Thursday, 18 August 2016

Main Range 096. Valhalla by Marc Platt (June 2007)

“There are other worlds in the strangest places: not just far out in space, but round corners and under stones, staring you in the face, sneaking behind your back, or in the transport café next door… the trouble is, humans never notice.”

Including his TV effort, I was familiar with five of Marc Platt’s stories before Valhalla, and I’m a massive fan of every one of them. A literate, high-concept writer, he is particularly good at fleshing out worlds, but at the same time developing a fascinating sense of history behind his visions of the future (16th century Cologne and 19th century Russia pop up in Brazil in 2080 (Loups-Garoux); Mondas feels like 1950s Earth in Spare Parts; Hannibal crossing the Alps is spliced with Ancient Gallifrey in Auld Mortality; and Elizabethan England gets a magnificent otherworldly spin in A Storm of Angels). He is often quirky and witty and delivers strong ideas with disturbing undertones in often very poetic dialogue. I always look forward to a Platt script.

This isn’t his best work, but there are still lots of good things about it. Kudos to Foxon and Ainsworth; I cannot think of the last time an alien environment was as well-rendered as the bustling intergalactic market that is Valhalla, capital of Callisto, “a lousy, vermin-infested bubble in a frozen crater on a moon at the rough end of the Solar System”. From the music to the crowd scenes, from the little details of what the hawkers are selling to the accents with which they are selling them, this is a beautifully-fleshed out world with something rather Ballardian about it. The back-story of the old gas refinery, independence from Earth, barcodes on the tongue, the swarms of giant termites: Platt has put a lot of thought into how Callisto works. I mention Ballard earlier, and there’s something rather High-Rise about naming a bubble-capital after the Vikings’ paradise, only to find that it doesn’t really live up to its name (on which note, The Ride of the Valkyries as a ringtone is also a fun conceit): we are back in Platt’s familiar capitalist-critique ballpark, from the imagery of self-enclosed bubbles rotting from within to the rampant materialism of this particular world to the efforts to portray it as the noblest endpoint of all (“the higher we are, the better we see” is Reaganomics meets Paradise Towers via “Confucius on a bad day”). The evil computer plus lackey are quite bog-standard in Doctor Who plotting terms, which is why it’s a good thing Registry is revealed to be the termite queen (Our Mother the Fourth) instead; Susannah York (an impressive actress) is a touch OTT at times, mind. I could also have done with a little more on the mythology side of things (as the Doctor complains, “not a Valkyrie in sight”), given this is normally one of Platt’s strengths.

The concept of the monthly riot particularly captured my imagination - echoes not just of The Natural History of Fear, but also the medieval concept of the “Festival of Misrule”: the time during which workers were allowed to drop all restraint, so that they might keep to the straight and narrow at all other times. The workers on Callisto are far from happy, but as Noam Chomsky says in The Common Good, “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum”. Until now the riots have sufficed, and the bottom stratum of society has been kept both passive and obedient. Termites make for an effective parallel with an ever-shifting, far-from-solid bottom of society, the folks on the last rung of the ladder easily falling through the cracks: like Skaro in The Witch’s Familiar built upon its own excrement, or Gallifrey in Hell Bent with its own repressed Gothic underbelly (to give two recent examples), a rampant imperialist world will eventually find the nightmare which it has subdued and covered up coming back to bite it. The other world right underneath our noses. And to top it off, the termite noises are really creepily rendered by Steve Foxon and ably conjure nightmarish images in the mind; the song of triumph is horrible as is the chomping through masonry and the swarm of termites across the top of the dome. The Doctor, of course, is both of this underbelly and not of it (“the home of creatures that scuttle in the dark and things that fall through gratings” seems to include himself, but he abhors the violence of the revolution). The revolutionaries, unlike the Doctor, become the new dictators, the new business class, with an entire catalogue of humans up for slavery, and the sequence in which Tin-Marie (one of the humans) learns she’s an item up for sale in a catalogue is very nicely done. Unfortunately the horror of it all is rather undone in Part Three: the Doctor disguising himself as a termite and being able to understand them sounds like a good idea, but it’s played out as a bunch of Dad’s Army style blokeisms, which really kills the tension stone dead and falls flat for me. It’s a weird move by Platt: the termites are much creepier as a bunch of hungry-sounding clicking noises and the Queen the only one who can talk. Perhaps it’s supposed to signpost that they’re like the humans really, but it rubbed me up the wrong way.

How eerie to hear Michelle Gomez in a Doctor Who story, seven years before she takes on the mantle of the Master/Missy. The grumpy cable maintenance worker Jevvan is quite a different part to self-proclaimed “queen of evil”, of course, but Gomez is still very good at what she’s doing and acts the other guest actors off the … er, well, not screen exactly, but you catch my drift. Her line readings are always - without fail - interesting, authentic, spinning off in some direction you might not have expected if you simply read the line on the page. It’s my Headcanon, obviously, that she is the Master in disguise here and she’s actually behind everything but we just don’t know it yet. She’s not the best performer in Valhalla, though, as that’s undoubtedly an accolade that goes to Sylvester McCoy; the man behind the Seventh Doctor gives one of his finest performances here. I was re-listening to Red the other day, and he’s properly different here to his hyper, energised Season 24 self. He’s always good when you strip him of his companions - a touch more subdued, a touch more dangerous, particularly in his later years, during which this is clearly set - and this is no exception. At first toying with the idea of job-seeking on Callisto, it emerges he is here to close down the suspicious business venture at play: ever the long game. His weariness at facing down evil and his loneliness are very well sold (look at him trying to invite Jevvan on board the TARDIS in Part One and then including her among his companions when he says “there she goes; they never listen”; at the end of the story, he cannot persuade her to join him, which is practically heart-breaking): you can picture him as being ready to become Doctor Number 8, seeking purpose, ready for a new lease of life. He’s not enjoying being himself anymore: in his final scenes with Our Mother the Fourth, you can hear him yearning to break free of his own cocoon (“I’ve had enough of being me”). This is great character work indeed.

