Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Main Range 099. Son of the Dragon by Steve Lyons (September 2007)

Wallachia, 1462: very few Doctor Who stories would open with an entire village’s worth of people impaled on spikes, but Son of the Dragon is no ordinary Doctor Who story. One of the most haunting pure historicals I’ve ever heard, it sees Steve Lyons tackling the man and the legend that is Vlad III of the House of Drăculești, Țepeș the Impaler, Son of the Dragon, Kazýklý Bey, voivode of Ungro-Wallachia and the duchies of Amlas and Fagaras - or simply put: Dracula (cue Peri, crossly: “how many names does one man need, anyway?”). From the whimpering dog at the fireside opening to the realistic portrayal of late-medieval war between the Ottoman Empire and the ruling Basarab dynasty in Wallachia, Son of the Dragon is a masterclass in how to do a rich, detailed historical story. It engages with both real history and mythology; the script is intelligent and multifaceted, rather than adopting a simplistic position or making straightforward judgments; it successfully conveys how high the stakes are, and captures the flavour of the age; and it is vividly brought to life by an excellent cast, fabulous direction and eerie sound design.

Proving once again that real history can be far more terrifying than fiction (“this Dracula is if anything worse than his vampiric namesake”), Lyons takes us back to an Eastern Europe at war, where men, women and children are impaled merely for being suspected of aiding the enemy, crops are burned and devastated, livestock butchered, the water poisoned, and Vlad’s forces can kill 15,000 Ottomans in just the one Night Attack at Târgoviște. Dramatizing the conflict between Vlad the Impaler and Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, whilst making both sides simultaneously sympathetic and callous, takes some doing, but Lyons and director Barnaby Edwards are more than up to the task. Credit, too, of course, should go to this release’s magnificent guest star, James Purefoy, who absolutely knocks it out of the park with his performance as Dracula: the best such guest star for some time. Almost cast as Bond in the 90s, Purefoy is no stranger to costume drama either, and a terrific coup for Big Finish. As you’d expect, he makes a perfect Dracula, unassuming when he needs to be, growling his dialogue to build the intensity, capable of attacking or killing anyone on a whim, and yet with a certain suave charm which marks him out as more than just a straightforward villain: the scene between Vlad and Erimem over the battlements is electrifying. At one point, the Doctor and Peri muse on how Vlad’s acts in 1462 become myth and vampiric legend in centuries to come, how his reputation as “blood-drinking monster” among the Turks who made up Sultan Mehmed’s army eventually becomes the “undead” creature whom Bram Stoker describes and whom we see played by Bela Lugosi: perhaps some figures in history acquire worse reputations than they deserve, and Lyons’ questioning of whether Vlad the Impaler was quite as horrific as the propaganda tends to make out is compelling stuff. The Doctor, for instance, points out that in Britain in 1462 vagrants were to be whipped, have their eyes put out with a hot iron, or be hanged; history is to be judged in its context, however barbarous it may seem to us now. It’s (arguably) true that there were few rulers who were quite as bloodthirsty as Vlad the Impaling One, but if Doctor Who has always made it its mission to show us the monster in the human, perhaps sometimes it is appropriate that we see the human in the monster.

About as Game of Thrones-like as Doctor Who gets, it is a truly terrifying milieu in which Peri finds herself, a far larger and more violent canvas than she ever experienced on TV, and so Bryant plays her as almost constantly on edge and as eager as possible to get out of this bloody, sadistic chapter in Romania’s history. For Peri, who was grown up with vampires as part of mainstream American culture, the prospect of meeting the real Dracula is appropriately frightening. Davison, too, is good here, though he sounds slightly older and wearier than he has done of late: a side-effect of these two companions being particularly difficult to take care of, perhaps? Erimem, meanwhile, gets to play her role as the “respected queen” once more - just as it impressed 17th century Frenchmen in The Church and the Crown, so too does she have quite an effect on Radu the Handsome, commander of the Turkish army. The flipside of the coin, of course, is that she is also the headstrong companion who so often neglects the Doctor’s advice; the tension between them has often been taut, and here it almost reaches breaking point, as she almost leaves to marry Vlad. I understand Erimem doesn’t hang around for much longer after this story, which only seems apt to me; she is increasingly at odds with the Doctor’s attitude to time travel, and I can’t see how much further they can push the character, given how close she has come to leaving several times (and, in truth, this would have made a fantastic leaving story for her, so I hope her actual departure delivers). For now, though, Lyons does right by her, and Morris gives a spirited performance that matches Purefoy well. My only complaint might be that we see her in a “bridal” role, which feels a little bit *too* familiar when it comes to companions in historical stories, but given her provenance it is more befitting Erimem than Peri so it’s a forgivable problem. The degree to which she draws close to Vlad and Peri finds him abhorrent is a welcome continuation of exploring their different attitudes as in The Kingmaker and other stories.

