Sunday, 21 August 2016

Main Range 097. The Wishing Beast/The Vanity Box by Paul Magrs (July 2007)

097a. The Wishing Beast
Titles aren’t everything, but especially taken as a pair The Wishing Beast and The Vanity Box do tell us a lot about how Paul Magrs has approached this, his third script for the Doctor Who main range: as fairy-tale (just to help us out, Mel even says as much herself). There is an unmistakeable whiff of the Brothers Grimm to “the Wishing Beast”, in both name and concept; and the notion of an otherwise inanimate object that exists to serve a fabular purpose - and remind us of human folly to boot - is not just pure Brothers Grimm, but echoes another notorious box that belonged to Pandora. Set on a desolate asteroid (“this last-remaining shard of a world, this awful splinter”), and one which reminds Mel of an old skull at that, the vibe throughout is decidedly old-school Gothic rather than SF-heavy. There are mountains and lakes and a dark forest (Hansel and Gretel etc., the opening of Dante’s Inferno: always, always, always the sign of the unnerving unknown), and a large, mysterious house in the middle of the woods. There are things that creak, twigs that snap and ghostly voices that howl. There is a beast on the prowl, but this is a beast that can grant any wish under the sun. And then there are, of course, the two Macbeth-style witches (or at the very least wicked sisters) concocting schemes in the middle of it all, complete with a third, far more pleasant sibling (Cinderella). For anyone who knows The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, this is positively Alan Garner-like, though a more modern comparison might be with Neil Gaiman.

The Applewhite sisters themselves are performed well (Jean Marsh!), even if in some respects they represent the standard evil-women-who-lead-astray trope that goes back as far as the Sirens, the Harpies, Medusa, Circe and most likely even further back in human thought (the Franco-Algerian feminist Hélène Cixous wrote in her astonishingly good 1975 essay Le Rire de la Méduse [the Laugh of the Medusa] that, when not trophy-like young virgins, women are almost invariably negative figures in heroic quest stories and old mythology, demonic succubi that leech off the Male Protagonists; but what if Medusa was not, in fact, an evil woman, not in fact ugly, but utterly content to sit alone on her island…content to sit there and laugh at the silly sailors who found her so terrifying, combing her serpentine hair). One cannot really lay into Magrs for writing a story with wicked sisters, mind, not when they are such old hat in the fairy-tale atmosphere he’s going for (the Doctor even calls them Sirens); and it’s not always an Evil Sexist Crime, obviously, though it is a cliché to be aware of in fairy-tales (the Rezzies in Paradise Towers, for instance, don’t fall into this trap in part because it’s Mel they want to eat; I wouldn’t be surprised if Magrs had the Rezzies in mind, actually, as well as Arsenic and Old Lace, and Langford suggests as much in the extras).

But, crucially, such a criticism matters much less once Magrs shoots down the familiar Doctor-as-Protagonist idea before we’ve reached 15 minutes: Melanie Bush, not the Time Lord, is “the brave explorer and great hero of time and space…skipping from world to world” who is so long-awaited by these weird sisters. Well-played by Langford and Baker (that is to say, “the companion of Melanie”), this is the story’s best twist, and it shapes the rest of the play - for me, at least. The play becomes an extended subversion of fairy-tale stories, and the way Magrs plays around with familiar things and makes them live again for the Doctor Who of 2007 is nicely done. I like the idea of ghostly voices that are actually out to give travellers helpful warnings, trying to get the Doctor and Mel to avoid the Applewhite sisters in their fairy-tale cottage: the danger being inside, rather than in the darkness of the woods, is a good take on the old formula. The Doctor’s multi-coloured jester’s coat becomes a beacon of hope to incorporeal ghosts who are denied the sensation of colour in their lives, like Odysseus visiting the Underworld (and the blind Eliza, who sees what others cannot, a distortion of Tiresias, perhaps? The Waste Land: “I, Tiresias, though blind… can see”). The stock plot - Maria’s plans for Mel to face the Wishing Beast - is lampshaded as being rather like cheap theatrics, as the Doctor points out. Mel is cast as the voyaging hero lured by her greatest desire, while the Doctor is thought her sidekick; ghosts are sympathetic victims and Mel accidentally causes creepy knocking rather than some phantom-or-other; vacuum cleaners exist in Gothic mansions; kindly old ladies who make the most magnificent trifles are murderous; dead brothers turn out to be dragons or Jabberwocky-like monsters. Sibling rivalry is the backbone of many a children’s story, and this one culminates in the emotionally true revelation that Daniel wanted to become a monster so he could terrorise his own relatives; Daniel’s arc is done with a definite lightness of touch and isn’t laid on too thick, but I actually find it rather moving (“it’s all about growing up and realising what you really want”). It’s a fast-and-loose version of childhood fairy-tales, taking lots of the best parts and doing all sorts of fun things with them.

What does this elaborate tinkering amount to? Why do it? Because it’s fun. I don’t think The Wishing Beast is perfect - it hasn’t the same gorgeous atmosphere as The Stones of Venice, nor the same emotional arc, and despite casting Mel as the hero she gets very little to do here, which is a damn shame - but even with those caveats I think this is my favourite release since Circular Time. It’s not especially complex in its plotting, and its magical realism rarely makes sense in anything as ploddingly unimaginative as reality, but it oozes atmosphere and charm. A man accepts that wishing to be a monster was wrong. This truly is Doctor Who as fairy-tale, or, perhaps, as Aesop’s fable, where the moral is that you should be careful what you wish for.

