Saturday, 13 August 2016
Main Range 095. Exotron/Urban Myths by Paul Sutton (May 2007)
The 5/Peri relationship - that is to say, without Erimem in the mix - is an under-explored one, even within BF’s own roster of expanded pairings. Caroline Morris is great to be sure, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next story for the three of them (Steve Lyons’ Son of the Dragon), but removing Erimem from the equation frees Peri from having to play “older sister” all the time, and changes the dynamic; she seems younger, more carefree, invested in her own passions such as her oft-mentioned-but-rarely-displayed penchant for botany. Paul Sutton seems to grasp this, and the opening scene between the Doctor and Peri is a lovely snapshot of their early days (personally, I think this fits better right after Red Dawn and before The Eye of the Scorpion than later in their relationship, but I’m open to being persuaded otherwise). I’ve spoken before about enjoying it when writers play up, say, Peri’s interest in plants or Mel’s skill with computers; even apart from the helpful bonus of treating them like real people, it can prove advantageous from a plot point of view, provide charming window-dressing, or simply give us a scene where a companion is lecturing the Doctor for once, or having their passion indulged while he has to trail along (“honestly, you'd think I was a wheelbarrow”). It’s a real shame, then, that the Doctor and Peri spend most of the adventure separated, with Peri being given very little of import to do; this may well have been a solo Five story just as I.D. was a solo Six and the next release, Valhalla, looks to be solo Seven. For a story with such a charming little opening scene, it goes downhill very quickly.
Problematically, Exotron is a rather similar story to Robson’s and at least in part Abnett’s before it, which seems a bit careless when they're all so near each other in release order; robots supposed to be at the bidding of humans going haywire on an inhospitable future world, while the Doctor is stuck in the middle of a bunch of unlikeable characters who possess technology they don't really understand. Robots are fine, but I feel a bit weary of such antagonists by now; I want a psychological thriller or a full-blooded historical. Canine aliens? Military-political tensions? A doomed romance? Quite apart from the similarity with recent releases, Paul Sutton’s trademark staples are all over this, aren’t they? In the midst of sci-fi shenanigans he always seems to insert a bit of Mills & Boon, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Here the brief backstory of Paula and Christian’s affair feels forced, clunky; a far cry from the terrific chemistry between Gabriel Woolf & Maggie Stables, and the Christian Exotron reveal is visible a mile off. I simply didn’t feel anything at all as Hector died in his ex-wife’s arms at the moment of their reconciliation, or as Paula discovered Christian was inside an Exotron; either I have a heart of stone or Sutton… just hadn’t written these characters very well.
The “telepathic circuits” Jedi-like dimension to this unnamed colony world starts out good fun: allowing the Doctor and Peri to hear one another's thoughts and casting the Doctor as Obi-Wan Kenobi in a few scenes. It's the sort of thing that could be done a bit more in Who, and is very reminiscent of Patrick Ness’ majestic “Chaos Walking” trilogy. But it so rarely goes anywhere, as is happening frustratingly often with decent ideas at the moment. There’s a point where a Farrakosh talks to the humans through the Exotron circuits, which isn’t bad, but even there unveiling the noble civilisation in the savage beast is pretty clichéd. And there we land on the unfortunate word: Exotron is just very clichéd. I hate to rag on BF, especially given how hard a lot of people work on these things, but the truth is I find very little to enjoy in this one. It’s safe, bland and predictable: the slow pacing, the dull cliff-hangers, the ravenous beasts, the malfunctioning but well-meaning robots, the frothing, lip-curling baddie of the piece, and the plodding and pedestrian heroic sacrifice at the story’s denouement. That the story is suffused in Sutton’s earnest efforts to make-the-listeners-care-about-these-characters is all the more irritating when there is nothing profound about the story and very little reason to care about any of these people whatsoever. Even the story’s final line - “they will be remembered” from Laurence Binyon’s well-known World War I poem - feels cheap in this context, a powerful, moving phrase from the real world rather cynically drafted in to round off a bland, banal run-around about hyenas and robots as though that somehow makes it worthy. Compare, say, Warriors of the Deep, which for all its abysmal execution has a marvellous parting line from the Doctor: there should have been another way, indeed. The suffering that expresses in six very simple words, the frustration at the way the world is different from what we want it to be, is streets ahead of what Sutton is doing here.
Exotron is dull, dull, dull. Avoid.
Again, like I.D., this is quite nicely produced: the whipping desert-winds of the colony world are great and the music is pretty good, though the howls of the Farrakosh are actually a bit anaemic and not at all scary.
