Monday, 22 August 2016

Main Range 098. Frozen Time by Nicholas Briggs (August 2007)

“If this is the first Big Finish audio you ever hear, you should be impressed”, said Doctor Who Magazine of Nicholas Briggs’ Frozen Time upon its release in 2007. I think this is fair comment. Frozen Time would make a great jumping-on point for someone who had no idea what Big Finish was, only fond memories of Patrick Troughton and monsters in ice caves and all that sort of thing. Doctor Who as straightforward action movie, it’s probably the most overtly traditional story for quite some time; even, say, Exotron had the divorce angle. And  this story would no doubt win over the aforementioned hypothetical first-time listener - it's beautifully-made and produced, with a fabulous score; short, snappy episodes; great pacing and direction; and atmospheric sound effects, it sounds like a lush and expensive production, or the soundtrack to a very glossy-looking movie (sort of Carpenter’s The Thing meets Bond; there’s a helicopter sequence and a Bond girl in the cast for good measure). I could be pretty confident a first-time listener would enjoy this; on this front, it can only be judged to be a success.

Frozen Time takes place in (more or less) present-day Antarctica, with Lord Barset leading an expedition to find out what happened to his grandfather’s polar exploration effort in 1929. It’s a charming enough premise, if not exactly unfamiliar to Who fans, and though the Doctor has landed on plenty of snow planets over the years he hasn’t actually visited Antarctica all that much (only in The Tenth Planet and The Seeds of Doom by my reckoning). It feels like a different sort of setting for McCoy’s dark, devious, mischievous Doctor, too: transposing him into a Season 5 Troughton story but with modern-day trimmings instead of doing The Ice Warriors redux 3000 years into the future. The base, the expedition with its multinational members, the alien threat waking up beneath the ice… it’s all very Season 5 in style, though it isn’t so much a carbon copy of Season 5 as an update. Not an especially radical update, of course. The base personnel are relatively stock archetypes of The Ice Warriors variety, though fortunately they’re all pretty well-performed (Maryam d’Abo makes the most of her quasi-companion part, and the actors playing Barset and Harman acquit themselves well opposite Arakssor). Especially when one looks at the cover, the setting, and the cast list, it’s no great shock that the Ice Warriors are the villains of the piece. As the story goes on, nothing about the plot is especially surprising, even if it’s at no point actually bad. That’s about the worst that can be said for it: that it’s old-school and doesn’t do much that’s new.

A few elements display the McCoy-era background, however: the TARDIS being buried under the ice for millions of years feels like the sort of gonzo temporal twist a Cartmel-era story would use (and, indeed, it sort of *has* been done before in The Fires of Vulcan); plus, like The Curse of Fenric, this is the last act of a story that has several, previously unseen, acts - the original expedition and the Doctor’s original encounter with the Ice Warriors being the most obvious. There’s also a tension in the early parts of the story as to how much Lord Barset knows about the Ice Warriors, and it emerges he’s expecting to find other lizard men (Silurians) beneath the ice; the expedition leader who’s kind of seen a Doctor Who episode before is a twist the Troughton stories didn’t tend to pull, as they normally start off with such characters completely clueless. Briggs uses his familiar Dalek Empire flashbacks and framing narrations to fill us in on everything we need to know, each flashback taking place further back in time as the Doctor remembers more about events. And, finally, it takes place in that murky, undefined period of Seven travelling by himself shortly before his regeneration - which is quickly forming the backbone of this particular incarnation’s audio adventures at the moment, and rather enjoyably at that. McCoy has said on the extras a few times now that he likes getting inside the Doctor’s head, and it’s understandable that the psychology of his part a little later in his life would be an attractive proposition. What Briggs does with the Doctor isn’t as melancholic as Valhalla - when he’s not amnesiac here, he’s rather gung-ho, so I’m going to guess it’s a bit earlier for him - but it’s still good hearing McCoy bring fresh things to the part. It’s a lovely performance.