Son of the Dragon is, for my money, the best audio of 2007 (perhaps it ties with Circular Time), and easily the best audio since the handover. It’s action-packed, but has time to breathe; it has some wonderful historical colour, but doesn’t get too bogged down in lectures; it follows the standard historical formula of “the TARDIS crew get into scrapes and just want to get home”, but it doesn’t feel hackneyed; it has moral shades of grey, but doesn’t flinch from showing us how brutal and nasty the past was; it treats the companions as real people with believable emotions. I think in many respects it’s Lyons’ most compelling effort, in part because it feels marginally less cold than his other work; even The Fires of Vulcan, which has a number of sympathetic characters, ends on a rather abrupt “look-how-we-got-out-of-that” twist which means the ending emphasis lands slightly askew rather than on the suffering of those they could not save. Here, though, the human cost feels as though it has been writ large, as though the author is truly invested in this tale, and it’s the better for it. Lyons has always been good at bringing history to life, and telling dramatic stories, but in moments like Erimem’s last letter to her friends, he hits the emotional notes he had previously been missing.

Other things:
These 5/Peri/Erimem audios are quickly becoming the most historical-heavy, aren’t they: The Church and the Crown, The Council of Nicaea, The Kingmaker, and now this… each featuring a well-known historical monarch, no less.
“The sun dries our throats and melts our armour.”
“Surely the Doctor is your fool?”/ “No, he just dresses like that.”
“This vampire thing - they don’t exist for real, do they?”/“Well, I did meet some once. Fangs, bats, the whole package.”
“Do you know what we do when we catch one of his spies, Doctor?”/“Offer him some Turkish delight and a glass of mint tea?”/“We behead them.”/“Ah, well, I was close.”
“What have you heard, Erimem? That I will boil you alive, dismember you, drink your blood?”
The Forest of the Impaled: Hinchcliffe, eat your heart out!
“I’m all ears.”/“Well, nobody’s perfect.”
“We all know what he does to vagabonds.”/“Well, I suppose that’s one way to eliminate poverty.”
There’s some great twists of fate here: moments like the Doctor suddenly finding a knife in his chest (handily sidestepped by the knife falling between his two hearts rather than striking either of them). Surprisingly, we never find out who was behind the stabbing, however.
“Death is always with us, Erimem, and I was still Murad’s captive when I heard of my father’s murder. I swore in that moment I would avenge his death and honour his name - Dracul, the Dragon.”/“My family too was slain by power-hungry men. I cannot say that I would have treated them differently had the gods granted me the opportunity.”
“I know I have sinned, Erimem. Hard times have forced hard choices upon me, and sometimes I have chosen wrong. But I believe that when I face my God, he will find that the good works outweigh the bad.”
Is it me, or is there a brief hint that Vlad considers his “submissive” brother Radu to be in a homosexual relationship with Sultan Mehmed?
“Why must you be so cynical, Peri? Always looking for the worst in everybody?”/“Have you forgotten who we’re discussing here? Dracula is one of the most evil and sadistic men who ever lived!”/“Vlad is an honourable man, Peri. He could be a good man, a benign ruler, but fate has conspired against him.”
“If you think of me at all, remember the happy moments we shared together.”
“Is it the thirst for power itself that makes men unfit to wield it?”
The Doctor, quoting The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: “Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight!”
“From childhood, my life was mapped out for me. I was born to royalty, but a slave to protocol. But Doctor, you showed me so much more. And Peri, you became like a sister to me.”
“If you don’t put me down this instant, I’ll - I’LL GO UP AN OCTAVE!”
“Radu is on the verge of everything he’s ever desired. Remember, for him this conflict goes well beyond politics or religion - it’s about family.”/“Sounds like the tagline for some Hollywood blockbuster.”
Vlad, trying to get Erimem to come and sleep with him: “You need not be lonely tonight. You need not spend the night in this dark, draughty tower room. There are other places we can go…” Brrrrr.
“You’ve been in power for, what, five minutes, and already you sound just like your predecessor!”
“Do you not have enough enemies, Vlad, that you must invent conspiracies among your friends?”
“I think we’d have been better off with the vampire. At least he would have had some manners.”
Extras: “I’m playing Radu the Handsome. Thank God it’s radio.” Morris’ analysis of Erimem (“a couple of steps forward, a few steps back”) is also rather good, especially when she notes that there hasn't always been continuity between the different Erimem-featured stories. They're right to celebrate the "sisterly" dynamic with Peri, too. Nice deleted scenes as well.
Next: Big Finish releases its 100th release with, well, 100 - four stories from old BF stalwarts Jacqueline Rayner, Robert Shearman, Joseph Lidster and Paul Cornell.

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