Other things:
This is a lush production and a good listening experience: there’s some nice dialogue and very evocative sound work - particularly in the creepy woods. The last couple of releases have felt particularly strong in terms of calling their distinctive settings to mind, so no complaints on that score.
Simon Holub’s cover - Daniel about to transform into the Beast - is one of my favourites: just gorgeous.
“Curiosity and cats don’t always mix well - and I’m feeling distinctly feline today.”
“Please do not be put off by our apparently hostile environment or the seemingly noxious atmosphere in which we exist - we have survived here and we are sure that you will be able to do so as well.”
“What do you reckon? Harmless?”/“Mostly, it would seem.” Douglas Adams’ reach and influence on Who remains as long as ever [my italics].
“The burning! The brightness! Aiiii - my eyeballs simply melted in their sockets! One lump or two?”
“But you are, though, aren’t you?”/“What? The great hero of space and time, or put out?”/“Both!”
Lovely exchange: “We all have our sad tales, don’t we?”/“Do you, Doctor?”/“Oh, enough of this gloomy talk.”
“You are very whimsical, Doctor. What a boon you must be to Melanie on her adventures.”
“Magic, like ghosts, may appear to be inexplicable, but they are only unexplained!”
“How’s your room?”/“Smaller on the inside.”
“Think ‘cat’, not ‘tortoise’ … and cats have all their best adventures at night.”
“There are layers upon layers to a living essence…stripping us away, skin by skin”: is it me or is this a bit like the ogres/onions comparison from Shrek?
“Your wish, Daniel Applewhite, is to be a monster.”
“I want very little. I have one very small wish left. I want to melt away like the morning frost. I want to fade away, dissipate, and die.” (Very Hamlet: “O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt/Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!”)

097b. The Vanity Box
More closely tied with its ‘mother’ story than the other one-parters (which I appreciated), The Vanity Box is both sequel and prequel to The Wishing Beast: just after those events for the Doctor and Mel, but long before them for the eponymous creature itself, and unfolding, as it happens, in Salford, 1965. The tone, though, is not so much fairy-tale as daft pantomime, but this works exactly with the preceding three episodes - where he dabbles in the Gothic tropes with relish, Magrs is never above undermining such stuff entirely with postmodern silliness, and so the fearsome creature of legend (the name inspires a kind of awe: Wishing Beast) slots into Coronation Street-set “up North” comedy antics and a beauty parlour.

It works slightly less well for me than The Wishing Beast, just because fairy-tales are more of my thing than pantomimes, though they’re also good fun. Still, Magrs is at home in the Manchester setting - given where he’s from, this is no surprise - and so we get a steady stream of Coronation Street references, plus a nod to L.S. Lowry. The story spends most of its time concerned with a makeover salon (“an excessively chintzy establishment with a lit-up front”) that is giving Mancunians impossibly youthful looks, ultimately revealed as the work of our old friend the Wishing Beast and cleverly tying the story into how the creature ended up on the asteroid in the previous story. At the same time, Magrs also stays on the theme of wishes and what we would all try to improve about ourselves.

None of the ensuing shenanigans are particularly ground-breaking, but they’re rollicking good fun, accompanied by some of the most comically awful accents you will ever hear, and they give Colin Baker the hilarious excuse to drag up (making him the third Doctor to do so after Troughton and Pertwee, fact fans). It’s the perfect reminder that when things get too dark and Hinchcliffian, Doctor Who usually takes a turn for the ridiculous. Enjoyable stuff.

Other things:
“I won’t be sad to see a few more bobbies on’t’beat round here - it’s getting proper rough.”
“Excuse me, ladies, the saloon bar is jam-packed, I can’t get any attention.”/“You do surprise me, got up like that!”
“You know how she usually looks: like mutton dressed as lamb. Now she looks like lamb dressed as lamb!”
“Mel and I are up to our eyes in ‘funny peculiar’.”
As well as a fine performance as the Beast, Toby Longworth is rather good as the ersatz Frenchman “Monsieur Coiffure”, slipping from bad Manchester accent to bad French accent with ease.
“Is it creating an army of provincial dolly birds?”
“I don’t hold with unnecessary titivation, Doctor. It’s nowt but ungodly self-display and indulgence.”
“I don’t think you’re making much sense, Doctor. Alien whatsit? D’you mean Russia, or outer space, or what? Have a chocolate bourbon.”
“D’you hear me, Monsieur Coiffure? I want to be same girl I was back on VE Night, when two Yanks helped me to climb the statue of Victoria in Piccadilly Gardens!”
“I thought I would fettle yer!”
The grim undercurrent that the Doctor caused the deaths of everyone on the asteroid is appropriately not ignored, though it doesn’t impact on the general jollity: the Doctor knows you can’t roll back the years.
“It’s all wishful thinking, Mel.”/“And what’s so wrong with that?”/“Nothing. It’s just very human, and you’ve got to start seeing the bigger picture.”
“Tell me, Mel: if the Wishing Beast had been real, what would you have wished for?”/“Well, I was going to wish that things could go on just as they are. For as long as we could manage. I love all this. Our lives. Racketing about the galaxy.”/“You’d have wished for more time.”/“Yes. I would.”
Sadly this is Bonnie Langford’s last appearance until 2013 - a six-year gap. But she’s a delight in the interviews (which also contain a few I, Davros spoilers, dammit!)

Next: Sylvester McCoy v. the Ice Warriors in 098 Frozen Time by Nicholas Briggs.

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