And what of the Ice Warriors themselves? As in their previous, long-distant BF audio (Red Dawn), they find themselves in a very traditional story, but to my surprise (and rather against the consensus) both efforts work reasonably well. It might be in part that we have a dearth of Ice Warrior stories in comparison to Cybermen ones, for example, so I’m more enthusiastic about hearing Martians return than I am Mondasians. It’s also that there is genuine scope for varying what you do with Ice Warrior stories, as opposed to, say, the Silurians (who get the same story over and over, and who Briggs nicely uses as the red herring in this story; I’d never thought of paralleling them like that). Here, for example, we meet the scum of their race instead of noble Grand Marshalls - an entire batch of Ice Warrior criminals and murderers. Rather than remix the “are they noble, are they villainous” stuff, Briggs gives us these creatures being out-and-out malevolent - it’s old-fashioned but it’s done very well and it works. Those lovely Nordic names (Arakssor, Ssrongar, Geldar, even the humans’ ship has the very honour-code name of “Fortitude”): I love all that stuff. The Ice Warriors’ hissing works tremendously well on audio (and is far more evocative than clunking Cybermen), and Briggs’ vocal work as the villainous Arakssor is rather good, even if it’s very recognisably him. And I’m definitely a fan of stories featuring villains using climate change against us, since anything that portrays climate change as an impending, topical catastrophe which we really need to do something about gets a tick in my book.

Frozen Time is another reasonably solid release like the last two. Nothing from 2007 is an out-and-out classic yet, but this is a good example of a fairly average-to-decent script being executed very well: Barnaby Edwards directs the hell out of it, the tension rarely lets up, and it’s fast-paced, exciting, comfort-food old-school stuff. Nothing wrong with that once in a while.

Other things:
As in Red Dawn, the Ice Warriors relate to us in light of their feudalistic, hierarchical power structures, since that is how their society is structured (Lord Barset, Lord Arakssor). Also similar is the idea of an expedition leader who wakes the creatures because he wants to make a profit. I think Zzaal was a better creation than Arakssor, though: his dignity and honour was more interesting than Arakssor’s villainy.
“I would’ve thought you’d all be far more interested in the Olympics!” - funny how many Doctor Who stories from around the mid-00s choose to set their main events in 2012 and/or make the Olympics their reference point.
I see we are going for the new-series-style pre-titles sequences now; was wondering how long it would be before that would be the case. They work better just before a 45-minute adventure than a 2-hour one, but oh well.
“Genny, you stay here and look after our mystery man. Make him a nice cup of cocoa. Something like that, love.”/“I knew there was a reason I studied physics.” In light of this moment, Genevieve’s take-down of Barset in Part Four is particularly joyous.
“That’s a very beautiful name.”/“I get told that a lot. You get extra points for being French, you know.”
“I want to take a closer look. Would you hold my cocoa a minute, please?”
“Ah, the man with the talking money! Are you rich and stupid, or rich and clever?”/“I don’t think I like your tone.”/“Rich and stupid. I see.”
“You don’t look alright.”/“How do you know what I’m supposed to look like?”
“I keep my ears open.”/“Always advisable. More comfortable that way.”
I like that Arakssor calls Earth “the blue planet”, as though they relate to our world in relation to Mars’ own reddish colour.
“I will reclaim my empire, return to my own planet, but first - I will make a fortress of this world.”
The Doctor seizing control of the helicopter like a maniac is a fun sequence, and it being shot down is a strong cliff-hanger.
“The red planet is dead. Then the time of exodus has passed.”
It’s not entirely clear why Geldar and the criminals he is overseeing have to be in a secure prison on Antarctica, but ho hum. I suppose Britain sent its criminals to Australia; it’s more or less the same principle!
“The Ice Warriors think we’re dead. Come on - let’s make mischief!” McCoy is great in this one.
“Oh no; my key! Where’s my key? I must have put it in my pocket! My pocket! Where’s my pocket? These are not my clothes!”
“Your ship is telepathic?”/“Telepathic, and travels in time and space. And there’s a very nice swimming pool. Sometimes.”
“That’s the trouble with you. You think money is everything.”/“No, no, that’s the trouble with the world. I’m just a victim of it.” For all his stereotypical role, Anthony Calf injects a certain sympathetic quality into the power-hungry Barset - unlike his counterpart Paul Webster in Red Dawn.
“Which side are you on, commander? The side of our people’s true destiny, of power, of glory? Or are you of the cringing creed who failed to imprison me?”
The ending’s a bit abrupt: what happened to the other Ice Warriors? Even just a line or two about them knowing sentence was carrying out, and leaving, would have sufficed.
Unlike Jevvan in Valhalla, it sounds as though Genevieve joins the Doctor in the TARDIS for a bit.
Interesting point in the extras about Briggs making a push for all stories from now on to have 25-minute episodes, which by and large I think is a good thing, although for longer stuff like Year of the Pig I wouldn’t want to see things be cut down too much.
Fantastic music suite: very moody and evocative.

Next: Steve Lyons returns to tell another historical, this time for the 5th Doctor, Peri and Erimem. James Purefoy is Dracula in… 099 Son of the Dragon.

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