“You know, to the untrained eye, this is just an expanse of dead scrubland.”/“Actually, it’s shrubland. Very xeric. That means dry.”/“Yes, thank you, I have studied Greek.”/“We’ll just scrub out your mistake then, shall we?”
Davison’s rattling off of other botany facts just to prove he does know something about the subject is charmingly petty.
The “bleeding”, “blinking” workers with their silly Farrakosh jokes (“why the long paws”) are almost the wrong side of irritating, but just about OK.
“No one but the military would design something so grey and unaesthetic.”
“Hector's the good guy.” No one says things like that in real life!
“He’s armed and, at a guess, unrestrained by morals.”
CD extras: again, probably better than the story. Nick Briggs does a weird audio-tour of London thing, including getting stuck in the BF office entryway, and confesses that at one point Paul Sutton basically said to him something as dull as “let’s have people running around with big guns” - yeah, it shows. He tries to suggest this story says something about miscommunication but if it does, I don’t see it. I also can’t get used to Nicola Bryant talking in her normal accent (unbelievably, this might be the first time I’ve heard it!).
095b. Urban Myths
As a little preamble, it’s almost sad that these snappy one-parters are so much better than the longer stories that precede them. When you throw Circular Time into the mix as well, one worries that Big Finish is simply becoming good at short little anthology pieces but losing its handle on bigger, more fleshed-out Doctor Who stories, like it can’t sustain the quality over more than half an hour. Still, the company’s going strong many years later, so I can only assume things pick up.
As to Urban Myths itself: well, it’s a hoot, isn’t it? Taking his cue from Akiro Kurosawa’s iconic Rashomon, Paul Sutton has an absolute blast telling a story about the Doctor and Peri from a variety of different viewpoints, all focalised through three Time Lord agents of the Celestial Intervention Agency dining in a plush restaurant in Budapest*. Nicola Lloyd, Steven Wickham and Douglas Hodge give riotously fun performances as the three conspirators plotting to take the Doctor to task for his atrocities, and Nicola Bryant is in a mere 22 minutes here so much better than in the 75 minutes that preceded it: playing the waitress who constantly oversees the plotters’ meal!
Much like Urgent Calls, a slight and simple structure belies the actually rather complex and careful plotting that’s going on here - in this case, concerning the fallibility of memory and the ready distortability of truth. That we get each version of the Doctor and Peri’s visit to Poytee played out by the characters themselves, becoming more accurate each time, gives us the enormous pleasure of hearing Peter Davison play his Doctor as a nasty, callous brute at the very start - so out of character for him, but deliciously done. He gets to blow people up with weapons from the TARDIS armoury and generally make things worse and more violent all over the place. And Bryant as his sardonic, ruthless sidekick is every bit as good; a little part of me wants to hear them play these versions of these characters in an Unbound play!
While it’s no sequel, Urban Myths does link back to the previous one-parter in that it’s concerned with the spread of a potent virus: in this instance, the Tuloz Virus, which causes wild exaggeration or the telling of urban myths. The way Sutton weaves the Doctor and Peri’s triumph over the three C.I.A. agents in the very end isn’t a massive surprise, but still very neatly done. Both this and Urgent Calls illustrate just how superb even a very short Doctor Who story can be.
*This isn’t confirmed, but in my head, Urban Myths takes place entirely in a gourmet restaurant in Budapest. It’s not outright stated - we only get the little hint about goulash and the Hapsburgs coming from this part of the world - but we all know by now about Paul Sutton’s love of Hungary, so I think it works. “Tuloz”, incidentally, means “to exaggerate” in Hungarian.
“Look, can we all just agree on this once and for all: the Doctor must die!”
“I do apologise for my friend. He’s had a long day in the office. We all work in an office, you see. The same office, in fact. Yes, just an ordinary office. And yes, we blend right into it!”
“Whoever he was, he probably deserved it.”
“Last one back has to get the blood out of my shirt!”
“Let’s see what they make of my googly!”
“It causes the sufferer to make wildly exaggerated claims.”/“Very common among amateur fishermen here on Earth, I believe.”/“Not to say men in general.”
Not that I care a great deal as the story’s so fun, but the DiscContinuity Guide points out a plot hole here: why would a C.I.A. assignment send out its backup copy to the nearest Type 40, when they’re supposed to be obsolete and the Doctor has one of the only ones left?“That’s the way the cookie crumbles, Peri.” Harsh on her, but very funny.
Next: 096 Valhalla by Marc Platt. Please be good.