Friday, 12 August 2016

Main Range 094. I.D./Urgent Calls by Eddie Robson (April 2007)

094a. I.D.
Eddie Robson’s first story Memory Lane did show a tendency to get a bit inelegant and rushed in the second-half-plotting but that can mostly be forgiven due to how damn enjoyable the whole set-up was. I.D. doesn’t boast quite the same qualities: the beautiful atmosphere of that dreamy, nostalgic suburbia gives way here to a techno-junkie scrapyard “where computers come to die” in Obsoletion Valley on the 32nd century, and the tinkling tune of Greensleeves is replaced by a plethora of robot Scandroid voices. It’s an interesting enough vision of the future - tech-heavy with its “organic digital transfers” right into the brain, and raising the moral dilemmas of identity theft and personality alteration - but risks becoming very dry, earnest and (dare I say it) “hard SF” without sufficient energy to animate the storyline. To combat this, Robson fills the 3 bite-size episodes (not too much overrunning here, definitely in the story’s favour) with some quotable lines and a variety of eccentric characters. Though none of them leap off the page a great deal (the mother-and-son data pirates team in particular could be more vivid than it is), partly down to the hectic pace which rather stops us from spending much time with them, nothing with Gyles Brandreth and Colin Baker in it is completely a waste of time. It’s slight, but fun; and though I don’t much care for the story’s final third, it’s still more competently done than the last two releases.

Just as I commented for Nocturne, one of the plus sides is a great central performance from the man playing the Doctor; right from his first “HELLOOOO” Colin Baker is obviously having a riot. He’s the perfect Doctor to play against the larger-than-life Gyles Brandreth as Dr Marriott (my uncle, aunt and cousin shoot regular One Show segments with Mr Brandreth and they can never quite decide if he’s a bumbling raconteur or a very, very clever man indeed). Sara Griffiths - formerly Ray from Delta and the Bannermen - puts in a decent showing as pseudo-companion Claudia Bridge, David Dobson does great voice work for the Scandroids, and the rest of the guest cast are solid if unspectacular.

Everyone in I.D. has identifiably clear motivations about what they want in any given situation, how they behave or how they react; the tensions between different crew members or different figures on Obsoletion Valley are well-drawn and well-performed. The plot is taut, and logical, if not exactly earth-shattering, though it does get a bit less interesting and harder to wade through once we’re surrounded by robot and mutant voices in Part Three. Robson builds an interesting world with some good back-story and colour, and the pacing is much better than either Nocturne or Renaissance of the Daleks. In a world in which information is power - not even knowledge; merely possessing the information is enough, rather than knowing what it contains - it is no surprise that information can also be deadly, as the Scandroids’ numerous killings display. The data itself comes back to bite us, the more we tussle with it. The social relevance to this - at heart just as bonkers and abstract an idea as “music that kills” - works better than in Nocturne, in my view, even if it gets a bit lost in the Lazarus-Experiment-style “mad scientist mutation” paraphernalia toward the end. Even the cover (which I’d otherwise find a bit blandly robot-y) fits into this nicely: the Scandroid temptingly proffers its arm out to us, as though suggesting we too partake of “priority information”. Post-Snowden, post-Wikileaks, post-Facebook privacy settings, this is only truer in 2016 than it was in 2007, and no doubt truer still come the 32nd century.

Inventions such as Gabe’s analogia - a sort of far-future dyslexia - are both well-thought-out and contribute to the plot, and the story’s moral dimension is welcome; rather than suggesting that there is something inherently wrong about personality or bodily alteration (thankfully), I.D. focuses on condemning identity theft - it’s not as though we’d steal someone’s kidney for an operation without them knowing it, after all - and on the callous attitude of Kindell to the number of people the process kills. This brings up some interesting questions about the primal urges of the mutant in any one of us - take the story’s title, after all, which if you remove the punctuation is as much about the Freudian id as it is an identity check. I’m not convinced that Robson takes this in as interesting a direction as he could have done, especially given the aforementioned rather tiresome Part Three, but all told I.D. isn’t half bad.

