyway. It doesn’t feel like a full-blooded Bidmead story, to be fair, despite some of his usual hallmarks; perhaps he was asked to deliver something he wasn’t used to? Perhaps he couldn’t adapt to audio? Given its troubled production, though, I assume Briggs and Ainsworth did their best with this but eventually had to push it out on schedule with the rather disappointing sense that it was mostly unfinished and undercooked. As with other messes like Zagreus, there’s something charming about how recklessly ambitious Renaissance of the Daleks is - zipping from Rhodes to Virginia to London to Vietnam - but I couldn’t in all conscience call it ‘good’.

Other things:
New covers. Not sure how I feel about them - I’m sure they’ll get better but this one has the blandest cover art of all time. Great title too, though like at least one of the 80s R-titles, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense.
“My nephew will be thrilled to meet you - loves all that time-travel gadgetry!”
“You seem to have kidnapped me.”/“Relocated you, Doctor.”/Ah, relocated. It’s the handcuffed to a chair thing that fooled me.”
A trailer voice, Daleks remade as toys… this is a Big Finish story which resorts to plundering the company’s back-catalogue of nostalgic Dalek stories (Jubilee), let alone ones which actually had Jon Pertwee in them.
“As a witch, my lady, there’s much you lack.”
Christ, what is with Richie Campbell’s victory whoop?
“War is horrible enough, but incompetent war is an abomination.”
I like the Zero Room mentions - one of the Bidmead hallmarks (“Zero Room? On account of how much furniture they have in it?”). Things like “actinoidal energy”, “Time-Line Technicians”, “skyscooters”, and “pocket interociters” are also quite Bidmead-ian.
“Are you guys C.I.A.?”/“Pending a fuller explanation, hold that thought.”
“YOU - WILL - COME - WITH - US - TO - OUR - CITY!”/“Or…?”/“YOU - WILL - BE - EXTERMINATED.”/“Just checking.”
“If they exterminate us, I’ll be astonished.”/“If they exterminate you, you’ll be too dead to be astonished.”/“There’s a certain logic in that, yes.”
The Three Blind Mice sequence is excruciating; glad to see John Ainsworth really didn’t like it either.
“The only flaw in your plan is you’re not allowing for me to just sit here for eternity… By just standing here and doing nothing, I’ve defeated you.”
Extra notes: I didn't know that Stewart Alexander, shortly before recording his role in this as the Sergeant, had filmed a scene as one of the workers on the top of the Empire State Building in Daleks in Manhattan.

Next: 094 I.D./Urgent Calls by Eddie Robson.

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