Sunday, 18 September 2016

Bonus Releases VI. Return to the Web Planet by Daniel O'Mahony (December 2007)

Return to the Web Planet, released in December 2007, happens to be the middle of a triptych of “return” stories - no doubt by accident, but nonetheless of note: the 2006 “Christmas release” was Return of the Daleks, while next year’s is Return of the Krotons. First off, I’m not a fan of this titling tendency; it’s cartoonish and prosaic, the worst kind of stating the obvious. It also hints, perhaps, at a Big Finish phase we are slowly reaching as we brook the divide between the first 100 or so releases and the next 100 or so (give or take): the divide between mostly pushing the new stuff and mostly bringing back the old stuff. Generally speaking, no central premise in Releases 001-100 was remotely as obscure or fannish as … returning to Vortis. There are far more obscure and fannish references, of course, and the appearance of things like the Nimon or the Mechonoids, but neither of those were the central attraction in their audio dramas, whereas Return to the Web Planet is entirely constructed on the premise that we want to return to, well, the Web Planet and encounter the Zarbi and Menoptera again. I can’t speak for definite until I’m bang up to date, but this could well be the start of a trend that will see all manner of - shall we say - lower-tier monsters returning to Big Finish from here onwards: a passing glance at Wikipedia informs me that their ranks include the Kraals, Rutans, Krotons, and Vardans. This does not necessarily spell doom, but does suggest, perhaps, something of a paradigm shift in incremental stages.

But return to the Web Planet we do, so let us gird up our loins and see what is on offer. But of course we can’t see what is on offer, which is another of the reasons why Vortis is a curious choice. The original story is all about bizarre, surreal spectacle, about constructing an alien environment that is incredibly odd to look at, incredibly unsettling. This effect is almost entirely lost on audio: leaving it to the imagination, yes, but nonetheless losing a good deal of that surrealism (even a bit more distortion effect of the Menoptera’s voices would have made them sound more alien). It’s not all bad - Steve Foxon does a brilliant job on the soundscape, and the clicks and whirrs of the Zarbi come across convincingly, while new ideas like the Summoner (Zarbi recording noises) go some way to adapting the Vortis milieu for the new medium. Sam Kelly is great as Acheron, even if it’s a little arbitrary that he’s named after the Greek river that allegedly cleansed and purged human sins: not quite sure what’s going on there. On the plus side, Acheron and Hedyla are great three-dimensional characters, and they allow an intriguing look at Menoptera culture; we get some interesting development of Vortis’ mythology, which the script and direction sell with some degree of charm and beauty. Hedyla’s yearning to fly, too, is delicately, deftly rendered, and the story has some interesting ecological ideas about how human colonisation of other worlds might progress in the future.

One of the aspects of being involved in fandom which is very much a double-edged sword is one’s proximity to, and engagement with, the creative figures. Normally this is a great pleasure: the interactions I’ve had with Rob Shearman, Joe Lidster, Jim Mortimore and Andrew Cartmel, for instance, have only ever been delightful. Unfortunately, the author of this story, Daniel O’Mahony, also has a noteworthy presence on the Internet, and has posted almost exclusively rude, smug and patronising comments of the insufferable variety over the years, to the extent that it’s hard not to take an instant dislike to him. It was tempting, then, to really get the knives out when it came to this audio drama, but to do so would only be to sink to his level, and so it is best to put that behind me and review Return to the Web Planet on its own terms. In summary, then? Well, it’s certainly not perfect (there’s quite a bit of saying-what-you-see, ill-suited-to-audio dialogue during the action sequences), but still reasonably good: well-directed and well-performed, and it hits most of its major beats successfully. It also avoids getting bogged down in bringing back every aspect of The Web Planet, which is thankful: an hour is far too short to chuck in the Animus, the Optera and the Isoptope as well. It’s no Shada (though, really, who can compare with Douglas Adams?), but otherwise definitely one of the better bonus releases.

Other things:
“Insects of unusual size” - hah, cool Princess Bride reference.
“There are some parts of the universe that have bred the most wonderful mysteries and I spent most of my lives trying to unravel them - unweaving the rainbow, as it were. But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s nice not to know.”
Why would Hedyla mishear Nyssa’s name as Anylsa, given that there seem to be no other problems of communication between them? It’s not as though Menoptera are incapable of pronouncing “s” without an “l” beforehand, as one can hear from their regular speech. I suppose we can hand-wave away the irreconcilable nature of Trakenian-Menopterese-English all at once, and I know it’s borrowed from Bill Strutton’s novelisation of The Web Planet, but still, as a linguist this rubs me up the wrong way.
“Delicious!”/“Are you sure? You only had to digest it once!”
“The Zarbi don’t have any concept of pockets.”
A Zarbi orgy? O…kay. Though still not as awful as the Doctor telling Nyssa that she should “look away” because she has “delicate eyes”. Eurgh.

Next: 104 The Bride of Peladon by Barnaby Edwards.

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