Other things:
I.D. seems to take place post-Peri and shortly before the Doctor meets Evelyn Smythe in The Marian Conspiracy, slap-bang in the middle of the Sixth Doctor’s timeline.
“We’ve got principles?”/“Don’t be funny. Just because we don’t always stick to them doesn’t mean they’re not worth having.”
“Madam, I am not a moron.”
Nice touches of world-building: “Hover-platform? You talk like someone from the Republican era. This is my glider.” (Or, later, a coffee is offered with the option of “lactose or saccharine?”, and “why don’t you just call it ODT like everyone else?”).
“The unexplained is my speciality.”
“Have you had work done?”/“Only a little. I got it when I started at the clinic.”/“And do you regret it?”/“If I did, I’d ask for my money back. It’s designed to stop me regretting things.”
“A man like that doesn't just stop having ideas.”/“He might. If he tinkered with his brain one too many times.”
“Barely going at a canter; you must be out of shape!”
The Doctor's inappropriate rhyming when he finds Federer's corpse really isn't very funny. On the plus side his rapport with Claudia is rather good.
“I don't believe that.”/“Well, this isn't a debating society.”
“How can data kill you?”/“If I’m right, anyone who knows that will be dead.”
“You should really do something about your Special Needs awareness facility.”
The Doctor, on why he won’t abandon everyone else: “Because I’m not that sort of fellow.”     
“When did you take charge?”/“Oh, a while ago. Didn’t you notice?”
“That’s the trouble with Artificial Intelligences - far too smart, just when you don’t want them to be.”
“Death is never a footnote! ...and what was all this for? Letting people improve themselves with none of the effort that makes it meaningful?”
“Oh for goodness’ sake, couldn’t we have given it a personality with a slightly smaller ego? Even mine would have done!”
“Sometimes what you need is the eye of a talented amateur.”
“Technology can be a great thing, Claudia, but I’ve seen it go wrong far, far too many times.”
“Is that…me? Then…who am I?”
Could have done without this line: “We’re all fluid enough without imposing more changes.”
Extra things: the Gyles Brandreth interview is (predictably) completely nuts, but a terrific listen. The Hartnell bit is particularly good, especially the way Brandreth views Hartnell and Troughton as alternately charming and menacing (rather the opposite of the stereotypical fan view), but so is his nefarious scheme to steal locks of Colin Baker’s hair. And his delivery of “Is that an android I see before me?” has to be heard to be believed; you can hear Nick Briggs practically shaking with laughter. I agree that this is far more fun than I.D. itself.

094b. Urgent Calls
Who would have thought that one of the most charmingly written things to go out under the BF banner would be a half-hour single-episode that consists of nothing more than a few phone calls? Blowing his fun but overly SF-heavy I.D. out of the water, Eddie Robson proves that simplicity is often the way to go. In some respects, Urgent Calls is the audio version of Blink, in that we learn about the Doctor through the perspective of Lauren Hudson, an ordinary telephone operator who makes a sequence of wrong-number calls to the Doctor from England, 1974: perfect for non-fans to follow as you don’t really need to know anything about Doctor Who whatsoever for the story to make its impact. Sally Sparrow and Lauren have the same quality that draws us to them and engages our sympathy - wanting something better than the life they have, excited to be stuck in the middle of something they don’t quite understand. And, like Blink, the story makes absolutely perfect use of its medium. If anything, the fact that it doesn’t tie up all its ends, but instead leaves Lauren in the dark and rather distraught that she doesn’t know what happened to the Doctor, is all the more impressive. I would love to hear more like this.

The rather strange, almost Alien-like creature that has been clinging to Lauren’s spine makes for a creepy threat in an otherwise down-to-earth setting, and the sense of mystery that pervades Urgent Calls - a bio-engineered telephone virus which compels you to fortuitously call unknown numbers by coincidence - is quintessential Doctor Who. It’s not just well-written, mind; Steve Foxon’s guitar-strumming 70s score is gorgeous, and John Ainsworth directs this really well (phone conversations can sound a bit, well, phoney on audio but this thoroughly convinces). It’s essentially a two-hander, and both Baker and Kate Brown as Lauren do rather terrific work; Brown has a slightly Katy-Manning-style of cadence to her voice which works a treat, and their conversations have a wonderful chemistry to them. Robson has the enviable gift of blending extraordinary and banal - Lauren wondering how she can ever return to normal life when she knows there’s the alien out there - which will clearly stand him in good stead as he contributes to Who over the coming years. That he can take something as simple and straightforward as a phone call and turn into a sweet little meditation on how we like things to have patterns rather than to be utterly random - from fun coincidence to conspiracy theory, the prospect that everything fits neatly is far more appealing than that everything is pure chance - is a great display of writing. Urgent Calls is fun and clever and touching, and its ending in particular is perfectly-pitched. A treat.

Other things:
“You are well, aren’t you? I gather you’re alive?”
I like how the Doctor thinks it might have been his former self who visited Lauren in hospital with UNIT, only to find it was someone “short and bald, in his late 30s”: almost anti-continuity!
“If I kept in touch with everybody whose life I’d saved, I’d never get anything done.”
Malcolm Taylor? I reaaaaaaally want this to be a young version of the UNIT scientist from Planet of the Dead. Or maybe it’s his dad. They seem like the kind of family to repeat names. And come on: “bit of an odd bod”? “Conspiracy theories”? It all fits!
“Did it occur to you that people might be more willing to help if you were a bit nicer to them?”
“Might need a change of scene.”/The Doctor: “Well, that usually works for me.”
The Thomas Jefferson quote segment is delightful.
“Humans prefer a universe that operates on clear cause-and-effect. Everything feels unsettling, unsatisfying, after a while.”
“What else do you do?”/“Whatever I think is right.”/“Can’t be easy, doing that.”/“No. But I do my best.”
“I wanted to tell you that you were right: if it was all just luck, it wouldn’t mean anything.”
I guess - but I can’t be sure - that we’ll see either the telephone virus or the weird thing in Lauren’s spine again. I wouldn’t mind either way though; open ends are fun.

Next: 095 Exotron/Urban Myths by Paul Sutton (Five and Peri sans Erimem - the first time this has happened since Red Dawn, so either it is shortly before The Eye of the Scorpion or after Erimem’s departure and shortly before The Caves of Androzani).

No comments:

Post a Comment