Valhalla is Marc Platt’s fifth audio [ETA: fifth that I've heard, I know CCs/EDAs might come before this], and though it’s his weakest, that’s only because the standard set by the other four is so high. It’s a much more traditional story than his others, and less poetic, which perhaps isn’t quite playing to his strengths, and it’s a bit over-padded so could probably have done with being 3 parts rather than 4 (oh the irony!), but it’s still a quirky, engaging, vivid effort, and not bland by any means: termites trading people as slaves is a rather marvellous premise, even if it works better as well-meaning political satire than as horror story. It’s a flawed production that could’ve been a great one, but worth hearing for what it does with McCoy’s Doctor at this point in his life.

Other things:
“FOR SALE: One Doctor. Excellent Condition. Six previous owners, only nine hundred years on the clock… extensive experience in cross-cultural affairs and science. Practical, committed, highly clubbable (if I say so myself)… wanted in many major (oh, no, not that) - much sought after in all major star systems. Available at all times! Has own transport! Would make excellent companion! Anyone? Anyone care?”
“I don’t need a ticket for the riot.”/“You do if you wanna be up front!”
“Staff, who need training and paying…”/“…and rescuing…”
“It’s just that these days I find it hard to settle down anywhere. I’m endlessly busy, always on call… I mean, do you find it impossible to sit still? I do. I can’t leave things alone. Hundreds of things at once, all tangled like wet washing. And you know, I’m fed up with it. Do you think it’s a phase I’m going through?”
“How enterprising. Rather than nobble a few granules, they steal the entire bowl… but only in the dark.”
“Pester someone else, will you?”/“I’m very particular who I pester.”
Some fun wordplay and nomenclature: Chagall and Tchaikovsky Streets in the Russian quarter, and later on the rather charming Café of Good Hope. Rondo alla Turca gets used as a ringtone, too.
“That’s the trouble with watertight schemes: they leak.”
“Are suffering and life not hatched from the same egg?”/“That’s a hard-boiled philosophy.”
The ringtone-crescendo Part Two cliff-hanger is great.
I could do without the “scrumming” swearing: it always comes across as wannabe gritty, unless it’s played for laughs like in Red Dwarf.
“Smaller outside than in”: Platt gets to the same joke as Steven Moffat, 5 years earlier.
“Your human brain’s hardly capacious, but inside your mind’s chock-full of ideas. My ship is much the same.”/“That’ll never stand up in a science seminar.”/“I should hope not.”
Seven pretending to be annoyed about the constant stream of TARDIS guests is rather bittersweet.
“There is no limit to what can be bought and sold. Interest has only to be expressed.”
“Do you really come from the future?”/“Sometimes.”
“There’s no end of people across eternity who’d pay a fortune for my head on a silver platter.”
“Of course [the TARDIS’ telepathic circuits] are selective, or we’d tune in to every passing flock of starlings.”
“Our Mother, who art in labour.”
The sound effects of people being cocooned within termite eggs are horrible, each voice getting slowly more muffled.
Great line: “Civilisation is what humans smear on the open wound they leave on the face of the universe.”
The way the vid-coms wake up everyone up from their cocoons is quite clever but a bit sudden.
“Time? That dreadful winged chariot hurrying near? But it never hurries. Oh no. It trundles, and just when you think you’re ahead - crunch - it sneaks up behind and mows you down, or overtakes in the slow lane.”
“Forests of smoke…”/“I bet you say that to everyone.”/“I try to vary it…”
“See you.”/“I hope so. Never mind, Doctor. For the moment. Time to get off. Nothing to share, playing solitaire. Poetry: I could do that… or take up the trombone…”
Extra things: some decent interviews - Michelle Gomez is absolutely hilarious pretending to be Swedish and comes up with more humorous lines than in the play itself (“I wouldn’t scratch’n’sniff myself, never mind Sylvester!”; "I always come across really disingenuous but I'm not, I'm quite chuffed... that is Scottish for happy"), and talking about her childhood memories of being terrified of Zygons ("they'd obviously come a long way because when they arrived they were very dehydrated"). It's also great hearing her talk about Tennant's "eyebrow acting" when she is going to end up playing opposite Capaldi. It’s also great hearing a veteran actress like Susannah York say she thought Doctor Who was a mixture of Robert Louis Stevenson and The Hound of the Baskervilles, so she found being a termite queen great fun. Briggs confesses that if you ask people to be in Doctor Who, they basically always say yes; Sylvester McCoy also says he wishes David Tennant could play Doctor Who in a Billy-Connolly-style accent (he, too, will get his wish with Capaldi!). The music suite is ... fine, but I didn't particularly like the score here so it didn't get me jumping up and down. 

Next: 097 The Wishing Beast/The Vanity Box by Paul Magrs.

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